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Religious faith in evidence at U.S. military base near Fallujah

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Navy Capt. Bradley Sickler, the deputy chaplain for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, sums up pretty easily the sentiments of hundreds of Marines and sailors based here after a week of some of the deadliest fighting since U.S. troops entered Iraq.

"It doesn't feel like Easter at home," he said.

When Marines and sailors gather at sunrise Sunday for a traditional Easter service, they'll be wearing helmets and protective vests in case of attack.

In Fallujah, where Marines have dug in as officials of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council attempt to negotiate a cease-fire, chaplains will venture from unit to unit, holding informal services wherever possible.

In the midst of battle, many say they have seen a strengthening of religious faith. Convoys often gather in prayer before heading "outside the wire."

"After any kind of close hit, you get a spike in visitors," said Lt. Marc Massie, a resident of Diamondhead, Miss., and chaplain for Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, a "Seabee" construction unit based in Gulfport, Miss.

"Anybody that comes in, I offer to pray with them," Massie said. "Everyone has walked out feeling so much better."

Many of those now stationed at this former Iraqi military base a few miles outside of the disputed city of Fallujah have seen little of the combat that has claimed the lives of at least 20 Marines around Anbar province. At night, a handful of mortar rounds land around the camp, doing little damage. Artillery and machine-gun fire can be heard and tracer rounds seen, but the battle is several miles away.

Here, the impact of the fighting has been felt in other ways.

Meals have become less lavish at the dining hall, as fighting along roadways has all but halted the convoys that bring food to camp.

Iraqi workers have stopped coming to work, so the portable toilets are full.

A mail truck burned after an attack several days ago, and many now wonder whether they lost a letter from home.

The Seabee unit had been assigned here as part of what was supposed to be a stint building public-works projects _schools, playgrounds, and the like. It was billed as an effort to win the hearts and minds of the mostly Sunni Muslims who live near and in Fallujah.

But those projects are now on hold. The Seabees find themselves doing quite different duty: filling sandbags, building checkpoint barriers, and welding fresh steel to under-protected Humvees. Saturday, a unit went "outside the wire" to scout possible sites for camps to house refugees from the fighting.

Marine chaplains had brought along books and school supplies as gifts for the children of Fallujah—something they thought would help build bridges between the American and Iraqi people.

"Sadly, so far we haven't been able to make those bridges," Sickler said.

Instead, Easter services take on a special meaning.

"Sometimes in the challenging times, we can see the hand of God," said Catholic Chaplain John Gwudz, a Navy captain and chaplain for the First Marine Expeditionary Force. "Under these circumstances, we've found family."

Said Lance Cpl Joshua Langston, 20, of Augusta, Ga., who attends church service three times a week at Camp Fallujah, "It lets us know we're not alone."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.