Pro Deo Et Patria- An Army Chaplain

I am a chaplain in the US Army, serving in Iraq. I'm keeping a blog to share my thoughts and experiences while deployed. They are my thoughts and they don't necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Army! :)

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A man on the road

I have no idea who this guy is. But when I was taking a picture from the Humvee, we just happened to pass him. What breaks my heart is that life in Iraq is very difficult for people, and to be disabled in any way would be that much more difficult.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Memorial Ceremony

Tonight we had a memorial ceremony for one of my Soldiers who was killed last week. For privacy reasons, I will not post his name on here, but suffice it to say that he was a great Soldier, and a great young man. The other Soldiers in his unit have done an incredible job during a very difficult week. Last week, when he was killed, we spent most of the night up, with the Soldiers consoling each other, telling stories, laughing, crying and so on. Then, at the break of dawn, we did the ramp ceremony. This is when the helicopter comes to take his body. The company lines the road to the chopper, and his body is brought down similar to a funeral processional. The chaplain (me) then says a few words, and prays. His body was then placed on the helicopter, and the Soldiers salute until the helicopter is out of sight. It was tear-jerker.

So tonight was the memorial ceremony. This ceremony is different than a funeral and includes things such as a invocation, Scripture reading, rememberances from fellow Soldiers, a message from the chaplain, a benediction and the last roll call, volley and taps. The last roll call involves the Soldier's First Sergeant calling off three names, as though they are taking roll. The first two names are Soldiers who are present. The third name is the deceased Soldier. His name is called three times, and after the third time, there are three shots fired, and then taps is played. Again, it is a tear jerker.

The Army does well in honoring the dead. We cherish every Soldier and hate to lose a single one. What amazes me even more is that his friends- the guys he went out on patrol with every day- went right back out the day after he was killed and continued to do their job. I can't convey how much I respect them.


One lesson I have been learning while here is the necessity of rest. Most of our Soldiers keep a very busy OPTEMPO (i.e., the pace of their operations, rest time in between missions, etc.). I have found that in my ministry here I cannot anticipate a busy day or not. For example, I cannot anticipate incoming rocket fire, casualties, people needing counseling, and so on.

Hence, it makes it absolutely critical to take the down time when it’s there, and use it. That may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get caught up into always being busy, simply for the same of being busy, and then you end up burning out within a couple of months.

I can’t say how proud I am of the Soldiers around here. They work hard, they put themselves into danger, and they are getting the job done. I feel blessed to be their chaplain over here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


This morning Larry asked in the comments section about the food here. We actually do not eat "local food," and we do not eat MREs. We have a Dining Facility (DFAC) on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) which is actually pretty good. It is buffet style, with a good variety. There are other options, like a short order counter (burgers, corn dogs, fries), as well as a stir fry cook. In fact, I had chicken and noodle stir fry tonight. I will say that the Army is doing a good job on the food front. It is contracted out (I think to KBR) and they do well. MREs are used primarily in a field environment- for example, as the Army pushed forward into Iraq during the beginning of the war, and before they could establish DFACs, etc.

We also have a number of local Iraqi vendors on the base. They are mostly based out of one large building, and they sell a variety of things such as movies, video games, Iraqi art, carpets/rugs, clothing, jewelry candy and so on. They don't really sell local cuisine, however. I enjoy shopping in the store (well, mainly window shopping) and interacting with the Iraqis.

I have found them to be very kind, honest people. However, there is one interesting trait that is common in this culture: the desire to NOT say no directly. So, if you ask for something they cannot provide, they will not say "no," but they might tell you to come back later, or suggest something else. For example, if I go to one of the vendors and ask for the movie "Christmas Vacation," they might say, "Did you see it on the shelves? Maybe it is there? Here is Talladega Nights...very funny movie. Try Talladega Nights." Or something to that effect. But they usually don't just say "no."

Home in Baghdad

A home in one of the nicer sections of Baghdad. With the palms trees in this picture, you could almost pretend you're in some part of southern California. Almost. Most of Baghdad is not like this.

Streets of Baghdad

Here is a street scene in Baghdad. We traveled through many different parts of Baghdad yesterday, but this is a fairly typical street from eastern Baghdad. As you all can probably guess, I'm not going to post pictures where the faces of the people can be clearly seen, just out of respect. While Baghdad is a desert, there are a number of trees and vegetation, I think mainly because the Tigris runs through the city, and the Euphrates is not far away.

