March 13-14, 2010

Dear friends:

     Greetings from Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika Province!  Since my all-too-brief visit home in February things have significantly changed.  But before I write about the changes, I would like to thank all those who hosted me over my rest and relaxation period or offered me reassurance of their prayers for me and the troops during this deployment. 

     So what has changed?  It not only took five days to get from Afghanistan to California but it also took five days to get from California to Afghanistan.  While I was waiting at the base chapel in the mega-base of Bagram for my flight “home” to Jalalabad, the division chaplain for 82nd Airborne Division, in charge of Eastern Afghanistan (I always refer to him as “the big boss”), met me briefly and informed me that I was going to be transferred to the brigade south of my original area.  The switch was necessitated by the arrival of a new unit priest to my original brigade, giving us three priests while the brigade to the south had two who were shortly leaving the country.

     While the logic of moving a priest from a brigade with three to a brigade with none was unassailable, it still was a difficult order to accept.  The move had to be quick as the two priests to the south were departing soon, so I had five days (originally it was to be only three days) to say goodbye to the three Jalalabad bases, wrap up a number of administrative and sacramental tasks, and pack.  There was no time to visit the other bases I had tended to for seven months.  A few Catholics on the outlying bases received emails from me but most would find out once a new priest started visiting their bases with news of my transfer.  So goes life as a military priest.  I was fortunate that there was a meeting of the Protestant chaplains in the brigade during my last days in Jalalabad, so I had the opportunity to say goodbye to these junior chaplains who were generous in offering their friendship and concrete support to the “new guy” in Task Force Mountain Warrior as soon as I arrived in July.  I hope that some of them might be stopping by San Jose in the years ahead.

     For some strange reason most long-range military travel seems to occur at night.  Most of the international legs of my trips during this deployment began at some ungodly hour (well after midnight) and my trip to Sharana was the same.  There are no direct flights between Jalalabad and Sharana, so my assistant and I had to return to Bagram once again to make our connection to Sharana.  You can think of Bagram as the Afghan equivalent of Atlanta or O’Hare airports:  it is the air “hub” through which most “spokes” here connect.  After one night in Bagram where our flight was cancelled about midnight my assistant and I finally caught a flight the following night “Space-A” as the military would say, or “on standby” in the civilian world, about 1 in the morning.  While relieved to finally leave the “big city” of Bagram the downside was that we arrived about 2:30 at a fog-shrouded base we had never seen before and with the base chaplains having no idea that we had landed.  We had been warned that the terminal was far from the main part of the base and this proved to be the case.  While the terminal staff pointed out the road to the base the thought of walking with our gear in the pitch darkness of a strange base did not strike us as a smart idea, so we slept fitfully in the terminal and watched the tail end of “Avatar.”

     In the morning one of the base doctors came to the terminal to pick up a visitor, took pity on us, and dropped us off at the base chapel.  Thus began a day of nonstop activity every military member has upon arriving at a new unit:  checking in with various offices, meeting certain senior officers, getting a basic layout of the base, and being assigned billeting.  Add to this learning about my new job by the departing priest while not having slept much in the previous two days and one can understand why arriving at a new unit is a particularly stressful event in the life of a service member.

      The priest I was relieving was departing in conjunction with his brigade.  The incoming brigade is part of the Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division (the “Screaming Eagles”).  This brigade, Task Force Rakkasan, has an interesting history, which reads more like a Marine Corps unit than a stereotypical Army unit.  They had World War Two service in the Pacific and Japan, were in Korea alongside the Marines, and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  This particular brigade was with (or as my assistant says, behind) the Marines going into Baghdad during the 2003 invasion.  The unusual name comes from the Japanese for “falling down umbrella men,” which is how they were described when they first parachuted into Japan immediately after the Japanese surrender in World War Two.  Mountain Warrior’s area of operations had both desert and mountains, but this brigade’s area is much higher in altitude, far more mountainous, and is generally more primitive than the area around Jalalabad.  While violent, it has been less so recently than the area from which I came.  Right now the snow-covered mountains have ended the fighting season:  we’ll see what Spring brings us.

     In any case, this brigade did not have a priest assigned to it:  yet another tale stemming from the chronic priest shortage in the military.  The outgoing brigade had one assigned priest and a “loaner” from 82nd Airborne Division like myself.  The loaner’s story is particularly striking:  he was a 70 year old Franciscan priest called out of military retirement to serve two years straight (!) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now with 24 months in Middle East he gets to return to the United States.  I could only hope for God to give me half of his energy when I’m 72!

     Much like my time in Jalalabad I travel most days.  Unlike Jalalabad where I often had day trips, out here trips are always several days and cancelled flights due to poor weather are the norm.  For example, last week I planned to visit five bases:  I made it to one base on the itinerary, missed the other four, and ended up on a base I had not planned to visit until April before I arrived back in Sharana.

     Sharana reminds me of a Mexican town:  built around the original stone-walled base we call “Town Center,” many buildings have a tan color and adobe look one often finds south of the border.  The mud roads with beat-up cars and trucks certainly add to the atmosphere.  It is a rapidly-expanding base and so the facilities are inadequate for the number of Soldiers here despite the constant building by military engineers.  I have given up on the always-packed gym, preferring to jog and do calisthenics in the 7,000 foot altitude.  Let’s just say that I’m not setting any speed records while running around the base!  The MWR recreation center is mobbed at all hours as well, making it difficult for me to access those of you using the email account.  But the Soldiers, most of them new to Afghanistan, are generally optimistic and friendly on this remote and secure base, whereas on FOB Fenty in Jalalabad the stress of living in a very active warzone and on a base subject to occasional rocket and mortar attacks made the base mood more grim.

      Hopefully next month I will have the opportunity to write a more interesting letter than this one.  May we all have a blessed Lent and joyful celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection at Easter!

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Michael