Cheri Lomonte assumed our men and women in uniform had ready access to a Catholic chaplain and could attend Mass every Sunday. But talking to a Marine officer’s wife, she was more than mildly shocked to learn that the military in all branches, especially those deployed, might not have a Mass or see a chaplain for weeks at a time.

Lomonte, the founder and host of Mary’s Touch radio program, felt there was a void that needed to be filled. So she founded Frontline Faith, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, to fill MP3 players with faith content and send them to soldiers, especially those deployed or being deployed to the fronts.

Since launching the program on July 4 two years ago, Frontline Faith has sent more than 29,100 of these faith-filled MP3 devices to our military personnel. It is an outreach of Mary’s Touch.

Now, there are new versions in the works for non-Catholic Christians and for families at home waiting the return of loved ones deployed around the world.

“We call the Frontline Faith MP3 player spiritual food for a warrior’s soul,” said Lomonte.

Indeed it is. The free MP3s have over seven hours of content that includes a Memorial Day Mass recorded at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and celebrated by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, a Warrior’s Rosary, sacred music and other faith content, including letters of encouragement written and read by children.

“It’s our job to support our military and our duty to spiritually encourage our troops,” Lomonte said. “We can do this not only with prayer, but we can give them the next best thing to a priest being there — and that’s [a recorded] Mass, Rosary and prayers they have grown up with.”

The format was an easy choice. The MP3 player was compact, holds a lot and is rechargeable. Troops like it.

Col. Philip Mahalic, a Catholic U.S. Army chaplain, knows firsthand from his experience on the front lines. He has been stationed in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar, where he has seen the MP3 players go out to all branches of the service.

Now at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he distributes the players as troops deploy.

“They are very anxious to get them,” he said of the MP3s. “The players are the ideal size with the uniforms we have. The great pocket in each of the sleeves is just the right size for this MP3 player to slip into it with earphones, too. …They’re rugged. … They’re extremely in demand.”

Father Mahalic noticed how during down times in Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers would be lying in the bunks listening to portions of the MP3s. And with its sacred music, “a lot would fall asleep listening to them.”


Chaplains Stretched

Father Mahalic described how stretched the chaplains in Afghanistan are, sometimes unable to get to some forward operating bases for three or more weeks at a time.

“In between visits, they [soldiers] would use these MP3 players for Sunday talks — they were all familiar with Archbishop Broglio,” he said. Unable to go to church on Sunday, the warriors found this Frontline Faith player a consolation.

“They had something they could hold on to,” said Father Mahalic. It was there when they “needed a spiritual pick-me-up.”

With all the requests he got from men and women in uniform, he was always running short of the players.

Marine Corps Col. Bill Becker, who was in Iraq three times, knows the importance the players have for the troops. Just weeks ago, he returned from a year in Afghanistan, where he distributed about 2,500 players, either personally or by redirecting them to priests he had contact with in different parts of the country, especially where the Marines are located.

With thousands of military and only one priest for the Kabul cluster — all the little camps around the city of Kabul — Becker had a bunch of the players, and every week he would pass them out to newcomers.

“I got a lot of feedback from those who listened to them,” he said. “I got very good responses.” He even had people reach out through e-mail and phone calls asking for MP3 players for themselves, then asking for more to pass along to other people.

In one area with only two priests to cover a spread of 37 forward operating bases — some only seeing a priest once a month — Becker found the MP3 players a great help. While the players were never going to fill the missing-priest gap, “they put something there that is uplifting and gives the military something to grab on to.”

The Mass, Rosary and music, plus faith testimonies from veterans of other wars, “helped them just know God’s presence was there with them,” he added.

Becker’s wife, Susan, also knows the effects of the shortage of chaplains and the importance of these MP3 players. Even where the family is based at Camp Pendleton in California, one of the largest Marine installations in the world, there is a bit of a crisis. On their side of the base, only one retired priest comes to celebrate one Mass on Sundays because there is no regular chaplain.

Department of Defense figures indicate that more than 272,000 active personnel identify as Catholic. According to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, while Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. armed forces, presently there are 243 Catholic chaplains. (On the upside, seven priests were just ordained for the AMS, and large numbers of chaplain candidates are entering the seminary).


Spreading the Wealth

Because Susan Becker knows what the MP3 player can do for deployed troops, she gives them to children in her first Communion classes to give to their parents when their dads are being deployed; she also passes them out at Bible study and always keeps some handy in the trunk of her car to pass out on a one-on-one basis as she converses with people.

“I try to hand them out to military personnel who are deploying,” Becker explained. “The people that I give them to want to listen to them. A lot of times in a crisis situation their hearts and minds are more open to hear and listen to things. I even keep one or two in my bag when I’m on airplanes in case someone starts talking to me.”

She believes the Frontline Faith MP3 is a great learning and spiritual tool.

Col. James Evans, a Catholic priest, currently with the Texas State Guard, believes so, too. When the men and women in the military don’t have access to their church community, this MP3 player has a big impact keeping them connected to the faith.

Although the immediate thrust of the program is getting the players to Catholics, he has also seen an impact on non-Catholics. He said that one Protestant family was “quite moved when their son got one of the MP3 players.”

“He was badly wounded and receiving therapy in one of the military hospitals,” explained Father Evans. “The MP3 player played a great part in his spiritual life and recovery.” In fact, “not only the young man, but his whole family, listens to it.”

Father Mahalic pointed out how the Frontline Faith player has even become a form of evangelism. He has had servicemen ask to take one for their roommates who don’t go to church.

“As well as feeding our own spiritually, we are evangelizing at the same time,” this chaplain affirmed. Little wonder he describes distributing players as “one of the best programs I’ve seen in a long time.”

Lomonte has been told by individuals how the player keeps spirits high and reminds the soldiers they are not forgotten. A woman in a New York church told her a parishioner in a battle zone wrote the church to say she felt so alone.

“We immediately sent her a player,” said Lomonte, “to remind her: You are not alone; Jesus is standing there right with you, and you are wrapped in Mother Mary’s mantle.”


Homefront Version

Another family told her their son leads a small prayer group of six soldiers who pray every night on their knees together. Lomonte send along six players to the group.

She wishes to supply everyone who asks for a player with one. Chaplains would be happy to get boxes of them at a time.

“The MP3s keep our military members in touch with their Catholic faith, particularly in situations such as combat deployments, where they have little or no access to a priest,” Msgr. Frank Pugliese, vicar general of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, said via email.

“The Archdiocese for the Military Services is truly grateful to Frontline Faith for assembling the many resources and for donating and distributing them.”

Each player, including packing and shipping, costs $24 to put into the hands of a serviceman or woman, but Lomonte never charges military personnel.

“We give everything away [free],” she said. Lomonte constantly gets request from families asking if she will send a player to their son, daughter, grandson or acquaintance. “We will send their loved one a player, and it’s not based on if they send the $24,” she said. “If you have or know their military address, we send them a player.” She must have the APO military address. She wants to fill every request. But she can’t unless she can pay for them. She relies on donations, which come mainly via online and mail, like those from individuals and families who send gifts. Children send allowances, people hold car washes, and one woman regularly sends a tithe for the Frontline players.

“Nothing is impossible with God,” she said.

This year, she has even gotten a version ready for non-Catholic Christians and is working to complete a “Homefront” version for the spouses and families of soldiers deployed around the world.

“It’s our duty to give our military the spiritual support they need,” Lomonte stressed. “We are one in the body of Christ. Think of all the Catholics in America and how we as a group can help. We are all connected to our military in some way, even if just by being a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. We all need to work together with a great goal in mind: and that is to protect spiritually those people who are physically protecting us.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.