March 13, 2020

Bringing Christ to the front lines

Despite danger, archdiocesan priest ministers to U.S. soldiers serving in the Middle East

Father Adam Ahern celebrates Mass on Feb. 8 for soldiers on a military base in Jordan. There is no regular chaplain serving the region, and the soldiers appreciate when a chaplain visits. (Submitted photo)

Father Adam Ahern celebrates Mass on Feb. 8 for soldiers on a military base in Jordan. There is no regular chaplain serving the region, and the soldiers appreciate when a chaplain visits. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Father Adam Ahern was just starting to celebrate Mass at a remote U.S. Army base in Afghanistan, calling on God’s mercy, when alarms went off.

Artillery shells or rocket fire were coming toward the base. Everyone at the Mass went to the ground for cover.

It was soon learned that the rounds landed outside the base. The soldiers attending the Mass then had to report to where they were serving at the base. When they returned, the Mass resumed.

Standing behind the altar in the base’s chapel, Father Ahern looked up at its back wall.

“You could see in the wall where an artillery round had actually gone through the wall [in the past] and landed just outside the chapel,” he recalled in a recent phone interview with The Criterion.

As a chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard, Father Ahern has been deployed to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait as part of Task Force Spartan since last May. From there, he has traveled across the Middle East to minister to U.S. soldiers throughout the region.

Serving in tense combat situations is nothing new for the priest. Years earlier, before he became an archdiocesan seminarian, he had been an Army sergeant in a special forces unit assigned to a base in Afghanistan. After later serving in communications in the White House, Father Ahern discerned a call to the priesthood and was ordained in 2015.

He believes that much of his life up to now has been preparing him to serve as a priest to U.S. soldiers in the Middle East.

“I feel like this is where God has called me to be at this time, in this place,” he said. “It’s an incredible sense of fulfillment of his call for me.”

Ministering to ‘your average Joe’

Father Ahern’s service in the Army gives him a special perspective on the experiences of the men and women to whom he is ministering in the Middle East. He says he feels drawn to reach out to “your average Joe,” the kind of soldier he had been.

One of them came up to him after a Mass he had celebrated, telling him that he needed to speak to a chaplain.

“We spent the next hour talking,” Father Ahern said. “He told me what was going on, and what he was struggling with. I not only listened, but also offered words of encouragement and advice. He wasn’t a Catholic soldier, but he needed to talk to a chaplain.

“Because I know what it’s like to struggle with your leadership from time to time, because I was a soldier myself, I was able to relate with him and speak with him, not as an officer to an enlisted soldier, but as a chaplain to a soldier or even a soldier to a soldier.”

Father Ahern holds the rank of captain in the Indiana National Guard, which he joined as a chaplain after his ordination in 2015.

Colonel Mark Brozak of the Kentucky Army National Guard serves with Father Ahern at Camp Arifjan. He appreciates the priest’s previous experience in the military.

“He understands the issues soldiers face, their concerns, and knows their spiritual needs,” Brozak said.

Because Father Ahern has previously served in combat duty in the Army, he is entitled to wear what is known as a “combat patch” on his right sleeve. This, Brozak said, “adds further credibility to his abilities to understand and minister to soldiers. It’s a visible reminder of his service, which soldiers understand and respect.”

Brozak described the important role that military chaplains play during deployment, saying they help “maintain a soldier’s morale as well as their moral and ethical decision-making.”

Father Ahern, he noted, carries out this duty effectively for service personnel across the Middle East.

“It’s hard to quantify the impact this had on individuals,” Brozak said, “but these missions were a priority set by our commanding general, who routinely received updates and reports on the travels and actions of the chaplains.”

Brozak, who is Catholic, has personally appreciated the ministry of Father Ahern.

“The time he spent with just myself was invaluable in my religious formation which was something I wanted to work on while deployed,” he said. “Chaplains play a very important role in the health of individuals and organizations and their contributions cannot be underestimated.”

‘It boosts their morale’

Father Ahern has to make the most of his face-to-face encounters with soldiers, though, because in many instances it’s the only one he’ll have with them.

During his time at Camp Arifjan, Father Ahern has often traveled to minister to U.S. soldiers across the Middle East. Many of those who are Catholic go several months between seeing a priest or worshipping at Mass because, at present, there are only six priests in the U.S. Army in the region.

