'A profound understanding of tragedy'
Warren — The new minister at the Second Congregational Church in Warren kept his congregation on the edge of their pews Oct. 14, with stories of his 11 months on active duty as the senior medical chaplain in Iraq.
Rev. Andrew Stinson spent January-November 2011 in Iraq. On Sunday night, in a talk called "Reflections on a Tour in Iraq; One Chaplain's View," Stinson, a 25-year veteran of the Army Reserves, told stories of his time of service as a chaplain in the Iraqi War.
He began by citing what he perceived as two great threats to liberty in the United States: the national debt and the "massive divide between people who serve in uniform and people who don't serve."
He said the point of his talk was not to say, "I was there," but to honor the sacrifice the numbers of Americans made in their service there.
Historically, only 8 percent of Americans have served in war, he said. Now that number is at 1 percent, he said, indicating that most Americans have no idea what life has been like in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His tour began in February 2011 at Fort Dix, N.J., with a group of trainees focusing on what it means to lead.
Going to war follows a tradition with the person going off and hopefully coming back. What happens to someone in combat changes that person, who experiences a "new normal" of "what the person was like and how that person was transformed by that experience."
The war gives the participant a new identity. Every unit has some sort of motto, some sort of mascot, something that identifies oneself. One veteran became known simply as "nurse," because that was her job. Stinson said he became known as "chaplain," and not by his name or rank.
As a chaplain, he had the rank of major, but no one used that title. "'Chaplain' became my name. I had a new identity," Stinson said. "It transformed me."
He was one of 77 officers in charge of the medical staff, including the trauma unit, one of the best in the world. "It became known as the 'Baghdad ER,'" he said.
"I was in charge of the spiritual care of 1,800 soldiers that were part of our task force," he said. "A lot of my time was spent traveling between one of these little red dots," he said, pointing to points on a map of Iraq.
While Stinson talked, he showed photographs of Baghdad in the day time and at night with the bright city lights.
To give the congregation an idea of scale, he showed a map of the country with Baghdad in relation to Kuwait to the south.
"Baghdad to Kuwait is about the same as from here to New York," he said. The north to south highway covers 1,000 miles and takes a traveler about 14 hours to drive.
The average age of soldiers is 21 or 22 years old, he said. "War is a young person's game because of the resiliency that comes with youth," he said. "But as you get older, age comes with its own challenge," he said to a few chuckles in the congregation. "The profound understanding of tragedy you develop at some point you have to have. If you don't understand tragedy, how can you put things together for others?" he asked.
"Chaplains are the only people in the war zone who don't carry a gun," he said.
"It's a foreign world," he said. "But you understand the Old Testament a whole lot better."
He showed a photo of one of Saddam Hussein's castles surrounded by lakes that he had engineered from the farmland for his own satisfaction.
He said war is very physical, and every side knows what it is like to point guns at the other and engage the enemy. "Engaging with others is intensely personal," Stinson said.
"Being in constant contact with war, you lose your sense of beauty," he said. "At the same time, you get a profound awareness of what it is like to be at a concert and be aware that someone is trying to take your life," he said, citing an example of a rocket attack while he was attending a concert.
When asked why he volunteered for such a dangerous mission, Stinson said the people there are "out on the edge of violence."
"As chaplains, we are the only ones deployed who don't carry guns. Everyone else deployed is a warrior called upon to break one of God's Commandments, 'Thou shalt not kill.' These are the people who most need the love of God," he said.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached by phone at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org