Iraq: The news from the front lines isn’t all bad
By John W. Kennedy
As the post-war transition to democracy continues in Iraq, many mainstream publications and television programs claim that everything is going wrong in the rebuilding process, that low morale afflicts service personnel and that the whole operation seems doomed.
But numerous Assemblies of God chaplains and soldiers tell a different story. They repeatedly have seen provision and protection that can only be explained as from the hand of God. Men and women are growing in faith as never before.
Below are some accounts from those who have served and those who are continuing to serve in the U.S. military in Iraq.
PRAYER DOESN’T FALL FLAT
Army Capt. Stephen Pratel, an Assemblies of God chaplain, discovered he had a steep learning curve upon arriving in Iraq from Fort Campbell, Ky.
“We have to be ready to be God’s people on the spot,” says Pratel, who had to conduct a memorial service even before crossing into Iraq.
Many soldiers in his unit quickly looked to Pratel as God’s representative on the scene.
“When they say, ‘Chaplain, pray,’ they expect God to move,” Pratel says.
In April 2003, his unit, the 1-327th infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, had to drive more than 100 vehicles north from Najaf to Al-Qayyarah, located about 30 miles south of Mosul — a distance of nearly 300 miles. The U.S. crew headed for an abandoned Iraqi airfield to be used as a base of operation. But only 40 miles into the journey, just after clearing Baghdad’s northern suburbs, the entire convoy had gone through every available spare tire, even those on the trailers being hauled.
A combination of factors caused the spate of flats: the oppressive Iraqi heat, vehicles loaded to the hilt with gear, debris strung along the road and the fact that many of the Humvees’ tires were built for off-road driving.
As the convoy stopped for fuel, the battalion executive officer ran up to Pratel. “Chaplain, we need a miracle right now,” he said. “If we have one more flat tire we’re going to start leaving vehicles on the side of the road. You need to pray.”
The commander also informed Pratel that the most daunting part of the trip lay ahead: The farther north the convoy went, the worse the road conditions would become.
Pratel quickly gathered every Christian he knew from the outfit and asked them to join him in prayer for a miracle as he walked around the entire convoy.
There were no flat tires the remaining 250 miles.
“We are God’s people on the ground,” Pratel says. “God answers when we pray, and people expect it to happen. We shouldn’t be casual about that knowledge.”
A CHAPLAIN’S PRAYER ANSWERED
Capt. John VanderKaay, an Assemblies of God Air Force chaplain, pioneered a church immediately north of Baghdad in the contractors’ camp at Anaconda, a logistics support area encompassing Balad Air Base. Support contractors trucked in everything from food to fuel, plus built the base infrastructure and even operated the dining facilities.
VanderKaay began the church on Sunday evenings in November 2003, with only three attendees in an unheated tent. The church quickly grew to 35 men and women meeting in a cramped conference room at the contractors’ headquarters.
“When rockets and mortars start landing, people start thinking about eternity a little more than they would back in the safety of the States,” VanderKaay says.
No more people could fit in the conference room, so VanderKaay secured permission for the church to meet in a larger multipurpose auditorium. The church had to move several times before the newly built auditorium opened in October.
But as the March date approached for his return to the States, VanderKaay had no other chaplain available to take over the services. Nevertheless, he remained optimistic as his last week in Iraq came.
“I kept telling my people, if God started this work, He’ll continue it,” VanderKaay recalls.
Carl Durham arrived three days before the chaplain left.
“I’m a bivocational truck driver and pastor,” Durham told VanderKaay. “I believe God wants me to lead these services.”
By October, the church had expanded to Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services.
WOUNDED SOLDIER CLINGS TO GOD
In July, a medic yelled at Capt. Lou DelTufo to grab his gear because the Assemblies of God chaplain was needed at a field hospital. A Marine had been badly burned when an explosive device damaged the vehicle in which he had been patrolling. As the medic cared for the Marine’s wounds, DelTufo began ministering to his spirit.
John, the Marine lying helpless on a stretcher, called the chaplain over and asked him to pray for God’s strength and peace. As DelTufo finished praying, he noticed an “Enduring Freedom” pendant on the wounded serviceman’s identification tags. Upon closer examination, DelTufo read the inscription from Psalm 91:14,15: “The Lord says, ‘I will rescue those who love Me. I will protect those who trust in My name. When they call on Me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble,’” (NLT). The Assemblies of God Chaplaincy Department had provided dog tags quoting part of Psalm 91 to soldiers who requested a “military survival kit.”
DelTufo looked the Marine in the eye and asked, “John, do you believe it?”
John’s eyes welled with tears and he grabbed DelTufo’s hand and shouted for all the medics to hear, “I believe it, Chaplain; it’s what helps me get through!”
