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Battlefield chaplain’s war unfolded on many fronts
Army chaplain Darren Turner, left, wound up quitting the Army for a spell after returning home from Iraq.
May 26th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Battlefield chaplain’s war unfolded on many fronts

Editor’s note: CNN.com writer Moni Basu is author of “Chaplain Turner's War,” published by Agate Digital.

By Moni Basu, CNN

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) - Darren Turner insisted on going to war, even though the Army usually reserves desk jobs at home for new chaplains like him.

Turner was young and green, enthusiastic about taking God to the battlefield. The Army captain had learned that people in pain are often wide-open to inviting God into their lives.

Jesus always ran to crises. Turner was going to do the same.

He’d enrolled in seminary in 2004 at Regent University in Virginia, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. And early in his spiritual journey, he was inspired by Christian writer John Eldredge, who suggests that American men have abandoned the stuff of heroic dreams, aided by a Christianity that tells them to be "nice guys."

God, says Eldredge, designed men to be daring, even dangerous.

Turner arrived in Iraq in May 2007 with the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment amid a raging insurgency. His soldiers faced an invisible but lethal enemy in booby-trapped houses and roads laced with massive bombs.

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Chaplain Turner’s war would unfold on many fronts. He would be a soldier on the battlefield. A counselor behind closed doors. He was a friend, even a father, to his men.

And when his 15-month tour was over, Turner returned home to face all the problems he had counseled his soldiers about: anger, depression, stress and – most important for him – preserving relationships with loved ones.

Nearly 4,500 American troops died in the Iraq war. More than 30,000 more were physically wounded. Countless others live with scars that can't be seen, like post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury. Many have struggled with regaining their lives at home.

Darren Turner counsels a soldier inside a sleeping container at Patrol Base Hawkes, southeast of Baghdad.

Turner had recognized the needs his soldiers would have after witnessing the horrors of combat, after losing friends.

In Iraq, he had comforted and advised soldiers at Forward Operating Base Falcon, in southeastern Baghdad, and in the combat outposts around the villages of Arab Jabour.

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At Falcon, the Army provided a morale phone that allowed soldiers to make free 15-minute calls home. But Turner knew it wasn't enough. He carried a cell phone in the left shoulder pocket of his uniform and whipped it out whenever a soldier signaled domestic distress at home.

"Call her," he would say. "Call her now and tell her you love her."

When they returned to Georgia in the summer of 2008, Turner told his soldiers that their families would be their cushion. He knew his men were suffering; that the ghosts of Iraq would haunt them, maybe for the rest of their lives.

What he did not know then was that he would not himself be immune to the same threats. He neglected to heed his own advice and his life floundered.

I’d spent many weeks with Turner in Iraq for a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I didn't know about his troubles until I drove up to meet him and his wife, Heather, earlier this year at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

An exhausted Darren Turner catches a nap at his desk inside his tent at Forward Operating Base Falcon near Baghdad.

On that rainy February day, Turner told me that he’d come back from Iraq and felt like the bomb defuser in the movie "The Hurt Locker," who goes into a grocery store and is overwhelmed by the mesmerizing variety of cereals.

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It was a lot to process after having few choices in Iraq. Reverse culture shock.

"I wanted everything in there but I wasn't sure what to buy," Turner said.

He also detected a lack of public concern for the men and women fighting overseas. Off post, people went about their lives without a real understanding of the sacrifices made by American service members.

At first the anger boiled inside. But then it began to surface. He took it out on Heather. It was a release so that he could keep his work as normal as possible.

Little things like arranging the dishwasher became big fights with Heather. Big things like Heather’s life plans became small issues that Turner mocked or discounted because they did not fit his own plans.

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"I came home angry," Turner told me. "Even my attitude, which I thought I was in control of, was walling me in. I didn't realize it until my wife told me, 'You're no longer welcome in our house.'"

