Old classmates, chaplains tour historic monastery

Story and photos by Sgt. Chad Menegay
13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) Public Affairs

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — The abandoned, sixth century St. Elijah’s Monastery of Ninawa province, Iraq, once a center for the regional Christian community, served the Army chaplain community June 11 and brought two old friends back together in study and prayer.

Seven years prior, 1st. Lt. Brandt Klawitter, chaplain with the 14th Transportation Battalion, 13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) and a Hermann, Mo., native, and Capt. Matthew Christensen, chaplain with the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment and a Kalispell, Mont., native, studied biblical archaeology together, but never imagined that one day they would walk within the deteriorating walls of a possible archeological cache and pray at its altar.

It seemingly happened by chance.

As Klawitter scanned his ID card at the entrance to the dining facility at Contingency Operating Base Diamonback, Iraq, he looked up to see his friend, Christensen, wandering around looking for coffee.

The two had no idea one another was visiting troops at COB Diamondback at the same time. Klawitter’s office of operations is at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, and Christensen’s at Contingency Operating Base Taji, Iraq.

They caught up over breakfast.

Klawitter and Christensen met during postgraduate work in 2001 at Concordia University in Seward, Neb. They had Greek and Hebrew classes together. They continued studies at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

They also started Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course together.

“We were friends so we signed up for the same summer,” Klawitter said. “We rode down together in his minivan to Fort Jackson, S.C. I babysat his kids before. His Family came out to my Family’s house. He helped my dad and I put in a rail fence.”

Klawitter described Christensen, who was previously a diesel mechanic in the Army, as accomplished and squared away.

“He grew up in the mountains of Montana,” Klawitter said. “His dad runs mules and horses up at Glacier National Park.”

Christensen described Klawitter as both a people person and an intellectual.

“If you have any kind of issue, he’s one of the guys you could call at anytime,” Christensen said.

Klawitter said it is a real blessing to have a good friend in Iraq.

“He’s one of those friends you trust in, you depend on, you’ve been through different life experiences with,” Klawitter said. “I give him a call every once in a while just to say ‘hi.’ When we get together, we compare notes about what’s worked and what’s not.”

Of course, this time around the chaplains did more than just catch up; they visited a 1,500 to 1,700-year-old building together, the oldest, still standing Assyrian monastery in Iraq.

1st Lt. Geoffrey Whitaker, garrison chaplain for Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) and a Murphy, N.C., native, leads weekly St. Elijah’s monastery tours at the southwest corner of COB Marez, a base connected to COB Diamondback.

He put together a VIP tour for Klawitter, Christensen and their chaplain assistants.

“The tours boost interest in spirituality,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker has been working to build interest in stabilizing the monastery to preserve the building and the Christian heritage it holds.

Recently, the RFS mayor’s cell’s coordination with Iraqi and U.S. agencies has paid off, as St. Elijah’s has made an Iraqi government list of sites to be preserved.

“The Iraqi facilities engineering team is working on a full blown plan with diagrams, a timeline and cost of materials,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the monastery is Iraqi history. As such, the Iraqis should lead the process of preservation, with Americans only helping.

“In this day and age you don’t think of Iraq as having much to do with Christianity,” Klawitter said, “but there actually is a history over here, just like in Turkey there is a ton of Christian history.”

Klawitter said St. Elijah’s was something adventurous to check out.

“A lot of Soldiers now don’t go outside the wire and see much of the Iraqi culture and history,” he said. “To see something of cultural value, of religious significance, it reminds you of another side of this land that doesn’t have to do with the present war.”

Klawitter and Christensen said during the visit they felt tied historically to the Christians who came before them to the monastery.

They said they thought back to their biblical archaeology class and wondered what they might dig up if they actually had the chance to excavate.

 

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A chaplain’s assistant reads while Soldiers tour St. Elijah’s Monastery June 11 at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay)

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1st. Lt. Brandt Klawitter (right), chaplain with the 14th Transportation Battalion, 13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) and a Hermann, Mo., native, and Capt. Matthew Christensen, chaplain with the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, and a Kalispell, Mont., native, enter St. Elijah’s monastery June 11 at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq.(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay)

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1st. Lt. Brandt Klawitter, chaplain with the 14th Transportation Battalion, 13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) and a Hermann, Mo., native, listens to a lecture during a tour at St. Elijah’s Monastery June 11 at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay)

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Capt. Matthew Christensen (from left), chaplain with the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, and a Kalispell, Mont., native; 1st. Lt. Brandt Klawitter, Chaplain with the 14th Transportation Battalion, 13th Sustainment Command (expeditionary) and a Hermann, Mo., native; and 1st Lt. Geoffrey Whitaker, garrison chaplain with Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th SC(E) and a Murphy, N.C., native, enjoy a tour of St. Elijah’s monastery June 11 at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay)