Heat, Danger, Dust, and Death

I knew from the start that I could be wounded or killed. It was a weird feeling, and I came to accept it. How or when, I had no idea. But every time there was another explosion, I wondered if this was the day.

My wife also knew I might not make it home alive. Or if I did return, I might be a broken man – crippled, blind, psychologically damaged, or all of the above. With that possibility in mind, she told me before I left home, “I don’t want to find out after you get back or after you’re dead that you were in danger. I want to know right away.”

Many of our military personnel won’t tell their spouse and family what they’re going through during war, thinking they’re protecting them. Plus, we’re limited in what we’re allowed to say or write to our families. But I have a hunch there are many, like my wife, who are better off knowing what’s going on, and who want to know.

The first time I mentioned during a phone call some of the dangerous things that were happening, she said, “I already know. I saw it on TV and in the newspaper. They’re mentioning Diwaniyah and Camp Echo by name.” She scanned and sent me an LA Times article. I took it to our staff meeting the next morning, and discovered that many on our leadership team didn’t know what was going on outside the wire.

Heat, danger, dust, and death formed the context for the job I was sent to do. Operating from the philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women at Camp Echo: military, civilian, American, and Coalition. This allowed me to be there when they were at their best and when they were at their worst, in their strongest moments and in their weakest.

In the heat of the battle and the heat of the desert, hours turn into days, which transition to nights, and add up to weeks and then months. The conditions wear you down, leaving an imprint on your mind and your soul: images that will be seen in dreams for months or years, sounds that reverberate long after you’re home, people you befriended and cared about and stared at death with, but will probably never hear from again. For many of us, it’s only memory now. But for others, the war continues . . . on the inside.

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Rockets and Mortars

When they told me where I was going, they said it was the Safest Place in Iraq, but by the time I got there, things had changed. On a Tuesday night, the dining facility was crowded, bustling, with hardly an empty chair, when mortars landed on the building. Of the more than two hundred people in the dining facility, eighteen were killed. Forty-seven were wounded, some seriously, but they’d survive – with or without that arm or leg or eye.

People were stunned, walking around like zombies. Most avoided eating in the DFAC, even after it was repaired and they started serving meals again. From that moment, incoming mortars and rockets became part of the routine that was soon to be my daily life.

Located on the main rail line between Baghdad and Basra, Diwaniyah is known for its manufacturing, and famous for its automobile tires. Dust-colored high-rise apartment buildings line the streets, each building home to more than a thousand people. Water from the Euphrates River irrigates the farms and groves outside the city, making the region one of the nation’s most fertile.

Men from Diwaniyah would drive to a vacant field on the edge of town, bringing their rockets and mortars to fire at us. They did this in the morning on their way to work. Sometimes it was mid-day during a lunch break, and other times in the evening on their way home from work. Occasionally it was in the middle of the night. Some of the people shooting at us were teens or even younger. Often, they would launch their missiles-of-death just before, or right after their prayers.

Camp Echo was a small, roundish Forward Operating Base, about a mile in diameter, in the middle of the desert, with temperatures ranging from 110-120 degrees. The dirt, sand, and heat were inescapable. Every day began with a new film of dust on each desk, table, chair, bed, and floor. The layer of dirt thickened as the day wore on.

Surrounding the entire FOB was a 12-foot high concrete wall. The other side of the barrier consisted of dry fields inhabited by rabbits, snakes, and camel spiders. There were also scorpions, an occasional wild dog, and, of course, the men and boys trying to kill us.

I volunteered to go. My philosophy as an Army chaplain was that I wanted to be wherever soldiers had to go, and if they were at war, I wanted to be there with them. Not because I enjoy fighting. We all know that a chaplain is a non-combatant. I wasn’t there to fight.

I was there to encourage, counsel, and pray; provide worship opportunities, friendship, and guidance; nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead; and guarantee the constitutional freedom of worship to men and women of all faiths, and the same freedom to men and women of no faith. Camp Echo was my home, my parish, my fiery furnace.

IRAQI FREEDOM