Monday, March 14, 2005

'The spiritual backbone of the unit'

Source: The Sun in San Bernardino

TWENTYNINE PALMS - Navy Lt. Robert Grove awoke before the sun rose and prayed.

During the next 12 hours, Grove chaplain for the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines welcomed 40 Marines and sailors to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center here; he prayed over 103 men leaving for Iraq; and he celebrated with 139 returning home.

It was a typical whirlwind. Grove's workload has been heavy since he joined the Navy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It intensified two years ago when the United States attacked Iraq, where 150,000 American troops remain. There are another 17,000 in Afghanistan. California has sent more troops to the Middle East than any other state; thousands have been from Twentynine Palms, Fort Irwin and the California Army National Guard.

Peppered throughout the nation's military are about 4,000 chaplains with a daunting task: Win the emotional wars waging within troops.

"I am responsible for the spiritual fitness of this battalion,' Grove told the new Marines and sailors during a breakfast address.

On the battlefield

That day, newspaper headlines announced the death toll for American troops in Iraq topped 1,500.

The number didn't phase Grove, a two-tour veteran of Iraq.

Death is sad, he said without a hint of emotion, but it is part of war. It's the reason the military employs chaplains.

"There are no atheists in foxholes,' the axiom says. And so military ministers are there to prepare troops to meet their maker whatever they believe it may or may not be.

"They are the spiritual backbone of the unit. ...' said Gunnery Sgt. Frank Patterson, Twentynine Palms base spokesman. "Chaplains provide an invaluable service.'

Almost all are Christian. Of the 1,400 active-duty Army chaplains, nine are Jewish and six are Muslim, according to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. Six are Orthodox Christian. The rest are Protestant or Catholic.

"In a time of war, all chaplains are trained to minister to soldiers of all faith groups,' said Col. Ron Huggler, the chief chaplain at Fort Irwin near Barstow. "We know how to deal with death and dying issues, whether it is a Jewish soldier or a Christian soldier or a Muslim soldier.'

Chaplains themselves become masterful bullet dodgers. They don't carry firearms, even in combat zones where warriors are dressed like civilians and crude bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, erupt around them.

"From a sniper's point of view, or, obviously from an IED's point of view, we are a soldier just like anybody else,' Huggler said.

No chaplains have been killed in Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began; three were seriously wounded.

Terms of service

Chaplains have been a part of the U.S. military since before the United States existed. At the urging of Gen. George Washington, the Continental Congress hired the first chaplain in 1775.

There are about 2,500 chaplains in the Army, with 1,100 in the Reserves and National Guard. The Air Force has 600 chaplains. The Navy, which provides the chaplains for the Coast Guard and Marines, has 871.

Job requisites are strict: a masters of divinity degree, two years of pastoral experience, a church sponsor and good health.

During peacetime, chaplains are involved in the daily spiritual struggles of base service members and their families.

They take their shepherding on the road during war.

Grove found in Iraq that planning was restricted by the volatility of the region and the possibility the battalion would be moved at any moment.

So he developed an informal system of combat visits: He traveled throughout southern Baghdad in American convoys, stopping to meet with troops where they were stationed and then moving to the next spot.

"It can be emotionally draining at times,' Grove said. "Being only one chaplain for roughly 1,000 sailors and Marines, the workload can be overwhelming.'

That would be a lot of people for any person to care for under ideal circumstances.

"Here we have about seven assistant pastors to help take care of the flock,' said Raul Ries, senior pastor of a 15,000-member church in Diamond Bar, Calvary Chapel Golden Springs.

But chaplains do it thousands of miles from comfort, in an environment saturated with death and loss.

Chaplains do more counseling than they do preaching and teaching. Leading worship services and religious devotions are part of the job. But often, chaplains say, they are approached for their impartial ears.

Overseas and at home, they are available around the clock.

"All the time, Marines walk into this office and say, 'I need to talk. Now,'' Grove said, sitting in the comfort of his sparsely decorated office on the base.

Conversations are confidential. Like communication with attorneys, the content is protected by law.

"Whatever happens with the chaplain, stays with the chaplain,' Grove said.

Easter without the resurrection

Grove spent last Easter in Fallujah with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. On Resurrection Sunday he listened on a military radio to the ambush of a close friend.

Two other Marines died that day.

"It was probably the worst day of my life,' Grove said of April 11, when Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus in 2004.

