By Fr. Bill Kneemiller
It’s a week before Christmas, and I have about 10 Forward Operating Bases to get to. I start off at Base Farah, which is about an hour from the Iran boarder.
From here, the Battalion Protestant chaplain, CH Shin, askes me if I want to go to Base Shewan, which is less than two hours away. I agree, since I can’t get a flight back to Kandahar until the end of the week, and it’s only Tuesday.
So I’m off for a few days with the 82nd Airborne Infantry. We get to a new base that just got gravel down, meaning we don’t have to walk in four inches of moon dust. The chow hall, where I do a Mass, has no heat. It’s 8 p.m., and I can see my breath as the cold creeps close to above-freezing temps.
I realize that back home in Iowa, the weather we’re experiencing here would seem like a heat wave. But I’m not used to doing Mass and seeing my breath at the same time, and am grateful for the four Advent candles newly shipped in from Religious Supply Center in Davenport. The candles supply a little heat and light to read in the dimly lit chow tent. The only Christmas music I have is a country music CD of George Strait. He does a great job with “Silent Night” with the country fiddles sounding like violins. Best of all, the soldiers really sing along as George’s country twang has struck a chord with them and me, too, and we start our service.
There are only two platoons (50 soldiers) here, but this is the first Catholic chaplain visit they have had ever. The next day with CH Shin also providing a service for the collective Protestant folk, we’ll have about half the unit attending services. That’s the best percentage I’ve seen yet, and these are people in the 20-24-year-old age group, too, the group I call the “post-moderns.”
One of the iInfantry soldiers describes their patrol when they are on outpost duty. A platoon of about 25 soldiers goes to an outpost and will be there for days or a week at a time. They will bring only a few sleeping bags to prevent hypothermia. At night, the soldiers will get only a little sleep, though they will wear their poly-pros, which is a quality type of long johns, but the soldiers get little sleep during these maneuvers. I’m surprised by the austerity of it all, and CH Shin tells me that’s what they train to do, and take pride in their gung-ho life styles. They have a sense that not everyone can do this, and I certainly agree with them.
About half of the Infantry here has been through Ranger School and that is considered by some to be more arduous than SEAL training. Even with their training and their youthful energy, these assignments tax their strength and endurance. This Christmas, say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the sacrifices these soldiers make for all of us. — CH Kneemiller
P.S. A special thanks for letters and soldier care packages and school supplies sent to us. Merry Christmas!
Stories from the valley
I’m off to another Forward Operating Base, in west Kandahar, and it’s a unique time to be here with the infantry soldiers. A brigade chaplain has informed me that in a couple of days they will move out to one of the river valleys where the Taliban is entrenched. The idea is that the infantry will set up operations right in their AO — area of operation — and discourage the Taliban with their presence. This likely will be one of the greatest challenges this infantry unit will face this year. I am fortunate to be with the unit only a day before its mission begins. Since their time is so crunched, I offer two Masses, both after the chow hour.
The average age of the soldiers here is about 22, and a number of the solders are still in their teens. I’m impressed by their focus as throughout the day they engage in field-staging operations or live firing ranges.
Dozens of soldiers come to the services, which is encouraging for me. This age group is at the stage of finding things out for themselves, and sometimes chapel services are not on the short list of favorite activities.
But dozens are coming in to the Mass, along with a couple of soldiers who inquire about receiving sacraments. I sign them up for e-learning with my Army e-mail. At the end of the homily, I tell a little story about my deployment to Iraq: About a week before leaving for Iraq, I was at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and I realized I had to come to grips with entering a war zone. Then Psalm 23 came to mind, and to life: “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me, with your rod and your staff, they comfort me …”
I realized that I was going to walk in the very shadow of death, and I only had one real person — the good Lord — to depend on. I told the soldiers this little story, and I mentioned that they too, would be walking in this valley. Again, I’ve had many privileged moments here with the soldiers, and a great deal of it is just being here, experiencing even a small part of what they are going through.
(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves.)