Duty in Iraq always brings new experience

CAMP RAMADI, Iraq -- This past month has involved a bit of travel for me. Sometimes you have to use whatever means is available to make that happen. A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit one of my chaplains at a another forward operating base (FOB) for a couple of days.
I hitched a ride using the detainee truck. The detainees are brought to my FOB a couple of times a week and dropped off at our detention facility. So, I hopped on board and traveled in the back of the truck where the detainees sit. The only difference was that I wasn't handcuffed or blindfolded.
The highlight of this visit was having lunch with the Iraqi Army at their training location. The hope is that they will eventually be ready to take over there. They make a bread that looks like pita bread, but it's thicker and tastes much better. They also had rice served with a sauce that looks like chili. Chai tea, which is very dark and sweet, completed the meal. I understand they eat basically this same meal every afternoon. I guess they like predictability.
Since coming back from leave in January, I have become the de facto chaplain for an FOB that no longer has one. This FOB was the former location of the Marine Division headquarters (which has now moved to Fallujah), and our brigade is now responsible for covering it. It's located a few miles away across the Euphrates River. Usually I travel by convoy, but last week I was able to travel by speedboat -- another new experience!
This location was a palace for one of Saddam's sons. When laying eyes on these ornate marble and stone structures, one certainly gets a sense of Saddam's excesses, especially considering this is only one palace among hundreds he had built throughout Iraq. You have to wonder if he had used that money to build schools and factories, how much better life could have been for many of the Iraqi people. There's a defunct glass factory that sits adjacent to our FOB, and if upgraded, could employ more than a thousand people.
Former harem house
I'm using one of the palace guest houses as a chapel. Actually, I'm told it is where Saddam's son kept his harem of women, so one can only imagine the kinds of activities that took place there over the years. I'm told the previous chaplains did an exorcism to get the demons out. Even with that said, it's an interesting place to visit. I enjoy staying there, especially since there are trees, paved streets and sidewalks -- unlike the muddy mess at Ramadi.
After a few weeks of relative tranquility, the insurgents have been making their mark here again. Last week a young soldier was shot and killed by a sniper while manning his post in a guard tower at the palace FOB. I did his memorial. He was 21 years old and had been in this country only a week. He was a replacement soldier.
As you can imagine, this has rattled some of the soldiers who have to man the towers, but on the whole, they're going back to their duties without hesitation. Again, the attitudes are tremendous. That same day, a Marine was killed by an improvised explosive devise, and a few days later, a soldier met the same fate.
We are now at the gut-check stage of this deployment, which is to say we are at the point when we need to be very intentional about staying focused to see this thing through to the end, an end which is coming more and more into focus. I wish I could say this end meant the completion of the war but will only mean the end of the Brigade Combat Team's involvement in it. It looks like there's lots more fighting ahead.
Uphill battle
Sometimes I liken our progress to pumping water uphill. You work so hard to inch the water upward, and as soon as you stop, it all swooshes back to its original place. I'm not sure what our exit date will be -- although everyone loves to play the guessing game. But once we get up on a year in June, it will literally take an act of Congress to extend us. Any date before that I would count as a bonus.
The second rotation of Marines is preparing to exit our theater of operations. This means that we will be seeing our third battalion of Marines once they are replaced. Somewhere along the way the Marines figured out that deployments longer than seven months are detrimental to the health, welfare and effectiveness of the fighting force. This is something the Army has yet to understand.
I was recently informed that I have been selected for the rank of lieutenant colonel by the promotion board that met in the fall. This is good news, of course, but I am not clear as to when I will be able to pin it on.
The Rev. Peter Lawson, pastor of Brownlee Woods Presbyterian Church, Boardman, is serving as the brigade chaplain to the 2/28 Brigade Combat Team at Camp Ramadi in Iraq.

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