During the deployment in Iraq, Turner had pined for Heather and his three young children, Elie, Sam and Meribeth. Now, he was losing them.

"The thing I was angry at was the very thing I was longing for during my deployment - my family," he said.

Heather said her husband was disengaged, impatient. She wanted them to seek counseling but Turner refused, insisting that she was the one who had issues.

Just a few months after his return from Iraq, Darren and Heather Turner separated.

“I was very selfish and tried to control my surroundings, which crushed those closest to me,” Turner said.

Turner eventually realized how much he had hurt his wife, he said. How he had stepped away from God's calling by failing those he cared about most.

After finishing Airborne School, he quit the Army in August 2009, believing the military would demand too much time away from his family at a critical juncture in their lives.

He took a job in sales at a Home Depot not far from his house in Dacula, Georgia. He struggled to mend his marriage and reconnect with his faith.

Four months later, Turner and his wife reconciled. He chose to return to the Army as a chaplain, he said, "a renewed man both in marriage and profession."

He and Heather found their calling. God, he said, gave them a special connection with soldiers and their families. They know they will stay busy for a while.

The U.S. mission in Iraq ended on December 18, 2011, as the last American soldiers climbed into hulking trucks and armored vehicles at Camp Adder, the southernmost base in Iraq.

The war, however, is sure to continue on a second front - in America's cities and homes. And in the offices of counselors and chaplains like Darren Turner.

Turner reminisces about Iraq often, and when I saw him at Fort Campbell, he told me he wrestled with mixed feelings on the day America's military presence ended. He hopes that, in the end, the war will have been worth the blood that was spilled.

Another war, the one in Afghanistan, is far from over, with casualties mounting every month. Today, Turner counsels soldiers serving there. His words, honed from experience, are more specific now.

Get Skype, he says.

Perhaps it's not what a soldier expects to hear from a man of God. It’s certainly not the stuff of Sunday sermons.

But it's practical advice that Turner knows will go a long way toward filling the emotional vacuum. He believes distance from one’s own family can trigger a breakdown, especially when a soldier is coping with injuries and combat stress.

"Being away from your family for that long is way more difficult than I anticipated," Turner said.

Skype, he discovered, is the next best thing to being at home. You can't feel someone or smell them but you can see and hear.

"That's two of the senses," he said. "That's exponential."

Turner’s pastoral passion is still driven by the force that first drew him to the chaplaincy: Jesus.

Everyone has faith in something, Turner said. His own conviction is that Jesus answers longings in the human heart and provides perspective. Beyond immediate emergencies, the larger story is one of hope.

“He's been there on the other side, and came back to tell us,” Turner said. “That's the biggest event in human history, something that maintains hope, even in battle. When soldiers get that, it changes everything.”

Turner said he may not have been God’s perfect messenger, but that his selfish choices do not negate God’s love.

Turner is thankful for that. And that he can carry on with his calling.

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Christianity • Military

soundoff (2,230 Responses)
  1. Worship Poseidon

    Nothing screams Intelligent like believeing in mythology to be real.

    May 27, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  2. Grendog

    Some ealier post got me reading about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and I have since become a devout Pastafarian, Therefore I feel the evangelical need to post this link:
    http://www.venganza.org/join/
    And this except:
    FSM is a real, legitimate religion, as much as any other. The fact that many see this is as a satirical religion doesn’t change the fact that by any standard one can come up with, our religion is as legitimate as any other. And *that* is the point.
    Remember He Boiled For Your Sins

    Carbo Diem

    May 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Grendog

      Almost forgot.
      There damn well should be Pastafarian chaplains getting military paychecks as well.
      Post now related to story.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  3. Worship Poseidon

    The missionary position apparently doesn't work well with young boys.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      More ho'mophobia. YOU are OBSESSED. Just give in. Go to a gay bar, and pick up somebody, (assuming anyone would take such an idiot home).

