The heat hits me like a blast from an oversized convection oven as I leave the base chapel.
It’s Saturday night at 2100, or 9:00 p.m., just after the vigil Mass at Kandahar Air Field in South Afghanistan. I’m near the end of my deployment, and in my role as senior priest here, I invite a few of the soldiers to share their faith stories at the end of Mass. I find that when one of their own gives his story, it carries a conviction that visibly moves his or her comrades. Here’s what they shared.
“Faith-Lift.” Lieutenant Jerrod Smith spoke about how he had felt distant—“emotionally numb”— after months of deployment in Afghanistan. After taking ten days of emergency leave for the birth of his child, he returned wondering why he had acted in selfish and self-centered ways during his time at home. “Why did I treat my wife like that?” he mused. He felt like a failure as a husband and dad.
Many soldiers have similar experiences and find it difficult to transition from combat zone to comfort zone. Sadly, some turn to alcohol or drugs as a crutch when they return to duty. But Jerrod found something better.
His “faith-lift,” as he called it, began in Kuwait, on the way back to Afghanistan. While awaiting a flight, he picked up a Scripture study book that presented a program for reading through the Bible. “It must have been the hundredth time I had attempted to get through this book, and I had failed every time,” he said. “But this time I stuck with it, waking before dawn every day to get the time to read the assigned Scripture passage. I read five books of the Bible in one month and never felt more at peace in my life. I know it was the Bible reading that was calming me. I was at peace day in and day out.”
This small practice affected Jerrod’s entire workday. “The world slowed down for me,” he said, “and this allowed Christ’s life to enter my world. I had never known God to be so close.” He looks forward to returning to his family, reading the Bible with them, and relating “in a Christ-centered way. It’s exciting and terrifying all rolled together. I couldn’t be more excited about my future life, with God right in the center.”
The Power of the Rosary. Master Sergeant Randy Revell described himself as a former chronic and repetitive sinner with a “rock star” lifestyle of drinking and partying. Though he believed in Christ, he said, his will power was never strong enough to break the cycle of sin. Then about a year ago, Randy rediscovered the rosary.
“Through God’s grace, I came to experience that the rosary is not about how many prayers you speak— it’s an opportunity to spend time with the Lord and be in his glorious presence!” Randy’s breakthrough began when he started praying the Scriptural rosary—contemplating on each bead the biblical events and passages related to each mystery. “Soon I was feeling so close to Jesus that I wanted more. I began attending daily Mass and visiting the Blessed Sacrament chapel.”
Today, Randy feels like a new person. “I am no longer a slave to sin and can say that I want nothing that separates me from the presence of the Lord. I now have a relationship with Jesus that is rooted in faith, hope, and a newfound love. My life will never be the same.”
Sergeant John Garcia shared that he, too, has discovered the benefits of the Scriptural rosary. He and his wife were looking for a spiritual practice that could keep them united during the year that he was deployed. While he was at home, they started praying the Scriptural rosary with their children, ages three to twelve. To the couple’s surprise and delight, their children started to share their insights and experiences as they prayed together.
Often, said John, “children are not given enough credit for their understanding and concern.” But their thoughts and feelings are deep, and they can respond to spiritual truths in a fresh way. “You will be amazed at what you can learn from them!”
Prayer Warrior. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Craig Finger is a soft-spoken soldier who has had seven deployments in about as many years. The Marines have six months on, six months off, and this arduous journey has tested his faith. Fortunately, that faith was formed during his growing up years in Colombia, where his father set an inspiring example. “He was never ashamed to pray,” said Craig. “His heart was with God.” Craig has had numerous combat experiences and has seen the Taliban face-to-face. Still, he considers other battles to be much more difficult: “Spiritual battles are much more difficult than combat, and more subtle. The devil is very sneaky. He attacks your thoughts and emotions to create anxiety, doubt, fear, and double-mindedness. We need spiritual weapons—faith, prayer, conviction and humility.”
Craig has recognized that he slowly drifts away from God whenever he neglects prayer. For him, praying with the Bible is key. “When I read the Bible, praying it from the heart, I think about God and his presence in my life—how he wants me to be and how his mercy is always there for me, even though my faith is imperfect.”
In so many ways, God unceasingly invites us all to come back to him with all our hearts. My prayer for our soldiers is that when they leave the heat of the battle, where so many have met God in a deeper way, they will continue to find refreshment in their renewed Catholic faith.
Fr. William Kneemiller served as a U.S. Army Reserves chaplain in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 and in Iraq in 2003-2004. He is currently pastor of three parishes in the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.
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