Wing And A Prayer

"Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of the peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for as our Lord says: 'Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.'"

— Excerpt of letter from Saint Augustine, included in a pamphlet called “On Just War” made available to soldiers on base.

LOG BASE SEITZ, IRAQ — Spirituality and religion may have been bedrock for some soldiers before they arrived in Iraq, but for many of the nearly 150,000 men and women at war, a near miss with a mortar or becoming intimate with the smell of death is the best conversation starter with God. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes.

"I haven't ever tried to talk to God as much as I have here," said Spc. Greg Dill, a Texan with the 598th Maintenance Company. Dill attended church occasionally at home but never considered himself religious — until now. Within two weeks of his arrival in Iraq, and on the day of his 24th birthday, his base suffered four separate mortar attacks.

Members of the 1544th Transportation Company from Paris, Ill., pray before each mission.

"You just don't think about your life so much or the way you're living it when you're at home," he said. "It's been one of the better life experiences being out here." But Dill distinguishes between God's presence over him and His creation of the situation in Iraq.

"I don't look at this situation as being God-made; I see it as being man-made," he said.

Regardless of denomination or belief, whether Southern Baptist, Wiccan or Roman Catholic, some of the closest calls can be explained only by way of a divine presence, soldiers say. Religion becomes the response to unanswerable questions and a crutch to help soldiers make it through difficult days.

"Soldiers in Iraq are scared, tired and lonely and they're away from their families and the comforts of home," said Maj. Nicholas Aranda, a New Mexico National Guardsman. Aranda, who came to Iraq with an already deeply-held belief in God, said that for people who already have faith, it just gets stronger. "Some put everything into God's hands, and even those casual believers or those who may have questioned their faith in the past will turn to prayer out here," he said.

Asked how a man of God reconciles living in and supporting a state of war where innocent people are killed, he gets very quiet. "That's a very difficult question. I'll have to pray on that, take it to God."

Religion also gains importance as it's a crucial time period for the majority of young men and women. For many it's their first time leaving home or traveling outside of the country; it's their first time meeting people of other races and cultures, and also the first time they will grapple with their own mortality.

Spc. Derrick Thigpen is a 21-year-old from Mississippi, and the youngest in his circle of friends. His faith took root in Iraq and during his deployment he leaned on others in his unit — who became his family — for knowledge, support and strength as he "searched his soul for answers" to questions about his future, his life and about God.

"This was such an important time in my life, so it really pushed me closer to God," said Thigpen. He saw Iraq as a matter of survival and simply doing one's job; it was all he could do to finish his work, stay alive and watch out for his buddies. "I always comfort myself knowing that God didn't bring me here to die. He brought me here to do a job."

Sgt. Michael Robinson read the Bible cover to cover during his deployment in Iraq. It's a goal the Mississippi native with the 850th Transportation Company set before he even arrived in the theatre of war. "So many of these towns and cities are in the Bible," said Robinson, who was able to see Jordan, Babylon, and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers among other sites. "This is the Mecca of religion."

For Aranda, the historic significance is also important: that this land being occupied is the land of the Bible.

"This is where everything began: Mesopotamia," Aranda said. "The roots of Islam speak of Abraham. We come from the same source, and yet here we are in the 21st century ... " The fight today is against militants who have turned the words of the Koran into a tool to fight Westerners, Aranda said. "I don't believe the Koran promotes violence. It is an interpretation by militants ... and if we don't get a hold of the militants, it will spread like a cancer."

For too many soldiers, there is no time and perhaps not the education to examine the interpretations of the Bible, nor the similarities of belief between our warring people. The main focus is on staying alive, though this does not happen by luck, many soldiers will tell you; it is by the grace of God.

And for that grace there is a lot of prayer, particularly among the front line and transportation units, which travel the dangerous roads of Iraq and pray before each outing.

"We pray for wisdom and guidance, for our equipment to work — for there not to be any mechanical failures and for our weapons systems not to jam. We ask to see our aggressors and make them blind to us," said 1st Sgt Scott Lauher with the 1544th Transportation Company from Paris, Ill.

