FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ - Sixteen uniformed souls and one civilian made their way to this tiny chapel for services Sunday.
The preacher knows about pain and separation. His wife of 28 years, Dora, is at home in Trafalgar battling cancer diagnosed a few weeks before he left for Iraq. Their son, Jeremiah, died in a church fire three Christmases ago, three weeks before the preacher was called to active duty.
The temperature was on its way toward 109 degrees. The electricity was out. “God is too good to keep us from praising Him,” said someone in the congregation. Chaplin Capt. James Gazaway donned a camouflage stole bearing 17 pins from the military flocks he has tended and opened with a prayer asking for the blessing of open hearts, “that we may receive your spirit.“
His invocation was followed by handshakes and well wishes all around. Then the call to worship, from the 27th Psalm:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; I will fear no one. The Lord protects me from all danger; I will never be afraid,” intoned Spec. Tyler Egli, the chaplain’s assistant and bodyguard.
The audience responded, “Even if a whole army surrounds me, I will not be afraid; even if enemies attack me, I will still trust God.”
Egli: “I have asked the Lord for one thing; one thing only do I want: to live in the Lord’s house all my life, to marvel there at His goodness, and to ask for His guidance.”
Congregation: “In times of trouble He will shelter me; He will keep me safe in His Temple and make me secure on a high rock.”
Egli: “So I will triumph over my enemies around me. With shouts of joy I will offer sacrifices in His temple; I will sing, I will praise the Lord.”
All: “Hear me, Lord, when I call to you! Be merciful and answer me!”
Then a song, led with feeling by the animated, honey-voiced Sgt. Kevin George: “Where do I go when I need a shelter? Where do I go when I need a friend? Where do I go when I need some helping? Back on my knees again.”
A Stryker assault vehicle and its crew idled right outside the window, preparing for serious business in Mosul, outside the Marez compound gate. Said Sgt. George: “We don’t need no stinkin’ power. We got the Holy Ghost!”
Members of the audience read scriptures. There was another song, delivered with a little more harmony than before. Then prayer requests for the following: Sgt. Morton’s family and loved ones, and for the family and loved ones of 1st Lt. Seeson, Spec. Creamen, Spec. Sayles, all based here at Marez and all killed in action within the last 10 days. Then for Spec. Soto, who lost his arm to an improvised explosive device, and for these soldiers who had been injured by IEDs: Spec. Larson, Spec. Hoffman, Spec. Salazar, Spec. Zamora, 1st Lt. J. Spec. Galvez, Spec. Lawson and an unnamed lieutenant colonel.
Chaplain Gazaway had two additions to the prayer request list. Sgt. Fees hoped to be home for the birth of his child a week from Friday. Another soldier was home seeing if he was a suitable kidney donor for his ailing mother.
He prayed for “guidance and protection as we go outside the wire (leave the base).” The lights came on about the time the Stryker team pulled out. Gazaway’s sermon was entitled “Counterfeit Christinity.” He said one of his seminary teachers predicted that “hell was going to be busted wide open by preachers who knew better,” and shared a nice little joke about a professional athlete who was offered $1 million to endorse a brand of gin. The jock thought it would be wrong to do such a thing, so he went to his bishop and was told to follow his conscience. The athlete declined the $1 million. A week later as he was driving down the highway, he saw a large billboard with a picture of the bishop saying that particular brand of gin “tasted divine.”
Asked the preacher: “If you were to be arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” He told his congregation to never substitute talk for testimony and cautioned them to be aware of the difference between being a disciple and a mere admirer. He asked them what kind of fruit their lives were bearing.
He struck some kind of cord. Two big tough soldiers were teary-eyed as they left the chapel.
After the service, Gazaway, 50, was happy to talk. He sat in his little office/storage area/counseling center next to his bodyguard’s M4 assault rifle (chaplains are forbidden to carry weapons under penalty of court martial.)
He typically works 16-hour days, much of it counseling troubled soldiers. This being the military, there’s a lot of paperwork.
After six months of chemotherapy, it looks like Mrs. Gazaway might have beaten her cancer. He has a 19-year-old daughter named Rebekah and a 25-year-old son named Josh. “I can be very empathetic on anything short of divorce,” he says.
He also isn’t above dropping a pun here and there. Example: Life can be so sweet on the Sunni side of Tikrit.
Gazaway was ordained in the Christian Church. His services here are open to anyone. “Faith is something you live, not just something you do,” he said. He averages 12 to 15 counseling sessions a week. Typical topics include Dear John letters, family woes, stress, combat fatigue, suicidal tendencies, anger issues. “You name it, we see it,” he said. A lot of it is hard to leave at the office.
“There’s no way you can really care for people and be able to turn it off like a switch,” he says.
How about war? Didn’t Jesus say to turn the other cheek? “The bottom line,” says Gazaway. “is that it is going to have to be a personal decision.”
His decision: He is part of the war machine “because people here need God.” They ask him tough questions, like “I just shot and killed a man. Am I going to go to hell?” “I saw a half-dozen children blown up by an IED. Why does God do these things?”
Rev. Capt. Chaplain Gazaway says, “We don’t know why, other than it is the effect of evil in this world.”
He figures that as long as God allows choice, there will be bad choices. “Bad things happen to good people. There are good things that happen to people who don’t deserve them.” It will all be straightened out in the final judgment, he believes.
“The problem we have as human beings is that we have finite minds,” said the preacher. “That’s where faith comes in. Faith sustains us where logic will not. But it’s a faith that’s based on evidence and substance. It’s not a hope without foundation.
“We don’t understand electricity, but we use it. There is not a physicist in the world who can tell you why electricity works. They can tell you how it works, but they can’t tell you why.”
One of his favorite Scriptures is from Paul, when he compares life to living in a tent. “Our eternal spirits are in a temporary dwelling,” he says. “Every camping trip comes to an end.” Life, says the preacher, is “boot camp for eternity. This is when we prove ourselves, and prepare ourselves.”
Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.