Twelve years of service as a Catholic chaplain in the Army have given me a deep respect for the men and women serving in the military. Though most soldiers deployed in combat zones are young (the majority under the age of 30), they are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their friends and for their country.
On one of my recent combat deployments, I was celebrating Mass in as many locations as possible to bring the sacraments to troops. Due to rugged terrain, most movements were done by helicopter. Though helicopter travel is the safest means of transportation, it often means an extended stay at a base until an aircraft for transport becomes available, or until combat operations permit travel.
I'll never forget one such time when I was stranded for several days at a small and remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) awaiting Army helicopter transport. An unexpected convoy arrived at the FOB with a very special mission. The soldiers explained that they had come from an even smaller and more remote FOB. Due to the location and isolation of their base, no Catholic priest had ever been able to reach them. After learning that a Catholic priest was at a base nearby, these soldiers had risked their lives to bring me to their location to celebrate Mass.
All chaplains in the military provide counsel and care to the troops, but a Catholic priest's primary mission is sacramental--to offer Holy Mass and confession. Though 20 percent of soldiers are Catholic, less than 6 percent of all Army chaplains are Catholic priests. More often than not, Catholic chaplains are not able to stay at one base or with one unit because the need is too great to visit troops who may not have encountered a Catholic priest in months.
Despite a perilous route filled with dangers from roadside bombs or attacks, the soldiers in the convoy decided it was worth the risk to organize a mission to find a priest. These young soldiers' hungry desire for God and Holy Communion was stronger than their fear of the dangers they faced. I was honored to travel with them, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to hear their confessions.
As I geared up for the return trip to my base, I was inundated with the most meaningful and heartfelt gestures of gratitude. These young men were so thankful to have the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in their midst and have the opportunity to attend Mass and have their confession heard by a priest. I never have encountered such profound and genuine thankfulness for the gift of the Eucharist--in combat zones or at home in the U.S. These experiences crystallize how important it is for our soldiers to have access to a priest and to the sacraments.
The ministry and presence of a chaplain can make all the difference for a soldier and help him or her find hope and comfort during difficult times--when a friend is wounded or killed, or when a soldier feels the loneliness that so often accompanies deployment. Away from home and loved ones for extended periods of time and living under the constant threat of attack and danger, soldiers look to a chaplain for normalcy and reminders of the love and comfort that family, friends, and faith provide.