Left seat ride
I am excited and I am scared. I am on fire for God . . .
—Army Chaplain Roger Benimoff just before start of his second deployment to Iraq
Maybe it was just another example of how war can warp your judgment, or at least how it warped mine. But I didn’t question the impossibility of leading a prayer for forty people in less than sixty seconds. Forty members of our senior command and staff had crammed into a yellow tent at our new base, Camp Sykes, a crumbling, former Iraqi airbase on the outskirts of the ancient city of Tal Afar. We were not in friendly territory.
Tucked into Iraq’s most northern corner, Tal Afar was an insurgent’s haven. With its dizzying labyrinth of alleyways and beehive housing blocs, the remote city was the perfect place to stockpile weapons from bordering Syria. Hidden in those alleys just 10 kilometers from us were hundreds, if not thousands, of AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), improvised explosive devices, and antitank mines. Managing that arsenal was a growing army of technologically savvy Iraqi and foreign fighters who were, to put it mildly, displeased with our recent arrival.
First impressions always stick. I had one minute to assure these men and women, their metal chairs propped unevenly on the vinyl tent floor, that I was capable of being their spiritual and personal counselor for the next ten months. These were the people who made decisions that could spell life or death for the soldiers convoying “outside the wire” of our base and into Tal Afar. In the coming months it was likely some of these officers would be injured or killed, and we all knew it. If previous deployments were any guide, others might cave from emotional or mental stress and need to be airlifted out. There would be wives or husbands back home who would divorce them by satellite phone or e-mail. We all knew the stakes. We just didn’t know who would be lucky and who wouldn’t.
“Chaplain, let’s begin the meeting,” offered Lieutenant Colonel Harrison. He was the deputy commander of our regiment, in charge of northern operations as more than six thousand soldiers, with attached units, shifted north from Baghdad to Tal Afar to stamp out the growing insurgency here. This had all been so hastily put together; just two weeks earlier we were settling down close to Baghdad when suddenly we were sent up North. We hadn’t trained or planned for this region, and our base wasn’t yet equipped for the type of military offenses that would be asked of our soldiers in the coming months.
Nor were we prepared on the spiritual level. When operations were set up at Camp Sykes, we’d have thousands of soldiers but only four chaplains, three Protestant and one Catholic. I would be the only chaplain for my squadron of a thousand soldiers. For now, I was also the acting regimental chaplain until my superior, Chaplain David Causey, arrived in two weeks.
“Brave Rifles, Sir,” I replied to Harrison. That was our motto in the Third Armored Cavalry. When approaching another cavalry soldier, you had to say “Brave Rifles,” and the other had to respond with “Veterans.” That dated back to 1847 when Gen. Winfield Scott, rallying the troops during the capture of Mexico City exclaimed, “Brave Rifles! Veterans! You have been baptized in fire and blood and have come out steel.” Sitting there in that vinyl tent that April morning, I did not suspect that in the next ten months I would also be baptized in blood. But it would be the blood of others, and I would not come out like steel.
I did know that my tongue was dry and my palms were sweating, even if the brutally hot days when soldiers joked about the “dry” 120-degree heat were still months away. At thirty-two, I was one of the Army’s youngest chaplains, but after a short break in Fort Carson, Colorado, was starting my second tour in Iraq. I should have felt experienced, instead, I was petrified. I had already started ministering to the troops at Camp Sykes—one of our soldiers had been killed near Bagdad, and one of our Bradley crews had been hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED,—but I had yet to minister to our senior command. Forty officers from the regiment and subordinate squadrons, exhausted and harried, were looking to me for a momentary escape from their personal worries and from the complicated logistics of getting our squadron trained up to replace the outgoing one.
There I was with sixty seconds to give my first regimental Word of the Day. I cleared my throat and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper from my chest pocket. It was a story I had copied from a fellow chaplain, a sketch about a reporter interviewing God.
