Courage and Faith Under Fire In Afghanistan

Lt. Col. Mark Mitchell knows what its like to be in the line of fire in Afghanistan.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross last fall, the second-highest honor in the military, “unparalleled courage under fire, decisive leadership and personal sacrifice” in the battle for Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. Mitchell, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces — or Green Berets — led an effort to quell an uprising of 500 Taliban prisoners of war in November 2001.

Before fresh casualties were reported from Afghanistan Jan. 29, Mitchell, 38, a native of Milwaukee and a graduate of Marquette University, spoke with Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber about life as a Catholic in the military.

Where does receiving the Distinguished Service Cross fit into your understanding of your vocation as a career military officer?

In short, to me, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross is a recognition that I have lived up to the highest expectations of my chosen vocation. The Army has identified loyalty, duty, respect, selfless sacrifice, honor, integrity and personal courage as “core values” essential to our success as an organization.

The Distinguished Service Cross recognizes those who have embraced and demonstrated courage and selfless sacrifice in the face of great danger in order to fulfill their duty and accomplish the mission.

As a Special Forces officer, I have explicitly accepted the risks and responsibilities inherent in leading soldiers on the battlefield in defense of our nation and its Constitution. At the core of leadership is the willingness and ability to set an example for others to follow and emulate.

The Distinguished Service Cross is recognition that, under difficult circumstances, I fulfilled those leadership responsibilities, successfully translated the Army values into action and achieved my mission on the battlefield.

Have you had any specific mentors or role models who have combined the Catholic faith and life in the military?

I have been fortunate throughout my military career to be exposed to numerous people who have combined their faith and life in the military. They have all served as role models, but I can't say there has been one person in particular, other than my own father, who has served as a role model.

Although my father did not serve in the military, he still had a demanding career as a federal prosecutor and now as a criminal defense attorney. Yet despite the demands of his career, he has always been a devout Catholic, active in the Church and an exceptional role model for me.

Did your education at a Catholic high school and college enhance your understanding of living out a vocation as a Catholic in the military, or was that something that was not really addressed?

I don't think the military as a vocation was specifically addressed at either level.

Nonetheless, my Catholic faith and education are the prism through which I view the world and as such greatly affects my understanding of my chosen vocation.

The same would be true regardless of whether I had joined the military or not and really serves to underscore the importance of a Catholic education.

As a devout Catholic and a Green Beret, how do you bring together these two significant aspects of your life?

It is not as difficult as some might think. I believe the Army values I mentioned are equally relevant to both my military duties and my obligations as a Catholic.

In addition to being a Special Forces officer, I am also a third degree member of the Knights of Columbus. In practical terms, these spiritual and martial aspects are brought together in my duties as a Knight. As a Knight, I am called on to defend my country, my family and, most importantly, my faith.

The values I embrace as a soldier are also applicable to the defense of our faith, especially in our contemporary society.

Is there anything about life in the military that makes it difficult to be a serious, practicing Catholic?

There are times when it can be difficult to practice certain elements of my faith.

Yet despite the challenges, my faith has endured. Long deployments to remote regions, especially combat zones, can sometimes make it difficult to attend Mass regularly, especially with the shortage of Catholic chaplains. And the separation from my wife and children, especially since Sept. 11, has been difficult for me.

However, these obstacles are temporary and rather than challenging my faith serve only to deepen it by highlighting their importance. I think it is a natural human tendency to take some things for granted, especially when they are always available. It is amazing how even brief absences can emphasize how fundamentally important they are.

What elements of your faith were you able to draw upon during that incredible experience in Afghanistan?

First and foremost, I relied on my faith in a merciful God and the hope of redemption and eternal life enabled by the resurrection of Christ.

The battlefield forces you to confront evil and death, face to face. To me, the battlefield would be an inexplicable and even more terrifying place in the absence of this faith-based framework, including a belief in the reality of evil, to give perspective and meaning to the events I witnessed.

It would be difficult and senseless to face the prospect of mortal death and the separation from my loved ones without a sense of purpose and strong hope in resurrection. I found myself frequently saying the rosary and the Memo-rare throughout my experience in Afghanistan.

What is your assessment of the role of Catholic chaplains in the armed forces today?

There are significant numbers of practicing Catholics in the armed forces competing for the services of fewer Catholic chaplains. I believe the importance of Catholic chaplains in the military has never been higher, precisely because their numbers are declining.

Regardless of their numbers, though, Catholic chaplains continue to play an essential role in the spiritual and moral well-being of service members. Chaplains of other denominations and faiths can play a limited role, but for the practicing Catholic, there is obviously no substitute for a Catholic priest, especially on the eve of battle.

There is no greater service a Catholic chaplain can provide to men and women preparing for battle than offering Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation. Further, for the wounded and dying, the anointing of the sick is a great comfort. None of this is possible without the dedicated service of Catholic chaplains.

The virtue of valor is not one that is often heard about these days. In fact, your award had not been given since the end of the Vietnam War. Is there a dearth of valor in the world or in the military these days?

No, I do not believe there is a dearth of valor, especially in our military forces. I know there are men and women serving in our military who confront danger daily and do so with unheralded valor.

I look back on the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11 and think of all of the brave men and women who risked their own lives to save others — the epitome of valor.

I truly think there is a great deal of valor and heroism but we don't see or hear quite as much about it because it is drowned out by the stories of avarice and immorality that dominate the media.

What about the Distinguished Service Cross, if anything, is an echo or a reflection of the cross of Christ? Is there any connection between these symbols?

Whether the result of a conscious decision or by chance, I think there is an unmistakable reflection of the cross of Christ in the Distinguished Service Cross.

Aside from the obvious difference in the magnitude, both symbolize a willingness to sacrifice your own life for the greater good.

Father Matthew Gamber writes from Spokane, Washington.