One Day in the Life of a Priest in Iraq
Father John J. Gayton
17 July 2007, Fallujah, Iraq:We rolled into Forward Operating Base, Rivera, the center of operations for 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the town of Saqlawiyah. The Civil Affairs Group and the 2/7 chaplain were transporting me so that I could make Catholic Sacramental & Pastoral visits to all their Battle Positions. There is no separate space to set apart for Mass or a religious service, so I set up in the area where they eat and recreate which is also used as the triage area for the wounded. Foot patrols were returning after an eight hour shift through the night and others were departing on their shift. Marines and Corpsmen were rushing about trying to get a bite to eat and get ready to sleep for a few hours. Despite the intense operational tempo and grueling schedule, a group of Marines led by their Company Commanding Officer gathered in the corner for the Mass. Mass in these settings emerges from a kit smaller than a shoe box that I carry on my back. I am set up in minutes—drab olive colored Altar Linen are set down and a crucifix, chalice and patton made of brushed steel are assembled from their small compact parts and easily set in place. A copy of The Word Among Us is passed between them and me for the prayers and readings. The Altar is a wooden bench—the best piece of furniture in the room. There is no singing, no stained glass, no pews or kneelers—just intense fervor reflected in their eyes and the bare floor beneath their knees. No one ever leaves anyone else out of the Sign of Peace. From the senior officer to the lowest enlisted Marine, embraces are exchanged and sincere wishes of peace are authentic and heart-felt! Holy Communion! I have never experienced communion like that among men who know that this could be their last! The Mass is brief but its effects are enduring.
Next, we moved on to the Iraqi Police Station in the heart of the town. The day before, they were hit with a complex attack which involved two truck bombs driven by suicide bombers. That was followed by rocket propelled grenades, mortars and small arms fire. We can’t enter the front of the compound because there is a crater the size of a basket ball court with the remains of the first truck bomb. Across the street the market place is decimated. Numerous innocent Iraqis were killed. The right flank of the compound has a gaping hole where the other truck detonated. Entering from the rear we climb over debris and make our way around. We are greeted by the young Lieutenant who is in charge of the Marines stationed with the Iraqi Police. He has a bright smile but his eyes betray fatigue. He has not slept since the night before they were attacked—more than 48 hours! Except for three others, the Marines have finally gone to their bunks to catch a few hours rest. He offers to wake them to come out for the chaplain visit. I tell him not to—that we will be back again soon to see them. At first they are quiet, as if they are waiting to see what we expect of them. I simply ask how they are and what happened. They become very engaged. They obviously need to talk. They show us the devastation and describe their experiences. The force of the explosion blew out every window and blew every door off its hinge—even large reinforced steel doors. Some of the Marines were knocked unconscious. One Marine displays a large part of the truck that flew past his head and embedded in the wall behind him. “God was looking out for us, Chaplain”: he said. After they shared their story, I offered to pray with them. We gathered in a circle. I offered them each a medal of St Michael the Archangel. Once the Medals were blessed they immediately added them to their Dog Tags. They escorted us safely back to our convoy.