The homes look fairly decent sized from the outside, but my understanding is that most homes have a lot of people living in them- extended families, etc.

A Shepherd in Baghdad

You may not be able to see it clearly, but this is a shepherd and his sheep on the streets of Baghdad. The shepherd is to the left of the truck, with grey clothing and a white head covering, with the sheep wandering in front of the truck.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What I think about

Today has been an emotionally draining day. We had five soldiers wounded by mortars while out helping respond to Iraqi casualties from a car bomb. We drove up and visited them at the CSH (Hospital) in the Green Zone. While there we presented them with Purple Hearts and spent time with them and prayed. We also visited with two of our Iraqi interpreters. In the room, I prayed with both of them as well. One of them had not heard that we lost a Soldier last week (that was my long day last week). When he heard, he cried. It was heartbreaking. The Iraqis we work with love and trust the Soldiers in my unit. They are part of the team. They dream of a free and safe Iraq.

While visiting with them, though, there was also a child in one of the hospital beds. He was no more than maybe 8 years old, but was about the size of my youngest son. He had been paralyzed from the waist down by an IED. It was heart wrentching. I prayed with him through an interpreter. He was crying because his stomach hurt.

I'm writing this all, even though I normally don't put this kind of stuff on my blog, partially because of an email I received overnight. A friend emailed me, and asked why my blog was so political. He said that he didn't see much Christ in my blog and asked how I was able to minister to people here even though I am so political.

It hurt. Christ is so present with me here it's hard to convey. The reality is that I don't feel I should post stuff about those times when he is most present, because, frankly, it will scare my family. But, you know what- that is when Christ carries me.

Is this blog political? Most of the time, I don't think so. But my opinions about this war do not feel political for me because I see the people here, and feel that we are morally responsible to see this war to the end, since we have already begun it. People are hurting, and while no one likes war, I believe we have a God-given responsibility to see them through it. It doesn't feel like so much of a political question as it does a moral and faith driven question.

Good Christians can disagree on whether this war is right or wrong. I just ask that Christians who think this war is wrong give others the benefit of the doubt. I believe this war is a moral struggle, even if others disagree. Do I preach about it? No. I preach about Christ on Sunday (and every day). But it doesn't mean I can't have an opinion. My faith should inform my worldview. I just might come to different conclusions than others.

So where is Jesus for me in all of this? He was with me in the events that occurred today. He was with me when the window by my door was blown out by a rocket that hit 50 feet in front of my building. He is with me when I'm a little nervous about walking out in the open at night, thinking about rockets and mortars. He is with me when I think and pray about what we are doing here. He is with me through, well, all of it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


I just got Internet installed in my room this weekend (it's a monthy paid service). It's not great service,, not bad for a combat zone. All things considered, I think the Army does a good job of taking care of its Soldiers around here. The ease of communication is a double edged sword, as I have mentioned in past posts. It's nice for Soldiers to be able to stay in touch back home, but if they are having marital or relational issues, it makes it more difficult- and they often end up talking to the chaplain. :)

On the subject of communication: this is part of what it means to be an American. The freedom to express any opinion, even if others don't like it, within appropriate venues. There is a comment on one of my posts, posted by another Lutheran pastor, in which he sarcastically compares President Bush to Saddam Hussein (see the comments section from my post from September 7th). Now, I could comment on how much I disgaree with the comment, about how I believe this man is ignorant of the facts...but, I love the fact that we live in a country where we can hold conflicting beliefs and not kill each other over it.

That is why I am here. To ensure that we retain the freedom to debate, to disagree and to say even the most ridiculous things...and to do so in freedom. We can criticize our President, the Congress, our Governors, and no one will come and arrest us. We can debate whether or not this war is just or not, whether or not it is making us safer, but the bottom line is that our military exists to defend the Constitution. So, blessings to this gentleman who would compare our President to Saddam Hussein. I think he is ignorant for doing so, but, at the end of the day, it is our freedom to say such things which makes us American.

The Soldiers here in Iraq have volunteered to risk their lives to ensure that back home the war protesters, the war supporters, and everyone in between can protest and debate the matter without fear. I moderate the comments posted on my blog, because some people try and post spam (sad but true) but I always appreciate dissent, as long as someone is willing to stand up, say their name, and speak their opinion.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Long Day

It has been a long couple of days for my unit, though I shouldn't be more specific at this point. Suffice it to say that it's been a long couple of days.

But I'm also amazed at our Soldiers. Even when things are difficult, and painful things happen, they work hard, and get their job done. I think that everyone back home should be proud of them. They work long hours in sometimes frightening conditions, but strive to finish each mission.

