THE AFFABLE Florida priest didn't have to go to Iraq. Ron Camarda was a Navy reservechaplain in Jacksonville when he got called to active duty with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Bravo Surgical Company. He had lots of reasons not to go.
He was 46, for Pete's sake. There is a shortage of priests, his parish needed him. His bishop could intervene. Father Camarda prayed for a Divine pass on service in the sandbox. But he went. Involuntarily mobilized with the Marines.
They sent him to Fallujah. Just in time for the big battle. Every single cell in his body recoiled at what he saw. He was witness to one of the bloodiest episodes of Iraq's convulsing violence. He would get on a first-name basis with death there.
By the time his tour was over he ministered to about 1,500 wounded and prayed over 81 dead or dying soldiers.
Father Camarda's job was not only to support the battle-weary troops but to be their family and to administer last rites when they were alone and dying on a hospital gurney or arriving from the field mortally wounded. Recently, the emotionally charged chaplain was in Ohio talking to congregations about his life-altering - and life-affirming - experiences during a brutal military campaign.
He spoke to parishioners far removed from the battlefront. They pray weekly that the troops be kept from harm's way. Every Sunday they acknowledge the war with bowed heads and go home. But on the morning the short, energized Florida cleric came to share his belated epiphanies from the war front, they would not go home the same.
They listened spellbound to his heart-wrenching memories of praying with dying soldiers. He was the only Catholic priest among about 10,000 troops. He presided at scores of last moments with young, frightened kids and remembered every one, every name.
He talked candidly of his own fears, his frustrations with finding the right words to say. And the blood. There was so much blood.
It drenched the floor and table where a Marine named Edward lay with his chest wide open after doctors had worked heroically to keep him alive. The Navy chaplain was called to the 28-year-old's side. He gently told the soldier he was dying.
With the man's family thousands of miles away the padre volunteered to stand in their stead. Even though Christmas was over a month away, Father Camarda began to sing "Oh Holy Night." As he did, he noticed a big tear rolling slowly down the soldier's cheek. The priest hesitated. But something compelled him to lean over the man, kiss him on the forehead, and say, "I love you." The words were barely spoken and Army 1st Lt. Edward Iwan was gone.
Once the chaplain was quickly summoned from the chow hall after a long day. Time was running out for a 23-year-old Marine shot in the head by a sniper. He was surrounded by sobbing medics, nurses, and the commanding officer.
On the young man's chest were lots of tattoos. Some were crosses. His dog tag was also tattooed on his body. It said S.E. Kielion, his Social Security number, and Catholic. The chaplain regretted not knowing the soldier's first name.
Later he learned that Marine Lance Cpl. Shane E. Kielion left the world the same day his son, Shane E. Kielion, Jr., was arriving. The chaplain believes birth and death happened in the same hour.
As he recounted case after poignant case, I watched the Florida priest's lips quiver and his eyes brim with tears. His emotions were laid bare for all to see - and he wanted all to see.
Iraq had freed the middle-aged priest - who had come to his vocation later in life after the Merchant Marines and Coast Guard - to be fully human. The horror he experienced, the death he smelled, somehow freed him to fully embrace the wonders of living and dying without timidity. Now he couldn't hold back.
He held an infant and sang about seeing God in the face of a baby. He saw the same face in those crossing the threshold of this world into the next. He preached about loving your enemy, wept about the pain of loss, and exhorted the faithful to feel, to forgive, to judge not.
His sermon wasn't about the politics of war but about how the Battle of Fallujah changed him. Forever.
The hard part, he said, was coming back to the states where molehills are mountains and the world too often revolves around hum-drum lives. But Father Camarda's tears and those shed by many in the desert were not lost on the parishioners the priest startled with his stirring honesty. His words from the war front haunt us still.