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Faith on the battlefield

Published November 27, 2005 1:09 am

Utahns at war: In a dangerous place where death may come at any moment, U.S. troops in Iraq struggle to make peace with God - and themselves
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

RAMADI, Iraq - He moves as if divining water - three steps this way, two steps that - through a crowd of anxious soldiers, feeling his way through their expressions, body language and voices. Searching.

A few paces ahead, a wide-eyed and baby-faced private, 19 years old if that, stands staring blankly in the direction where, moments earlier, a mortar fell amid a rapid barrage of explosions.

Gaylan Springer reaches out to place a hand on the young warrior's shoulder, holding the contact for just a moment before casually folding his arms across his chest.

"How are you doing right now?" the 6-foot Utah guardsman asks, leaning in to meet the shorter soldier eye to eye.

The teenager glances up, as if only just then recognizing the officer's presence. "Oh, Chaplain," he says, straightening up and smiling. "I'm fine. Everything's OK."

"OK, then," Springer says, nodding and returning the smile. "See you in church?"

"Yes, of course," the soldier answers.

In moments of fear, loneliness, anger and apprehension, Springer offers gentle cues - reminders for his soldiers to tend to their spiritual needs. In a place where troops understand, all too well, that death may come at any moment, the message is seldom lost.

Yet war is hell. And hardly a place for saints. In the desperate business of trying to stay alive - and trying to make sure others do not - rules and structures more easily adhered to at home are often brushed aside.

And so for many soldiers, the task of balancing God with country, and spiritual piety with military responsibility, is a war unto itself.

Compelled humility

Iraq's recent change to daylight savings time has given Robert Couse-Baker an hour head start, but as the afternoon wanes the Army major is losing his race with the sun.

Ideally, he'd be in his room by now, preparing to meet the first moments of Yom Kippur in quiet contemplation of repentance.

Overhead, jets slice the sky and helicopters stir the winds. Humvees filled with armed and armored soldiers rumble by. In this abnormal setting, it is some wonder that Couse-Baker even has a shot at observing the Jewish Day of Atonement with any degree of normalcy.

But with the help of some friends, he does. Co-workers have pledged to take over his administrative duties at Balad Air Base. Unless there is a crisis - and that is not altogether unlikely - he'll spend the next 25 hours fasting and keeping idle.

Still, Couse-Baker - a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, Calif. - is realistic.

"You abstain from work best you can," he says, "but we are out here fighting a war."

Couse-Baker says Jewish soldiers must leave aside other conventions as well. It is, he concedes, impossible to keep completely kosher, even in mess halls brimming with culinary options. And Shabbat - the Jewish Sabbath - is just another day on the seven-day-a-week GI work calendar.

So too goes Sunday.

For Humvee driver Jeb Townsend, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Christian Sabbath is merely another day when he may be called upon to escort his commanding officer into downtown Ramadi, one of Iraq's most dangerous places. There is one proviso: If he's not working on this traditional day of rest, Townsend won't join his comrades on the dusty softball field near the base chow hall.

"Me and the Lord, we have an understanding," the Parowan native says as he glances skyward. "I don't play on Sundays and I stay alive."

Soldiers say a lot of deals get made with God in moments of fear and pain. Some get kept, at least for a time.

"Here you are brought face to face with death," says Art O'Neal as he prepares a dimly lit, makeshift chapel for a King James Bible study, moving the plywood pews into a horseshoe pattern and scribbling verses onto a flip chart.

"When you know there are people trying to kill you, it's a little different when you pray," he says.

O'Neal, a Mississippian who wears a pistol on his hip and carries a cross in his pocket, says prayers made in times of strife have no less virtue in the eyes of God. He figures the Lord uses such times to bring people into the fold.

It's a strategy that seems to be working.

"A lot of guys come to church that haven't before," says Springer, the Ramadi chaplain, a Mormon from Delta. "I don't think everyone is doing it because they're afraid of dying, necessarily, because every one of us really believes we're going home. But we are compelled to be humble here."

Springer says members of his battalion, the Utah-based 222nd Field Artillery, are more involved in prayer, scripture-reading and Bible-study groups than they are back home. Some have taken to proselytizing.

Others feel they may have something to prove: to God, to themselves and to others.

Giveth and taketh away

Cory Mince's girlfriend left him when he chose the Marines over a mission.

"In Utah, if you don't go on an LDS mission, sometimes people think, 'Well, what's wrong with him?' " says Mince, who grew up in Orem. "Everybody figured I must have done something wrong."

He says guilt played no part in his decision to speak to a fellow Marine about the Mormon faith, but he can't help but take some satisfaction in the fact that he's managed, in his spare time, to do something that some missionaries don't: convert and baptize a new member of the church.

Brandon Holland says he decided to join the LDS Church after seeing the way Mince stood out from the crowd.

"The week before our deployment, everyone else was out every night, getting drunk and acting stupid," he says. "That just wasn't for me."

But some of the very same things that push soldiers and Marines to faith can pull them away.

Even in the 222nd, a battalion whose soldiers fill the Camp Ramadi chapel each Sunday for LDS services, many members smoke more, swear more and gamble more than they did back home. Scantily clad centerfolds from men's magazines paper the walls of many offices and living spaces.

Mormons typically shun such behavior. But some say "small sins" seem a lot less harmful out here than they did back home.

At a smoking pit near the unit's barracks, three soldiers suck on cigarettes on a sweltering afternoon.

