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Chaplain focuses on ministering, instead of combat to come

CAMP COMMANDO, Kuwait—On the brink of war, Marine Chaplain Doug Dowling is thinking about the sermon he will deliver Wednesday to American Leathernecks in his sandbagged chapel a few miles from the Iraqi border.

He will urge the Marines to treat enemy bodies with respect, to look away from the grotesque mutilations of war. He will tell them the war is not about getting even for Sept. 11. And he will tell them that amid the horror of war they may find the beauty of valor and comradeship and, perhaps, the presence of God on the battlefield.

A stocky Navy lieutenant with a blond mustache and bare-walls haircut, the 42-year-old Milwaukee native looks like any Marine in his digital desert camouflage uniform, floppy "boony" hat and military web gear.

But he wears a tiny black metal cross on his shirt and speaks with the fervor of a former Navy warplane navigator who was stationed in Kuwait during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, who fought in the 1991 Gulf War and then became a pastor for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"There is a God who is a warrior, but God is the same always," Dowling said. "The God you believe in as you may go to war is that same God you believed in yesterday and the day before, so nothing changes for me on this day."

Rather than thinking too much about the coming days of killing, he prefers to dwell on the past weeks he spent on the barren Kuwaiti desert ministering to soldiers suddenly interested in religion.

"I've gotten to talk to people about God and ultimate issues, like life and death, issues they normally would not address because of the barbiturates of modern Western culture, like television."

Dowling has baptized 32 people since arriving here, including a Navy officer he met briefly in a military base parking lot and christened with water from a plastic water bottle.

He will hold one more service Wednesday in his tiny chapel with a cross on top, really a bunker dug halfway into the desert sand and then sandbagged for protection from Saddam Hussein's rockets.

"I will pray for our men and for theirs, too," he said. "And I will pray especially for peace."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.