Chaplain Goes to Iraq before Retiring

Post a Comment » Written on April 4th, 2008     
Filed under: News
FALLUJAH, IRAQ (April 4, 2008) – No one can accuse Anne Krekelberg of searching out an easy ministry from which to retire. In 2007, she requested an assignment that she knew would take her to Iraq.

US Navy Chaplain Commander Krekelberg asked to be assigned to the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment in Gulfport, Mississippi, because “It would be my last tour in the navy before I retired, and [we] would inevitably be deployed on the ground in Iraq. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my 20-year navy career than with the Seabees.”

She was deployed three weeks later and served a first tour of duty from February through June 2007 at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where she was detailed with a battalion assigned to guard more than 20,000 detainees. Krekelberg recently returned for her second tour, and now serves at Camp Fallujah. She will retire from active duty August 1.

Ordained and endorsed through the Evangelical Covenant Church, Krekelberg has served in a number of positions, from being the command chaplain on the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, to her current position as a regimental chaplain on the ground.

Krekelberg says being a female chaplain has not hindered her ministry. “I never gave much thought to the fact that I am a female chaplain—I am a navy chaplain, ready to do whatever it takes to provide ministry, encouragement and—if I’m lucky—put a little laughter into someone’s day.”

“What impacts my ministry more than my gender is my age,” says Krekelberg, who is regarded for her sense of humor. “I was commissioned at age 39. Now, at 59, I’m humping six miles in all my battle rattle with male colleagues half my age—and trying unsuccessfully to get them to sing Girl Scout songs as we march.”

Krekelberg adds, “My brain still thinks I’m 29; my body definitely reminds me I’m not. But every ache and Motrin are worth it, as I’m still having a blast playing in the sand.”

And dust. In a letter home, Krekelberg wrote, “A lot of dirt has blown across the desert [since her last deployment]—and I think it all settled in Fallujah. Here the dirt is fine: a powder that sticks to nose hairs and coats the lungs; settles on tree leaves and collects under your bed. Sweep, and it fluffs in little puffs, only to settle somewhere else.”

The dirt has settled, and conditions have improved in Fallujah somewhat. “In contrast to Bucca—and in comparison to just eight months ago—Fallujah now feels relatively safe,” Krekelberg says. But of course the danger is still very real. “The IEDs are still out there, thus any and all convoys are at risk, and there is still the threat of incoming mortar fire. Our Seabees who work ‘outside the wire’—projects away from any Forward Operating Base—are always in harm’s way.”

Krekelberg adds that she has seen signs of progress. “Our medical personnel are able to conduct clinics in urban areas,” she says. “On a convoy from Ramadi to Fallujah, I witnessed areas that once were strongholds for insurgents now rebuilding homes, schools, and businesses. There are humanitarian projects ramping up to focus on women and children, literacy, and health. Our Seabees are drilling wells, paving roads, and building bridges—both literally and figuratively.”

Ministering to the guards during her first tour in Bucca was vital, Krekelberg says. “The best way to describe detainee operations is to use the basketball metaphor, ‘full court press,’ ” she explains. “It is a 24-7 job with little relief.”

The constant potential for violence strains the emotion and spirit. “The periodic incoming mortar fire did not compare to the constant threat just on the other side of the compound fence,” she says. “Detainees have nothing to do all day but sit and think about ways to inflict injury or death, and will take any and all opportunity to do so.”

“The toll and stress on the guards is tremendous,” Krekelberg says. Guards must remain constantly alert “lest you, or your shipmate, be injured by a sling-shot rock or toothbrush shank.”

She adds that the duty requires “an incredible emotional and spiritual investment. The commanding officer reminded them every day, no matter how bad the detainees were, they were to be treated with ‘dignity and respect’ at all times.”

According to Krekelberg, media attention that has focused on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has given a distorted view of the way in which detainees generally are treated. “What Americans have seen with regard to Abu Ghraib or Gitmo is the exception and a very minute one at that,” she says. “What I witnessed at Bucca were guards who, regardless of the abuse—and objects—thrown at them, disciplined themselves to treat detainees with dignity and respect, day after day.”

Issues Krekelberg addresses are changing relationships among the troops as well as between the military personnel and people at home. When first deployed, troops experience what she calls the “honeymoon effect.” They have begun the work for which they had spent months training. “Now we’re here and, for the most part, on a real high.”

That changes about a month into the tour. “We begin to notice that the funny expression our colleague always uses is no longer funny, and that cute little habit of tapping the spoon against the coffee cup for five minutes is no longer cute,” she says. “Little spats, personality clashes, chain of command issues all become bigger than life. If these are not addressed immediately, they can spiral out of control, and unit cohesion begins to disintegrate. The chaplain has to have an eye open and an ear to the ground to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Situations back home with family and girlfriends also present many needs for counsel. “We all know that in a perfect world, married people are supposed to live together,” Krekelberg says. “Spending six to twelve months apart is not natural. Children—especially teens—get angry with a parent for ‘abandoning’ them. Small children cannot grasp the situation; they only know that Mommy or Daddy isn’t there when needed.”

Military personnel often are caught in conflicting emotions, Krekelberg says. “We feel guilty that we’re gone,” she explains. “We can’t fix the water heater when it breaks; we can’t help with homework; we can’t put a Band-Aid on a knee or give a hug of comfort. We can’t look our loved one in the eye and know what the real truth is.”

“We get frustrated, we feel helpless and useless and, sometimes, hopeless,” Krekelberg adds. “We are torn between the tremendous love we have for our family and friends and the passion we have for our country. We want, more than anything, to keep the covenant we have made to serve with honor, courage, and commitment. We want to go home, but we don’t want to leave our shipmates.”

Resolving relationships when people are 6,000 miles apart is far from easy, but not impossible, Krekelberg says. “That’s why the chaplain is here—to listen to what’s really in a person’s heart, to help overcome the hurdles, to recommend resources for family members back home, and, most importantly, to let them know there is always, always hope.”

Krekelberg is unsure of her future after retiring from the navy. She graduated from North Park Theological Seminary in 1986 and was ordained in 1988 but has never served in a church pastoral role except for an internship. She has no plans to seek a pastorate.

Still, she is looking to the future with the same enthusiastic expectation of God’s leading that has characterized her military career. “My spiritual journey continues. I don’t know where God will lead next, but I’m sure it will be as much—or more—of an adventure as navy chaplaincy has been!”

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