Orthodoxy Today
Book Review. Faith Under Fire

Memoir shows even chaplains face spiritual crisis in war zone.

Faith Under Fire
Roger Benimoff & Ann Conant
Crown Publishers Hardcover, 268 pages

When we think of heroism in war, we usually think of a military figure, gun blazing, single-handedly holding off a barrage of charging enemies. Images of special forces come to mind. Low on any list of courageous members of the armed forces would be someone dressed in camouflage, but with a cross or Star of David on their lapel: a chaplain. In fact, chaplains are not allowed to carry deadly weapons.

As Chaplain Roger Benimoff himself states in his new memoir of combat service in Iraq, "a pocketknife was the most lethal object I was allowed to hold."

But this is what his book, "Faith Under Fire," written with Anne Conant, is all about—chaplains can be among the military's most courageous members. This is even more so because they do not carry weapons; they have only their faith in God and his will as their defense.

Benimoff served as a captain in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps from 2002 to 2008. He had two deployments to Iraq. This, however, was not his first military experience. As detailed in the book, at 19 years he joined the Army and served as a fuel specialist. He did his share of "drinking and partying," but he also learned to "set goals and achieve them."

After that initial tour, Benimoff entered college, remained in the National Guard and felt a calling to the ministry. At this time, he also met Rebekah, who would become his wife. A perfect marriage of sorts was also his calling to the chaplaincy, as it would be "a way to serve God and my country at the same time."

Now, anyone who has served in the armed forces will tell you there are two types who serve: those who are at the front lines, putting themselves under fire, standing next to and at times leading their brothers and sisters in arms, and those who somehow find themselves serving in the relative safety and comfort of the rear echelon.

A chaplain can easily be assigned to a headquarters battalion, thus serving in a relatively risk-free rear position. But this was not the way Benimoff wanted to serve. Eleven days into his second deployment, he was called out to a scene of unbelievable carnage. An improvised explosive device had blown up underneath a Stryker vehicle designed to withstand IED blasts. The Stryker and most of the soldiers inside did not survive.

Benimoff's firm commitment to "stay under fire" with the troops he was ministering to was demonstrated in a later incident. He was ordered by his cavalry squadron executive officer not to accompany the squadron on a particularly dangerous mission. His superior told him he would be a "bullet magnet." The persistently courageous chaplain (with permission) was able to move closer to the action at a forward aid station.

However, holding the dead and dying dozens of times in his arms, countess hours of counseling the grieving and traumatized, holding religious services for the living and the dead, and in doing so earning a Combat Action Badge, two Bronze Stars and two Army Commendation Medals did not protect Chaplain Benimoff from acquiring post-traumatic stress disorder himself. The pond of his spirit was drained. Nothing that had meaning to him before had any meaning now. His faith was depleted.

"Faith was the center of my life, yet it failed to explain why I came home and those soldiers did not," he wrote of his spiritual crisis. The psycho-spiritual wounds he suffered, and the painful impact on his wife and family, did not begin to heal until he read from the Scripture the words of St. Paul (2 Cor.12: 9-10): "'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness...For when I am weak I am strong.'"

This book graphically relates the horrific reality of war. It vividly details the lasting hideous physical, psychological and spiritual effects. "Faith under Fire" realistically portrays what chaplains really do and how they suffer, too. As Chaplain writes: "Life is accelerated in a war zone...God (appears) as a spectator." Yet those experiences led the chaplain to a renewed relationship with God.

Yes, this book gives us a portrait of modern warfare and the tribulations of those who survive. It can also kindle explorations of our own life histories, goals and values.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: April 12, 2009

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