By Anne Marie Amacher
LOST NATION — When Father William Kneemiller was deployed to Iraq from 2003-04, he dreamed of starting a greenhouse and buying a sectional couch upon his return.
He fulfilled those dreams after returning to the United States and moving into the rectory at Sacred Heart Parish in Lost Nation. He serves as pastor of that parish and of St. James Parish in Toronto and Sacred Heart Parish in Oxford Junction.
His time to enjoy the greenhouse and sectional couch are winding down as he prepares to leave this summer for his next deployment — to Afghanistan.
He spoke with The Catholic Messenger about his approaching deployment during an interview earlier this month in the Lost Nation rectory.
Fr. Kneemiller said he and fellow members of the U.S. Army Reserve unit are in the denial stage. “It’s the first stage of deployment. You think something will happen that the deployment will be called off. Maybe the plane won’t show up.”
But he said the next stage is coming out of denial as they arrive at their new assignment.
During his previous deployment, reality set in when he entered Iraq. He thought to himself, “This was real.”
Chaplain (Capt. CPT) Kneemiller will be deployed with the 649 RSG Unit out of Cedar Rapids. RSG stands for Regional Support Group. During his Iraq tour he served with the engineers out of Dubuque. He joined the Cedar Rapids unit because of an opportunity for a promotion.
According to the Archdiocese of Military Services USA, a “severe shortage of Catholic chaplains” exists in the military services. Other denominations have shortages as well, Fr. Kneemiller noted.
About 300 Catholic priests serve as military chaplains. They are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, which serves U.S. military personnel, their families, reserve and National Guard units and Veteran’s affairs hospitals and other duties.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who was installed in January 2008 as the head of the Military Services USA Archdiocese, said his primary goal is to find more chaplains, as noted on the Military Services Web site.
Back in Iowa, Fr. Kneemiller celebrated his last Masses June 20-21 at the three parishes he serves. Before leaving, he hoped to go over details about the parishes and care of the garden with Father Gregory Steckel who will serve as administrator pro tem during Fr. Kneemiller’s absence.
Bill VanWael, parish council president for St. James Parish, said he is proud of Fr. Kneemiller for his service to our country. “He will be missed. We are fortunate to have Fr. Greg to fill in. And as far as we know, Fr. Bill will come back to our parishes when he returns. But that’s up to the bishop.
“Fr. Bill is a good priest, thoughtful and religious. He has a style of his own.”
After finishing his parish preparations, Fr. Kneemiller planned to visit family in St. Charles, Mo., before heading to California for additional training prior to leaving for Afghanistan.
One difference with this deployment is that his service time starts when he arrives in California. During his previous deployment, he was in Iraq for 12 months, but with pre- and post-deployment time he was gone for a total of 16 months.
While serving in Afghanistan, Fr. Kneemiller will wear his “Catholic hat” on the weekends for Masses. During the rest of the week he will offer nondenominational Bible studies, serve as a counselor as needed and perform officer duties and physical training.
“I like that accountability,” the 59-year-old priest said.
Because Afghanistan is mountainous, he won’t have much opportunity to sightsee, as he did in Iraq where he was able to visit many biblical sites.
The availability of chaplains serving at his and area bases will factor into traveling plans.
He looks forward to learning about the culture and Islam, the faith that the Muslims there practice.
Reflecting on what he’ll miss, besides the parishioners at his three parishes, he talks about the community life he enjoys and, of course, his greenhouse.
“This is a close community. You do stuff together. That’s part of the fun of a small town.”