Goodbye Iraq

An Army chaplain in Iraq reflects on the challenges serving Catholic soldiers as the U.S. military prepares to leave Iraq.

Father Joel Panzer has seen a lot in his five years in the military. Now he is witnessing the historic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

President Obama announced in October that all American forces, who have been in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, will leave the country by the end of this year.

Father Panzer, a native of Nebraska who was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln in 1994, entered the Army Reserve in 2006. He went on active duty with the military in 2008.

Now completing his second deployment to Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, based out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, the chaplain spoke with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond by telephone from a military base near Baghdad.

How does the experience of combat shape the spiritual lives of soldiers, and where does a military chaplain fit in to that?

Only a small percentage of soldiers engage in actual combat. Most are in support roles. Nevertheless, deployments tend to create unique stressors, and in the midst of these struggles, many begin to realize they are called to have a closer relationship with God.

The focus of an Army chaplain is to provide religious support, counseling and moral training for an entire unit — though only 25% of the Army is Catholic, and only about a quarter of those are actually practicing. And a lot of people who are not religious at all still need a good counselor to console them during marital difficulties and other troubles.

In addition to being the spiritual and moral leader, chaplains must also be physically fit in order to be respected in a unit. The better conditioned you are the more you can relate to younger soldiers, who will see you as a true soldier. I train every day with my soldiers when we’re back home in garrison and continue PT on my own almost daily here in Iraq.

The proximity of death also has to be dealt with. It takes a much greater trust in God and acceptance of his will whenever one is serving in a combat zone.

How do soldiers grapple with these fears?

I counsel some soldiers who do route clearance, a dangerous responsibility that increases the likelihood they might encounter an IED [improvised explosive device].

They want to be at peace, rather than preoccupied with the threat of death. They need to face any dangers that may come and can’t allow their emotions to distract from the mission. They think to themselves, I know my mission is dangerous, and I need to be prepared at all times to meet the Lord.

Right now, we’re at Camp Liberty, just outside of Baghdad. A while back, frequent rocket attacks stirred up some anxiety, causing some of my troops to face their own fears and the real prospect of death.

What inspired you to go into the military?

During college, I had an ROTC scholarship with the Air Force, but gave it up to enter the seminary. In 2005, I realized that the Iraq War would last longer than expected and there was a great need for Catholic chaplains. Most of the personnel going without the sacraments were in the Army, and that’s where I was needed.

At first, I wondered if I was too old: I entered the Army Reserve in 2006, when I was 38. My family was surprised, but very supportive. They understood that I had an inclination for military service, and they realized that I could be a priest and serve in the military at the same time.

The Diocese of Lincoln is blessed with priestly vocations, and Bishop [Fabian] Bruskewitz has been generous in providing chaplains. Our small diocese has two priests in the National Guard and two serving as active-duty Army chaplains.

Would you describe your first deployment to Iraq?

In the fall of 2008 through 2009, the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters was based outside of Tikrit, at COB Speicher — the U.S. Army Contingency Operating Base in north-central Iraq, about 95 miles north of Baghdad. 

Our base, a large airfield of 16 square miles, was well protected. However, when we traveled outside the base each week to offer Mass, insurgent activity increased the risk. The biggest concern was IEDs, which demolished vehicles in some other units’ ground convoys. Every trip required a certain amount of peace and trust in God.

About once a month we’d try to reach each unit in the outlying areas. The soldiers are always very appreciative to be able to attend Mass and go to confession. The missions each week had to be arranged well in advance, usually requiring a convoy of four vehicles or two helicopters. Weather is the biggest issue that can make it hard to fly.

Don’t Catholic chaplains have distinctive duties that increase the likelihood that they will be injured or killed?

As a Catholic chaplain, I have two roles: I’m a unit chaplain to all 800 soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, Catholic or not. But, as a priest, I am a high-demand, low-density chaplain. That means I travel out to other units in our area who don’t have their own priest. 

Protestant chaplains are only in charge of the soldiers in their battalion, because the Army doesn’t make distinctions among Protestant chaplains from different denominations. So, if you’re a Lutheran solider and you want a Lutheran chaplain, there might not be one available in your area.

But the Army recognizes there are essential differences between Protestant and Catholic chaplains: Only a Catholic priest can hear confessions and say Mass. That distinction is a good thing for Catholic soldiers because it ensures the Army will support moving the priest around the area of operations. I travel and offer Mass in the entire area of responsibility covered by the 25th Infantry. Most chaplains would not do that. And, yes, frequent travel in a combat zone increases the risk that you may be injured or killed.

Counseling is a big part of a chaplain’s responsibility. What are the most common concerns?

It seems like the biggest problem is marital issues. After multiple deployments, family life can suffer. Many soldiers are headed towards divorce or separation.

But I have been able to help my soldiers realize that they shouldn’t make a hasty decision to divorce, even if they have grown apart from their spouse or if there has been infidelity. I encourage them to take time to work things out and get professional counseling when they get home.

