Note: This is the latest chapter of my “Going to War” series which documents my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to serve as the Religious Support Team for all advisors in Al Anbar Province. Previous posts of this series are located in the “Tour in Iraq” link in the topics section on the left hand column of the website. If you have friends or family who are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and a little bit of an idea of what they might be experiencing or might have experienced feel free to read and share. Peace and Blessings, Steve+
TQ: The Chow Hall is on the Right
It was about 0400 when I got to sleep after our flight to TQ. About 0900 I woke up with the sun shining through the small holes in the metal shade over the window of my can. I was still pretty groggy when I got up, went and got another shower just to try to wake up. Even at 0900 it was close to 100 degrees and the sun beat down on me as I walked the 100-150 yards to the shower trailers in my PT gear. After waking up and getting myself together I knocked on Nelson’s door and woke him up. Nelson looked pretty beat as well and after this I walked over to the only non-military food outlet the “Green Beans Coffee” trailer and got me some coffee before I walked over to the Chapel. The Green Bean is interesting; a couple of guys from California started with one store in Saudi Arabia and now is located around the world with U.S. Forces. They have a program to buy a cup of Joe for a Joe.” The company website is here: http://www.greenbeanscoffee.com/ now I have to admit I never got a free cup but it was good coffee.
I kind of surveyed the area. My “can” was located not far from the chapel, the gym and MWR facilities. A bit down the way a hundred and fifty yards or so was the Marine Corps exchange which though not bad was often like shopping in East Germany, long lines and limited quantities of merchandise. If you needed something and waited to buy it there was a strong likelihood that the exchange would not have it on your next trip. About 400 years past the exchange was the main chow hall which was pretty large and covered with a canopy designed to cause high explosive shells from rockets or mortars to burst before they could penetrate the roof of the actual facility. The chow hall was staffed by contractors, mostly workers from the Indian subcontinent of Sri Lanka and like other areas inside the perimeter guarded by a contracted Ugandan security force.
I walked over to the Chapel and was met by RP1 who introduced me to Fr Jose Bautista Rojas, the Group Catholic Chaplain and the Apostle of TQ. Jose and I instantly hit it off. He is out of Los Angeles and really has a good way with people. On his first tour and first deployment he was having a huge impact around the base. His support and prayers would be greatly appreciated by me and by Judy in the coming months. Not long afterward, Chaplain Pat McLaughlin came in after a meeting. Pat was a fairly newly promoted Commander who was the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain and was on his second one year tour in Iraq. He had previously served as the Chaplain at Camp David. He immediately gave us his full support and put his staff to work helping us get settled and to link us up with all the support staff that we would need to conduct operations. Without this our tour would have never have had the success that we had.
Southwest Asia Huts or SWA Huts at TQ I stayed in one of these at the end of my tour
TQ was a major air and logistics hub perfectly suited to operate from to support advisers around the entirety of the province. We had access to rotor and fixed wing aviation assets, excellent telephone and internet, secure and non-secure access, a place to call home and excellent support. This is critical when you are operating independently and supporting multiple organizations. Other Army Chaplain teams had gone into areas where they were given little or no support by the Army teams that they supported. Unfortunately from a chaplain perspective the talk that I heard had more to do with the Army Chaplains than the units that they supported. Part of the problem was that most of the Army teams were reservists with minimal training or preparation for a mission type that they were never taught about in chaplain School. I know of a Navy Chaplain with Marine experience who had no significant problems when he was placed with an Army division level team in Mosel. There were probably a number of reasons for this, and to be charitable I will chalk it up to lack of experience, but lack of support was something that we never had to face.
A Great Team: Nelson, Jose, Pat and Me…Pat and Jose helped us tremendously
Within days we had our “operations center” set up in an office in the back of the Plywood Parish chapel. The office had a somewhat auspicious history having taken a hit by a rocket or mortar earlier in the year, a shot that had also made a mess of the drums and other musical instruments of the chapel praise team. The chapel was kind of a ramshackle affair but had some interesting touches mostly donated by the military personnel to include doors which had been made with care and donated. Part of getting it together was having phone and internet cables run to the office. The communications people made this happen quickly and they also got our elderly computers set up and loaded with all that we would need to operate on the secure and non-secure side the house. I think that we were one of the few ministry teams lower than Regiment or BCT level to have the communications suite that we had been provided. Likewise the G-3 Air section at the MLG headquarters gave us tremendous support and quickly got us the ability to plan and submit our own air mission requests.
The information that Luke Fabiunke had provided me back at Fallujah now became a gold mine to begin operations. It was an amazing amount of information, not all current but the situation with adviser teams was always fluid and subject to change based on operational considerations. There were phone numbers, secure and no secure e-mail contacts for key leaders. Once we had our communications up the communication began with teams across the province and our calendar was rapidly filled. The only “glunk” that we had in this was with the senior adviser for one of the Military Training Teams in our local area. Though his staff and subordinate unit team chiefs were happy for our arrival he for all intents and purposes froze us out of his area. That did not keep me from continuing to build relationships with some of his people which paid dividends later. I think that sometimes some chaplains are intimidated by people who rebuff their honest and well meaning efforts to provide support. I don’t work that way and will constantly work whatever angle I need to in order to get the mission done. In order not to burn bridges I usually use a slow and patient approach to continually work to build relationships with those in charge of the units that I serve. It really is an indirect approach. If I can’t get in one place I put it on the back burner without burning the bridge. I then work with all the other teams that I can and get out among people. As we did this “back doors” to ministry opened with teams where we had been locked out of before as they contacted us to get support. So I did not give up on these local teams but reached out to the furthest reaches of the province with the teams of the 7th Iraqi Division and the 2nd Border Brigade with its Border units and Port of Entry teams. The senior advisers of these units, Colonel Cottrell and Lieutenant Colonel Bien gave me absolute freedom to coordinate with their teams and opened doors that were never shut.
As we prepared for our mission the first few days were days of acclimatization to the base and to finally recover from the long road in. One of the first things that we noticed was the pall cast over the mood of the camp by the crash of the Army CH-47 the day of our arrival. The chapel was being rigged by the staff for the memorial service for the five Army aviators, all of who were significantly younger than me. The Army was in charge of the service so except for the set up of the chapel and other miscellaneous administrative support. It is a sobering thing to come into your base of operations and see the set up for five men who died in service of their country. To look at their pictures and to read their biographies was humbling; one was on his last enlistment before retirement others at different points of their careers, all left behind families, friends and their fellow soldiers who did not know if the bird went down to mechanical failure or hostile action. This was in no small way lost on me as we would fly many missions with the men and women of this Army squadron.
Nelson and I worked hard that first day and thereafter to get set up for our first missions. While I worked the big picture parts of the mission he took care of the little thinks that ensured our success. Working with Pat, Jose and RP1 he became a key part of the team whenever we were not traveling.
That evening we went to dinner at the chow hall and took in some PT. Following that I went back to my can where I continued to unpack and make the place somewhere that I could relax. Though still exceptionally tired from the trip I had a difficult time getting to sleep between my own anxiety the din of UH-60 Army Medivac choppers coming in and out of the LZ for the Shock, Surgery and Trauma Platoon. Not able to sleep I walked out of my can where I saw the sky light up to our north near Habbinyah with illumination rounds while outgoing artillery sent rounds somewhere into the night and small arms fire could be heard nearby. A number of Marine and Navy officers gathered near me as we watched the display and talked among ourselves as we wondered what was going on. Eventually I would get to sleep, but it was very late, that night I found the Office of Compline to be of great comfort, especially this collect.
“Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”