Division chaplain travels Baghdad to watch over 1st AD's spiritual leaders
BAGHDAD, Iraq — When the flock is scattered, the shepherd must work harder to tend it.
On a recent Saturday, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Alvin Sykes, the division chaplain for the 1st Armored Division, spent the day traveling around the Iraqi capital to visit his flock — the many chaplains based at the various camps scattered throughout the city.
Sykes, who is stationed at the division’s headquarters at Baghdad International Airport, traveled by helicopter and Humvee to reach three camps where his chaplains serve the spiritual needs of soldiers. He has nine brigade chaplains and 42 battalion-level chaplains in his command.
“One of the main things is, I’m checking to see how they’re doing,” said Sykes, 47. “People think chaplains don’t get stressed out, don’t get burned out. But we do.”
Chaplains often take on the burdens of the soldiers they counsel, said Sykes, who spent the first six years of his 24-year military career as a signal unit officer.
“We absorb that as we reach out to soldiers. If not managed correctly, it can develop unhealthily in a chaplain,” he said.
More than once in Iraq, he said, chaplains have been sent away for brief respites to shake off the stress of the job. All have returned to duty.
At 2 p.m., a helicopter arrived to ferry Sykes to his flock. Joining him was Chaplain (Maj.) Neal Buckon, one of only three Catholic priests in the division who attend to the needs of nearly 10,000 Catholic soldiers in the 30,000-member task force.
After a 12-minute flight across the city, the Black Hawk helicopter settled down at Camp Muleskinner, where Buckon quickly set up for Mass in the recently whitewashed camp chapel.
“We stay pretty busy,” he said, referring to the division priests. “We go to all the [forward operating bases] and visit all the Catholic soldiers.”
From Thursday to Sunday, Buckon is on the go, celebrating Mass at various locations around the city.
“It’s a little bit of home,” Buckon said of the service. “It’s something they are familiar with from back home. It’s a good ministry. And it’s good for the soldiers.”
While soldiers drifted in for the Mass, Sykes, a Baptist, met with Chaplain (Maj.) Robert Burmeister, the head chaplain at Camp Muleskinner.
Burmeister is a member of the Army Reserve and is pastor of a Lutheran church in Spring Valley, Minn. In Iraq, he said, much of his time is spent dealing with bad news soldiers receive from back home — deaths in the family, car accidents, illnesses.
Although many soldiers come to him with everything from career concerns to spiritual questions, some remain reluctant to visit the chaplain, he said.
“Those kinds of people, sometimes the first sergeant or squad leader will bring them in,” Burmeister said. “Or they’ll get me and take me to the person.”
Each week, Sykes receives a “religious status report” from his chaplains.
The reports include everything from the number of services held to the number of soldiers who sought counseling. They also report the reason for the counseling, whether it was related to marriage, careers, spiritual concerns, battle fatigue — a total of 11 categories.
“They tell me how many soldiers they counsel in each category over a week’s time,” Sykes said.
That report is sent up the chain of command where it is scrutinized for evidence of any potential problems in the ranks.
Serving with Burmeister is Chaplain (Capt.) Steve Simpson, chaplain for the 237th Armor Battalion of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. When the main U.N. office in Baghdad was bombed in September, he went to the scene.
“I provided religious support for the dying, prayers for the dead and spiritual support for the rescue personnel,” he said.
His presence at the chaotic, tragic scene was important, he said, especially as soldiers arriving to help with the rescue were told a second bomb might be in the area.
“I feel like just the fact that I was there as a chaplain made a difference,” he said. “I think the fact that the soldiers saw the chaplain gave them a sense of security.”
As Buckon’s Mass ended Saturday, the two dozen soldiers who attended posed for a photo with the priest. Nearby, the Humvee belonging to Chaplain (Capt.) Scott Riedel, the regimental chaplain of the 2nd ACR, waited to carry the party to Camp Dragoon.
“Hang on,” said Riedel, who drove the vehicle through what he said can be dangerous streets. He wasn’t referring to the potholes.
With Riedel behind the wheel and Buckon in the front, Sykes jumped in the rear, joined by two armed soldiers, including Master Sgt. Alvin Chaplin, his chaplain’s assistant. As the vehicle left Muleskinner, the two soldiers locked and loaded and kept watch for trouble during the 15-minute ride.
Sykes, as all Army chaplains, carries no weapon. The guidance once said chaplains “should not” carry weapons, he said. That was later changed — correctly, in his estimation — to “will not.”
“It’s a contradiction,” he said of carrying weapons.
At Dragoon, Buckon prepares for his second Mass in the theater that is the camp chapel.
Riedel, a Southern Baptist, said he has performed baptisms at the camp and had several people rededicate their lives to Jesus Christ.
Soldiers at the camp have more time to think about important matters, he said to explain why so many come forward during his services. Back home, he said, there are too many distractions — shopping malls, family concerns, friends.
“Even though you are busy here and you are working, you have a lot of time to think,” he said. “Those deep penetrating questions really sink in.”
It was dark when Buckon’s Mass ended. Two vehicles waited outside the theater for a 20-minute ride to Camp Marlboro, so named because it is on the site of an old cigarette factory.
One vehicle is the “gun truck,” filled with soldiers carrying weapons. Near Sykes, again, is Chaplin with his weapon at the ready.
The ride, however, was uneventful, although dusty. Sykes was met by Chaplain (Capt.) Matthew Stuart, the squadron chaplain and a Southern Baptist. While Buckon celebrated a Mass in the chapel — a former conference room for training and large gatherings arranged like a theater — Stuart and Sykes shared dinner and thoughts.
While he eats, several soldiers greet Stuart. He said about 1,000 soldiers live at the camp, and his goal is to know each of them by their first names. He nearly does already.
“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’ve been with these guys for a year and a half — did all the train-up with them. They know me.”
He has become so much a part of their lives, he joked, that many of them no longer soften their language when in range of the chaplain’s ears.
“You have to empathize with them,” he said, a job that isn’t hard for someone who is also away from a wife and family. “Sometimes you can identify with them.”
At 8:30 p.m., Sykes’ traveling party is at the landing zone when a Black Hawk helicopter flying with no lights comes out of the nighttime sky for the ride across Baghdad to the airport.
With the doors open for the 10-minute flight, the wind from the rotors is violent, but the view is spectacular. Baghdad, a city that is dirty and crowded up close and in daylight, is beautiful at night from 1,000 feet, a city of golden lights racing off into the darkness.
Back at the airport, Sykes walks across the poorly lit base with the ease of someone who knows every piece of broken pavement, every strand of concertina wire.
He is a shepherd returning home with the assurance that the flock is doing well.