Army chaplain in Iraq a friendly face in a grim place

U.S. Army Chaplain Charles "Ed" Hamlin offers communion.
U.S. Army Chaplain Charles "Ed" Hamlin offers communion. Steve Lannen / Lexington Herald-Leader / MCT

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — In a place where everyone is armed with a rifle or a handgun, all he carries is a camouflage Bible.

Five years into the war, this is Maj. Charles "Ed" Hamlin's first tour in Iraq. But the Army chaplain was already very familiar with this war and its results. From 2004 to 2006, he was posted at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, where he officiated at services and ministered to the families of soldiers who'd been killed in action.

Now he ministers to young soldiers who are alive, saluting or joking with them, a friendly face in a war of daily drudgery spliced with moments of terror.

At Arlington, Hamlin presided over services for hundreds of soldiers who'd been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another part of his job was to go along on casualty notifications to tell spouses or parents that their loved ones had been killed in action.

Throughout Washington and northern Virginia, he and the notification officer watched parents' faces cloud over in grief, mothers faint and fathers slam doors.

Sometimes, Hamlin sat for hours holding a mother's hand as she cried, her life very different from when she'd woken up.

"You see their world just come crashing down, so to speak. That's tough," he said. "You can't put a good face on that one, but it's a fact of war. When war happens, people die, and that's a tragedy."

He hesitated to put a number on how many services he'd officiated at, but said it could be nearly 2,000, counting not only soldiers killed in action recently but also Medal of Honor recipients from previous wars plus retired senators, congressmen and others. There was a five-month span in late 2005 and early 2006 when he averaged six services a day, five days a week.

At 44, Hamlin isn't old, but he's old enough to be the father of many of the soldiers he now ministers to. The lanky man wears oval-rimmed glasses and his black hair is high and tight.

Hamlin is part of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., attached to the 716th Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, in Baghdad.

It's a place where death is a real possibility, whether by homemade bomb or small arms fire. Just outside the "wire," the road to the Baghdad International Airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. A few weeks ago, several rockets landed on the base, sending soldiers scrambling to concrete bunkers.

In this setting, Hamlin does his best to bring hope and encouragement to young soldiers to "give them a slice of normalcy in an abnormal environment," he said.

In addition to leading Protestant services, he'll join a baseball game full of 18-year-olds and play country and bluegrass music at a bonfire. He recently began offering guitar and banjo lessons for a few. This month, he's even participating in "Marchstache" — a mustache-growing event — because "it's something to do."

Hamlin estimates that he interacts with 20 to 50 soldiers daily on the base who come up and ask for a minute of his time. There also are several hour-long counseling sessions with soldiers, and even more who just pop their heads into his office, where he often remains until 10 p.m.

"I think everyone understands when they see the cross . . . 'That's a safe place; that's someone I can talk to,' " he said.

Three months into his deployment, some soldiers come to him with combat stress issues, but many more want to talk about problems back home. He's organized videoconferencing three times already so that soldiers could watch the births of their babies. There are some who have financial problems, and others with unfaithful spouses.

"Some of them have been here two, three or four times, and sometimes it breaks the family down the second or third time around," he said.

At the five-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, the chaplain counsels people to be patient.

He senses that most Americans are disconnected from the war except for those whose loved ones are deployed. Most people are tired of the war, but closure won't come soon, he said.

"What we're in now in Iraq calls for a lot of patience," he said.

Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.