We hear all the time about the shortage of Roman Catholic priests, but this became a real issue for me personally during my five-month deployment to the Area of Responsibility (AOR) in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I was assigned to an Air Expeditionary Group at a classified bare-base location with over 3,200 personnel who hosted the command structure for the Special Operations Forces that would operate in Western Iraq.
In mid-February, we became aware that a Forward Operating Base (FOB) 170 miles north of us was without a priest. This base encompassed at its peak over 4,200 personnel from five coalition nations and included over 1,000 Air Force personnel as well as the men who would be inserted as a part of the Army’s Special Operations mission.
While the Army had primary responsibility for this base, their shortage of priests was even more acute and they simply had no one to send.
Consequently, pleas were made requesting that I go forward whenever possible to bring them the sacraments lest they enter combat without having received this vital consolation.
I can never tell you how much one’s priesthood means when confronted with men and women from all branches of our armed services who say, “Father, I never thought I’d see a priest while on this deployment.”
Indeed, every week I would hear confessions for almost two hours non-stop following a packed and extremely engaged Mass.
To see tears in the eyes of those reconciled to the church is to know that their hearts are truly contrite. This was a constant experience of my ministry.
I was summoned to fly by helicopter the evening our troops were to leave for combat operations. Many attended a late night Mass and others came to locations along the line for a simple communion service, confession or prayer.
I stood in my alb and stole near the tent that doubled that night as a chapel, and blessed each vehicle as it moved stealthily into the night.
Hence my joy when I was graced to see these men all return safely to their home FOB at the end of hostilities.
In the midst of the war, while traveling forward, I was hospitalized in an EMEDS unit operated by Air Force personnel for a serious case of pneumonia coupled with a partially collapsed lung. The care given me by dedicated professionals, many of whom attended Mass, and the concern of the Special Operations Forces Commander and his staff for my healing, attested to the unity we had achieved in the process of ministry.
Returning to that base after a necessary two-week convalescence was my own experience of resurrection.
My heart will always be touched by the memories of those whom the Lord entrusted to me as a shepherd, both there, at my primary base and at other sites I was sent in the AOR.
Whether celebrating Mass for three, ten or over one hundred, I always felt the presence of the Lord especially in the hearts of the brothers and sisters I was honored to serve.
Ministering in a wartime environment may only be one aspect of our Air Force Chaplaincy, but it is what we train for and should be ever ready to do. Others may aspire to command but our aspiration must truly be to what our motto must remain — to be “Visible Reminders of the Holy.”
The Very Rev. Canon Gary S. Linsky is a chaplain in the United States Air Force stationed at Luke AFB in Phoenix, Ariz. He is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston.