Henderson native writes book about serving as Army chaplain in Iraq War


Henderson native writes book about serving as Army chaplain in Iraq War

2021/09/15 | 00:46 - Source: Iraq News

(ThisDay | Iraq News Now)-

By Chuck Stinnett  |  Special to The Gleaner

Owen Chandler’s cell phone rang at an inopportune time.

It was the week of Thanksgiving in 2015, and the Henderson native was trying to repair and upgrade his kitchen after a stove fire that he attributed to having tried to take a shortcut with some brisket and pie the previous month.

It was 7 p.m.

and Chandler was weary and frustrated.

His wife, Emily, suppressed both a laugh and the temptation to point out that he was in over his head.

And now his phone was ringing.

The caller was a lieutenant colonel in his Army Reserve quartermaster battalion.

Chandler dreaded that he was about to be dragged into some drama involving “another drunken soldier situation.”

Instead, he was being notified that he was to be deployed to Iraq in support of a war he says most Americans weren’t aware their country was still fighting.

Chandler wasn’t by any measure a typical soldier.

He didn’t grow up in a military family; he didn’t join the Army Reserve until he was 32 years old.

He held the rank of captain, but he had no command authority, no one to whom he could issue orders.

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And while he wore the uniform, he didn’t carry a gun.

“In fact, I have never fired a weapon in uniform,” he wrote.

Chandler was an Army Reserve chaplain, a noncombatant charged with conducting worship services, administering sacraments, counseling service members experiencing combat or family stress and a host of other responsibilities revolving around the spiritual, moral and personal needs of his or her comrades.

He wasn’t a professional soldier.

He was the senior pastor of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that he adored in Tucson, Arizona.

And besides being a husband, he was the father of three young kids — daughters age 5 and 3 and an infant son.

Chandler would be uprooted from his family, his home and his church for nearly a year.

He would be inserted into Camp Taji outside Baghdad, half a world away.

After he hung up with the lieutenant colonel, he and his wife stood holding one another.

She was sobbing quietly.

“I’m scared,” his wife whispered to him.

“I know.

Me, too,” he whispered back.

More than four years later, Chandler has written a book, “A Bridge in Babylon,” that provides a frank account of his experiences in deployment and his return home.

It was published earlier this year by Chalice Press, a Christian publisher that advocates for social justice, inclusive community and leadership development.

Chandler explained that he wrote the book “to show you what’s it like being a Reserve chaplain, husband and father at war” as well as to illustrate how Reservists and Guardsmen aren’t regarded as full soldiers by those in the Regular Army.

But “A Bridge in Babylon” also notes the toll that unending wars take on the men and women who fight — and their families.

A terrifying introduction

He arrived in Taji, Iraq, on a Friday the 13th; he prayed that wasn’t an omen.

He was deployed with an Army Reserve CSSB (combat support and sustainment battalion) out of Phoenix, Arizona, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve — specifically, equipping and arming the Iraqi army, sympathetic militias and Kurdish forces as they sought to force ISIS combatants out of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq.

That very first day at Camp Taji, he heard both sirens warning of enemy mortars and bursts of gunfire from unknown locations.

ISIS fighters inhabited the neighborhood surrounding the camp.

A dark voice whispered inside his head: “You will never see your children again; they will have no memory of you; and another man will take your place.”

“It was the most terrified I have ever been,” Chandler wrote.

Over time, he calmed down.

Warning sirens, aside from drills, were rare, and he would learn that most of the gunfire he heard was bored Iraqi security guards shooting at stray dogs.

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But there were other miseries.

Like the climate.

“Iraq was hot,” he wrote.

Even for someone who grew up in the muggy summers of the Ohio River Valley, “it was unbelievable.

The sweat never stopped.

I never truly acclimated to it.

It created this perpetual film of dirt, sunscreen and perspiration, which left a residue on every surface I touched.

There was no break from the heat.”

Also, at age 36, he was twice as old as some of the soldiers in his outfit.

Unlike them, he had to make nightly trips to the latrine, 50 yards away, just hoping that he wouldn’t wake up so much that he couldn’t fall back asleep.

On one such 2 a.m.

journey, a sergeant stopped him.

The man’s eyes were red; he had been crying.

“He was another man whose family was being torn asunder by America’s perpetual war on terrorism.

All he knew was that one text message had changed his life more than any of the enemies outside of the gates.

All he knew was where his wife’s breaking point was, but now that information would not really matter in the future.

All he knew was that there would not be a home to go to.”

Such personal crises were not rare.

While Chandler couldn’t make them go away, he could listen to soldiers voice their misery and heartbreak.

“I learned quickly that I was an embedded presence of hope.

For those in uniform, I sought to be as constant as God’s hesed, the steadfast presence of God’s love.”

He didn’t spend his entire deployment in Camp Taji.

“They’d send me in after traumatic events” in other parts of Iraq, he said.

“I’d fly out and help with the response.”

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“I nurtured the living, cared for the wounded and honored the dead,” he wrote.

