1000 hours (10:00 a.m.): I am traveling with a military convoy, making pastoral visits to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. First stop is their Forward Operating Base (FOB) in a central Iraq town. I set up for Mass in a corner of the busy area where the Marines eat, recreate, and do triage for the wounded.
From a kit smaller than a shoebox that I carry on my back, I pull out the olive green altar linens and the compact parts of a brushed steel crucifix, chalice, and paten. My altar is a wooden bench, the best piece of furniture in the room.
Intense fervor shines in the tired eyes of the Marines who have gathered to welcome and receive the Lord. We pass a copy of The Word Among Us back and forth for the prayers and readings. At the Sign of Peace, everyone exchanges a heartfelt embrace. I have never experienced anything like this communion among men who know that this Holy Communion might be their last.
1200 hours (12:00 p.m.)
We move on to an Iraqi police station that was hit just yesterday by two truck bombs driven by suicide bombers. At the compound’s entrance is a crater the size of a basketball court. The marketplace across the street, where numerous innocent Iraquis were killed, is in ruins.
We are greeted by the young lieutenant who is in charge of the Marines stationed with the Iraqi police. He has a bright smile, though he has not slept for more than forty-eight hours. Three other Marines join us. All are quiet, until I ask how they are.
They become very engaged. They obviously need to talk, to show us the devastation and describe their experiences. One points out a large truck part imbedded in the wall behind him and says it just missed his head. "God was looking out for us, Chaplain."
We gather in a circle to pray, and I offer and bless medals of St. Michael the Archangel. Each Marine takes one and adds it to his dog tags.
1400 hours (2:00 p.m.)
Next stop: a group of Marines guarding the entrance to a bridge. They are living in a house which was attacked on Easter Sunday, twelve days ago. The truck bomb blast brought down part of the walls and roof and buried them in rubble, but none received life-threatening injuries.
They choke up, however, in telling the next part of their story. They had grown close to an Iraqi family, who often shared a hot meal with them. Their five-year-old son, who was especially fond of the Marines, was just arriving for his daily visit as the bomb detonated. With tears in their eyes, the men describe how they tried to save him. We gather for Mass in the small yard where they once listened to his laughter. They bring their deep sadness to God. We share Holy Communion with each other and, in our hearts, with a young Muslim boy. May he rest in peace.
1500 hours (3:00 p.m.)
A sniper has been reported, so we take special precautions in approaching the next position, on an overpass overlooking the main highway into Baghdad. Only two of our vehicles go up the ramp; just a few of us run inside the shelter. The eight men inside are happy for visitors. One asks for Confession, and we kneel together, face-to-face, on the concrete . . . "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace."
Some man the guns and lookouts, while the rest gather to pray the Lord’s Prayer and receive Communion. I place a Saint Michael medal in each Marine’s hands and ask for protection: Loving Father, send your blessing upon your sons . . . dispatch your angels . . . guard them from all harm. . . ." Then we run to the Humvees and head toward the highway under the overpass.
1530 hours (3:30 p.m.)
Suddenly, a massive explosion. Once the dust clears, we see that the overpass has been destroyed. My heart drops into my stomach.
Two of our men go in and then radio back for help: There are survivors! All of us who are free rush to the site. I pray as I run. I pray as I dig through the rubble. I pray as I assess the injuries of Lance Corporal Smith (not his real name), who is writhing in pain after falling two stories and fifty feet down the highway. I shield his eyes from the sun, anoint him, and try to keep him conscious. Finally, two Marines help me carry him to the emergency vehicle. (As I learn later, all the men have survived, but two have lost a limb and one has a fractured spine.)
1700 hours (5:00 p.m.)
We return to the main FOB and reality hits. The Marines have done their jobs well, without thought to self, keeping emotions in check, but now they need to talk. They need reassurance. They want to pray. This goes on for two hours.
We have not eaten or rested since early morning, but no one hesitates when the commanding officer asks us to continue on to the last base, which hasn’t seen a Catholic priest in three months. On arrival, we find the day’s largest group of Marines gathered for Mass.
1930 hours (7:30 p.m.)
My own struggle of faith begins on the drive back to our main base. Images and emotions flash through my head . . .our circle of prayer and Holy Communion . . . my blessing for protection . . . the explosion . . . kneeling over the wounded Marine. . . . I choke back the tears. What good were my prayers? Where were the angels of protection? What difference do I make as a priest?
Only later do I realize what a miracle it is that anyone survived that explosion. Surely, angels must have cushioned the fall of Lance Corporal Smith to prevent him from breaking every bone in his body! Only later do I remember the fervor of faith, the hunger for Communion, the long line of men waiting to speak with me. Only later do I see how God was ministering to me through them, as well as the other way around.
My friends, I tell you that faith not only survives out here: It thrives, grows, and spreads. In the shadow of this faith, I am deeply humbled and greatly comforted. Looking into these young faces, I see God gazing back at me with love.
Father John J. Gayton, from the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, is one of only five Catholic priests serving US troops in Al Anbar Province. For a fuller version of this story, log onto partnersinevangelism.org.
For years, Partners in Evangelism has sent The Word Among Us and other good Catholic materials to those in the military and in prison. Today, Partners helps more than 12,000 service men and women as well as 45,000 prison inmates.
"Thank you," writes an Army chaplain who served in Iraq. "It never failed that soldiers would ask for your publication. It was their link to their faith. You cannot imagine the important role it has taken on in the battlefield, and in the hospital as well."
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