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Interview with Peter A. Baktis, December 11, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Peter A. Baktis, December 11, 2003
December 11, 2003
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Interviewee: Baktis, Peter A. Interviewer: Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview: 12/11/2003 Series: Military Length 55 minutes

Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock. I’m a staff member of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Randall Library. Today is December 11, 2003. We’re at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. My associate in helping videotape military chaplains for the military chaplains special collection project is John Brinsfeld. John not only has his Ph.D., but has also been a colonel in the Army and has recently retired.

Zarbock: Good afternoon John. How are you?

BRINSFIELD: Good afternoon, I’m fine, thank you.

Zarbock: I wonder if you would introduce our interviewee please?

BRINSFIELD: I would be pleased to do so. We’re absolutely delighted to have Chaplain Major Peter Baktis who is an officer task analyst and the Training Director through the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. Peter is an Orthodox priest. He’s had service in the Balkans and has recently come back from doing interviews with chaplains in Kuwait and Iraq and other countries involved in Central Asia. It’s a privilege to have you Chaplain Baktis and especially with all the special knowledge that you’ve accumulated so thank you for coming today.

Baktis: Thanks for having me here.

Zarbock: Chaplain, to begin with what event or person or series of events and people led you into the selection of the ministry as a profession?

Baktis: I’d have to say my grandmother was very influential in my spiritual development and my nurturing within the faith. She and I shared a room when I was growing up and so she taught me how to pray. We attended church together and she encouraged me in many things from playing the violin to trying to better myself. So I’ve always felt a calling from an early age to the priesthood.

Zarbock: Where was your childhood?

Baktis: New York, I was born in Brooklyn. Then we moved to Valley Stream, Long Island and then after I was married, we moved to Manhattan.

Zarbock: So your grandmother was an influencer?

Baktis: Yes. In high school I deviled with the idea of going into medical school so I did a very heavy science concentration during high school. When it came time to apply for college and school, I decided it would not hurt me to enter the seminary and get my B.A. degree from the seminary and if that was where God was calling me, that’s where I would stay.

Zarbock: What seminary?

Baktis: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. So I entered seminary and I kept on going. I was ordained to the Deaconate and then to the priesthood. I served as the Associate ____ our cathedral in New York City and then I was given the honor to be a rector in a parish, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Jamaica, Queens until the summer of 1990 when I entered into military service.

Zarbock: How old were you in 1990 when you entered the military?

Baktis: I was 33 years old.

Zarbock: How would you characterize your experiences as a parish priest?

Baktis: Being a parish priest has many different demands, many different honorary titles that you get and certain prestige that you’re given. People stand up when you walk into a room. When you enter their house, you’re given the best seat. A lot of time in the parish you spend in administration.

At the last parish we had a very high investment committee which I had to chair on a monthly basis about where we were and what we were doing with the money that was entrusted to us as a parish community. A lot of home visiting, hospital visiting, liturgical services, funerals, baptisms, weddings, all the gamut of services that you would provide for the spiritual care of your faithful.

Zarbock: Let me again for the sake of the tape which 50 years from now may be bewildering to some, but currently in the language you have the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, but you list yourself as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Could you give me some definitions there?

Baktis: The generic definition for the Orthodox faith is the Eastern Orthodox Church. The prefix of Russian, Greek, Albanian, Romanian has to do with the local geographical churches political structure. So the Russian Orthodox Church by definition is the church that resides in Russia headed by the patriarchate of Moscow. The Greek Orthodox Church technically is headed by the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople and Antiochian Orthodox Church as the patriarchal head in Antioch.

The church that I currently belong to is called the Orthodox Church of America which was the mission church of the Russian Orthodox Church given its autocephalous or self-governing capabilities back in 1971. Autocephalous means we are allowed to elect our own bishops and prmates, that we need not go back to our mother church. As far as the faith doctrine, liturgical practices, canonical prescriptions are universal throughout the entire Orthodox Church.

Zarbock: So you’re into the military.

Baktis: Yes in 1990.

Zarbock: Was this just a bombshell of a decision or were there situations that led up to it?