“… I have been asked twice whether I killed anyone in combat, and I clearly disappointed those asking when I said no,” Chandler wrote.

“I was not a warrior.

I was not a killer.

I carried no gun.

I shed no blood.

For me, war was waged through the stories of those that I counseled.”

There were moments of hospitality, like the Friday night cigar club he joined, watching 1980s American comedy movies and chatting not only with fellow Americans but with coalition forces — Brits, Aussies and Kiwis (New Zealanders).

At one camp, the 6-foot-4 chaplain played basketball at night in games organized by Navy SEALS.

Most of all, his heart ached from missing his wife and kids as Christmas approached.

So did others.

“During those December days, my counseling load almost quadrupled,” he wrote.

Dec.

25, 2016, was “the most miserable Christmas of my life.” It was the rainy season, and “these war-torn grounds looked like a dystopian B movie.” But chaplains aren’t granted the privilege of sulking.

Chandler had to get up, circulate around the camp and conduct a worship service in the chapel.

The good news: His 11-month-and-10-day combat tour was drawing to a close.

'The hardest part'

The bad news: “Coming home was the hardest part,” Chandler wrote.

“It’s really alienating to be gone such a long time with so much adrenalin and so much singularity,” he said during a recent What’sApp phone interview.

“When you’re on deployment, you and thousands are all working on the same project that has international purpose you can hear about on CNN.

You get done with deployment and within eight days you’re standing in a Kroger and trying to pick out cereal and no one in the grocery store even knew you were gone.

“When you come back, you can’t just come back in the house and say, ‘I’m home,’ and be the straw that stirs the drink, because they’ve gotten into a rhythm without you being there.”

While both his family and his church were thriving, Chandler was not.

Two years after Iraq, he found himself sitting in his car, parked outside a Veterans Affairs facility.

Without telling anyone, he was going to seek counseling.

“I was broken,” he wrote.

“I was alone.

I was literally suffocating in anxiety.”

As he said during the interview, “I thought I had lost it all.”

Fortunately, he found at the VA a counselor who provided “counsel, wisdom and accountability” that helped restore him.

“There are a lot of relationships that don’t make it” when a serviceperson returns to their civilian life, Chandler said.

He said his marriage has survived because of his “amazing spouse and an amazing emotional support network.”

A career change

In a surprise ending, Chandler wound up being promoted to major and transferring into the Regular Army in 2020.

It meant resigning from a church he loved and moving his family to Fort Stewart in Georgia, home of the 3rd Infantry Division.

“It’s been good,” he said recently.

“For the first time in a really, really long time, I feel at home with my family and completely at home with my vocation.”

Chandler is currently deployed — serving as brigade chaplain, providing mentoring and resources for five battalion chaplains while still doing a lot of counseling — to an undisclosed location in the Middle East.

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“It’s driving my wife nuts right now,” he said during an interview.

“It’s atypical.” During his first deployment, “I could tell her where I was.”

But there are other aspects of this deployment that are easier than his first.

His family lives on base at Fort Stewart, where his kids go to school and have teachers who know their father is deployed.

“It’s not like they’re the only ones in their class” who have a parent gone.

“Work crews mow the grass for my wife, change the light bulbs for my wife,” he said.

And while he will be deployed for nine months, until the spring of 2022, he will be away from his family a shorter time than before.

As a Reservist, he had to report to duty two months before being deployed for training, and there can be delays getting back home afterward.

Further, he returned home without his comrades.

With the Regular Army, he’ll be flown straight home to Fort Stewart “with my entire unit.

We’ll march across the parade ground, and the entire Fort Stewart will know we were gone.”

Uncommon candor

Chandler is a writer of uncommon candor regarding intimate aspects of life, the tears he shed in Iraq and his own psychic and spiritual crisis.

“Anything I wrote, I always made sure I had my wife’s permission,” he said.

She wasn’t the only one.

“A Bridge in Babylon” had to be cleared by the Pentagon to “make sure I hadn’t disclosed any secrets.

“The Pentagon was pretty clear the only reason they gave green light to do the book was because I was a Reservist,” Chandler said.

“To be able to get the book through on active duty, I wouldn’t have gotten the green light.”

He said it has been received well.

“Yeah, I’ve been really surprised by how much people seem to genuinely like it,” he said, but added: “It’s not like it’s going to be on Oprah’s Book Club.”

“It has hit home with a lot of veterans,” Chandler said.

“I’ve had them write me and tell me they thought I captured it.”

He’s heard of a seminary that trains chaplains where “my book has become required reading for them.

There are people in churches doing book clubs with it.”

As for serving in the Regular Army, he said, “I love it.

But if it ever got to point where — God wouldn’t call you to break something God created.

If this calling was in danger of breaking my family, it would be time to do something new.”

As for his future, he’s uncertain.

“If in 10 years I’m not doing this anymore, I’m not sure what doors will be open because of this experience.

“What does faithfulness (to God) look like? A church? A military chaplaincy at some seminary? More writing? I don’t know.”

For now, he’ll continue his service in the military.

“It’s truly one of the most unique experiences in the world,” he said.



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