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Military chaplains: a Presbyterian pastor patrols with his flock of soldiers in Iraq

Army Capt. Ron Eastes carries a big responsibility - but no weapon - in his 'ministry of presence' with the 82nd Airborne.

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Vendors and shopkeepers are gearing up for business along a market street in the northeastern neighborhood of Adhamiya, when a platoon of American soldiers disgorges from Humvees. The soldiers fan out up and down the street. Even on a low-key patrol to make their presence known and gather intel, the soldiers have to stay on the qui vive. Eyes dart up to rooftops and down side alleys; while one soldier smiles and nods greetings to a vendor, another peers to the back of the store.

From a distance the soldiers are indistinguishable: domed helmets, dark glasses, and tight-fitting armored vests in camouflage grays and greens. But closer inspection reveals differences. From the back of one soldier, a radio antenna quivers: platoon leader. Across the chest of another, only gloved hands – no rifle, no side arm strapped to thigh: chaplain. In orbit around him, another soldier, rifle ready: chaplain's assistant and bodyguard. Should fighting break out, he'll shove his charge behind a wall, to the ground, under a vehicle.

Chaplain Ron Eastes is on this patrol with members of his 82nd Airborne Army unit not because he is helping with the platoon's mission, but because the platoon itself is his mission.

"I've heard it said that a shepherd needs to smell like his sheep," he explains, "and if I'm going to care for these guys, I need to be where they are."

And being where they are can mean joining soldiers in a ritual of cigars and banter as a distant mullah chants the call to prayer and the sky darkens beyond the concertina wire at their combat outpost (COP) in north Baghdad. Or playing cards with troops visiting from a smaller outpost. Or walking, outside "the wire," among stalls selling housewares and food in a Baghdad bazaar.

The smell of sheep, Chaplain Eastes knows, comes with more than a whiff of risk.

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