10/10/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

'Ministry by Presence' and the Difference it Made at Abu Ghraib

The words still evoke the shame and disgust they did eight years ago. Abu Ghraib. It means "The Place of the Ravens." It was the name Saddam Hussein gave to one of his torture palaces. Chains still hung from its ceilings and blood still spattered its walls when the U.S. military police refashioned it into a makeshift prison for captured Iraqis during the second Gulf War. In the months just after, when the command structure fractured and the mission grew dim, a night shift of juvenile, sadistic guards gave the words a new meaning. Abu Ghraib. It could have meant "Great Satan," for this was the image of America that Abu Ghraib began evoking in the minds of millions around the world.

In the United States, imaginations were no less inflamed. Journalists compared Abu Ghraib to the My Lai Massacre of the Vietnam War era and even Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. These were drastic exaggerations, of course, and evidence of astonishing historical ignorance, but the comparisons revealed the shock and revulsion Americans felt over the evil deeds at that prison with the odd name in Iraq.

And the deeds of some guards at Abu Ghraib had indeed been hellish. Under stress of periodic mortar fire from without and horrifically substandard conditions within, soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion had begun brutalizing prisoners to pass the time. The now famous Taguba Report that first summarized the affair described rape, sodomy, forced masturbation, beatings, torture, and vicious religious abuse. Muslim women were forced to expose themselves and Muslim men were treated as toys by female guards. The story was told in the hundreds of photographs the guards took to illustrate their boasting back home. One prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, died. Others were permanently broken in health and spirit. None would forget.

Then came the trials and the revelations and the prime time interviews with the accused. Prison sentences and fines followed. As did dishonor, both for those in uniform and for the nation as a whole.

Yet while this repulsive drama played itself out, a far nobler tale was unfolding at the very prison where the offenses had occurred. Surprisingly, it was a tale written largely by the chaplains newly assigned to Abu Ghraib.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel W. Taylor, a chaplain in the 3rd Corps in Iraq during 2004, was the first to signal a change. He noticed that Abu Ghraib's prison guards--those who had not been on that night shift who and who had been not committed any abuses--ate alone, separated from their fellow soldiers at the prison's D-Fac or dining facility. Taylor could see the pain of it in their young faces. To the surprise of most who looked on--and to the disapproval of some--Taylor befriended the grateful guards and listened to their stories. Among the questions he asked was where the unit chaplain had been during the Abu Ghraib abuses. He wanted to know if that chaplain's ministry had made any difference in soldiers' lives or in the broader culture of the prison.

What LTC Taylor learned disturbed him. The chaplain for Abu Ghraib, a female Lieutenant in the National Guard, had not originally been part of the guards' unit but had been transferred into it well after the Brigade had already been there for some time. This made her an outsider to the guards. Moreover, this chaplain was of "Asian/Pacific" descent and had a heavy accent. The guards who poured out their hearts to LTC Taylor during meals explained that they could understand what their prisoners were saying better than they could understand this chaplain. As a result, chapel services at the prison rarely had more than a few dozen in attendance. Faith had little help at the prison.

Yet the religious situation at Abu Ghraib was not the fault of this lone, struggling Lieutenant. As LTC Taylor pressed further into the matter, he learned that senior officers had told the chaplain to stay out of the way. They had insisted she remain in her quarters and let the soldiers seek her out when they had needs. She did as ordered. She had no choice. The result was, as Taylor's mealtime companions explained, that the chaplain simply wasn't a "player." Not one of the guards reported taking counsel with her or seeing any sign of her influence in the prison.

Taylor understood too well what had happened. He also saw how to make a change. When the 391st Military Police Battalion from Columbus, Ohio, took over at Abu Ghraib, he instructed the new chaplains to make themselves as present as possible in the lives and duties of the soldiers. This would do two things, he explained. First, soldiers would find the chaplains accessible and would be more willing to talk to them about their spiritual lives. Just as important, the chaplains would become what Taylor called a "moral influence by presence." He instructed the chaplains to be there at the change of shifts, when prisoners were moved, when interrogations took place and as soldiers fulfilled the most mundane duty. COL Gene Fowler, a chaplain himself and Taylor's superior officer, explained this as "ministry by presence, which means taking the holy into the midst of the profane."

It worked. Both through the reforms ordered by senior commanders and through the pro-active ministries of these new chaplains, Abu Ghraib was transformed. LTC Taylor later explained that while the stateside media never noticed, there were no further abuses Abu Ghraib. In fact, the prison became a model success. It became common for guards to provide a moral "check" on each other's conduct. The unit became "self-correcting," as one officer reported, and evaluations noted that the conduct of guards went beyond the mere absence of abuse to stellar levels of care and professionalism. Soldiers began seeing it as their mission to live down the shame of the former abuses. Chapel attendance reached into the hundreds.

Aware of this chaplain-inspired transformation, soldiers of the 391st requested a commemorative medallion, a common practice among America's armed forces. While the earlier scandals were still filling headlines in the States, soldiers at Abu Ghraib were already carrying medallions that expressed their pride in living down the vile stigma of the prison. The medallions bore the words that defined the newfound sense of mission among those stationed at Abu Ghraib. They read simply, "Restoring America's Honor."

It was not a tale reported in America's media and it may not have even reached the ears of senior officers at the Pentagon. Yet it is an important tale, for America's warrior will almost certainly be stationed at other Abu Ghraibs in combat zones yet to come. Indeed, there were other Abu Ghraib-like scandals unfolding elsewhere in Iraq at the time. Always, abuses will threaten; always moral chaos will press at the door. When it does, it will be helpful to remember that one of the great lessons of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal is also one of the great lessons of success in any field. As movie directors, CEO's, football coaches and the nation's greatest generals have agreed--in ministry as in life--"Eighty percent of success is just showing up."