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A Quaker Chaplain's Personal Account Of The War Zone

Book cover for Commander Sheri Snively's book, "Heaven in the Midst of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain's View of the War in Iraq".
Book cover for Commander Sheri Snively's book, "Heaven in the Midst of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain's View of the War in Iraq".
A Quaker Chaplain's Personal Account Of The War Zone
"Heaven in the Midst of Hell" is the personal narrative of Commander Sheri Snively -- a San Diego native and Quaker chaplain for the U.S. Navy. A reservist, she served with Marines working at a trauma hospital and morgue between the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, Iraq in 2006. We'll hear about Commander Snively's experience in the war zone.

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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In the preface of Navy chaplain Sheri Snively's book, she writes about a private chat she had with a commanding officer in Iraq. General James Mattis asked the chaplain how his troops were really doing in the war zone. And, upon learning that Sheri was a Quaker chaplain, the general stopped and asked how she was doing. Then he told her, you have a unique perspective, I hope you’re writing it down. Sheri Snively was writing it down in a journal, and taking photographs with a couple of small pocket cameras. The result is an honest, emotional and unique portrait of the ravages of war, and remarkable stories of the human spirit. My guest is Commander Sheri Snively. She lives here in San Diego County and her book is called: "Heaven In The Midst Of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain's View of the War in Iraq." And welcome. Thank you for being here, Sheri.

SHERI SNIVELY (Author): Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. It’s always a great day to be able to talk about my Marines and sailors.

CAVANAUGH: Excellent. Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have an experience from a war zone that you would like to share with us, or an experience with a chaplain that you’d like to share with us? Call us, or if you’re listening online, you can join our live chat. Now, why do you think the general said automatically you have a unique perspective. Why do you think your perspective was so unique?

SNIVELY: I think anybody who’s served in the military, and I think particularly Marines, understand, first of all, the unique roll of the chaplain. We are there to be with our people and we’re embedded with those units, and we’re there specifically for them and the human aspect of who they are. And so I think that that’s a recognition on the part of leadership that we have a unique role in that sense and then I think from the Quaker perspective just the uniqueness of having a pacifist tendency but then being willing to go into the hard places and serve in a place that most people never would want to go and certainly it’s a difficult place to be. War is an ugly place. And so I think he understood the unique perspective that both sides of that brings.

CAVANAUGH: Now, before you were deployed to Iraq, what was your view of the war in Iraq?

SNIVELY: Well, I think like so many of us, probably very mixed. I mean, I think, you know, as patriotic Americans, we’re very supportive of our country and we hope for the best, and we hope for the best for people all over the world. We want people to have what we have. We want democracy. We want freedom. I think there’s always some times when we wonder how the best way to accomplish that is. Certainly, I think I’ve had those questions and some of the people that I served with over there had those questions, too. But once we’re there, you know, we worked together to support each other and to support the mission.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Commander Sheri Snively. She’s written a book about her experiences as a Quaker chaplain in Iraq. The book is called “Heaven in the Midst of Hell.” And we’re inviting you to join the conversation. The number is 1-888-895-5727. I must say, Sheri, that when I saw the subtitle of your book, “A Quaker Chaplain’s View of the War in Iraq,” I said, well, a Quaker chaplain in a war zone, how does something like that happen? Quakers, as far as I know, are very famous for their pacifist views and sometimes being conscientious objectors to going into a war zone. So tell us about that dichotomy, that strange juxtaposition that you have between your Quaker faith and being a chaplain for Marines.

SNIVELY: I think it really started for me from a personal perspective. My father did 30 years in the Navy. He was one of the Navy’s enlisted pilots during World War II, and so he spent the better part of his adult life in the Navy. And then, of course, my mother’s whole family was Quaker, all the way back to the beginning of the movement in the mid-1600s. And so, strangely enough, I found myself kind of at the very center point between those two places. So I think it’s an amazing way that I was led to that center point and sort of making peace with both sides of my own self. And I think also, as a chaplain, we are noncombatants by law and so I think that I am able to go in and offer something else, the human aspect, and I think that that’s a powerful place to be and I think that sometimes people that have pacifist leanings, we need to be able to walk into those hard places and go – you know, I see myself, in a sense, very much as a peace activist in the middle of a combat zone. I mean, I think that’s doable.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s – You were in Iraq in 2006. Where were you stationed in Iraq and what were you doing there?