      May 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 27, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  5. Worship Poseidon

    The best countries in the world are the most religious: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Utah, Kansas, etc.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  6. Worship Poseidon

    Taintright-hope your enjoy sinking in the ocean because the trident will come down on thee!

    May 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • taintright

      Nah, ain't gonna happen. My ship just sank your battleship. Need a dinghy? Don't forget your lifesaviour.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  7. Be the change you want to see in the world

    This article requires thoughtful analysis, self-reflection, compassionate listening, and generous communication. I find it sad to read so many problematic posts.
    As a chaplain, I have learned infinite patience and in God is my refuge, my strength,. Grief and loss of the magnitude of war and soldiers requires infinite patience, self reflection and the willingness to hear uncomfortable and ineffective expressions of feelings, needs and thoughts, concerns, doubts, confusion, pain, suffering.
    There is not a simplistic skill set to handle the complexities of the situations these chaplains and soldiers find themselves dealing with. One cannot buck up and get over it as easily as the army nor some religions espouse.
    And without the whole historical picture it is especially needed to view some of the reasons Turner, would have "detected a lack of public concern for the men and women fighting overseas. Off post, people went about their lives without a real understanding of the sacrifices made by American service members. Truth be told this is the way the armed forces and government have tried to hide the impact of war to make it legitimate. Remember not long ago the controversial picture of our dead soldiers returning from battlefields stacked up in airplanes? The new armed forces way and with the leadership of Rumsfeld, Rove, Cheney and Bush, they did not want us to see the pictures of dead soldiers returning, they did not want us to know the numbers of dead or the casualties of Iraqis nor Afghans.
    So many people do care for our soldiers and the problems they are facing but we are really not allowed to discuss this because war is over there and hidden from true discussion and solutions.
    with warmest regards of love and resonant wholeness for truth and justice for all. LAJ

    May 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      How many children have you been with?

      May 27, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • FritzfromPa

      When you claim that you cannt discuss this, that is pure bunk. Who is stopping you? The phony war on religion is being made to stop the decline in true believers. This departure is because the religion business of pimping Jesus is all about money and power. Power to bring fear into people by telling them they will go to Hell if they don't convert to some religion and the push for money from the poorest among us to feed the greed of those preachers who start their own churches, reap untold wealth from pushing fear and then making sure they pass that wealth onto their own children, keeping it in the family. Those involved in these phony religions are just businessmen and women, selling their snake oil for profit. Nothing in America stops them from pimping at the pulpit, nothing. They are just liars for Christ.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Erica

      I may not agree with Christianity on many things.
      I may not like many Chaplains.

      They are lifesavers. Regardless of what you may or may not believe in, Chaplains do not just cater to Christian Soldiers. They take care of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan... you name it. And they truly WANT to. Yes, I've met a few bad ones. But all you have to do is say that you are not Christian, and you just need to talk.

      They will secularize much of their talk at that point. They are amazing counselors, they are able to listen without alerting your command unless they feel you are a suicidal/homicidal risk. They truly WANT to help.

      Chaplains are amazing. Chaplains are the number one reason our suicide rates aren't sky high.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  8. Worship Poseidon

    Jhon Jacques–What does a pansy french surrender monkey like you know about war?

    May 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Alicia Townes

      Wonder would be like without war

      May 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  9. Ralph Waldo Emerson

    It's a good time to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military heroes. Thank God for the good people who have laid down their lives for the freedoms and the wonderful country in which we live.,

    May 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  10. Cq

    He's baptizing that soldier in the first photo. Is that part of his official duties, or a part of his spiritual mission? How would the evangelicals feel about Catholic priests or Muslim Imams working to convert our soldiers while on duty as chaplains?

    May 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      Tim Tebow and Kirk Cameron baptize each other daily using only their seminal fluids.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Jhon Jaques

      Freedom of speech.. I am only seeing it being denied for Christians.. What a country!.. And CNN and its agenda is to promote hate for Christians daily.. Wake up America, Wake up real Christians.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Cq

      Better yet, is my tax dollars being spent to send this guy out on what amounts to a missionary mission to convert soldiers to his brand of Christianity?