Baktis: Actually there were several. First of all I have to say that the military was not a place where I pictured myself to be, neither did my friends picture me in the military to the present day. So it’s a rather change of one’s life. My father talked to me and always felt that military service may be a good thing for me, to be a military chaplain. My father died in 1988, in May of 1988.

I never thought about military service at the time and we were just going on about parish life; however my wife and I in 1989 decided that we really wanted to move from New York . We had been living in New York all of our lives and we were looking for a change.

We were also becoming dissatisfied with the amount of money that one needed to live in this city, it was very expensive and even though I had a very good stipend and a car allowance and a housing allowance, we just felt very uncomfortable that we had to use this amount of money for living expenses.

It just so happened at that time that the primate of the church, Metropolitan Theodosis requested for priests to consider military service. I spoke and we prayed, my wife and I and thought about my father and his desires for me and I said why not, a three year commitment can’t do anything bad. We’ll move and it will give us some experience and perhaps broaden my spectrum.

I also finished my Masters of Sacred Theological ecumenical studies and actually Orthodox ecclesiae a clinical dialogue at the Theological Semester. I was also accepted both into a Harvard Divinity at Catholic university to do a Ph.D., but I was just burnt out at the time from all the parish work and so I thought this would be a change. And maybe it was a pre-change of life change, I’m not sure.

But things just began to dovetail and so I petitioned my bishop to come into the military and he agreed. At first I thought I would go into the Air Force, but as one may recall 1990 was Desert Storm, Desert Shield where the military was downsizing. So the Dean for Military told me yes, I would be able to be assigned into the Air Force, but it may take six months; however, they needed priests in the Army and in the Navy. The Navy was not a question. I never thought of going into the Navy and the Army was something very depressing at the time because I didn't want to be wet, cold and living in the dirt.

So I got off the phone and I came to the table where my wife was sitting and I guess I looked rather sad and she asked me what the story was and I explained to her it would be a time for me to go into the Air Force, but they needed priests in the Army and the Navy. She responded to me, "well are you going into the military to do ministry or are you going to wear a uniform?" So I took that as a very wise comment and I went back to the kitchen, picked up the telephone and called and said I’d go into the Army and here I am ever since.

Zarbock: John, would it be too much if we jumped ahead and got into the Balkan experience?

BRINSFELD: Not at all. Chaplain Baktis would you just kind of summarize your assignments from the time you entered into the chaplaincy until you went into the Balkans?

Baktis: My first assignment was Fort Sill, Okalahoma. My second assignment was Korea, 2nd Infantry Division, KC and then I went to the career course at Fort Monmouth, a six month career course. From there I went to Fort Hood, Texas where I was in the 1st Cavalry Division. While I was in _____ there was a request from Germany that they needed an Orthodox priest to come specifically for the Balkan mission because we hadn’t had an Orthodox priest in the field. I was available at the time for rotation and then I went from Fort Hood to Wiesbaden, Germany where I stayed in Germany for four years.

From Germany my assignment is here presently at the Chaplain School.

BRINSFELD: When you left Fort Hood, you went to Germany, but did you then go to Sarajevo?

Baktis: After I got settled actually, I didn't get settled, my wife settled us just as soon as they moved over our household goods. Then I immediately deployed to Bosnia. I was in the Bosnian region for about three months and then I had an ongoing mission to go to Bosnia on a monthly basis to provide Orthodox services, but also to advise the commander and to work with the civil affairs people on religion, culture, the issues there.

BRINSFELD: Would you give us a time frame as best you can recall?

Baktis: 1997 until 2001.

BRINSFELD: And you went to Bosnia in 1997 What unit were you assigned to there?

Baktis: I was assigned to the Aviation Unit, it was an ATC, air traffic control unit.

BRINSFELD: But that was kind of a formality because you were really going to cover the while theater, is that right?

Baktis: Yeah, I did.

BRINSFELD: Can you describe your ministry to us a bit. We obviously assume you were circuit riding, but can you describe what you did when you went from basic camp to basic camp for example.

Baktis: Well Tuzla actually was where I would call home base. That’s where the headquarters were. It was a lot easier for people to coordinate to come to Tuzla for liturgy and for services. We had not only American soldiers, I had Romanians, Russians and we also had DOD civilians who were translators. So there was a broad spectrum of people that I provided services for.

