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Priest faithfully carries out his duties in middle of war zone

Joint Area Support Group, International Zone, Baghdad -- The duties of a parish priest tend to be similar, no matter where that priest is serving. There is the celebration of daily Mass, formal and informal counseling sessions, meetings, official ceremonies, trips to the hospital to anoint or pray with the sick or injured, and, of course, the constant flow of people in and out of the office throughout the day. 

While nearly all parish priests experience these duties as part of their ministry, most don’t have to do them outdoors while wearing 25 pounds of body armor and helmet in 104-degree heat.

But for Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Cannon, an Air Force Reservist and command chaplain of the Joint Area Support Group, International Zone, Baghdad, that’s just another part of his day-to-day duties.

In addition to working in the chaplain office located in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces (an experience he describes as “surreal”) and handling the regular duties of a priest, Chaplain Cannon is shuttled about by armed guard to celebrate Mass and hear confessions for the troops and civilians at six locations in Baghdad.

He also is on call at all times. That means his days are about 14 hours long.

“There’s just enough time to pray, shower, eat and get some sleep before getting up and putting my boots on to meet the demands that come with a new day,” he said.

Chaplain Cannon, an individual mobilization augmentee attached to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon, arrived in Baghdad in mid-September as part of the Air Force rotation of forces into Iraq. He was the first IMA chaplain to fill an air expeditionary force position. Chaplain Cannon was scheduled to remain through January. However, he volunteered to extend his tour through April.

Physically, he said, the day-to-day living in Iraq is tough. Because they are in a war zone, the people there are constantly on the alert for rockets and mortar attacks. Plus, he said, there’s the heat.

“I perspire in Florida,” he said. “In Iraq, you just sweat all day long, dry out and get soaking wet again.”

But the troops, who are outside all day, are handling it well.

“(They) take a beating, but I never hear them complain,” he said. “We can all be proud of the job our sons and daughters are doing here. I know I am.”

The chaplain said the morale of the men and women serving in Iraq is very high.

“The troops I talk with are proud of the contribution they are making to change the course of history in this part of the world,” he said. “Many of them are dying to make it happen. As with all troops, when they have done their part, they are happy to get word when they can expect to be heading home.”

But high morale doesn’t mean there isn’t tension. Much of the stress is just below the surface, in the background, Chaplain Cannon said, and everyone must be “situationally aware” at all times.

“Every time you are in a vehicle on a road, everyone is on the alert for any suspicious person or vehicle,” he said. “Vehicular-born improvised explosive devices are being used more and more by the suicide bombers. So, I’ve got my rosary in hand when in a Humvee convoy going to one of the sites where I celebrate Mass in the Red Zone.”

In addition to his service to the troops and American civilians in Baghdad, Chaplain Cannon also assists the Joint Area Support Group commander in the outreach to the local civilian community. As part of this outreach he recently attended a meeting of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, which is like a city council in the United States. Topics of discussion at the meeting varied from trash pickup to a neighborhood watch program for security to speed bumps to teen-agers racing around the neighborhoods in their cars.

“If you closed your eyes and imagined that English was being spoken, you could be anywhere in the U.S. at a town council meeting,” he said. “The Iraqi people want what every people want: peace, security, jobs and a future for their children.”

The hardest part of being there, Chaplain Cannon said, is seeing how much there is to accomplish for the many people who have almost nothing.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “I wish I had clothes and shoes to put on all the kids I see with little covering them and with bare feet. ... but the Iraqi people are resilient. They have had to be in order to survive 30 years of brutality under a totalitarian dictator who cared little for his people.”

During his tour of active military service, which began in March 2003, Chaplain Cannon has been connected in some way to the war in Iraq. He began with committals at Arlington National Cemetery, then moved on to receiving fallen Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors and civilians at the port morturary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., before volunteering for duty in the thick of the war in Iraq.

“The other experiences did prepare me somewhat for what I am asked to do here,” he said. “At each place, whether at Arlington, Dover or here, I have felt privileged to lift up our fallen men and women to God, to intercede for them and to pray for their families. It is humbling, and my heart wells up with gratitude to stand before someone who was willing to sacrifice his or her tomorrows so that we all could have our todays.”

Of course, he said, he knows his family, friends and parishioners in the United States worry about him just as they worry about all of the other men and women serving in the Middle East.

To all those people back home, he sends the following message:

“A chaplain’s role is to be a visible reminder of the holy, to provide spiritual and pastoral care, and to be a source of strength to those who are heavily burdened, whether the people are religious or not. As Moses relied on others to keep his arms raised, I appreciate everyone’s prayerful support in keeping my arms of service raised up. The Lord said some kinds of evil can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. To turn this new scourge of terrorism and war around, it will take more than the force of arms. I’d encourage everyone to pray the rosary for peace. Even more so, I would like everyone to not only pray, but even fast a bit for peace throughout the world, in every troubled land and in every human heart.”

Finally, he said, while every day in Iraq is a challenge, the faith and dedication of the troops makes it all worthwhile.

“I have found some of the most outstanding, brilliant and dedicated human beings here in the middle of a war zone, halfway around the world, willing to risk everything to give the Iraqi people an opportunity to have a future bright with the promise of freedom,” he said. “They range from Department of State employees to military members to civilian contractors building bridges and infrastructure to just ordinary everyday people. They all have answered the call to do their part. I guess you could call that the American way. It’s something to behold and to be part of.” 

(Ms. Felton is a reporter for the Florida Catholic Newspaper. Used with permission.)

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