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New Horizons

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Jonathan C. Gibbs III

As an Army chaplain, providing religious support to soldiers in combat is what you constantly train for. At the same time, though, you pray that war with its sorrows will never come.

On the night of March 26, 2003, I was in an Air Force C-17 flying over Iraq, straining to stand up straight under the weight of my parachute and equipment, waiting for the green "jump light" to come on, and praying that I, and the paratroopers surrounding me, would survive the war that had in fact come. As the brigade chaplain for the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, the "Sky Soldiers," I was participating in the brigade's airborne assault on the Harir Airfield in northern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Our five-hour flight from Italy to Iraq ended, I offered up a final petition for safety and success, and then stepped out of the aircraft door into a pitch-black night sky and the unknown. We had been told that the drop zone would be "semi-permissive," meaning that no one was expected to be shooting at us. It was that "semi" that had most of us concerned.

Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is an inherently risky proposition under any circumstances. Injuries are always anticipated in airborne operations. My battalion chaplains and I stayed busy through the early morning hours praying with and comforting injured paratroopers as they were brought to the aid stations. As it turned out, no one was shooting at us, but conditions on the drop zone were terrible.

Constant rain over the previous two weeks had turned the ground into a quagmire of knee-deep mud. There was no shelter of any kind, not even a single tree. Near freezing temperatures and renewed rain made the night particularly wretched for those casualties with leg or back injuries. Unable to move around to keep warm, they lay on stretchers or sat huddled on the airstrip Tarmac soaking wet, caked with mud, and wrapped in emergency blankets. The words of Jesus, "For I was naked and you clothed me," ran through my mind as I gave my rain trousers to a shivering trooper who was literally half-naked under his blanket. The medics had cut the legs off of his pants to treat his injuries. His rucksack, with his rain gear and spare uniform, was lost in the mud. It was a long, miserable night, but the brigade accomplished its mission and secured the airfield.

The worship services we held a few days later on our first Lord's Day in Iraq were conducted in the open fields and were well attended. Most who came wanted to offer thanks and praise for having survived the jump and for the sun finally shining, significantly improving our "quality of life." The old saying, "There are no atheists in a foxhole," was proven true again, as many troopers who would never darken the door of a church back home came to the services out of anxiety over the news that we would soon be in the fight further south. Some heard the gospel preached for the first time in their lives. Some outwardly accepted the invitation to come to the Savior.

On April 10 we moved south, along with Army Special Forces teams and Kurdish "peshmerga" militia forces, and occupied the strategic oil city of Kirkuk, establishing our headquarters on a military air base. Weeks of heavy bombing by the Air Force had demoralized the Iraqi Army units there, and their defense rapidly collapsed as we moved on the city. Entire Iraqi divisions abandoned tanks, equipment, and even uniforms as they ran away. Our first night was tense, as looters ran rampant and the sounds of automatic weapons fire and explosions filled the air.

The next day, as the brigade began taking control of the city, my chaplain assistant and I scouted the compound for a suitable location to set up chapel operations. The Lord provided for us abundantly, as we found a building that had been used as a training classroom. Looters had stripped it of everything of value, even tearing the electrical fixtures out of the walls, but it was ideally suited to our needs. We spent days removing trash and debris, sweeping up broken glass and plaster, and making what repairs we could. Turning "swords into plowshares," we furnished it with a pulpit and chancel furniture fashioned out of ammunition boxes we found in a looted supply depot. An abandoned Iraqi Army helmet was put to new use as a baptismal font. Old classroom chairs and benches were converted into "pews."

"Sky Soldiers Chapel," as we affectionately dubbed our new home, was officially "open for business" on April 20, Easter Sunday. I have conducted many Easter services in my ministry, but none more memorable than the ones we celebrated there in those humble surroundings. The occasional firefights that we could hear going on in the city as we worshiped were a sobering reminder of the death and destruction that surrounded us. The message of God's Word proclaiming the reality of the Resurrection reassured us that the One we were worshiping is the Lord and giver of life, and that through him death has lost its victory. In the weeks and months that followed, the chapel became the center for the worship life of the brigade as we conducted three services every Sunday and additional services during the week.

The brigade suffered its first combat fatality since the Vietnam War on May 3. The words of Psalm 91 that I used as the text for my message at the memorial ceremony two days later reminded us all that life is but a fleeting moment and that we need to use the days appointed to us by God wisely and to his glory. Although the major combat phase of the war was over, we continued to suffer casualties from Saddam loyalists: ambushes, mines, and even from a hand grenade thrown by a ten-year-old boy. We provided pastoral care and religious support to all our wounded paratroopers before they were evacuated to medical facilities in Kuwait and Germany.

Those who receive physical wounds in combat are not the only ones affected. Military units are tightly knit teams, families in a very real sense. When one member is hurt, it impacts the whole team emotionally and psychologically. Left unrecognized and unresolved, the stress of such trauma can sometimes lead to physical or psychological problems, such as "combat fatigue" or post-traumatic stress syndrome. We conducted numerous group trauma debriefings and met with many troopers individually for prayer and counseling as they dealt with loss and grief.

Pastoral counseling was one of my most effective ministries in both practical and spiritual terms. Soldiers often seek out the chaplain when they have issues or problems, because they know that what they say to us is confidential and will not be revealed to their commanders or supervisors. Counseling provides many opportunities for gospel witness to soldiers, as you can often show them how their problems really stem from disobedience to God and challenge them with their need for a true, saving relationship with him. I had the joy of seeing several paratroopers come to the Savior in repentance and faith as a result of such counseling.

In July, I received orders to my current position in Germany as the deputy division chaplain for the 1st Infantry Division—the "Big Red One" of World War II fame. The division will deploy to Iraq soon [This was written on January 6, 2004—Ed.]. I pray that the Lord will again use me for fruitful ministry with this historic and proud unit as I return to Iraq.

Sometimes terrible things happen in war that you pray to forget, but there are also memories you treasure for the rest of your life. I hope that one day I'll be able to forget the mass graves we found of Kurds murdered by the Hussein regime, the torture rooms at the secret police headquarters we occupied, and the heartbreaking sight of grievously wounded young soldiers. But singing God's praises in the muddy fields of Kurdistan, proclaiming the risen Savior from my ammunition box pulpit at Sky Soldiers Chapel, and kneeling in prayer in the land that Abraham knew as "Ur of the Chaldees" with the rock-hard, steely-eyed paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne who met Jesus there, are memories I will always treasure.

Please continue to pray for the physical and spiritual welfare of all of our service personnel deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Lord has his people in the military and he is actively working through them even in the midst of the sorrows of war.

The author, an OP minister, is the deputy division chaplain for the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, operating in Iraq. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2004.

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