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It’s the summer of 2007, and several soldiers are gathered around a Bradley fighting vehicle parked in a motor pool at Camp Ramadi in Iraq.

Music booms, sunglasses are on, jackets are off and the midday temperature is well above the century mark. The men labor to change a pair of metal vehicle tracks, worn thin on the hard streets of Iraq.

Into this scene strolls Capt. Douglas Downs, the battalion chaplain.

He banters a bit with the guys and then removes his uniform top, grabs a sledgehammer and gets to work, pounding pins into a newly installed track. The soldiers exchange glances, but Downs is nailing everything, so they let him swing away.

"I kept trying to get the sledgehammer back from him," recalled Staff Sgt. David Hendryx of Schweinfurt, Germany. "He wasn’t afraid to get down to our level and do some grunt work."

In ways large and small, public and private, straightforward and subtle, military chaplains influence a lot of people.

Their impact can be felt during Sunday service, in a private chat or in a garage with GIs working on a vehicle in a faraway land.

These days, no assignment carries more weight with chaplains than a tour to Iraq or Afghanistan, where most servicemembers featured in this section performed their heroics.

More than 450 U.S. military chaplains serve downrange, two-thirds of them in the Army. As a rule, chaplains don’t come armed. Yet they expose themselves to many of the same dangers that bedevil their brothers and sisters in arms.

"We are near to soldiers wherever they go," said Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, chief of Army chaplains.

"George Washington had chaplains in the military," observed Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin, the Air Force chief of chaplains. "It’s just part of the military heritage."

Several military chaplains have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, notably Army Chaplain (Maj.) Tim Vakoc, a Catholic priest gravely injured by a roadside bomb four years ago.

Vakoc is one of several military chaplains to have received a Purple Heart. And at least four Army chaplains, all with special operations units, have been awarded medals with "V" devices, according to Lt. Col. Mark Nordstrom, the plans and operations officer for the U.S. Army Europe command chaplain in Heidelberg, Germany.

Nordstrom, a Protestant minister, has served two tours in Iraq, including the 2003 invasion, when he was the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division chaplain. He doubts he’ll ever forget the third day of the war, when his convoy got ambushed north of Nasariyah near Samawah, and a vicious firefight ensued.

"I was close enough to see the guys who were trying to kill me," Nordstrom remembered as he sat in his Heidelberg office.

"You could hear and see the bullets and [rocket-propelled grenades]. Thank God they were not good shots."

Because they are unarmed, chaplains aren’t likely to engage in valorous acts, where mettle and might and an M-16 might help them win a combat medal. That traditionally affords them a degree of security from the enemy — though not always.

One chaplain, for instance, was shot by a sniper just a few months ago, Nordstrom said.

"They get right up there with the soldiers," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade in Schweinfurt, Germany. "A chaplain, to be effective, must understand the same stresses that soldiers are exposed to, and to do that they must be there."

On rare occasions, they cross a line they are not meant to cross.

In April 2003, a battalion chaplain with the 3rd Infantry Division caught hell for using an M-16 when his unit came under fire. If there is a cardinal sin on the battlefield for chaplains, that’s it.

Taking part in armed conflict "is not their job," said Capt. Brian Miletich, a member of Miska’s battalion. "Their job is taking care of the emotional and moral well-being of the force."

Soldiers say the best chaplains are the approachable ones. They are men and women of faith who inspire and comfort, teach and listen. An effective chaplain, Miletich said, is skilled at reading people and events, adjusting accordingly.

Chaplains "have incredible mental and emotional agility," he said.

Downrange, whenever a life is lost or hanging in the balance, a chaplain is usually nearby, praying over the shoulders of medical personnel.

Last summer, Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Onyema Okorie was an hour away from celebrating Sunday Mass when he was summoned to bless the body of a dying soldier. The troop had been badly burned by a roadside bomb.

"I gave last rites, stayed and prayed, placing my hand on the charred body for close to 40 minutes, until he took his precious last breath," Okorie recalled. "Thereafter, I left to conduct the Catholic Mass, with my hand still smelling strong from the burnt body."

Okorie said it was emotionally hard to shift gears so quickly, but he did.

"You always have to have enough in the tank for the next guy, because you never know what is coming next," said Maj. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, the Army’s first Muslim chaplain.

Because chaplains follow uniformed personnel into battle, they are as susceptible to post-traumatic stress syndrome and mild traumatic brain injuries as the next guy, Carver and Nordstrom said. Carver’s deputy, Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Don Rutherford, the former USAEUR and 7th Army command chaplain, got his bell rung in 2005 when his Stryker hit a roadside bomb.

Most Army chaplains have served two tours, so like any soldier they have tales to tell. But there are stories they can tell, and stories they cannot.

"We are the keepers and carriers of their stories," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Read, the deputy command chaplain at USAREUR.

Nordstrom spoke of a soldier who needed to pray with him one stormy night during the 2003 ground invasion. The kid from Kansas City was trying to deal with a family tragedy back home.

When Nordstrom was done, the soldier, clad in chemical gear, thanked him, turned around and disappeared into a dust storm like some spirit.

History of honor

Perhaps the most celebrated account of selfless service in the U.S. military chaplaincy occurred in World War II, and is known simply as the "Four Chaplains."

Torpedoed by a German U-boat, the USAT Dorchester was sinking in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland. It was nighttime, early February 1943. The four chaplains aboard — a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers — comforted the wounded, helped soldiers and sailors evacuate the ship, and willingly handed their life jackets to those who had none. The ship sank in just 18 minutes. Survivors recall seeing the four chaplains "arm-in-arm in prayer on the hull of the ship" as the end neared.

"As I swam away from the ship, I looked back," one survivor recounted. "The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again."

In 1960, Congress honored the four chaplains posthumously by creating the Special Medal for Heroism. It was presented the following year. Apparently, Congress wanted to give them the Medal of Honor, but couldn’t due to the strict requirement for "heroism performed under fire." The Special Medal for Heroism has not been awarded since.

Sources: Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, Library of Congress

— Kevin Dougherty


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