IRAQ: An Army chaplain tends his flock on the frontlines.
A television documentary set for broadcast Wednesday on the Military Channel explores the role of an Army chaplain in helping soldiers endure the danger and dreariness of a 15-month deployment in one of the more dangerous parts of Iraq.
"God's Soldier" covers three months in the life of Capt. Charles Popov, chaplain for the 2nd battalion, 27th infantry regiment, the Wolfhounds. Popov, 49, a Baptist, does his best to keep the troops' morale from sagging during the deployment as the unit suffers 18 killed and 300 wounded.
One topic is ever-present: how can a chaplain justify war with the biblical admonition against killing? Popov tries to distinguish between killing and murder, and notes that the Bible, in several places, condones violence against the wicked.
"There is a justice that has to be served," Popov tells his flock. "God is a god of mercy, and God is also a god of justice."
It is a close-up, intimate look. The camera is present during moments of confession and trauma. Five soldiers in the unit are killed by a roadside bomb; an interpreter is killed by a sniper; soldiers are frustrated when the brass orders them to stop daylight patrols, lest they draw sniper fire.
A soldier admits to Popov that he doesn't know if he can kill. Another says he does nothing but argue with his wife during phone calls home. When news comes that the unit's stay will be extended, morale plummets.
Throughout it all, Popov is patient and cheerful, at least in his public face. Privately, the stress takes a toll. He admits he does not have all the answers, particularly to the eternal question: Why does God permit evil in the world?
"That is a struggle that I think people of faith contend with," Popov says.
Without chaplains, Popov insists, troops can lose their moral compass. "Everyone asks: Where was the chaplain at Abu Ghraib?"
"God's Soldier" covers months in late 2006 and early 2007 at a small outpost near Tikrit, a world away from the comforts of the large U.S. bases. The soldiers are suspicious of the Iraqi security forces living with them. A Christmas pageant arranged by Popov is marred when Iraqis set to play wise men and shepherds are arrested on various crimes.
Popov tells his video camera that he has trouble sleeping. The faces of the dead soldiers keep appearing in his dreams. Still, he wouldn't want to be anywhere else. His respect for the young soldiers never wavers.
"I'd rather be here than in the best church in the U.S.," he says. "It makes me feel very humble to be their chaplain, almost unworthy."
--Tony Perry, in San Diego
Photo: Capt. Charles Popov addresses troops. Credit: Military Channel.