AL TAQADDUM, Iraq --
Built from plywood and tin and surrounded by thick protective barriers of dirt, there’s no way the chapel here could be mistaken for one back home.
It’s endured three separate rocket attacks since 2005. Its walls are lopsided despite the subsequent repairs, and heavy rainfall has a way of coming in through the roof.
But the overall condition of the building hasn’t kept the chaplains from fulfilling their obligation to those who worship there.
“The nature of our job as chaplains, (especially) in a multicultural setting with varying beliefs, is to ensure that everybody in the command has the opportunity to practice freedom of religion,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Leo Lynch, a Protestant chaplain deployed with 1st Marine Logistics Group.
Every Sunday, service members and civilians flock to the humble chapel for Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and Gospel services. Bible study groups and guided discussions are also scheduled throughout the week.
Those with less traditional beliefs, such as Wicca and Daoism, can coordinate with chaplains and their staff to obtain the space and materials they need for religious worship. They also protect the rights of service members who consider themselves atheists, offering non-religious guidance upon request.
“I think the Chaplain Corps is misunderstood by Marines and sailors who maybe see them as a good-luck charm,” said Chief Warrant Officer Christopher L. Elliott, a motor transportation officer with 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, one of the units responsible for security on and around Camp Taqaddum.
“They bring a lot more to the battlefront than we give them credit for,” added Elliott, from Albuquerque, N.M.
Lynch, who also ministers to a civilian congregation in his hometown of Los Angeles, said it’s less what they “bring” to the fight than what others are able to leave.
“It’s not so much what we have to say, it’s … the burdens that you leave with us,” he said. “When you see me as a chaplain, you know there’s an oasis in the desert, and people come to this oasis to be refreshed.”
But the job can have its challenges. A minister of God surrounded by rough-mannered Marines doesn’t always fit in. Lynch said it’s important for him and his colleagues to focus on their duties, not the behavior of those they’re serving.
“We tend to deal with people the way they are, and that’s raw,” Lynch said.
“A clergy person would do well (here) if he or she lives in the moment to be able to minister to that parishioner right where he or she is,” he added. “That’s where ministry happens.”
Despite the inherent differences between chaplains and the service members they support, Lynch said both groups share one very important quality.
“We like living on the edge, all of us, and that’s part of why we’re here. Even chaplains like living on the edge,” he started to laugh. “So if living on the edge makes me happy … yeah, I’m happy to be here.”
Maybe they’re not so different after all.