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Military chaplain: Marines in Iraq look to pastor for answers to tough questions

From a buddy's suicide to a religious ritual, young troops count on Lt. Michael Baker.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2007



Habbaniyah, Iraq

Under a sun-blanched desert sky, Navy Chaplain Michael Baker and Marine Sgt. Bill Hudson Gross bounce in the back of a truck as it rumbles across Camp Habbaniyah. Clad in helmets and body armor in the 110-degree F. June heat, they're on a mission: to baptize Sergeant Gross.

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"I am going to try to talk him out of it," confesses Chaplain Baker, a tall, lanky Methodist minister whose formal Mississippi-tinged speech and posture mask an often goofy sense of humor.

It's not the baptism itself; it's just the part where Gross wants Baker to immerse him in the Euphrates, one of four rivers that the Bible describes as flowing from the Garden of Eden. For Gross, an infantry platoon leader who just weeks before saw two of his men wounded by shrapnel, the river has a personal connection. Two years ago he deployed to a small base on the river, where he turned his back on religion after learning of his father's death back home. Now that he has rediscovered his faith, he feels it fitting to be baptized in a river where, he says, "a lot of people gave up hope."

Baker enumerates the problems with Gross's plan: "There is the issue of water pollution and the issue of security," he says. By stepping into the Euphrates, they would technically be leaving the confines of the camp, home to the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. Safer to wear their 25-pound body armor and risk drowning, he wonders? Or better to stand in the river without it and risk being shot? His laugh at the predicament is loud and staccato.

For military chaplains in war zones, even very routine requests can prove challenging – as Baker has discovered, it is not always easy to satisfy basic emotional and spiritual needs of individual troops within the hard-edged, mission-oriented goals and guidelines of the command.

• • •

The same week of the Euphrates foray, Baker found himself navigating far more difficult waters. Word came that a 20-year-old lance corporal had committed suicide. He shot himself with his M-16 rifle while on duty at one of Habbaniyah's guard posts. Baker got there right away. While the doctor tended to the victim, the chaplain focused on the other young marine on guard, who was ricocheting from shock to grief to what Baker terms the "would'ves, should'ves, could'ves."

When Baker went to the guards' barracks that evening, he found three of the young man's closest friends reeling from another shock. As Baker recounts the event his delivery is clipped, his eyes stern: A senior noncommissioned officer had visited the guard detachment and told them they could get through this and needed to realize that their deceased comrade was right then burning in hell. "[They] basically had this bombshell dropped on them," says Baker, whom the marines collared, wanting to know whether their buddy was truly in hell.

The chaplain was "flabbergasted" at the NCO imposing his religious views. Like all military chaplains, he must negotiate a volatile no man's land between church and state by serving as clergy in a secular institution. As such he is the military's "subject matter expert on religion," an authority he needs to exercise without imposing his own religious views on others.

The case here was clear: The marines approached him for his opinion. And he gave it to them in the hope that it would mitigate their hurt.

"From my understanding, God did not make any of us on earth the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner," he told them. "And if I am correct, I should be the only theologian attached to this Marine unit.... Ultimately, God is your friend's judge," declared Baker, who rebelled against the fire and brimstone approach of his childhood church and chose the Methodists' God of grace.

While chaplains are not to proselytize, they are however charged with imposing their "prophetic voice" and calling to task those, regardless of rank, who act immorally, unethically, or otherwise destructively. Chaplains pragmatically pick their battles. Though Baker believed the battle in the guards' quarters that day was important, he stated flatly afterward, "I am waiting to cool down a bit. I am still sort of simmering."

Far more pressing, was the question: What kind of memorial, if any, should mark the young man's passing? "The Marines are very code-of-honor driven," said Baker, "and for somebody to take his life, it's outside the code."

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