Alan Baker huddled in the sweltering bunker as the air raid siren screamed one desert night during Desert Storm in 1991. "Scud alert. Scud alert," a loudspeaker warned. "All hands take cover!"
In each hand, Baker clutched an auto-injecting antidote to lethal nerve agents. In the dimly lit bunker, he looked at his companions, packed tightly together, waiting for the first symptoms of gas poisoning. The dark rubber masks made everyone seem faceless and robotic. Baker was as terrified as anyone, but he had something that many of his companions did not: a deep faith in God. As the chaplain to the Third Marine Air Wing, Baker had spent months praying, reflecting, and preparing for such a moment.
As the hard-packed desert sand shook with the impact of incoming Iraqi missiles, one soldier began to flail her arms desperately, pulled her mask off, and hyperventilated. Baker quickly grabbed his Communion kit, moved alongside her, and identified himself as a chaplain. "I think we're going to be okay," he told her. "I don't hear any more explosions."
"Listen," he said. "It's quiet."
"When you put all that gear on, you are very isolated," he later recalled. "You're hot, you're sweating. If you have any sense of claustrophobia, you'll find out."
In peril on the sea
War will do that to youreveal your fears and focus your desires. Today as tens of thousands of troops steam toward the Middle East for an expected showdown with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the military's chaplains know they may soon be called upon to guide young men and women through life-changing trauma from combat experiences.
On ships, in airfields, back at bases, 864 chaplains are on active duty with the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine. The Chaplain Corps includes major religious groups, from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox to Jewish and Muslim. Many of them, like "Blues" Baker, known for his trademark harmonica and as a fan of slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, are already on the job.
In recent weeks, five aircraft carrier battle groups, each with 12 ships, moved into position for combat against Iraq. On a recent winter day aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN75), a carrier en route to the eastern Mediterranean, Baker donned a cheerful red shirt printed with the words Command Chaplain. Just before lunch, he made his way through the Truman's labyrinthine hallways to the enlisted crew's mess hall. Stopping to chat with several young women, the trim preacher smiled broadly and said, "Those are beautiful earrings! Did you buy them in Crete?"
Sitting down at a table, Baker asked a seaman, "What's for lunch today? Hey, did you get a chance to watch the game?"
It's all part of what he calls a morale checka part of his routine that looks an awful lot like a politician's campaigning. Baker is campaigningfor community on this nuclear-powered floating city with a crew of 5,000. The missiles aren't flying yet, but there are plenty of challenges for the men and women during the first few months on board: separation anxiety, fear of failure, combat readiness, crew conflicts, and frustrations in ports of call.
Two days ago, the Truman's commanders canceled shore leave in Turkey because of security concerns. When the Truman docked in Marseilles, France, in late December, 1,000 people turned out to protest. In Crete, after another U.S. warship's visit there the same month, a small mob of local teenagers hurled rocks and bricks at officers on shore leave, injuring six.
"We have a potential morale issue," Baker says, referring to the cancellation. He didn't think anyone was too upset in this instance, but he went about to check anyway.
Staying close to these men and women is all about preparation. Baker knows that when combat operations begin, far more pressing questions surface. Baker's ready smile will vanish, to be replaced with solemn head-nodding, an open Bible, and a seasoned preacher's empathy. Though few recruits may face the raw primal fear of the panicked soldier in the gas mask, many will seek guidance on how to manage their fears, loneliness, anger, or grief. Some may even discover God for the first time.
Charter in fear
After his own conversion (see "Saved by an Argument," p. 58), Baker went to seminary and was ordained in the Reformed Church in America. By the mid-1980s he was back at sea, but times of testing didn't stopall of which have helped him identify with the men and women to whom he ministers.
In 1987 Baker was the chaplain on a guided missile cruiser headed to the Middle East. The mission was to re-flag Kuwaiti oil tankers and escort them through the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Just weeks before, an Iraqi warplane had fired two Exocet missiles on the USS Stark, killing 37 Americans. Floating mines littered the water ahead. As Baker steamed toward danger, the chaplain wondered to himself, "Am I ready?" He recalls, "I didn't want to be working through my own fear when they were. So I frontloaded those issuesmy pain and my fear."
