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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.

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The ramifications become apparent in the days following the suicide. Two marines in "battle rattle" – helmet, antiballistic sunglasses, bulletproof vest – manning a checkpoint at one of the entrances to nearby Fallujah know about the suicide and express the kind of ambiguous emotions Baker hears from many in the ranks.

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"He deserves credit for signing up and coming out," says the taller of the two, his hands resting on the M-16 slung across his chest. "But it's tough being here – it's easier to pull the trigger."

They don't think their dead comrade should be awarded the honor of a marine killed in action. But asked if the unit should refuse any memorial at all, their heads snap up. "He deserves something," the tall one says adamantly. His mate nods in agreement.

Back at Habbaniyah, outside the small guard booth at the main gate, Lance Cpl. Brandon Jones voices another view. Behind him stretches the same brown landscape that his dead buddy, until recently, scoured for eight-hour shifts. Corporal Jones was the closest to the marine who died, but he hadn't picked up that anything was amiss. The suicide, Jones says, didn't alter the fact that his buddy was always the first to step up for a task and to do it double-time. Told that the memorial ceremony might be altered, Jones looks pained. "He was a good marine," Jones argues. "Once a marine, always a marine."

• • •

Sitting in the shade amid the faint scent of eucalyptus trees outside his office, Baker cuts to the chase: "In my view, death is not an end; it's sort of like a journey into the next room." Jones's buddy had lived honorably and his suicide was not his last act. Death, in Baker's view, is not final. "In the physical sense, yes," he says, "but in the spiritual sense you keep continuing on" and what happens next is "outside our realm of speculation."

Although there seems to be an unspoken requirement that units hold services for all deaths, regardless of their circumstances, Baker found that some battalions do not in the case of suicide. But he and the senior officers of Habbaniyah wanted the closure a service provides. Conspicuously absent on the day was roll call, taps, and the rifle rising from the boots and topped by the helmet. Baker, however, made it a personal tribute. As pigeons clattered on the metal roof of the A-frame chapel, marines filed past the young man's photograph, boots, and helmet. Three of his mates spoke about their friend to a congregation of 60 marines, some of whom, like Jones, clenched their jaws to hold in emotion.

In his eulogy of the marine, Baker stated plainly that the lance corporal is now "in the presence of God." He moved with ease through a ritual that was as much military as it was religious, avoiding terms that might exclude non-Christians.

The deceased, Baker later confides in private, "served with honor, courage, and commitment, and ultimately we don't know what inner demons he was battling. They could be just as real to him as some insurgent out there with an IED," he says, referring to the improvised explosive devices that present a constant threat to troops out on patrols.

• • •

Given how combustible religion can be in the military, Gross's request for a Euphrates baptism proves an unexpected delight for Baker. His eyes widen in disbelief as he reports that the commanding officer has given the expedition his OK on condition the necessary security arrangements be made. And, when Baker pops into the medical unit, the medics roll their eyes and laugh, but prescribe postdip showers.

In the end, even though Baker protests he will try to dissuade Gross from a full dunk, he breathes not a word of this on the ride to the river. On the bank, while a dozen marines and soldiers fan out to keep watch for snipers, Baker and Gross pull off their body armor. The sound of Velcro ripping open punctuates the quiet chatter and the lapping of the water against the shore. Seconds later, sergeant and chaplain step into the cool, dark waters of the Euphrates. Baker places a hand on Gross's chest and rocks him backward.

The whole process takes no more than a few minutes. In the truck headed back, trousers dripping Euphrates water, Gross looks to Baker. "I wasn't under long but it felt like it was a long time." He hesitates. "That was pretty neat," he says in a tone that is far more serious than the words alone convey.

Beneath his helmet, Baker looks gratified.

•On Nov. 6: Part 2. Army Chaplain Pinkie Fischer uses her video camera to bring a bit of Hallmark to the world of war, keeping soldiers and their families together.