Zarbock: DOD was Department of Defense.

Baktis: Right. So it would be arranged that I would come down, fly on maybe a Monday or a Tuesday and I would wind up spending anywhere from a week to 10 days depending on how long and what the frequency of flights were. From that I was able to then go ahead and visit with other people at different bases if they were not able to come and provide prayer or sacramental ministry. Although those who were in the hospital who needed administration, I would do that.

I guess it was around 1998, the Russian Orthodox Church sends, they had a priest that was sent to their brigade in Bosnia and the commander of the brigade was a believer and he built a chapel right in the middle of their basic camp. They were built at bell tower. One of the things I was asked to do was to go and interface with the priest when I was there. We were not able to celebrate. We tried to have a celebration on Tuzla, but it just didn't work out at the time, but we were able to talk and coordinate….

Zarbock: What language did you use?

Baktis: Russian, English.

Zarbock: Could the Russian priests speak in English?

Baktis: Yes and we prayed together and we prayed and usually in Slavanik because that’s what we were more comfortable in and that’s what all texts were. Church Slavanik is the old pre-contemporary Russian language. Then we would have fellowship and discuss issues and also issues for them reestabling them working with the military. The Orthodox church priests reestablished them working with the military because they were not unlike us, they were priests that the bishop for military affairs and military affairs would assign to take care of the spiritual needs of the soldiers.

BRINSFELD: They were there for a noncommissioned, they more like contract people.

Baktis: Right.

BRINSFELD: Could you give us a little insight into the importance of the liturgy for Orthodox _____. A lot of folks who are Protestant they only have liturgy, once a quarter or once a month. Orthodox church, how often do you celebrate mass, what is it composed of? Could you help us with that?

Baktis: Sure, the diving liturgy is celebrated every Sunday and it consists of two, as in the western Roman Catholic church, two primary aspects. The first aspect is the liturgy of the word with a culminating activity is in delivery of the serving, in teaching the people from the lesion of the gospel and the ____ New Testament readings.

The second part is considered the liturgy of the faithful which the culminating aspect is in the reception of the Eucharist. I will celebrate the liturgy the commemoration of the Lord’s Day, His resurrection of Sunday which we consider not the seventh day, but in fact the eight day of a new creation because in the resurrection, all is created anew.

So Sunday for us is not the end, but the beginning. Then we celebrate the Eucharist for feast days. We have feasts of the Mother of God, we have feast days for Christ and then there are certain saints that are venerated that would require a day of religious obligation. The greatest feast of all that we have is in the celebration of the Holy Pascha or the resurrection of our Lord.

Zarbock: Again for the purpose of the tape, would you spell that?

Baktis: P-A-S-C-H-A. It means Passover and it’s the new Passover that we have in the belief of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That event is central to the entire worship of the Orthodox church. So we have a fast period before it, but that really becomes the centrality of our stepping into who we are.

BRINSFELD: Those who are not Orthodox, but who want to learn can attend the liturgy of the word and then ultimately if they’re in baptism and join the church if you will, then they can be a part of the liturgy of the faith.

Baktis: Right.

BRINSFELD: Do the soldiers join the Orthodox Church like they would join a Baptist church for example?

Baktis: Yes and we’ve had since I’ve been on active duty in the various assignments including the present assignment, I’ve had several soldiers who were not Orthodox who were searching, who wanted to learn more about the Orthodox faith. If I was not in the training environment, but more in a parish structure I would then set up an instructional period. We usually require a year of study and a year of the full cycle of liturgical life before we will consider the candidate for reception into the Orthodox church.

BRINSFELD: Who was your supervisory chaplain, your technical chain while you were in Tuzla?

Baktis: It just left my mind.

BRINSFELD: But you did have a technical chain, chaplains to support you?

Baktis: Yes.

BRINSFELD: Did you receive adequate logistical supplies?

Baktis: Oh yes. I personally have never had an issue in the military for support, coordination or anything that I needed.

BRINSFELD: Can you use the same host that the other chaplains use, the round wafers?

Baktis: You use leavened bread in the Orthodox church. I would either make it or sometimes the women in the dining facility in Tuzla would make it for me. It’s a very simple bread. We have a special seal that we stamp on the bread.

