A Seat at the Table

This article was printed in the September 2017 issue of Army Magazine, published by Association of the US Army: http://www.ausa.org.

CH 1

The Black Hawk ride from Camp Victory, located at Baghdad International Airport, down to Ad Diwaniyah covered about 120 miles. Diwaniyah was the Iraqi headquarters for the militia leader Muqtada Al Sadr, and we got there just before Operation Black Eagle, meant to rein in militia violence, kicked off. Technically, my Chaplain Assistant and I were assigned to a military transition team, but for the past three years, Camp Echo had no Religious Support Team, so our job was to establish a religious program for the installation.

One day, after two weeks at Camp Echo, I got to the Dining Facility late. There were several casualties that day, and I spent a lot of time in the medical clinic, and with two units that had lost some Soldiers. I was tired and hungry, and finding an empty seat was difficult. Several units were at our forward operating base to assist with the operation, and many of the visiting Soldiers were in the dining facility.

Locating a vacant spot, I placed my tray on the table, but before I had a chance to sit, a Master Sergeant next to the empty chair growled in my direction, “No officers welcome here.” I doubt that he noticed the cross on my uniform. He probably just saw the major’s insignia on my chest, but it might not have made a difference even if he had recognized that I was a chaplain. There were three possible courses of action, and I had to make a quick decision.

• Look for a different chair

• Attempt to pull rank

•  Tell him I am an Honorary NCO

After completing a two-second strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis, I came to attention, turned up my collar to reveal a Sergeant E-5 insignia, and shouted as loud as I could, “Request permission to sit at your table, Master Sergeant,” then remained standing at attention and waited.

The growler did a double-take, and his eyes got real big. “Have a seat, Sarge.”

The other NCO’s at the table were howling with laughter by now. They knew the Master Sergeant, but they didn’t know me. And they had never seen a Major with NCO’s rank under the collar. They found the whole encounter to be quite entertaining.

After the others at the table calmed down, the Master Sergeant said, “OK. Suppose you tell me why you’re wearing that rank.”

“Sure, Master Sergeant. When I was a rookie fresh out of Officer Basic, my first assignment was with an Evacuation Hospital in the California Army National Guard, where I had a great rapport with the NCO’s. When they invited me to attend their dining-in, I thought it was because they wanted me to do the invocation, but that wasn’t it. During the program, the first sergeant pinned the NCO insignia on me and gave me a certificate appointing me to the honorary rank of sergeant, making me an ‘E-5 for Life.’”

“Hmmm. And you actually wear it?”

“Yes.”

I wore the SGT Stripes invisibly throughout my entire career. When in the woodland Battle Dress Uniform, it was pinned under my collar. When we switched to the newer army combat uniform, it was velcroed under the collar. And when I wore the dress greens or dress blues, it was under the pocket flap, beneath my name. Every time I went to a new unit, I met with the first sergeant or sergeant major, presented the documentation, and asked for permission to wear the rank and be part of the NCO corps. I was always welcomed.

After eight years in the Guard, I became an Active Duty chaplain in the Army Reserve’s Active Guard Reserve program. These chaplains don’t usually deploy, since our role is administrative and training. But while stationed at Fort McPherson, GA, in January 2007, I heard that the U.S. Army Forces Command wanted to send three chaplain teams to Iraq. There were some areas that needed religious support immediately, and Forces Command gave the task to the Army Reserve.

Strong Sense of Calling

As part of the chaplain staff at the U.S. Army Reserve Command headquarters, I had trained many chaplains before they went overseas. But this time I wanted to go. We were running out of chaplains who hadn’t already deployed. But more importantly, I felt a strong sense of calling. We had Soldiers in dangerous places with no chaplain, and I wanted to be there with them, so I volunteered. It took a while, but I managed to talk my boss into letting me go.

