In January, the Sentinel published excerpts from the letters of Benedictine Father Karl Nielson. He has been serving as Marine Corps chaplain on the front lines in Iraq.

Here is an update - letters to friends spanning January and February, as he was about to leave the war-torn nation.

Jan. 14

It might be interesting for you to get some idea of what a convoy is like.

I honestly don't know how the Marine gunners who stand in the turrets on top of the vehicles can stand the cold for hours on end. They make jokes about it, but they are savagely attacked by the high winds and biting cold.

We usually start off with a prayer/blessing, and then we roar out of the camp onto the local roads. There are huge bumps and holes that we constantly bounce in and out of, which makes the drivers and riders constantly on the alert. The dust sometimes is very thick, preventing seeing and breathing. And occasionally the vehicles get hit with an improvised explosive device.

We recently went into Fallujah, and lots of times I was surprised to see the people on the roadsides waving and smiling at us. The city looks like a huge pile of rubble in many places. At the checkpoint where our Marines are working, they have tough conditions. I took them some goodies (summer sausages, cheeses, crackers, cigars that folks had sent), and they acted like they were in seventh heaven.

Jan. 17

After a few days of relative calm, today we were faced with several dead and horribly wounded Marines. We often think, 'How can we say this is tough compared to those who received the injuries?'

After I got back to my office, a Marine came by who had just received word his father had died. He wanted to pray, say good-bye to me and ask for a blessing before he left on emergency leave. I was touched.

I told him I would pray for his father at Mass the next day and he seemed a little relieved.

Jan. 20

Several of my officer buddies from the legal department went with me to Saturday-night Mass at the Army compound, and afterwards we walked back to our base. It was a pleasant little social break from routine - smoking cigars, chatting, and walking in the cool evening, with bright stars above. It has been very cold lately, so walks anywhere are usually avoided.

I feel pretty weary sometimes, and I know that it will be good to get home soon and rest and relax. Lots of us are weary and counting the days.

Jan. 26

Today was a horrible day for us. Many of us are waiting word to find out if we know some of the dead from the crash of the helicopter. Please pray very hard for their souls and for their families. I think this is probably the worst single day for the Marines since the Beirut barracks bombing.

I bless our departing convoys almost daily and, having become close to these guys, find myself worrying quite a bit about their safety during these trips, feeling something like a father to them - they are all young enough to be my kids.

Feb. 2

We are all feeling really gratified with the election results. I honestly did not think the Iraqi people would risk their lives in such numbers to vote. It astounded me. I don't think I would have risked the lives of my family to vote. It makes us all feel like we are really helping to accomplish some good here.

A good friend of mine leaves tomorrow, and I said good-bye to him. Several of us drove to the lakeside to smoke a final cigar with him, which turned out to be a stunning experience with a dramatic sunset.

Ash Wednesday, Feb. 9

Today started out as the last five have, with no power in our chapel, which leaves us cold and in the dark. Our friendly generator is on strike, so we scramble to 'adapt and overcome' as the Marines are so fond of saying.

This afternoon I learned that one of my Marines whom I know well has been severely injured in a convoy accident. As I write this, he is teetering between death and life, and we are all fervently praying for him. He is a bright, genuine, happy sort of young man. There was a need for blood for him, as he lost an enormous amount. Someone ran into the chow hall and announced the need. Immediately about 100 Marines dropped their food and hurried over to donate. Tonight at Mass we prayed for him, and a number of his buddies (who are not Catholic) joined us for Mass.

Several hundred candles lined the aisles of the chapel again, which had a strikingly dramatic effect.

Everyone, of course, Catholics and those of other faiths, were signed with ashes on their foreheads. There was an intensity during the liturgy that was palpable, coming from the combination of all the day's events.

It is now about 2000 hours, an hour after Mass. Several Army soldiers and Indian workers have just shown up, late to Mass because of vehicle problems and late work, quite anxious, concerned if they could receive Communion and ashes. In the light of only the tabernacle candle, they received Communion and were marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Their piety was beautiful. As so often happens, their faith strengthens and inspires me.

Just a little over a week until we leave Iraq. At almost every meal you hear, 'How many days for you?' since we all leave at different stages. Some of us have it down to the hour. You also hear, 'What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home?'

It's about 2300 hours and just now the hospital is calling with incoming wounded. It's going to be a late night. Off for now.

Feb. 10

Last night when I got to the hospital, I was confronted with a sight I did not expect. The docs, corpsmen and nurses, more than half of them with black ash crosses on their foreheads, were huddled in the preliminary exam tent working feverishly over a body. They were working to save an Iraqi insurgent who had been shot after shooting our Marines.

Feb. 17

Recently we had another rocket attack, after over a week of peace. Those of us leaving soon had an intensified reaction. We just want to get out of here before something goes wrong to us. Lots of those scheduled to go on convoys find themselves more worried now than ever before.

Feb. 21

I am so anxious to get home I can taste it. I'm counting the hours and they seem to drag like never before. I've pretty much got things packed. The replacement priest is here, and was I ever glad to introduce him to the Sunday congregations!

I blessed what might be the last convoy departure tonight. The men came each to say good-bye, since I might be gone before they return. I will miss them. They are such great guys and have taught and given me much more than they will ever know. As I walked back from their compound the moon is full, and it is beautiful tonight. I wonder if the moon is full back home?

I hope I don't have to see this much pain and death ever again.