USMC 155mm Howitzer firing on Insurgents at Fallujah in 2007
Note: This is the latest installment of my “Going to War” Series. Other postings in this series are located in the Subjects section under “Tour In Iraq.” The series chronicles the tour of Religious Support Team-2 of the Iraq Assistance Group in MNF-West from July 2007-February 2008. We were the first Navy Chaplain and Assistant to work supporting advisers since the Vietnam War.
We woke up to the sound of more outgoing artillery fire. The sun was shining outside as I look out my window at the sky above the California Barrier that protected our “suite” in the south wing of the Ramadan Inn. Climbing out of the decrepit Iraqi bed with the fresh sheets I stumbled over my two tons of gear to look at the time while Nelson slept like a baby in his equally decrepit Iraqi bed. My ever trusty alarm clock showed that it was about 0830, which meant we had gotten maybe 5 hours sleep and missed breakfast. Thankfully I had stockpiled a few pop-tarts and granola bars from the Camp Victory chow-hall the day before. Opening the door and peering out into the hallway I saw it empty and walked across the hall to the head, shower and laundry room to do my morning business. Despite being a Baath Party playground the suites at the Ramadan Inn were not furnished with their own toilet or shower, just a small sink and mirror.
Though the Ramadan Inn had seen better days it was certainly, despite being the playground of Uday and Qusay Hussein it was not exactly a palace like those of their father Saddam. It was somewhat reminiscent of an old and run down motel along Route 666. The floor was a marble type tile and the sand painted concrete building with a flat roof. I strolled over to the head in my PT-sleep clothes and was relieved to be able to relieve myself in a facility that had actual porcelain shitters which flushed using real water. If you have been to Iraq or Afghanistan you know that this is not always the case. The showers were passable being a more European design and the water was hot. I guess even the cold water was hot in Fallujah with temps in the 120s. Once I had gotten up I awakened Nelson, the sleeping beauty. He then went through his morning ritual to make himself presentable to the world. Those who know nelson know that if he can he will take care of his personal hygiene. I ate one of my Strawberry Filled frosted Pop Tarts washed done with water and when Nelson was ready we walked over to the Chaplain office. It was like a maze to get there. We walked across the way a bit, took a right, made a left and went through the normal transient quarters area, took a right went up a block or two, took a left, made another left, wound our way past a decorative lake, took a right, went past a number of buildings before passing a final bank of green porta-johns finding the MEF- Forward Chaplain Office to our right. The sun shone brightly and though not a long walk was relatively warm and by the time we got to the Chaplain Office I was sweating.
Pond at Fallujah
The Chaplain office was like every other facility and was protected by California Barriers or Hesco’s. We were met by RP1 Roland and the Deputy MEF-FWD Chaplain CDR J.P. Hedges. They were most hospitable and offered us water as well as coffee, which my caffeine deprived brain needed badly. After introductions Nelson got together with RP1 Roland and I met with Chaplain Hedges doing the usual butt-sniffing that military professionals engage in when meeting someone for the first time. This ritual usually consists of learning who our mutual friends are, where and with whom we had served in the Navy, where we went to school, something about our families and for Chaplains our faith tradition or denominational affiliation. This is a customary act for chaplains as it is for other communities and specialties in the Navy. On the positive side it is a way of making connection with each other and building relationships. It is also a way or self preservation within the system as sometime there are people that do not have your best interests at heart. However for J.P. and I the meeting was very friendly. We d a lot of shared experiences in the types of duties we had done and we had mutual friends. While we enjoyed conversation he began to introduce me to some of the things that had been going on in country the last few months. After about 30 minutes Chaplain Mike Langston came in. It was Mike who had worked with Peter Dissmore and the Corps Chaplain to bring us out to the west to cover the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.
Mike had a couple of orders of business to take care of before he brought Nelson and I into his office and had our reunion. Nelson and I had both worked with Chaplain Langston. It was good to see him again. Nelson had worked for him in Afghanistan and I had been with him at 2nd Marine Division in 2000-2001. He and Chaplain John Kaul arranged for me to take over Headquarters Battalion upon my return to work in a quasi-regimental billet with oversight of the independent battalions Religious Ministry Teams, though not the actual supervision of them. In addition to my regular duties counseling Marines, doing suicide interventions, conducting classes and supporting field exercises they used me, because of my experience to assist and evaluate chaplains who had been fired or relieved of their duties. I got each one for 30-60 days to see if they could be recovered for further service or not. In a sense this transformed me from a relief pitcher to a pitching coach. Chaplain Langston was at a school when 9-11 occurred and during this time I was used as the Deputy Division Chaplain looking at readiness, training and potential deployment of our religious ministry teams with their units. Both Nelson and I had experienced Chaplain Langston as a tough but fair chaplain. What he did expect was that we would be out doing our job and keeping him or his office in the loop on our operations and issues facing us. He did not attempt to micro-manage us.