Those Sergeant stripes were under the collar when I went outside the wire with the military transition team. They accompanied me every time I visited wounded soldiers at the medical clinic. I wore them at each memorial ceremony or funeral. They were there for the worship services, the counseling appointments, and the Critical Incident Stress Management sessions. Whenever we had incoming rockets or mortars and we gathered in the bunkers—yep, still had them with me. One time I was eating lunch in the dining facility and the sirens started blaring. In a hurry to get out to the bunker, I forgot my helmet. My Chaplain Assistant grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back inside, “Chaplain, you forgot your Kevlar!” Just then a mortar landed right outside the door. It’s quite possible that she saved my life or prevented injury. See why I love NCOs?

The day after I met the master sergeant in the dining facility, he showed up in my office. The night before, he was feisty and energetic; now he seemed sad and tired. Something had happened.

“Good afternoon, Master Sergeant. What can I do for you?”

 “This morning, I lost a Soldier . . . a close friend. I wanted to know if you’d do a memorial ceremony tomorrow morning before we head out.”

“Of course, I will.”

“And Chaps, I’m sorry about last night.”

“Not a problem, Master Sergeant. I understand.”

“You can sit at my table any time.”

It meant a lot that this senior NCO welcomed me at his table, that he wanted me to be there to honor his friend and that we had overcome the invisible barrier between officer and NCO. In 2015, I retired as a Colonel. But I’ll be an E-5 for life.

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Silhouette Man

Silhouette 3Walking down the aisle between two rows of our housing containers, camouflage netting eight feet above the ground, connecting the rows, giving it the appearance of an indoor hallway, I could barely see the outline of a man sitting on the steps in front of his door.

It was late, and I was returning to my hooch dog-tired. I’d been to the medical clinic several times to visit that day’s wounded. I’d been to three or four work areas to encourage, counsel, or pray, depending on what people wanted and needed. The last thing I wanted was to get into another conversation. I just wanted to go inside, lock the door, fall on my bed, and turn off the world for a few hours. Forget brushing my teeth and showering. Maybe tomorrow. What caught my eye in the moonless night, was the burning, circular tip of a cigarette.

I greeted the silhouette. “How’s it going?”

A voice behind the glow responded. “Survived another day.”

“Sometimes that’s all we can ask for,” I mumbled.

I unlocked my door, walked inside, turned on the light, dropped my body armor and helmet onto the floor, turned out the light, and crashed-landed on the bed. Almost asleep, I heard a knock. Being in that not-quite-asleep, not-quite-awake nether world, I wasn’t sure whether there was someone at the door, or I was already dreaming. When I heard it again, I got up, opened the door, and saw the cigarette and the silhouette.

Chacos 1“Are you the chaplain?”

“Yes.”

“Can we talk?”

I felt like saying, “C’mon dude. Give me a break.” Instead, what came out of my mouth was, “Sure. Let me get some sandals on and I’ll be right out.”

I sat on the stoop across the hall as he lit up another cigarette and asked, “Mind if I smoke?”

I grinned, assuming he couldn’t see my face any better than I could see his. He was going to light up no matter what I answered. “Nope. Go ahead.”

The average smoker spends five-and-a-half minutes per cigarette, and the next time Silhouette Man spoke, he was on his fourth Marlboro. I wondered if he knew I had fallen asleep two or three times. It had to be past two in the morning.

“I was a cop for thirty years and saw some pretty interesting things.” He paused for half-a-cigarette. “But for the first time in my life, I’m scared.”

“What’s been happening?”

“We have two shifts. Early and late; I’m on the late shift, working from two PM til about midnight every day. Plus an hour to get there and an hour back. We go into town to the police station to teach the IP how to do their jobs. We send people to all the stations. I think there are about thirty IP stations in Diwaniyah. Most of our team is Army MPs, but there are a few civilian cops on each team. Most of us retired.”Cigarette 1

He lit another cigarette and continued.