“Go Army Bridge” was our next stop. I was curious about the unusual name since this was a Marine AOR (Area of Responsibility) and the Army had not been stationed there. It was explained to me that someone had written graffiti on the bridge in broken English: “Army Go!” Everyone assumed it meant for them to leave. The Marines decided to change it into the Army advertisement: “Go Army,” so the name stuck. The first Marine to greet us was a Catholic. When I introduced myself as the Catholic Priest, he was very pleasantly surprised and declared that this is the first time he had seen a Catholic Chaplain since he arrived in Iraq almost three months ago. (I am only one of five Catholic Priests covering all of Al Anbar Province.) They were living in an Iraqi home at the entrance to the bridge. As we came into the small enclosed yard a few Marines joined us as the Corporal went to switch out those on post who were Catholic and wake those who were sleeping. When they assembled, they immediately began to tell the story of the attack against their position by a truck bomb on Easter Sunday, 12 days prior. The blast collapsed all the stone walls on the East side of the house which fell on top of them and buried them in the rubble. The roof caved in where one of them was positioned—their medical corpsmen—who received shrapnel wounds to the back of his head and needed to be flown to a surgical unit. His wounds were, thankfully, not life threatening. He is doing well and now back at FOB Riviera where I spoke with him earlier. Once again, the rest of them were not badly injured. The next part of their story however, was quite tragic and very painful for them to relate. They had grown close to the Iraqi family that had lived in the house. The family would often cook them a hot meal and share their table with them. Their five year old son had grown very fond of the Marines and they of him. He would stop by every day to see them. That day he was arriving outside just as the bomb detonated. With tears in their eyes they described how they tried to save him, using all their combat medical skills but there was nothing that they could do. Their grief is Palpable and their sadness deep. We gathered for Mass in the small yard where they once listened to the laughter of a little boy. We celebrated Holy Communion with God, with each other and, in our hearts, with a young Muslim boy—May He Rest In Peace! .
As we approached our next Operational Position (OP) we were instructed to take special security precautions. The OP was located on the top of an overpass of the main highway that leads to Baghdad. There were reports of a possible sniper in the area. Only the two vehicles with the Chaplain teams went up the ramp and got as close to the fortified position as possible. Only the RMT (Religious Ministry Team) exited the vehicles and made a quick duck and run inside. Seven Marines and one Medical Corpsman manned this position and they were happy for visitors. When I greeted them and let them know that I was the Catholic Priest, the Platoon Leader immediately asked for Confession. We made our way to an isolated area of the OP further out on the bridge and he knelt down on the concrete. I followed his lead and we knelt face to face. “Your sins are forgiven, Go in peace!”—a smile, a handshake and an embrace and we returned to the others who had already cleared out a small plywood shelter so that we could gather for Mass. In these circumstances however, Mass is not always possible. I knew that they could not be distracted for long. They were on post and the highway below them required their attention. As others manned the guns and the lookout positions, we formed our circle of prayer. I placed the Blessed Sacrament on an Olive Green Corporal on the interior Sand-bag wall. We prayed for God’s Mercy, Prayed the Lord’s Prayer and received Holy Communion. After Communion, I placed a St Michael Medal in each of their hands and prayed this Blessing:
Gracious and Loving Father, send your blessing upon your Sons. May this Medal serve as a reminder to them of your constant presence and love for them. Under the banner of St Michael, the Archangel, who leads the battle against evil, dispatch your angels to guide them in all their ways and guard them from all harm. Protect them from every evil and confuse the plans of all who intend evil.
May God’s blessing come upon these Medals, upon you and all your fellow Marines! We ask this blessing, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!
We spent a few more minutes greeting each of the Marines and the Corpsman and had a quick introduction to their mascot, a small puppy that had wandered into their position to take up residence with them. Like most young Marines and Sailors, they were light hearted and gracious—a pleasure to be around. As we were getting ready to leave, one Marine asked me if he could complete his Sacraments of Initiation while in Iraq. He had been baptized but never fully initiated into the Church. I assured him that I would help him to prepare and would make sure that he would receive the Sacraments while deployed.
