Wartime in Iraq helps many in U.S. military rediscover religion

Fallujah, Iraq -- The explosion was fierce and frightening, breaking the midnight peace with a flash of light and a powerful shock wave.

But, somehow, only one of the artillery rounds hidden beside the road detonated as Sgt. Bonel Pierre's convoy rolled past last May. The 24-year-old truck driver escaped injury.

So began the journey of faith that led Pierre early this month to a baptismal font dug into the desert at a Marine base in western Iraq.

"I figured if God had spared me this one time and spared me other times, it was time to get dedicated to him," Pierre said, shortly after he emerged from the baptismal water.

For many servicemen and women, duty in Iraq stirs intense spiritual experiences, often drawing them toward a deeper faith but sometimes challenging strongly held religious beliefs.

Pierre was the second Marine baptized at his camp that day. And at least three Marines in his 800-member battalion have felt a call to religious ministry while in Iraq - including Pierre, who plans to devote his life to a music ministry once he completes his enlistment. Pierre, a Protestant, has already composed several "praise songs," or hymns.

At Camp Fallujah, a few miles away, the Catholic chaplain performed two dozen adult confirmations or baptisms during a seven-month tour of duty.

At a nearby patrol base in a bombed-out soda-bottling plant, five roommates gather for Bible study and prayer sessions three times a week. All over Iraq, Bibles are a common sight in barracks, as are inspirational texts such as Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life."

For some Christians, standard equipment includes crosses, rosaries and prayer cards. Medals of saints, such as Christopher, patron of travelers, and Michael, the warrior archangel, are popular even among non-Catholics. Some squads and platoons regularly start patrols with a group prayer.

Though members of the U.S. armed forces are overwhelmingly Christian, military chapels are non-denominational and in some cases used even by Wiccans. Servicemen and women of all faiths are finding that the war has changed their approach to religion.

Lance Cpl. Jordan Parlier, 21, of Kenosha, Wis., said that during the 2003 push into Baghdad, he began seeking religion amid the devastation of war. He found answers from a Jewish friend a few months later in Najaf. Raised as a Christian, Parlier has converted to the Jewish faith.

Now at the massive Al Asad air base near the end of his second deployment to Iraq, Parlier has become the lay Jewish leader for his battalion. Though he has yet to have his bar mitzvah, his tours in Iraq have deepened his religious convictions, and he treasures his religious bond with other Jews.

"You kind of look within and you look for a higher authority that's going to help you get through," he said. "It almost feels like an emancipation."

1st Lt. Dennis Katolin, 24, also at Al Asad, embraced his mother's Muslim faith at age 19.

During his deployment to Iraq over the last seven months, he has served as the guest speaker at a chaplain's religious studies course and fasted during Ramadan, trying to set a good Muslim example "because the enemy was taking my faith and twisting it."

In a place where at any moment death can come from above through a mortar round or from below through a roadside bomb, mortality takes on a new immediacy.

"My biggest concern is not what happens to me because I'm taken care of (after death)," Katolin said. "That takes away one of the biggest fears out here."

Deployed in Iraq without television, nightclubs or even members of the opposite sex in many units, service members find that there are far fewer distractions than at home. For those so inclined, there is plenty of time to contemplate issues of purpose in life and relations with a higher power.

"Back in the States, you have years and years to think about things, or at least you think you do," said Navy Lt. Leslie Hatton, a Marine chaplain and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance. "Here, they might not get older. Death and life and all the big questions are thought about at a much younger age."

For many, God's hand appears far more evident when so much is so clearly beyond the control of individual will.

Pierre's story of faith intensified by a near miss is not unusual. In Mahmoudiya, Staff Sgt. Hank Rimkus wiped his laptop computer clean of porn and reconciled with his estranged wife after a rocket hit his Humvee but did not detonate. He now wears an orange wristband inscribed, "When in Doubt, Pray."

"I got the message. I don't want him to send another one," said Rimkus, 29, a Marine reservist from Des Moines. In Fallujah, a rocket landed right between Cpl. Dan Turner and his twin brother, both Marine reservists. It also was a dud.

"How did that happen? There was a purpose to it," said Turner, 22, of Dallas, who is now studying the Bible. "It wasn't luck. God made that rocket not explode."

But the dilemmas that can test faith also arise with a special intensity. How does a soldier reconcile a benevolent God with the violent deaths of friends and the intense suffering inflicted on the wounded? How does a person heed the call to love thy enemy when that enemy kills his friends and would eagerly behead him, too? How does a person of faith kill without regret?

Gunnery Sgt. Juan Morales, 38, of Joliet, Ill., a Marine reservist who in civilian life is an accountant and a Catholic churchgoer, has avoided church services since arriving in Iraq.

For the time being, Morales said, he deliberately walls off his religious beliefs as a potential "distraction" from his duty to protect a Marine Corps commanding general who must travel Iraq's perilous roads.

"If I have to pull the trigger, I don't want to hesitate," he said.

Still, Morales keeps a St. Michael's medal in his pack.

Maj. Francis Piccoli, 42, a Marine public affairs officer who at home in Woodbridge, Va., faithfully attends mass and sends his children to a Catholic school, went only to Christmas services last year and even then did not take Communion.

"There's so much hatred in my heart," said Piccoli, whose duties include examining reports on Marine casualties and insurgent attacks. "There are some heinous acts."

"How can you go there, participate in the Eucharist, accept the body and blood of Christ, without the willingness to forgive? It's contrary," he said.

Forgiveness will have to wait until he gets home. "I'll work at it," he said. "It's easier once you get out of a certain environment."

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Neely, a chaplain's assistant who has served with Marine units on three deployments in Iraq, said it is common for faithful Christians in the military to struggle with the contradiction between their feelings toward the enemy and their moral beliefs.

"It's one of the more frequently asked questions," said Neely, 21, of Jeffersonville, Ind. "Sometimes, it comes out as, `Does God expect me to love these people?' or `How can I love these people?' Sometimes, it comes out as, `I hate `em. God will have to deal with it.'"

Gunnery Sgt. Jean-Paul Courville's picture is on display in some of the churches back home in Denham Springs, La., so the congregations will pray for him. For a Southern Baptist, those prayers are a source of strength.

But Courville, now on his third deployment to Iraq, said there was a time when he would almost cringe upon hearing someone quote Scripture.

One of Courville's duties has been to collect the dog tags of Marines killed or seriously wounded. By the end of his second tour, he had collected 11, including one from a corporal he thought had great promise. Cpl. Daniel Amaya was 22 when he died.

"I hate to say it. I questioned why this happened," said Courville, 32. "All of these other guys were prayed for, probably as much or more than I."

Those uncertainties grew as he was on his way home after his second deployment. One day, during a phone call, his mother started to quote Scripture and he let out an audible sigh. She asked why.

After he explained his feelings, she told him: "I can't explain it to you in great detail. But there's a bigger and greater reason why the Lord has put his hand on you and protected you."

Somehow, that did it. It helped to hear the words from her.