“If God granted 60 Minutes an interview, what would he say? When asked what surprises him most about mankind, He says it’s that people are in a rush to grow up and then long to be children again; that they lose their health to make money and then lose their money to restore their health. When asked what are the most important lessons of life, he says he’d like people to learn that it takes years to build trust and only a few seconds to destroy it. That a rich person is not the one who has the most but who needs the least. That it’s not enough to forgive others. People must also learn to forgive themselves.”
I looked up and tried to make eye contact with the men and women surrounding me. I had their attention. With only sixty seconds allotted to prayer, none of them could argue I was wasting too much of their time. I could smell the cheap plastic of our temporary shelter, momentary protection from the dry winds and organizational chaos outside. I took a deep breath and did my best to squeeze the high points of ten theology books into my remaining twenty seconds. “Many of us climb a ladder in life only to look down and discover we’re on top of the wrong building. Think today about the building you are trying to scale, about what is most important to you in life. Please take a moment to do that.” I now had ten extra seconds for a short prayer.
“And now let’s pray. God, we ask you to watch over our regiment and to protect those who are still moving north from Baghdad. Hold us in your hands and help us keep our eyes on you. Amen.”
I don’t know whether I convinced the officers I was someone they could trust, but for some reason—perhaps the relief of finishing my first Word of the Day for the regimental command and staff—I felt incredibly hopeful, both for myself and for them.
There had been deaths in my first deployment—more than forty in the regiment—but the Army was learning and improving all the time. And so was I. I was learning how to counsel men and women in a war zone. These were people who were losing friends to snipers and wives to other men, often during the same week. Elation and despair. Life and death. Sixty-second prayers. A whole lifetime’s worth of problems could descend on a person in the course of one deployment. In war, everything is accelerated.
The meeting in the tent went on for another hour or so, a familiar and intricate barrage of army talk on combat operations, communications, equipment status, intelligence, and personnel. When it wrapped up we all stood to salute the clearly exhausted Lieutenant Colonel and soon the tent was a churning sea of camouflage. That’s when I noticed a soldier walk into the tent toward Harrison. I was about 10 feet away and couldn’t hear what the soldier told him, but I saw his face flinch and then tighten. The colonel’s brown eyes scanned the room, looking for someone, quickly settling on me as he issued my first order, “Chaplain, get over to your squadron right now—there might be casualties. . . .”
I don’t remember what else he said because I was already running. We had only been on our base eleven days and already there were casualties? I had heard that the outgoing squadron hadn’t been varying its entrances and exits to the city when they convoyed, meaning they were easier targets for insurgents. Please God, I thought, don’t let this have been caused by a lack of planning, I ran 150 meters to our Tactical Operations Center. They had heard the incident might have involved a Stryker vehicle and an IED. I was moving quickly but I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach and anvils had been tied to my feet. Somewhere a whistle blew and the race began.
When it rains in Iraq, the sand immediately turns into mud, more like quicksand than the packed crystals you might leisurely track your footsteps through at the beach. The Army was, by now, well versed in the ways of this Iraqi mud. That’s why, as I raced toward the chapel and my parked Hummer, I had to hop my way across thousands of small rocks scattered around the base as step- ping stones. I dashed under a concrete arc designed to block mortar attacks aimed at the chapel—my home, my office, and my sanctuary—before reaching my Hummer. I prayed a silent thank-you when I saw Specialist Andrew Seng, my assistant and bodyguard, standing by it with his 9-millimeter in a holster and his M16 draped over his shoulder. The aid station was on the other side of the camp in an aircraft hangar set up with tents for triage, sick call, and surgeries. It wasn’t far away and we felt our camp was secure. But we had just convoyed up from a base that was mortared the day I arrived, so I took nothing for granted and it was a relief to have Seng by my side. I was in a unique position here. Even though my rank was Army captain, a pocketknife was the most lethal object I was allowed to hold. Chaplains are never allowed to carry weapons, and that’s a good thing. I wasn’t in Iraq to fight. But I still felt awfully vulnerable.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Faith Under Fire by Roger Benimoff with Eve Conant. Copyright © 2009 by Roger Benimoff. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.