By Fr. Bill Kneemiller
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — I have some new bases to cover since the 82nd Airborne Infantry soldiers have now migrated to the Arghandab Valley. When I’m around the Infantry folk, the comfort level goes down a notch or two.
It’s my first experience sleeping in an unheated tent since being here, and the temps get down to about 35 degrees F, so I need the whole sleeping bag component system to stay warm, or break even with the cold.
Early one evening though, I did my first Mass in the open air, and it was stunningly beautiful with the canopy of stars above. I did the service in an open area used for the weightlifters, but there is a ring of fire stones, and we built a fire and used altar candles — white ones now in the advent wreath holder — which have a real value of providing light and a little heat. Afterwards, all the soldiers mentioned to me that they were grateful for the Mass here in this remote area.
The next morning I offered another Mass for the second-shift soldiers. As I was setting up for Mass, the sun was just coming over the surrounding mountains. The stark beauty of the rugged mountains was illuminated by the clear sunlight cutting through the crisp morning. I had a few minutes to squeeze in a few psalms from Morning Prayer, Thursday, week one. Psalm 48 leapt off the page, as these words perfectly describe the beauty of the surrounding mountains: “His holy mountain rises in beauty, the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48:2).
This experience reminded me of the value of the psalms and the Liturgy of the Hours. The military’s standard of “hurry up and wait” is real, and offers numerous opportunities for praying the hours of the Liturgy.
Ever ancient, ever new comes to mind in this ancient culture. My travel book, “Shorter Christian Prayer” is a welcome companion to the four-volume set for the Liturgy of the Hours as it is pocketbook sized, yet it contains Morning, Evening and Night Prayer.
As a side note, I looked up the origin for the term “Divine Office,” and learned that office refers to the Middle Latin meaning of “church service,” literally, “opis,” meaning “power, might, or abundance.” Prayer does have a power and produces abundance for us!
Counseling is a part of a chaplain’s duty. Unit leaders seek me out when I’m on a base if they have an at-risk soldier who is having difficulties and may even be thinking about suicide. At times, when this happens, I wonder whether I’m qualified to be a professional counselor, but I’m cast in this role, again and again.
One example, recently, was a soldier who gave me permission to discuss her case. She was an army sergeant on a command-directed “Chaplain consult.” She had just two weeks until the end of her tour, but her aged grandmother could no longer competently handle her two children.
I was at my wit’s end on this one; I knew the command would prefer her to complete the last two weeks in theater, but she was really distraught. Then I had an “a-ha” moment as I recalled that all units have an ADVON unit, or Advanced Re-deployment Unit. She could be on that and be close to her kids back home, too!
I briefed this with the unit commander. I told the commander, “Well, the sergeant could go to “Freedom’s Rest” (A retreat for stressed-out soldiers near Kabul) for a few days if she’s really stressed out, or go see the Combat Stress folks. But her problem with the family care program would remain, so
another possibility is the ADVON position. The commander was relieved just to have a plan. Not all the counseling sessions end this neat and tidy, but it’s nice when it does happen.
(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves. Write to him at: CH (CPT) William Kneemiller, 649th RSG- KAF, APO AE 09355.)