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Chaplains preserve life stories of the fallen

For every statistic in the Iraq war, there is a name, and for every name, a husband or son, wife or daughter whose life is remembered, often by a chaplain.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chaplain Kevin Wainwright was preparing his Easter Sunday sermon in Iraq when there was a knock on his door.

The news was grim: 1st Lt. Phillip Neel was dead. The young officer and fellow West Point grad had been a regular at the chaplain's Sunday church services. Wainwright knew and admired him. Now he had to find the right words to honor him.

Wainwright chose the legend of Sir Galahad, King Arthur's noble knight, and the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson to salute Neel in a memorial.

He spoke of his compassion, his devotion to his soldiers. But in trying to understand Neel's death, the chaplain also posed an agonizing question: "Why does it seem that the good guys are the first ones to fall?"

On Easter night, the sad milestone of 4,000 American deaths in the Iraq war was reached with an announcement by the U.S. military that four U.S. soldiers had been killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad.

As the toll approached 4,000, Wainwright and hundreds of other military chaplains in Iraq and across America wrestled with hard questions constantly. These are the men and women who pray with the mortally wounded, who administer last rites on bomb-scarred roads, who sit at kitchen tables with grieving families back home.

Behind every statistic, a story
Army chaplains such as Wainwright have been especially busy: Almost three-fourths of those who have died in Iraq were in the Army. Of the total lost in all services, more than 30 were just 18 years old; about 80 were older than 45, according to the military. Nearly 100 were women. A quarter of those who died were from just three states: California, Texas and New York.

But for every number, there is a name, and for every name, a husband or son, wife or daughter whose life is remembered, often by a chaplain.

"I'm the guy who knows all their stories," Wainwright says. "Of all the people in the battalion, the chaplain is the one who should know a little about everybody."

In 14 months in Iraq, Wainwright comforted countless grieving soldiers, composed handwritten notes to families and conducted memorials, including one for Neel held last year at a concrete-barricaded chapel.

"I remember them all," he says.

Military chaplains don't carry weapons, don't engage in combat, and yet they know as well as any the human cost of war.

Here are four of their stories:


When Kevin Wainwright arrived in Iraq in October 2006, it was his second deployment _ he had served with the North Carolina National Guard two years earlier. This time he shipped out from Fort Hood, Texas.

The Army captain knew what the dangers were, but he was optimistic.

"I think we all go over there believing ... we're going to be that battalion that doesn't lose anyone," Wainwright says.

That didn't happen.

‘You lose part of yourself’
Of the deaths in Iraq, more than 1 in 10 have come from sprawling Fort Hood, including some very personal losses for the chaplain: One was an airman he had given Communion to days before he was killed, one a soldier he had accompanied on patrol, another he had joined for dinner.

Wainwright was familiar with the rhythms of life and death as a Presbyterian minister serving churches in Wisconsin and the Carolinas. But war was different. "It's personal," he says. "They WANT to kill you."

And each soldier's death, Wainwright says, took a toll. "As a chaplain," he says, "you lose part of yourself that you're never going to get back."

As chaplain for the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, Wainwright, 38, sometimes joined soldiers on patrols. He also tended to the injured.

He was there to tell one wounded soldier after he regained consciousness that five of his comrades had died. Wainwright sat with him for hours, then gently told the survivor: "I'm glad you made it and you're here."

He also was there to clutch the wrist of another soldier dying from shrapnel wounds to the head. He prayed in a circle with his friends, then stepped aside so everyone could say goodbye.

Relying on faith
Amid so much death, Wainwright remained steadfast in his beliefs.

"My faith is not a stack of cards — it's rock solid," he says. "That doesn't mean I didn't grieve and think this guy is never going to know what it's like to be married or be a father. ... It hits home, too. You have those fears yourself. What would a loss be like for your own family? But if you dwell on that, it makes you less effective as a chaplain."

Wainwright smiles as he recalls the time he had some unexpected help soothing souls.

One day, he was trying to counsel a soldier when Eddie, a bomb-sniffing dog with a pitiful look, walked by. The distressed soldier petted the golden Labrador and instantly brightened.

"I was trying to come up with some theologically significant interpretation of a life crisis," Wainwright says, "but that dog did more ministry in 10 seconds that I could do in a month."


Sometimes he arrived by foot, other times by helicopter, but Chaplain Jesus Perez always had the same feeling when he visited a morgue in Iraq.

"I had this sensation of emptiness," he says. "The place is so cold, even colder than you expect. You're losing somebody you probably know, or at least a brother in arms. But when you're there with your commander and rendering honor to the soldier who died, it's a solemn moment in the life of everyone in that room."

In 14 months, the Fort Hood chaplain prayed over 56 fallen soldiers.

After the salutes and prayers were over, Perez, 43, always lingered behind.

"I'd wait for everybody to leave, then I'd cry like a baby," he says. "I tried not to show my emotions in front of the other soldiers. I wanted to be strong for them. But when I was by myself, I cried. ... That was my way of coping with the situation."

‘I believe God has his reasons’
As chaplain for the Army's 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, Perez conducted several memorial ceremonies. He comforted the survivors, then took care of himself by talking with another chaplain or counselor.

"I had to protect myself from burnout," he says. "There comes a time after you hear so many are dead, you become frustrated, there's some anger. You ask yourself: 'When is this going to end?'"

But nothing he saw, he says, tested his faith.

