“I Thought I Was Going to Die”—Explosions and an Easter Sunday Service in Iraq
When I was in Mosul, Iraq, there was a monastery on Forward Operating Base Marez called St Elijah’s. It dated back to the sixth century and was the oldest monastery in the region. In the 11th century, the monks there built a sanctuary for 150 devotees. In 1743, Persian forces invaded the region, killing all the inhabitants and destroying much of the monastery. In the early 20th century, locals had rebuilt the abbey and it served as a refugee camp during WWI. In 1970, the Iraqi Republican Guard started using the monastery as a base. When the United States invaded in 2003, the monastery was damaged again, this time by tank rounds and soldiers who white-washed and inscribed graffiti on the 600-year-old murals. But an Army chaplain saw the historical importance of the monastery and convinced the commander to protect it from further damage.
On Easter Sunday 2007, several Chaplains on FOB Marez planned a sunrise service at the monastery. The night before, I asked my platoon if anyone wanted to attend with me. Everyone stayed quiet. Sunday morning was their time to catch up on rest. We had been in Iraq as a unit for eight months and we had seven months left. So in the morning, I walked down to the monastery by myself.
The sun was out and radiant. That time of year, Northern Iraq was temperate and green in areas by the Tigris. When we drove on the highway outside the city, the rolling hills reminded me of driving on I-70 in West Kansas. I noticed the sprouting grass around the monastery, which sat in a remote corner of the base. Like many structures in Mosul, the monastery consisted of the war-weary remnants of a former self. It was a collection of stone passageways and crippled arches with a large dusty courtyard that had no roof to protect it. I don’t remember seeing a cross anywhere and you wouldn’t know what it was unless someone told you. Right across the dirt road from the broken-down monastery was a sprawling tank graveyard replete with all sorts of old Russian tanks. The massive vehicles were stacked row after row like headstones, stubbornly resisting the elements.
At the service, the chaplains did not talk about the history of violence in the region or the tanks across the street. Instead, they encouraged the attendees with positive reflections of camaraderie in war. The Christmas truce of 1914 was mentioned as an example of Christian brotherhood during times of battle. The comparison was forced. For a moment, we were invited to set aside our fears. Instead, the people who spoke that day seemed interested in confirming our positive place in history. We were saviors and victors. For them, occupying this historical landmark confirmed it. The service was short and unchallenging. I walked quietly back to my housing unit thinking that my soldiers were smart for staying in bed. I still wanted to celebrate Easter, so I sought out a Catholic service later in the day.
The Catholic service took place in an expanded housing unit, which is essentially a large semi-truck trailer turned into an air-conditioned room. The priest laid out an altar cloth over a plastic table and lit a single candle. All of the materials for the mass came from a camouflaged suitcase. Field expedient religion. During the homily, the priest talked about the beauty of the Catholic sacrament of confession. I was used to this. Priests in my experience like using the pulpit during Christmas and Easter to remind the flock to fulfill their sacramental obligations. The priest challenged the congregation of less than 30 of us to seek out confession. This sermon didn’t speak to me, either. I suppose I wanted the priest to talk about why we were in this place. I daydreamed as I passed the basket for donations and stood up for communion.
My platoon’s job in Iraq was to go out and find IEDs. We conducted what was called route clearance. When looking for bombs, we would often be ambushed. The enemy would wait for us to find an IED, and then they would shoot at us or drop mortars on our position. Preferably, they liked to initiate an ambush with an IED and then shoot at us while the disabled truck was stuck. After missions, my soldiers cleaned weapons and serviced our vehicles while I sat behind a computer in the tactical operation center to type-up my mission report. At first, I was told to describe the people shooting at us as “AIF.” That stood for Anti-Iraqi Forces. Later, I was told to write “ACF”: Anti-Coalition Forces. I thought some staff officers were just playing semantic games and were probably just bored sitting in their protected, air-conditioned office all day. By the time Easter rolled around, I was told to write “UE” in my reports. Unknown Enemy. It actually made sense. We never saw the people putting in the bombs and rarely saw the people shooting at us. We put our own explosions of C-4 on top of the IEDs to blow them up, making very large holes in the earth. Unknown seemed right.
A couple of weeks after Easter, I met with the battalion commander to conduct my officer self-evaluation. At the end of the meeting he asked if I had any questions. I asked if he thought we were winning the war and what that meant. He knew the answer. He explained to me that by clearing the main supply routes from the south to the north, we allowed the oil tankers to move safely. If the oil moved, the economy would improve. The economy was the key to stopping the violence and setting up a stable government. I pressed him. What about the war? Are we defeating the enemy? His tongue adroitly moved the dip in his lower lip from the left to the right. “Combat operations have ended,” he said. “We’re doing sustainment operations.”
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Several weeks after Easter, I was at Mass again. The service was at night and I hoped it would be shorter than an hour so that I could make it to the dining facility before it closed. At the end of the mass, the priest stopped in the aisle and turned toward me. He asked if I would like to receive confession. It felt like a stick up. I complied. He led me to a private area in the back and I put my rifle down next to me. We talked. I didn’t bring up any combat stuff. How was fighting for one’s country a sin? This was service. At the time, I didn’t even think of confessing the violence I was overseeing. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked the priest why he singled me out. He said with a smile, “God asked me to.” I shouldered my rifle and said goodbye. I missed hot chow, so instead I ate care-package snacks in my room. I thought I was going to die.
Later that week, I was out on a mission that stretched into the darkest hours of the night. My truck was directly hit by an IED that cracked the bullet proof window on the driver’s side right next to my head and caused two flat tires. The truck was still smoking as we drove back to the base. I went to type up the mission report. As I finished, I was overcome with euphoric relief. I wasn’t dead. Outside of the building there was a group of green plastic lawn chairs. I leaned back, letting the rear legs dig deep into the gravel. I opened my eyes wide toward the swarming stars. I laughed. I thought of all the soldiers throughout history who had looked at these exact same stars. I breathed in the dust of their bones. The stars glowed stubbornly and quietly, full of energy. I stared at the sky and thanked God loudly for my life, and then took a deep drag on a cigarette. The only thing making noise was the groan of generators and air conditioners. Everyone else was asleep.
Years later, I headed down to Houston to spend time with a friend who I was deployed with in Mosul. Now we’re both teachers and have managed to keep our friendship alive by sharing stories. I asked him about that monastery and if he remembered it. My friend said he never visited it during his deployment. The monastery no longer exists. The Islamic State destroyed it when they occupied Mosul in 2014. From the satellite image taken from space, it looks like the God of the Sistine Chapel ceiling put a cigarette out on the earth. The Islamic State joined the history of combatants who had harassed the monastery.
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We attended Easter Mass in a church that looked out on the Galveston Bay. In this part of Texas, people were constantly rebuilding. They accepted that eventually a hurricane or flood would come and destroy. But they always started again, and the buildings proudly displayed plaques about the destruction and rebuilding efforts throughout the land’s history. What a strange way to live. The church was also one of these places that had been rebuilt after a disaster. Inside, the pews were full, so we sat in plastic folding chairs, crowding the aisles. Total fire hazard. The sun was warm but not hot. The music was old folks with guitars who meant well. The priest preached resurrection.