We quickly made our way back to the Humvees and backed down the ramp. My vehicle once again took the lead and we began driving along side the ramp headed to the highway that ran underneath the overpass on which they were located. We were suddenly halted by a massive explosion in front of us. The convoy quickly began to back up as the cloud of dust rushed toward us and debris began to fly in our direction. The overpass had been destroyed by an explosion and as the cloud dissipated we saw that the OP was gone! My heart dropped into my stomach. We all thought the worst—how could anyone have survived! Our convoy quickly took up defensive positions around the area to establish a security perimeter. Once in position, our Corpsman and a Marine were sent in to make an assessment. The next voice on the PRR (Radio) was a call for help. There were survivors! All of us who were not needed to maintain the defensive perimeter rushed to the site and began to dig the Marines and Sailor out of the rubble and begin first aid. I prayed as I ran. I prayed as I dug. I prayed as I began to assess the injuries of Lance Corporal Smith (not his real name). He had been blown off the overpass and landed two stories below and 50 feet down the highway. He was conscious and writhing in pain. I assessed his injuries: an obvious broken leg and a large gash in his wrist but further inspection revealed no bleeding and he was able to move all his limbs. The entire time we talked and I reassured him and comforted him. I had to keep him conscious and calm until the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) would arrive with ambulance and stretcher. I knelt over him, shielding his eyes from the sun and keeping eye contact as I assured him. He begged me not to leave him. Of course I wouldn’t. I anointed him and prayed. He was the last to be loaded into the emergency vehicle and since there were no more stretchers, I carried him with the help of two other Marines. Soon, I learned that all eight of them had survived the blast but a few of them had major injuries.
Moments after we returned to our Humvee, sniper shots rang out. A Marine was hit. The bullet thankfully only hit the fleshy part of his leg and his injuries were not life threatening. We were relieved by the QRF from our defensive positions and returned to the main FOB from which the injured were now being air-lifted to medical facilities. The other Marines needed to talk, to vent, to pray. Everyone had done their jobs well without thought to themselves and keeping their emotions in check as they comforted and treated their wounded brothers. But now the reality hit. We two chaplains continued our work visiting with Marines and Sailors who were shaken and angry. They needed reassurance. They wanted to pray. This went on for two hours.
We still had one more Forward Operating Base that we were scheduled to visit for Mass but I was concerned for our Security Team Members who were the “First Responders” after this devastating attack. They were shaken and exhausted. It had now been 12 hours since our mission began. We had not eaten or rested since early morning but no one hesitated when the Commanding Officer asked us to continue on to the next location which hadn’t seen a Catholic Priest in 3 months. When we arrived, more Marines then at any other stop that day gathered for Mass. Several of the non-Catholics asked permission to join us so that they too could pray for their brothers. In the dimly lighted room, light began to grow in the eyes of those who gathered, and the intensity of the responses echoed in the hall beyond us. In this moment the Marine Corps Motto, Semper Fidelis was incarnated in these Men who gathered around a simple table for this Most Sacred of Meals.
My struggle of faith did not begin until later. On the drive back to Camp Fallujah, our main base, the thoughts and emotions concerning our experience consumed me. The images of our circle of prayer and Holy Communion—the blessing for protection from harm—the explosion shortly after—kneeling over the Lance Corporal! All these images kept flashing rapidly in my head and I had to choke back the tears. What good had my prayers been, I wondered. Where were the angels of protection?! What difference do I make as a Priest?
It was only later that I realized the miracle of their survival and become convinced that Angels must have cushioned the fall of LCPL Smith to prevent him from breaking every bone in his body. Only later did I remember the fervor of faith, the hunger for Holy Communion, the long line of those waiting to speak with me. Only later did I realize that it was less about my faith and more about theirs. Only later did I understand that God was not only ministering to them through me but, He was ministering to me through them!
My friends listen to me when I tell you that faith does not only survive out here, it thrives, it grows, and it spreads. In the shadow of this faith, I am deeply humbled and greatly comforted. I look into the faces of these young Marines and Sailors and I see God gazing back at me with love.
As for those injured in the attack that day—four of them have already returned to duty but the others have long recoveries ahead. Two of them lost a limb and the Corpsman is fighting back from a fractured spine. I pray daily for them here. There names and faces are seared into my heart and mind. May the Lord grant them healing in body, mind and spirit! I hope that you will join me in praying for these fine young warriors! Semper Fidelis! Fr. John
Fr. John Gayton writes from Fallujah, Iraq for CatholicMil.org. This article appears courtesy of www.catholicmil.org, on a mission to strengthen military families, promote vocations to the AMS, and advance the cause of Chaplain Fr. Vincent Robert Capodanno.
Used with permission of CatholicMil.org