Minister's perspective draws on Sept. 11, Iraq experiences

The pastor serves on the front line in prayer and counseling, and in the National Guard.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Rev. Peter Lawson offers a unique perspective on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the aftermath and the continuing war on terror.
Pastor at Brownlee Woods Presbyterian Church, 1970 Everett Ave., he was called as a chaplain to work in casualty assistance at the National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Va., after the attack at the Pentagon in 2001.
Most recently he served as brigade chaplain to a combat team at Camp Ramadi in Iraq, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. The Rev. Mr. Lawson spent a year in Iraq as part of deployment with the National Guard's 28th Division, 2nd Brigade of Pennsylvania.
He served from June 2005 to June of this year, and resumed his duties at Brownlee Woods in July. He went as a major and returned as a lieutenant colonel.
Mr. Lawson has been on the front line of the counterattack through prayer and counseling -- both civilian and military.
"The night of Sept. 11, we had a prayer service," Mr. Lawson recalled, and said he put a notice on the outside sign at the church. "I wasn't sure how many people would come, but it was almost full. The expressions on people's faces ... it showed this made a deep impact ... and shook them at a deep level," he remembered.
"For a couple of days, people just came in to pray," he said; some were members of the church, some not.
This year, Mr. Lawson said he planned to include an acknowledgment of Sept. 11 in the regular Sunday service.
Sadness and anger
In the week after the attack, Mr. Lawson was summoned to Washington, D.C., and the chaplain's office at the Pentagon. "I just can remember the deepest sense of sadness," he said. "People were also mad about what happened, and they wondered how there could be so much hatred."
Mr. Lawson noted that chaplains who were geographically close to Washington and could drive there fairly quickly were the first called to duty. At that time, flights were grounded or limited.
"Once I was there [at the Pentagon], there was a tremendous amount of grief and stress," he said. He noted that some people wondered why they were spared, maybe having been in the targeted area just a short time before the plane crashed into the building, and feeling guilty about surviving. They also were mourning co-workers with whom they had almost daily contact.
"People played the 'what if' game," he said. "There was a lot of that."
Seeking normalcy
With the fifth anniversary of the attacks being observed, Mr. Lawson said he believes that "human nature has taken over" as years have dulled the intensity of the initial shock and sadness.
"People have gone back to the business of their lives," he said. "I think that intense experience made people feel very vulnerable." People don't want to live that way day in and out; they want to move on, he added. "They have more on their minds [than the attacks], and that's understandably so."
Though the events of Sept. 11 and the war on terror are two distinct events, they often are intertwined in people's minds and in the media.
"I've seen a lot of apathy," Mr. Lawson said, referring to the war in Iraq. "People see the war as a military thing."
He noted those with relatives in the military or who know someone deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan are "closer to the reality of war." If that's not the case, he said people have "kind of tuned out war news."
"I think people remember the event but want to get past it if it hasn't directly touched their lives," he said. "They want to return to normalcy."
Experiences in Iraq
He had an up-close experience with the war on terror during his Iraq deployment. "I'm not a cynic. But this isn't a problem we can solve with military intimidation," he said.
Mr. Lawson shared his Iraq experiences through columns published on The Vindicator's Religion page. He refrained from comment on the politics of the war. He was adamant, though, about highlighting the "citizen soldiers'" commitment to the effort and their resolve to contribute something tangible and meaningful such as schools and roads to the Iraqi people.
"We felt we made progress and made a difference in this respect," he said.
"There's a deeper issue," he said of facing the terrorists. "The problem is that the insurgents keep multiplying. ... It's almost become a generational thing. There's a religious resolve. They are willing to kill Americans and Iraqis for the sake of a holy purpose. But the Western mind-set is baffled by this."
Clash of cultures
Westerners, he explained, don't understand the hatred behind strapping a bomb to your body to kill, and don't understand killing people of one's own faith.
"We might call it a martyr mentality," Mr. Lawson said. To most of the world, he said, the martyrs are unknown but insurgents may revere them.
Mr. Lawson said from what he observed, Iraqis identify themselves more with tribal and family loyalty than with national loyalty. "There isn't the patriotism for Mother Iraq," he said.
Although America remains a melting pot of diverse cultures, and many ethnic groups retain customs or language, there definitely is patriotism for the United States and pride in being an American citizen, he said.
Mr. Lawson said he felt Americans tend to think of all Muslims as devout about their faith. "That's not the case. Just with other religions, some people practice faithfully and others don't," he said.
It's important to remember that Islam is the faith of millions of people in many countries, and the religion shouldn't be equated with terrorists, he added. "The idea is out there that Muslims want to conquer the world. There's a counter to that that must be heard."

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