Published January 14, 2015
The Marines screamed for a medic and tried to stanch the blood. But in the end, there was nothing they could do.
In a surreal battlefield of tombstones, in a Muslim cemetery thousands of miles from home, a young Marine lay unconscious after a mortar barrage, five minutes from death.
Lt. Cmdr. Paul Shaughnessy, a Navy chaplain (search), pressed a thumb across the motionless corporal's blood-drenched forehead, made the sign of the cross and summoned the strength to perform last rites on a man he barely knew.
"I absolve you of all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (search)," Shaughnessy said while kneeling beside Cpl. Roberto Abad, a 22-year-old from Los Angeles, just before he died Aug. 6. "May God, who gave you life, bring you everlasting life."
As American troops cope with life -- and death -- on a faraway battlefield, military chaplains cope with them, offering prayers, comfort and spiritual advice to keep the American military machine running.
Since Aug. 5, U.S. troops have fought intense skirmishes with Iraqi militants loyal to firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) in Najaf's vast cemetery, believed to be the largest in the Muslim world.
Through a maze of tan-colored, Arabic-inscribed tombs, U.S. troops have scrambled onto mausoleums to open fire, taken refuge in underground crypts and, with bombs falling and bullets flying, wondered whether they might die here.
"Many of them had a great deal of reservation about going into a cemetery," said Capt. Warren Haggray, 48-year-old Baptist Army chaplain living in Fort Hood, Texas. "One of the things that I teach my soldiers from the Bible is that there's a time for war and there's a time for peace, and there are times that you just have to get out there and fight."
Shaughnessy, a 54-year-old Roman Catholic priest from Worcester, Mass., had just finished a prayer service for a lance corporal, shot fatally in the neck by a sniper, when he joined a supply convoy to spend the night with Marines in the cemetery.
Crouched behind tombstones for cover, the Marines came under mortar attack at dusk.
One round exploded about 50 yards from Shaughnessy, who, after hearing calls for help, found two severely wounded Marines bleeding profusely.
Believing they would die, he performed last rites on both of them.
One was wounded in the thigh and survived, Shaughnessy learned later.
The second, pinned between two tombstones, did not.
Lacking a stretcher, the Marines put rifles under the corporal's legs and back to move him out of the cemetery.
"The young Marines who carried him, they were switching off," Shaughnessy said. "One, he was his buddy, he had blood all over him. He was pretty affected by it. He came back to his position, and I said, 'You gotta take deep breaths.' They lost a fellow Marine, and they knew they had to continue, but in their eyes, you could see the sadness."
At such times, chaplains, who accompany military units unarmed, can help simply by being present.
"A lot of them wanted blessings during that time. You just didn't know through the night what was gonna happen," Shaughnessy said. "The first time you have an RPG or a mortar explode next to you it's pretty sobering. The reality of death is more than just an abstraction. It matures them pretty fast."
Few troops appear to have reservations about taking what they see as "enemy" life, though.
Chaplains help grease the wheels of any soldier's troubled conscience by arguing that killing combatants is justified.
"I teach them from the scripture, and in the scripture I can see many times where men were told ... to go out and defeat the enemy," Haggray said. "This is real stuff. You're out there and you gotta eliminate that guy, because if you don't, he's gonna eliminate you."
"The Marine Corps is an assault-based entity. You have to have them ready to do some pretty nasty things. The danger is turning that off, that's always the problem," he said. "We want them to perform their duties in a moral and just way. I try to convey to them in the most cogent way I can that you don't use excessive force, you don't take innocent life."
One Marine deployed near the cemetery, following orders from his superiors, sprayed gunfire on a vehicle that failed to stop at a checkpoint after a series of warning shots, Shaughnessy said.
When the bullet-ridden car rolled to a halt, the Marine found two men and one woman, apparently civilians, dead or on the verge of death, inside.
"It bothered him immensely," Shaughnessy said. "I told him the intention is important. You had warned them that they were in a combatant zone, your intent was not to take any civilian life, and morally, that's significant."