In Kuwait, Baptism Before the Gunfire

Feb 28, 2003 06:04 PM EST

LIVING SUPPORT AREA 7, Kuwait -- While hundreds of Marines with rifles slung over their shoulders looked on, eight young men in green shorts and T-shirts approached the altar during last Sunday's church services at this military camp in the northern Kuwaiti desert. One by one they received blessings from a chaplain and plunged into a freshly dug pool to be baptized, emerging to raucous applause.

As war approaches, the canvas chapels in Kuwait's military camps and logistics bases are jammed with worshipers, many of whom have not crossed the threshold of a church back home in years. The sermons on placing faith in a higher power at moments of crisis seem to resonate now more strongly than ever with many Marines.

"I don't know about you, but I find myself talking to God a lot more out here than I did at the rear," said the Rev. Bill Devine, chaplain for the 7th Marine Regiment, as the wind whipped up clouds of dust and billowed the white flag with a blue cross that flew above his outdoor Mass. "I couldn't be happier to see so many new faces out here."

Many troops call such "foxhole religion" critical to their preparation for war, saying it provides confidence that they will be protected if called upon to fight and faith that their mission is just.

"After today, I feel more ready to cross the border," said Lance Cpl. Matthew Haugan of Hayward, Calif., one of the Marines baptized Sunday. "This is better armor than anything the Marine Corps could give me."

Haugan, 19, said he was part of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang when he first met with a Marine recruiter two years ago. A recent trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington shook his core beliefs, he said, and regular meetings with his battalion chaplain since he arrived in the desert have set him on a different path.

"Being out here helped me realize how stupid that stuff was. We are all on the same side. We are all Marines," Haugan said. "I feel better about myself than I ever have, and I know God will be looking out for me."

More so than in other wars fought by Americans in modern times, religion infuses the crisis with Iraq, as some in the Muslim world see an attack against Islam, especially after the war in Afghanistan. Chaplains and troops in Kuwait are told to avoid religious references that would fuel that suspicion. The military discourages overt signs of faith outside the guarded compounds for fear any such expression might offend Kuwaitis' religious sensibilities.

Devine, 55, a Roman Catholic priest with a thick Boston accent, oversees the religious lives of several thousand Marines at Living Support Area 7, a tent city 45 miles north of Kuwait City. He and seven other chaplains offer Christian services every day and six hours of them on Sunday. A rabbi shuttles in for a Jewish service Friday evenings, and an Islamic chaplain is due to cater to Muslim Marines. The Pentagon estimates that 0.2 percent of the U.S. military's 2 million members are Muslim.

About 80 miles south, at Camp Arifjan, the logistics and supply headquarters for the U.S. military in Kuwait, the khaki tent used for services is regularly packed beyond its capacity of 150. Some worshipers stand outside, listening through the canvas walls.

"It's the best ministry I've ever had," said Army Chaplain Keith Kilgore, 45, a Southern Baptist minister who preaches at Arifjan. "When soldiers are about to face combat, they start getting spiritual. They want to get right with God."

Sgt. 1st Class Danielle Bethley, who attended an evangelical service at Arifjan last weekend, said she had not been to church in a long time. "I decided to give it a try. And I liked it," she said. "It can provide comfort, especially in moments when we can get really scared."

Since the time of George Washington, the U.S. military has brought along uniformed pastors to address the spiritual needs of its soldiers. "We jump out of airplanes with them. We go into the field with them," said Army Chaplain Scott Kennedy, 34, a nondenominational minister who carries around a large wooden staff adorned with pins and insignia marking his 17 years of military service.

As noncombatants on the battlefield, chaplains travel unarmed, protected by a "religious program specialist" who carries a rifle. In war, most are assigned to medical units to support the wounded and give last rites. After fighting, they focus on helping troops deal with trauma. The Army, Navy and Air Force require chaplains to undertake several years of training.

The job requires resourcefulness. The Rev. Darren Stennett, a chaplain who helped lead the baptism ceremonies at Living Support Area 7, said that, for the last year, he has been carrying around a specially designed plastic liner to seal a hole in the ground, waiting for an opportunity to use it. He tried to baptize a Marine a few months ago at a winter training exercise in Bridgeport, Calif., but the water froze.

Chaplains do more than preach. The other day, an Army major at Camp Arifjan took a troubled young soldier to Kennedy for help. The 20-year-old, married just eight months and father of an 8-month-old baby, had been fighting with his wife, so Kennedy helped arrange for the soldier to send a videotaped message home.

Troops in the field often stop by the chaplain's tent at odd hours. "Most of them just want to talk about what's coming up," Stennett said.

Many of Sunday's sermons expressed hopes that conflict could be avoided while calling on troops to begin their spiritual preparations for war.

"Let us pray for peace," said the Rev. Charles McCartney, a British chaplain at Camp Arifjan, as warplanes roared overhead. He chose Hymn 42 from a prayer book for the British army, sung to the accompaniment of a Yamaha electric organ:

"When I tread the verge of Jordan,

Bid my anxious fears subside;

Death of death and hell's destruction.

Land me safe on Canaan's side."

At LSA-7, about 25 miles from the Iraqi border, Devine asked God to "let the decisions made in the coming weeks bring us peace without war. But, if you want to use us to further the goal of justice, then use us. We are ready."

Devine acknowledged afterward, as artillery shells rumbled on a nearby firing range, that battlefield conversions often do not survive the peace. "I know this doesn't necessarily mean that God will be in their lives forever," he said. "But their experiences over here will change them, and if that includes bringing God more into the picture, so much the better."

By Jonathan Finer and Peter Baker