Chaplain Captain James Covey is up earlier than he cares to be, fighting 6:30 A.M. traffic through Fort Hood's main gate with a hundred soldiers late to calisthenics. At 6:45 he's leading what he calls "your standard Army prayer breakfast" at Darnall Army Community Hospital.
It's also Covey's turn to carry the funeral bag. It contains a cell phone that rings when a veteran dies and wishes to have a funeral with military honors. Other times it rings for a soldier who dies in Iraq. As funeral duty chaplain, Covey helps bear the news to the soldier's next of kin.
Covey, 37, creeps through the three-lane queue in his aged Suburban with his Bible, his grandfather's cheapo guitar, and three empty car seats for his three little girls. He shows a gatekeeper his Army photo ID: a quarter-inch horseshoe of hair fringing a slick dome, striking Greek features, goofball grin.
Covey answered God's call to the chaplaincy while serving as a senior pastor in a Tyler, Texas, Southern Baptist church. As he waits to see if he'll be subject to a random vehicle search, he mulls what he can tell a clutch of doctors, nurses, medics, and soldiers in a 10-minute sermon on being deployed.
Elsewhere on the base, about a mile from the main gate, Chaplain Major Greg Walker, 39, is one of 12,000 Fourth Infantry Division troops doing pushups and sit-ups and running in formation. After 11 years in the chaplaincy, it's routine. In 2002 the Army shipped Walker, his wife, Roxanne, and their two sons to Fort Hood, the largest active-duty armored post in the United States. In this small city in the heart of Texas, some 90 chaplains representing the gamut of Christian denominations, plus a couple of imams and rabbis, shape the souls of more than 40,000 troops and their families on 339 square miles, 70 miles north of Austin, the state capital. No longer jumping out of airplanes with Special Forces, Walker's tame new post-Iraq role is deputy chaplain, keeping ministry rolling for the Fourth Infantry's 29 chaplains.
Covey, Walker, and four other chaplains formed a band of brethren who together earned their right-shoulder combat patches serving the Fourth Infantry's Second Brigade in Iraq. The military is their wide-open mission field, a public institution that respects faith in ways many civilians would find surprising. Chaplains are preachers, teachers, and counselors, counted as vital players who quietly help hold the military together. In garrison, they offer counsel and spiritual support to soldiers and their families. Deployed to battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they're missionaries bringing God's love to men and women who are unusually open to matters of faith, giving soldiers and their families the ability to integrate faith and their fearsome work.
Chaplain garrison duties range from the heartbreakinghelping deliver death news to a soldier's loved onesto the borderline ludicrous: blessing a bowling alley's new snack bar.
At a Fourth Infantry chaplains' meeting, a chaplain major updates the group on the priest who in May became the war's first wounded chaplain, losing an eye to an Iraqi roadside bomb. As expected, some soldiers are having hard adjustments. Returning husband-and-wife soldiers died in a murder-suicide at Fort Hood in July. Walker's new boss, Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Tommy Preston, tackles what's on everybody's mind, though all know the answer: "Are we going to redeploy? Yeah. I think that's pretty certain," he says. No one sighs or grumbles. "The question is just where and when. Probably to Iraq." The Fourth Infantry likely won't spend a full year in garrison before heading back out.
Preston closes in prayer: "Thank you for these men who care about your Word more than for their own lives."
An old kitchen next to the medics' building has no phone or air conditioning, but a new sign announces it's the office of Chaplain Covey. Covey shares the kitchen with assistant Sergeant Renada Rozier, a 22-year-old single mom.
This office, with a view of the back of Army buildings, is a world away from posh digs in San Antonio and Tyler, Texas, where "I spent my life organizing my Day-Timer," Covey says. He's quick to say he loves the Southern Baptist Convention and the churches he pastored for eight years, but not the big emphasis on baptisms, budgets, and buildings. "I'm happy as a lark. The tradeoff is going to Iraq for a year."
But that's part of his calling. "It's the best ministry you'll ever do," he says. "The saying 'There aren't atheists in foxholes' is true. Everybody wants to talk about God. It opens the door to talk about Christ." Covey doesn't offer numbers, but he and Walker both report seeing many come to faith or deepen their relationships with God while in Iraq.
For a year in the Sunni Triangle city of Baquba (pop. 300,000), 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, Walker led six battalion chaplains, new best friend Covey among them, in Task Force Ironhorse, composed of the 12,000-soldier Fourth Infantry plus support attachments. This team met the spiritual needs of thousands of soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Division, famed for its December capture of the ace of spades, Saddam Hussein. The six chaplains included three who enlisted post-9/11 and a Roman Catholic priest named Captain Kirk.
