Father Spencer completes assignment in Iraq, hopes to return

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Father Robert A. Spencer, a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy Reserve, returned to his home base at Camp Pendleton recently, after spending a year in Iraq.

Father Spencer, a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, is serving as a military chaplain. He was attached to the First Marine Logistics Group at Al Taqaddum Airbase, located in central Iraq, west of Baghdad. He was the only Catholic priest ministering at the base.

In a telephone interview with The Miscellany, Father Spencer said he celebrated Mass 12 times a week at six different locations. His flock included United States military personnel and civilians, third country nationals and Iraqi interpreters.

He also managed to conduct five sessions of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

He described his living conditions as Spartan.

“I lived and worked in a plywood chapel,” he said. “They are temporary and shabbily built, but we are still using them four years later.”

He had no running water; bottled water is shipped in. Flush toilets and showers are in trailers located sporadically throughout the base, he said.

The chaplain spent most of his time at the field hospital.

“The first six months was intense,” he said. “It reminded me so much of ‘M.A.S.H.’, the TV show. I was ministering to the wounded and to the dying and to the friends of those people who brought them in. Sometimes they came in on helicopters, other times, Humvees.”

As a result, he now has a greater respect for modern military medicine.

“I saw amazing things,” he said. “The doctors wanted chaplains in the operating room and gave us free range to minister to the wounded. If someone died on the table they would ask me to say something or do a little prayer. Most of the doctors and nurses were at Sunday Mass.”

The former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer also ran across one of his chaplains, Cmdr. Dennis Rocheford, from the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.

“He was a big part of why I became a priest and a chaplain,” Father Spencer said. “He was the most beloved man, he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He has the credibility of Moses and the charisma of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Father Spencer thought the morale of the military personnel overseas was good.

“You still have people who are reenlisting,” he said. “What I sensed is that the military over there want the support of people back home. We received tons of care packages, letters and e-mails from school kids writing, telling them they are praying for them.”

Father Spencer volunteered to remain behind, but admitted disappointment when he learned the military is sending more priests to Iraq and won’t need him.

“It’s a wonderful ministry, gee whiz,” he said. “I really felt needed, appreciated and respected. I was absolutely affirmed in my priesthood when I was in Iraq. We are absolutely the good guys. We treated everybody the same regardless of good guy or bad guy and held nothing back from them.”

“I didn’t have it bad,” he said. “I never felt threatened or endangered. We rarely had incoming fire.”

When he retires, Father Spencer will return to South Carolina to serve. He is eligible in March 2008, but doesn’t want to retire.

“If the war is going on or if there is dire need for chaplains, I want to go back,” he said.

He asked that people keep praying for the situation in Iraq.

“Pray for leaders that they will have God’s wisdom to bring peace to that land,” he said.