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Military chaplains: a Presbyterian pastor patrols with his flock of soldiers in Iraq

Army Capt. Ron Eastes carries a big responsibility - but no weapon - in his 'ministry of presence' with the 82nd Airborne.

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"There's probably a little venom that boils up," Eastes later says with characteristic understatement, "but I've been impressed by the way [detainees] have been treated [here]."

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He volunteers that this hasn't always been the case in this war. "We aren't going to run from that. But these guys know the difference between right and wrong." And Eastes aims to keep reminding them.

It is a classic example of what chaplains call their "ministry of presence." Its effect is as impossible to quantify as that of a guardrail on a mountain road: Nobody can know how many accidents – if any – are prevented because of its presence, but we believe it makes a difference. In war, when a sense of right and wrong can disappear into the fog of adrenaline and anger, the chaplain can act as a "guardrail," and officers who rely on them as such talk about the value of troops having a safe place to let off steam and regain equilibrium.

"There's a switch that a soldier has to flip somewhere mentally and emotionally that allows [him to consider] an individual to be a target," Eastes explains. In war, "there's something healthy about seeing someone as an enemy."

By doing so, soldiers can overcome what some psychologists term an innate resistance to kill. What makes this war especially difficult is that the switch can't stay permanently flipped because, as Eastes says, they're "dealing with folks day in and out." Should a sniper open fire during a fact-finding mission, military training will kick in and flip that switch; and, at the end of the day, Eastes will be on the lookout to make sure it has "unflipped." And if soldiers have pulled the trigger or seen comrades killed or wounded, he's there to help them process the experience or to get them other help.

Even on missions deemed too dangerous for Eastes to accompany, he tries to provide a presence. When the platoon headed out to capture the suspected sniper, Eastes joined them in the motor pool to offer a prayer for those who wished it. In a semicircle of bowed heads, he read Psalm 91, popular verses of protection. He then prayed: "If they have to make a split-second decision, I ask you to give them wisdom; if they have to make the decision to shoot, to engage another individual, I ask that the bullet goes straight."

The issue of prayer has been politicized in recent years, with the focus entirely on when and how chaplains can pray in Jesus' name without excluding or offending non-Christians. But this overshadows another important question: Should chaplains ask for divine intervention in the outcome of war or limit prayers to petitions for protection and the right conduct of war?

Often a line only becomes visible when a chaplain crosses it, and Eastes's own prayer could be said to come close. Some might interpret it as a request that God favor his unit's mission; others might hear a request that no innocent bystanders be hurt. As an officer, Eastes makes no bones about wanting US soldiers to be successful; he is equally clear that his concern is the conduct of war, not whether God endorses it.

Even well-defined lines are sometimes contested. In the US, chaplaincy historian John Brinsfield notes, Civil War generals defined chaplains as noncombatants long before the Geneva Conventions. In 1909, the military designated a specific position to assist and protect the chaplain.

Still every war has chaplains who break the rules. In 2003, a convoy came under attack in Iraq, and the chaplain picked up a rifle and joined the fray. Like many chaplains, he had prior military service and was no stranger to firearms.

Chaplains generally agree that they shouldn't fight, but some would like to see chaplains, like noncombatant medics, have the right to carry a weapon for self-defense. Eastes's grandfather, a World War II chaplain, "was given the option to carry a .45. He chose not to. But," Eastes adds, "this is not our grandfathers' war." Chaplains have no guarantee that, if captured, they'll be treated as noncombatants.

Every Army chief of chaplains since World War II has argued that arming chaplains would detract from their primary focus of caring for soldiers and open the way for commanders to use them as combat assets.

Eastes agrees that there are powerful arguments for the interdiction, but he says that, as a father and husband, he would like to see the senior leadership reopen the debate. In the meantime, he is neither crossing the line nor letting the risk it entails stop him from meeting his men where they are – on the streets of Baghdad.

•On Dec. 4: Part 6. A steady presence and cornball humor makes National Guard Chaplain Kurt Bishop a team-builder in a combat hospital in Afghanistan.