Covey shows me photos from his deployment: leading soldiers in the doxology, strumming guitars with Walker in a worship service, burning the day's output from an outhouse. When troops were about to leave Baquba, their cameras flashing in the worship service looked like paparazzi shooting a celebrity event. "It's like the last day of camp, except it's Camp Hell."
Start with the heat. For most of the Fourth Infantry Division's time in Iraq, soldiers had no air conditioning. The highest temperature his unit recorded was 158 degrees. And the obvious: "Nobody's trying to shoot you in summer camp," he says. "It's life and death." At least 400 mortar shells hit Covey's camp. In all, 79 Ironhorse soldiers died. Covey spoke at two memorial services in Iraq; Walker preached three and oversaw twenty-nine. Ubiquitous death causes people to ponder things they likely wouldn't otherwise. "Everybody I dealt with was spiritually receptive," he says.
A patriotic sense of duty pervades today's all-volunteer force, from chaplain to soldier. According to retired Rear Admiral Darold Bigger, a Seventh-day Adventist who was a Naval Reserve chaplain from 1974 and head of chaplains for the Naval Reserve until August, most soldiers are not torn with doubts about what they are doing in Iraq.
"They asked to join," Bigger says. "They want to serve the country. So you don't have the internal resistance you had in the Vietnam War because you had a lot of people who didn't want to be there."
Sergeant Livier Lázaro ran the Second Battalion's aid station and trauma center in Iraq, where everywhere is the battlefront. They gauged the enemy's proximity by the thoomp of a mortar shell leaving the launch tube. Few soldiers killed in Iraq have open-casket funerals. "We saw people blown up. We carried body parts," Lázaro says. "Nothing really prepares you for that." Chaplains provided comfort to medics, morticians, and the wounded. "They were like angels."
The hardest part was losing civil affairs reservist Nichole Frye, 19, of Lena, Wisconsin. Frye died February 16 when a roadside bomb hit her Humvee just 10 days after she arrived in Iraq. Lázaro helped remove her remains from the vehicle. Lázaro had never before encountered a mortally wounded female soldier.
"[Death] was real every day," she says. "It doesn't matter what race, gender, how long you've been there, religion, what you know. It could happen to anyone."
For the first time in Iraq, Lázaro felt scared. "I never doubted my faith. I never doubted God. But times when I was feeling weak, I wanted to find a chaplain. He gave reassurance or just listened," she says.
"Even in all of that bad, you could still see God was present."
Bigger, who teaches at Walla Walla College in Washington state, says chaplains have many opportunities to build relationships with soldiers. "Our involvement in seemingly nonreligious activities makes us part of the team," he says. "That creates a ministry opportunity."
Trained for Sacrifice
For Walker, like Lázaro, the worst part was the fate of Frye. Walker helped Lázaro clean Frye's remains from the Humvee. He also preached her memorial service. Reflecting on chaplains' sometimes grim wartime tasks, such as finding an ID on a blood-drenched, lifeless soldier, he concedes he may have overestimated his tolerance threshold and taken on too much, trying to shield the less-seasoned, like Covey.
"I'll admit it," Walker says. "I do have flashbacks."
Yet Walker, with roots in the Assemblies of God, welcomed deployment, so his April return to garrison was somewhat of a letdown. "When we're at war, we're doing what we've always trained to do. I'd rather be doing it than prepping for it all the time." He seems to thrive on danger. His dream after leaving the Army is forming a commando squad that rescues missionary hostages.
Walker acknowledges that even among chaplains, he's a little different. One task in Iraq was shaping up a chaplain sent from outside his brigade who kept wigging out under fire. When prayer and counsel didn't work and the chaplain worsened, Walker screamed at him in the half-hour dressing-down of his life. "I told him if he's scared maybe he needs to rethink his walk with Christ," Walker says. "If he did trust God, it doesn't mean he's not going to get hurt but at least to know God's got it under control." Scream therapy worked. Two days later, the chaplain thanked Walker and from that point on had his fears, and his duties, under control.
Walker believes the sacrifices and difficulties have a redeeming quality. When the Fourth Infantry left Iraq, the towns soldiers saw had a far better standard of living, Walker says. "Kids were dressed, not begging me for food, schools were being rebuilt, and they're happy. And you see you've made a huge difference in their lives. I never met an Iraqi the whole time I was there who didn't thank us for being there."