SNIVELY: I was in the middle of Al Anbar province in late ’06, early ’07, prior to the surge, so it was when we were taking a lot of casualties in that province. And I was located at Al Takadum, which was one of Saddam Hussein’s old airbases, and that’s located right between Ramadi and Fallujah. And I was working there as the trauma hospital chaplain and the chaplain for the morgue. It was actually called Personnel Retrieval and Processing, is the Marine Corps terminology for it but essentially the morgue. And I also worked some with the EOD guys, so the guys that were out on the roads actually looking for the IEDs and the explosives and the bombs.

CAVANAUGH: And what does a chaplain do in a war zone? Are you just always there available or do you have specific assignments? What were your days like?

SNIVELY: Well, I think each chaplain, of course, brings to their job their own personality and so for me, I really enjoyed being a chaplain in that kind of setting. That’s where I think I really excel because what I was able to do was I walk among the people, literally, as they’re doing their job. So I spent a lot of time in the trauma hospital. I had a radio 24/7, so I was on call 24/7. So any time the radio went off, any time we had casualties, I would always respond to the hospital to be there not only for the patients coming in but for the staff. And so a lot of that just is simply being a presence, being a supportive silent witness to everything that’s going on. I mean, I guess for some people that maybe haven’t experienced or haven’t thought about it or haven’t really thought about what a chaplain is or what they do, it might be hard to imagine what that is or how important that might be but I think that some of the feedback that I’ve gotten not only from patients but from staff and family members back home, there’s just something about having another person there that’s not busy with a task but is simply being there. It’s not about doing, it’s about being.

CAVANAUGH: Is it concentrated…

SNIVELY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …on that one person…

SNIVELY: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: …for that moment. I’m speaking with Sheri Snively. She’s a commander in the Naval Reserves. Is that correct?

SNIVELY: Yes, I’m a reservist.

CAVANAUGH: And she’s also a chaplain. She served in Iraq and she’s just written a book, "Heaven in the Midst of Hell." Your descriptions from the trauma room of the hospital are very raw and they’re nonjudgmental. I wonder, are there things that you consciously—I know that you started to journal when you were over there to remember these experiences but are there some things that you’ve consciously kept out of this book?

SNIVELY: Well, I think in any kind of work there’s only so much space that you have. So, yes, there are stories that didn’t make the cut, so to speak, for probably a variety of reasons. Nothing consciously, I mean I don’t think that I consciously looked at something and said, oh, no, that really can’t be in the book. I – I’m…

CAVANAUGH: Because it – I must say, in going through the stories that you do have in the book, there’s a couple that just reach out and stop you cold. You told the story of a wounded Marine who is talking on – he’s on a gurney, he’s in the hospital, and he’s talking and he’s joking with the nurses and the doctors and he is – he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t want to realize that he is seriously injured. Tell us about that.

SNIVELY: Yes, that young man, we had had several that day. There was an enemy sniper out who was managing to hit our guys up in the neck. And so we had several back to back, and this one young man was one that came in. And he was hit in the neck and it was very obvious to all of us standing around that unless there was a miracle he was going to be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. And he was laughing and joking with us and talking about getting back home and being with his girlfriend and driving his new car. And all of us just looked around at each other very sad because we knew the reality. And I don’t know when that young man understood the reality of probably what he was facing. But that was a very emotional moment for all of us, and there were no words spoken. Sometimes you don’t have to say a thing to feel the power of that kind of moment.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and that everyone knowing and this young, wounded soldier trying to keep up this act that everything was still okay.


CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Sheri Snively and we’re talking about her book, "Heaven in the Midst of Hell.” And if you’d like to join the conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Did you have a lot of experience dealing with physical wounds, people who were badly injured, hospitals, trauma rooms, before you went to Iraq?

