The terrible human cost of war was a constant presence in the life of the Rev. Steve Peters for six months last year.
In his role as a chaplain with the Iowa Air National Guard, he spent those six months at the facility where all American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are returned to the United States. It's called the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
There, he prayed before flag-draped caskets, and ministered to the families of the fallen troops. He also ministered to the military personnel who work there.
''It was and will be perhaps one of the greatest honors of my life,'' Peters told members of the Fort Dodge Noon Rotary Club Monday.
''It's changed my perspective on what's important and what's not,'' he added.
Peters has been the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Fort Dodge for nine years. He's also a chaplain with the rank of captain in the Air National Guard. Technically, he's assigned to the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City although he actually works with the 133rd Test Squadron in Fort Dodge.
He told club members Monday that he started as an auxiliary chaplain providing chapel services to local squadron members every three months. He later joined the Air National Guard to become a chaplain, although he had to get special permission because he was too old to enlist.
Last year, he was called upon to go to Iraq. Those orders were quickly canceled and replaced with new ones that sent him to Dover Air Force Base.
He was there from June 22 to Dec. 23 of last year. During that time, the remains of 279 fallen service members, including three from Iowa, were received there.
''The first six weeks that I was there, I was an absolute mess,'' he said. ''I needed more care than I could give anybody else.''
Peters said as time went on, he became more ''desensitized.''
''It was my way of dealing with the tragedy,'' he said. ''I had to shut down. I could not emotionally attach.''
He recalled that on one occasion, he encountered someone at the base from an Ankeny church where he served as an assistant pastor early in his career. The woman had been a young girl the first time he met her at that church. Decades later, he met her again at Dover Air Force Base when the body of her fiance was returned there.
Altogether, he ministered to about 1,900 family members of fallen troops.
He also met national leaders.
''President Obama and I spent about three hours together,'' he said. ''Of course, he was about 10 feet away from me and I never spoke to him.''
Rotary Club members saw a video of Peters, accompanied by an Air Force colonel and an Army general, praying before a flag-draped casket that had just been lowered from a plane at Dover Air Force Base.
''We do not know the religious preference of the individual,'' Peters said. ''It may be written down somewhere, but we don't know if they want a prayer. So I am not at this moment praying for this individual. I'm thanking God for their service. I'm praying for their family that they might find comfort. I'm praying for the safety of his comrades in arms who remain fighting.''
Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org