“The station where I work is a two-story building surrounded by those huge apartment buildings – fifteen, twenty stories tall. The break area at the IP station is on the roof-top. You know how the men will drive over to the field on their way to work or during lunch or on their way home and shoot off the mortars?”

“Yeah.”

“They do that to us with rifles. They sit up in those apartments like snipers, waiting for one of us to be visible in a window, or when we go on the roof for a break, and they start firing at us. We’re trapped. We’ve been shot at every day for the past three weeks.

“This afternoon I was on the roof. It had been a pretty quiet day until a little after four when the shooting started. I dove for the parapet that surrounds the roof-top patio, using the wall to try to protect myself. The two guys next to me were killed. One American cop like me, retired, from Cincinnati I think. One Iraqi. Several downstairs in the main part of the building were shot, too. Injured; none killed. I felt so powerless, so defenseless. We’re like sitting ducks waiting for the slaughter. It’s starting to get to me.”

I hurt for this faceless guy from Philadelphia. I wanted to move over, sit next to him, and put an arm around him, but then I thought that might seem weird to a total stranger, especially a career policeman. Maybe after we got to know each other I’d have that opportunity. So I asked him a question. “When do you get back here at night?”

“It’s usually a little after 1:00. 1:30, maybe.”

“Would it be helpful for me to be here when you get back so you have someone to talk to about what you just went through?”

“Yeah. I think it would. I’d like that.”

So I started waiting up for him most nights, letting him set the agenda for what we talked about.

One night, all of a sudden he asked, “Where do the priests get all those stories about Jesus?”

“They get them from the New Testament.”

Bible2“No! You mean they come from the Bible?” He’d never heard that before.

“Yep. Would you like me to get you a Bible?”

“Yeah, I would.”

 

Gotcha!

44 Paul after PromotionEarly in my military career, I showed up at a new infantry battalion one day and started meeting some of the guys. The Sergeant Major introduced himself and asked, “Hey Chaplain, do you have your Gotcha Cards?”

“No, Sergeant Major. I’ve never heard of a Gotcha Card, and don’t know what it is, so I’m pretty sure I don’t have one. What is it?”

“Our previous chaplain, every time he heard one of us cuss or swear or use the Lord’s name in vain would pull out a business card, but all it said in big bold letters was Gotcha. So when the guys heard we were getting a new chaplain, they started wondering if you were going to be like the last one.”

“I bet you guys hated him.”

“Yes. We. Did.”

“Tell you what. I’m not planning on having any Gotcha Cards printed up, so you can relax. Cuss if you want. I’m just here to love you guys.”

Apparently, a bunch of Soldiers were listening to the conversation, because as soon as I made that last statement, a cheer erupted from around the corner.

“You’re gonna fit in fine here, Chaps. Nice to have you aboard.”

Over the next two years, I led more than 25 of those guys to faith in Christ, and I never once said, “Gotcha.” Oh they cussed, alright. But I figure it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to reach them, and he does a pretty good job. I just had to do my part, which was love them and be consistent in setting an example of what a Christian is and does.

The Safest Place in Iraq

CH 1While deployed to a small coalition-led Forward Operating Base as a chaplain in the spring and summer of 2007, I experienced the danger of war, the loneliness of being away from home, and the exhilaration of watching up close as God answered prayer, changed lives, and performed miracles. After asking to go to Iraq, I was assigned to Camp Echo, just outside the city of Ad Diwaniyah. There hadn’t been a chaplain there during three years of war. I had to start from scratch and lay a foundation for ministry.

Heat, danger, dust, and death formed the context for the ministry I was sent to do. My job was to establish a religious program. There was no chapel, no office, no phone, and no internet connection designated for a Religious Support Team. There were no Bibles, literature, or supplies. Operating from my philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women, military and civilian, American and Coalition. This allowed me to be there when people were at their best and at their worst, in their strongest and weakest moments.

The Safest Place in Iraq is the story of what happened in my life and theirs. Drawing on personal experience, I created a narrative of war that is different than you’ve ever heard or read.