Army Chaplain Carlos C. Huerta had been a rabbi for 20 years, but when it came time to comfort a dying Iraqi boy in a field hospital in Mosul, he did what he thought an imam might do. Huerta, who was on his second tour in Iraq in 2005, clutched the boy's hand—and recited passages from the Qur'an. "To do this job right, I learned suras [chapters] from the Qur'an, I learned to say the Lord's Prayer, I learned to say Hail Marys," he tells NEWSWEEK. "Soldiers who are dying deserve to get their last comfort."
Most chaplains in the military are Christian, from nearly all denominations. But a few dozen are from other faiths, including about 30 Jews and 10 Muslims. They spend some of their time tending to the special needs of their own flock, leading holiday services, for example, and seeing that dietary restrictions are accommodated (about 4,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty troops identify themselves as Jews, while Muslims number about 3,400, according to the Pentagon).
Often, they are called on to explain the tenets of their faith to the military. "Commanders want to know about the theology and the mind-set," says Lcdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, a Muslim chaplain deployed to the Marine Corps. Saifulislam briefs Iraq-bound troops across the country on the sensitivities of Muslims. "I talk about how to understand their needs and not to offend them," he says. "I talk about the fasting during the month of Ramadan, how troops shouldn't eat or smoke in front of them. I explain the gender sensitivity, how you don't want a female service member to search a Muslim male, and vice versa."
But most of their time is spent ministering to troops of all faiths. Huerta, who grew up in Brooklyn and worked on a doctorate in mathematics before becoming a rabbi, says he carried around a Native American medicine pouch during his first posting to Iraq, which he received from the chief of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in South Dakota. Coincidentally, one of the soldiers he befriended in Mosul, Pfc. Sheldon Hawk Eagle, hailed from the same tribe. When Hawk Eagle died in a helicopter crash in November 2003, Huerta carried an item from his belongings to the family in South Dakota: an eagle feather, considered sacred by Native Americans.
When Huerta returned to Mosul in 2005, Iraqis were preparing for a national election. In Tall Afar, a suicide bomber struck a crowd of civilians; the wounded were rushed to the American field hospital in Mosul. The attack seemed especially heinous to Huerta because of the timing—Muslims were marking the start of Ramadan (and Jews were preparing for their holiest day, Yom Kippur).
When one of the wounded children needed a B-positive blood transfusion, Huerta rolled up his sleeve and donated his own. With his blood streaming into the boy's vein, a thought descended on Huerta: if he survives, the boy would be living proof of the potential for good will between Muslims and Jews, Americans and Iraqis. (The boy died, unfortunately.) "We're priests, rabbis, imams, whatever," says Huerta, now a chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Our job is to comfort people." In Iraq, certainly, the need is immeasurable.