SNIVELY: I actually did and I was quite fortunate in that sense. I had worked here in San Diego at San Diego Hospice for six years, and so I was understanding and had been, obviously, exposed to death and dying, and I think that was very, very helpful. I also worked at Sharp Memorial Hospital here for a year as a clinical pastoral resident, and so I was able to get experience in the trauma room here at Sharp. And so I think that was very helpful as well. And I talk about that in the book. There’s a story about actually preparing and I think that somehow in life nothing is ever wasted. And so I remember a moment when I was working the trauma hospital here in San Diego and I remember turning to a nurse and she said to me, we have to stop meeting like this. Because we had had several really difficult cases together. And I said to her in that moment, yes, it would be nice but we don’t have control over that and I think that perhaps I’m being prepared for something more. Because at that time, I was serving as a reservist with a Marine Corps unit, so I knew in high probability that there could be a time when I would be called to go to war with the Marines. And so – And that was 10 years earlier, so that was 10 years prior to me landing in Iraq. And I think that that’s part of what helped prepare me.

CAVANAUGH: Talk to me a little bit about the photographs in this book. They are really remarkable. For instance, there’s a picture in your book, among many pictures, it’s one really arresting photograph. It’s of a wounded man who has a bullet wound right in the middle of his skeleton tattoo. And I’m wondering, how did you get pictures like that?

SNIVELY: Well, with any of the pictures, obviously, that had people in them that could be identifiable, I first, of course, asked permission because I was not there as a photo journalist and that really was not my primary job. So that particular day, this one young man, one young Marine, came in and he did have a bullet wound right straight through his arm and as he was laying there and the corpsmen were tending to him, I asked him if I could take a photograph of his tattoo with the bullet wound right through it? And he said yes. And he says, as long as you send me a copy. So I e-mailed him a copy and I guess the rest is history, so to speak.


SNIVELY: But it’s a great photo because it goes right through what would be the tattoo’s heart.


SNIVELY: It’s the grim reaper, and that day the grim reaper got shot.

CAVANAUGH: That is – it’s an amazing photograph. Another amazing photograph is one of a soldier whose entire head is bandaged. You can still see his face and he’s got sort of this slap-happy grin on his face. And he asked you one of the things that he asked you, you know, you were expecting this deep, philosophical life or death question and he said, you know, do you think women like men with scars?


CAVANAUGH: What did you tell him?

SNIVELY: Well, I thought that was so funny, too, because he had just finished talking with a Catholic priest. He was a young Catholic man and so the priest had been there and provided Catholic services for him but then he saw me coming and that was his question for me. And I said, well, sure, I think they do, and I think that you’ll have a great story because you’ll have a little scar and you’ll be able to get your purple heart and you’ll have a great story to go with it. And, interestingly enough, that young man, he eventually got out of the Marine Corps and he’s now working as a civilian contractor and, last I knew, he was in Afghanistan and had actually written me because he knew that he was going to be in the book because I’d asked for his permission to use his story and his photograph. And my book, I sent my book over to him and so my book is actually over in Afghanistan with that young man.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very good. We’re taking your calls for Sheri Snively at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Greg. He’s calling from Oceanside. Good morning, Greg, and welcome to These Days.

GREG (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. I’d like to pay my respects to the chaplain for her very valuable contribution. And I’d like to see if she has a comment on an article I read online in the North County Times about moral injury and how it apparently, when left untreated for at least some soldiers, can lead to PTSD.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Greg.

SNIVELY: I think that’s an interesting question and I think, like anything else, each one of us is an individual and so we all process things very differently. But I think that he brings up a very important point and that point is we all need to be processing it somehow. So while I don’t believe that there’s any formulaic answer to any of these kinds of issues I think that the important point here is that it needs to be addressed somehow. And it’s for each individual to discover with their own team of doctors, social workers, chaplains or whatever support network they have, it’s just important that they find one.

CAVANAUGH: Did you feel any moral injury yourself when you returned from Iraq?

SNIVELY: No, because I was in a different role. And I think I was there – I was doing exactly what I knew I was there to do and so, no, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t term it moral injury. And I think -- I think that a lot of Marines would probably question that particular terminology as well.


SNIVELY: I think that there are some struggles, there are some issues with combat stress, but I think that all of us who are over there are really doing what we’re there to do and doing a good job, I think, and so there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I think, and I think that sometimes when you use that term ‘moral’ there’s a hint of judgment there. And I think that we need to be very careful about that.

