BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–You don’t have to look very far to get a good idea of what Baghdad is like today. Bombed out, burned and looted buildings still line the neighborhoods. Thick, white chalky dust coats everything and sticks in the back of your throat and gets under your fingernails. To an unknowing observer, this might look like a godless place. But for others, Baghdad has become a symbol of what God can and will do for the people of Iraq. It is this faith, for example, that gives hope to the troops that eventually they will head home.
There are no foxholes in this city of 5 million people. Ask any soldier and they’ll quickly tell you there’s no defined front line for the war they continue to fight. Instead, there are mortar attacks to listen for, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to avoid and a good chance that the car stopped in traffic in front of you could very well be an ambush. Body armor is a common part of the uniform here.
Many acknowledge specific instances during the war when their faith was tested and the question of “Why?” entered their mind.
Sergeant James Crowell from Sayre, Pa., is a scout sniper with the 82nd Airborne, Third Battalion, Second Brigade combat team. Although he grew up in church, it wasn’t until he was a few days from entering the war with his unit that he understood what it meant to have a relationship with God.
The chaplain of his unit, Captain Eddie Cook, talked with him about what it means to be a Christian. Crowell recommitted his life to Christ and was baptized by Cook in the waters of the Persian Gulf during a training mission at Falaka Island right before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off me,” Crowell recounted. “This wasn’t something I had been considering until Chaplain Cook came and talked to me. I gave it a lot of thought. I love God and I try to live each day like I’m not going to live the next. I know He’s got His own special plan for me.”
Crowell, who attended Cumberland United Methodist near his base in Fayetteville, N.C., relies on God to get him through the tough days. Only 22, he’s seen a lot that others his age have not and he doesn’t mince words.
“As a sniper, my job is to kill people,” he said softly. “That’s the coldhearted reality of it. I remember calling my mom a couple of days before the war started and breaking down in tears. I was more scared about losing one of my buddies than doing my job.”
One of the most difficult missions Crowell has taken part in was toward the beginning of the war.
As part of his unit was trying to make their way into the city of Al Samawah, he and several members of his platoon had killed a group of Iraqi soldiers who were firing mortar rounds at the advancing troops. Helicopter gunships, called in for extra support by Crowell and his group, were making their way to the edge of the city.
“All of the sudden, there’s this group of about 38 Feyadeen soldiers that come out firing all sorts of ammunition like grenades and rocket launchers [at the gunships],” Crowell recounted. “The helicopters started firing rockets and hellfire missiles at them [and] actually killed a couple of them.”
Crowell watched what happened next with shock and disbelief through the scope of his weapon.
“The Feyadeen started going to the houses there and bringing out old men and women and children and putting them in a circle around them,” Crowell said. “That was five seconds that seemed like an eternity for me, trying to decide what to do. They were already killing the ones who didn’t want to stand in the circle, and the helicopters came in and pretty much rocketed the place after that.”
He paused, looking down at his boots.
“Why were those guys taking innocent people and doing that to them?” Crowell asked, glancing back up. “Women and children and old men. People who are defenseless, just trying to live a life…. [Y]ou kind of stow something like that in the deep dark corner of your heart and hope you never have to see that again.”
His chaplain has heard these stories all too often from the men he serves. He always tries to have an explanation for them.
“We’re blessed to live in a free country but with freedom comes responsibility,” Chaplain Cook said. “That’s why we’re here, fighting for freedom and peace. We know, however, that only true freedom and peace comes from God.”
He cited Romans 8:2: “… because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (HCSB).
“True freedom doesn’t give us the liberty to do whatever we want,” Cook said. “Destruction is near when ‘each man does what was right in his own eyes.’ Freedom is not the absence of boundaries, but rather knowing how to operate within the parameters God has set. The Christian life is this freedom … a greater freedom to experience the abundant and eternal life God designed for us.”
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 Harry S. 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: ALWAYS PRESENT, FINDING PEACE IN WAR, ON MISSION, DUSTY TRAVELS, DAY’S END and BUILDING THE CHURCH.