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01-22-06, 12:34 PM
A priest comes home
Chaplain provided comfort to National Guard unit during yearlong Iraq tour
By Sandi Dolbee

January 22, 2006

He touched the paper as if it were holy writ, a sacred list of 18 names that began with their ranks – specialists and sergeants, captains and a colonel – and ended with the date they died – March, April, June, September, October and December.

"I buried them all," he said in a voice soft and weary.

He held the hand of one soldier as the man took his last breaths, assuring him that he was not alone and praying for God's presence. He unzipped the body bags of others, checking to make sure what was inside wasn't too gruesome for buddies who came to pay their last respects.

It's been a year since the Rev. Robert Blessing, associate pastor at theGood Samaritan Episcopal Church in University City, left for war.

Called up to active duty as chaplain of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment of the California Army National Guard, Maj. Blessing headed out last January, bound for Iraq by way of Kuwait. He returned Monday with the rest of his unit, via a long weekend at Fort Bliss, Texas.

The battalion of more than 700 went on nearly 7,000 patrols and suffered more than 100 casualties, the highest count of wounded and killed in action of any California unit since the Korean War, according to a spokesman for the Modesto-based 1-184th.

Blessing, a noncombatant who does not carry a weapon, was shot at and held worship services punctuated by mortar fire. He saw the joy on the faces of Iraqis who want U.S. troops there and the terror wrought by those who want them to leave. He told of the heroics of a soldier who shielded a wounded medic with his own body and the shame of three sergeants sent to prison for abusing detainees.

"To be honest, I think when I first went out, I thought, 'Jesus is going to take care of this,' " said Blessing, who turned 47 while he was in Iraq.

The reality is that war can test even a chaplain's faith. "Sometimes it was diminished because of the loss," he admitted, rubbing the shadows under his blue eyes.

Diminished, but not lost. "I'm one of those people who believe that God does answer and deliver. He doesn't always do it. I don't know why – but I trust he knows why."

Dressed in the tan cammies of combat, a major's oak leaf cluster stitched on one collar and a cross on the other, Blessing said it's not only the deaths of soldiers that pains him, but also of civilians who were bombed and beheaded by insurgents.

Violence and evil are no longer distant abstractions – and neither are his convictions. "Evil people need to be taken out," he said. "They need to be gone."

The 1-184 arrived in Iraq in February, assigned to a base in a particularly divisive district of southeastern Baghdad. Their initiation with death began the next month, when a military police officer in their area was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade. The next month, one of their own was killed.

Most of the 18 soldiers on Blessing's remembrance list were associated with or assigned to the 1-184th, including five who lived in San Diego and Imperial counties, according to the National Guard. The others were regular Army who worked with them in their blended family.

What do you say to people who just saw a friend blown to pieces?

"He's just a body, a shell," is what Chaplain Blessing said. "Life with our Lord goes on."

What if they don't believe in God? "There are no atheists in Hummers," he said with a smile. Then he corrected himself. One of the men professed to be an atheist, though Blessing isn't sure he believed him. "He talked about God more than anyone else."

The congregation of Good Samaritan prayed for him and made prayer squares for his soldiers. "Every time I handed one out, they said, 'Thank you. Someone's praying for me.' "

He also handed out bandanas with the words of Psalm 91, a biblical prayer about God's protection: "He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust."

Still, bad things happened.

In July, news reports emerged of an abuse investigation involving several soldiers from the 1-184th who were accused of mistreating detainees during an incident in June. Among the allegations: a stun gun was used on the testicles of at least one of the prisoners.

Three sergeants were convicted and sentenced to jail time. Blessing met with the sergeants just before they were taken out of Iraq. He told them they made a mistake but that God still loves them and they are not alone. "They grabbed onto it."

The men realized what they did was wrong, Blessing said. "Good guys just made wrong decisions," he said. He doesn't condone what they did. "But," he cautioned, "it's easy for outsiders to judge."

The scandal also brought a change of command. Lt. Col. Patrick Frey of Salinas was relieved of duty and replaced by Lt. Col. William Wood, who was regular Army.

If the summer was rough, September and October were heartbreaking. There were a dozen deaths in those two months, according to Blessing's list. Among them: their new commanding officer, who was felled by a homemade bomb in late October. Wood, promoted to colonel posthumously, was the highest ranking officer killed in action in Iraq.