Zarbock: You use wine?

Baktis: Yes, a good quality.

Zarbock: There’s a technical term in management called boundary spanner. It’s that individual who is capable of working within more than one organization. They’re the bridge builders and they’re accepted by both organizations. It strikes me, this may seem naïve to you, but it strikes me that with your religious background that your chaplaincy, the role of the chaplaincy and the military that you must have played a bridge building role in Sarajevo and other places. Am I correct in that?

Baktis: I think so.

Zarbock: There are many points of identification with you I would think.

Baktis: I think one of the significant abilities that I was able to have was really to advise commanders from a four star level all the way to a one star level to a colonel on the cultural, political, religious implications of the Balkans or of certain regions.

I think oftentimes we in the west and Americans in particular like to really departmentalize things, that somehow religion is clean and there’s no politics to it, somehow culture is devoid of any movement or changing or strategy and unfortunately we’re more complicated as people so we were able to do that.

Zarbock: Could you illustrate?

Baktis: Yeah, I would illustrate when we were ready to go into attack Yugoslavia proper and we felt that we would be going into Macedonia and the staging of Macedonia.

I said to my commander that we will not be able to go to Macedonia and they all laughed at me and they said why and I said because the condition of Macedonia is very fragile and they can’t afford to have American troops bomb what would be conceived historically as an ally of the region because their statehood is really tenuous with the Greeks and with the Russians and the Yugoslavians and it would be a very tenuous situation.

Sure enough they wouldn’t let us go and they said ok. Then we were going into Albania. No one knew anything about Albania so I was tasked to prepare a briefing of the history and culture of Albania and it just so happened that I pastored an Albania church so I knew Albanians very well and the culture and so on. So I prepared the briefing and also they wanted me to prepare the briefing on Yugoslavia. At that time Mulosovic and some of the propaganda he was using, I was able to help them understand the real complexities and diversities.

The funniest thing for me I said to the commander very seriously when you go into Albania, you need to tell your soldiers and yourself that you need to bring everything you need because the only thing you will buy with a credit card is a goat. And they laughed and it could not really reason with them for a while.

Sure enough as soon as they got into Albania, they wrote back and told me I was absolutely correct, that they had no concept that there could be a country that was so isolated for so many years and not have sort of the amenities of a civilized full western culture would have. But remember that country was closed, separated. They considered Russia as being a traitor to Marxist-Leninism and they considered China to be a traitor to Communism.

Zarbock: Did you actually go into Albania?

Baktis: No, I did not. I went to Kosovo after the bombing.

Zarbock: Did you have any exchange with civilians?

Baktis: Yes, lots. It was very interesting. Two things, one in Bosnia. The bishop of Tuzla heard I was there and he sent a car for me at the gate of the American base and he could not understand why I could not go and visit with him because I’m an Orthodox priest, he’s the bishop, he’s the local bishop. I need to go visit the local bishop when I’m in his territory so we had to work out the understanding that yes, I’m a priest; however I’m under the uniform code of military justice and I have a commander who tells me where I go and how I could go. So we had to work that out. It was interesting in Bosnia.

But in Kosovo, a very much similar thing happened when I first deployed there. The bishop of Kosovo knew that I was in the country and when I finally went to go visit him which was in about two weeks, his first reaction was what took me so long to come and visit him. He knew I was here and in fact he knew the date I arrived. So it goes to show you the world is very small.

In Kosovo, I had a lot of interaction with the local communities and the churches. In fact I was able to celebrate an ordination at the ______ monastery in Kosovo because the commander felt it was very important that we showed support and we were trying to work issues out between the Serbians and the Kosovars in sort of relationship building so we were working many things. I was able to travel a lot. It was a very humbling experience.

Zarbock: Were you ever in any physical danger?

Baktis: I never felt myself to be in physical danger.

Zarbock: What about errors and mistakes reflecting on oh gee, I wonder why I did that or wonder why they did that. Were you ever slighted I guess. I’m looking at the negative part of the bell curve.

Baktis: I wrote an article for chaplaincy which had to do with worship in a journal that came out. It was very difficult for me when we began bombing in Yugoslavia because of two things; one it was right before our holiest feast day of Pascha. I was preparing as we were going through Holy Week, we were preparing for the celebration. I was celebrating at Ramstein Air Force Base and it was a mixed military community Department of Defense and civilians that attend church as well as some local educational people from the university.

