Faith on the line in Iraq and at home
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the World War II adage goes. Certainly Catholics who have faced war in Iraq and their families say that the experience has strengthened faith both in foxholes and on the home front. These eight war stories provide snapshots into the lives of those most intimately affected by the Iraq War—soldiers, mothers, a chaplain, and an Iraqi refugee. Their faith may be manifested by a crucifix hanging in a Humvee, a Chaldean Mass in Jordan, or a peace protest in Chicago, but they are united by a trust in God even in the worst of situations. After five years of fighting, war fills their daily prayers and faith is an essential part of their armor.
“I really hope somebody is praying”
Staff Sergeant Joseph Lemay, currently at Fort Stewart, Georgia, grew up in a military family. He is married and has three teenage children. Lemay served in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has been to Iraq three times.
I’ve had my ins and outs with the church. But my family, we have a pretty good faith. My dad is a permanent deacon. When I’d get to talk to him, he’d say, “We’re praying for you.” I’d say, “Keep doing it. It’s working.”
When I get a letter in the mail that says, “We’re all praying for you,” that means something. There are certain things that happen to you over there where you realize that prayer is helping. I see a lot of families crumble under the stress of this, and the fact that mine hasn’t is due to prayer.
I also pray for my family. For the last five years my wife has been basically a single mom trying to raise three teenagers while going to school and working. We never really thought I’d go into combat, but my wife has still been great.
In the hours just before the initial invasion, we had rolled our convoy over near the Iraq border. It was dark, and to catch some sleep I crawled up on the canvas top of a supply truck.
About 4:30 a.m. I woke to the sound of rumbling. It was pitch black, but I could see an armada of helicopters and missiles flying into Iraq. I didn’t think I was going to live through it. At that moment, you think, “I really hope somebody is praying for me.”
I was in the middle of nowhere, so far away from home, lying on this truck wondering, “What in hell did you get yourself into?” You say a few Our Fathers right then.
I never wanted being in Iraq to be an excuse for having a deeper faith. I see people that have never gone to church and they find God all of a sudden. Then when they come home, their newfound faith doesn’t stick. I never wanted that to be me.
Answering life’s tough questions
Father John Barkemeyer is an army chaplain in Al Anbar Province. He is originally from Chicago, where his former parishioners and other Catholics have formed the Compadres to support him and other chaplains.
Just before the war in Iraq started, I preached that this war would not be just. Now on my second deployment in Iraq, my parishioners are young soldiers.
Although my stance on the war hasn’t changed, I believe that we have become morally responsible for what happens in Iraq. As much as I would like all of us to leave today, tens or hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost if we did.
Soldiers can’t choose the war that they fight, so I’ve never struggled with serving in this war. I recognized how desperately these kids need priests in Iraq.
I am here to listen to their stories and help them heal. Their questions have been asked since the beginning of time. They are facing life-and-death issues: Is there a God? How do I know God loves me? Does it make a difference if I live a Catholic life? What happens if I get killed?
A young marine—a strong guy but a teddy bear inside—had the job of aiming and firing mortars. During an assault he hit his target straight on, but when he checked out the house he hit, he discovered that a woman and a baby, not insurgents, were killed. “How could God ever forgive me for doing something like that?” he asked me.
I asked him about his motivation. It’s clear that these guys have no intention to kill civilians, and realizing this helps them forgive themselves.
It’s harder to understand that God forgives unconditionally. The idea that God really is love is the greatest mystery in life. My understanding of God hasn’t changed, but I have learned how important the Christian message is, especially for these kids.
And kids they are. I relax with a cigar; they relax with violent video games. The games, provided by the Compadres, allow soldiers to take their minds of the real war. I don’t get it, but then again I’m 43 and they’re 19.
Video games also open doors for me, so we can discuss spiritual issues. Here age doesn’t matter. Fulton Sheen’s Wartime Prayer Book (Sophia Institute), written during World War II, helps all of us. What worked for soldiers then, this video-game generation and I find, is relevant today.
At 65 Katy Zatsick Scott has found a new passion: advocating for veterans, especially those from the Iraq War. A hospice chaplain, she is a member of Pax Christi, Grandmothers for Peace, Codepink, and Military Families Speak Out.
I’ve always been a peace activist, going back to the Vietnam War. Right after September 11 I started going to weekly peace vigils in downtown Chicago because most of us in the peace community suspected George Bush would use that to go to war. When my son Jason joined the army after September 11, I started to cry. I told him that I could honor his desire to serve his country, but as a peace activist I am against war.
Jason was sent to Iraq as a tank commander and was wounded when a bomb exploded under his Humvee. He lost his right arm, his right eye, and suffered other injuries to his face and buttocks. I spent eight months with him at Walter Reed Medical Center during his recovery.
At first we didn’t know if Jason was going to live or die. We were totally focused on him. But I also got to know the other parents and family members who were taking care of their wounded soldiers. They became my parish, my faith community. We would support one another and pray with one another.