There were highlights. The members of the unit are proud of their work training Iraqi security forces and helping ensure that the constitutional referendum took place in October. They hope they made a difference.

On Christmas Eve, soldiers went caroling through the barracks. "Hundreds of troops came to hear," Blessing wrote in an e-mail back to San Diego. "It was surreal. We had outgoing cannon fire going on with a John Deere tractor dressed up as Santa's sleigh."

On Dec. 31, less than two weeks before they were to leave, a mortar attack claimed one more life. Again, the chaplain had to prepare a eulogy.

"We are shocked because death does not honor our redeployment schedule," he told the men. "We are numb and we are angry. And that is OK. In our attention to the death of our brother today, let us not forget life. Let us remember that while death is inevitable, life is more powerful."

The dying. The wrongdoing. The woundings. "All of those things, they hurt us," Blessing said. "My part was to be there, to just be a sounding board."

Ask the soldiers about Chaplain Blessing and they'll say he always seemed to be where he was needed. He'd pat them on the back or hug them, ask them how they were doing and about their families.

"Just seeing him was a daily comfort," said Sgt. 1st Class Harold Benally, a 45-year-old letter carrier from Vista who led patrols in Iraq. "He risked his life just as much as we did."

"Consistency," is what Lt. Rusten Currie remembers about his year in Iraq with Blessing. "And for some reason, whenever he was around, we watched our mouths," said the 34-year-old Venice resident who was going to graduate school when he was called up.

Others agreed. "We were better persons when he was around," said Sgt. Chris Todd, 32, of Irvine. "He'd give us a blessing and hand out candy."

Though neither Currie nor Todd are particularly religious, they found themselves talking to God.

Currie would touch the cross on his class ring from Pepperdine University. "Remember me," he'd pray. Todd wore a St. Christopher's medal. "Me and the man upstairs have had a lot of conversations, let me tell you."

Gregory Dodds, a 35-year-old first sergeant from San Diego, credits Blessing with keeping up morale. "I already know where I'm going to church now."

Blessing plans to return to Good Samaritan in his role as associate pastor. He's also a candidate to become the rector, or senior pastor, replacing the Rev. Wayne Sanders, who retired last year.

Before Blessing goes back, however, he needs to download, to make the transition from being a soldier to a priest. He also wants to spend time with his wife, Anne, and two children, Joshua, 15, and Sarah, 12.

"I can't be the warrior at Good Samaritan," Blessing said. "And I won't be. I'm their father. I'm their shepherd. I'm their pastor."

On Monday afternoon he stood on the steps of an auditorium at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County and called Anne's name, scanning the crowd of families embracing their returning loved ones.

The governor had just told them they were heroes during a brief welcome-home ceremony for the 1-184th. Blessing also spoke. "Lord, it's good to be home," he said to a cheering theater.

He sat in the front row, squinting up in vain to see his family in the balcony. When the program was over, he began to search for them, making his way outside as soldiers stopped him to introduce their mom, dad, wife, kids. He pressed on, still looking, still being interrupted.

Finally, he borrowed a cell phone and told them where he was. And then it came: a crushing embrace from Joshua and Sarah, with Anne right behind them.

Hand-in-hand, husband and wife were sidetracked every few steps by clusters of picture-taking, teary-eyed people. "He's had it tough and he's going to need to talk along the way," Blessing told one man who came to welcome a returning soldier.

Ditto for Blessing.

The priest is deeply troubled by the radical, violent version of Islam that he witnessed from some Muslims in Iraq. "Islam has to deal with that issue. They've got to speak up about it forcefully."

He is fiercely loyal to the soldiers. "My goal and objective is to let the families know these guys are heroes."

He has no interest in debating the merits of the war. "The political issues are not clear cut. But there are a group of people who want to be free. . . . The job has to be finished. There is no other option."

The priest went to war and survived. Now his challenge is to live in peace.

When he was at Fort Bliss, he described himself as having become less of a pacifist. He said he was even considering getting a gun for protection.

After settling in back home, however, he softened that: "With the violence I saw in Iraq and the anarchy I saw in Louisiana (on television after Hurricane Katrina), I can understand why people would secure their homes with a weapon; not to assault another but to protect their families from those who would harm them when trouble came to their door.

"Yet, I must trust God to protect my family and friends. This is where I will stand."