FORWARD OPERATING BASE UNION III, Iraq -- The Bible states "Iron sharpens Iron" and in a war zone it rings true. However, that iron can cut and the Chaplain Corps and their assistants are often the ones who heal those wounds.
Caring for the spirit of a warrior is simultaneously both simple and complex. The Joint Area Support Group — Central relies on the care and attention of four dedicated individuals.
Petty Officer 1st Class Tronda L. Douglas, a religious program specialist originally based in Norfolk, Va., believes her job is simply defined. "Helping whenever someone is in need. That's what we're here for," she said. Dougals' sense of accomplishment is joined to this principle.
"Being able to notice that some days you're not smiling. If I know you like beef jerky or he likes power-bars, just being able to give you something, seeing the smile on your face is enough," she added.
She makes her job sound easy but there is a difficult side, too. "Someone can come into the office yelling and screaming and I have been screamed at yelled at, they are upset for other reasons, but you know in your heart it's not about you — you can't take it personally," said Douglas. "There's some days, trust me. Being able to talk with family helps me get through those."
Chap. Col. David G. Reeson, deployed from Offut Air Force Base, Neb. He started as a Reservist, but due to a shortage of chaplains has found himself on active duty most of the last 10 years.
Reeson is also able to clearly define his role. "We are supposed to be a visible sign of the Holy. So we head out, spend time with people, just being available," he said. But there is much involved within his singular purpose. To Reeson, being a chaplain means serving all religious denominations. "I would be there for the Jewish, the Muslim, and the Protestant."
"We're paid just to talk to people, paid just to visit," said Reeson, smiling. "People invite me into their lives." Part of the reason for this may be that service members can turn to chaplains without fear of judgment. When a person may want to talk but feels inhibited about the subject chaplains offer something a first sergeant can't.
"We have complete confidentiality," Reeson said. "People feel they can come talk to us about things. The more you go out, the more people come in for counseling, marriage counseling, spiritual guidance, decisions on their careers."
Reeson never forgets that he is not only a priest, but a military chaplain. "I support the warrior. Some of the things we do are with the warrior in mind."
"Last year they were being mortared every Sunday; it causes people to think of their mortality. For good reason people start to prioritize what's really important, what's really not important," Reeson recalled.
Parishes differ as a priest moves through his career and the same is true with deployments. "In the military, I deal a lot more with people in the same age category, 18 to 30 year-olds, where in a parish you have a lot of older people. Different issues come up. Here I don't ever hear a baby cry at mass, but I hear people snoring sometimes though," he joked. He maintains his sense of humor even though he is sometimes called upon for the ultimate service to a military member.
"I have had a few occasions when I've had to go to the hospital for the Last Rites, the 'anointing of the sick' for someone that was hit pretty hard. When you are with their buddies who question 'Why did he die and I am going to survive, I just got a few scratches.' Life and death issues, questions of their own mortality. I do a lot more listening than talking quite often."
Reeson's care extends from the tragic to a more routine maintenance of the soul.
Deployments can be extremely hard on marriages and for this Reeson emphasizes the benefits of faith. With half of all marriages ending in divorce Reeson attempts to extend this any benefit available here in Theater to all walks of life.
"Whether you're Jewish, Muslim, or Protestant or Catholic, it doesn't make any difference," Reeson noted. "[With faith] you're able to cope better and so with these deployments that are more frequent and longer it seems that if I can get people involved, not just coming to church on Sunday but in their spiritual life, in reading and their relationship with their god, whatever name they might give their God, they would be happier. We offer a number of different programs, they do want to build a better relationship even though they are far away."
Maj. Jan Koczera, 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team chaplain calls Hamilton Square, N.J. home. As a member of the Joint Area Support Group — Central here in Baghdad, he has also seen his share of active duty. This tour is his third.
"Faith is an essential in any person's lifestyle, there's your mental, your physical and then there's your soul," said Koczera. "You have to have some sort of faith. Even the atheist has faith; he has faith that there is no God. There's a mystery to life, in this great mystery, I don't care how great a scientist you are, you cannot define everything." Koczera comfortably deals in esoteric principles with practical advice.
