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Former Green Beret guides GIs in thicket of Iraq

Capt. Dan Knight, a strapping Army Ranger with a shaved head, an aw-shucks drawl and an awesome military resume, carries no weapon. Instead, tucked in his combat fatigues is a book covered in camouflage canvas that says, "Army of the Lord."
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By day, this military camp is a self-contained American bubble in a bizarre setting. Off-duty soldiers listen to country music, watch big-screen basketball, eat grilled steaks, read e-mail from home and jog around an artificial lake, built on a landscaped former resort for Saddam Hussein's cronies and loyalists.

By night, the base becomes a launching pad for forays into another world that is equally surreal but far more dangerous. Lightless convoys rumble into the nearby city of Fallujah, where troops hop out and creep through deserted streets, searching houses for enemies and weapons. Then they rapidly withdraw, listening for the crack of gunfire and praying they will make it back to the base without a bomb exploding in their path.

On most missions, the raiders of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment are accompanied by Dan Knight, a strapping captain with a shaved head, an aw-shucks drawl and an awesome résumé: 12-year Green Beret, Persian Gulf War combat veteran, Special Forces company commander, demolitions expert, high-altitude jumper and deep-sea scuba diver.

Knight carries no weapon, though he mightily wishes he could. Instead, tucked in his rucksack is a book covered in camouflage canvas that says "Army of the Lord."

Soldier's soldier
Knight is the regimental chaplain, a soldier's soldier who switched gears in mid-career, spent two years at a Louisiana seminary and reappeared in Afghanistan and Iraq carrying a military-issue Bible.

"Being a noncombatant is not exactly my cup of tea, but if it's what God wants me to do, I'll abide," said Knight, 37, whose duties are to nurture the living, comfort the wounded and honor the dead. "I don't crave combat, but I fight to get on every mission I can. There's nothing more rewarding to me than being on the battlefield, praying with a wounded man."

Knight spends little time in his quarters, a makeshift wooden chapel with an attached bunkroom, built on the ruins of a lakefront cafe at the Hussein-era "Dreamland" resort that was bombed by U.S. forces last April. On Sunday mornings he leads a simple Protestant service, but attendance is usually sparse.

Last Sunday, the service drew fewer than a dozen of the 800 troops at Volturno, about one-third of whom wear dog tags stamped "no religious preference." Knight readily acknowledged it's hard to drum up enthusiasm among men who are often out on raids until 3 a.m.

'He's done everything'
Out in the field, though, the soldiers' appreciation for his presence is clear. When the commando chaplain jumps into an armored Humvee bound for Fallujah, the nervous jokes stop and a sense of calm seems to pervade the soldiers gripping their rifles in the back of the vulnerable, open vehicle.

"With Dan, there's a bit of an awe factor at work," said 1st Sgt. Chris Dunn, a close friend and fellow Army Ranger who is also with the 82nd Airborne Division. "He can relate to any soldier because he's done everything, and he automatically commands their respect. He's just got an extra chain of command than the rest of us do."

Knight, a native of Mississippi, was reticent about what motivated his extraordinary leap from survivalist to seminarian. Last weekend, while showing off snapshots of his wife and three children, he hinted at a hell-raising, extreme-sports past that nearly cost him his marriage. Later, he mentioned the autobiography of James D. Johnson, a combat chaplain in the Vietnam War, as a source of inspiration.

But Johnson's book, which Knight has heavily highlighted, is hardly the portrayal of a gung-ho patriot-priest. Instead, the author describes confronting the intimate moral dilemmas of war: agonizing over whether to destroy some girlie photos among the home-bound effects of a dead, and married, GI; wishing he could comfort the screaming children of a Vietnamese man shot by U.S. troops; having to lie to a frightened patient whose leg would have to be amputated.

'Bigger picture'
Knight's mission in Iraq has involved similarly difficult moments, especially after the regiment's most painful episode since being deployed here in August. On Oct. 20, a team from Volturno was heading into Fallujah to organize distribution of school supplies. As they paused on the highway to search for mines, unseen hands detonated a powerful explosive device. Eight soldiers were wounded, and the squad's popular commander, Staff Sgt. Paul Johnson, 29, was killed.

Afterward, Johnson's men were wracked with conflicting emotions: anger, grief, guilt that they had survived, worry that they had somehow contributed to Johnson's death. According to several squad members, Knight helped them absorb and accept what had happened, both through private counseling and at a formal memorial service.

"We were all in shock," said Sgt. Michael Clay, 35. "I kept wondering if I had done everything I could have, if we had taken every precaution." For days the squad members were scattered, recovering in various clinics and barracks, but Knight "helped us see the bigger picture" and "mend as a group," Clay said.