Even though I’m not a traditional Catholic, I found myself praying the rosary. I would pray the mysteries and focus on the image of Mary holding her son and pray for healing and resurrection for my own son.
Through all this I have heard God calling me to be a prophet, to speak out against our culture of war. Before, I was a middle-class mother. Now I know I have to speak and live for peace. It’s so much more personal. I have to tell my story to all who will listen.
My son and I are estranged over my speaking out against the war, and we haven’t spoken for more than a year. But I believe that every person has to make a choice. Either they believe in the God of war, or they look more deeply at who Jesus is and see the God of compassion who wants humanity to evolve beyond war. To me Jesus’ life was one of reconciliation, healing, and living peace.
Soldier on the street
First Lieutenant Russell Schultz is currently deployed on his second tour of duty to Camp Ramadi. A field artillery officer, he has been in the military for four years. Lieutenant Schultz helps lead the RCIA program for soldiers in Ramadi.
Almost everyone in RCIA here has a different motivation. One way or another God has used their deployment as the right time to call them.
Their commitment shows every time we meet. Some have just returned from missions, and some have been working 16-hour days. Tired and drained, they add one extra requirement to their day. You can always count on them to ask very pointed questions that challenge you.
I always pray for the marines and soldiers who have been killed and wounded in action. They are the biggest heroes over here and they deserve more respect and honor than anyone can give. I pray the rosary nightly before I sleep, and I always start my day with a meditation.
In Iraq I see and feel God in the face of the kids that I see everyday. They have seen so much pain and suffering, it just tears at your heart. No matter what has happened, they always smile. I do my best to bring them stuffed animals and other items just to make their day a little bit happier. I have grown very close to some of them, and it warms my soul to know that we are all the same deep down inside.
Every day there are challenges to my faith: Why would a loving God do this or that? Everywhere you look there is someone who needs something from you, from medical care to a listening ear. There are daily events that you just say a little prayer and hope that nothing happens.
Losing friends is always tough, but I have never questioned or doubted God’s presence. I have become more spiritual and feel a closer tie to the church and my faith. It is just easier to practice Catholicism here: No one makes jokes or challenges you for going to church.
Flight to Jordan
Amjad Shamoon Jamou is an Iraqi interpreter who worked for coalition forces in Baghdad. In 2005 he fled with his wife and two daughters to Amman, Jordan, joining about 500,000 other Iraqis who have found refuge there. A member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Jamou is currently waiting for permission to emigrate to the United States with his family.
I find God in all places and in all times. During the war I have felt that God is around us always and never leaves us alone. Even when I received death threats from terrorist groups for being a Christian and working with coalition forces, I felt lucky. Some of my friends had been killed without warning. I see God’s presence in those death threats, because they led my family to safety.
My faith has actually grown, because the experience of war can make human beings stronger and more faithful. Prayer has sustained my faith. I think in difficult times such as war we should never stop praying. We should pray more and more. I’ve asked God for an end to this war and to minimize the casualties. I’ve also found spiritual support in reading the Bible. I think all stories of the Bible have one message to us: As the Lord says, “Do not be afraid. I am always with you.”
My Chaldean faith community has a great role in this. The community was our refuge even when we were afraid to go to church as the violence grew in Baghdad, and especially after the bombings targeting churches began in August 2004. Those attacks have continued even into 2008.
Here in Jordan the church holds us together. Iraqi Christians face many challenges in Jordan: We cannot work legally, so most of us depend on relatives who live abroad. After three years in Jordan, most Christian families have run out of savings. Only this year have our children been permitted to study in Jordanian public schools.
In addition to the support we receive from each other, we hope Christians in the West might also support us by putting pressure on their own governments to facilitate the immigration of Iraqi Christians. The American administration has a moral obligation to put pressure on the current Iraqi government to do more to protect Iraqi Christians and their churches and monasteries.
God is always with us, but sometimes we human beings cannot feel it. But my faith still grows. In times of war you need to be more and more faithful.
Taking a stand
Camilo Mejía served in Iraq in 2003 as a staff sergeant in the Florida National Guard and is the first Iraq war veteran to seek conscientious objector status. Mejía spent a year in jail for desertion. He is the chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War and the author of Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (New Press).
Before I went to Iraq, my faith was theory. I had had a good Jesuit education growing up in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but I didn’t take my faith very seriously.
In Iraq I started praying a lot. At the beginning it was a selfish prayer for God to keep me safe, or thanking God for letting me return from a mission with all my body parts intact, or that I didn’t have to kill anyone that day. I would ask God to let me see my daughter and my family at least one more time. Then I started praying for my soldiers and for their families, then for everyone who was caught in this war, and for the families of resistance fighters who were being killed. Eventually I prayed for an end to all war.