"I believe God has his reasons," says Perez, who is a Messianic Jew. "Who am I to ask why? I know a lot of people have that question. I don't have that answer obviously. Since I don't have the answer, I don't even ask it."

In February, Perez received a poster he had ordered in Iraq that includes the names of 110 soldiers lost in his brigade. He plans to have it framed.

"It will go with me everywhere I go," he says. "It will go with me if I go back to Iraq. Some people may forget their names, but not this chaplain."

The Rev. David Sivret still lives with nightmares, headaches and memories of his brush with a suicide bomber.

The Maine Army National Guard chaplain was severely injured in the Dec. 21, 2004, attack at a mess hall in Mosul, Iraq, that killed 22 people and wounded dozens more.

Sivret has vivid memories of the day: sitting down for a roast beef lunch, saying grace, seeing a bright flash, waking up on the floor — having been thrown 10 to 20 feet — next to a soldier dying of catastrophic head injuries.

"That's one of those dreams that haunts me," he says. "The floor was slippery with residue and blood. People were screaming and hollering."

Sivret managed to stand, but he couldn't hear. He shouted some angry words — language, he says, "unbecoming a chaplain" — then collected himself and began praying with the wounded sprawled on the floor or on tables converted into stretchers.

The chaplain moved outside, unzipping body bags to examine dog tags, performing last rites to those who were Christian.

"I was running on adrenaline," he says. "I had a wicked headache. My left knee was shattered. My ribs were broken."

But Sivret didn't let on, fearing he'd be hospitalized. "I wasn't going to leave them," he says. "They were my soldiers."

Building up troop morale
National Guard members have accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. deaths in Iraq, including three men from Sivret's unit, two of whom were killed in that blast.

One was Sgt. Lynn Poulin Sr. The chaplain had celebrated his marriage in Maine.

The other was Spc. Thomas Dostie, whose parents had been Sivret's classmates, prompting the Guardsman to teasingly tell the chaplain: "'I know what you were like in high school.'"

Sivret presided at a memorial for the two, breaking down outside before he spoke.

He remained in Iraq a few more months, constantly encouraging the soldiers, telling them they were doing good. "I was trying to give them perspective and hope," he says. "You have to build them up because they have to go back out there again."

Sivret, now 52, returned to being the parish priest at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Calais, Maine, where Guard soldiers occasionally visit.

Sivret's hearing has returned and his ribs have healed, but the war remains part of his life.

In December, he accompanied a master sergeant to notify a family of a soldier's death. Seeing the father's pained face, knowing the death occurred in Mosul — the city where Sivret was injured — brought back a flood of memories.

"It stays with me," Sivret says. "You change. You're never the same."

Chaplain Irvine Bryer faced death before, 40 years ago in another war — in Vietnam.

The skinny kid who survived the jungles returned to a desert battlefield as a grandfather — and Army Reserve chaplain for the 3rd Medical Command.

In Iraq, Bryer dodged mortars, rockets and shots fired at his helicopter.

Still, he says, "Never did I feel there was anything to fear. There is a season for everything under the sun. That's what Ecclesiastes says. ...I take that now and have a for long time as an important part of who I am."

The lieutenant colonel and Baptist minister was based at Camp Victory, the main U.S. military headquarters. He flew more than 11,000 miles in helicopters, frequently visiting hospitals, chatting and praying with the wounded, bringing calm to the chaos.

One day he went to the morgue to pray for a soldier but had been given the wrong name. When a soldier there cursed him and said he should have gotten the identification right, Bryer agreed, and asked him to get the correct information.

Later, the soldier apologized but still admonished him: "Get it right next time."

Fleeting friendships, lasting hope
Bryer wore a Vietnam patch on his right shoulder that didn't go unnoticed in Iraq. Once, he says, a soldier said to him: "You've done this before. You think it makes a difference?"

"I hope so," he replied.

Despite all the tragedy he saw, Bryer had joyful moments — his favorite involving a little boy.

While visiting a health clinic, he says, a little Iraqi boy pointed to the chaplain's shaved head. His mother said her son wanted to touch it.

"He rubbed it like it was a ball," Bryer says.

The chaplain pulled a Snicker's bar from his pocket, broke it in two and gave half to the boy. "We pushed it together, toasting like we're ready to have champagne. I bit in and was making all kinds of sounds like mmmmm," Bryer says. "He was just sitting and laughing."

For Bryer, now 62, this fleeting moment of friendship offers promise for the future.

"I hope that when we're finished," he says, "this is what it's all about."

‘Good and honorable men’
In February, Capt. Wainwright stood in a brick chapel at Fort Hood to honor fallen soldiers.

This was not a day to mourn 4,000 lost, but the eight men from his battalion who did not come home.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of those guys and feel some hurt in my heart," he says.

Wainwright spoke in a chapel with stained glass windows that depict cavalry soldiers. The names of those who've died in other wars are engraved on plaques.

Wainwright remembered each of the eight killed in Iraq by name, quoted from Psalm 20 and told mourners that these soldiers are "beckoning from the grave, demanding us to be the men they were ... good and honorable men."

The chaplain wears a memory bracelet with the name of one of them, Phillip Neel, who is buried in the West Point cemetery next to the Old Cadet chapel, where Wainwright used to worship.

"Every time I go back, even when I'm a decrepit old man," the chaplain says, "I'm going to go to the cemetery and look at the headstone, think and remember him, who he was, what he stood for."