By Fr. Ioane Sigarara, MSC (Military Chaplain)
It is early August and right at the end of the hottest time of the year in Afghanistan. The temperature varies from 115F dry blistering heat in places such as Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in the South to sweltering humid 110 F in Jalalabad, Gardez and Khost provinces in the East and dry 90s during the day but cool nights and mornings in the higher elevations such as Kabul, and Bagram Airbase.
I am in Afghanistan for my fourth deployment and back in my old job as Catholic Chaplain assigned to the United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) Command Chaplains Office. USFOR-A HQ is staffed by the storied 101st Airborne Division also known as the Screaming Eagles. The 101st Airborne Division won fame and glory in WWII seeing action in some of the bloodiest battles for the liberation of Europe. The Division featured prominently in the in the D Day parachute drops behind enemy lines in Normandy France and fought in the famous battles such as Operation Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
I remember watching War movies back in the mid to late 60’s that features Screaming Eagles such as: “The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge and A Bridge Too Far”. Those movies featuring the fighting spirit of Screaming Eagles left a deep impression me as a young boy. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I one day be part of that famous fighting Division.
The USFOR-A Command Chaplain Team is led by the 101 Command Chaplain CH (COL) Murphy and SGM Winters. The others of the staff are myself and SGT Sunga a petite female soldier with plenty of fight and grit. On one of my Battlefield Circulations (BFC) Sgt Sunga almost took down a colonel from a NATO country who inadvertently had her rifle pointed at me.
My job is basically the same as it was in my three previous deployments – to provide Catholic coverage to the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) designated by the CMD CH. I cover 8 FOBs. These FOBs can be anything from an 18 – 20 minute helicopter ride for the close ones and up to one hour or more for the distant ones. If there are many stops these trips could morph into to several hours.
The good thing about this deployment is that there are five US Priests in the Afghan theater compared to two priests in 2015 and 2016 and for a time in early 2015 I was the only US priest in all of Afghanistan. Even with five priests we still have lots of area to cover and movement can be very unpredictable. The general goal is to have mass at the designated FOBs once a month but twice a month would be the ideal. | visit five distant FOBs on my route twice a month and the three big FOBs in the Kabul area every weekend for mass.
Catholic priests are such a rare asset out here that Army Command has given us VIP flying privileges, which means that priests have the same priority flying privileges as a one star general. In that regard the US Army stands alone and its one of the admirable endearing features of US Army. Chaplains are an integral component of all Army Units from battalion level through to Corps and the highest command level. Other than providing for religious services, nurturing the living caring for the wounded and honoring the dead, chaplains also operate as staff officers advising their commanders on whole range of issues on morals, morale of the troops etc. The US Army will go to great lengths to ensure soldiers have access to chaplains who can provide for their faith needs. Such a commitment gives me a deep sense of purpose, meaning, job satisfaction and great pause for reflection. It is indeed a blessing to be serving America’s finest in this combat environment.
The mode of transport to every FOB on my route is rotary (helicopters). For the more distant FOBs in the South and North it is fixed wing and then rotary out to the smaller FOBs. Rotary is always two (or more) helicopters. It is not unusual that I am the sole passenger on some of these flights. It’s quite compelling when you begin taking in all the effort that goes into planning, staging and executing such missions – the manpower, assets, flight plan and risks involved to get me from point A to point B. That is no simple feat in a combat environment wrought with all kinds of uncertainties and dangers.
I think about the air crew who fly me back and forth through some of the world’s most dangerous terrain. These are very brave committed young Americans who have more to lose than me. Most of them are young and just starting out their Army career. Others battle tested veterans of many deployments both in Iraq, Africa and here in Afghanistan. I think about their families and loved ones back home and their sacrifice. They weigh heavily on my mind and I make sure to pray for them and their families. During the flight I pray several decades of the rosary for their safety and wellbeing. I have gotten to know some of these airmen and the folks who man the Landing Zones (LZ) quite well. They all know me as the flying priest.
Early in my deployment I had the happy surprise of meeting PFC. Waqa a giant young Fijian Screaming Eagles soldier who is a waist door gunner on one of the Chinooks I regularly take. I would be interested to hear how Waqa ended up in the US Army like me; but regrettably the only time we meet is like this when I’m on his Helicopter. Waqa is focused on scanning the ground and skies for danger with his big hands ever on his weapon. So it’s a quick bula (hello) when I board and moce (goodbye) when I disembark the aircraft.
My current routine is that I fly out on Saturdays to cover three Kabul FOBs and return to Bagram on Mondays. I then fly out again Tuesday to visit two FOBs in the East and alternate the next week for three FOBs in the mountain areas and return to Bagram on Thursdays. Fridays is the one day I don’t fly. As Fridays are Muslim prayer days we have what we call slow mornings. So I get to sleep in, tend to my laundry, go to the gym then show up at the office after lunch to catch up on emails, correspondences, reports, prepare homilies etc. Then Saturday I get to repeat the routine all over again. Travelling can be tiring but when one is doing something one loves doing, you don’t quite notice it besides it really makes the days go by quickly. I also have the incredible team support of CH Murphy, SGM Winters and SGT Sunga. They make sure I’m well taken care of with flights and people on the ground in the various FOBs.