Our first mission was at a jet bunker that had been turned into a jail. Our job was to “soften up” the prisoners, to instill fear in them, and to deprive them of sleep. We created loud noises banging on metal with sledgehammers, pointed guns at their heads, kept them hooded, and deprived them of light and a sense of space.
On what was supposed to be a two-week leave in October 2003, people kept asking me about my war experiences. Answering them took me back to the horrors I had witnessed—the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man who had been decapitated by our machine-gun fire. I remembered a soldier who had broken down inside because he had killed a child, and an old man who was on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had killed his son.
At first I was afraid to take a stand, but eventually I realized that obeying my conscience became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq.
I didn’t come to that decision for purely religious reasons, but they played a big role. It was very much related to my newfound faith, my view of the interconnectedness of all people, and what the Jesuits had taught us about following in Jesus’ footsteps and applying our faith every day to the way we live in this world.
One of the things that I have learned since I made this decision is that the Second Vatican Council speaks of conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary” of a person and that it is really God’s voice that speaks to you through your conscience.
Before, I was afraid of losing my freedom. But when I sat behind bars, I realized that in spite of my confinement I remained free in many important ways. What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow God’s voice?
Trying to forget
Specialist Franklin Vera served with the 11-B Infantry Troop as a gunner on top of a Humvee. He and his family are members of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Chicago.
War was not what I had expected; it’s not what you see on TV. I had imagined we would be sweeping the streets and actually capturing “bad guys.” But I ended up transporting food and supplies and people. Somehow that didn’t really seem like that much in terms of making a difference for the Iraqis, changing things in the country for the better. But overall we were making some progress in Baghdad.
I’m trying to forget some of the interactions with the Iraqis. We were trying to protect the civilians. Not all of them are bad—most of them are just trying to provide for their families. Some seemed to put all their faith in us to change their country for them, while many others didn’t seem to trust us. Some of the ones fighting, they think they are just defending their country, but they go overboard.
We had a few incidents when our trucks ran into bombs, but thankfully nobody got hurt or killed. When the bombs went off, my mind just went blank. Later I kept thinking that could have been it, that could have taken my life away. But I wasn’t really so worried about my own life but more about trying to make a difference.
I’m on leave now, but hopefully I don’t have to go back over there again.
The hardest thing for me was being away from my family. I just kept going on, trying not to think too much about the war, doing my job until I could come back. I talked a lot with friends and would stay in touch with phone calls, e-mails, and sometimes letters.
My family would always tell me they were praying for me, and I would pray quite a few times myself.
She’s a survivor
A mother of 12, Mary Cay Wheeler of Jackson, Michigan, has dedicated much of her life to her children. In the fall of 2003, however, that dedication took on a new meaning after her son Donald (DJ) was killed serving in Iraq. Since then she has become a steadfast supporter of American troops and the war effort and prays daily for soldiers and their families.
On October 13, 2003 I heard on the news that a gunner in the U.S. Army had been killed in Tikrit. At that moment somehow I had a deep “knowing” that it was DJ.
I told my daughter, “There’s a black hole ahead of me and I don’t want to go in it, but I know I will have to.” So when two officers in green military Class-A uniforms arrived at my door later that evening, I wasn’t surprised.
But losing my son was only the beginning of this “black hole” in my life. A year later my husband of 27 years and I separated. We divorced in 2006. That had to be the darkest time.
More than four years since the loss of my son, my Catholic faith has carried me through. I take comfort in my mission: spreading the gift of my faith, and that of my son’s, to others.
In one of his letters from Iraq DJ had written, “The only way to stay sane out here is by saying the rosary.” To honor his memory my prayer group organized a rosary rally, which brought out more than 200 people on the fourth anniversary of DJ’s death. We hope to make it a yearly event.
In the years since DJ’s passing, I’ve received calls and letters from other soldiers telling me the effect DJ and his faith had on their lives.
One soldier whom I met at Fort Hood, Texas was with DJ the day he died. When their vehicle was struck with a rocket-propelled grenade, the soldier was knocked to the ground, while DJ sustained the brunt of the force. The one image that he sees when he thinks of DJ is the silver crucifix DJ had hanging inside their vehicle.
What a blessing that he recalls Jesus when he remembers DJ! If it took my son’s life to lead this man closer to the Lord, then that is a blessing.
Of my 11 remaining children, Paul, 21, currently serves in Afghanistan; Quentin, 22, serves in the army reserves; and Dominic, 16, is in ROTC. Patrick, 15, and Spencer, 18, are both considering enlisting, too.
Although I’ve lost a son, my family has grown considerably. All the soldiers are my family now. I am a military mom through and through. I spend time in prayer for those serving in our armed forces as well as those who have died in service.
The “dark hole” that I saw opening four years ago has been very deep, but God’s grace and mercy continue to light my way. The words Jesus spoke to St. Faustina sustain me, “Jesus, I trust in you.”