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JOURNEY TO IRAQ: A Soldier’s baptism

EDITOR’S NOTE: Carol Pipes, editor of On Mission magazine of the North American Mission Board, recently traveled to Iraq to tell the story of lives being changed through the ministry of Southern Baptist chaplains. This is the second of two articles about her experiences as an embedded journalist with chaplains from the XVII Airborne Corps, stationed out of Ft. Bragg, N.C.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–There’s strong and then there’s Army strong. Nowhere is that more evident than on the front lines of war. My experience embedding with the chaplains of the XVIII Airborne Corps solidified my belief that we have the best of the best serving overseas.

After three full days in Baghdad’s International Zone, we made our way by midnight Rhino convoy run to Camp Victory. Camp Victory is the primary component of the Victory Base Complex (VBC), which occupies the area surrounding the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). VBC encompasses the former Al Radwaniyah Presidential Complex and contains several manmade lakes, the Ba’ath Party House, the Victory Over Iran and Victory over America Palaces, dozens of smaller mansions for Ba’ath Party officials and Al Faw Palace, which currently serves as the headquarters for the Multi-National Corps Iraq (MNC-I).

VBC has most of the amenities of a stateside base — electricity, sewer system, potable water, Internet, communications. It’s like a small city, complete with its own hospital, fire department, police force, water purification plant and multiple chapels. It even has a coffee shop, Pizza Hut and Burger King.

The sand-colored buildings, once inhabited by Saddam Hussein’s family and Ba’ath Party officials, blend in with the landscape. The most notable building is Al Faw Palace, Saddam’s former retreat center and one of 99 palaces built by the former dictator. Al Faw is a curious blend of marble, tile, gold trim and massive chandeliers, all surrounded by a cerulean lake and golden sand.

The half-million-square-foot palace — 62 rooms and 29 baths — was a playground for Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay. Standing on one of the private balconies, you can almost imagine them fishing or water skiing on the lake below. (Note: Saddam’s land o’ lakes was hidden behind a wall encircling the compound. It wasn’t until U.S. liberating forces swept in that Iraqi famers, not 10 yards on the other side of the wall, realized how Saddam had squandered so much water, forcing them to eke out an existence from the dry ground.)

Walking up the circular, marble staircase, I feel like an Arabian version of Scarlett O’Hara. Tara has nothing on this palace. Or maybe it does. Upon close inspection, not all that glitters is gold. Much of the décor in the palace is fake, including the massive chandelier hanging in the foyer — it’s mostly plastic and gold-painted tin. Saddam’s titanic palaces matched his ego and mimicked his reign — they both lacked substance.

The U.S. military is making good use of the palace, transforming it into office space that serves as headquarters for Mulitnational Force Iraq and all operational aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The area has a dusty, pale beauty. Palm tree-lined lakes make it easy to forget you’re in a combat zone. But the constant whop, whop, whop of Black Hawk helicopters and the occasional mortar round sent over the wire by the enemy serve as a reminder to our troops of why they’re here.

“Sometimes you can get lulled into a false sense of security,” one soldier told me. “But we’re in a combat zone and the enemy doesn’t sleep. So the Army doesn’t sleep.”

My temporary home was a trailer beside one of Saddam’s manmade lakes. The first few nights on base, I slept lightly, listening for air raid warnings and mortar rounds that never came. I’d been warned about what to do in case the enemy decided to flex their muscles — hit the ground or look for the nearest bunker. Fortunately, I never had to exercise those precautions. Once we hit our battle rhythm, though, I slept hard and sound.

Truth is, it was easy to forget we were in a combat zone, especially being at Victory. It was almost like being at camp, except that these campers carried guns and the food was better. The dining facility served everything from turkey and dressing to surf and turf. I ate a different flavor of hand-dipped ice cream almost every day. (Everyone said I’d come back 10 pounds lighter. No such luck.)

The expansive buffer between us and the Red Zone served as a protective womb. A soldier asked us one day if we’d heard explosions the night before. What? You’re kidding? He wasn’t. The enemy had sent over a couple of mortar rounds in the night. And I’d slept right through it.

At first, I felt like an interloper, camera hanging from my neck, pen and paper always in hand. But all the troops I encountered were friendly and happy to answer my endless barrage of questions. When I offered my thanks for their service and sacrifice, I almost always got the same response: “Just doin’ my job, ma’am. Just doin’ my job.”

We have an amazing group of men and women who have volunteered to leave their families behind for a year or more and selflessly put themselves in harm’s way. Americans have short attention spans, and as the economy tops the headlines we would do well not to forget that there are still 140,000 of our sons and daughters in Iraq. And they are doing everything they can every day to make sure those of us back home are safe.

Their work is long and tedious, and success is definitely a process. But for the most part, troops are positive about the progress being made in Iraq. Life is returning somewhat back to normal, whatever that is. Children are going back to school — schools built by U.S. troops. Iraqi soldiers, trained by U.S. soldiers, are taking on more responsibilities. And Iraqis are once again governing themselves.

Every day on base was filled with new experiences and hearing the stories of our Southern Baptist chaplains who are serving God and country. They carry no guns, yet U.S. military chaplains are considered combat multipliers. The Army recognizes its soldiers as spiritual beings, and chaplains provide care for them particularly in places where the spirit gets weary from the fight. But spiritual care goes beyond religion. No matter a soldier’s faith background, the chaplain is chaplain to all.

From counseling the young soldier whose wife just filed for divorce to being a leveling moral presence among troops trained to fight and kill, chaplains play a significant role in the success of combat operations.

Part of the chaplain’s job is to go where the soldiers go to make sure their spiritual needs are met. Being present with the troops where they work and where they live is essential to serving them and meeting their needs. It’s a chaplain’s duty to strengthen soldiers for another day in the combat zone, to pray for them and bring comfort and hope when faced with death.

The key to being effective, chaplains say, is building relationships. As clergy in a secular institution, chaplains are not allowed to impose their religious views on others. But most would say that proselytizing would hinder developing close relationships with soldiers, and that’s where the real ministry takes place. So, chaplains continue to walk a church-state tightrope, leaving their preaching to the chapel services and allowing the cross on their uniform to speak volumes. There’s power in that tiny stitched cross. It opens doors to conversations with soldiers who need a listening ear. Much of a chaplain’s ministry occurs one-on-one in the chow hall, down at the motor pool, in the gym or standing in line at the PX.

A thick cloud of dust blocks the sun as our small convoy of SUVs bumps along the road to Camp Liberty. It’s a big day for Army Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Frederick and Navy Lt. Comdr. Nicole Battaglia. Their mission: to baptize Lt. Comdr. Battaglia. It’s mid-morning and the temperature is only in the mid-60s. The water in the baptistery is bound to be cold. But that’s not stopping these two. Battaglia knows it’s time to follow up her commitment to Christ by being baptized. Her only regret: “I wish my mom were here to see me do this. She was so excited when I told her.”

For chaplains like Frederick, this is what chaplaincy is all about — bringing God to the soldiers and soldiers to God.

    About the Author

  • Carol Pipes

    Carol Pipes is director of corporate communications for LifeWay Christian Resources.

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