the move in Iraq: A chaplain’s-eye view
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
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
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
(Capt.) Stephen Pratel Sr. serves with 1-327 Infantry, “Above
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