Putting a “Human Face” on the Iraq War

As the number of casualties from the Iraq War comes to a rise and as the Christmas season draws near, Christians from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have been showing support for the troops still serving their duties abroad by sending packages of “love.”

In a special report, released on Dec. 17, the ELCA press service painted a “human face” on the situation in Iraq by focusing on the story of Corporal Nicolas Lee Ziolkowski, a sniper for the Bravo Company of the First Battalion, U.S. Marines, who was killed in action last month.

“Nick” Lee Ziolkowski was "intensely patriotic, leaving for active duty as soon as he graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland," said the Rev. Paul Collinson-Streng, Baltimore, a campus pastor of the (ELCA), during Nick’s funeral on Nov. 24 at Arlington National Cemetery.

"He hadn't had his driver's license too long when he decided, in the pouring rain, to offer rides to strangers stranded at a bus stop. He would stop to help a stranded motorist change a tire and would get in trouble in order to keep a friend out of trouble," Collinson-Streng told more than 450 families, friends, U.S. Marines and others who attended Ziolkowski's funeral, according to the ELCA.

"We give thanks for Nick's desire to make peace, to make the world a better place, even as we mourn our loss. Even if divided in our thoughts about the war in Iraq, we are united in our support for our soldiers and in honoring Nick for his selfless and heroic acts, in life and in death. We remember the soldier, also [a] son, brother and man," Collinson-Streng added.

ELCA members have been asked to remember pray for all the soldiers that have been deployed overseas. To help congregations give care and support for military families at home, the ELCA developed a resource guide for “times of peace and war,” available at the ELCA website.

Free “Christmas e-cards” have also been prepared by the ELCA to send to soldiers over the Christmas season.

ELCA Chaplain the Rev. Kelly J. Wasberg, First Lutheran Church, explained to ELCA news that soldiers on the field are in need of several items that can be easily attained by Christians at home.

"Soldiers need ChapStick, batteries, phone cards and other personal items that cannot readily be bought out in the field," said Wasberg. "In Afghanistan, for example, there isn't a Walgreen's around the corner for soldiers to purchase the things they need while in active duty.”

Wasberg, a chaplain for the National Guard, explained that soldiers are also in need of spiritual guidance – which is precisely where Chaplains, such as himself comes in.

“Chaplains provide the human face” in the military, said Wasberg. We provide "a ministry of presence and serve as counselors to our soldiers." Chaplains are concerned with "how a solider is doing" versus providing orders to carry out an operation, he said to ELCA news.

"We're in tune with what's going on with soldiers both spiritually and ethically," Wasberg said. "We're there to help soldiers reconcile with how they can remain faithful to the Fifth Commandment but still be a solider."

The Rev. Michael T. Lembke, an ELCA division chaplain for the Army, meanwhile, explained that soldiers maintain their spirituality, even in the midst of undesirable circumstances.

Troops "observed a vespers service at the site of an old church ruin" in Tikrit, said Lembke, who is stationed in Tikrit. "This site dates from the sixth century. There was a monastery and church here on the banks of the Tigris," he said.

"Christianity is quite old in this country. Among the customs of Advent are the Advent wreath of four candles in a circle of evergreens. Each day the candles are lit, accompanied by a short prayer. Lighting of the candle is symbolic of hope and everlasting light," said Lembke, who presided in the service. "And to do so here, in a spot where years and years ago people gathered to worship Jesus, gives us a sense of continuity. Our faith is portable, it doesn't rely on a building; it lives in our hearts."

“In the end grief and loss are individual matters, but they are helped along the way by getting together and acknowledging the corporate nature of service," he said. "Even though the circumstances and the surroundings of our holiday season are not what most would want, the presence and the purpose of our work and mission make the days seem more meaningful.”

About 10,000 wounded soldiers from Iraq are returning to the United States, and according to Time magazine, 150,000 U.S. troops will be stationed in Iraq – the highest level since the war was launched last year.

For more information on how to help, visit: http://www.elca.org/peaceandwar/index.html