By Fr. Bill Kneemiller
AFGHANISTAN — It’s Thanksgiving week, and my assistant and I, Ssg. Hoyum, plan to be on the Forward Operating Bases all week. We are just entering the rainy season, so helicopter travel may be weather dependent.
As we get to our first flight schedule, its 0500, early Monday morning. I find a couple of encouraging signs for our travel this morning. As we walk out to the flight line, I see an Air Force sergeant who has a bottle of holy water strapped to his helmet. I congratulate him on his creative use of this sacramental, and he mentions that it’s necessary to have for flying in Afghanistan. I was then inspired to use his holy water to bless the Chinook helicopter and the flight crew who welcomed these prayers for safety.
The flight engineer comes out, and he has a miraculous medal showing with his dog tags. To complete the morning, one of the other soldiers has a holy card on his back pack featuring Jesus and the Divine Mercy. I am reminded how Catholics are attracted to visual signs of their faith, and everywhere I go I encourage soldiers to be proud of their faith and their belief in Jesus Christ.
These soldiers are going to the same base as I am, and I inform them of that fact.
I’ll have Mass that evening, right after chow. After Mass I give the soldiers some Catholic books such as “Why Do Catholics Do That?” and a condensed DVD version of Jeff Cavin’s “Bible Timeline.” One of the Infantry sergeants looks at the timeline study folder and comments, “Now this looks like a Bible study that is not boring!”
On to Base Baylough
We travel 40 miles north of the ancient city of Qalat, the most central and mountainous area (8,000-10,000 feet elevation) I will ever visit. The mountains surrounding the villages are beginning to be snow capped, and in the valley below are orchards of almond trees and small mud hut villages that likely look the same as they did 2,000 years ago.
One of the kitchen workers has Chinese features, and I’m reminded that Genghis Khan plundered Afghanistan in the 13th century with 300,000 Mongols. We are near the village of Kudak, and the main mode of transportation is by donkey.
In the base area, I see a soldier’s prayer in a bunk area, with a date from two years ago when this base was getting attacks on a daily basis.
The “Soldier’s Prayer” read:
Dear Lord, I am just a soldier, a protector of our land. A servant called to battle when my country takes a stand; I pray for strength and courage, and a heart that will forgive; for peace and understanding in a world for all to live. My family’s prayers are with me no matter where I roam. Please listen when I’m lonely and return me safely home.”
Just below this prayer is an inscription, “Rest in Peace Private First Class Zach Endsley, 3 July 1986-23 July 2007.”
This is a reminder for all of us to continue to pray for soldiers — far from home — but close to our hearts as our prayers follow them as a comfort and a shield.
(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves.)