For former Iraq War chaplain, Memorial Day invokes 'crucial' memories

May 26, 2011

The Rev. Bob Blessing describes war's defining moments with only a slight trace of humor: "Relationships count, and if nobody's blowing you up or shooting at you — it's a good day."

The San Diego chaplain's most recent tour of duty in Iraq included a considerable amount of both explosions and shootings, prompting a serious "reflective mode" as he observes the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. "I'm really dealing with life and resurrection. Remembering all the lives and how they served, to me, is crucial," he said during a May 25 telephone interview.

Like his former battalion commander who died when his vehicle hit a land mine. "He was a good brother in Christ. I should have been there with him, but I was taking care of another situation. You just deal with those things as they come through but it doesn't make it any easier."

And the Iraqi translator. "Her name was Sarah, like my daughter. She was killed when a bomb went through her face, literally, and blew her apart. She kept our guys alive and gave the ultimate sacrifice, trying to keep peace for her people."

Blessing, rector of St. Andrew's Church in La Mesa, California, in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, said that he'll pause this Memorial Day to remember not only the dead but also the living, and their huge sacrifices.

Like the Muslim imam "who helped us so much he had to flee Iraq. Thankfully, we got him out. He now lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is one of the wonderful brothers I love and cherish."

The 52-year-old Blessing is no stranger to war. He returned from his third deployment to St. Andrew's for Easter week services after nearly a year at the Contingency Operation Base (COB) Adder, "essentially a quarter-mile away from where Abraham's house was located in Ur of Chaldea," he said.

"It was a rough deployment. We lost two guys in our immediate brigade. This time I was responsible as senior chaplain for about 14,000 troops and contractors at the COB in Southern Iraq."

He supervised 18 chaplains and about 20 chaplain assistants as part of the Long Beach, California-based 224th Sustainment Brigade. He solidified a team approach to empower others "to touch far more lives for the Kingdom of God, without question," he said.

Each deployment has included its own challenges and graces. Blessing, a noncombatant who does not carry a weapon, has held the hand of dying soldiers, assuring them of God's presence and love. The Washington native has ducked mortar fire, double-checked the contents of body bags and faced tough questions of faith — his own as well as those from others.

"The suffering, the hardship, the discipline challenge you in your capacity as you are called to be a pastor," he said. "The thing I grieve is the loss, the death that comes with being in a war."

Like many of those with whom he served, he has also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

"Every mobilization has been death and dying; it's hard when you lose brothers and sisters. If you have PTSD you are affected by the war mentally," Blessing said.

"As much as I had prayed and sought God, as much as I had walked with God, as much as I had communicated with God, the violence still tweaks anybody who is susceptible to it.

"At least 30 to 40 percent of the troops going to Iraq have it (PTSD)," added Blessing, who sought treatment for the anxiety disorder. "The ones who care have a tendency to be traumatized even more. It messes with you."

He grew up in the Seattle area and was active in youth ministry. After high school he spent a year in France, "involved in church planting, and as time went on, I realized that's what I wanted to do."

He graduated in 1980 from the University of Washington. He earned a master of divinity degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, in 1984.

Contact with troops while serving in the Anglican Church of Korea inspired him to join the U.S. Army Reserves. "I was in the mission field in Asia and connected once in a while with military in Korea, and visited troops. That's what got me interested in the military," he said.

A few years later, "I went active duty," he recalled. He estimates that he has spent about five years of his 23-year marriage actively deployed and serving in what he views as another kind of mission field.

"For the chaplain, the priest, it's just caring for people that are truly interested in their faith and want to figure out where God is in the midst of the violence around them, where God is in the midst of their lives.

"The majority of them are 18 to 20-year-olds; it's a great ministry to people with a lot of inquiries into the faith life journey. It's intense; it's a great opportunity. That's why chaplains love it.

"There's such a great need with the young men and women of our nation. It's such a privilege to support them, care for them and be with them in their time of crisis. When you send your sons and daughters out and terrible things happen, you need to know people are there, standing by them."

He feels blessed with both a family and a congregation that support and stand by him; an interim served in his absence at St. Andrew's, where Blessing was called as rector in 2006.

"Sometimes this five years away from my family has made my kids angry," he said. But he added that communicating with them via Skype helped during his last tour.

In fact, on one occasion, "I remember the rockets coming in," he said. "Everybody else was cutting and running for the bunkers but I jumped on the floor with my Kevlar on and continued my conversation with my wife.

"Now, that was real communication," he said jokingly.

Living with the realities of war also forced real communication, he added, sobering again.

"The death and dying and the suffering, the hardship and discipline challenge you in your capacity as you are called to be a pastor," he said. "We saw what was important defined so clearly that normal church drama, normal drama in life is only important as it relates to building relationships.

"Relationships are what count, not the size of your bank book, or your car, or the size of your church, or whatever it is one values. It's people. It's family.

"I knew that I was ready to meet Jesus, there's no question, but what became important was coming back for my family, my wife and kids, for my church, standing by them -- that was the crucial thing. That was a gift of the violence."