As a chaplain, I wish I could do more for them sometimes, but I constantly pray for them, and thank God for each and every one, and serve and minister to them however I can.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Settling In and Prayer

It's been one month now since I arrived in theater. I want to share a thought on getting acclimated, as well as answer Rick's question about prayer!

First, I know I'm now acclimated because loud noises don't startle me. :) After the first few mortars and rockets here, my adrenaline would skyrocket. That has started to change.

At dinner tonight, as I sat with my chaplain assistant and our battalion doctor, who is a friend, there was a loud explosion. It didn't feel close enough to jump under the table, so none of us missed a beat, and kept on talking until a sergeant came through and asked (well, it wasn't quite asking) everyone to go get out of the dining facility for accountability. It turned out to be "nothing," (it was an explosion, but for OPSEC reasons, I won't be specific... no one was wounded, hence I use the term "nothing"). Anyway, I realized that my adrenaline didn't start going nuts like it has when other explosions have gone off, and I guess that means I am somewhat acclimated. Also, I'm acclimated in the sense of really getting used to the weather. During the day it has been around 100 (it's fall, and cooler now), and it actually feels comfortable. (I do still wish I was on a snow covered mountain, skiing, though)

Second, Rick asked a good question in the comments section. He wondered if it's true that chaplains have been told not to pray in the name of Jesus in services. I was asked this quite a bit back home, and there are many rumors floating around in the US. The answer though, is no, that is not true. We are completely free to pray and worship in the name of Jesus in the Christian worship services. The concept of the free expression of religion prohibits the government from telling us we cannot pray in the name of Jesus at a worship service, Bible study, prayer breakfast, etc.

Now... in a generic ceremony, where all soldiers are required to attend (i.e., not a worship service), a good chaplain should be sensitive to the fact that non-Christian soldiers may be present, and offer a more generic prayer-ending, such as "In Your Name, I pray." Or, I may say "please pray with me as your faith allows," and then I pray in the name of Christ. It's about common sense and being sensitive.

But, to be clear, the Army does not interfere in the worship services in any way, whatsoever. It is part of the free expression of religion, and I can pray just as the Spirit leads during worship.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Photos from Praise Night

Here are a few pictures from the Interfaith praise night, which I tried unsuccessfully to upload last night. One is a picture of me during the annoucements, the other is the combined praise choir.

Monday, September 18, 2006


We just got off of commo blackout, so it's been a couple of days since I posted. But it has been a great couple of days. Yesterday, I preached at the Gospel Service for the first time, and I think it went very well. The Gospel Service is different than what a typical Lutheran service is like, but it is a very cool service. They do an altar call, which I did, being the chaplain for the service, and we had three people come forward to receive Christ, as well as others who came forward for prayer for other things.

Last night we also had a Interfaith Praise service, involving the choirs from the various Christian services on the FOB, including the Gospel Choir, the Contemporary Praise Band, the Catholic Choir, and the Liturgical Choir. It was amazing. The music was incredible. I looked around the room last night, and it was a glimpse of America: people of all colors and various languages. We had some Roman Catholics from India, some Hungarian Soldiers, a Muslim convert to Christianity from Indonesia, Asians, and Americans of all kinds. It was, in my mind, a vision of what we're fighting for as Americans- peace between peoples of all kinds. It was also a vision of heaven... Christians from so many different backgrounds, together, praising God.

While the songs were all Christian praise songs of some sort, the closing song was a soldier favorite: Proud to be an American. While it's not specifically a Christian hymn, of course, it was a perfect way to finish the evening. We're not proud to be Americans for nationalistic reasons, or because we think we're better than anyone, but we're proud to be Americans because of the ideas America represents: freedom, equality, opportunity, peace, and the freedom to worship God without hindrance. That certainly reminds me of what I'm doing here, and makes me proud.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Worship on the FOB

In the comments section, Diane asked about the worship services, and the numbers in worship. That's a good question. I probably shouldn't answer about the numbers of soldiers, typically because anything about the number of soldiers we have on the FOB, and where they might be at a given time is sensitive information. But I will say that we have a variety of worship services, including: a more traditional liturgical service, a Roman Catholic Mass, a Gospel Service, a contemporary evangelical service, an LDS service (Latter Day Saints), a Wicca circle, and a couple of midweek contemporary services.

