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Rifles at ready, U.S. troops mark Palm Sunday

Rightmyer conducts Palm Sunday services at the U.S. base in Kandahar.  

By Ryan Chilcote

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. troops based at the abandoned airport here celebrated Palm Sunday in different ways.

Some gathered in an open-air chapel covered by a camouflage canopy. Others prayed with a chaplain as they stood guard on the base perimeter.

At one service, led by Army chaplain Capt. Mike Rightmyer of the 101st Airborne Division, about 200 men and women dressed in desert battle uniforms and armed with assault rifles read from camouflage-covered Bibles and sang songs inspired by their new surroundings.

As the soldiers worshipped, engines roared from C-17 and C-130 transport planes and Chinook and Apache helicopters.

"Lord," Rightmyer prayed, "we want to thank you for the protection you've given us from the enemy, from the natural elements, from vipers, insects and all these things that could be attacking us. We thank you for your protection, Lord God."

Leaves taken from the base's only palm tree were displayed. A choir sang songs, among them a hymn one soldier wrote about the base.

"There's the stars and flares above me," the choir sang. "I have a trench that's mighty deep ... and thanking powers beyond them for their safe keep."

CNN's Ryan Chilcote reports on Palm Sunday services offered to military personnel at the U.S. base at Kandahar, Afghanistan (March 24)

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It was not just the first Palm Sunday since Operation Enduring Freedom began last year. It was the first service that Rightmyer has led since he accompanied the division here from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The chaplains, the troops say, are the ones who help them find peace of mind in the noise of war.

"When you're feeling down, Chappie always comes by [and] brings you candy or something like that," one soldier said. "[He comes by] just to say God loves you."

The base holds services for several denominations, including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Mormon soldiers. On Friday, the division's Muslims held a service in a mosque damaged when the base was still a hot zone. Jewish services were Saturday.

"Everybody's got their own type of religion," said Sgt. Troy Hunt. "I wouldn't call it a religious war. Religion is just something we use to ease our minds at night."

Not all of the troops who wanted to among the 5,000 based here were able to come to the Palm Sunday services. This is, after all, a war zone, and someone had to guard the base perimeter.

So Rightmyer visited soldiers dug into positions where they watched for Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.

The chaplain does not carry a weapon. "It's not something we're allowed to do," Rightmyer said. "We're here for different reasons. You know, we're here to bring the presence of God to the troops."

Praying isn't easy on guard duty, the soldiers said, but they do it anyway. Troops are not allowed to give the chaplain their undivided attention as they peer out onto their sector of responsibility through night-vision goggles.

For a moment, a pair of soldiers in one position closed their eyes and prayed together. "It's amazing what a good motivator fear is," one said.

Rightmyer does not like for soldiers on guard to close their eyes during prayer.

"I just try and let them keep their eyes on their scopes and ask that they lend me even one ear," he said, climbing down a ladder to the fighting hut.

"The fact of the matter is, if we don't believe God's the one watching over us, what's the point of telling everyone else?"

Rightmyer said he usually reads from the Bible's Book of Psalms.

"I'll generally read one Psalm. The last couple of days we've been hitting Psalm three and Psalm four. You know, we've got 150 Psalms, so there are plenty of Psalms while we're out here.

"And since we're at the beginning of the book, I've been giving them a lot of background on the writer on a lot of the Psalms and the fact that King David had a lot of background in the military," he said.

"So there's things that pour through in his writing that only a soldier would identify with."

As the soldiers prayed, four Afghans on motorcycles raced through a minefield in front of the guard post. The soldiers sprang into full battle stance.

No shots were fired and the Afghans sped into the darkness. Were they anti-Taliban Afghan fighters on their way to a battle somewhere? The guards wondered.

Some soldiers here said they found God in the battlefield during Operation Anaconda, the campaign in the mountains east of Kabul that ended last week.

"You're put in certain situations and you start focusing on something higher that will help you get through that situation," one soldier said.

As Palm Sunday came to an end, military men of the cloth looked ahead to next Sunday, the highest of all Christian holy days, Easter, when the faithful will gather again to worship in wartime at a sunrise service.




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