10 August 2009

In Afghanistan, chaplains share duties in effort to serve troops

Via The Catholic Spirit

In the middle of Afghanistan's war zone stands a plywood chapel with fluorescent lights and rows of black vinyl easy chairs. A simple iron cross hangs on the altar where the tin chalice and tin plate rest, ready for the sacrament of Communion.

On a Saturday evening in August, Father Mirek Jordanek, a Czech army chaplain dressed in a white robe with a camouflage stole, celebrated Mass in his limited English. A Protestant chaplain preached the homily at the weekend Mass.

"One day, we will see him face to face," said the Rev. Brent Sanders, the Protestant chaplain who holds the rank of captain. "Let us be ready."

It is a fitting message for the New York-based U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed force in the entire U.S. Army. At least 14 soldiers have been killed in action since January, four of them in the last two weeks of July. Where once only 10 of the faithful attended Catholic Mass, their numbers have grown to at least 30 regular attendees.

Although one out of five U.S. soldiers is Catholic, there are just 100 Catholic chaplains for the entire U.S. Army.

"We are very short," said the Rev. Bradley West, a Baptist and major assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

"Especially when we deploy, many soldiers will not see a priest the whole time, especially the guys out at command outposts," he said.

There are just six priests for the 17,000 U.S. soldiers occupying eastern Afghanistan, a region the size of New York state.

Staff Sgt. Hugh Antsett coordinates flights for one of the priests, aiming to get him to a command outpost or forward operating base -- FOB -- at least once every 60-90 days.

"It works great on paper, but so many things happen, and it's not always easy," said Antsett.

"It's always about relationships with the people who are in charge," he added.

At FOB Shank, the chaplains have enlisted the help of Father Jordanek to celebrate regular weekend Masses. Father Jordanek has been a military chaplain for the Czech army for six years.

"The American chaplains asked me to care for Task Force Spartan soldiers. Sometimes the French come too, and civilians from India and Nepal," he said.

Father Jordanek sees his role very specifically: to carve out a time of relaxation and respite for weary soldiers.

"It's a peaceful hour. The soldiers, for one hour, are in a different world. I want them to feel accepted as they are. If they are weak or afraid, I want them to feel accepted," he said.

Lt. David Beale, 24, of Cheshire, Conn., said he comes to Mass every week, which is possible only because he's assigned to duties at the base.

"It's important to me because it keeps me grounded -- thinking about the right thing to do," he said.

"It's a good time to relax and do something I do at home," he added.

For Catholic soldiers, the Mass is also a time of fellowship -- a welcome oasis from the stark gravel roads and army-green tents that make up this base and the war waged beyond the barbed wire.

"This is our time to be together with other Catholics and have a sense of familiarity, a sense of community," said Lt. Col. Steven Osterholzer, a member of St. Michael's Parish in Fort Drum, N.Y., who regularly reads at Mass.

There are, of course, more sobering duties for army chaplains. Father Jordanek and Rev. West have attended the memorial services of each fallen soldier -- regardless of religious affiliation.

"We help soldiers make meaning of what's taking place," said Rev. West.

That can be a terrific challenge, as soldiers grapple with the meaning of life, the devastation of death, surrounded daily by uncertainty.

"We read about chaplains who lose their faith," said Rev. West, "and I don't want that to happen to my guys."

So, he said, he regularly meets with or calls the chaplains under his supervision, challenging them to develop answers to these hard life questions and to deliver the answers with compassion.

"You can be with them, suffer with them, cry with them, but ultimately you only have the answers that you've come up with yourself," he said. "You can say, 'This is what I believe, and this is what helps me.'"

With his limited English, Father Jordanek knows his actions will always speak louder than his words.

"They know I pray for them -- that I am the spiritual leader. I am trying to show them, through my personality, God's love," he said.

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