The United States has built infrastructureschools, bridges, hospitals, power plants, and fire and police departmentsand Fourth Infantry Division soldiers' families donated backpacks with school supplies to Iraqi children. Walker helped an Iraqi woman get an Army microenterprise grant to start a Kinko's-style photocopy shop. "It's the third-richest oil country in the world, and people had to wait in a mile-long line to get fuel for their vehicles. It was because of what Saddam had done to that country."
In the face of unrelenting negative reports in the media, Walker says idealistic soldiers need to see the good they are doing. "A lot of soldiers didn't see the good we were doing. [I told commanders] 'You've got to let your guys know what we're accomplishing. It's crucial for morale. Give them a reason we're here.' "
Walker keeps his watch on split timehome and Iraq. He wonders how his Iraqi friends are doing. He reads about bombs hitting Baquba. In July, one killed dozens at a police station where he led twice-weekly worship services for American mps. "I know I'm here because I have to focus on ministry to soldiers here," he says. "If I could volunteer and go back, if it wasn't for that whole family separation, I'd get on a plane tomorrow."
Meanwhile, across the base, Covey's office is just too hot, even by Texas standards. So these July afternoons until the air and phone are hooked up, Covey, beret askew, is outside talking with troops on the vast base. He's checking up on the medics in the next building who deployed with him. He's also talking with guys running the motor pool and elsewhere along Fort Hood's streets, with names like Hell on Wheels and Tank Destroyer Boulevard. The base's double cinema screens both the sublime and the ridiculousThe Passion of the Christ and Scooby Doo. The base chapel signs announce, "First in care and prayer."
The Safest Place
Warriors through the ages have looked beyond weaponry for their ultimate strength. First Cavalry Division Memorial Chapel's stained glass near the altar depicts a soldier kneeling in blue Civil War dress beside a cannon and pile of ammo, hands together in prayer. The window at the chapel's rear bears a tank and helicopter and three praying soldiers through the ages: a Roman with a sword; a kneeling cavalryman; and a man in camo, head bowed, helmet to his chest.
Walker enters the chapel's Fellowship Hall in a white shirt, leather vest, cowboy hat in hand, and Wranglers as crisp as his high-and-tight haircut, for his first Sunday as pastor of the 11 A.M. interdenominational contemporary service. He preaches on Exodus 4:1-2. "As Christians, we know that when God calls us to the task, he gives us the proper equipment to accomplish it," Walker tells the full sanctuary. "Without God, Moses was nobody. With him, you are someone.
"I ask you this morning, what is the task before this church? We have the ability to reach those who haven't been reached. We need to be that light at Fort Hood to reach out to the lost. God has given us some very talented people to make that happen."
As the six-strong band of brethren looks ahead, it is clear that its members won't redeploy together. But today they do lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the main gate. Chaplain Captain Charles Lohman breaks his fortune cookie, reads the message, then rolls his eyes and flings away the scrap of paper. It says, "You will see many exotic places."
Covey has seen many places he never expected before 9/11, although exotic is not the word that first comes to mind. On another day, he hurries to the prayer breakfast to share with those assembled the peace he's made with where God has put him: "You must have a crystal clear sense of God's purpose for your life. Even on the worst day in Iraq, I never had a shred of doubt that this was God's will for me. If you are sure, you can endure anything. The safest and happiest place, even in a war, is in the center of God's will."
Deann Alford is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More about the base is available from the military's Fort Hood website.
More about military chaplains is available from The Military Chaplains' Association of the United States of America.
PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly profiled Captain Joseph Angotti, a Catholic priest and military chaplain.
Other Christianity Today articles on military chaplains include:
Faith and Fear on the Truman | How one Navy chaplain helps men and women face combat. (April 01, 2003)
Air Force Chaplains Allege Bias | Independent survey finds perceptions of racial, gender, and religious discrimination. (Oct. 18, 01)
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 | U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin of Washington, D.C., ruled April 7 that the military violated the First Amendment rights of chaplains by forbidding them to advocate a ban on partial-birth abortion. (June 16, 1997)
Military Chaplains Sue Over 'Project Life' Ban | Government-financed chaplains have been a long-standing fixture in the U.S. armed forces, despite the arguments of those who claim the practice amounts to unconstitutional government support of religion. This enduring relationship faces a new challenge as a result of support for the pro-life movement among military chaplains. (Dec. 9, 1996)
A collection of articles on the War in Iraq is available on our website.
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