V is for Victory

People think that the scariest thing about war is the shooting and explosions as people are trying to kill you.   Actually, that's the most exciting part.

It's hard to qualify what is "winning" in war when you are a chaplain.  I never shoot at anyone.  I never was in charge of soldiers on cordon and search missions, on guard, or the interactions with locals.  Unlike the story the Chaplain Corps tried to sell us, I never was really part of a "key leader engagement" with an Afghan mullah.   When it came to things the commanders could measure, I  was pretty much an oxygen thief.  When rounds came in, my job was to stay out of the way and maybe help move people and stuff as appropriate.  I would run to the aid station as the volume of fire allowed, but otherwise I wasn't helping the team.

Of course, not getting hit DOES help the team.  A battalion only has one chaplain, and if I was wounded, no one would replace me.  Some chaplains liked to go running around in predictably  hot missions.  Some even carried weapons to "help".  However, I only went on missions intended to be low key, even though they all didn't turn out that way.  Even so, with our unit averaging four fights per day, I "avoided getting hit" A LOT.  After my first two weeks in country, I started keeping a record of the incidents. 

Most entries are tame:  "RPGs & SAF @ Location*." "107mm Rocket hits 50m from chapel."

Others have more details: "2xIDF, @ Location. 1 strikes building roof I am in (blew a hole in the concrete roof)." "while at Location, COP takes accurate SAF. AK-47 or Dragunov round strikes the wall 3 feet from where I am standing. No BDA."  "Recoilless hits wall near mortar pit and ignites a bunch of stuff around the mortar."

Some are comical: "AGS-17 & SAF @ Location. Bullet whizzes by my head as I am foolishly looking over the HESCOs. Whoops."  "82mm@Location, hits 30m from chapel. This place is getting dangerous." "SAF & RPG @ Location. Stupid war interrupts my evangelistic service!"

There are some longer ones I'll include in future posts, but the one where I actually contributed something to the fight just said: "IED, enroute, on my vehicle. Vehicle inop, no casualties."

I was on my usual rotation between combat outposts (COPs).  We had been warned by locals that an IED had been emplaced.  We stopped twice to look for it, but didn't find anything.  A 20 minute drive had taken almost two hours - after all, you don't want to stumble on an IED.  We were well past the area it was supposed to be in, and the staff sergeant in the vehicle turned around to me and said, "sir, this one time in Iraq, they put anoth-" WHOOMP!!!!!!!

I felt something slam into my left leg.  Dust was everywhere, and I heard bullets hitting our vehicle and other explosions.  I asked the guy in the truck to my left if he was ok - he didn't answer, and I started yelling at him, and when I smacked his arm, he turned and looked at me - the intercom broke in the blast, but he was fine.  The turret gunner had a Mark-19, an automatic 40mm grenade launcher.  He fired a couple of rounds, and then it jammed.  He started flipping out and chaos reigned around us.  I decided I'd better do something.

"Get your alternate weapon.  Get your alternate weapon.  No, I don't HAVE a weapon, you need to grab YOUR alternate weapon.  Yes, that (his M203 combination rifle and grenade launcher).  Now return fire.  (after a couple of shots).  Ok, now try to clear the jam.    Good, now return fire with that.  Here is another box of ammo..."  

The damage was enough to disable the truck, but none of us was really hurt.  Just ringing ears - the thing that hit my leg was just a small clergy kit I kept in my cargo pocket, but the shock of the blast made it bounce off me surprisingly hard.  Our return fire was enough to slow down the attack, and a second truck pulled around us, hooked up the tow bar, and pulled us forward to the next COP.

During the battle, I didn't pray once, though I did pray in thankfulness afterward.  In fact, during my entire deployment, while I did pray many times for the men in the battle, I only prayed for my own survival once (another story for another day).  When the bullets hit and explosions rain, you don't do a lot of cognitive thinking.  You just act.  The adrenaline fires up, and you do what you have been trained to do, and act on instinct.  When the shooting stops, and everyone has survived, you say - that's a victory.

Nothing back home compares to that.  We have lost brothers who survived the Pech Valley, but went thrill seeking, perhaps trying to replicate the thrill of combat - and their recklessness was their undoing.  In contrast, faith settles the soul.  It tells you what's important, where to find purpose, and your place in the story of yourself and those around you.  It helps you see, because faith is not blind, that you survived so you could be someone who makes a difference in the lives of those around you, those who count on you most...and that's the real victory.

* For some reason I'm really hesitant to list locations and names.  If you were there, you know.  if you weren't, it doesn't matter.