A lot of the younger Catholic soldiers are not married in the Church. They might have married quickly prior to deployment, and rather than deal with their underlying emotional and spiritual issues, they prefer to divorce and try again. Some, however, are interested in getting back into the faith. They want their civil marriage to be blessed in the Church.

Nor are the younger soldiers well catechized. Many come from difficult backgrounds; some have been raised by single parents or grandparents. Many of the minority groups represented in the Army have Catholic roots but lack familiarity with Church teachings and practices.

On both deployments I’ve been able to teach a full RCIA class for soldiers serving on larger bases who can attend on a regular basis over a five-month period. Some are Catholics wanting to deepen their faith, and others are Protestant or non-baptized interested in joining the Church. At smaller bases, I encourage soldiers struggling with their beliefs not to lose heart and to remain connected to their Catholic faith.

The U.S. military will withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. How have the troops reacted to the news?

After multiple deployments, most are very happy that we are concluding our efforts to help the people in Iraq establish their own form of government. The average soldier is ready to hand things over to the Iraqi people because we have been here so long and sacrificed so much blood and treasure. It’s time for the Iraqi people to come together and learn to function as an independent nation.

How do the troops assess our legacy in Iraq?

Some are rather cynical and believe the war hasn’t changed anything: We are leaving in place a corrupt and tribal government that can’t unify itself and move forward as a true democracy because the culture in the Middle East is not conducive to that.

But others say the government in Iraq has gone from a ruthless dictatorship to a limited democracy in just a few years, and even in America it took us many years to establish an effective democratic government. Thus, it will take many decades to see if this effort will endure. They are realistic.

Regardless of the outcome, soldiers are proud of their numerous sacrifices and faithful service here. Many have given four or five years of their life over many deployments to Iraq. They are ready to say it will pay off, but a lot is up in the air.

The problems at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison shocked the nation. How did you react to the reports of systemic abuse at the prison?

What happened there was an exception to the rule. The vast majority of soldiers today are disciplined and well-trained professionals. Compared to every other previous conflict, Iraq has had a much smaller number of abuse issues and violations of the rules of engagement. Generally, when those problems do occur, it’s the result of a lack of leadership across the board, from the sergeant right up to the commander.

The chaplain is the moral voice who should tell the commander, or even go above that individual, if necessary, in order to address a wrong. But soldiers are recruited from across our nation, and they are merely a reflection of the moral condition of our society as a whole. In particular, when recruiting standards were lowered for a time a few years ago, we paid a price. Bad apples were allowed in as part of the effort to grow the Army, but now standards have been restored, and unfit or poor-performing soldiers are not being retained.

As President Bush prepared for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II challenged the moral basis for America’s military action. As a Catholic chaplain, how do you grapple with the moral issues related to military commitments and the conduct of war?

At some point, a priest will counsel soldiers who have trouble with the idea of taking human life, even when doing so in the midst of combat.

The very serious decision to go to war is made by the president and Congress, and we in the military have agreed to serve. While it’s certainly preferable to believe a particular conflict is relevant and righteous, for soldiers there isn’t always that luxury. We are servants of our nation who accept any lawful order. Americans tend to be fickle, especially when confronted with long-term engagements. Eighty percent were in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, but now the mantra is: “Support the soldier even if you don’t support the war.”

But it helps me personally as a priest to realize that whatever soldiers are tasked to do they will carry out in a responsible and ethical way. Our actions here have been carried out correctly, and sacrifices have been made to avoid civilian casualties and help the country rebuild. 

War is a necessary evil that can be justified in certain circumstances, and the Army bases its decisions on the principles of just war developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. No one likes to go to war, but our nation abides by rules and conventions, unlike the enemy insurgent forces.

Have most Americans drifted away from military culture? Do they appreciate the sacrifices that so many men and women in uniform have made?

The argument has been made recently that only 1% of the nation understands military service, and the rest don’t. Perhaps most haven’t experienced it, but our nation does show its appreciation: Care packages are constantly being received in the chaplain’s office, we are always welcomed when we come home from deployment, and soldiers have received increases in pay, benefits and congressional funding of numerous programs for military families and veterans.

The average soldier does not feel unappreciated or unloved, because we see gratitude in so many concrete ways and actions.

What is distinctive about military culture?

It’s a commitment to certain values — the Army values that define the culture. Commitment to one’s fellow soldiers is very important: the person to your left or your right. The soldier says to himself, I’m fighting for my battle buddy. There’s a lot of camaraderie between soldiers who have gone through intense experiences together.

There is also an emphasis on personal discipline —  keeping oneself physically and mentally resilient.

What are your future plans?

I will stay on active duty in the Army for as long as my bishop and the Army want me to. My next assignment will be to serve as a priest-chaplain recruiter.

There’s a need for many more Catholic chaplains.

There’s a great need. Currently, only 97 out of 1,650 Army chaplains are Catholic, reflecting the general decline in priestly vocations. During the middle of the war, we saw an uptick in the number of chaplain candidates studying for the priesthood across all the services. However, the Army is now reaching a point where retirements have pushed down our numbers, from 110 active-duty Catholic chaplains in January of last year to a projection of just 90 by June of 2012.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.