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On the move in Iraq: A chaplain’s-eye view

By Chaplain Stephen Pratel Sr.

March 25, 2003, 7 a.m. — Line after line, row after row, 831 soldiers and more than 150 vehicles rolled out of Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait. Before the 60-hour drive across the barren desert of Iraq was over, we would cover almost 500 kilometers, all without serious injury or enemy contact.

In August 2002, I had been assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment (Bastogne Bulldogs), and stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Now I traveled with these soldiers heading into a war zone. The sand in the air from an approaching storm and the dust kicked up by our vehicles reduced visibility to a minimum. Wearing chemical protective suits, body armor and Kevlar helmets, we were almost completely isolated from the elements. We were soon engulfed in a horrendous thunderstorm. But to me the storm symbolized the awesome power of a just God.

Just days before, our commander and command sergeant major had gathered the soldiers for a final huddle before battle. Each of us addressed the troops. At its conclusion, I asked everyone to join with me in prayer. I prayed that God would keep our hearts pure and our actions just. We humbled ourselves before God, confessed our sins, and asked for His blessing, protection and guidance. Standing upon the promise of Psalm 91:11, we asked for His angels to guard and protect us.

Arriving at our Forward Area Refueling Point on March 28, we heard that our forces were taking heavy enemy attack from the city of Najaf. Suicide squads were attacking without hesitation or fear. Our mission was to move in, replace the heavily armored unit, and take the city.

We strategically positioned our battalion on the southern outskirts of the city. The civilians we encountered were scared, but most were relieved to see us. “Saddam has destroyed us,” was their constant cry. Najaf, one of Shiite Islam’s most holy cities, had often received unwanted attention from Saddam’s regime, most of it brutal. We received reports that Saddam’s troops were taking men from their homes, holding their families hostage, and forcing them on suicide missions against U.S. forces. Our soldiers braced themselves for the fact that they might have to kill men not even wanting to fight. This weighed heavily on everyone’s mind.

On March 29, Bravo Company launched the battalion’s first attack into the city. Their objective, “Dog East,” was a school that had been taken over by Saddam’s forces. Accompanied by tanks from the 3rd Infantry Division, two platoons swept through the complex, clearing buildings, searching the facility and inspecting for possible weapons caches. In two hours the complex had been cleared with little direct enemy contact, though regular mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire came from the outside of the complex. I waited at a command center outside the complex. As we watched the assault, mortar fire began bracketing our position. When one landed just feet from our vehicles, we were forced to move.

When word came that our troops had reached the far side of the complex, the all clear was given. My assistant and I moved in with the third platoon that had been operating a checkpoint and keeping civilians out of the area. As we passed out water, food and candy, mortar fire and grenades would occasionally drop in the area. Several enemy soldiers lay dead throughout the compound. Some, it seemed, had been dead for days. Their decomposing bodies filled the air with a horrid stench. After about an hour, we made our way to the far end of the compound.

We conducted debriefing sessions, prayed with soldiers and offered encouragement. Everyone was amazed at God’s wonderful protection. One or two of the mortar rounds had landed within feet of us. Some grenades smashed into buildings just feet from soldiers. Through all of this, not one in the task force sustained any type of serious injury.

On March 30, Charlie Company moved up to Dog East, intending to move through it to the next objective, “Dog West,” an enemy infantry training center and brigade headquarters. Their assault of the compound was quite different from Bravo Company’s. They encountered significant direct and indirect enemy fire and engaged and killed a larger number of enemy soldiers. Before the day ended, the entire facility was cleared and secured. Waiting at a command center, my assistant and I heard the good news — once again, no U.S. casualties.

Over the next month our battalion, with some brief involvement of other units, cleared and secured the entire city, policing hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds, artillery, mortar, and anti-aircraft weapons, and thousands of AK 47s, pistols and other weapons. Practically every school had been closed to students and used as a weapons depot. Every neighborhood and house seemed to have had a cache of weapons. Anti-aircraft guns were hidden in backyard gardens. Sheds contained munitions and ammunition, and mortar rounds were as common as rocks on the ground.

The civilians were told by Saddam’s soldiers to keep the weapons, and if they returned and found anything missing or tampered with the family would be killed.

On Easter Sunday we celebrated Christ’s resurrection and the world’s deliverance from the bondage and domination of sin, establishing freedom and eternal life for all who would believe. Nearly 1 million Muslims, all living outside this truth, walked past our front gate on a religious pilgrimage.

On April 25, our battalion was relieved by the Marines. We left Najaf with some regret and headed another 500 kilometers north to an area just south of the city of Mosul. The people we met and the experiences we had have inalterably shaped our lives. I pray we have had more than just an immediate impression on this culture. The people here deserve to know the blessings of liberty and justice for all. As a Christian, I hope that the Christians of Iraq will be free to practice their faith, and share the wonderful message of the freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Chaplain (Capt.) Stephen Pratel Sr. serves with 1-327 Infantry, “Above the Rest.”

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