As medical personnel whisked John away to an awaiting helicopter, DelTufo’s faith was strengthened. Although the Marine’s body had been battered and broken, his faith in God had not been shaken.
“When we come to the point where our own strength fails us, we always need to remember to rely on God, who promises to shelter and sustain us,” DelTufo says. “Knowing that God is there for us in the tough times will help get us through.”
Although Joshua Webster felt God’s hand upon his life, he had let his relationship with the Lord slide. In fact, he felt he had compromised his standards to the point where the Lord wouldn’t forgive him for the sins he committed.
“I knew there was a reason that the Lord had allowed my deployment assignment to be in Iraq for a second time,” says Webster, a senior airman with the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron.
Back in Iraq for only a few days in August, Webster picked up a flier about a Bible study group called Band of Brothers, based on Acts 2:42-47. Webster soon re-established a relationship with the Lord, and he has continued to be discipled by other men in uniform.
Band of Brothers has developed into an effective spiritual and emotional support group. Nightly Bible studies on the base are open to all members of the armed forces, as well as to contractors living on the base.
“Each night, we study about what things mean in the Bible and we pray for each other,” Webster says. “New people show up every night who are lonely, confused, scared or just looking for fellowship.”
Because Balad Air Base is a dangerous area 42 miles north of Baghdad, many initially are drawn to Band of Brothers out of fear. They see how well the regular attendees are coping with the stress of daily living and they want that same peace.
“Since I’ve been here I haven’t been scared,” says Webster, whose grandfather Bill Smith is pastor of Highland Meadows Assembly of God in Red Oak, Texas. “I feel the Lord’s presence and protection surrounding me in a powerful way.”
Capt. Chris Bassett, an Assemblies of God chaplain for the 1-303rd Army Armor Battalion at Camp Victory in Baghdad, reports that soldiers are growing in their walk with the Lord as a result of Purpose-Driven Life classes. “Many are making commitments to baptism. On their rest and relaxation trips home, they’re showing leadership in their homes by communicating with their wives the importance of their return to — or first-time attendance at — church,” says Bassett, who also leads Sunday night Pentecostal chapel services at the base.
Bassett will start a marriage support group for men whose marriages are faltering during deployment. He will base the group on Stormie Omartian’s book The Power of a Praying Husband which he has used successfully as a counseling tool. He points them to the power of prayer in a situation where they are forced to realize that they can’t control things at home. “I remind them that, regardless of what awaits them upon their return home, they need the strength of the Lord to make them the men they need to be to handle it,” Bassett says.
“Some people speak of being brought to the wilderness to be tested and tried,” Bassett says. “Here we are in the original Mesopotamian wilderness. But let me tell you that God is definitely here.”
GOD OF THE CLOSE CALLS
Brigade Chaplain Clinton Caszatt spent 14 months in Iraq, mobilized with the Army National Guard’s 203rd Engineers out of Joplin, Mo. Miraculously, the unit suffered no violent deaths during his time there.
“We had a strong sense of the presence of God as we entered our vehicles,” says Caszatt, who returned home in July. “God’s protection was evident by a lot of close calls we had.”
For instance, a rifle round hit the metal rim on the windshield of a vehicle that a major was driving.
“Two inches lower, it would have hit him in the face,” Caszatt says.
On another occasion a sergeant was en route to the mess hall when a rocket landed less than 10 feet from him. It didn’t explode.
On Easter, a group of terrorists attacked the engineer base, located near the runway at Baghdad’s airport. Normally the unit would only have rifles to return fire, but a couple of days earlier three Abrams tanks and two Bradley fighting vehicles had been brought to the compound for repairs. The heavy fighting artillery repelled the attack of the insurgents and no Americans were hurt.
“God really does listen to the prayers of His people,” Caszatt says.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
Being away from home, family and other loved ones can be extremely stressful for troops, according to Air Force Airman 1st Class Yicheol Ha, who has been attending Assemblies of God churches all of his 20 years.
The conditions present an ideal situation for Christians to share their faith, says Ha, who went to Central Assembly of God in Great Falls, Mont., before being deployed to Iraq eight months ago. “The Holy Spirit has been working through us to share the gospel throughout the camp.”
Believers gather nightly to discuss how they can pray for each other and the people of Iraq, Ha says. In September, Ha helped organize a water baptismal service in which 15 servicemen were baptized.
Christians face opposition from both physical and spiritual attacks, Ha says, citing Ephesians 6:11,12.
“As a Christian, I have to be ready to fight this spiritual war,” Ha says. “Because of the power of God and our trust in Him we are able to fight through.”
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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