FALLUJAH, Iraq — Sure, there are no atheists in foxholes, but just what’s a modern-day grunt supposed to believe in when all the foxholes have been replaced by Humvees?
Marine 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger has the answer.
For roughly three months now, Grainger has been the chief prophet, preacher and proselytizer of a tongue-in-cheek creed he invented to boost the spirits of Marines locked in an increasingly frustrating “three-block war” in this onetime insurgent stronghold.
“You know, it’s kind of like Tom Cruise’s Scientology,” said the 40-year-old veteran of seven deployments. “Only this religion is called Americantology.”
Ever since the Enfield, Conn., resident held his first “service” on the rooftop of a bullet-pocked and sandbagged outpost in downtown Fallujah, the gospel of Americantology has spread like white phosphorous through the ranks of Company C, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, “New England’s Own.”
“Americantology? It’s awesome,” said Lance Cpl. Brian Giessler as he and his 1st Platoon buddies took cover from sniper fire a kilometer east of the notorious Blackwater Bridge on Wednesday. “Everybody loves it.”
The reserve infantry unit, which is based in Plainville, Conn., falls under the command of Regimental Combat Team 5 and is responsible for keeping the peace in some of the worst neighborhoods this city has to offer. Marines here have fallen under attack from snipers, roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
“We’ve seen it all,” said Cpl. Jordan Pierson, 21, of Milford, Conn. Pierson himself earned a Purple Heart last month when an insurgent grenade exploded 10 feet away and sprayed him with shrapnel.
Americantology actually began as a spat between Grainger and higher-ups over whether or not the company could fly an American flag outside its base — a battered former government building dubbed “The Holiday Inn Express.”
“Right after we put it up we got a phone call telling us it had to come down,” Grainger said. “They said we were not an occupying force.”
Miffed that he couldn’t fly the American flag in Fallujah, Grainger began thinking about just how he and Company C could express their patriotism.
“That’s when it hit me — they can’t mess with my religion. Brass can’t make me take down my religion,” Grainger said. “Americantology is my religion.”
Grainger might tell you that Americantology’s patron saints are Wyatt Earp, Theodore Roosevelt and John Wayne, and that its gospel is the Red, White and Blue, but he doesn’t really talk much during services. Instead, he waits until nightfall, climbs a staircase to the roof, and uncovers a stereo and loudspeakers hidden beneath a cardboard box.
With occasional gunfire echoing in the distance and the Muezzin’s call to evening prayer ringing from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques, Grainger dons a Civil War era cap with Marine insignia and a faux priest’s collar decorated with the American flag.
Then, as a crowd of Marines plop down on the deck, Grainger places the stereo speakers on the roof’s ledge, aims them west toward the United States and hits “play.”
For the next hour, the sound system blasts an eclectic mix of patriotic hits and Marine favorites. There is of course the National Anthem, “Anchors Aweigh” and the Marine Corps Hymn, but there are also songs by Bruce Springsteen, Toby Keith, Neil Diamond, AC/DC (who are technically Australian), Lee Greenwood, and Ray Charles among others.
“There’s something for everybody,” Grainger said.
The services have been a big hit with the Marines.
“I love it,” said Navy Corpsman Douglas Williams, 38, of Lexington, Mass. “I’ve been up there a few times with a cigar and a can of near beer. … It’s the real deal. It’s very rejuvenating. It reminds you of back home and of your purpose here. It reminds you that you’re surrounded — at last in spirit — by the veterans of previous wars and the families that supported them.”
Americantology has not been free of controversy, however.
Grainger, who writes daily e-mail dispatches to family members, unit supporters and newspapers back in the U.S., was criticized recently by a college professor in Connecticut, who accused him of being culturally insensitive.
The biggest sermon yet occurred on the day Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi — the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq — was hunted down and killed. As U.S. aircraft rained propaganda leaflets over Fallujah that evening, Grainger and his Marines used powerful psychological operations, or psyops, speakers to blast the sacred soundtrack across town.
“It was like a party up there,” said Giessler, 24, of Smithfield, R.I. “Some of the locals actually called the Iraqi police to say we were making too much noise.” (Grainger’s usual sound system is much smaller and quieter however.)
As Company C’s first sergeant, it’s up to Grainger to keep tabs on the physical and mental well-being of his Marines. Having served a tour during the initial invasion of Iraq, Grainger said he was alarmed to see the toll that stress had taken on certain Marines.
“When I came back from Iraq the first time, we had staff sergeants who committed suicide for no explainable reason,” Grainger said.
Today, there is even more stress on Marines as they battle a foe that hides among the local population.
“Now, some of the kids in Fallujah are starting to throw grenades at us. That’s something Marines are starting to think about and it bothers them,” Grainger said.
Ideally, the Americantology sessions are an opportunity for Marines to forget about Iraq for a while.
“They go up to the roof, lay down, and watch the stars, and for at least an hour it’s like you’re not even in Fallujah,” Grainger said.