But Grove didn't mourn for 1st Lt. Oscar Jimenez of San Diego.

"There really is no time to grieve when you are in combat,' the chaplain said. "You've got to move on. You grieve later.'

The next day the chaplain gave a memorial service under the hot desert sun. It was a brief break for bereaved Marines before they returned to fighting in the then-insurgent dominated city in Al-Anbar Province.

"I wish I would not have to do any memorial services,' Grove said. "But that is a fact of war.'

In Iraq, chaplains also counsel troops who feel guilty about the death that surrounds them, maybe even follows them.

"It is very important for a chaplain to help each soldier be able to draw on his faith so he believes what he is doing is morally and ethically and spiritually right,' said Huggler, the Fort Irwin chaplain.

"Especially when they see the horrors of war. Without that, you have a soldier who becomes hesitant ... and all the sort of things that can get him or his fellow soldiers killed.'

Evil as war may seem, chaplains say, it has its time and place. They point to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, a sacred book for Jews and Christians:

"There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, ... a time for war and a time for peace ...'

A fallen soldier lives on

Spc. Daniel Unger was the first member of the California Army National Guard killed in combat since the Korean War. Unger was attached to the 1-185 Task Force, headquartered in San Bernardino. He died last May in a rocket attack on an American camp.

When his body was returned to Exeter, Calif., his father spoke at the funeral. By his side was the adjutant general of the California Army National Guard, Maj. Gen. Thomas Eres.

Eres was so impressed that three months later he had an assistant offer Marc Unger a chaplain job.

The 53-year-old pastor of Exeter Baptist Church signed up for 11 years of service.

Throughout the week, Unger counsels soldiers via telephone. He drives from his Central Valley home to the Central Coast to the Bay Area. Sundays he preaches in Exeter, a 9,500-person farm town southeast of Fresno.

"Our son's ministry to his country lives on as his family continues to minister to our country as a chaplain family,' Unger said.

Help on the home front

Unger and other chaplains who remain in the states assist families while a mother or father, husband or wife is thousands of miles away.

Whether the need is spiritual guidance, money or a babysitter, "we are going to find a way to meet it,' Huggler said.

This is most pronounced in the Army Reserves and National Guard, where families do not live on military bases and don't have the geographical support network.

When the 1-185 Task Force deployed for Iraq last March, few soldiers had prepared their families for the long separation, unit Chaplain (Maj.) Steve Harrell said.

"Midway through the deployment some of the spouses experienced extreme burnout, stresses on their home life that were just beyond them,' Harrell said. "The results were not good.'

There are also problems long after combat ends that require the chaplains' attention.

About 15percent of Iraqi veterans are returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In these people, the stresses of war cause intense flashbacks and nightmares, impairs sleeping and estranges a person from their surroundings.

"When soldiers come home, we realize he is not the same and she is not the same. No matter what,' Huggler said. "Just being apart for the year, there are going to be all kinds of changes.'

Chaplains at Fort Irwin spend weeks weaning soldiers back into civilian life. Through Reunion and Reintegration Training, they explain to couples the hurdles that will soon present themselves. They train spouses to look for signs of post-traumatic stress and, if needed, seek help.

Praying for protection

The skies were bright and brilliant as the Marines and sailors of Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines prepared to deploy for Iraq. Black clouds that had dumped hail on the San Bernardino Valley and spun a twister in Fontana were moving north over Big Bear Lake. But the air of Twentynine Palms was clear and quiet except for 'hurrahs' and sobs.

Before the troops boarded buses to March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, an officer announced the chaplain would pray with those interested. About 60 men surrounded Grove.

"It's important we get spiritually right before we go on a deployment,' the chaplain told the men, many of whom looked like boys.

They were talkative and anxious while waiting in the parking lot. Around the chaplain they were respectful and reflective.

"Lord God, we give thanks to you for this day. We thank you for the blessings of this life. For our health, for our family and friends ...' Grove said.

"We ask your blessing to be upon the Marines and sailors of Mike Battery as they deploy for Iraq. They have been given the tremendous responsibility to serve our country, to be peacemakers ...

"Keep them strong and resolute. ... Protect them and bless them. ... And by your grace and mercy, bring each one of these Marines and sailors back home safe and sound. And we pray this in your most holy and precious name, our Lord and our God. Amen."