By Fr. Bill Kneemiller
First Visit to a COB
KANDAHAR AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — Here’s a story about a visit north of here: There are “FOBs and there are COBs” — forward operating bases and combat operating bases.
It’s my first visit to COB Lane. I fly on a Chinook — a large helicopter — to a base, and then off late one night on a Blackhawk “helo” that carries up to 10 people. We leave from Qalat City, and below I can see the outlines of a fort built by Alexander the Great about 300 years before the birth of Christ.
We land in a remote area, surrounded by mountains, and close by is a village with apricot trees and wheat fields. It’s on a small river bed that has water in the rainy season starting this fall, and a good water table the rest of the year. But it’s still very dry and “doesn’t look like Kansas” — the line from “Wizard of Oz” comes to mind.
The base is staffed by mostly infantry soldiers and has a real macho feel. At the chow hall I told one of the soldiers that my voice got deeper just being around these guys. I soon learn they have a tough duty here. In this remote area of southern Afghanistan the roads are so bad that a Humvee has difficulty going over them. And these trucks are built to go over curb-sized rocks.
The nearly impassable roads are only the first obstacles. The infantry’s mission is two-fold: they go into local villages and establish contact with village elders and offer aid, and also seek to identify Taliban fighters.
The U.S. soldiers talk about the frustration of giving aid to villagers one day and then the Taliban comes in the next week and beats up those who have accepted aid. But the average income here is only about $300 a year per person — the local people need any assistance offered to them. The assistance offered is practical, most of which is agricultural aid or wheat seeds and fertilizer.
About 10 hours after the convoy leaves, it returns to base at sunset. But when the troops return to the chow hall, they find that most of the main dish is eaten up. Still, they don’t grumble, which impressed me.
That night, after their day’s briefing, and chow, I offer a chapel service. They haven’t seen a chaplain in over three months so I start with a general Scripture for everyone and finish with Communion for the Catholic soldiers.
I always begin a service with some prelude music from a CD player I carry. As one of the soldiers is listening to the soft praise music, he is moved by the beauty of the melody — and what a contrast this music presents from the unrelenting stresses of the day: the heat, sandstorms and worries about the safety of the route. And now, it’s like he’s being transported to another world — one of harmony, peace, light and security. The contrast between the light of Christ’s love and the darkness of stress and anxiety is profound. As this soldier and his buddies take a little respite, I think of the love of Christ that envelopes us all into his mystical body.
Here at Kandahar Air Base, I am the garrison chaplain. I’m in this position because our brigade fell in on base operations. I get ample opportunities for ecumenical dialogue with the other 20 military chaplains here, plus the Muslim workers.
One Friday afternoon, I notice that our rabbi, Chaplain (CPT) Messenger has just arrived from Bagram Air Base. He’s at the line for the barber shop.
“Hey Rabbi, are you getting a haircut before the Sabbath (Sabat)?” The rabbi replies, “Actually, yes.” The rabbi then tells me that he did not want to subject even the barber to work on the Jewish Sabbath.
I press him on this, and he says the origin of the prohibition is from the account of building the covering for the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 25. It was forbidden to shear sheep to make wool on the Sabbath, and cutting hair is akin to shearing. What impresses me is the Jewish remembrance of events about 3,500 years ago, and how they are fresh in the memories of the Orthodox Jews.
Later that day, I see the Muslim workers come into the chapel to prepare for their Friday service. For Muslims, Fridays are the same as our Sundays. I see the leaders, Talat and Adullah, and ask them, “What is today?” and they know the answer I told them last week — “It’s TGIF,” “Thank goodness it’s Friday,” or “Thank Allah it’s Friday.”
I recently found out that the Palestinian Christians also use the word Allah for God, because that’s the Arabic word common to all the faiths. Talat and Adullah like my adaptation to this Friday greeting, and when I leave, I open the front door and say, “Welcome to Namas” —their word for prayer time. Then it occurs to me that maybe Bishop Martin Amos wouldn’t want me to stand in front of the chapel all afternoon saying, “Welcome to Namas.” I go back to the Chaplain Ministry Center, and back to another day here at Kandahar Air Base.
(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves.)