There's another, more paradoxical aspect to Knight's role. In some ways, his main function is to help inexperienced troops reconcile their duty to kill with their respect for human life, and to help them cling to a sense of liberating mission in a country where people are increasingly hostile to the U.S. military presence.

In Fallujah, a city about 35 miles west of Baghdad that has been a hotbed of Sunni Muslim resistance to the U.S. occupation for months, the regiment's mission embodies both civilian outreach and military punishment. One day the troops are handing out book bags to children, the next night they are putting hoods over the heads of handcuffed men kneeling in the streets.

Uphill battle
The regiment's commander, Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, euphemistically described the situation in Fallujah as "fluid and dynamic," with a murky mix of tribal chiefs, wealthy former members of Hussein's Baath Party, jobless youths and Islamic extremists. He said the regiment has worked hard to rebuild the city and reorganize local government, but he acknowledged the battle has been uphill.

"We've spent over half a million dollars on projects, and only 2 percent of the population is anti-coalition, but the Baathists and extremists use a lot of propaganda against us," Drinkwine said. When his troops conduct raids, they regularly encounter gunfire, rockets or explosives like the one that killed Johnson in October.

Even on goodwill missions, hostile crowds sometimes gather and residents sometimes shrink from the U.S. troops. One day, Knight said, he tried to hand a book bag to a woman on the street, but she quickly pulled her daughter away. "You could see the terror in her eyes," he said.

Knight said he harbors no religious enmity toward Muslims, although he believes that Islam and democracy may be fundamentally incompatible. Yet he professes an unshakable, holy warrior's conviction in the rightness of the U.S. mission and its long-term benefits for Iraqi society. By the same token, he seems to have no trouble reconciling his dual identity as soldier and spiritual guide to an occupying force.

"I believe in the nobility of what we're doing. It's not an occupation or an invasion, it's a classic battle between good and evil," he said Friday evening, sitting on his bunk before heading out on a midnight raid. "No one enjoys killing, but it can be a necessary evil to defend liberty." After all, Knight added, the army chaplains' Latin motto is "Pro Deo Et Patria" -- For God and Country.

An hour later he jumped into a crowded Humvee, waiting for the signal to move out. In the cab, an irreverent officer began insulting Knight's taste in "garbage" Christian music. But in back, a young soldier timidly inquired about training for the Special Forces, and everyone listened in admiration as Knight described surviving in the Georgia wilderness with little food or water.

Soon the convoy was moving through the silent, shuttered streets of Fallujah, passing ornate mosques and being chased by barking dogs. Knight hunkered down with the medics in an abandoned building while several squads fanned out, looking for Hussein loyalists and hidden weapons.

As eager for the hunt as any soldier, Knight listened to muffled radio commands and scanned the starry sky while invisible reconnaissance choppers droned overhead. Banned from carrying a gun under Geneva Convention rules, he wore fatigues, boots and night-vision binoculars that made the landscape glow bright green. When the raiders discovered a stash of grenade launchers in one suspect's house, there were high-fives all around.

Boosting morale
Back on base, though, Knight's routine generally involves less drama and more mundane, morale-boosting efforts, such as distributing holiday gifts, delivering cocoa to camp sentinels, supervising construction of a Ping-Pong and library tent and sympathizing over news from home of a grandparent's death or a wife's unfaithfulness.

"I'm not a missionary looking for battlefield conversions," he asserted with a disarming grin. "I'm here to let the men know I care about them, and that God does, too."

Knight's bunkroom behind the chapel reflects his calling: a shelf of religious books, a pile of Christian-flavored country music discs and a DVD collection that features "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson as an air cavalry officer from the Vietnam era who prays with his children before bed and his men before battle.

Yet Knight's approach to ministry is low key, drawing more on military metaphors than Scripture to reach his uniformed flock. Last Sunday he offered communion while dressed in camouflage fatigues, and closed with a powerful image from his daredevil exploits. "I've made 150 [high-altitude free-fall] jumps, and every one was an act of faith," he said quietly.

For some young troops at Volturno, the example seems to resonate. Andrew Jones, 26, a baby-faced specialist from West Virginia who joined the Army just weeks before he was deployed five months ago, said he arrived in the Iraqi war zone psychologically unprepared and morally torn.

"I've been a Christian all my life, but this is the first time I've been a Christian with a machine gun," Jones confided after chapel last Sunday. "This can be an ungodly profession at times, and you need to hold onto your inner values and still do your job." After spending some time under Knight's wing, he said, "I was able to call my parents and tell them I'd be okay."