NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — 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 chaplain, 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,” Cmdr. 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 U.S. troops cope with life — and death — on a faraway battlefield, military chaplains cope with them, offering prayers, comfort and spiritual advice to keep the U.S. military machine running.
Since Aug. 5, U.S. troops have fought intense skirmishes with Iraqi militants loyal to firebrand Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr 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.”
Cmdr. Shaughnessy, a 54-year-old Roman Catholic priest from Worcester, Mass., had just finished a prayer service for a lance corporal, fatally shot 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 Cmdr. Shaughnessy, who, after hearing calls for help, found two severely wounded Marines bleeding profusely.
He performed last rites on both of them. One was wounded in the thigh and survived, the chaplain learned later. The second Marine, 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,” Cmdr. 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,” Cmdr. Shaughnessy said. “The first time you have [a rocket-propelled grenade] 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.”