BAPTISM BY FIRE
By Mark Thompson
The first time I joined the Army I was 24, young and dumb. I bought into that “Join the Army and see the world”. Or maybe it was “The Army, it’s an adventure “or “Be all you can be”? I don’t know, but I joined up and they sent me to Germany and it was there, after a few years that I felt called to go into the ministry.
I left Germany and came back to the States to finish my undergrad degree, then on to seminary for four more years of graduate school to become a minister. I pastored for a few years then decided that the Army was so much fun the first time I would try it again, but this time as a Chaplain. I was lucky to have prior service, so the being a Soldier part was easy. I did well. I was selected to attend Airborne school and Air Assault School and after eight years was promoted to Major. I did not realize that being Air Assault and Airborne qualified would land me at Fort Campbell assigned to 101st Airborne Division preparing to go to war. The Fun was over.
I was now the Brigade Chaplain for 9000 Soldiers, the largest Brigade in the United states Army on their way to war in Iraq. I wish I could say what an incredible experience it was. It was a life altering experience. I have now served in three wars, have been shot at, bombed, mortared, and attacked with knives by a mob outside a Masque in Mosul, so I do have something to compare it to. I hear young chaplains talking about needing to get that Combat Patch. (This is a patch you get to wear on your uniform if you have been to war.) War changes you forever and it is seldom for the good. Most of us that do come back are scarred for life and struggle with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and reintegration into the world (Home). Chaplains go to war as noncombatants (carry no weapons) because it is part of the deal. This is a crucial ministry and I knew it was where I should be, but I and my family paid a price.
We flew into Kuwait and staged to go into battle at Camp New York just on this side of the border of Iraq. The night before we went into battle, one of our own Soldiers tossed grenades into several tents killing some and wounding others to include one of my good chaplain friends. The next morning, we had the memorial service and that evening we went over the berm and into war. We had been attacked by Scud missiles almost every night, but now we were taking the fight to them.
Each Division is made up of several brigades. My brigade was on its way to take Mosul after we took Baghdad with the other brigades. We had several close calls on the way, but things got crazy when we finally made it to Baghdad. Someday I hope to be able to put into words what I experienced on that journey from a sensory perspective. No showers, no hot food, destruction everywhere, poverty, the stench could be overwhelming. The temperatures in the hundreds and remember that until we got to Baghdad, we were in chemical suits in addition to our full battle gear. And how do I explain the sand that often turned to silt and was in every orifice of your body? Everything was just brown.
It was the Wednesday of Easter week and we were just outside of Baghdad waiting to move north. Earlier that week I had baptized several Soldiers in the Tigris River and was looking forward to Easter services. Whenever we stopped movement, we always tried to find some kind of a walled compound. In Baghdad it was an old chicken processing plant. Now I mentioned the stench earlier but I forgot to mention the flies! If you opened a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE), whatever it was got covered in flies in seconds!
At this point as I remember we’re about 20 miles from downtown. We had set up a break room in the factory office because there was a pool table there and it helped to pass the time. Up to this point we had lost only one Soldier in battle which was really indicative of our Brigade leadership. Other units were not so lucky.
That morning I had devotions with my soldiers, drank my coffee and ate a traditional breakfast of jalapeno cheese on crackers when the medivac pilot came to for me. Ambush at a check point, several down and we need the chaplain. I had been a hospital chaplain and dealt with trauma, death and dying, but this was different. As we landed, we were taking fire. I exited the door with the medic and when we got to what was left of two of the Soldiers, I realized they had been in my group just that morning. We had no stretchers so we used blankets to move them to the helicopter. One of the arms was missing and I was on my hands and knees trying to find it, the rotor wash was making it next to impossible to see. The stench from blood, from fear, from the cordite of the bullets and bombs burnt my nostrils. People were screaming, the pilot wanted to move now.
I wish there was a happy ending to this story. There were two other Soldiers that were wounded and both lived, so that was a good thing. But the next time you watch a war movie, especially if it is a true story, I hope that you remember the ugliness of war. And the next time you see a veteran, you might just understand how much he or she has sacrifice for you to have the freedom that so many Americans simply take for granted.