"Those great questions in life, like why do things happen the way they do, what is my purpose, how do I have the strength to go on, those are things that just resist definition. So if you are going to be a warrior, you are setting yourself on a course that will be extremely demanding physically, it's going to require mental concentration, and if your spirit isn't in line with that there will be a terrible sense of aloneness and emptiness and there will be a point that you just run out of the strength to do it,' he added.
Through his combat-zone service Koczera's experience offers help to any service member. "In a war zone there's immediacy about everything and people don't want theories, they don't want to know general ideas, they want to know practical solutions. 'How do I make it through today, how do I deal with the fact that my buddy has just been killed or seriously injured, how do I deal with the pile of crap at home and I can't go back and help it?'" He used this experience to sharpen his own ideas on how best to help.
"So you have to present a practical faith," he said. Often, a great truth can aid everyone and Koczera uses his own discoveries to his best advantage. "Now, I have found this a wonderful thing, because it keeps me real and then when I go back to my church at home I make sure I am still in the real and that attracts people, versus the temptation in any religious group to get into your own language, to get some ideals and things going that have no practical identification."
But it is being a Soldier's preacher is what Koczera loves most.
"As a chaplain, I step out to them, I am with them and I share life with them." Koczera believes in doing what Soldiers do, including participating in the individual movements techniques training in the Texas sun. "That's a tremendous burden but also a great gift and honor," he noted.
"I have always believed that I don't have the right to minister to someone if I don't share their lives." Whether you regularly attend church makes no difference to him.
"Jesus spent most of his time with the people on the fringes and not with the established religion of the day. So I truly feel I am doing more of Christ's ministry as a chaplain than I ever would as a pastor."
"The issues they give me are real-life issues, marriage problems, personal problems, what do I do with my life type of problems, how do I get out of the jam that I am in type of things. So there again that's a great gift of working with Soldiers, that there's so much more I can do and that they are ready to hear," he added.
Koczera understands "calling", he had one and looks for the same in each person he works with. "A person can be called to be a warrior; you don't have to go any further than the Bible to see all kinds of examples. There is the sense that way down deep inside of us, every man and woman needs a cause to stand for, something they believe in, standards they defend. These are the things you believe and commit to so strongly."
This commitment brings sacrifice and hardship too. "For a lot of Soldiers this may be the first time they were ever away from home or the furthest they've been away from home, so there's that sense of being alone and being disconnected," he noticed. And for many young Soldiers, they are faced with life-and-death issues every day. "It's a whole different level of doing things."
Staff Sgt. Daryl Caulfield, from West Hampton, N.J. sees his role of chaplain's assistant as a mixture of functions. A former Marine aircraft mechanic turned Military Police then chaplains assistant, he is prepared for whatever comes.
"Office manager, body guard for the chaplain, church secretary, music coordinator, supply Sgt. and a good mix of clerical duties," said Caulfield. The job is much more than that also. "It's an opportunity to serve Soldiers and provide comfort and encouragement."
He points out the connection between his religious beliefs and those of the military. "Warrior values and many of the things religion speaks about — they go hand in hand," he said. One of those common tenets is selfless service.
"It's the idea of helping Soldiers. To me that's most important, being able to serve God, and to serve not just my Soldiers but my country as well. There's a lot of satisfaction in being of service," Caulfield said. "I am often approached by Soldiers; it can be an innocent conversation that through questioning reveals something deeper going on. It gives me an opportunity to help Soldiers that are confronting different issues in their lives."
He also understands the one element of military life that service members deal with beyond the average civilian experience shared by most Americans. "The uncertainty of going to war, the idea they could possibly die doing what they are doing. They realize how fragile life is; they see it all around them. There is a draw to church to draw close to God. A lot of the values that the Army and other services hold are honorable and shared with faith groups, honor and integrity, stuff that is essential to the Christian principles."
Austere surroundings are part of being a Soldier. Caulfield relates to this. "It is not always going to be comfortable. We take what we have and drive on, we can do what we have to do no matter what the circumstance and no matter what the environment," he said. "I've seen services held on the hood of a humvee, even our dirty nasty basketball court; we still have an obligation to provide services for our Soldiers. It is what it is."
Kozcera summed up his experiences. "To be separated from your family, your friends, all the things that are normally part of your life — it is amazing how many people there are whose life is on the very edge and it doesn't take much to push them over. On a number of occasions when people have been thinking about suicide, I have been able to intervene and they are alive because I was there. That's no small thing."
No small thing indeed.