Soldiers see big benefit in small group worship service at Camp Taji, Iraq
July 28, 2009
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - The rattle of small arms fire from a nearby range didn't detract from the parishioner's joy in singing hymns. That the congregation was comprised of only four Soldiers didn't diminish the value of the chaplain's weekly message at the small fire base on the outskirts of the post.
Chaplain (Capt.) Glenvil Gregory, of Newark, N.J., 1st Battalion, 108th Field Artillery, believes small group worship sessions can have big impacts on the lives of deployed Soldiers. The Soldiers realize church attendance is one more way to be there for their buddies.
"Over time I'm seeing an increase in Soldiers experiencing their faith and seeking avenues in which to express their faith," Gregory said. "It has been very rewarding for me."
Gregory initiated the Saturday morning general Protestant service at Fire Base Mayhem in April. He had been conducting services for another group of Soldiers at a nearby radar operations center when the first sergeant of Battery B requested the startup of services here.
The faces in the "crowd" keep changing for Gregory and Staff Sgt. Chris Paulhamas, of Trout Run, Pa., the 1-108th chaplain's assistant. The 1-108th, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, rotates Soldiers in and out of the fire base. The small size of the base and the work schedules, including night shifts, limits the number in attendance Saturday mornings. Gregory said the numbers of Soldiers attending services may not be large but he said of those who do come "there is a willingness and an eagerness."
"We've had a diverse group. We have a different group almost every month," Gregory said. "It helps them share their faith."
The Soldiers at the Saturday, July 25 service all had one thing in common: an appreciation for the assembly of believers. Spc. Sean Keefer of Waynesboro, Pa. has been able to attend nearly all the Saturday services at Mayehm. He works dayshift at Mayhem performing maintenance on guns. He said at home he, his wife and children are churchgoers and said he continued that practice while deployed.
"I guess I've been a rock," Keefer said, playing on the New Testament reference to the apostle Peter.
"It's meant a lot. Not just spiritually but for getting together with the guys," he said. "You realize that no matter how different we are we're the same. It's brought a lot of us closer together."
Sgt. Brad Hefflefinge, of Indiana, Pa., with B Troop, said he wasn't much of a churchgoer until recently, when he was asked to bring his guitar to a service. He's been playing the instrument for nearly 20 years.
"I find great joy in playing for the church," Hefflefinger said.
He said it strikes him that Soldiers most often raise concerns they have about others during the sharing portion of the weekly service.
"It's very noble; but it's not wrong to ask for peace for yourself," he said.
Spc. Jared Divittorio of Pittsburgh, another B Troop Soldier, said he appreciates having a service available when he's at Mayhem.
"It really helps us out to have him [Gregory] come out here. It's a convenience," Divittorio said. "It gives us a chance to sit down and bring our faith to the table."
Divittorio said he grew up going to church but had "fallen off the horse" recently. He said being deployed helped him return to faith.
"I realized I need Him and he's here, Divittorio said, adding that in a way he feels God is "even closer" in Iraq.
Paulhamas and Gregory said the issues battalion Soldiers most commonly bring to them are relationship issues, be it relationships with other Soldiers or with family members. Gregory also said he's fielded a number of theological questions.
"There has been an upsurge in people asking Bible questions," Gregory said. "It seems more people are reading The Bible."
Gregory is a native of Antiqua who now lives in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He said he is "passing through" New Jersey. Gregory grew up in the Moravian church. He called the choice of ministry as a profession "a natural fit."
"All my life I've been in church," Gregory, who as a civilian is now a pastor in the Moravian Church, West Indies Province, said. "My mission here is to help to sustain the faith of Soldiers by providing them with religious services, Bible study groups and also pastoral care and counseling."
Gregory transferred to the Pa. Guard in 2005, from the Virgin Islands Army National Guard, while attending Moravian Seminary. He deployed to Guantanamo Bay with the Puerto Rico National Guard in 2007-08.
Of his current tour, Gregory said ministering to Soldiers during the deployment has caused him to grow spiritually and emotionally. Paulhamas shares prior deployment experience with Gregory, but not as a Soldier in the chaplain corps.
Paulhamas, who works as a quality assurance technician as a civilian, deployed to Ramadi, Iraq in 2005-06 with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division. He was an infantryman who worked as a tanker on that deployment, an experience he termed the "total opposite" of his current mission. Paulhamas feels his new role in the military is a good fit for him. He said one of the highlights for him this time around was the baptism of over a dozen Soldiers while the brigade was moving through Kuwait to Iraq.
"God led me to be a chaplain's assistant. He opened doors and I was able to give back," Paulhamas said.