FORWARD OPERATING BASE MACKENZIE, Iraq — When the back end of Spc. Derrick Lawson’s Bradley fighting vehicle jumped from the force of the explosion, he thought of one thing to do.

“I saw the smoke and the flames, and I knew we’d been hit,” said Lawson, 21, of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment. “My first reaction was to start praying.”

The Bradley lurched to a halt, its driver already dead. Amid the screaming, shouting, confusion and thickening smoke, Lawson saw his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Metoyer Jordan, struggling with the jammed rear hatch. He closed his eyes and desperately said a second prayer.

Someone answered.

“Then I looked up, and the door was open,” Lawson said, 3½ months after the July 21 attack. “I just jumped out and ran down the street.”

Walking daily through the valley of the shadow of death has not necessarily produced a lot of road-to-Damascus religious conversions among combat troops, chaplains, say. But it has pushed some back toward the religion of their youth.

“Every individual fortifies themselves in different ways,” said Capt. Gary Fisher, 39, of Alexandria, La., the 1-4 Cavalry’s chaplain. “A lot of life’s questions are being asked and answered.”

Lawson spent some time in the hospital recovering from smoke inhalation and burns before returning to duty. He’s had a lot of time to reflect. He attended church with his family growing up in Spring Lake, N.C., but God has taken a more central place in his life now.

“It was a wake-up call. You can go at any time,” Lawson said. “I’m in an environment where, every day, people are out there trying to kill me. (Now) I do things differently. I try to be a better person.”

Sgt. Orville Whitlock, 30, of Lynchburg, Va., is squad leader for a 9th Engineer Battalion platoon attached to the 1-4 Cavalry. On May 5, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his Humvee. Shrapnel injured Whitlock and the four other soldiers inside, but no one died.

“I’m thankful to God that nothing worse happened than that,” Whitlock said. “Before I go out the gate, I say a silent prayer that we get through everything we experience.”

“I pray more in Iraq than I have in years,” said Capt. John Trylch, 30, of Los Angeles, commander of the 1-4 Cavalry’s Troop B “Bulldawgs.”

Spc. Steve Wetmore, 20, of Union City, Pa., serves in Whitlock’s engineer platoon. He said he doesn’t go to church, but he does believe in God.

To hedge his bets, he wears a cross on his dog tags.

Under fire, Wetmore said, he thinks about his job more than religion. Two weeks ago, he was manning a traffic checkpoint when rebels fired mortar rounds directly at their position.

“When we got mortared the other day,” he said. “The last thing I was thinking about was praying.”

Spc. Jose Bartual, 26, of New York City, said he is a nonpracticing Roman Catholic, but he comes from a religious family. He’s been in several intense firefights and survived the explosion of a bomb underneath his armored personnel carrier.

“My 8-year-old niece won’t let a day go by that she isn’t praying for me," Bartual said. In fact, the girl worried so much that after his midtour leave her family told her he wasn’t returning to Iraq.

Sgts. Eduardo Colon and Carlos Torres both are 25 and both grew up in Puerto Rico. Now they both serve with Trylch in the 1-4 Cavalry’s B Troop, based in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Together they’ve dodged bullets and survived roadside bombs. They also share a fatalistic philosophy about life and death and combat.

“I believe,” Torres said, “if it’s your time, it’s your time.”

“I pray to God and whatnot, but I don’t go to church,” Colon said. “But when I get back, I’m going to start.”

Pfc. Joshua Schmidt, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., arrived in Iraq last spring without religion. But after surviving a mine strike, an RPG attack, and several gun battles, he’s beginning to wonder.

“I was agnostic when I first came down here,” said Schmidt, of the 9th Engineers. “I’d still say I’m agnostic, but I definitely believe he’s out there.

“I’m either damn lucky,” he added, “or somebody’s looking out for me.”

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