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Former Iraq chaplain says soldiers ‘need to know’ that Americans are ‘behind them’

PONTE VEDRA, Fla. (BP)-Noting that America’s freedom did not come without loss of life, a former Army chaplain who was with the first troops to enter Baghdad last year said people critical of the war in Iraq should take a few cues from history.

“Go back and look at how many Americans lost their lives for freedom in 1776,” Huey Bratton said at a July 2 Independence Day service. “It takes loss of life — and sometimes a lot of it — to maintain freedom.”

Bratton, who was a chaplain for the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga., spoke about his experiences in Iraq at The Church at Ponte Vedra in the coastal town just outside of Jacksonville, Fla. Bratton is now associate pastor of family life/youth at First Baptist Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. He formerly served as mission pastor of Crosspoint Baptist in St. Augustine, Fla., a mission of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and previously on staff at a number of churches in Georgia.

Including the innocent Iraqis who have died since coalition forces entered Iraq in March 2003, Bratton said perhaps, because of the recent “sacrifice” of life, maybe the Iraqis won’t ever again have the kind of loss which they’ve experienced. “They’re ready for the challenge.”

About the terrorists who seem resolved to oppose democracy in Iraq, Bratton insists they are in the minority. Although there were some Iraqis who wished American forces ill, “the overwhelming majority wanted us there,” Bratton said in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness following his presentation in Ponte Vedra.

Bratton speculated that it is the “natural human desire for freedom” that God places in everyone that has motivated the Iraqi people to welcome the American intervention.

“Probably the overwhelming majority [of Iraqis] know they are freer than they were,” Bratton said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we did the right thing.”

On behalf of the military still serving in the Middle East, Bratton said their biggest need is to know the American people support them and that the country “stays united to fulfill the cause.”

“I think from a soldier’s standpoint, they need to know that their country is unified behind them,” Bratton said. “When they are over there being shot at every day, they don’t need to hear on the news that we’re divided on the issue.

“My prayer need would be that our soldiers can see us over here united and supportive for what they are doing, [but] I don’t think they are seeing that 100 percent,” Bratton said.

During his presentation at the Florida church, Bratton showed slides of his experiences while “easing” through the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq on a 21-day road trip to Baghdad.

In “civilian” ministry for 11 years after serving in electronic warfare for the Navy, Bratton said he told his wife one night shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks that he wanted to help fulfill the military’s need for chaplains by volunteering for service.

Although the war with Iraq was looming, it was by no means a sure thing.

It became clear on the grueling trek through the barren desert that “God has a sense of humor,” Bratton recounted. “I’m 40 years old … and the chaplain of a combat arms battalion, which means I have to keep up with a bunch of 17-21-year-old jocks who can run a 12-mile road march in full gear. The only thing I had going for me was that I didn’t have to carry a weapon.”

But, whether a huge sandstorm or live enemy fire, Bratton said, “you get through that and you breathe a little bit….”

And through it all, people end up getting serious about God.

Bratton said he baptized 18 before the war ever began.

One slide showed Bratton and another chaplain bending over a makeshift baptistry. Bratton chuckled, recalling when the other chaplain, a Methodist, who typically does not support believer’s baptism, helped him to immerse one of the soldiers.

Finished for the day, Bratton said he’d already put his uniform back on when another battalion’s high-ranking officer, a new believer, asked the chaplain to baptize him. Bratton said the man told him he didn’t bring clothes to change into, but that he still wanted to be baptized. Bratton asked him if he wanted to remove his boots.

“‘No. I figured if they are going to war with me, I might as well baptize them too,'” the officer replied, according to Bratton.

“So he got in front of all these soldiers — boots, desert cammos and all — and we dunked him,” Bratton said.

By the time the officer returned to his company headquarters, up to a mile away, Bratton speculated he would be covered with sand and unable to avoid sharing a “tremendous testimony.”

Creating an environment for worship also could be a challenge in Kuwait and in Iraq. Bratton found time to hold about a half-dozen services on any given day for six to 10 people.

One slide depicted a soldier dropped to one knee, holding a rifle with his head lowered in prayer.