Bunkers to Protect Against Indirect Fire at Camp Fallujah
Mike Langston is a prior Marine Corps Infantry Officer who had been a been a Company Commander and battalion staff officer as well as instructor at “The Basic Course” which is the leveling field for all Marine Corps officers regardless of their commissioning source. He played football in college and still has the physique of a defensive lineman. He left active duty and went to seminary and when he was ordained and graduated from seminary entered the Navy Chaplain Corps. He had since risen to the pinnacle of a career for most chaplains having been promoted to Captain, the same as a Colonel for the other services and assigned as the 2nd Marine Division Chaplain. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and kind with a high level of energy and emotion. He explained the current situation in the Province was, the locations of the various Marine Regimental Combat Teams (RCT-2 and RCT-6) as well as the one Army Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division as well as the 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion and the MEF Aviation and logistics assets were located. He then got down to the specifics of our mission which were pretty simple and suited to our personality as a ministry team. Basically he expected us to manage our own operations in the MEF area of operations. He expected that we coordinate our operations with the teams that we would support and keep his office informed of where we were going and what our general plan of operation was. Since he had worked with both of us and we were both known and trusted quantities he gave us a tremendous amount of operational freedom to do our job. His expectation was that we would be active and get out to the remotest places that we had training and assistance teams of advisors. He told us about an Army team that had been based in Ramadi to do the job with the advisors. He confirmed what Peter Dissmore had told us about this team. They had never left the base in 4 months and basically hung out at the Ramadi main chapel. They managed to get their orders curtailed and left theater never once having contacted or visited any advisory teams.
Monument in the Traffic Circle at Camp Fallujah
We were also told of a change to our projected base of operations. Our original plan of operations had us working out of the former British and Iraqi base at Habbinyah the location of the headquarters of the 1st Iraqi Division and the Advisors assigned to it. Instead the Colonel in charge of those teams made the call that he could not support the operations of a Chaplain from his location. He held firm on this and the plan was changed so that we would operate from Ta’Qaddum a large air and logistic hub about equidistant between Fallujah and Ramadi. Ta’Qaddum is adjacent to Habbinyah on the south side of the Euphrates. It sits atop an escarpment overlooking the town to the north and Lake Habbinyah in the South. In 1941 it was the site of a siege when the Iraqi military launched a revolt against the British who occupied the country despite it being given independence at the end of World War One. The British we besieged in Habbinyah and the Iraq forces had the high ground atop the escarpment. Unfortunately for the Iraqis and fortunately for the British the British forces had support from the Royal Air Force and the Iraqis had no logistics ability to support their units atop the escarpment. The Iraqi forces were pounded and eventually a relief force arrived from Jordon to break the siege. At TQ as it is known by most Americans we would be housed and taken care of by the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain, Commander Pat McLaughlin and his team. We were instructed to make coordination to plan work with the teams supporting the 7th Iraqi Division, the 2nd Border Brigade, Iraqi Highway Patrol and the Provincial Police forces while working to build a bridge to the teams of the 1st Iraqi Division. The change was momentarily upsetting but ultimately it opened the door to the entire province where if we had been co-located with the 1st Division we may not have gotten out of its operational area.
Following the briefing, he, J.P, RP1 Roland, Nelson and I went to lunch at one of the two major chow halls on the camp where I met up with an old friend. The friend was Captain Luke Fabiunke with whom I had served for 2 years at Marine Security Forces Battalion. Luke was our S-6 and the Communications officer at Security Forces. He was always fun to hang out with and was very supportive of my work as a chaplain there. Luke was in the G-3 Operations shop t the MEF and specifically was working with the section that dealt with the training and advisory teams in the province. It was good to see him and he immediately upon learning our mission asked how he could help. This hook up was one that paid off in spades in the next 6 months. It is a lesson that Chaplains need to build relationships with other staff officers in order to be successful, not just in their current assignment but in many cases later in their careers when they need assistance the most. For me it helped meet my mission of finding and making contact with advisory teams of all types as soon as we hit the ground rather than operating blindly trying to figure our way around the labyrinth that was the operational setting for these teams. I think that I owe Luke a beer or two for his assistance.