So that evening was very difficult because I knew how the community felt being Americans and bombing the people of faith.

Zarbock: How did they feel?

Baktis: They were very angry actually. There was a lot of anger and mixed emotions and it was based on our previous policies that we didn't bomb on certain Islamic holidays. So they felt that this was really a double standard. And so when we went to go celebrate this great feast, the resurrection of our Lord, there were all these emotional feelings.

I had to identify with myself because I’m an officer of the United States Army, a chaplain, sworn to defend the orders of those appointed over me and yet know that here I am in Germany in safety celebrating this great feast and knowing that there are brothers and sisters of mine and some whom I knew who were going to church in the midst of bombs. So my focus had to really get over some of my emotions so I could bring the people to some sort of healing.

It was a very difficult homily that I had to preach that evening. I think I did well and I thought we brought some consolation and reconciliation and were able to work through the issue. We had to work through it as a community.

BRINSFELD: Can you give us a rough date for that?

Baktis: Easter 1999. May or April. So that was probably when you asked difficulties, that’s the life of a chaplain that you sometimes have to put things in perspective because your ministry, that your culture at least for me, I am called to provide, to allow people to experience and to find their relationship with their God without any sort of preconceived notion or judgment. At the same time, I’m an Orthodox priest who also has to lead a community in a certain type of worship knowing that sometimes there are policies and procedures that may be in conflict.

I’ve not as of date have found something so morally comprehensible that I’ve come to a position where I have to resign my commission. If there was a policy that I felt very strongly against, I would probably have to do that.

BRINSFELD: How did you bring the people to acceptance that this bombing had to occur?

Baktis: Well I didn't talk about the bombing have to occur. What we discussed actually were the injustices of the world and for those who truly believe in the new life of Christ, that there’s hope, peace and reconciliation and whatever goal is as people of the leaders is to bring reconciliation. And if we filled our hearts and our souls with anger and hatred towards anybody, we were then preventing ourselves of having the fullness of the revelation of Christ.

BRINSFELD: That’s great, that is great summary.

Zarbock: The governance in the United States was once described as a layer cake. You’ve got one cake called religion, you’ve got another called governance, etc. etc. But in many of the countries in Europe, governance is really a swirl, it’s like a caramel cake, religion is not separate from governance and governance is not separate from etc. etc. Number one, did you find it so, that there’s an intertwining in the country of religion, governance, history, animosities, ethnicity and these feelings are held very strongly. Am I correct in that?

Baktis: I would reference it all by a book by Niebuhr Christ and Culture where he has paradigms on how we approach our faith within culture, either it’s opposed to culture, it’s embedded in culture, transforming culture. I think that for us as Americans we tend to be naïve in assuming that we ourselves are not in fact somehow intertwined as the European experience.

For example, here in South Carolina we have people that still refer to the War of Aggression. We have people that want to wave a Confederate flag that has religious symbols to it, that has cultural experience, that has all of those things. I think we tend to say the Europeans are a little bit more less sophisticated because they seem to have this intertwined a little bit tighter, but they also have a history longer than 200 years.

We’re a very young culture, a very young country and sometimes we see things as in a glass menagerie through our rose colored glasses and not as reflective as we possibly could be.

BRINSFELD: Could you help us to understand the complexity of Kosovo for example. You’ve mentioned the bishop of Kosovo, does that mean that the Muslim population and the Orthodox population were virtually intertwined in Kosovo or were there specific to use a bad term ghettos where folks sort of separated and lived to themselves?

Baktis: It’s very complicated. The term that’s often used by the Orthodox of Kosovo, Kosovo Metonia, means church mount and that was given by the then king of Serbia, Dushan to the church. It actually borders Montenegro and the northern part of Kosovo all the way to what would now be the border of Serbia, the whole northern/southern part. That area has many monasteries. It used to seed the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church before it moved to Belgrade so there is a lot of church history tied into that.

