They are attacked and shot at. Bombs go off randomly and danger lurks on every patrol. But the chaplains under Captain Scott Riedel's unit know one thing for certain — "God's heart is in Baghdad."
"God can work anywhere," Riedel said in a recent interview with the Florida Baptist Witness over a satellite phone from the U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment's headquarters in Baghdad.
Riedel, in Iraq's capital since June, said he believes Baghdad "is a place where people are seeking the Lord."
"Not only the soldiers, but the local population, is seeking the Lord," he said. "They are eager to hear the Word; they are hungry here."
He is a 1995 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., where he met his wife, Susan. Riedel first served the Army in a variety of positions related to air defense and infantry. After seminary he completed clinical pastoral education at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., and returned to active duty as a chaplain in 1998.
It's been a busy year for Riedel. Assigned to a unit in Hawaii last year — where Susan continues to reside — he was deployed to Bosnia from there. In March of this year, he received word that he needed to report with the rest of his new unit from Fort Polk, La., to Fort Benning, Ga., in order to deploy to Iraq in June. But Riedel said he and his wife had already prayed about the opportunities he might get in Iraq; he was ready to go.
"My orders were amended five times," Riedel said. "I had to fight to get there."
But while he fought for orders to get to Iraq, Riedel is a non-combatant and as such doesn't carry a gun. Instead, in the barracks, in the streets, and on patrol with the soldiers, Riedel said he contends for the souls of men.
"There is a spiritual hunger," he said. "What the soldiers are looking for is someone to be genuine. They want to see some genuine Christians."
Recounting a recent conversation with one twenty-two-year-old soldier, Riedel said the young man told him he was "empty on the inside" and wanted the same "joy" he had seen in his Christian girlfriend and her mom and dad. Riedel said the soldier received Christ and now meets with him every week.
"When you're facing death every day, you think about these things," Riedel noted.
Recently, when terrorists blew up the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad, Riedel and his six chaplains stared death in the face when they immediately set up to receive casualties, administer last rites, and anoint bodies with oil.
Wearing stoles with a cross emblazoned across their chests and carrying Bibles, Riedel said the chaplains were a strange sight in the old-world streets of Baghdad where women don't venture out and men turn toward Mecca to pray five times a day. Riedel said it is also where any understanding of the gospel has been historically represented by the Roman Catholic Church.
"Everyone around, including the Iraqis, bowed their heads with us out of reverence," Riedel said. "They have a lot of Catholics here, that's why they call us 'father,'" referring to the chaplains.
This limited understanding of Christianity and the part he must play as a military chaplain doesn't deter Riedel.
"I don't compromise at all. The reason I don't compromise is that I stay on my knees," he emphasized. "They don't understand the term chaplain, but they do understand 'father' as meaning minister.
"I present the gospel," Riedel said.
Lest people are left with the wrong impression of the Iraqi people, Riedel was quick to point out that Americans are generally very well-liked in the streets of Baghdad and throughout Iraq.
In spite of the danger and the ongoing tensions in Iraq, Riedel said he knows whenever he goes out he is "facing a good chance of getting shot."
"It's kind of scary and sometimes I'm envious of those carrying a weapon," Riedel said. "I just have to trust in the Lord and I've just resigned myself to, 'If I'm going to die, I'm going to die.' I know where I'm going."