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.