Stresses of uncertainty

Bishop finds anxious troops, exhausted chaplains in Iraq
March 31, 2004

A CLIMATE OF anxiety and fear hangs persistently over U.S. troops in Iraq because of plentiful weapons and easy access to them throughout the country, said Suffragan Bishop George Packard after his return from a five-day visit. During the trip, he presided at services, gave support to a half-dozen overworked chaplains and led a mini-conference aimed at refreshing the exhausted clergy.

Packard said that, because of the 70 percent unemployment rate, large groups of men loiter at every street corner in Baghdad. "There was as much uncertainty as there was dust in the air," said Packard, who celebrated his 60th birthday on a day when the desert winds blew in from the south, gritty and silt-like.

Security concerns prevented two Episcopal chaplains from making the trip to Baghdad to meet with Packard and also kept him from traveling to them. "Improvised explosive devices and the occasional ambush had the entire command on extremely high alert," said Packard, the presiding bishop's suffragan bishop for chaplaincies, including the armed forces.

Traveling with him was Archbishop Clive Hanford, primate of the Anglican province that includes Iraq. Hanford was there to meet and support members of the International Community of Reconciliation of Coventry Cathedral in England.

It was because of Hanford's intervention, Packard said, that "a window of opportunity opened" that allowed him to travel to Iraq. "He helped me see my exhausted guys," said the grateful bishop, whose efforts at getting U.S. approval for a pastoral visit had been unsuccessful.

Both bishops arrived in Baghdad from Jordan aboard a 17-seat Cessna plane that, Packard said, cork-screwed into Baghdad airport from 16,000 feet in order to avoid a possible rocket attack.

Packard said he chose to stay in a low-profile hotel, rather than the heavily armed and fortified Palestine or Sheraton hotels that he described as "armed like forts," which had been bombed two weeks earlier.

"I have never seen more anxiety and fear on the faces of troops before," said Packard, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam. "Chaplains and soldiers reported to me that their feeling was anxiety, heightened considerably whenever there was an attack. One chaplain coming direct from memorial services and counseling the wounded confessed of his exhaustion."

He expressed his gratitude to Episcopal chaplains for instilling faith in U.S. troops under fire and for conducting twice-weekly services at St. George's Church, which Packard described as the only safe sanctuary in the city's surrounding neighborhoods and filled to capacity with worshipers.

He also praised the work of the International Community of Reconciliation members under the direction of Canon Andrew White. In Iraq, they are creating safe meeting places for estranged parties to meet in hopes of reaching peace and rebuilding the country.

"Andrew's vision is for Iraqis to have their own opportunity to search for common spiritual ground in support of peace," Packard said. "He provides them with that environment."

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