One middle-aged noncommissioned officer says he'll quit before going home to his LDS wife. "She would divorce me if she found out I smoked," he chuckles.

But for now, he says, he needs the nicotine.

"We're already breaking a few more notable commandments," he says, patting the rifle that rests against his thigh.

Pleading the Sixth

When Samuel Giese found he was to lead Protestant services at Camp Duke, in Iraq's Najaf Province, it was a placid Southern Baptist who guided him along.

Lester Davis - a chaplain's aide from Mississippi - gives the pensive Catholic priest a passing grade for the effort, tame as it may have been.

"If I could have gotten him walking up and down the aisles, sweating and wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, he would have been just about perfect," Davis says.

Davis' service to the senior soldier doesn't end with ecumenical advice. Since chaplains don't carry guns, the stout enlisted man acts as both aide and bodyguard when the two travel outside the relative protections of their forward operating base.

As a Christian, Davis tries to follow in the footsteps of a man known as the Prince of Peace.

"But if it comes down to using deadly force - not only to protect the chaplain, but to protect myself and anyone else - I'll do what I must," he says.

That is, Davis says, what he has been ordered to do as a chaplain's aide.

Does following the Army's Sixth General Order, which calls on soldiers to receive and obey all commands from senior officers, mean breaking the Sixth Commandment, from the Book of Exodus, which tells Christians and Jews not to kill?

"I know God calls on us not to kill," Davis says, "but he also gives us the ability and knowledge to protect ourselves and others."

Still, the idea does not sit well.

"I hope I never have to look down the sight of my weapon and take someone's life," he says. "I pray every day that I don't."

It's good, Giese says, for soldiers to struggle with such matters.

"I feel gratified that there are men who carry weapons and are in the military who can't make themselves feel completely at ease with what that entails," he says. "It is not a simple thing to reconcile faith in God with the hardness of war."

Giese says it is not uncommon for soldiers to come to him seeking Sixth Commandment clarification.

"One of the things we talk about is, quite simply, the insurgents here do not care who they kill," Giese says. "They will kill women and children, innocent people traveling the roads just going to work."

Killing insurgents, Giese says, "is not murder but the defense of the weak and defenseless."

For James Manchego, it's a matter of interpretation. Harking to Old Testament passages that glorified soldiers battling in the name of God, he understands the commandment on killing to mean murder alone.

"And murder is something that comes from hatred," says Manchego, a reservist who attends an Assemblies of God church back home in Taylorsville and tries - often unsuccessfully - to make it to chapel each Sunday in Mosul, where he is stationed.

"If I had to shoot someone," he says, "I would do it only out of defense."

But not every soldier is given the choice.

Innocence and atheists

Artillerymen aren't often told about the effects of their fire. Most say they prefer it that way because knowing too much might keep them from responding quickly or sleeping soundly.

But Rich Miller, commanding officer of Utah's 222nd, says his soldiers do understand that their actions may hurt innocent people.

"We deal with these questions by trying to do everything in our power to mitigate error by being well-trained and using our skills as soldiers and leaders to make the best judgment call we can, so as to not inflict injury or death to some undeserving person," Miller says.

But in the event of a mistake?

"We have to know that we did our best to avoid the situation," Miller says. "As a religious person, I know our Heavenly Father knows our heart and intentions and will judge us fairly according to our actions."

Giese says soldiers who come to him for spiritual guidance are often struggling with guilt over the death of innocents.

"These soldiers travel in convoys at night, in visibility conditions that can be very challenging, to say the least, and sometimes this results in unfortunate incidents - maybe vehicle accidents, maybe the shooting of vehicles" he says.

"When injuries, fatalities and accidental deaths happen, it is terribly disturbing to soldiers."

Faced with such realities, some lose their ability to believe in any divine force.

For Army National Guard medic Kris Lundstrom, there is no spiritual logic that helps settle his soul with the toll this war is taking on civilians.

"I just don't see how anyone can justify the existence of God when so many innocent people are dying," says Lundstrom, a self-described agnostic who lives in Murray and is stationed in Ramadi.

Lundstrom, who carries a pistol wherever he goes - "if someone is going to die, I suppose I'd rather it not be me" - hasn't given up hope of finding God. But he doesn't see any religious justification for the conflict in which he is engaged, either.

"This isn't a holy war, even if some people think it is," he says. "We're here fighting terrorism, that's it."

And if he dies in that fight, Lundstrom says, "that's probably all there is to it."

John Hunts has come to the same conclusion. And the Army Reservist, a college student from St. George, says it's probably best that way.

"If there is no God, then I don't have to justify the actions we are taking over here," the former Mormon says as he sits with a group of fellow Army truckers, smoking cigars and playing poker on a rare night off at Camp Taqaddum, in Iraq's volatile Al-Anbar Province.

"For me, I'm justified because it is my job," he says. "I don't have to ask whether it is right or wrong in God's eyes because I only care if it's right or wrong in the military's eyes."

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Reporter Matthew D. LaPlante and photographer Rick Egan recently returned from assignment in Iraq. Their complete Iraq coverage may be viewed at http://www.sltrib.com/iraq">http://www.sltrib.com/iraq. They may be reached at iraq@sltrib.com.

More online

Lt. Col. Rich Miller, the commanding officer of Utah's 222nd Field Artillery, contemplates the spiritual cost of "collateral damage" at http://blogs.sltrib.com/iraq">http://blogs.sltrib.com/iraq