      May 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Nii

      CQ
      "Which of u whose oxen fell into a well wud not save him for fear of breaking the Sabbath?"-JC
      I believe the question u shud ask urself is whether those taxes are helping someone or not. Faith in fact any faith is the opp. of fear and u can't have too much of it. It is part of love.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • vulpecula

      @Jhon Jaques
      while the fur is flying from many sides on this forum, I don't get why you thing freedom of speak is being denied to Christains. They post here just a readily as anyone else. That so many differing positions are also here isn't a denial of freedom of speech.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Nii

      WORSHIP
      Is an example of an atheist using gay slurs to insult xtians. When u finish u guys wud tell us u love gays more than we xtians do. No wonder lots of them wud love to stay in church than join u guys whether the Bible speaks against them or not!

      May 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Nii

      "They were both naked but were not ashamed" is the quotation. You are confusing "...who told u that u were naked with this!" They were naked but thought nothing of it as unless u r disabled or injured u don't think of seeing. Look be happy in ur ignorance or ask for a good theology book!

      May 27, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • vulpecula

      @Nii
      Worship Poseidon is not typical of the atheists I know and more likely just looking to be the center of attention. This atheist has already clicked [Report Abuse] on many of his vulgar comments. Atheism is a lake of beleif in gods or deities. beyond that, it has no stand on any other issue including gays. What motivates an atheist beyond that is as varied as the thousands of religions that they don't believe in.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Cq

      Nii
      It's the chaplain's personal, or other job's business to convert people. Let him do it when he's not a military chaplain. Why should I pay for it?

      May 28, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  11. taintright

    I'm sure Chaplain Turner helped a lot of soldiers maintain their sanity when chaos hit the fan. He didn't join the army to con soldiers out of their pay to stuff his pockets like some false minister. He put his life on the line just being there in enemy territory with the soldiers. Turner was there to help soldiers maintain communication with their loved ones and understand where God fit into their lives. During stressful moments in life I quite often hear non-believers cry out, "Lord help me! or Oh God no!" I think deep down in their hearts they do believe God exists. It's a person's pride that stands in their way of acknowledging God. They don't want to admit they have a lack of control in their life. Also they're ashamed to admit their need for God in front of others. To those God despisers, no one's stopping you from worshipping evil. We're adults, grow up and quit ostracizing others about their beliefs.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      I believe your trailer might be on fire.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • taintright

      Poseidon: Hope you enjoy getting burned. Don't forget it's an eternal flame.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Dan

      No hope with this crowd. Nothing like a bunch of haters.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  12. Worship Poseidon

    True red blooded Americans know Allah is numero uno. Jesus was a little girl liberal.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  13. Name*ETHERON

    To all atheists out there: I would rather live my life like there IS a God, and die to find out there's NOT, than live my life like there's NOT, and then die to find out there IS!!

    May 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      So you're dumb.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Cq

      Why?
      You could just as easily say Zeus, or Thor, or any other god. You could just as easily say Allah, or Ganesha. Any of them could be real, and living your life as though they were would have it's rewards too. Are you worried of dying and finding out that you're facing the wrong god? Neither are we! :-)

      May 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • vulpecula

      It must really suck to live your whole life in fear of what might happen to you when you die.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • J

      Settle down, Pascal.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Cq

      vulpecula
      Everyone is worried about the moment they die, but only the really religious worry about any pain they'll feel after they're dead.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Jackie

      You sound like a small child just starting to discover that Santa Claus isn't real, but wanting so hard to believe that he is.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • fritz

      We atheists don't care what you believe in or how you religious people live your lives as long as it doesn't harm us. Just leave the rest of us alone and we'll get along fine.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • fritz

      By the way, you sound like another Jim Jones type. How's heaven working out for that guy yah think?