Showtimes for rotary flights is one and a half hour (before wheels up) and fixed wing is two hours. So a lot of my time is spent waiting. And with flight delays due to weather, engine problems, or flights rerouted for other priority missions… waiting becomes the norm. Its amazing how waiting or how one waits can really develop and shape character. After all much of our faith is about is essentially waiting on God. To while away the hours I would talk to fellow travelers, pray my office, say the rosary, read, go over my homily notes, listen to music that I downloaded on my phone, think or take a nap.
I can honestly say that I’m never bored with the long waits. I have come to accept and embrace waiting as a part of my routine out here just as flying is. I have often been amazed at the things I think about and the conversations I have with myself and God while waiting to fly. One of the things I think and talk to God about is my health. It does concern me that I need to be fit to keep such a heavy travel routine and I owe it to God to the soldiers and to myself to keep fit. If I go down so many soldiers get denied the mass and sacraments. So I do try to make time for gym, eat a proper diet and rest.
Prior to coming on this deployment I was slated to go Iraq in November of last year. I was getting chest pains and shortness of breath. I had stopped taking cholesterol meds for two years thinking that I had the cholesterol problem licked. That was a mistake plus the rich cheese and meat dishes from my stint in Romania added to my high cholesterol numbers. Doctors also informed me that it’s probable that I have atherosclerosis (blockages in my heart vessels) and was thus refracted back home to recover.
I made the resolve to beat this health condition naturally through diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. My doctor however put me on medication and I added my own herbal concoction of apple cider vinegar, ginger, garlic and lemons. I tried being totally vegan but my cannibal ancestral roots keeps getting the better of me. I’d fall for chicken… especially chicken curry… but no red meat. Now seven months later I am in the mountains of Afghanistan and six days a week I am humping battle gear and pack which add up to about 80 lbs. Its heavy going but my heart health is much improved. It’s certainly not in the same heart health category as it was in 2014 but every day is an improvement.
It’s ironic that I have to come back to this harsh and extreme environment to improve my health. It’s confounding but as a person of faith and one who is convinced of God’s hand in my life this is the best proving ground for me. Why else would I be given this chance? God always has the better plan.
Out here my focus and energy is on ministering to our soldiers. Much of that depends on my physical, spiritual, emotional fitness so the onus is on me to keep in shape and tuned in and grounded in a strong Spiritual life. There are many things out here that can get in the way of a chaplains total fitness and become a negative distraction. Constant travelling, the disruption of ones routine, the constant elevation changes and disrupted sleep patterns can quickly sap ones energy and vitality.
The trick is to ensure that you maximize on whatever time to rest and rejuvenate and never let the heavy schedule become an excuse for not keeping a regular prayer habit – praying the Divine Office and daily scripture readings. When I’m flying I spend the first portion of the flight praying the rosary to the hum of the chopper engines. After that I shut my eyes and catch some naps and often wake up when the bird is descending. My ears will be the indicator as the air pressure changes and I wake up to pop my ears and ready myself for the landing.
Once I disembark the bird I make my way to the chapel to check in before going off to find billeting. Once settled in I visit soldiers then make sure to hit the gym either before mass or later in the night if I get in late. Constant travels and being shaken about in a helicopter can be draining but it’s part of my routine and to some degree I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t know where I get the energy and endurance to keep this going at the young age of 58 but I attribute it to the Blessed Mother. She takes good care of me and its surprising that I always arrive fresh to minister to troops. I know what when we are genuinely committed to advancing God’s Kingdom… God will provide! Or as in the feeding of the five thousand… Jesus takes the little we have to (genuinely) offer and blesses it to provision us to do the incredible work of his mission. It’s a humbling revelation of the infinite love and goodness of God. That’s how I have felt these past several months.
I am humbled and an in awe of the mighty works of God who clearly has taught me never to quit when life gets challenging. That when we are faced with adversity or hardship to reach deep into our own hearts to discover the goodness, mercy of God who loves us with such a fierce love that he’s willing to go through death and hell so that we may have life.
Yes it’s a very meaningful and fulfilling life of ministry out here. There’s hardly a dull or dreary day in my routine. It’s a life of constant movement, progress and tons of affirmation as the troops really appreciate what we chaplains do and represent out here. It’s strange but I often find that I return from my Battlefield Circulations more charged and energized than when I left. The good vibes, affirmation, gratitude, and appreciative spirit of the troops is a power booster enough to revive the drooping spirit. God never ceases to both surprise and amaze me. It’s a blessing that never ends.
In conclusion I would like to acknowledge and thank the many people who support me and our troops out here on this mission. There are so many of you to name individually; you are all in my prayers. I would like to mention a few such as my congregation the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart USA Province, Fr. Kusitino Cobona and his folks of St James Mason Ml; Dean and Peggy Affholter in Hillsdale MI and all my friends in Hillsdale MI, Clio MI, Flushing MI, and across the oceans family and friends in Fiji, Australia and NZ.