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Chaplain's Iraq Flock Is Battle-Scarred Marine Unit

BELIEFS

Navy Lt. Scott Radetski provides spiritual and personal support, often near the front line.

May 22, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Navy Lt. Scott Radetski knows how to reconcile the Sixth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill, with a profession based on doing just that.

Radetski, chaplain for the Marine unit that had the largest number of casualties last month, readily quotes Romans 13, which explains that a just ruler "is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong-doer."

"Basically, Marines are servants of wrath," Radetski said. "They are an extension of the government.... I don't see a big conflict between the commandment and what Marines are doing. They're obeying the people in authority over them."

Bridging what would seem to be a wide chasm is just part of the chaplain's job. He is the shoulder to cry on, the moral force to ease soldiers' doubts, the person who celebrates sacraments and, inevitably, the one who comforts survivors of the daily encounter with death.

"I never have any doubt when I go looking for my chaplain where he will be: somewhere near the front line taking care of the spiritual and personal needs of his Marines," Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, who commands 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, said of Radetski. "That's how he views us: his Marines."

Radetski, 41, is a nuclear submarine sailor-turned-chaplain with a family at Southern California's Camp Pendleton.

For him, the month beginning Palm Sunday was like none other.

In almost daily firefights against insurgents in the restive Sunni city of Fallouja, his 2nd Battalion lost seven Marines; more than 100 were wounded.

Radetski was a frequent presence at the bullet-riddled homes that were Marines' forward positions and at bases farther from the front -- praying, counseling, sometimes just listening. Though a Baptist, he counsels all, including nonbelievers.

"Interjecting the spiritual life almost comes naturally in a place like this," Radetski said. "You get here and you realize that we all have a Christ-sized hole in our hearts, and he's the only one who can fill it."

Cpl. Edwin Rios, 24, of St. Cloud, Fla., said he appreciates the chaplain's support.

"To have him say to you -- to give you the word -- that sure it's rough, but it's not always going to be like that," Rios said, "it gives you the boost to go back out there and accomplish your job."

On Palm Sunday, the chaplain and the Marines who turned out for morning services knew that by nightfall they would have begun an assault against heavily armed insurgents.

In their own way, Radetski said in his sermon, the Marines were following the same path as Jesus en route to Jerusalem. He too entered a city where some people greeted him as a savior but others were plotting to kill him. He knew the risk but he went without fear because he knew his mission was just.

Marines face a similar test, Radetski said. And God will be with them every step of the way.

Radetski read several Bible passages and punctuated each with "Ooorah," the all-purpose Marine grunt/cheer.

"I know the [Sixth] commandment, but God gave us a country and we have to defend it the best we can," said Lance Cpl. Richard Browning, 21, who hopes to become a Baptist minister after his tour of duty.

That feeling, however, carries little weight with Iraqis living in the city.

"The Marines say God is with them," said Gamal Khalif, an Iraqi police officer. "But God is also with the other side. Nobody knows who God is really with."

Death is never far away in Radetski's ministry. Radetski, who wears a helmet and flak jacket but is not armed, helped evacuate wounded Marines.

After one firefight, Radetski said, he looked into the face of a dying Marine as he lifted him onto a stretcher. He realized the young man and his spouse had come to him for couples counseling before the battalion left Camp Pendleton.

"All we could do was pray," Radetski recalled of the Marine's death.

In another incident, he stayed with a Marine whose hand had been blown off.

"Please don't leave me, please don't leave me," the Marine pleaded as the Humvee raced toward a field hospital.

"He couldn't have any more morphine because he needed to be alert," Radetski said. "But just to hear him cry out in pain every time we hit a bump -- and there were a lot of them -- in the dirt, and the dust and smell.... I kept telling him, 'You're going to be all right. God loves you.' "

After growing up in modest circumstances in Sheboygan, Wis., Radetski was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy. He became a mechanic and a lab technician in the elite nuclear submarine program.

But two drunk-driving arrests in New York forced him into the Navy's alcohol and drug dependency program in 1985.

It was a costly but transforming experience. He lost his $29,000 reenlistment bonus, his security clearance and his "dolphins," the pin that signifies a sailor is a member of the submarine service.

"Sometimes things have to be stripped away for you to realize the value of the things that you have," he said. "It opened my eyes to a journey back to God."

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