CAVANAUGH: That’s one of the things that your book is free of: judgment. It is observation, and tender and compassionate observation as well. One of the things that you document in your book that you did when you were in Iraq is that you attended to bodies in the morgue. When soldiers were brought in, Marines were brought in, who had been killed in action, there’s someone who has to go through their possessions and go through their pockets literally. And you describe that process in the book.

SNIVELY: Yes. I – The morgue was very challenging at times for obvious reasons. And many, many of the times we would have – we would be doing that work in the middle of the night, which made it all the more interesting and so – and more difficult. So if you can imagine being in a desert in an old, old sort of bunker, old concrete bunker of sorts, and having to go through the possessions of our fellow service members who often were not in real good shape. You know, a lot of the injuries there were very severe, so not only did our Marines—and our young Marines, I have to give them amazing credit. These Personnel Retrieval and Processing Marines are all reservists who are called to active duty at time of war. They have some specialty training but for the most part they’re very young, 18 to 25, and they’re there documenting basically the injuries to the body and then documenting the contents of the pockets so that everything can be shipped home.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the stories you tell about, going through the pockets of a dead Marine in the morgue he had – you were intrigued by his name because it was different, it would seem to be foreign, and you also, in his pocket, among other things found a Zale’s credit card for the jewelry store. And as you were talking with the other Marines, trying to keep this terrible situation as light as possible, you basically agreed among yourselves that there was a story attached to this Zale’s credit card and, indeed, there was.

SNIVELY: Yes, there was. And it was very interesting because normally we never find out what happens to people afterwards either really in the hospital or in the morgue. But several days later I happened to be reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper that was over there and my eye fell on a very small article that was buried in the middle of the paper. And, sure enough, it was our guy. I mean, that was his name. I recognized his name because it was so unusual and so unique. And there, indeed, was a story. He was a first generation American. He had come to this country from a country in the former Soviet Union when he was about 10 or 12 years old. And the story really behind the Zale’s credit card was even more sad. He had just proposed to his fiancée – or his girlfriend and right before, like a couple days before he had died. So right about the same moment that the family back home was finding out that he had died, she actually received a gift in the mail that included her engagement ring. And so those are the kinds of stories – I mean, we knew there was a story in the pocket because when you think about it – When you think about it, all of our pockets have stories. I mean, you empty the pocket of anybody like even now. You know, I empty my pocket and I’ve got a lucky penny that one of my sons gave me this morning before I came on the radio show and I have a little origami star that my other son folded for me and a credit card and an ID card and a card talking about what is Rotary. So, I mean, if we empty our pockets on any given day, it kind of is a microcosm of our life and I think that that’s what we were aware of when we were looking through the pockets of our fallen service members and we could tell a little bit about each person and it made it so much more real, and in some ways so much more difficult because it is really hard to empty the pockets of somebody who’s now deceased and to look at their family photos of happier days and knowing that within hours those people that are in those photographs are going to get the worst news that they never ever wanted to hear.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Sheri, in hearing you describe the stories in your book, it’s obvious that even after this long time—these experiences happened in 2006, you journaled them, you got the book together, you got the photographs together, you put the book together—these are still very, very real for you. They conjure up a great deal of emotion. And I’m wondering what it is that you want people to take away from this book?

SNIVELY: Well, I think I wrote the book for a variety of reasons. I wrote it, like you said, sort of as a journalistic thing for myself, and then for my two kids. I never really knew my father’s stories. He spent 30 years in the military and one of his first assignments out of flight school was the Battle of Midway. Well, I would love to know more about that but I don’t. So I didn’t want that to happen to my kids. And then I wrote it for my Marines and my sailors, my Navy, my chaplain corps but also specifically for like women veterans, for chaplains. There’s a lot of stories from our great medical personnel in here. And then I wrote it for the broader people to understand, I guess, the human spirit. And even in the midst of the worst of situations, there are moments of light that can come through. There is that light that comes through in the darkness. Sometimes it’s awfully hard to see but I guess the challenge is, is to look for it and if you look for it, you’ll find it.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us. Thanks a lot.

SNIVELY: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Sheri Snively. Her new book is called "Heaven in the Midst of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain's View of the War in Iraq.” If you’d like to comment, please go online, And coming up, a biography of an American storyteller: Raymond Carver. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.