Comfort and Grief: Kentucky chaplain seeks to give comfort in Iraq

-A A +A
By The Staff

Editor's Note: This story is reprinted with permission of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq - In a place where everyone is armed, all he carries is a camouflage Bible.

Five years into the war, this is Maj. Charles "Ed" Hamlin's first tour in Iraq.

At 44, Hamlin is old enough to be the father of many of the soldiers he ministers to. The lanky man wears oval glasses and his black hair is high and tight.

Hamlin is in Baghdad, part of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, attached to the 716th Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade.

He is still in the early stages of his own 15-month deployment, which had him and his battalion in Kuwait for Christmas. He readily admits he would rather be at home in Flaherty, Ky., with his wife, Pam, two sons, a daughter and golden Labrador retriever. "I have 11 months, 25 days to go."

The Army chaplain was very familiar with this war and its results before he got to Baghdad. From 2004 to 2006, he was posted at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, where he officiated at services and ministered to the families of soldiers who'd been killed in action.

Now he ministers to young soldiers who are alive, saluting or joking with them, a friendly face in a war of daily drudgery spliced with moments of terror.

At Arlington, Hamlin presided over services for hundreds of soldiers who'd been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another part of his job was to go along on casualty notifications to tell spouses or parents that their loved ones had been killed in action.

Throughout Washington and northern Virginia, he watched parents' faces cloud over in grief, mothers faint and fathers slam doors.

Sometimes, Hamlin sat for hours holding a mother's hand as she cried, her life very different from when she'd woken up.

"You see their world just come crashing down, so to speak. That's tough," he said. "You can't put a good face on that one, but it's a fact of war. When war happens, people die, and that's a tragedy."

He hesitated to put a number on how many services he'd officiated at, but said it could be nearly 2,000, counting not only soldiers killed in action recently but also Medal of Honor recipients from previous wars. There was a five-month span in late 2005 and early 2006 when he averaged six services a day, five days a week.

Far away from Arlington, Iraq is a place where death is a real possibility, whether by homemade bomb or small arms fire. Just outside the "wire," the road to the Baghdad International Airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. A few weeks ago, several rockets landed on the base, sending soldiers scrambling to concrete bunkers.

In this setting, Hamlin does his best to bring hope and encouragement to young soldiers to "give them a slice of normalcy in an abnormal environment," he said.

In addition to leading Protestant services, he'll join a baseball game full of 18-year-olds and play country and bluegrass music at a bonfire. He recently began offering guitar and banjo lessons for a few.

Hamlin estimates that he interacts with 20 to 50 soldiers daily on the base who come up and ask for a minute of his time. There also are several hourlong counseling sessions with soldiers, and even more who just pop their heads into his office, where he often remains until 10 p.m.

"I think everyone understands when they see the cross ... "That's a safe place; that's someone I can talk to,'" he said.

Three months into his deployment, some soldiers come to him with combat stress issues, but many more want to talk about problems back home. He has organized videoconferencing three times already so that soldiers could watch the births of their babies. There are some who have financial problems, and others with unfaithful spouses.

"Some of them have been here two, three or four times, and sometimes it breaks the family down the second or third time around," he said.

Most people are tired of the war, but closure won't come soon, he said.

At the five-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion and the 4,000 deaths, the chaplain counsels: "What we're in now in Iraq calls for a lot of patience," he said.

"Each life is precious and each service member killed has a family that lives daily with the sacrifice their loved one made.

"I truly believe from number 1 to number 4,000+ that each was very precious."

Ed Hamlin has conducted many funerals for casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he serves the living.

- Herald-Leader reporter Steve Lannen is in Iraq on special assignment for McClatchy Newspapers.