I am "in charge" of the Gospel service. Gospel service in Army speak usually refers to a predominantly African-American service, with very vibrant choir and worship leadership. I am preaching this Sunday, my first Sunday preaching at the service. I cannot wait- I worshipped with them last week, and it was a wonderful time of praise.

Vaguely speaking, the numbers of soldiers in worship each week are OK. Not a majority of soldiers by any stretch, but a good amount. The thing is, we are running missions 24/7, so on any given Sunday, there is a huge percentage that might not be able to make it. Hence, we have many different times, and not just on Sunday. But I would say that participation is solid.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Some Pictures

This is my second post of the day (see below) but I wanted to upload another picture. This picture is a view of the outside of our chapel. You can see the part where it says "chapel" and there is netting above that. That is sort of an outdoor patio area underneath the netting. The rest of the building is a solid, concrete and brick building, which has our offices and actual chapel.
I'll upload more pictures here and there as time allows.

Deepening faith

One thing that has happened to me in the almost month I've been in Iraq is that my faith has grown in ways I didn't imagine. There is a lessening of fear and anxiety. It is different than I had imagined. I thought that I would come here and just have constant epiphanies, see visions, dream dreams, etc. But instead it has been more profound, and, I believe, longer lasting. I have simply had to trust God in a deeper way.

When you wake up to the sound of explosions very near by, you cannot help but be aware of your own mortality. And yet, in the midst of that, my conviction and certainty of God's hand and protection is deeper than ever. There is no anxiety. It's not because I'm brave- that is definitely not the case- but it's because God brings a transcendant peace that surpasses our understanding. God is here in incredible ways, and there is a sureness of faith that develops in this environment.

Psalm 91 is a popular one for soldiers. We have bandanas with Psalm 91 written on them that we give out at the chapel- at least until they run out. I'd encourage all of you to read that today, and allow God to apply it to your life. Where are the fears or doubts that assail you? Allow God to take them away and replace them with His peace.

"You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day." Psalm 91:5

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Another Post

Well, I sat down to begin checking email and update my blog when we felt a massive explosion. I waited a moment, heard the siren indicating an attack, and began the drill with which I think I am becoming familiar- I packed up my laptop and rushed up to the aid station. There, the medics began to set up in preparation for a MASCAL (Mass Casualty- i.e., many casualties). I began to talk to my friend, who is one of the docs, and we all waited in anticipation. An explosion like that can miss the FOB completely, or it can hit the FOB but cause no injuries, or it can cause wounds and/or kill soldiers. This time, we were blessed: no one was wounded. I won't say if the rocket hit the FOB or not, for obvious security reasons, but I pray that we continue to have results like this: everyone is safe.

I'm including a picture of the area, as some of you have requested. The FOB itself is not a bad place. We have concrete buildings, some trees, and most things are a close walk from where I'm staying and working. Don't be misled by the trees: this is a desert. But it also used to be an Iraqi Army Base, and, as such, has some decent buildings and vegetation.

Typical Day

Some people have asked about the sorts of things I am doing as a chaplain. Basically, every day is different, but typically, there are some major things that a chaplain does:

1) Counseling
2) Preaching/Worship Leadership
3) Crisis Response
4) Advising the Commander on religious issues
5) Visiting with soldiers

These are not in any particular order, and it does not encompass all that a chaplain does. Obviously, when a unit is at home, an active duty chaplain has other duties similar to a pastor in a church, but I'm speaking as a mobilized reservist.

As far as counseling, there is a quite a bit of that, especially relating to marriage issues. Preaching and worship leadership is obvious. Crisis Response entails things such as heading to the aid station if we get hit with rockets or mortars so I can be there for any casualties that may ensue. Advising the commander on religious issues is important in a war with such divergent religious factions as this one. Finally, visiting soldiers in their work environment is key, as it establishes relationships and helps the soldiers know that the chaplain is interested in, and supports them in what they are doing.

Crisis response is probably the one thing you can least prepare for. In combat, some wounds are quite horrific, and, of course, soldiers die. It is just something that a person learns, I guess. We have had attacks since I have gotten here, and I'm getting to learn the ropes now, of simply heading to the aid station/hospital in cases there are wounded soldiers that are brought in.

The work as a chaplain is fulfilling, and my prayer is that God can use me in whatever way possible.

Monday, September 11, 2006


This isn't the best picture in the world, but here I am just outside FOB Hope, standing on the Iraqi Army Base. I went on a mission to Hope last week, and led a worship service for soldiers stationed there.