Five of the six soldiers killed at Log Base Seitz were from the 1544th and soldiers on a near daily basis experience mortars, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), rockets and small arms fire while on missions. Prayer, and the closeness with each other, has been their greatest solace.

"We depend on our knowledge that there's a will, God's will, and things that are meant to happen will happen," Lauher said.

How people, regardless of their religious background, reckon with a war thought by many to be unwarranted, illegal and even criminal, varies with each person.

"I don't know how anyone can justify killing Iraqis with their religious beliefs," said Capt. Daniel Stokes, a physician's assistant from Arizona who calls himself a secular humanist. "I can understand killing in self defense if you're Christian but some extremist Christians truly believe that God wants them [Iraqis] dead. They see themselves as right in a good-versus-evil war and they don't have a full understanding of the Arab culture and mind."

Chaplain Ryan Sarenpa, newly stationed at Log Base Seitz, says he — and all soldiers — must "realize that war is an unfortunate thing. And I have to believe that what I'm involved in is justified ... For the sake of the security of the United States, we must pray that this will ultimately be for the cause of peace and justice."

Coming from a small town in Kansas, Sarenpa is grappling with his own fears and adjustments and the excitement of a multicultural congregation, the first he's ever had. He sees his role as helping soldiers find their purpose, learning and maturing from their trials and "finding peace in the midst of a storm." Being surrounded by mortars, death and killing, though, is something he hopes never to become accustomed to. Nor does he want soldiers desensitized to the experience. "Every time you shoot someone it should hurt. It should bother the average soldier to have to do that," he said.

Generally there's been a shortage of chaplains volunteering for posts across Iraq, despite the need. The same need goes for medics who can become surrogate fathers, teachers and a soldier's greatest comfort. They are asked to answer questions, forgive the brutalities of war and ease pain, both physical and emotional.

It is the medical professionals in particular that is likely to see a soldier reach for religion as they're the ones who often witness a soldier's final moments, said Lt. Jeff Szymanski, a physician's assistant and non-denominational Christian. Of those he has seen and treated "about 80 to 90 percent of soldiers will equate their survival to some divine intervention. Someone upstairs was looking out for them," he said. "Soldiers have always used their faith as a grounding point. Even I had Bible verses going through my head as I was preparing to come out here. It's a super reflective time. You're scared because you don't know what to expect and you're asking for strength.”

Religion as well as church service is not only a personal pacifier but also a morale lifter, as it forms community, allows people a way to verbally express their thanks, and gives them a place to relax on the day of rest. There are both Christian and Catholic services, and on bases with much larger populations, meetings for people of Jewish, Islamic and other faiths.

The small chapel at Log Base Seitz fills on Sunday mornings with a congregation of mixed races and mixed backgrounds. An African-American choir sings gospel, following a guitar-strumming Christian from Missouri who does his part to praise Jesus.

"In the States it's easy to draw lines between denominations but here we come from so many different places and we seem to find common ground and unite under one belief in a higher being," Aranda said.

That common ground in no clearer than when soldiers gather to give thanks.

"I want to give thanks that with all the IEDs, VBIEDs and RPGs, I ain't never seen any of it and I praise God for that. Now I'm going home," says one.

Another calls out: "God is so merciful and however much we are trying to do right here, we are always falling short."

The final call receives the loudest response: "I pray for the soldiers trying to get better at Walter Reed Medical Center, that the families at home will be comforted, and that their sons and daughters did not die in vain."

"Amen!" shouts the crowd.

Those who came with strong faith will likely take it home, often strengthened. Others who began their relationship with God in the field hope to continue their practice after leaving Iraq, long after the memories of mortars and death have passed, and after the ties of friendship begin to weaken.

"This will always be a part of my life," says Thigpen of his newfound devotion to God. "When I go home, church is the first place I'll go." His friends start to joke with him and he admits to a few other cravings. "Well, I'll certainly hit a bar because it's been a while, but church, church will be first," he said.

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