Back in Iraq

On Veterans’ Day, I joined with veterans from throughout the world in praying for our deployed troops and their families, and in reflecting on my time on active duty with the Air Force. This is the first Veterans’ Day on which I have not been on active duty since 1998. I found myself thinking especially about my service in Iraq in 2004. I have many friends who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today. I remember them daily in prayer.

Veterans who have served our country most recently are often assisted in their remembrances by technology such as e-mails, digital pictures and videos. Here is an excerpt from an e-mail I wrote on my first week in Iraq:

“Good afternoon from Iraq,

“I arrived here on Sunday after an unexpected layover in Qatar. I concelebrated Mass at Qatar on Sunday with Father Rowan. He was a great host for an unexpected guest!

“I have hit the ground running since arriving at Balad Air Base. Father Decker left to be with his mother about 3-4 weeks ago. Thank God he was able to be with her during her last days before passing to the Lord. The people here love him and they have been longing for a priest. One of the first things I did was to enhance our daily Mass schedule from 3 days a week to 6 days a week. I am celebrating Mass at different times on different days to give people on various shifts the opportunity to come.

“One of my main ministries is at the medical tent. Yesterday was my first day there. The medical staff and our injured troops are inspirational! The young men and women who are transported here from the field, often with serious injuries, are strong and brave. The first soldier I met was suffering from multiple wounds, yet he was concerned about the staff and other patients. ‘Is she alright?’ ‘Father, maybe you should go get something to eat.’ When I met him, I told him we prayed and ministered to everyone, but did he have a religious preference? He said he was Catholic. I said ‘I am a Catholic priest’ and, with a smile on his face, he said ‘Sweet!’ I anointed him, stayed with him and counseled/ consoled him until he was transported. He said, ‘Never has a priest cared so much for me.’ I tell you this, not to say anything about what I did, but to affirm what you already know and dedicate yourselves to: our troops need priests and the sacraments desperately. I feel privileged and honored to serve the Lord and our troops here.

“The greatest prayer needs here are for those who are in harm’s way, for our injured and killed heroes, and for troops and their families suffering from separation. I told the airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines who were injured, and whose families did not know yet, that I had people praying for them as well...that they were surrounded by prayer. Thank you for your prayers.”

Even though I wrote this message two years ago, the need for priests, sacraments and prayers remains in all war-torn areas of our world. Currently about a dozen Boston priests are serving our military community throughout the world. Some of our Boston priests are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I repeat what I wrote in my first e-mail from Iraq, thank you for your prayers for our troops. Today I also ask, remember our chaplains in your prayers when you lift our troops up to the Lord.

Father Richard Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.