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Chaplains keep the faith amid soldiers on war’s front lines

BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–The toughest thing Chaplain (Col.) Doug Carver has faced since arriving in Baghdad less than a year ago was seeing the dead body of a soldier he had just shaken hands with less than 30 minutes before. The sight of 18 black body bags, victims of a recent Chinook helicopter crash, being loaded onto a C-130 is still fresh in the mind of Chaplain Major Dan Wackerhagen. Chaplain (Cap.) Eddie Cook will never forget holding a young soldier from his battalion as he died from a mortal wound to the head, the first death for his unit.

These chaplains, like the men and women they minister to, have had to face death head-on since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in late March. It is hard and sometimes frightening but these Southern Baptist seminary graduates all credit God for getting them through.

“You never know Jesus until He’s all you’ve got,” said Carver, the highest-ranking chaplain currently in Iraq, stationed at the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Baghdad. He oversees more than 350 chaplains and 350 chaplain assistants throughout the country. “I haven’t had my wife here, my children; just an army cot in a corner,” he reflected. “Finding that quiet place has been hard.”

Along the way, numerous challenges have arisen. For Carver, putting the chemical gear on every time there was a missile attack threat in the early days of the war was almost claustrophobic.

“You’re sitting in your bunker elbow to elbow with soldiers who are looking to you for strength,” Carver said. “I was telling my wife how suiting up was starting to get to me, and she says, ‘I’m going to pray that when you put it on that God will sing to you – try to remember [the hymn] God’s Garden.’ The next attack we had, I’m running to get my gear on and I hear the words to the hymn ‘In the Garden’ in my mind. I felt peace the entire time.”

For Chaplain Wackerhagen, the war also has been a family affair.

“My son got called up about the same time I did,” he said, speaking of his 19-year-old who joined the National Guard to help pay for college and is now in Fallujah, Iraq. “We were actually three tents away from each other here at BIAP [Baghdad International Airport] for about 10 days at the beginning of the war. I saw him eight days ago as he was heading home for a two-week leave. I didn’t want to hear a whole lot about the battles he’s been in, though. I’m still his dad.” Nevertheless: “We did trade a few war stories.”

Wackerhagen is responsible for spiritual activities at Baghdad International Airport, overseeing 35 chaplains and 60 various chapel services for tens of thousands of soldiers who live there or pass through. But he quickly points out that the soldiers he’s in charge of ministering to also have ministered to him.

“My faith continually is made stronger by the soldiers that are here, the spirit they have and the willingness with which they sacrifice,” Wackerhagen said, his eyes tearing up. “I am truly inspired daily. I believe what we’re doing to stop terrorism is so important — any doubt in my mind was erased the first weeks we were here.”

In the wake of the escalation in insurgent attacks and as more soldiers have taken fire, chaplains have gone to one another for support, Wackerhagen said. Combat debriefings are important for both the soldiers and the chaplains.

“I’ve sat with guys who have been hit three or four times,” he said. “It’s tough to go back out there.

“There’s a mistake people make,” Wackerhagen noted. “They think the longer you’re in the Army, the tougher you are. But actually, it becomes a lot tougher, definitely not easier.”

Chaplain Cook knows what it’s like to experience the power of prayer. As a chaplain for the 82nd Airborne, Third Battalion, he has seen the men in his unit spared from countless attacks from both the enemy and from nature.

“Soon after deploying to the war, I noticed that it seemed like my prayers were more effectual and answered quickly,” Cook recounted. “We were in the desert shooting at ranges in Kuwait before the war when this huge windstorm hit us. I felt God tell me to pray for it to calm, and more than that, I had soldiers calling upon me to pray.”

Cook assured them he would, and he prayed quietly to himself that God would keep them safe. To his amazement, the 80 mph winds subsided. Cook praised God for it, but felt God ask him why he hadn’t prayed out loud so that everyone would know it was Him at work.

Cook soon had his second chance. Several days later, back at their base camp, another windstorm blew up. Fifty-man tents were about to blow away and metal poles were snapping and thrashing about.

“Lights were crashing around us and a man got on each pole to hold down the tent,” Cook said. Someone yelled for Cook to pray and he immediately had a flashback of his experience in the desert. “I placed my faith in Him and left the pole I was holding down. I stood in the middle of the tent and called upon the name of Jesus to calm the wind and save us. The wind subsided and the men all looked at me in amazement. I think I looked pretty amazed as well.”

Cook believes that faith gives a soldier hope in knowing that he’s not alone. “God gives us confidence in our salvation, so if we do die, we will be with our Lord. Soldiers can grow in their faith when they’re at war. It’s such a privilege to be able to see a soldier accept Jesus, baptize him, disciple him in study and prayer, and see him grow to witness himself.”

One of the toughest challenges for Cook hasn’t been in the war zone – it’s what is waiting for him at home.

“My wife was seven months pregnant when we deployed on Valentine’s Day,” he said. “When our first child Edward was born, I was here in the heart of the war. It’s difficult not to be able to see my son, but I know God will provide a spiritual bond for us.”

Cook sings “Jesus Loves Me” to Edward every chance he gets to call home. It’s his way of connecting to the little boy he’s never seen in person.

“I want to teach Edward about our Lord Jesus Christ, how to be a God-fearing young man and the truth of the Bible,” Cook said. “Teach him how to camp, how to shoot and to enjoy the outdoors.”

And when he finally gets home?

“The first thing I’m going to do is sing Jesus Loves Me to him before I hold him,” said Cook, wiping his eyes.
Writer Sara Horn and photojournalist Jim Veneman were on assignment in Baghdad, Iraq, covering stories of faith among the military and Iraqi Christians there. Their complete coverage while there as well as their coverage on board the USS Truman will be featured in a book edited by Horn and scheduled for release next spring by Broadman & Holman. Oliver North serves as executive editor for the book, titled “A Greater Freedom.” (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TALKING ABOUT WAR, PRAYING IN FAITH, SAVING GRACE, WAITING, FLYING INTO BAGHDAD and SING PRAISE.

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  • Sara Horn