“But here in the crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings, the thought of death was about to become a constant companion.” These words end the first chapter of Roger Benimoff’s new book Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir.
Benimoff with the help of Eve Conant crafts a harrowing narrative of his second and final tour as an Army Chaplain in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005. It is a tour that results in him almost abandoning his faith, threatens his marriage, and will cause him to go from an assignment where his duties were ministering and counseling at Walter Reed, to a broken individual who would join the ranks of the patients at the very same hospital. Benimoff begins to lose almost all the will to even cope with the simplest of tasks and routines as chronic post – traumatic stress disorder debilitates him (PTSD). While in Iraq, the soldiers he shepherds constantly face death and intense fighting that will finally unnerve the author when he returns to safety in the states. Benimoff himself describes what the soldiers faced:
These guys trained together, joked around together, slept in the same room. In time, and for a time, they knew their buddies better than they knew their families. I know from my thousand or so counselings with soldiers over the past two years that losing a buddy is not the same as losing a friend. It’s like being a big brother and not grabbing your little brother’s hand fast enough before he slips off a bridge. He looks up at you in wonder and disbelief as he falls to his death. Soldiers are supposed to protect each other. When they fail, the guilt can be debilitating.
This account is an interesting look at the life of soldiers as they struggle with the problems of deployment, war zones, fatalities, as well as the trials of a military chaplain. In fact, much of the strength of this account is that we get a look at the war on the ground in Iraq from a highly trained minister, counselor, and theologian.
While chaplains are non-combatants and do not carry a weapon, Benimoff is a chaplain who comes under sniper fire and has several close encounters with death. Benimoff of course is not overly concerned about his own safety and does whatever it takes to be close to his flock. Early in his deployment he is called to a scene of unimaginable carnage, as an Army Stryker vehicle is blown apart by an improvised explosion device. Almost all in the vehicle were lost. So much of the narrative of his time in Iraq is heartbreaking, and the author does an excellent job of articulating his goals to minister to those in need in a time of chaos. He also has a skill for articulating and trying to understand God’s purpose.
The second part of Benimoff’s account focuses on his own downward spiral as PTSD begins to encompass him. It is a disorder he has been masterfully trained to detect, but is not empowered to stop. Benimoff begins to break down in large crowds and displays various degrees of erratic and aggressive behavior. Eventually Benimoff checks into a PTSD clinic, spending his days and nights there for a protracted time. During his time of trial he says, “I was not talking to God because I had nothing good to say. I still believe in God, but not necessarily a compassionate one and perhaps not one to whom I should be devoting my life.” He would go on to further denounce the God he had known calling “religion a crutch for the weak” and followers of God “weak minded.” His own wife writes in her journal:
When he began to bring home ceramics on his weekend visits it hit me that he was in a mental facility. On TV you always see people who are going through various types of rehabilitation painting or doing art of some sort, and when I pictured my husband doing this, I began to see the extent of his brokenness. I feel shocked and have much grief over my husband being in a psych ward. I never imagined we would end up in a place like this, and I wonder if he will ever get better. I wonder why God has allowed this.
This is a very moving book and it deals wonderfully and honestly with theodicy. It’s also an inside account to the sacrifices and rehabilitation made by many in the United States Armed Forces, some who face serious physical and emotional wounds for the rest of their life. Even when Benimoff doesn’t have the answer to certain questions he doesn’t pretend that he does. The road back to faith in Christ for Benimoff is also very moving. He finally came to a point where he was so broken and destroyed he realized, “I needed God’s grace more than I needed answers. It’s a lesson from Sunday school, the most basic of all, but one I had lost completely since returning from Iraq.” The Apostle Paul himself pleaded to God for relief from the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, and Paul wrote these words in the 9th verse: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”