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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.

Preparing clergy for war: How chaplains train for combat

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.

Remembering the fallen: Learn about casualties

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. Kat

    It sickens me that my tax dollars are going to pay some preacher, priest, reverend, or whatever they want to call themselves. It is a clear violation of church and state; I have also seen army recruitment advertisements online of a closeup of a soldier clutching a bible, I was astounded to say the least- they are not at all trying to hide the fact that we are waging holy wars overseas. Jebus spoke to Bush everyday (as he claimed) and helped to guide his actions.. thanks for ruining our economy and for the billions in deficits because of the enormous war costs jebus!

    June 12, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • D-man For Christ

      God is crucial to a soldier overseas whether you realize it or not. Just because your in the most materialistic nation in the world with no seeming need to feel your Creator doesn't mean its pointless. What you cherish everyday is what they fight to protect. In battle, we have no idea what it really means to actually put our lives on the line like that daily. Only by the grace of God does one even keep sane being under constant threat. I am glad there are Christian soldiers showing their faith without fear.

      June 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Chris Hogan

      I agree with you that there is too much influence of religion on politics, but you make us rational folks look bad with your blanket attack on all chaplains. Chaplains are necessary to meet the religious needs of our troops who DO believe, as well as comfort everyone else. Focus on the REAL intrusion of religion in politics, like the war on contraception, banning marriage for gay people, and the anti-science junk that some religious fundamentalist keep pushing on schools.

      June 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Ortizimo

      Please tell me then how are people in the military supposed to get help and or are all people supposed to drop their faith once they sign in? We are not robots you know, we have feelings and needs just like you. BTW, I'm athiest but I respect others views.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • J Brown

      You do know that there are Muslim, Jewish, even Wiccan chaplains, right? They are also an invaluable asset in Iraq and Afghanistan in meeting with village elders and religious leaders. To them, a chaplain is a man of faith, and the chaplains are forbidden to proselytize in any way. I'm in the Army and I don't participate in formal religion, but I recognize that the Chaplain Corps plays an important need to our military.

      June 13, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  2. Kindness

    Kindness
    For you.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

    June 11, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  3. DANILLE

    THESE GUYS NEED TO LEARN IF THEIR GOD EXIST, THEY DON'T GUNS OR BULLET PROOF VEST. THEY CAN WHIP OUT A MAGIC WAND.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Red

      I just want to let you know that no matter what you think or what you believe nothing stops a bullet until it comes in contact with an object, such as a bullet resistant vest, or a body. Comments like that are offensive to both sides of the tale, the religious people in the military and those who are not. Its not a joke to say the their "Magic Wand" will stop a bullet from traveling its flight path and hitting its mark. Many good Marines who are religious have been shot just the same as people like me, and it all comes down to where the gun was being pointed when the trigger was pulled. Get your head out of your ass.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Amadea

    To Wilbur-Talks-To-Horses: All the world is a mirror for you.

    June 10, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  5. TruthMinistries

    this is a true pastor that will kick all these wicked people in the teeth
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rz1DgdhlBQw&w=640&h=390]

    June 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Stacy

      How do we learn more about your ministries? I do not believe or disbelieve in "what's coming"–I want to be informed. What you are saying is very scary and I know the Bible states we've got lots of bad years coming (can't remember everything even though I was raised in "church"). My main question is (to Pastor Dowell, not necessarily rude writers) what are we supposed to do in the next few months? How do we protect our families? Will this happen before or after the rapture? Thanks. I like your style.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  6. sarah thompson

    Funny how so many atheists take time out of their busy schedules to post hateful comments on the belief blog. I wish CNN would create a disbelief blog- a place for the atheists to go and talk about there belief in something from nothing.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • sarah thompson

      "their"

      June 6, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  7. Possessor

    The atheist experience tv channel Austin Texas

    If God is all powerful and purely good, then why does He let suffering happen and innocent people be killed? Either he is not all powerful or not entirely good.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Family, raises a child, the parents teach the child how to act independently, yet while still being a member, and faithful to Mom, and Dad, brother's, and sister's.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Ninja

      God didn't create the mess in the world – man did, and until lessons are learned we will keep making them. Bigger and bigger.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Read C.S. Lewis "The Problem of Pain" Then you will know

      June 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  8. Kindness

    Kindness
    For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    June 3, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • Willbur Talks to Horses.

      When the first "Christian" actually follows the teaching of "Christ" maybe people will listen to you. Until then its just a bunch of fairy tales that right wing politicos use to justify wars, slavery, child abuse, and greed. All they have to do is confess and they get to start all over. You will never see more hatred and anger than in a gathering of "Christians". Its a dying religion.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • YeahRight

      "A thought to consider without a typical ego response"

      Your posts reek of ego so the rest of it is moot, especially since you keep posting this garbage over and over again. LOL!

      June 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • sonny

      Christ is not the TRUE GOD. It is the Father according to Christ Himself (John 17:3,1) also the Apostles (I Corinthians 8:6).
      Christ DIED (John 19:30, 33) while the TRUE GOD does not die (I Timothy 1:17) Even though Christ rose from the grave, He did not resurrect Himself, somebody else did it for Him and again that's the TRUE GOD (Acts 2:22-23). Consider these other dissimilarities of the two. The TRUE GOD is from everlasting to everlasting (Psalms 90:2) while Christ was from God (John 8:42), God does not tire (Isaiah 40:28), Christ got tired (John 4:6) Christ is going to surrender to God (I Corinthians 15:27-28)
      Miracles performed by Christ were God's works. He only USED Christ as His instrument (Acts 2:22) If miracles will be used for people to believe that Christ is the true God, then many will be gods like Apostle Paul (Acts 19:11-12). JUST SHARING THE TRUTH. PEACE TO ALL

      June 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  9. MSL58

    Exactly which part of "Separation of church and state" did you not understand?

    June 3, 2012 at 3:09 am |
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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.