“That’s the kind of example of Christians over there,” Bratton said. “He’s on guard, but he’s praying. He’s poised, he’s ready to go at any moment, but he’s praying to God.”

Bratton said one of the most memorable times he had was of worshiping within the marble walks of Sadaam Hussein’s VIP headquarters at the Baghdad airport. Embedded reporters, there to “monitor” the situation, joined the military members for prayer and communion.

“We had reporters get serious with God over there,” Bratton said, reasoning that, like non-combatant chaplains, “they just had cameras, they didn’t have bullets either.”

Bratton, who spent the first 28 days in Baghdad without a shower in 128-degree heat, said he welcomed any chance to alleviate boredom. One morning, he recalled accepting an invitation from his battalion’s highest-ranking enlisted soldier.

“‘Chaplain, we are going to go out and look for weapons of mass destruction [WMD], do you want to go?'” Bratton remembered being asked. So, “I got in the Humvee.”

Traveling to a school where a new, thick, concrete basketball court had been poured about a week before the war, Bratton said he was told the military believed the recreation facility, along with about nine others at various schools throughout Iraq, could have been used to dump conventional weapons as well as WMD.

Bratton’s job at the site was to deter a mob by snapping digital pictures of people milling about. The strategy, Bratton said, allowed the inspectors to get their jobs done.

Decked out in a heavy helmet and 40-pound bulletproof vest, Bratton said he finally turned to spy the rest of his group on the basketball court — separated by a locked gate and three walls.

Mustering up energy and courage, he bounded over the first and second walls and stood at the third trying to figure out a way to get over. After backing up and taking four running steps, he pulled up and then launched over, dropping to the ground, huffing and puffing.

“I hear this giggling,” Bratton said, “‘Mister, Mister,'” he repeated the children’s voices.

About 20 feet from where he dropped onto the court, he said he finally saw what the children were pointing at — steps built into the wall. The children started clapping.

“That’s probably the most priceless picture that I have of the whole war,” Bratton admitted, standing in front of the picture he took of the children laughing atop the wall.

Looking to the biblical Joshua, whom God exhorted to be “strong and courageous,” Bratton said the answer to why one can live a courageous life can be answered in three ways: because of God’s promise, because of God’s Word and because of God’s presence.

God’s promise of eternal life is of singular importance when considering anything that might happen on this earth, Bratton said.

“[W]hen you are looking at death, there’s only one promise that means anything,” he said. “That’s the promise of eternal life for those who love Jesus Christ and call Him Lord.”

Second, it is because of God’s Word that believers can be courageous. “We are not free in America for any other reason than God allowed it … so that we could do His work,” Bratton said.

“The next time that you go out and vote, it had better be for God’s man,” Bratton said. “Because we are only free as long as God wants us to be free to share the love of Christ — not Mohammed, not Buddha, nobody else.”

Third, it is because of God’s presence that people can persevere. “We need to be a people of prayer,” Bratton said. “It’s time, as a country and as a denomination, that we turn from our wicked ways.”

In the interview after the service, Bratton told the Witness of the most exciting thing he experienced as a chaplain in Iraq — salvations of American soldiers.

“No doubt,” Bratton said. “Every salvation is a miracle.”

One that was especially moving involved a gunner of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle who sent word across Baghdad that he needed a minute with Chaplain Huey.

“I think it had hit home how many people he had to kill through the war,” Bratton said. “One bullet out of those things can kill a whole car full of four-five people and he’s probably wiped out hundred of vehicles.”

The gunner thought God would judge him. Bratton shared the plan of salvation with him and dug a hole in the ground in order that the soldier could be baptized soon after.

“It was amazing through that process, even through the tragedy of war, God used that to save this boy’s life, and he had never walked into a church his whole life.”

But despite his moving experiences overseas on the battlefield, Bratton said his resignation from the Army this past spring was based mainly on belief that God had called him back into life as a civilian minister.

“My heartbeat is not necessarily for soldiers,” Bratton said in the worship service. “My heartbeat is for lost people to come to know Christ and for Christians being all they can be for Christ.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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