10 years after fighting in Iraq, I have found healing in the Catholic Church

New Army chaplains attend a March 14 morning Mass in a small chapel at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where they are training at the U.S. Army's Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)  New Army chaplains attend a March 14 morning Mass in a small chapel at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where they are training at the U.S. Army's Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth) 

I still remember the red glow inside the Chinook helicopter that illuminated the soldiers around me. Our collective silence was pierced by the tremendous pulsating sound of the blades and the occasional burst of gunfire from the sprawling city below. I looked out past the machine gunner at the rear of the helicopter and saw the lights and fires of Baghdad. I was a 23-year-old platoon leader on my way to the battlefield.

It was 2007, and Iraq was spiraling toward a civil war. It had been four years since the invasion of Iraq, and the United States was struggling to advance the war and struggling to hand over control of the country to the Iraqi government. The military response at the time was a “surge” of 20,000 soldiers. I was a paratrooper in the lead brigade with the Second Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division.

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I did not spend a lot of time thinking through the overall justifications for either conflict. If my country called me, I would go.

Just a few months before, I was finishing my senior year at the University of Dayton and completing the last steps to become a commissioned officer through the school’s Army R.O.T.C. program. I had entered the program a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States was already fighting in Afghanistan and on our way toward Iraq. I knew little about the history of either country but did know the talking points for why we were fighting a “global war on terrorism.” I did not spend a lot of time thinking through the overall justifications for either conflict. It did not matter. If my country called me, I would go.

I had trouble believing that God could be working in this chaos. Eventually, I stopped thinking about God altogether.

The aim of the troop surge was to quell the sectarian violence that wracked Baghdad by working with Iraqi forces to regain control of the city. This meant that instead of operating out of massive bases far removed from the areas we patrolled, U.S. soldiers were now stationed in the heart of the city. We lived and worked directly alongside Iraqi forces in the same neighborhood we were charged with bringing order to and protecting. Our base was an active Iraqi police station, with an Iraqi army unit next door. Inside the police station, we would meet in a room with peeling blue paint, stained, dirty tile floors and an ever-present smell of burnt fuel and trash courtesy of our makeshift burn pit near the room’s window.

In this room we would plan patrols and keep each other apprised of what was happening outside. The reports I heard were often horrific; I had trouble believing that God could be working in this chaos. Eventually, I stopped thinking about God altogether.

I remember the day I realized we were fighting an unwinnable war.

In addition to patrolling and conducting raids in our assigned area of operations, our focus was training our partnered Iraqi forces. Their ranks included many resolute, good-hearted, decent men. Operationally and tactically, however, they were a mess. Our training always seemed to take one step forward and then two giant leaps back. Take, for example, vehicle checkpoints, where we would stop and search vehicles for weapons and contraband. These stops needed to be set up quickly and without warning on a road or highway to keep vehicles from fleeing. One day the Iraqi forces would perform this flawlessly, and the next they would cause a traffic jam that extended for miles. If we were there to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, making innocent people sit for hours in a car with no air conditioning in 100-degree-plus temperatures undoubtedly did the opposite.

I remember the day I realized we were fighting an unwinnable war. Shortly after arriving, our brigade conducted a massive operation to capture or kill a known bomb maker in the city. This operation involved hundreds of soldiers, with the most technologically advanced equipment available, coupled with air support and drones. Our brigade fanned out across different parts of Baghdad to find this person. Despite our impressive manpower, despite our superior equipment and despite our tactical advantages, the mission was a failure. That day I saw first-hand the absurdity of the very notion of a “global war on terrorism.” We did not have the ability to find this single bomb maker, let alone capture or kill all people in the world who use terror to impose their ideology and will upon others.

There are no adequate words to describe war; cruel, brutal, evil—they all fall short.

In the days and months that followed, I came face-to-face with war. The reality of war is not something to be celebrated or romanticized. There are no adequate words to describe it; cruel, brutal, evil—they all fall short. Descriptions of the human cost are the only way to begin to articulate and understand its horror. War is a young girl scarred physically and emotionally after the vehicle she is standing next to explodes; war is the remains of a young man collected in a trash bag after he trips a roadside bomb; war is mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and friends who are shot, burned, stabbed and decapitated; war is the mother of a murdered child screaming out that there is no hope.

•••

Hope. Where did I find hope in all this? My faith at the time did not seem up to the task. I was raised Methodist, but I rarely attended church. In Iraq, God was a being on the periphery of my consciousness, distant and cold, not a factor in my daily life. I witnessed death and tragedy, and without faith, I had no way to process it. I had to bury it within me knowing full well that such sights, sounds and memories would not stay hidden. No matter how much I wanted to, I could not dig a hole in the sand and leave all of this pain in Iraq.

