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Military chaplains: Being a cog of conscience in the military killing machine

Navy Capt. James Fisher brings his evangelical Christian faith to work with Afghan military mullahs.

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It's the end of lunchtime at the Afghan National Army base of Pol-i-charkhi and, as the mess hall reverberates with the dish-clatter and chair-scraping of soldiers in dark camouflage dispersing, two men linger behind, still digging with spoons into a shared dish of rice and lamb.

US Navy Capt. James Fisher is the guest of Afghan Col. Moheb Moheburahman. The American is fair skinned, every inch of his face and scalp clean-shaven, and with ready smile and can-do attitude, he looks downright sunny. The Afghan has an olive complexion and a full black beard flecked with gray. When he laughs, the white of his teeth brightens his face like a flash of lightning in a night sky. The American has never borne arms in battle; the Afghan spent years in the mountains of northern Afghanistan fighting as a mujahideen against Russian occupiers and, later, against the Taliban. A limp in his walk and a cloudy left eye are leftovers from a Taliban ambush.

Both men are officers, both are clergy, and neither could have imagined joining forces when they made religion the cornerstone of their life and work: Colonel Moheburahman as an Islamic mullah trained in Kabul and now serving in the Afghan Army; Captain Fisher a born-again Christian ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and committed to ministering to American troops.

As they eat and talk, an interpreter in a gray suit and yellow tie bridges the linguistic divide through word and gesture. Nothing, not even the smiles and the ribbing, gets lost as the two discuss the transformation of the Religious Cultural Affairs (RCA) department of the Afghan Army into a professional military chaplaincy.

Against the complex backdrop of combat and nation-building, this is neither a simple task nor always an exciting one. "I bet that, 25 years ago, the colonel didn't say 'I want to be a staff officer,' " Chaplain Fisher jokes.

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