In an office deep inside Baghdad’s international zone, Staff Sgt. Keith Millar of Caldwell, Idaho, likes to look over pictures of his wife and two small children.
It’s a way of ministering to himself, of staying connected to what is waiting for him at home. Then it’s back to work, helping minister to a diverse group of soldiers and civilians at Forward Operating Base Prosperity.
Though he is not ordained, Millar, 39, is a chaplain’s assistant. He protects the chaplain whenever they are out and about, and facilitates whatever programs the chaplain is running.
He runs the huge marble chapel, which was converted from one of Saddam Hussein’s large pool houses.
“I make sure that people can get their religious needs met in any way I can,” Millar says. “A lot of my job is checking on the morale of the soldiers on the (base).”
Millar is one of about 2,700 soldiers from Idaho, Oregon and Montana in Iraq for a year with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team based out of Boise’s Gowen Field. The soldiers left Idaho in September and are expected to return this summer.
Back home, he works full-time for the Idaho National Guard, but not as chaplain. Still, Millar says he is a religious man. He and his wife belong to a small Anglican church in Boise.
“In some ways this is not a stretch,” he says. “I do have a degree in ministry, but I haven’t worked that in a long time.”
Millar says his friendship with an Iraqi national named Malik, who works at the laundry drop-off on the base, has left the biggest impression on him.
The two men talk about their sons, parenting, their home and religious lives.
“We talk about bragging on our kids and how he is raising them and trying to figure out the similarities and differences,” Millar says. “There is a lot more similarities in the way we think than differences. That’s the cool thing.”
He and the chaplain have provided services for people from Sierra Leone and Uganda and for adherents of religions from Christianity to Hinduism. Exposure to different faiths has strengthened his own, Millar says.
“Having a chance to be able to worship the way you want to worship, it affects your morale, it takes time from their everyday life to do what they would at home,” he says. “Here on the (base) we are able to do something that reminds them of back home.”
When the 116th trained at Camp Shelby last year before heading to Iraq, it was a tense time. One soldier was struggling with financial issues and leadership.
“He was just very overwhelmed,” Millar says. “We helped him as we could and said, ‘This is what you need to do.’ ”
About a month into Iraq, Millar came across the man.
“He was all smiles and said his life was going so much better,” he says. “That makes it important when you stop and talk to people that actually need someone.”
Forward Operating Base Prosperity essentially runs like a large city. While some of it feels foreign – like the climate and architecture – the rest just feels like a normal urban area, Millar says. That includes the standard American (and Mexican) fare in the base’s cafeteria.
When he isn’t seeing to soldiers’ morale and spiritual well-being, Millar spends his down time playing basketball in the cool of night, ping pong and exercising. He calls his family in Idaho. He chats with Malik.
Millar’s mother recently sent a box of presents from Idaho for Malik’s children.
Reminders of home – like the green rice cereal treats his wife, Robyn, sent for St. Patrick’s Day – are a respite.
Still, when he goes home to Caldwell, he plans on taking a bit of Iraqi culture with him.
“They move a bit slower than what we do in Idaho and America,” Millar says. “That’s something I’m going to try. They stop and have tea a little more often and make personal connections.”
The Millars met at Northwest Nazarene University in 1993. His roommate was Robyn’s brother.
One source of family conflict is a debate over the couple’s actual first date. Millar had just returned to campus from a guard drill weekend.
“At that time the cafeteria wasn’t open late,” Robyn says. “He thought, ‘Who could I call to go get something?’
“We went to a fast-food restaurant by the campus. The reason I consider it a date is he walked me home to the dorm. He asked me out for a concert.”
Keith considers the concert the first date. They were married in 1996.
Fast forward to the couple’s 15th anniversary earlier this month. Millar was home on leave, and the couple celebrated by walking around the Boise Depot, the place where he proposed and she accepted. Their children are Patrick, 10, and Kendra, 5.
Robyn, 36, is working to grow her own Mary Kay makeup business and to reassure her children – Patrick, 10, and Kendra, 5 – that their dad is OK.
“We just talk a lot about it. We send care packages and color pictures and things like that,” she says. “At the very beginning I had to really just reassure my 10-year-old that Daddy was in a safe place.”
And Millar has a message for his family in Caldwell.
“I’ll be home soon,” he says.