The Muslims in the invasion that came through once things settled down pretty much the Muslims and the Orthodox lived side by side. There wasn’t really much tension that occurred. There might have been some differences, but it was really for the most part that the Muslims in Kosovo were pretty much secular. I’d have to say the majority of the Orthodox in Kosovo were Orthodox by name and by culture and identification as far as a strong faith. Probably there was a lot of that, but for the majority religion was not a factor.

What’s a factor in the country is this is my cow and this is my farm and I’m more interested in making sure I have food for my family and so forth and so on. In the present reality in the cities were where all intellectuals tended to gather and talk about their great wishes and how the rest of the world should live. They were living rather at peace.

The issue began was the conflict that the Albanians viewed the territory of Kosovo as part of greater Albania and their ancient Elyria and they claim to be ancestors of and really Elyria would cover Albania proper, Kosovo, all the way to Northern Greece, Macedonia, a rather large territory. So they had a concept greater than Kosovo so that’s where the conflict actually began. It was really more of a dominance of wanting to overcome.

Tito as you know tried to suppress any sort of ethnic identity. In Kosovo, he wanted to neutralize the Serbian influence throughout Yugoslavia which was primarily all of Yugoslavia and he was beginning to give some of the Kosovos some freedom because as you know Albania was not enough to be spoken even when the Albanians were under Greek occupation.

So Albania was being taught conflict was beginning to arise and we had the atrocities that were coming. The uniqueness however that occurred was after we bombed and we opened up the quarter, many of the Albanians that lived in Albania fled into Kosovo and they began to push out the Serbian population which became a problem. When I was asked by my commander how do I know that there are not Kosovars, I said speak to them in Serbian Croatian, they don’t know it. They only know Albanian.

If they were truly citizens of Kosovo at the time, they would have been bilingual. It would have been a requirement that they speak. They would have been educated in Serbian Croatian. So that’s where territories…

BRINSFELD: Would that have been a good test likewise in Bosnia?

Baktis: I think so because all of those territories under Communism were bilingual. It’s like the former Soviet Union, everybody was forced to speak Russian. They might have a different dialect, but Russian was the official language.

Zarbock: But who in the United States Army would speak Serbo-Croatian.

Baktis: We have linguists, but we hired in fact a lot of Americans who came and actually they came from Orthodox parishes. A lot of them, in Bosnia, many were from America.

Zarbock: These were contract people?

Baktis: Yes. In Kosovo they started to contract local natives because they were in fact trilingual because English was one of their languages.

BRINSFELD: Do you have hope Father that region will find a solution for peace?

Baktis: I think it will if you…well it’s complicated. Of course I want peace in the world, but the difficulties are that we really don’t understand the geopolitical structure and the influence of the former Soviet Union. Tuzla and we talk about economic independence or a democracy, well part of that is really to have sort of the market commodity. All that Tuzla supplied through the great Soviet empire was salt. There’s nothing but salt mines in Tuzla.

As you may be aware how the Soviet Union worked is that they had a raw material that may be coming from one region that they shipped to manufacture in another region so that not one people have the sole share of having that commodity. So it costs a lot more money and that’s probably why economically they fail because it’s shipping rubber from the Caspian Sea all the way to Siberia to make boots and then to bring it back to Moscow. So the territories didn't have any sense of economic independence or what is their import/export ratio. So until they really get settled, I think that’s really where most of the conflict resides and who will be the person who actually is in charge.

BRINSFELD: That’s great. Can you fast forward for us to your assignment going to Kuwait and Iraq. When you left Germany where did you go?

Baktis: When I left Germany, I came here to the Chaplain Center.

BRINSFELD: Was your first job here as the Training Director?

Baktis: Yes, I was a chaplain officer basic instructor for a year. I went through three classes before they fired me.

BRINSFELD: (Laughter) Or kicked you upstairs. Then how did you go about receiving probably the most incredible ___ hours anybody has ever heard of to go to Central Asia?

Baktis: Well short story, combat developments gave me a call and said there was to be a call team, a Center of Army Lessons Learned team to be put together to go to Iraq and to collect the history, the contemporary history of date and to gather that information. Well it turned out it wasn’t the Center of Army Lessons Learned, it was the Director of the Chief of Staff of Army, then General Shinseki who wanted a team put together to write the definitive history of the war in Iraq and to collect lessons learned as a secondary thing. We were compiled as a history team.