Following lunch we got to work. Helped by Chaplain Hedges and RP1 Roland we were issued flight suits and Nelson a couple of sets of Marine Pattern Camouflage uniforms and I was issued two elderly Panasonic Tough Book laptops. One was set up for regular unclassified traffic and the other for classified work dealing with intelligence reports, weather and planning and submitting air movement requests. Despite being a highly technological military when one gets into a combat zone technology assets for oddball teams like ours are sometimes scarce. In fact I understood from Peter back at IAG that most of the Army teams had to share assets with others just to communicate. Chaplain Langston and his staff ensured that we had freedom to be able to do our job without having to inconvenience others to do it. They laptops may have been elderly but they worked. Chaplain Hedges taught me the ins and outs of planning and coordinating the air support from Marine, Army and Air Force aviation assets and helped get us set up to do this. Once again we got what we needed to do our mission.
We spent another three days in Fallujah preparing for the mission and making coordination with staff sections and others that we might have to call upon. We also had a number of reunions with others that both of us had served with. I met Major Andy Niebel and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ottignon who I had served with a Second Combat Engineer Battalion. They were good friends then and are men for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. I also met a number of Chaplain with whom I had previously served or knew from other duty stations. One of these was LT Joe Buenviaje, who had been my RP at 1st Battalion 8th Marines when I had done my relief pitching job there. Joe had cross-rated from being a Boiler Technician to the RP rating not long before I had met him. We had qualified for the old FMF qualification together and I was able to help him begin his journey to be a Navy Chaplain. I was also blessed and honored to baptize his children at Camp LeJuene. Joe has a heart of gold and did well in Iraq. He got out with his Marines a lot, once almost getting blown up by an explosive device which blew up a highway overpass where they had just been conducting services. With them was a Catholic priest who had likewise just celebrated Mass. They were leaving the site when the explosion hit and following the attack helped to take care of the wounded.
Having a cross on your uniform in a chow hall can lead to interesting situations as well as ministry. Some people will automatically avoid you when they see the cross as if faith and religion was some sort of communicable disease. I admit that there are some religious people and groups across the faith continuum that I think are toxic so I understand this. Likewise there are people have been used, abused or burned by religious leaders or groups and thus want nothing to do with organized or even disorganized religion. There are other people who are afraid that if they say something wrong that the chaplain might come down on them. There are still others who when they see that you are a chaplain ensure that they get together with you and some will even pray for you. Regardless of the situation I always try to be friendly to those around me in a chow hall despite my preference for my introversion. In fact I will attempt to start up conversations with anyone around me if nothing else to let them know that I know that they are there and that they can talk with me.
Some of the people that we supped or dined with were Religious Programs specialists like Nelson….well actually not so much like Nelson. Nelson is one of those one of a kind animals that the Deity Herself cracked the mold when he was out of the oven. These young men and women had been in country various lengths of time and were having as happens in almost every case good or bad experiences working with their chaplain. There are unfortunately a few bad apples that mistreat their RPs and give the rest of us a bad name. Likewise there are bad RPs in the force. Some actually set new lows for military conduct and discipline and give a bad name to the good sailors in the rating. I had one that stole from the offering in Okinawa, forged offering forms, leave papers and burned up a new pickup truck to try to get the insurance money. I had another who tested positive for cocaine upon arriving to my ship and yet another who pretty much stayed one step ahead of the law. I guess it is human nature that we get such folks and unfortunately because there are people like this who serve as Chaplains and RPs there is kind of a guilt by association. As such RPs question the RPs that they know as to how their chaplains treat them and are often wary of a chaplain that they do not know. Nelson assured them that I was “cool” and we had a couple of interesting meals together.
There were a number of times in Fallujah where young sailors or Marines approached me about spiritual issues, family problems or prayer requests. There were even some young men and women who were interesting in becoming chaplains. It was neat to be able to be there in those moments where our lives intersected, maybe for the one and only time.
We spent our last day in Fallujah getting ready for our flight, another really late flight. During the day we heard that an Army CH-47 Chinook had crashed at TQ killing the crew and that the cause was undetermined as to whether it was due to hostile fire or a mechanical problem. Such incidents raise your pucker factor especially when you will be flying into the same place that they crashed. With this in mind we picked up our laundry had some chow, made some final coordination, called and e-mailed our families, did some PT and settled in for the evening waiting for RP1 Roland to pick us up. While outgoing artillery boomed in the distance we sat back in our room at the Ramadan Inn and discussed our plans, as well as wondered out loud what was in store for us.