The Chaplains

Posted: Mar 26, 2005 12:00 AM

"Blessed Be the Lord ... Who Trains My Arms for Battle" -- Psalm 144:1

 "The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be." -- Father Tim Vakoc, Army chaplain

 WASHINGTON, D.C. -- War can bring out the worst in man. The crucible of combat tests one's faith in self, in fellow man -- even faith in God.
It is particularly so in this war on terror -- where at any moment a brutal, suicidal and fanatical enemy can blow himself to pieces just to kill an American. Yet on Easter Sunday in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our troops brave these dangers daily, tens of thousands of young Americans will attend Resurrection services, where they will pray for their enemies. Those who lead those Easter rituals, the holiest in Christendom, are garbed in the same sun-bleached camouflage as the troops kneeling before them. We call them chaplains. They are part of what make us "different" from our enemy -- and they are a remarkable lot.

 My wife and I were married before a Navy Chaplain assigned to the Marine Base at Quantico. When I was wounded in Vietnam, it was Cmdr. Jake Laboon, our regimental chaplain, who called out "take this one next," as the triage corpsmen ran in to get another litter patient for emergency surgery.

 Chaplains Bob Beddingfield and Don Dulligan spent months in the field with my Marines -- braving enemy fire to minister to them. As our children were born, other chaplains baptized them in chapels around the country. To say that these "men of the cloth" were an important part of my life in the service would be an understatement. And so it is today for the young Americans I see on my trips to Southwest Asia.

 The chaplains in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and offshore in the Persian Gulf -- are cut from the same bolt of "cloth" as those I recall from my days in uniform. They minister to a "flock" -- one of the youngest in the world -- full of Americans only a few months out of high school, all of whom are scared, whether they show it or not.

 By the time these "parishioners" return to the United States, they will have confronted more suffering and death -- and had more responsibility -- than their civilian contemporaries will experience the rest of their lives. Yet, if the statistics are right, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have a lower incidence of "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome" than any troops in history. Thanks for that should go, in part, to the chaplains.

 Two years ago this week, I was covering the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force for Fox News as they battled their way north toward Baghdad. In the aftermath of furious gunfights, I saw chaplains tending the wounded, comforting friends of the fallen and encouraging the weary. On numerous occasions, I've heard chaplains like Carey Cash, Frank Holley and Brian Weigelt remind young warriors that -- despite the horror of combat, the incredible fatigue and the terrifying sights, sounds and smells of war -- the God who made them did not intend that they descend into savagery.

 After the capture of Baghdad and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, the true nature of our opponent became evident. Iraq was flooded with foreign "jihadists" like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who encouraged brutal, inhuman atrocities in an effort to break the spirit of the Iraqi people -- and the Americans who had come to offer them the hope of freedom. The "slaughter houses" in Fallujah -- where American, Iraqi and other hostages were beheaded by masked terrorists posing for cameras -- exemplify the stark difference between "us" and "them."

 After a Marine-Army assault liberated the city from the terrorists who had ruled it for months, Chaplain Bill Divine told a group of Marines at a memorial service for their fallen comrades, "There is nothing more Christian than what we are doing here."

 Liberal critics of military chaplains take statements like that out of a spiritual context and try to give it a secular intent. But Devine wasn't making a political statement -- nor one intended to enflame the passions of Islamic radicals who hate Christians and Jews. Rather, his words refer to the mission of ridding the country of those who would prevent the Iraqi people from ever enjoying their God-given freedom. Who better to give that message than a chaplain -- and who better to receive it than those who had just paid a terrible price vanquishing real evil?

 Thankfully, the detractors have not yet had their day. We've had military chaplains since the Continental Congress created them on July 29, 1775, at the request of George Washington. "By God's grace" -- words Washington used more than once -- we have had great chaplains ministering to our warriors -- and setting an example -- in every war and conflict since. Often, their example reminds us of what Easter is all about.

 On Feb. 1, 1943, the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Greenland. Four chaplains -- one Jewish, two Protestant and one Roman Catholic -- distributed life jackets to those unable to make it into lifeboats. When the jackets ran out, they gave their own to the next four soldiers in line. The four chaplains were among the 672 who perished in the icy waters. Their sacrifice allowed others to live and still inspires others to better lives.

 Today, Father Tim Vakoc, quoted above, slips in and out of a coma. Last May, while ministering to U.S. soldiers near Mosul, he suffered a terrible head injury when his Humvee hit an Improvised Explosive Device. Vakoc was the first chaplain wounded in Iraq. He, too, was living the meaning Easter.