I saw our executive officer for Chief of Chaplains, Father Phil Hill here and he said to me, “What are you doing here. You’re supposed to be in Iraq”. I said I was waiting for orders. It began at Easter time and I came back to work on Tuesday and I got a phone call that I needed to call somebody at Leavenworth so my orders would come and I was told I had to report on Thursday. So I did.

The orders that I got were amazing because I never received orders like that. It basically was unlimited. I could take a plane, car, anything but U.S. Navy ship to get anywhere in the world I wanted and the areas I could travel would be simply anywhere from England, Germany, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, etc. The team was developed and that’s what we did.

BRINSFELD: What was your job specifically on this unlimited TUI?

Baktis: My purpose was to interview chaplains and chaplain assistants to get their stories and then from that to be able to gather that information, download it into META data files so that future historians would be able to access that research that we’d done and then to write and to be a secondary writer in the history book. The second charge that I had was to identify soldiers who we will highlight within this book, their personal story because the story is really about a campaign.

So we begin in 1991 after Desert Storm/Desert Shield up until the present time and to show that the Army does things in a campaign. One of the things the senior writer wanted me to do was to get stories and to find out where people were from 1991, how did the influence of the fall of the Berlin Wall change them, how the transformation of the Army and military change their thinking, where they were, the things they had to do and also for the senior leaders, what leadership challenges have they had from being training and training focus to now being a lieutenant colonel who is really sort of a diplomat for our President and State Department.

BRINSFELD: So who’s writing this book?

Baktis: It’s a team of writers, Leavenworth. Colonel retired Fortnoy is the head honcho of it and then we had several people graduates from SEMS who were there.

Zarbock: This is a work in progress.

Baktis: Actually it’s now at the editors. It’s supposed to be finished.

Zarbock: The title will be?

Baktis: The title that I knew of was called the The Army Story.

BRINSFELD: That will be so important to the Chaplain Corps history. How many people did you interview while you were over there roughly?

Baktis: About 200.

BRINSFELD: Generically without breaking any confidences or whatever, what are some of the lessons that you got out of these interviews? For example were there many chaplains who wondered why they were there or felt that they shouldn’t have been there?

Baktis: That depended on their education and denominational background. I think those who had a higher theological education and came from more a traditional Protestant or church began to really question some of the policies as they saw things unfold. They began to really look at the human condition, that war is not something very pretty, that innocent people die, that bodies burn, that children starve and I think from that, they had to reevaluate their theological positions, ethics, morals.

I think the more fundamental ones belief was and the more, for lack of better terms, American, the less questioning was done, that this is the right thing to do. The President said we must do this, we must do it, don’t question it.

BRINSFELD: And your concept which by the way is probably accurate from other areas, the more fundamentalist chaplains tended to be the more patriotic without question.

Baktis: Right.

BRINSFELD: Were there other lessons that you saw on a less philosophical level for example the quality of religious support, was that pretty good, as best it could be or lacking?

Baktis: I think the chaplains try to do the best that they could do. Because of the speed, the large distance, I mean Iraq is not a small country, it’s a very large country, I think with equipment issues that some were hampered in being places that they could not be. Actually two of the things that really stick out in my mind is that after the taking of the Baghdad Airport, there was a chaplain, there was a unit that was assigned to clean up the bodies of the Iraqis which took a week and there was a chaplain and his assistant who made a deliberate point to go and do that with his soldiers.

I felt that really showed a real deep sense of witness that even though people are maybe our enemies, but we still represent the dignity of every human being. I think that chaplain being there prevented the soldiers from abusing the remains number one, but also allowed them to have somebody be with them at their side. They were doing this somehow as a sacred responsibility. It wasn’t just another job.

Zarbock: Chaplain, how long have you been in the military?

Baktis: Thirteen years.

Zarbock: I’m going to ask you could you give me a Readers’ Digest version of the lessons and some would call it blessings that you have received as being a military chaplain? What has it all meant to you?

Baktis: It’s given me a greater appreciation to understanding that God is really not created in my image and likeness. My blessing is that I could receive prayers, love and compassion even from those who may not believe in the things that I believe but are nevertheless valid for who they are.

Zarbock: Thank you.

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