“When you show up at a place, you have a number of [soldiers] who are just excited to see a priest,” Father Ahern said. “They ask you, ‘Father, when are you going to have Mass? OK. I’ll be there.’

“The excitement has nothing to do with Adam Ahern. It has everything to do with Jesus Christ. Being a part of that is so humbling. In a very real way, it’s bringing Christ to those who don’t have access to him otherwise.”

Father Ahern’s time at forward operating bases (FOB) across the Middle East is packed with ministry because he is usually, at the most, only there for a day or two.

“There’s a reason why I’ve gone to every FOB that I’ve been to,” he said. “There was a soldier that God sent me there to speak to, whether that was in the homily, in celebrating the Eucharist, in confession or in a conversation we had afterward. All too often, I’ll never know. But every time it’s been an incredible blessing.”

Father Ahern is often assisted in his ministry by Indiana National Guard staff sergeant Misty Marroquin, who helps coordinate ministry teams across the Middle East. In her work, she knows that there are many more Protestants serving as chaplains than Catholic priests.

“You can see that it means a lot more when we travel to provide Catholic services,” said Marroquin. “You can see how much it means to them to have him there for a short amount of time when we get to these locations that haven’t had a priest for a number of months.

“It boosts their morale and helps them stay positive. For the short amount of time that we’re there, you can see the difference that it makes to help them get through what they’ve got to do.”

At the same time, the brief amount of time he gets to spend with soldiers can be difficult for Father Ahern.

“My heart breaks often,” he said. “You can see how hungry they are oftentimes for the Eucharist, for Christ, for the sacraments. You can see the joy when they do get the sacraments. But then it’s like, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow.’

“It’s hard and difficult. But it is what it has to be. So, I make my peace with it. I pray for them often and encourage other people to pray for them as much as I can.”

‘Please pray for our troops’

Although the settings in which he has ministered in the Middle East are very different from central and southern Indiana, much of what Father Ahern does in ministry is similar to what happens in archdiocesan parishes.

He celebrates the sacraments, prays the rosary with other Catholics, leads Bible studies and offers pastoral counseling.

“They’re away from family in what is often very stressful and tense situations,” Father Ahern said. “So, I’m intentional about trying to bring to them as typical a parish experience as I can. It’s very intentional in being that way. I try to provide for them what they’d get back home as much as I can.”

Like many priests in central and southern Indiana, Father Ahern also connects with those he serves in ordinary social situations: running 5K races, stopping by offices for a chat, gathering groups for a Catholic movie night or smoking a cigar at the Camp Arifjan Cigar Club.

“His presence and participation are certainly noticed by soldiers within the task force, and lends a certain amount of credibility to his role here as a chaplain as he is out there with the troops in all manner of activities,” Brozak said.

Father Ahern has also brought a bit of the archdiocese with him in his service in the Middle East.

When he became a chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard, he requested a chaplain kit from the archdiocesan archives and received one that belonged to Msgr. Charles Ross, an archdiocesan priest who served as a chaplain in World War II and the Korean War and died in 2000.

While deployed, Father Ahern now celebrates Mass with a stole that had belonged to Msgr. Ross. He appreciates how it connects him to Msgr. Ross and other archdiocesan priests who served as military chaplains.

“It’s incredibly meaningful,” Father Ahern said. “It’s a tangible reminder of the heritage and the meaning that I’m trying to be a part of, not only as a priest, but as a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis serving in the Army. The legacy that these men before me have blazed and the meaning that goes with it in bringing Christ to these incredible environments, … they’re truly incredible American heroes.”

Father Ahern’s deployment to the Middle East will likely come to an end before Easter, and he will return to the archdiocese.

But even though he’ll then be far away from the soldiers that he’s ministered to, they’ll still be close to him in prayer. And he asks that Catholics in central and southern Indiana to keep them in prayer, too.

“Please pray for our troops, because [they] need it,” Father Ahern said.
 

(In addition to praying, readers can support efforts to minister to Catholic soldiers through the donation of items such as rosaries and scapulars, send an e-mail with contact information and a brief description of the items to jredmond@milarch.org. A military chaplain will then contact the donor. Instructions for making financial donations for the Archdiocese for the Military Services online or by check can be found at www.milarch.org/ways-to-support.)

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