      May 27, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  14. Worship Poseidon

    People from the south haven't evolved yet.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  15. Nii

    TED M
    As I always say you come in with rudimentary knowledge of the Bible as if u were a Moonie. The Bible is more complex than Harry Potter. In the story God brought Eve to Adam and he was pleased. He gave him instructions which if he disobeyed had consequences. All to a stupid idiot? Excuse me!

    May 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • tedm

      How can you understand complicated things like consequences when you can't even figure out you are NA.>KED!!!!

      GOD YOU ARE SO F<CKING STUPID!!!

      May 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  16. sybaris

    Religion is a filthy disgusting disease of the mind.

    Any parent who sends their child to Sunday School or VBS or uses any other perverse method (guilt) to brainwash their child into believing in any god should get a visit from CPS.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Brad

      Hmmm, and if the whole world didn't believe in any god, then we'd all be creating havoc on society. Religions have helped carve moral standards. They bring out the best and worst in people. Someone who doesn't believe in anything is an idiot. The way you care for your own children is not a chemical thing in the body. It comes from somewhere else...a soul or whatever you want to call it. The feelings you get when you see a beautiful sunrise or sunset isnt about your hormones or anything...its from somewhere else. And the ability to love, hate, forgive, believe, trust and so forth is not about anything that happens in your body or mind...its a much higher standard.

      And laws to protect and cherish people came from religion...not from athiests.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Jackie

      @Brad: If the whole world didn't believe in Gods, then maybe we would have a more peaceful world. How many conflicts have been started all in the name of religion? How much blood has been shed all over defending one's God? It seems to me that a belief in God has created chaos in the world, not prevented it.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • sybaris

      Brad you really need to take a college level course in anthropology.

      You subscribe to a fallacy that most people of any religion believe, that their "way" is the best and their morals, ethics, etc., were created by their central figure.

      No........, morals and ethics evolved (gasp!) out of the success of the group not from any religious dogma that was concocted centuries later. By your logic any society, clan or group that doesn't follow your god should be in chaos. That is simply not the case.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  17. Abrondon

    The problem with blaming God for the suffering in the world and then using it as a reason to deny he exists is that you undercut your own argument. Under naturalism, on what basis do you have to call anything evil? Whatever is, is. Molecules in motion. No good, no bad. But we all know this bunk. "You have to sit in God's lap in order to slap him in the face," as Frank Turek put it. Do you comfort the grieving widow by telling her that nothing matters in the end? Every fiber of her being knows otherwise.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Worship Poseidon

    Mary should have aborted Jesus. There are already too many mexicans in America.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Ann

      Mary was a nice little Jewish girl who got into trouble, and came up with the best cover story in the history of mankind.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Ann

      sorry, didn't mean to post that there. I don't normally dignify racists with a response. Hit the wrong button.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      Your opinions are useless to society. Please refrain from expressing them.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Jhon Jaques

      One day all of you will be accountable. Just mark that my friends...

      May 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • RAGE IN THE MACHINE

      Making threats Jhon Jaqoff?

      How about I blow your fcKCING HEasd OFFE!!

      May 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  19. Worship Poseidon

    I love Jesus so much I just want to bend him over and penetrate his holiest of holes.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8772014

      May 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Basil

      Wow, you really just want to hear the sound of your own blah, blah, blah....crawl back into your little hole and let the intelligent people talk now.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  20. Tom Leykis

    OK, I'll bite. All of you on the godsquad/team jesus members, provide me legitimate academic, peer reviewed proof that "jesus" existed. When you you, I'll convert that very day and kiss your bare bum on the steps of the federal courtnouse of your city. Facepalm. Lol

    May 27, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Nii

      TOM LEYKIS
      Frankly it will take just a lot less than that to know there is God.
      Try this
      Let these two thoughts dominate your thoughts and actions
      I love God with all my life
      and
      I love my neighbor as myself
      You will feel the power of God in your life.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.