In Iraq, I witnessed death and tragedy, and without faith, I had no way to process it.

After a deployment of 15 months, I returned home—and brought the battlefield back with me. Everyday sights and sounds would trigger memories that would send me back to Iraq. Sometimes at night when the memories were especially vivid, I would lie in bed and cry uncontrollably. Though I would not admit it, I was depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress. Instead of turning toward God, my solution was to turn inward and try to make sense of everything for myself.

Three years after the surge, I left the military. With the passage of time, I was able to face the pain I had buried. I realized I needed a power beyond my own to heal me. My wife is Catholic, and when our first son was born, we knew we wanted to raise him in a single faith. We started with the Methodist Church, sought middle ground in the Lutheran Church and finally found our home in the Catholic Church. Within the Catholic Church, my heart was drawn to the traditions, to the beauty of the sacraments and to the voice of moral authority in a world of relativism and indifference toward life-and-death decisions like going to war. I will be confirmed at next year’s Easter liturgy, and already Catholicism has led me to a closer relationship with God and has helped heal my brokenness from the war.

•••

In tribute to his brother, John Paul, reported missing in action and later confirmed killed in the Second World War, Thomas Merton penned the poem “For My Brother Reported Missing in Action, 1943.” The poem includes this striking and haunting stanza:

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

Why did we wreck a country with no clear plan to fix it? What did my fellow soldiers, both Americans and Iraqis, die for? I still do not know. The surge was initially viewed as a success. The level of violence and killing in Baghdad decreased, and the country moved toward stability. But the longer the war dragged on with no satisfactory end in sight, the more public opinion turned against it. Now the war itself is either forgotten or dismissed as a “mistake.” The flag-draped coffins of 4,424 U.S. service members and the lost lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are simply a “mistake.”

I played my part in this mistake. Ten years ago, I placed country over God and blind patriotism over truth. Today, I have discovered two truths that sustain my hope in the face of my own and my country’s brokenness. The first is that the world that Jesus walked is the same world we live in today. Both were and are violent, sinful and fallen. But God loved us enough to send his Son for our redemption so that we may live a life in full communion with him. We are not so fallen that we are out of reach.

The second truth is that we participate in the body of Christ. I have always been awestruck that God became man, but before I committed to Catholicism I thought God’s physical presence ended with Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In the church, I discovered a living, breathing presence in the people around me and within myself. With Jesus as the head, infused and energized with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church is a force for good and love in the world that will not be extinguished by any military, bullet or bomb.

Brian Hutching
1 week 5 days ago

Wonderful column. I read this with great interest. War does not seem to be the answer to human conflict. It only, as you point out, makes it worse.

Jesse Bowman
1 week 3 days ago

War is a total and absolute failure albeit one that is at times necessary when all other means of diplomacy and action have failed. And, under other strict criteria. We did not meet this burden with our preemptive strike on Iraq.

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1 week 1 day ago

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scott scalf
1 week 4 days ago

I look back at my service and am proud that I have freed millions of Catholics and other cristians the ability to worship more freely.

Jesse Bowman
1 week 3 days ago

Christ pushes us beyond just helping and freeing only Christians. As we are all made in God's image, we must strive to protect and free all, including the "other." I served in the military to protect all- Christians, Muslims, Jewish- any and all of our fellow members of the human race.

Nancy Walton-House
1 week 4 days ago

Powerful witness. I am moved to tears this Veteran's Day Weekend for all veterans - Americans and the "others." Thank you for sharing your personal experience and wisdom with us. I will remember it.

Jesse Bowman
1 week 3 days ago

Thank you, Nancy.

Adeolu Ademoyo
1 week 4 days ago

Thank you for sharing this. Your brilliant, deep and engaging essay echoes the scriptural aspect of the core of our faith, our Christianity, our Catholicism. John 17: 21 is that scriptural core of our faith which explains your experience and what you have just shared. That core, what Jesus says on the cross reads thus : "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." That cry for unity with Christ and our fellow humans-other children of God wherever they are in the world, regardless of who they are -race, ethnicity, class, position, etc-, that longing to be united with God is what we celebrate- (in our preparation for Heaven to meet HIM,Christ)-at every Mass. That(John 17:21) is what your experience captures. God Bless your family. God Bless you abundantly for giving bone and flesh to what has been revealed but needs to be experienced, known and shared by the world.

Jesse Bowman
1 week 3 days ago

Thank you, Adeolu. You are absolutely correct. How much better our world would be if we recognized our shared humanity under God, and made flesh in Christ!

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Joseph Ciliberto
1 week 3 days ago

Well done Jesse, well said. Thank you for your witness of faith and for carrying your cross.

Michael Casey
1 week 3 days ago

Welcome home, soldier.

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