KABUL, Afghanistan — It’s an eight-year-old war already, and in spite of a planned surge that promises to bring it to an end, it’s still tough for those who have to be there.
Especially at this time of the year — the Christmas Season, including today’s feast of the Epiphany and ending with next Sunday’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
It’s a time of the year when military chaplains, rare at any time, are perhaps even more important.
“Christmas in a combat zone is often lonely,” said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Timothy Parker, who spent one Christmas deployed in Iraq.
But then, there is precedent for spending Christmas this way, said Parker.
He compared Christmas on the front to “the Holy Family, who had to trek across the desert to another town, where there was no place to stay and in many ways they were unwelcome.”
“We make the best of what we have and are thankful for a warm place to stay,” he said, “the company of good friends, a good meal in the chow hall, and being able to attend Mass in a makeshift chapel or in the field.”
Those “makeshift Masses” are made possible by U.S. military chaplains.
Father Michael Duesterhaus has been deployed to combat areas three times, including Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006. The Navy chaplain said “close teamwork, mission focus and personal deprivations [can] deepen one’s faith” and recounted how “one Marine, who I baptized, confirmed, and gave first holy Communion to in the Al Anbar Province told me one night, ‘Catholicism is a tough religion. ... Have to believe that the Eucharist is truly Jesus and not a symbol. And confession — whoa, there’s a challenge. Yeah, it’s tough. But I’m a Marine. Who wants a wimpy faith?’”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Father Eric Albertson is a chaplain on the Afghan front — which is about to become more crowded, with 30,000 new troops ordered by President Obama Dec. 1.
“Christmas when deployed is hard because of the separation,” said Father Albertson. “However, we all become family to one another and celebrate it as much as we can.”
He said the troops decorate their living quarters and attend religious services.
The troops put on holiday programs with carols and skits and even don Christmas hats. He recalls one memorable Christmas when a squadron went on a special mission to bring Santa — delivering a hot meal — to the base.
Along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border there are constant reminders of why the troops are there. By sacrificing their Christmas, they may make Christmas possible for others.
After months of al Qaeda attacks on civilians, this Christmas “most of the scheduled programs are canceled,” Lahore, Pakistan, Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha told UCA news. “We shall discover the meaning of Christmas in a quiet way and hope for the return of harmony and peace.”
Father Albertson said he believes they will. He described Afghanistan as “beautifully mountainous in the north, with deserts in the south.” The people, he said, “are extremely hospitable. … It is considered rude, for example, to not spend at least 30 minutes discussing family and health at the beginning of meetings.”
All the same, with Christianity banned in Afghanistan, most Catholics in the area are troops from the U.S. coalition. One in five of the 17,000 U.S. soldiers occupying eastern Afghanistan is a Catholic. But in an area the size of New York state, there are only six priests for the troops, according to Catholic News Service.
Those Catholics make do with what they have.
Cpl. Andrew Roy Jr. of Holy Family Parish in Watertown, N.Y., has led faith inquiry groups in Afghanistan.
A CNS report described how “on a recent starlit night in eastern Afghanistan, five U.S. soldiers … discuss the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist.”
It described Roy as a “stocky soldier with clear blue eyes and a forceful voice … wearing a wooden rosary over his chest” who provides “an oasis of religious discussion … in the desert of Afghanistan.”
Father Albertson knows many troops like Roy. In the combat zone, soldiers become “far more open to prayer,” he said. “Small-group prayers are quite common, and the chaplain is often invited to lead them. Most every day I will hear someone call out: ‘Hey, chaps! Give us a prayer (or blessing)!’”
He said there is a hunger in the troops for religious literature. “Many read their Bibles nightly and will frequently ask questions over lunch or before missions,” he said.
Finally, “I am often asked to bless medals and rosaries that loved ones send from home,” he said. “The troops devoutly carry these with them in combat, confident that Mary and the saints are interceding for their protection.”
That confidence has made for some inspiring stories.
Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti was renowned for the care he showed those he commanded in Afghanistan. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously in September. His last words, according to those with him when his division was assaulted with gunfire in an Afghan ambush, were the Lord’s Prayer — followed by “Tell my family I love them.”
Said Father Albertson, “Troops in a combat zone often become very close because of the shared hardships and danger. Lifetime friendships develop and battlefield reunions occur among those who have served together before.”
He tells those he counsels in the combat zone that hardship can build character. “If they can exercise this character in the demanding environment of combat,” he tells troops, “they can exercise it anywhere.”
As for those who will be heading to Afghanistan with the surge, “They can expect a year of hard work in a complex and demanding combat environment,” the priest said. “There will be intense moments of fear that will require them to maintain their cool.”
But, at the same time, “there will also be tremendous satisfaction, joy and incredible companionship. I always remind them that the crucible of battle has produced some of the finest Americans in our history.”
Marine Parker said that, in the end, for troops overseas, the greatest feeling for the holidays is “the knowledge that the sacrifice you are making is keeping those at home safe.”
He asked: “What could be a better gift to those we love?”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.