I want to thank you in advance for taking care of my family while I’m gone,” I told the congregation after preaching at All Saints Lutheran, Bowie, Md., in February 2013. Maybe that sounds a little selfish, but I was about to be deployed for one year as anELCA military chaplain in Kabul, Afghanistan. I knew the congregation’s day-to-day care would faithfully mitigate many negative factors of the separation my wife Alyson, our four children and I faced.
I knew people would pray for us. All Saints names its deployed service personnel in the worship bulletin and in the prayers of the people at each worship service. My name would be remembered in prayer more than 100 times during the year. Not only did it honor my service and my family’s sacrifice, it kept the congregation mindful of our unique circumstance.
I also knew our transitions would be noted. While I was preparing to leave for the combat zone, our oldest son, Samuel, was getting ready for boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. So just before I left, Gary Rhinesmith, pastor of All Saints, held a brief service of commissioning and sending for Sam and me.
Relationships & resiliency
There are many routes to serving a year in Afghanistan. For a Navy reservist, the tour begins with a day or two at the local reserve center, followed by a week at a mobilization processing site, three weeks at a weapons training facility, a few days of travel and then more processing in Afghanistan.
One or two people might travel with you all the way through the process. But in most cases you repeatedly make and lose acquaintances until arriving at your final destination as the “newbie,” where relationships must be formed again.
Good relationships are vital for the personal resiliency and emotional health of a Marine, sailor, Coast Guardsman, airman, soldier or civilian working in the combat zone. While we are deployed, our communication with friends and family is limited only by our online access (via hot spots, USO facilities or personal subscriptions that can cost $80 a month) and the nine to 12 hour difference in time zones. Of course, in our faith tradition the key relationship for resiliency is our relationship with God through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As one of more than 150 military chaplains in Afghanistan, I helped ensure that U.S. personnel of all faiths had access to religious services. During my year in Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy presence went from more than 1,100 to somewhere around 500. The corresponding drop for Navy chaplains was from 18 to seven.
For the sailors remaining in the theater, the reduction in force meant early departures or reassignments to other commands and projects in Afghanistan. I went from a desk job in Kabul to a position monitoring and advising all regional commands in Afghanistan about respectful care for literature, furnishings and buildings for all faith groups.
In this position, I traveled more than 40,000 miles by air, made friends with Lutheran chaplains from Germany, Norway and Australia, and supported two congregations 500 miles apart on bases with no other chaplain.
My two interdenominational parishes received a uniquely Lutheran perspective on the gospel, and together we prayed for protection, peace and the success of our mission to enable the Afghan people to provide for their own security.
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