Spiritual Preparation for War

© Hayne Palmour IV / U-T San Diego

By Hayne Palmour IV

On the morning of March 16, 2003, at Camp Inchon, Kuwait, reporter Darrin Mortenson informed me that he had heard that there was going to be a baptism ceremony for Marines later in the day. That immediately sounded like something I'd want to photograph. With images of baptisms in a slow moving river somewhere in the south coming to mind, I tried to imagine what a Marine baptism in a Middle Eastern desert might look like.

After nearly a month of uncertainly in Kuwait City, Darrin and I finally managed to secure an embed spot with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton. With so much competition for embed positions, that wasn't an easy task for a reporting team from the North County Times, a small to midsize daily newspaper covering north San Diego County. We had just arrived at the battalion's camp and had been reporting on the different things Marines were doing to prepare for the imminent war in Iraq.

These were things such as various types of training, writing letters home, packing away sea bags loaded with items they couldn't carry into battle, receiving their chemical protection garb and their caged pigeons. The purpose of the pigeons, one pigeon per company, was to warn of a chemical attack.

With all this preparation, a baptism ceremony, to get a Marine's spiritual house in order, was not surprising. We made the short walk from the tent we were staying in to where the ceremony was going to take place. There we saw sandbags stacked in the shape of a small jacuzzi. A tarp was stretched over it to shade the pool from the hot sun. A clear plastic sheet to hold water lined the inside of the sandbag structure. Next to the pool were several ten gallon water cans. A Navy chaplain's assistant was emptying the cans one by one until the pool was full. Meanwhile Marines started to arrive from all directions wearing nothing but their issued green shorts, t-shirts, and each carrying a small towel.  Before being dunked in the water by Navy Lt. Commander Tom Webber, some of the Marines would profess that they had strayed from the straight and narrow with their drinking and womanizing, but were resolute on their return to righteousness. After saying a few words, the chaplain would put one hand on the Marine's shaved head, the other on his back, and push the Marine forward until he was completely submerged. With a loud splash, the Marine was brought back to an upright position and was pronounced baptized by the chaplain. A chorus of "Oooohhhraaas!" and applause from those waiting their turn marked each Marine's return to air after being dunked. By the time dozens of Marines had gone through this baptismal process, the water in the pool, which started clean and clear, was murky with desert sand and nearly half gone.

While editing the photos afterward, the image of Webber patting Cpl. Albert Martinez on the head after dunking his body (tattooed with Christian symbols) rose above the rest. I didn't want to risk sending any other photos for that story to the newspaper. This was the shot. Four days later Darrin and I climbed aboard an amphibious assault vehicle filled with Marines and their weapons. Then we, along with the Marines, and the rest of the U.S. & British military forces involved in the invasion, crossed the border into Iraq.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography through June 2, 2013. Click here to learn more about Hayne.

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