Military Chaplains—a Ministry of Presence5 min read

In 2003, which was the year of the War in Iraq, I served as the Battalion Chaplain for the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion located in Camp Pendleton, Calif. The general of our division chose our battalion for a special role in Operation Iraqi Freedom. We were given the mission to be the diversionary force for the rest of the division as they moved to Baghdad. The task for this group of 300 Marines was to move from Kuwait to Bagdad through Iraqi towns giving the impression that other American troops were coming that way. Without additional weaponized support, we were to get the Iraqi Army to send their troops to battle us while the rest of the division moved expeditiously to Bagdad.

One of our earliest military encounters took place at a town called An-Nasiriyah. As we approached the town, we could hear AK 47’s and mortars. We were directed off the highway down into an area off the bridge where we would be positioned for battle. In the midst of our battle formation, my bodyguard and I were placed in the triage area with Navy corpsmen who would provide medical care for the wounded or dying. There were 4 stations in the triage area. We were placed in station 4, where Marines who could not recover from their injuries would be placed.

Our position was close to two other companies prepared for battle—approximately 50 yards away. In about 15 minutes you could see muzzle flashes coming from our 9:00 position (left). The Marines responded to this attack. Within another 5 minutes, enemy troops had moved to our 12:00 position (front) to pinch us in. While my bodyguard and I were watching the exchange, one of the senior enlisted men had ducked, walked his way to us, and said, “Chaplain, it’s about to get real tight in here; you all need to start digging trenches.” So my bodyguard and I began digging a trench for ourselves lying on our sides as gunfire was taking place. We could hear the Marines shouting, “They’re trying to outflank us.” As I looked up to see what was happening, I saw these Marines shift seamlessly in the middle of the battlefield from the left to the right to counter the attack. As we were still digging our trench, we heard another battle status which made the hairs on my neck rise. Someone shouted, “There is a tank coming up on our 3:00 o’clock!” Why was this serious? This was serious because our battalion was made up of only Humvees, and some of them didn’t have doors. As I’m looking at all of this I’m praying, “Lord, hold the line.”

The commotion from the battle was immense. We dug feverishly to get depth for our trenches. In the midst of my digging, my bodyguard began tapping me on my shoulder and I shouted, “What?” I looked into his eyes and he said, “Look.” I turned my head and saw what looked like the attack helicopter, the SuperCobra, descend near our location and send out a missile which took out the tank. You could hear the companies release loud shouts of “Yea, get some!” In an instant, the attack was repelled and enemy troops began to withdraw. We were instructed to gather our gear and get back into the transport trucks and head into the town.

When we entered the town, this is where we saw the carnage. Our battalion responded by looking to help Iraqi citizens who had been forced into buses and fired upon by hostile forces. A day later, after we had a chance to provide medical support, we moved out.

Several days later we were in another location after driving in a convoy. As the sun was setting, the companies posted security. At one of the checkpoints there were eight Marines. A car approached their location. One of the challenges of being in Iraq was that the Marines did not speak Arabic or Farsi. They were waving off the driver as to say, “Go another direction.” The driver continued advancing. The Marines continued using physical motions indicating that the driver should stop. He didn’t comply. As he sped toward them, the Marines shot with their M-16’s because this was perceived as a hostile attack. The vehicle slowly came to a halt.

As the passengers exited, a couple of men staggered out of the car. A third man came out. In his arms he was carrying a little girl. The girl, we learned a little later, was his daughter. She succumbed to her wound. Needless to say, even though these were Marines, they were devastated.

Hours later, after I had talked with the commanding officer, I went to meet with the two groups of Marines who had been affected by this event. Part of my responsibility in situations like this was to provide Critical Incident Stress Debriefing sessions. It was during this CISD that I had the opportunity to listen and to walk through what had transpired with the Marines. During that session I was also able to listen and learn from them about their mission and responsibility to each other. It was during that time that I was able to offer grace, support, and understanding, as each had to wrestle within themselves the ramifications of their actions, the mission, and the loss.

These are a couple of moments which God allows for us chaplains to live out a “ministry of presence” and to be proclaimers of hope and grace in complicated scenarios which war brings. It was an honor to serve with and among the Marines engaged in their global mission as I lived out the Missio Dei in my life.

We thank God for all military chaplains and all those who have served or still serve our country. This Memorial Day weekend, we especially remember those who have given their lives in the armed forces. The LCMS Operation Barnabas is a network of care to our nation’s military members, veterans, and  families. To find our how they can assist your congregation in reaching out to veterans and their families in your community, click here.

Photo © gorodenkoff/iStock

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About the Author

Rev. Christopher Bodley is Missionary-at-large in Detroit for A2E for the Michigan District, LCMS and pastor of Bethany, Detroit.

More by This Author

Bill Storm - May 26, 2023

I served in Vietnam 68-69 A Corpsman 1st MAW Mag 13 Chu Lai.

Thank you for your service to our country!

Carlyn Roth - May 27, 2023

Thank you for sharing, Pastor Bodley. Your story opens our eyes to the danger many face when they agree to protect and serve their country. We thank the Lord for protecting your life. May our hearts be filled with thanksgiving to our Lord for the many who faithfully serve to keep our country safe many giving the ultimate sacrifice.

David J. McCarty - May 30, 2023

What a blessing our military personnel are for us as citizens of these United States. God bless our men and women in the Armed Forces.