Feb. 3--With the dull thud of heavy artillery exercises echoing in the distance, 100-plus desert camouflaged Marines, their weapons slung over their shoulders and their caps tucked under their arms, gathered under the early morning sky for Sunday services.

A Navy chaplain--Lt. Darren Stennett, a Baptist minister from St. Charles, Mo.--stood before them, microphone in hand and music box blaring, leading the group through a hymn for one of four services--Mormon, Catholic, Protestant and Gospel--being delivered to prepare men who most likely will be involved in the initial push in a war with Iraq.

"Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus going on before."

The bespectacled Stennett, 36, moved slowly just behind a makeshift pulpit cobbled together from plywood normally used for the floors that anchor the huge white tents housing the thousands of Marines assembling here in preparation for battle.

A 2-foot-long cross fashioned from 2-by-2-inch beams had been nailed onto the front. About a third of the Marines sat in the sand in a semicircle around Stennett while those standing pressed in behind them, all singing from small song books with camouflaged covers handed out just before the service.

Col. Steve Hummer is the granite-faced regimental commander in charge of getting more than 7,000 Marines prepared for a push across the Iraqi border just 22 miles away. He stood quietly, almost unnoticed in the rear. Not far from him were Lt. Ryan Gilchrist of Chesterfield, Mo., and Capt. George Schreffler of Harrisburg, Pa., all of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.

"Like a mighty army moves the church of God. Brothers we are treading where the saints have trod"

Stennett and the Rev. William Devine, a Catholic priest from Boston, ar e both Navy chaplains attached to the Marine Corps. They are trying to get thousands of men spiritually prepared for battle. Following services at Camp Coyote, they would deliver services at two other Marine encampments. "You've prepared yourself physically," Stennett tells the Marines. "You've trained, you've gotten your gear in order. Now you have to prepare yourself spiritually for battle."

He then asks for prayer. "One of the things that we do as Christians, is that we have a tradition of praying for others," Stennett said. "Is there anything that anybody would like us to pray for today?" There is a pause, and then Marines begin to slowly offer requests.

"I want to pray for our families back home," shouts one Marine.

"Pray for my son to be born in 30 days," says another Marine.

"Pray for the families of the space shuttle Columbia," says another one.

Stennett has chosen a Bible story from the book of Joshua that talks about the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River and did battle. Joshua told his followers to "get yourself spiritually prepared to go to battle," Stennett said. "I feel a primary responsibility to get them spiritually ready to do the job before," he says at the end of the day while seated on a wooden foot locker in his small, green-tarp tent, "and if called to, to die for their country.

"As Christians, we believe in the 'just war' principle," Stennett said. "We must ask, 'Is what we're doing just and right?' I've seen the pictures of the Kurdish children (gassed by Saddam Hussein). Saddam Hussein did that because he had the means and he could get away with it. I believe that if he had the means and could get away with it, he would do that to my children.

"Understand, my desire is for peace. I hope that we don't have to go to war, but one of my jobs is to explain that they're doing this for a just cause, and that's to rid the world of evil."

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