LIVING SUPPORT AREA 1, Kuwait—In a Protestant baptism ceremony at this desert post Sunday, about 40 Marines from the four 1,000-man infantry battalions based here stepped forward to become Christians.
During what may have been their last regular worship before war begins, two Baptist ministers dunked them in a makeshift pool fashioned from sandbags, a plastic liner and 130 gallons of water.
The service was just one of scores at military installations and on ships throughout the Gulf region this weekend. Thousands of U.S. service members attended Christian, Jewish and Muslim services hosted by military clergy.
At the Army's Camp Maine in Kuwait, about 40 soldiers, combat rifles at their side, sat around a half-circle of tan Humvees Sunday morning. They had etched "Psalms 119," "John 3:16," "Hammer of God," and other Christian references on the turrets of their vehicles. The lowered tailgate of one became a makeshift altar.
Wearing sunglasses and a purple clerical stole over his desert camouflage uniform, Chaplain Maj. Jose Rento said: "Well it's 11 o'clock. Time for services. Hoo-ah?" The soldiers responded, "Hoo-ah."
Rento and his assistant chaplains perform three different services each Sunday: a Protestant Holy Communion service, primarily for Episcopalians and Lutherans; a non-denominational or "gospel" service, which includes Baptists, and Catholic mass.
On the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, there are also three services to serve 26 religious affiliations claimed by the crew of 5,500. Its four chaplains minister to many denominations of Christians as well as to Jews and Muslims. Lay leaders take up where they leave off.
"How many other places can you see, anywhere, where 26 different religious groups can exist shoulder to shoulder, working together, and doing it all in peace?" asked Cmdr. Doyle Dunn, one of the Truman's chaplains. "I love seeing that take place."
The ship's chapel, which is too small for the big Sunday crowds, is a study in religious neutrality. There are no permanent religious images. A changeable group of stained-glass windows include images of a cross, the Star of David, joined hands, the Muslim crescent, an ark and a boat of fishermen.
At the Marine post known as Living Support Area 1, the men baptized Sunday said they expected their faith to redeem, comfort and protect them in the dark hours ahead or assure their safe return.
"I thought to myself no matter how many sandbags you have, no matter how many bunkers you have, there's always going to be a weapon you can't stop," said Pfc. Jason Trehan of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. "The Lord's weapon will."
Depending on the strategy of military planners, the Marines could soon find themselves on the front lines undergoing another type of baptism—by fire.
"Their life may end with one artillery shell filled with gas," said Maj. Tom Webber, chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, who performed some of the baptisms.
One by one, the men filed up to the baptismal pool in olive drab workout gear. The baptisms were held outside a mess tent that had doubled as a revival hall beforehand.
A burly martial arts expert with a square jaw, the chaplain said he has seen almost everything in 24 years as a minister. But like the men in his battalion, he is facing combat for the first time. He understands the challenge to their spirits but said his faith has prepared him for whatever is ahead, even horror.
"If there's mass casualties then I will do my best to be there and my best to assist," he said.
Though sailors on the Truman are farther away from the front line, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Coyle, a priest from Long Island, N.Y., wrestled with something different: the Pope's call for peace.
In his service Sunday, he read a letter from an archbishop that said, "Your church does not wish to confuse you." Coyle himself told the group the Lord would "reassure us he is on our side."
"As for myself," Dunne said, "I became a chaplain because I knew there were young men and women who were joining the military trying to find some purpose in their lives. I see my role as being able to intercept them at a time of searching. I have no trouble doing that wherever they send us."
(Gerlin reported from Living Support Area I. Bauers reported from the USS Harry S. Truman, and Harper reported from Camp Maine.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):