March 23, 2007

‘Dear Brave Soldier’: Military chaplain provides sacraments for soldiers in combat

A friend took this photograph of Father Eric Albertson during his time ministering to soldiers in Iraq several years ago. He is a priest of the Military Archdiocese and U.S. Army Major. (Submitted photo)

A friend took this photograph of Father Eric Albertson during his time ministering to soldiers in Iraq several years ago. He is a priest of the Military Archdiocese and U.S. Army Major. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Wyand

(Listen to the reporter read this story)

Dear Brave Soldier, I want to thank you for what you are doing for our country. I feel you are brave because you are serving our country and because you are fighting for justice. …

The child’s letter, decorated with hearts carefully colored with a red crayon, brought smiles to the faces of soldiers who read it while serving their country in Iraq.

Father Eric Albertson, a priest of the Military Archdiocese in Arlington, Va., and U.S. Army Major, included a picture of that letter in his compelling slide show of photographs taken in Iraq to share the true story of soldiers’ lives in combat.

Dressed in his Army uniform, Father Albertson narrated “Dear Brave Soldier: A Pictorial Account of a Chaplain’s Experience in Iraq” on March 7 at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis as part of the “Spaghetti and Spirituality” Lenten speaker series.

March 19 was the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

“Many of [the soldiers] went through an awakening of patriotism and a realization that in a post-9/11 era they didn’t want to be on the sidelines,” Father Albertson said, “but were willing to step forward and do their part in serving their country. Rather than get into the politics of the war, and there are many opinions on that, this [program] is just an exposé of what’s going on there.”

From the first slide to the last, the audience was caught up in his personal look at the courage, humor and grief of enlisted men and women serving in America’s all-volunteer Armed Forces.

“While I was forward [deployed with troops in combat],” he said, “I decided that I would capture as much of this as I could with my camera in an attempt to tell the story from the angle of somebody that was there and was … witnessing up close and personal what was going on.”

Military chaplains do not carry or use weapons, he said, but are equipped with standard Army gear in addition to their Bible, a Sacramentary and a Mass kit.

Their ministry involves bringing the sacraments to the troops at base camps and providing spiritual support, Father Albertson said, which includes the anointing of the sick for wounded soldiers and presiding at memorial ceremonies for soldiers who died in the line of duty.

Father Albertson attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and was ordained to the priesthood in 1986. He joined the Army in 1993.

An Army Ranger, he earned a Bronze Star, other meritorious service awards and senior parachute wings. He served with troops in Korea three times as well as in Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq.

When his bishop asked for an update on his ministry with the Army’s Second Infantry Division, Father Albertson told him, “My congregation is really not much older than my [parish] youth group was. They’re all pretty much right out of high school. Really the only difference is a lot of them smoke, a lot of them drink and every last one of them has a machine gun. The spirituality of the soldier is always impressive, but it’s not what you would think it would normally be.”

In light of the historical experience of chaplains going off to war, Father Albertson said, he expected to see large numbers of soldiers at the base chapels for Mass or a Protestant service. Instead, he often prayed with them beside tanks.

“My deployment was a little bit unique,” he said. “We were in Korea on the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and … at the end of our hardship tour there we were notified that we were going to Iraq. So that meant we ended up staying 14 months in Korea and we did 12 months in Iraq [then] one more month in Kuwait before we rolled back.

“The Army Times reported that the Second Brigade combat team from the Second Infantry Division was the longest deployed unit in the history of the Army since the Korean War,” he said. “So we had been away from our families for some time, and sadly a number of those marriages didn’t survive that.”

The soldiers are well-trained and very loyal to each other, he said, as they face the threat of mortar rounds, machine-gun fire and roadside bombs together.

“The richness of my experience was that, although the [Catholic] soldiers didn’t necessarily attend Mass, they were always willing to receive Communion [in the midst of their duties],” he said. “If they were in the staging area before they were pushing out for their operations and if the chaplain went by and didn’t pray with them, their feelings were deeply hurt.

“There was this extraordinary receptivity [among the soldiers] to the presence of the chaplain and their openness to prayer,” Father Albertson said. “So although it didn’t manifest itself in the way we might traditionally think it should, their spirituality was very much alive and their recognition of God’s presence with them and the importance of being close to him … was very much a part of their experience.”

He said celebrating the Mass and praying the Liturgy of the Hours gave him strength to minister to soldiers facing injury and death every day. Writing poetry also helped him reflect on his ministry.

“We were coming in off a convoy … and our vehicle was hit,” Father Albertson said. “Several were. I was with them so I took a picture afterwards. They were all happy because nobody got hurt. They said, ‘Of course we didn’t get hurt. The chaplain was with us.’ ... The soldiers take great pride in protecting their chaplain.”

U.S. soldiers are doing extraordinary things for their country and for the Iraqi people, he said, including opening schools and rebuilding utilities.

“There are very powerful stories of heroism,” Father Albertson said. “Sometimes the soldiers just take it for granted after awhile. But I can tell you, having served with them, that it was a tremendous privilege and a great experience. I think the American people can

be very, very proud of what the soldiers are doing over there …serving with tremendous devotion and commitment.”

In Iraq, the Army’s Second Infantry Division served with the First Marine Division, whose motto was “No better friend. No worse enemy,” he said. “They lived up to that. They were a very potent fighting force and we were glad to serve with them in joint operations.

“As young as they are, [the soldiers] were very often involved with some pretty intense firefights where they killed a

number of people,” Father Albertson said. “They would come back and talk to you about it, and you would see it in their eyes.

“One of the great difficulties of a forward area is casualties,” he said. “One of our soldiers was killed in action, and we had a memorial ceremony for him and … a rainbow formed over our base camp. I sent a photograph to his dad and he was very appreciative. Sometimes God might speak to us in nature.”

People don’t hear the whole story about Iraq in the news, Father Albertson said. “If you let your guard down for a minute, the enemy would capitalize on that. … The enemy is so ruthless.”

Mail drops helped lighten the intensity of the war, he said. “We received quite a few things [in care packages]. We got a ton of Girl Scout cookies. … We had a number of rosaries sent to us and the soldiers did use them.

“My own faith was at times tried because it’s just hard to see these kids get hurt,” Father Albertson said. “… We’re doing a good thing here. Why aren’t we more successful? So it does weigh on you.

“This is my appeal to you,” he said. “Pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life and for a generous response to the [ministry of

military] chaplains. When I left Ramadi, there was a five-month lapse before a replacement priest came in. So in the most hostile area of Iraq, for five months there wasn’t a priest in the entire area of operations, which was huge … about 20,000 troops.”

Indiana National Guard Captain Tony Kaiser, who is stationed at Camp Atterbury now, spent nearly a year serving in Iraq before returning home three months ago. He attends Mass at Holy Rosary Church.

“It was a catharsis to see what other people went through over there,” Kaiser said after the slide presentation. “I spent a little less time out in the street, but I had to deal with memorial services.” †

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