Soon after being promoted to 1stSgt I learned that there was a secret weapon in each Marine Corps unit; the Chaplain.
Many people think of their Chaplain purely as a religious leader. I used my Chaplains as counselors.
Many times, if a Marine was having issues I would ask if they were religious and if they said yes, I would talk with the Chaplain and explain the situation and then allow him to intervene. Even if the Marine said he was not religious I would ask him if he would be willing to speak with the Chaplain, because he is a counselor. They always agreed.
Here is an example of how I used a Chaplain to save the souls of my men: On the 29th of August 2003 eight Marines (I was one of them) and one Navy Corpsman were thrust into a nearly overwhelming tragedy. Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) attacked a Shia Mosque in An Najaf Iraq and we were at the hospital trying to control a situation that is beyond description. Nine of us were controlling literally hundreds of people. We saw things that are almost indescribable. We had blood splattered on us, saw many dead people, watched as dead bodies unmercifully were thrown into the dirt like someone trying to stack fire wood. The smells of burned human flesh, open wounds, blood, and a myriad of other terrible smells were nauseating.
Days after the incident I used a Chaplain to assist me in checking on the mental health of my men. During the following days, I kept asking my men, many times, if they were okay with the events at the hospital. They all said they were fine. But, I knew they could not be okay. No one could be okay with all we saw that day. I contacted the Chaplain who was at the Bn HQ. I told him the issues and we came up with a plan. The Chaplain and I assembled all the Marines and Doc and he asked, “Why is it that we were not affected by such tragedy?” None of the men would talk, so I started it out: “Padre, I remember helping a doctor clear out anyone not needed in the hospital and in one room I saw a young girl who was badly burned. Her skin had melted and rolled down her leg like an old worn out sock that would not stay up. I could see tendons and bone and the smell of burned skin and blood was so foul I could taste it. She had these beautiful little chestnut eyes and she looked right at me with that, WTF look. I felt so sorry for her, but I had a job to do, so I moved on. After that, one of the Marines who had been with me at the time sounded off with his thoughts. Then we all started talking about those terrible memories we unconsciously tried burying in our minds.
The problem is, you cannot bury bad memories. Buried memories will likely come out one day and when those buried memories come out they will be pissed off, for you had buried them. They may return with a vengeance. Therefore, better than burying your memories, you should address them directly. When we were done, all involved agreed we all needed to get this out of our systems; or at least addressed it.
That day, I believe our Chaplain helped me save the souls of my men.
FYI, Sadr was pissed off that Al Qaeda in Iraq came onto his home-turf and killed Shias.
The moral of the story: Religious leaders can be extremely helpful, when used properly.
Photo: Chaplain Devine, 7th Marine Regiment, and me An Najaf Iraq 2003.
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