Jun 232010

Fr. Kneemiller

By Father Bill Kneemiller

Charlie Lasack passed away on Memorial Day, being  90 years young and a pillar of Lost Nation, his home, and Oxford Junction, his birth place.

Charlie did it all, served in Burma in WW II, survived the death of his first wife, and helped his second wife, Alice, raise her 11 children. Charlie loved the Catholic faith fervently.

After retiring, he opened up Sacred Heart Church at 4:30 a.m. when he would come in

to do what I called the “Dairy Farmer Rosary.” I’d meet him for a rosary a couple of times during the week and, before starting, he had to excitedly tell me about a Scripture reading he had done earlier that morning from “Word Among Us.” 

He was one of the first persons in Lost Nation to come and say hello when I moved into the rectory. When he came in to sit down, I had a feeling that Jesus had entered the room with him! Charlie lived and taught us how to be members of the body of Christ.

Another Visit to the Valley

Our Cedar Rapids unit, the 649th Regional Support Group, has begun our “countdown” since the unit coming in to replace us will be here in about a month. Our replacements will be warmly welcomed; the last month here at Kandahar Air Base has been intense. 

One example: The previous week my assistant and I were trying to get back on an 11 p.m. helicopter to Kandahar. About midnight, a sergeant mentions that the air base in Kandahar had some rocket attacks. So the flight was delayed a few hours. We didn’t want to leave the flight line because the helicopter could arrive earlier and it was the only flight for a few days.

We tried to sleep for a couple hours on the rocks of the flight line. I wanted to go to the sandy area about a football field away. But when the flights make a “combat landing,” they are on the ground for only minutes, so we had to sleep on the rocks. In the middle of the night, the Chinook helicopter arrived like a Greyhound Bus with twin blades descending from the sky — no more rock-sleeping!

Back at Kandahar I made it to the Arghandab Valley where some of the soldiers have had the most challenging and dangerous assignments. North of Kandahar, this was the site of the fiercest fighting during the Russian-Afghan war in the 1980s. From this fertile valley of the Arghandab River, the soldiers go on daily foot patrol and camp on small bases in the midst of orchards of pomegranate trees and grapes.

On one of the patrol bases were a couple of soldiers who wanted to come to Mass, but had to go on shift in the guard towers. I tried to get their section sergeant to give them a little time, but the whole base was short-handed. One of the soldiers led me to the guard towers where they had duty. I climbed up the 20-foot ladder and said I could do a short Communion service while the other helper stood guard for a minute. The soldier at the guard station was so surprised he wanted to get his camera to tell his buddies.

There, up in the guard tower overlooking the Arghandab valley, I was able to give Communion. I’ve learned from other Army priests to carry a pyx, and the other priest/chaplains carry the consecrated hosts in their top left pocket, so it will be close to their heart.

At the other guard tower, the other soldier tells me he has not made his first Communion yet, so I tell him he can start RCIA next month when he returns to Fort Bragg. Then, my helper tells me he just got engaged to his Catholic girlfriend who told him he needs to find a church to belong to. “Guess it should be Catholic, then,” he said. So I’m able to give both of these soldiers some introductory materials to learn before they return home. 

At the next patrol base, it’s a similar experience. As I set up for the “Sunday” Mass on a Tuesday afternoon, a private approaches. I recognize his name; he e-mailed me a couple of months ago saying he wanted to become Catholic. 

I pulled out my notebook of soldiers who have e-mailed me and showed him he was in the “Book of Remembrances.” He was amazed to see a chaplain with a book with his name in it.  Again, I was able to give a young soldier his first lesson on the Catholic faith.

As my year in Afghanistan winds down, I recall these moments as some of the best. Some of the younger soldiers have little knowledge of faith and religion, so even the basic prayers are like revelations. One reaction was, “So that’s the Hail Mary prayer!” 

They also need our prayers for protection, as they go out into this “Valley of the shadow of death” every day.  Throughout history young soldiers have borne the brunt of the suffering and agony of war.

When I was on leave in the St. Louis area, I talked with Father Urban Knoll, a retired diocesan priest, about this war. He mentioned that war equates to a “failure.” I believe this captures some of the frustrations many have with war, and the current ones in particular. The Book of Revelation speaks of war as a punishment for the sins of humanity. If we want to end wars, we need to start living like saints!

(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan.)

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