The Deacon's Bench

A soldier in Afghanistan offers some glimpses of military life today — and, to his dismay, there seems to be a distressing lack of faith:

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the cliché goes. It’s hard to imagine a soldier facing death who doesn’t believe in God. Maybe soldiers need hope; maybe they need the promise of an afterlife to face death. And when this friendly little aphorism was coined, it was probably true.

Now, religion is political. Polls in the MilitaryTimes seem to back up the religiosity of the Armed Forces. So you’d be forgiven if you viewed that the battlefield was also a religious place — every base loaded with a friendly chaplain, every troop in a foxhole silently speaking to God and every platoon doubling as a prayer group.

Because you’d be wrong.

About a week after arriving at the Korangal Outpost — after being in Afghanistan a month — the First Sergeant announced that the chaplain had shown up. He would be holding a (nondenominational) Christian service later that night. I expected a big crowd. When I told my men this news, they groaned.

About 10 minutes before the ceremony, I trudged up the hill, through three feet of snow, from our hooch to the service. I wore the usual kit for winter — ACU pants, a brown T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, an IBA (Improved Ballistic Armor) and a helmet — I carried a Bible in my cargo pocket…

…Our chapel was the Dining Facility, which for us meant an olive-drab tent and wood benches, freezing cold in the wintertime. The tent had the Army version of indoor lighting, which was floodlights aimed awkwardly at the ceiling, running off the diesel generator outside — the only sound on an otherwise silent FOB.

As I entered, I thought for a moment I was in the wrong place. It was empty, save for two other soldiers. Then I saw the chaplain…

…The service itself was awkward. The chaplain had gotten used to conducting these small ceremonies, and he tried to move past the empty silence. We sat there, and he gave his sermon. We each fought the cold, listening, watching our breath and shivering. I can’t remember what he spoke about. No matter what it was, I enjoyed it. Though I was confident I’d survive Afghanistan, I was terrified I would fail in leadership. The fear didn’t leave for about eight months. Chaplains help assuage such fears.

After the speech, we took communion. We ate the bread and drank the juice, and the ceremony ended. As I walked back down the hill, I was still shaking my head in disbelief. Where was everyone?

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