Dangers in Iraq Turn Some Soldiers' Thoughts to God
- Wednesday, November 19, 2003
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. American soldiers don't fight from foxholes here, but they have whispered many a prayer as their Humvees rumbled across Iraq's Sunni Triangle, where improvised explosive devices and snipers are a perpetual threat.
For many members of the Alabama National Guard's 1166th Military Police Company, in the thick of the fighting since late April, religion has been a rock.
Take 32-year-old Pvt. Darrel Cartwright. Cartwright, a communications specialist and father of four, came to the Middle East with the rest of his company in March. He was baptized at a service in Kuwait's Camp Arifjan in early April, prompted by the looming war.
"It's something I had thought about doing in the past, but if I went into battle and anything, you know, happened -- I wanted to be prepared," Cartwright said. "You start thinking like that when you go off to a war."
He was tested not long after his baptism. The Thomasville, Ala.-based 1166th saw its heaviest fighting at Gharma, near Fallujah, in late April. Its members were asked to secure and defend a railway station, and for the whole month of May took mortar and sniper fire. Many of them also came down with a bad case of "Saddam's revenge." At one point, diarrhea and nausea debilitated as many as 20 soldiers in the unit.
They slept in tents, dined on MREs (meals ready to eat), showered beneath 5-gallon buckets and flailed at swarms of black flies impervious to bug spray.
Cartwright lost 40 pounds during May and June. (With a couple of all-you-can-eat mess halls now set up a short drive from their Baghdad camp, he has gained back 22 of them.) "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" is the dictum ascribed to by Cartwright and many other members of the 1166th.
"I prayed every day at Gharma, and we never did get a serious attack, even though units all around us sure did," he said. "I think that was as much because of the aggressive posture that we always showed to the enemy: They didn't want to mess with us."
A dozen or so members of the 1166th join in worship services organized by one of their own, and held in their very own makeshift chapel.
On Sunday mornings, you would normally find 31-year-old ordained elder Roger Anderson preaching and praying at the New Pentecostal Holiness Church of Greensboro, Ala.
But Anderson is also a sergeant and cook in the 1166th, now encamped in former Iraqi officers' quarters near the Baghdad airport. While the crumbling stucco buildings have no electricity, heat or plumbing, they have provided the 1166th with space to set up a small chapel.
Anderson first organized prayer sessions with fellow soldiers last February, right after the unit was mobilized by the Guard and sent to Fort Stewart, Ga.
America was girding for war.
"Morale seemed pretty low, with some of the soldiers leaving home for the very first time," said Anderson. "So we started meeting three times a week out under the sky, right beside our Humvees. When it would rain, we'd just stay inside the jeeps during services."
They have prayed together ever since, whether in Kuwait or Iraq -- Bible study Wednesday nights, unity prayers on Friday nights and regular services Sunday mornings. Anderson said they did this even during the MP company's toughest times back in Gharma. "We needed it then more than ever."
Last Sunday, some members of the 1166th opted to drive eight miles over to the other side of the Baghdad airport to attend services at Camp Slayer. Among them was 41-year-old Anthony Roney, an officer with the Alabama Marine Police.
Roney is shy about discussing his religion, but says that war got him thinking more about God.
"It's not just because of the stress here, but your family back home," he said before leaving for the service. "I worry more about them than I do about me." He and his wife have three children ages 12, 9 and 6.
For Roney and the other MPs with the Thomasville and Greensboro-based 1166th, this war is far from over. Their current assignment is to provide escorts and security for the Iraqi Survey Group, special teams hunting for weapons of mass destruction. These missions take them to the most dangerous quarters of the country.
On this Sunday morning, the MPs said they hoped they're in the prayers of the folks back home.
Mike Marshall is editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2003 Religion News Service
PHOTO: A religious sign adorns the front of a Humvee belonging to the Alabama National Guard's 1166th Military Police Company in Iraq. Photo by Mike Marshall.
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