Baker locked himself in his office to write a letter to his wife. "I started out: Dear Marla, By the time you read this ... And I realized these [could be] my last words." He began writing his last letter home, considered who might get his Naval Academy ring, pictured his pallbearers, his funeral, where he wanted to be buried, and who would officiate. "I was crying like a baby. I felt grief, and it was the most cleansing thing I could have done. My fear was behind me. From then on, I could really feel strength."
When the Truman pulled out of Norfolk, Virginia, on December 5, Baker told CT, "My charter is in fear itself. A lot of people don't know what the fear is about: 'I'm not going to come home.' 'I'm going to let down my shipmates.' 'I'm afraid of dying.' I'll say, 'How can we work through that?' When fear is there, people really go to the core. When life gets really challenging, the fog lifts. You find out what your priorities are, and it's not music, your home, or car. It's people. It's relationships."
Baker's usual duties include supervising use of worship space, helping people express their religious yearnings, and conducting Protestant services. When Baker conducts worship services, he often pulls out his harmonica to accompany a guitar-playing shipmate. He also teaches a college-level course on "Introduction to the New Testament."
Back in his private office, he pulls off a few blues licks on his harp. The shelves are lined with books. An entire row is reserved for shiny copies of Fighting for Your Marriage: Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love. Another shelf holds the Operation Enduring Freedom edition of the Bible, and Thoughts in God's Great Grace. Here in Baker's office the real work takes place, one on one.
"We're very busy," Baker says. "We run walk-in counseling. We're here seven days a week." Week by week, the issues change for shipmates, from missing their families to fears about combat. "You want to listen to them, but not short-circuit the process of grief," Baker says. "We want to meet them where they are at and help them through."
In February the Navy promoted Baker to captain and reassigned him to a stateside post. As of late February, the Truman battle group was stationed in the eastern Mediterranean preparing for the assault on Iraq. Samuel Horne, one of the men Baker ministered to on the Truman, told CT, "We feed off of [Chaplain Baker's] professionalism in God's Word. Even though he has left us, his legacy will go on."
Adam Piore is a general editor for Newsweek and spent a week in January aboard the USS Truman, now deployed in the Middle East.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The official site of USS Harry S. Truman has more information on the ship and its crew.
Related articles on military chaplains and faith in the armed forces include:
USS Lincoln crew renews faith under roar of jetsThe Detroit News (March 24, 2003)
Bibles back up bullets in U.S. war campaignReuters (March 16, 2003)
U.S. carrier crew confronts stressAssociated Press (March 15, 2003)
Chaplain prepares to serve spiritual needs of troopsThe News-Sentinel, Ft. Wayne, Ind. (March 4, 2003)
In Kuwait, baptism before the gunfireThe Washington Post (February 28, 2003)
How do military chaplains square war with their religious beliefs?ABC News (Jan. 19, 2003)
Other Christianity Today articles about religion in the military include:
Judge Allows Class Action Suit Against Navy | 'Non-liturgical' chaplains complain of bias in Naval promotion, hiring. (August 22, 2002)
More Navy Chaplains Allege Discrimination | "We're not on the same ground as the high church group or the Catholics," say evangelicals. (April 18, 2002)
Air Force Chaplains Allege Bias | Independent survey finds perceptions of racial, gender, and religious discrimination. (October 18, 2001)
Judge Says Chaplain Can Sue Navy | Evangelicals say Catholics and liturgical Protestants are more likely to be promoted. (August 1, 2001)
More Navy Chaplains Allege Discrimination | "We're not on the same ground as the high church group or the Catholics," say evangelicals. (April 18, 2001)
Evangelicals File Bias Suit Against Navy | Claims made that complaints of religious discrimination have been ignored. (May 22, 2000)
The Just - Chaplain Theory | The church need not divorce the military to remain a godly counterculture. (July 27, 2000)
Irreconcilable Differences | The church should divorce the military. (March 6, 2000)
Wiccans Practice on U. S. Bases | Court okays pagan ceremonies. (July 12, 1999)
Military Chaplains Win Speech Case | Military personnel can speak against partial-birth abortion (June 6, 1997)
Military Chaplains Sue Over 'Project Life' Ban | Chaplains ordered to "actively avoid" political comment. (December 9, 1999)
For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive.
A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at CurrentIssuesBibleStudy.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
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