FORT POLK, La. Army chaplain Pete Keough is no stranger to war and the loss it brings nor the mysterious ways of God.
Stationed in Baghdad from October 2005 to September 2006, Keough, a captain with about 1,400 soldiers under his spiritual care on 11 different bases in a 300-mile radius, saw hundreds of soldiers dedicate their lives to Christ during that period. He also saw soldiers lose their lives, some without the saving grace of Christ.
"I would travel all of northern, central and southern Baghdad visiting soldiers, doing ministry in all those places," said Keough, a Southern Baptist Army chaplain. "We actually were able to baptize more than 25 in makeshift baptismals that were either large engine containers or old water tubs that we found. We were pretty resourceful.
"We also had six soldiers surrender to fulltime gospel ministry that year," he continued. "Two are [now] in seminary." In addition, Keough led a weekly worship service Wednesday nights at the main base camp. Starting with four soldiers, Keough saw the worship service grow to nearly 100 every week by the end of his tour.
"That was amazing," he said. "But there's a hard side, too. A war zone by its very nature brings death, and some of those deaths inevitably hit very close to home."
Keough, from St. Augustine, Fla., has been in the Army 18 years; he entered the chaplaincy in 2001.
"I became a Christian while an enlisted soldier in the Army," he said. Though he'd grown up in church, he had never made a profession of faith. It wasn't until after Keough's marriage in 1993 that his spiritual state became an issue.
His wife Amy, active in church, began praying for her husband to go to church with her. It wasn't long before her prayer was answered in a big way.
In the summer of 1994, Keough attended a Sunday evening service where he had a major realization that he was lost and had been living a lie for years. "I told myself for years I was a Christian, but I wasn't. I wasn't living as Scripture teaches.
"That Monday following, I remember getting on my knees at my house, distraught, throwing my hands in the air and asking God to forgive me," he recounted. "It was a radical experience. Within a couple of months I knew I was called to preach. I couldn't get away from that one."
Not long after, Keough began attending the Baptist College of Florida near Fort Rucker, Ala., continuing also with his military service.
After graduating from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003, he reported for duty to Fort Polk, where he's been stationed since, except for his tour of duty in Iraq. One of a few assistant pastors at Fort Polk's Main Post Chapel, Keough supports a contemporary Christian service that he described as quite a lot like a contemporary Baptist service.
Becoming a chaplain was no difficult leap, Keough said. As he continued in both military service and spiritual training, God's call became ever clearer.
"The more I was around soldiers, the more I saw it as a ministry," he said. A tour of duty in Iraq where soldiers face their own mortality and faith daily reinforced that view.
"It's an interesting dynamic," Keough said. "Soldiers go into war knowing that death happens. But there's nothing you can do to change how much it hurts when it happens to someone close to you. You pray for the best and prepare for the worst.
"You go through all the emotions: anger, sadness, disbelief," he continued. "And then you go through the grief, and [going through all that] you can then go into recovery. You have to recover. Our soldiers did very well in that process."
Dealing with death's impact can become almost instinctive for those who face it every day, and time is of the essence for survivors who must not only grieve for their comrades but face the ever-present possibility of their own deaths, the chaplain said.
"When we lost a soldier, I would immediately take the group of people, that very day, within hours, and get together with them to do traumatic event management," Keough said. As an evangelical chaplain, Keough also applied a much more spiritual aspect to grief counseling than a non-evangelical chaplain might.
Encouraging soldiers to talk about the death and how it made them feel was a crucial part of the counseling, he said. It was important that they not hold their feelings in, he added.
"The ones who needed to talk more, we'd do that," Keough said.
Besides caring for the survivors, the chaplain also memorialized every single soldier who died.
"Each death affects you differently," Keough said, who experienced his own grief when his squad leader was killed 10 months into the mission.
Staff Sergeant Andreas Contreras, the personal security detachment squad leader in charge of driving Keough, along with the Task Force Command Sergeant Major Mark Green, throughout Iraq and Baghdad, was killed by an improvised explosive device. He was "IED'd" as soldiers say, meaning "killed by a roadside bomb" -- on his way to pick up his two charges, both of whom had grown to love and respect the man responsible for their safety.
"It still hurts," Keough said. "I don't think you ever forget or ever fully stop thinking about it. By God's grace you recover and move forward.
"When he was killed, I was absolutely broken, but through that event I realized two things," the chaplain said. "First, God literally picked me up and did everything through me. [My ministry] is God's call on me," he said, emphasizing that God takes responsibility for that call.
The second thing Keough realized was the truth of Romans 8:12. All things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord, he said. "My command sergeant, Major Mark Green, … ended up coming to faith in Christ by seeing how I dealt with [Contreras' death]. He gave his life to Jesus, and I was able to baptize him several days later. He literally came to faith through this tragedy."
Green was in charge of taking care of the same soldiers the chaplain cared for, except from an Army perspective rather than Keough's spiritual perspective. "I rode with him because I knew he was going to get around," Keough said. "We went everywhere together."
Keough and Green had been on leave together back in the States and had just flown back. "As soon as we got on the ground [in Baghdad], we called for the squad to come get us," Keough said. "On the way, they were hit by a roadside bomb, which killed Contreras. We were called at the airport and told he had been killed. That was devastating."
After another squad picked the two men up, they went to the Combat Support Hospital to visit those who had been wounded in the incident. Finding that the wounded were doing okay, the two then traveled back to their base camp to view Contreras' body before it was transported home.
"I was able to say a prayer for his family over his remains," Keough said. "And then that night, we put him on a helicopter and several hundred soldiers saluted him as he was flown away."
Probably the hardest part of the loss was that Contreras was not a Christian, Keough said. "That's what still stinks. It wasn't for a lack of trying, though, I'll tell you that."
But despite the pain over Contreras' apparent lack of faith, Keough remains amazed about what he calls the "divine residual effect" of his friend's death, when several weeks afterward, Keough and Green were coming off a mission and, as was his habit, Keough led the group in prayer, thanking God for their safety and survival.
"[Green] pulled me aside and said, 'Chaplain, I've seen something I've never seen before. I've never seen God work in such amazing ways.' He told me he knew he needed Jesus to be his Lord and Savior and had asked Him that day."
Green wanted to follow with believer's baptism and for as many people to witness it as possible. "We had a big baptism, with lots of soldiers," Keough said. "When people hear a sergeant major is being baptized, they want to see it. It was amazing."
And still the effects continued, Keough said, as afterwards at least one other soldier came to be baptized and more approached the chaplain with questions about faith.
As for Keough himself, serving in war-torn Iraq, with death ever-present, has taught him to be much bolder about sharing his faith.
"We don't know when our last day is, our last minute," he said. "I've been IED'd, shot at, mortared, yet here I still stand unscathed and uninjured. It's so much more crystal clear. I'm not worried about tomorrow; I'm concerned about His Kingdom work today, because that's what He's given me is today."
Though Keough has talked with some of Contreras' family members and sent his parents a letter, the chaplain has not been able to talk with them personally, something he's looking forward to doing one day.
"I'm trusting that God will put the words in my mouth," Keough said. "I'll tell them what a great man they raised. I'll definitely thank them for the honor of serving with such a great American. And I'm sorry for their loss. I'll tell them how much I loved him and how much he meant to me."