After Two Years in Iraq, Military Chaplain Returns Home

"I saw a lot of death," said Lt. Cmdr. Father Michael Duesterhaus, a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves. "But that's the kind of thing you don't want to dwell on."
The sounds of children playing could be heard from his rectory office at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Lake Ridge, but within moments, Father Duesterhaus was back in Iraq where he spent the past two years.
As chaplain, he presided over memorial services, which he "got tired of" doing so often. "The sad thing is you get really good at them," he said.
Father Duesterhaus returned to America in June after his mother died. He was scheduled to be in Iraq for five more weeks, but his commander let him stay in the United States after the funeral.
Father Duesterhaus was deployed twice in two years, which is about as much as one person can do at a time, he said. His first assignment was as chaplain of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
The MEU is an self-sufficient unit with 2,600 Marines with their own transportation, ammunition and food. During this time, Father Duesterhaus traveled with the MEU as the soldiers trained American allies in surrounding countries.
His second term was at Camp Blue Diamond in Al-Ramadi and Headquarters Group in Camp Fallujah, both in Iraq. On an average Sunday, Father Duesterhaus celebrated Mass on the main camp and then in different camps.
According to Father Duesterhaus, Ramadi is a rough region of Iraq. "It was the most abused by Saddam," he said.
Since chaplains are unarmed, Father Duesterhaus always had a Religious Program Specialist (RP) serving as his bodyguard, transport driver and assistant.
A "snapshot" of his parish looked like this: "A crowd of guys about three years out of high school. … The father and son who serve in the same unit. The doctor who hopes that his surgical skills won't be needed, but knows they will. … A Marine with a dirty uniform, but a clean rifle," wrote Father Duesterhaus in his blog.
The tailgate of a Humvee and wooden boxes in a field of mud were his altars. His vestments were camouflage, and while traveling, his chalice "not much bigger than a Dixie cup," he wrote.
"Military chaplaincy is a sub-culture," he said, adding that it was necessary for him to "keep up, physically, with these people." They were living in unfamiliar territory in tight quarters. Father Duesterhaus recalled two weeks in Jordan they spent sleeping in tents without showers.
Every day is a work day for the soldiers overseas. "The only thing different on Sunday is they get to go to church and not report to work until later in the day," he said.
A third of his ministry was secular counseling. He explained that anything said to a chaplain is confidential. In addition to young soldiers, colonels and generals often came to him for advice on moral issues.
"I deal with all ranks and people," he said.
Father Duesterhaus is now home and serving as parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, but it doesn't feel "real" to him yet. He performed a baptism and a wedding for the first time in 25 months.
He's found that his definition of stress has changed as well as what he classifies as a "real emergency." He noted that many people get worked up about things that aren't incredibly important.
"I don't understand why Americans drink bottled water," he said. "Most Americans don't know how good they have it." American tap water is perfectly safe. As he left Iraq, 60 percent of the nation had clean water for the first time.
On a whole, the Iraqis are seeing several lifestyle improvements. When Father Duesterhaus traveled by air, he saw the villages lit with electricity.
"They never had electricity before," he said. "Saddam destroyed a lot." This included the culture. The society was broken down, and now they are just beginning to rebuild, which will take time.
Despite it all, Father Duesterhaus is hopeful for a better future in Iraq. He has seen ex-patriots returning to Iraq to take leadership roles in the new government. The education system is greatly improved.
"I have no regrets, and I'd go back if they told me to," he said, adding that he will probably be called up to active duty again in a couple of years.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2006