Today is September 11th. It's hard to believe I am in Iraq for the 5th anniversary of 9-11, but I am very proud to be here. This morning we watched a documentary on 9-11 at the chapel; it was produced by a couple of filmakers trying to capture the experiences of being a rookie firefighter. They ended up being the only ones to catch the first plane hitting the WTC on video. It was a moving commentary, and it was good for all of us to watch it.

While September 11th was not conducted by Saddam Hussein, I have to say that the longer I am here, the more convinced I am that it is all connected. Freedom and the American style of democracy is crucial to the future of our world. Allowing women the right to be human beings...allowing people to be free to choose their leadership...allowing people to be free to worship God, without persecution. That is what it is about. If we can do that, it will be the single greatest deterrent to terrorism.

While this war is difficult, I believe we will prevail. You see, the enemy is simply not very good at war. In fact, they are terrible. They have no capacity to conduct a single victorious military operation, even though they are being trained by Syria and Iran. They are, however, good at randomly killing both Iraqis and American soldiers. They can launch rockets at mortars at us, but if they ever actually tried attacking an American FOB, they would be soundly defeated before they ever got close to the front "door." They can never WIN this war, but they can continue to cause pain and suffering for a time. Counter-insurgency wars are by definition lengthy wars, and it remains to be seen how long we will wait. As difficult as it may be, I pray that we are willing to remain for the long haul.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Great Comment

There is a very interesting comment someone left on my last post that refers to the conflict between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Iraqis. It is true that these three groups are having to learn how to live together in ways that are very foreign to much of their history.

However, one thing that is even more important is that the real issues are not as much with the fighting between Iraqis, but the influence of outside nations, such as Iran and Syria. I'm not saying anything that isn't public knowledge when I refer to the fact that our government has said that fighters and weapons are coming from Iran and Syria. We know this. Those two nations are quite threatened by the prospect of a free Iraq.

Iran- a predominantly Shia nation- and Syria- a predominantly Sunni nation- have a military pact with each other. The point? Shia and Sunni Muslims CAN work together. These outside influences are trying to keep Iraqis from living together peacefully.

Earlier this year, a very important Shia holy site was bombed, which sparked huge infighting between Shias and Sunnis. Some of you may have seen that we just caught the person who planned it- who also happens to be the number 2 Al Qaeda operative in Iraq. So, we have outsiders with the desire to see Sunnis and Shias fight each other because that makes it tougher for democracy to take place. This operation- Iraqi Freedom- is absolutely critical to the greater war on terror.

This afternoon, as I was walking around the FOB, I had this idea pop into my head: some day, I want to be able to take my wife to Iraq and see the historial sites. I want us to be able to walk around Baghdad. My dream is that some day Iraq will be like South Korea, Japan, or Germany; free countries... safe, prosperous and allied with like-minded nations.

I believe that the vast majority of Iraqis want the same thing. I wonder if we Americans want it enough? Do we really believe they (the Iraqis) are worth it? Do most Americans think the Iraqis are worth the sacrifice? I hope so. My faith tells me they are.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Back Online

It's been a while since I posted. We have been on communications black out- those of you in the military will know why. For those of you who have emailed me: we haven't been able to email until now, so I'm not ignoring your emails! I want you all to know it's good it is a great feeling to have so many people praying for me, and for all of the troops.

We are getting action quite a bit here, so it has kept me busy. Our soldiers are doing a great job, and working with the soldiers in this Armored Battalion makes me even more proud of the work they are doing. Suffice it to say that I cannot talk about details or operations online, but I will say this: militarily, we are winning, hands down. There is no one that can push us out of Iraq. The types of attacks the insurgents are using stems from an inability to attack our military directly, so it means mortars shot from cars, IEDs, and similar tactics. But a war cannot be lost by these means.

However, while we cannot be pushed from Iraq, we can be pulled from Iraq. What is amazing to me is that most (not all, of course, but the vast majority I speak with) of our soldiers serving over here are proud of their work, and feel that we are making a real difference. They are willing to lay their lives down for this cause, for our nation. What is interesting is that it is the people at home that are growing tired of this war. And this war cannot be won without the people at home. It isn't just the military that will get this done.

I want to encourage everyone reading this to take time to pray for the people of Iraq. They are humans, created by God, and we need to pray that democracy and freedom can take root over here. And we need to ask if we are willing to help make it happen!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Iowa Stars Hockey

I don't know how long it's going to be there, but check out the front page of the Iowa Stars Hockey team website: See "Stars Fan Overseas." Long story how the story got there!