GI in Kuwait finds strength in field baptism
March 16, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — As a sandy tempest raged all around him, Sgt. Robert Pawloski emerged smiling from the makeshift pool soaking wet and spiritually reborn.
He had been baptized in the desert, a tradition dating back 2,000 years to Jesus and John the Baptist.
“As the sand was going and the wind was blowing, I was thinking how cold it was going to be,” Pawloski recalled a few days later. “As soon as I got in, it wasn’t cold anymore.”
Chaplain (Capt.) Celestene Robb, pushed him underneath the water for a moment, then helped him up again. A crowd of well-wishers — including Lt. Col. Mike Barbee, Pawloski’s squadron commander, and Col. William Wolf, the regimental commander — congratulated him and sang, “Wade in the Water,” a traditional baptismal song.
Pawloski, 30, of the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, had been in the desert three weeks when he decided early this month it was time to rededicate his life to God.
“I walked past the chaplain; she was setting up for a Catholic service,” Pawloski said. “Something came over me. I asked her if she could save me and baptize me.”
He had grown up in a churchgoing Southern Baptist family in Jacksonville, Ark., but religion had fallen into the background since he joined the Army 12 years ago.
In recent years, Pawloski had gone through a bad divorce but was happy to emerge with a new marriage to his current wife, Kerry, and custody of his four children, Kameron, Branden, Megan and Mercedes.
“I forgot where I came from, my roots, and I needed to stop being so self-contained,” he said. “It was something I had to do, whether it was Texas or Carolina or here. I just felt like it was time to turn to the Lord.”
Robb, 44, was delighted, and she immediately agreed to help. She has been an ordained minister of the Ohio-based Pentecostal Assemblies of the Word Inc. and had served a congregation in Stony Creek, Va., before joining the Army four years ago.
While she has performed many baptisms (one of them in a swimming pool just before the 6-6 Cavalry left its home base of Illesheim, Germany, for Kuwait in February), neither she nor any of the chaplains she spoke with had ever done one in the field.
“This is what our work is about, bringing God to the soldiers,” Robb said. “That’s the greatest accomplishment any chaplain could have — to help someone be born again.”
Baptism is an important part of Christian religious tradition, symbolizing purity and rebirth. According to the Bible, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry. The Gospel of John says that man must be reborn of water as well as spirit to enter the Kingdom of God.
“It’s an important element of our walk in faith with Christ,” Robb said.
A plastic baptismal pool liner is a standard part of a chaplain’s deployment kit. She detailed some engineers to dig a hole 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep. She scheduled the baptism for Friday, five days after Pawloski approached her. She reluctantly delayed it a day because of a lightning storm.
She placed the liner in pool the next day. Despite the sandstorm, Robb directed some 6-6 Cavalry soldiers to fill the pool with bottles of drinking water that had passed the expiration date. It took 250 gallons.
The visitors sang and listened to Pawloski’s profession of faith before his immersion.
“As I was standing out there, singing songs, I knew it was what I really wanted to do,” he said.
Robb said baptism doesn’t automatically make someone a religious person. It’s a beginning, not an end. Newly baptized Christians need support from their friends and family, and she asked the guests at Pawloski’s baptism to give it to him.
“People who don’t believe will look at you different. They think you’re a different person, that you’re more religious now,” Pawloski said. “But it’s a work in progress. You have to take it step by step.”
Robb said many desert services include an “altar call,” in which the chaplain calls forward worshippers who want to renew their faith. She hopes now to follow up more of those with baptisms.
“One thing about wartime: Everybody wants to get religion. The immediacy of death makes people think about God, think about their lives,” she said.
“There’s a conviction that people need to get their lives in order, to be spiritually ready before we cross the berm.”