An arsenal of prayer at Pentagon

Some staffers have turned to worship for comfort, way to support war effort

War In Iraq

March 27, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. - They call themselves the prayer warriors.

In the weeks leading up to the war with Iraq, this small group of military and civilian staffers has come to the Pentagon's dimly lighted chapel, closed the door to the wartime buzz around it and used lunch hour as a time for worship.

It is not just the presence of military uniforms that makes this religious service unusual; it is the wartime thoughts that run through the prayers. People in the group pray for the dead and wounded among the U.S.-led forces, the prisoners of war, the military leaders in their building. They pray for the safety of the coalition troops and the Iraqi civilians.

But this is the Pentagon. Here, they also pray for victory.

"I pray for the continued disarray and confusion on the part of Iraqi leadership," says Don Zellmer, a Pentagon contractor.

Army Maj. Alan G. Personius is the next to take a turn in the prayer circle.

"As reports of death and destruction come in," he says, "I pray that the American people not be fickle, that they stand behind this country's leaders."

In his prayer, Personius makes plain his faith in the U.S. military cause.

"I ask this conflict be swift and sure," he says, "and that the people of Iraq know this is not a war against them, but the military mechanisms of an evil and despotic regime."

Since the invasion of Iraq began, military chaplains say, attendance has risen sharply at the 13 religious services held weekly around the Pentagon - including at this Christian prayer group, a daily Catholic Mass, a weekly Muslim prayer gathering and a Sabbath service held for the building's Jewish employees.

The lunchtime prayer group began what it calls a "Prayer for the Nation" last month, during the buildup for the war. The service can draw a tiny crowd or a large one depending on the day. Army Col. Ralph Benson, a pastor in fatigues and black combat boots, runs the half-hour service in the new chapel, which was built at the point where 184 people died when a hijacked airliner hit the building Sept. 11, 2001.

The room is cool and peaceful, lighted partly by a panel created from shattered glass found in the ruins of the Sept. 11 attack. That panel sits where an altar ordinarily would, its pentagon shape the only symbol in the nondenominational sanctuary.

"A lot of people were wary of this area because this is where people were killed," says Benson, a 55-year-old native Iowan who oversees the pastoral services for any of the 23,000 Pentagon employees who seek them. "Now it's got a sacredness about it."

Benson says he expects younger Pentagon employees to seek more spiritual guidance if the conflict wears on. The strains of wartime, he says, are foreign to them.

"The younger staff here have this kind of naivete," Benson says, adding that since the war began the number of staffers seeking his counsel has jumped a lot.

Not all the prayer is organized. In a darkened corner of the chapel one morning this week, Shavonta Green, 26, a civilian analyst with Air Force operations, prayed for the safety of a close friend, an Apache helicopter pilot in Iraq. She frets about a war that seems more daunting than she and some of her colleagues initially expected.

"At first, people in my office were talking about kicking butt," Green says. "Everyone's like, `Yeah, the bombs are dropping!' But once people started dying, I haven't heard anyone say anything. Now, it's the reality of war."

This week, Green, an observant Christian, initiated a three-day fast as an exercise of religious discipline. If her workload kept her from making it to the chapel, she says, she would pray in a bathroom.

As the United States wages war on an Islamic nation, the Pentagon's Muslim workers have also taken to prayer. Zadil Ansari, the Pentagon's Muslim lay leader, says the fate of Iraqi civilians will weigh heavily in his thoughts at an Islamic service tomorrow.

"War is traumatic for everyone," says Ansari, who attends services every Friday with up to 25 other Muslims in a fifth-floor auditorium. "Being a Muslim, we're concerned about the innocent people who may be harmed or killed in the war."

But his loyalties also lie with the military: Ansari's brother is a chief warrant officer with the Army's 101st Airborne, which is expected to join the battle for Baghdad. Ansari's nephew is a truck driver with an Army transportation unit in Iraq.

"As you seek comfort, you have to have an outlet," says Ansari, who prays in his office twice a day. "It's a stressful time. We have to put our faith in a higher power."

Each day at noon, at the same time that Ansari is praying privately on the floor of his office, Catholics gather for a Mass in the Pentagon's auditorium.

"I think it's remarkable that a powerful building in the center of the world is also a place of prayer," says John Donovan, a civilian with Army public affairs. Donovan says he believes that when he attended Mass in the building during the first gulf war, his prayers for a swift resolution were answered.

But sermons are not subject to word-for-word Pentagon approval, and sometimes religious leaders can walk a narrow line between faulting the military and praising it.

Rabbi Marvin I. Bash, who was contracted by the Pentagon to conduct Sabbath services, questioned the use of force in a sermon Friday - the day that the U.S.-led forces unleashed thunderous bombing raids over Baghdad.

"I was anxious to see the war begin," Bash told a handful of congregants in a small Pentagon auditorium. "However, now that it has started, I have found myself feeling uncomfortable and fearful of the power that is being used."

Still, he concluded that there was no choice but war.

"If we allow more and more delay, we run a greater and greater risk," he said. "In a few years, we might look back and feel deep regret for our lack of action."

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