Chaplain’s Letter from Iraq

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings from Al Anbar Province where I have been deployed since July supporting our teams of Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and a few Airmen and US Border and Customs Service advisors serving at Training Teams to the Iraqi Army, Border Enforcement, Port of Entry, Police and Highway Patrol.

It has been a great tour, we have travelled the entirety of the province, which is about the size of the state of Oregon by Hummer, Helo (Helicopters-Ch46, CH-47, CH-53 and MV-22 Osprey) and Herc (C-130 Hercules), in what would be called in the old west a “circuit riding” ministry. I think we did about 30 air missions and 40 or so convoys. Sometimes it takes two aircraft flights and a convoy or two small (2-6 vehicles, often mixed US and Iraqi Hummers) to get out to the isolated Iraqi bases where our teams serve alongside Iraqi units. We usually went out for about a week to ten days and in for a week, travel was hard, we would have to be at the air terminals in all our great 2-3 hours in advance, sometimes waiting an hour or more in the elements staged for our flights. During the summer it was hot, we had over 100 days straight over 100 degrees. In the winter it has been cold, on our last trip back from the Syrian border lows were in the low 20s and in one place the showers had ice on the floor when you walked in first thing in the morning. The helicopter ride was freezing; the temperature was about 21 and I sat next to the forward door gunner in a CH-53, with the wind blowing thru right on me.

Travel was demanding, but we have done well. It was worth it to be with our guys and our Iraqis. Christmas services in two of the most isolated Iraqi bases were special, like I said we were the first chaplain team many of these guys had seen, and personally for me there is nothing like celebrating Eucharist in primitive conditions with people hungry for God. One of the things tat made this Christmas a powerful time for me was having been out with the Bedouin, seeing them in the middle of the desert, in their tents, with their flocks and donkeys, shepherd dogs, their families and in some cases mangers, and to know that for them it is much like what Mary and Joseph and the shepherds experienced that first Christmas. When I read the Christmas Gospel out of Luke talking about the shepherds I thought of Linus reading the passage in the Charlie Brown Christmas and almost lost it, because that is what Christmas is about, no commercialization, just God coming to us in the flesh, born in the fullness of time, born of a woman, born in the most humble of circumstances.

There are a lot of good things happening out here that you seldom hear in the media. When we first got here it was at the beginning of the “surge.” A lot of things looked dicey, and I compared my deployment to the Yankees going into Fenway in the playoffs behind by a couple of runs to the Red Sox in the bottom of the 8th inning. But things are changing, and peace is breaking out all over the place especially out here in Al Anbar. I’ve had a lot of great times with our guys, celebrating Eucharist and spending time with them.

We usually go out and stay for a few days with each team, and many times we have the first chaplain team that the teams have seen on their deployment. The atmosphere is different in the teams than on the big bases, they are tight groups with a great focus on the mission and who have built great relationships with the Iraqis. The fruit of their work is showing as the Iraqi Army especially is beginning to take the lead in many operations, many of the best officers have come back and units are doing their own training and operations. They are not Americans, they have their own ways, but they are doing better every day, they still need some assistance, but every day they get more capable, what you read in the media and that some politicians in all the political parties say about them is often incorrect and biased.

In addition to my work with our guys I have gotten to know a good number of Iraqis. They are a friendly and hospitable people; even the poorest Iraqi or Bedouin will invite you in for Chi (tea) or for a meal. This is a big thing in their culture; it is them letting you into their lives, in the sharing of a meal bonds are forged, friendships built. In Al Anbar it is very tribal and family is more important than almost anything. In Ramadi I had dinner with General Sabah, a Iraqi Brigade commander and we had a wonderful 3 hour visit, much of it focusing on similarities between what Christians and Moslems believe and friendly discussions about what we disagree, the last time I saw him was at the Ramadi flight-line where I was on the way in and he was on the way out and he came up and gave me a bear hug. General Ali, with the support unit of another Division had me to tea last weekend and though he is a Moslem took the time to show me his well ready Arabic/New International Version English interlinear Bible. He told me that he hopes that in a few years that I can come as a visitor and tourist. I spoke with the first ever class of Iraqi Police female officers going thru their training, have been with Iraqi Border and Army units and have had good times.

When I have given prayers and blessed mixed US and Iraqi convoys before they departed on missions I have had Iraqis come to thank me for the prayers and blessings, especially when I sprinkle Holy Water on the vehicles. Most Iraqis, with the exception of extremists and the foreign terrorist are fairly tolerant; most view Christians as friends and “people of the Book.” I had one Iraqi officer, a Shite Moslem, tell me that the Iraqi Army needed men like our Chaplains, but that many professional officers didn’t trust many of their own Imams (many have compromised themselves in the past few years) and he said it would be good if they could have Christian priests because Christians would take care of their soldiers and families. The Iraqis are a good people, I’ve come respect and love them and will miss them when I leave in a few weeks. I believe that they will do fine in the long run; that they have turned the corner, some tough work still needs to be done in parts of the country, but the Iraqi Arabs are coming together again, they (even the Shia) do not like the Iranians, who they call the Persians very much, and many Americans forget that a huge number of Iraqi Shia died fighting for Iraq against the Iranians in the 1980-1988 war. When the Iraqi Soccer Team won the Asia cup, they regained a sense of national pride and identity.

We have made many friends here. On my last trip out to the Syrian border I was at a small Iraqi base and one of the officers (a Sunni Moslem Lieutenant) came to me and thanked me for what I do for our Marines and other advisors and for what we Americans have done for them in the past few years. He asked me to keep their country in my prayers and let other Americans know how they appreciate what we do and not to give up on them. The turn-around started out here in Al Anbar and is spreading rapidly to other parts of Iraq, people have turned against the foreign terrorists who have killed far more Iraqis than Americans and have attempted to impose harsh interpretations of Islam on a people who for many centuries were some of the most tolerant and moderate in the Islamic world. Citizen councils and local Sheiks have taken the lead, their military and security forces are getting better, corrupt people who joined as opportunists after the fall of Sadaam are being weeded out, everywhere I go in almost every city and town shops are opening, people coming back and homes and businesses are being re-built. I know that most of you get none of this in the media, but it is happening all over the place. Yes there are still problems, there is still some violence, but the Iraqis are doing great things, our troops have given them the breathing room to take back their country. It has started at the grass roots and it is really cool. I ask you when you pray for the American troops to also remember the people of Iraq, that God would give them peace and that they would be able to have peace, security and prosperity.

I want to thank you guys for your prayers and support, hopefully will have a chance to see at least some of you in the coming year and again I ask you to pray for the people of Iraq, I have made friends here and will miss them when I go. I hope that someday, even soon, that the conditions will be such that Americans and others can come here and see this country and meet these people.

Special thanks to the churches and groups that sent things to us to support our troops, you know who you are; everything that you sent us was so greatly appreciated by our troops.

Again, take care and may God bless you in the coming year.



Fr. Steve Dundas is a CEC Chaplain serving in Iraq
Send Fr Steven an e-Mail

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