For soldiers, 'ministry of the present'

A chaplain comforts troops on eve of war, with camouflaged Bibles and prayer

As thousands of soldiers here load up ammunition, pull on body armor, and break camp in preparation for war, Chaplain Paul Yacovone of the 3rd Infantry Division offers them a different sort of protection: "spiritual battle proofing."

The tall, lanky Italian-American of Springfield, Mass., affectionately called "Captain Yac" by the troops, hopes to instill in them a lifeline to God that can pull them through the confusion and horror of the battlefield.

"The bottom line is: This is as real as it gets," said Yacovone, as he opened a Bible-study session yesterday in a windblown tent. "But when you're connected to God, He gives you a sense of peace in the midst of chaos."

Like many of the Iraqi people, the soldiers here are turning to prayer to deal with the fear of death and of the unknown, anguish over the possibility of killing others, and the sheer stress of the war effort.

Here, it is palpably changing the mood and bringing soldiers to Yacovone's tent door. Some of the troops, like Spc. Lisa Conner, of the 203rd Forward Support Battalion, are anxious about themselves and their families back home.

"I worry about not making it back," says Specialist Conner, a mother of three, including a 6-month-old son, C.J. Conner's husband, a mechanic, is also deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division. Her mother, a school bus driver in Pillager, Minn., has been caring for the children, taking them on her daily route.

Adding to Conner's unease is the fact that she, like most ordinary soldiers, will be among the last to learn what the battle plan is and when to head out. "They just tell us to be ready at all times," she says, continuously biting her nails.

Others voice more confidence in their safety, but still seek comfort and reassurance. Some pick up "rapid-deployment kits" in Ziploc bags, which contain camouflaged copies of the New Testament. Chaplain Yac responds to such needs with a mixture of homey, soldier-friendly theology and shoulder-to-shoulder comradeship with the troops that he describes as a "ministry of the present."

In one recent "spiritual battleproofing" session, for example, Yacovone pulled a handful of marbles out of his pocket and asked the soldiers, "Have you lost your marbles?" Then he handled out a marble to each person, and told them to "use these marbles before you lose your marbles."

Tonight, he instructed, put the marble on your bedroll to remind yourself to thank God for your day. Then, immediately put the marble in your combat boots to remind you to ask God for protection in the morning. Finally, carry the marble in your pocket during the day and say a prayer each time you feel it.

A Boston Red Sox fan and movie buff, Yacovone said he got the marble idea from the movie "The Caine Mutiny" when he noticed Humphrey Bogart fidgeting throughout with two steel balls.

Today, the Army suffers from a shortage of chaplains. The job requirements are significant: a master of divinity degree, ordination by a church, physical fitness, and a 20-year commitment.

Yacovone was inspired to become a military minister at a Sunday school picnic in 1986, while attending seminary in Kansas City. Since then, he has been deployed to Panama, the Sinai, Cuba, and has served a variety of infantry units.

As an Army chaplain, his helmet bears a tan cross, and he emphasizes that although he wears a uniform, he carries no weapon. But he does accompany the troops every way he can, on road marches, in chow halls, and even into battle. "My ministry is with me, in my rucksack," he says. "I like taking the ministry to soldiers, not hanging out in a parish or church."

Still, even Yacovone is not immune to the pressures of wartime. When asked about ministering to the wounded, his eyes well up. "That's a sensitive point for me," he says, wiping away a tear. "If they are my soldiers, you're going to have a hard time keeping me away from them."

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