By FATHER MICHAEL HENINGER, Special Contributor | Published January 6, 2005
Greetings to God’s faithful in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Here in Iraq, we have just now concluded our Christmas celebrations. Staff Sgt. Burgos and I got down to the green zone and other sites in the larger Baghdad area to celebrate Christmas Masses. Our team of priests and assistants worked hard so all soldiers in our area of operations might have the opportunity to attend Christmas Mass. One highlight was midnight Mass with more than 150 Catholic military. Soldiers stepped up to support our musical efforts. Candles, incense, bagpipes, trumpet and cantors enhanced the celebration. My bottom line message for the troops was, “Our power as a community is not demonstrated by what we have or can take but rather by our ability to give. The infinite Son of God became the infant Jesus to give us a new life. That powerful gift is shared with others as we live out our faith by helping this country in its time of great need.”
We count our blessings here. After documenting a spike in violence last Christmas, we actually saw a decline this year due to a fog that covered the area on Christmas day. Thanks be to God. In addition to our celebrations the tremendous volume of care packages and cards you sent lifted our spirits. Your generous support from home reminded us of how much America cares for her soldiers.
December overall was a time of increased religious support activity for our Unit Ministry Team (UMT). Sgt. Burgos and I keep track of the faith traditions in our 312th Military Intelligence Battalion to support the religious needs of our soldiers. December was a busy one for the Islamic soldiers during Ramadan and the Jewish soldiers during Hanukkah, and of course Advent and Christmas were a time of celebration for Christians. Naturally, as a Catholic priest I do not perform the religious rites of other faith traditions, but I help connect soldiers with their respective religious leaders.
Father Agustin Torm and I are two active duty priests assigned and deployed to Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. We are happy to be joined by at least four other Army priests, from other units in the area, to provide the Catholic religious support our soldiers deserve as they travel so far from home and parish in service to God and country. Priests typically divide their time between their assigned units and then take on the additional ministry for Catholics in the larger area. Like in the parish, most of our priestly duties in the field center on personal and spiritual counseling, reconciliation, Mass and religious education.
For the last nine months or so, the 1st Cavalry Division has maintained stability and support operations in the greater Baghdad area. Because the soldiers of our unit and Catholic community are so spread out, our unit ministry team travels regularly by armored convoy as well as helicopter to get out to visit the troops. As they say, things can get a “little sporty” from time to time. By Army regulation I am not allowed to carry a weapon so my chaplain assistant, Sgt. Burgos, serves as my bodyguard as well as assistant in administrative and ministry duties. Our teamwork allows us to extend ministry from Sadr City to the green zone of Baghdad and out west to Abu Ghraib prison and recently to Fallujah, where we laid to rest and honored one of our unit’s fallen heroes in that conflict.
As the need arises we bring a religious presence to patriotic memorial ceremonies for our fallen soldiers, bless various military functions and provide moral and spiritual consultation to leadership. In addition to caring for the soldiers of our battalion our UMT also has the added blessing of caring for Catholic soldiers within our division. Daily duties for our UMT also include attending meetings (not much different than the civilian world), among other things.
We are walking with the soldiers to give them the spiritual fitness needed to accomplish their duties. This is a dangerous place, and the troopers serve heroically each and every day. The challenges keep them close to the Lord. As one soldier said to me as he came into Mass, “I sure look forward to this all week.” Not only are the services well attended, but religious education is too. Many soldiers are taking the opportunity of being in one location for one year to seek baptism, Communion, and confirmation, and others want to come in full communion with the Catholic Church.
Our interaction with local people is much different than last year. During my deployment here in 2003 with the 3rd Infantry Division, our relationship with the local people was more peaceful across the board. That allowed easier movement around the city and made it safer to offer support. Since then, the enemy engagements have multiplied with an increase in active insurgents, organized crime elements and emboldened dissatisfied locals. A great deal of select and critical community support continues in the region but with a tremendous amount of increased security and risk to our troops. Sadly, we cannot visit local churches and orphanages as easily as last year. Neither do we want to make them targets by our visits.
Over the last two tours here in Baghdad, I have found that taking care of myself spiritually is critical. The spiritual warfare is as intense as the physical battles. One of the greatest enemies next to armed assailants is anger. It is very easy to fall into an anger fueled by watching good men and woman wounded and killed. We struggle to balance community development with war fighting. It is a challenging balancing act. Maintaining a regular prayer life, time before the Blessed Sacrament, staying close to the sacraments and of course talking to my battle buddies helps me to cope with the stress. I realize I cannot give to others what I do not have, so spiritual well-being is imperative.
Priesthood in the Army is challenging but rewarding. The reality is that war is hard and you see and hear sad things, but it is our calling to help people remain connected to the sacred. The soldiers and officers as well as their families sacrifice so much so that others might have life more fully. These great men and women are working for a more perfect peace in Iraq by working for greater justice for all. The local people test the boundaries of freedom here every day as they experience new levels of independence. It is our hope and prayer that they will embrace the elections to vote and create a free society where all citizens have an equal opportunity to learn, work, vote and worship without threat of reprisals.
Naturally we anticipate life getting harder in January so we pray for the safety of not only our troopers but the Iraqi civilians who do want to vote. The determination of local nationals is going to be the real factor of success in rebuilding Iraq.
Let us all pray as the New Year begins that 2005 may be a new beginning and hope-filled time for the Iraqi community. May God bless you for your support of our troops and their families. Please keep the prayers coming.
Father Michael Heninger is a priest from the Archdiocese of Atlanta serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. He is an Army chaplain in Baghdad with the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas.