By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 20, 2005
Army chaplain Father Michael Heninger experienced the critical need for spiritual nourishment in the war zone and saw how just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no slackers at Mass in Baghdad.
This stalwart priest with expressive eyes and a gentle smile still has a hopeful, peaceful and pastoral presence that makes it hard to imagine him operating amidst the suicide car bombings, beheadings and other ongoing bloodshed in Iraq. But it’s that peace that surpasses all understanding that strengthened him for two years as he carried out his mission to bring Christ’s love to fellow soldiers despite the constant threat of attack.
“I lived by the philosophy that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain because I didn’t fear death,” said the priest of the Atlanta Archdiocese who served as an Army chaplain while on loan to the Archdiocese for the Military Services. “I had nothing to lose, but I had everything to gain by getting out there and bringing the sacraments to the soldiers and lifting them up and giving them strength and encouragement and (I knew) that even if I were to die I’d be doing God’s will.”
He spoke of the special bond created with those whom he met during his tour of duty.
“I miss the soldiers because they’ve become my family and you want only the best for them and that they be safe and provided for. I miss the camaraderie and sense of community that you (develop) through combat.”
Father Heninger was redeployed in spring 2004—by choice—to Baghdad as an Army chaplain with the 1st Calvary Division in Fort Hood, Texas, and he completed the mission this past spring. During his first tour of duty in 2003 with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) out of Fort Stewart, Ga., he had served during the fall of Saddam Hussein and had celebrated Mass in one of his former palaces.
His interest in the military spans decades. After high school, in response to the Vietnam War, he served for four years as an Air Force policeman before earning a degree in speech communications from the University of Georgia. After returning to the church from which he had drifted, he eventually became a priest. Upon his ordination in June 2000—before 9/11—he acknowledged his call to the military, to serve God, man and country.
In 2002 when becoming an Army chaplain he spoke of “the pressing need of providing spiritual support for military personnel” and of how “the idea is where the soldier goes, the chaplain goes.” And indeed on a wing and a prayer he went.
Based in a forward operating base near the Baghdad International Airport on his second tour, Father Heninger would rise each morning around 4:30 or 5 a.m. for “prayer, meditation and preparation” for the day ahead, during which he would set out by helicopter or armored convoy to celebrate Mass at camps around the region and provide religious education, general spiritual support and other needed services. They visited about 485 people each week just in their battalion. “I found it important to begin the day with that quality time with God. We had adoration throughout the week and it was so important.”
He also celebrated Mass at the interfaith wooden “1st Cav Chapel” within their base, which had shrapnel in the glass from being hit once by mortar fire when another faith group worshipped there.
“We were all certainly exposed to that constant threat, but we certainly felt safer in the house of the Lord,” he said.
Reports of beheadings and other attacks on civilians—even those worshiping at mosques or rebuilding the country—served as “a reminder that we were facing a very dangerous enemy and that surrender was not an option, should that present itself, and that when we went out on the road it was to succeed in our mission and to care for each other and to leave no one behind.”
One extremely sad time was when they did leave behind a “very bright, very gifted, wonderful man” who was killed during an offensive to root out insurgents in Fallujah. “That was very hard for us as a family, a battalion family, to deal with that loss and that’s a time when we just all held together and I really struggled with that, my anger.”
While the tall, 43-year-old soldier was, as a chaplain, unable to carry a weapon, he was very grateful for his chaplain assistant, Staff Sgt. Salma Burgos, who “put her life on the line to keep me alive.”
“Just a little, petite gal, but she is high speed,” he recalled with a smile, of the staff sergeant, a single mother of a teenager.
Together they logged over 150 missions by convoy or air, he said. “She’s as tough as they come, but has a big heart, which is a good combination for that job.”
Sgt. Burgos said that she always kept her eyes and ears open for any oncoming danger but added that Father Heninger, too, was also always on the lookout. They were never attacked or injured.
“The only way I could care for him was to let him know that I’m ready for any mission. Oh yeah—and make sure he ate. We both had very busy schedules, and eating was not on his list of priorities,” said Sgt. Burgos, who loves serving the military and reenlisted for another five years. “Chaplain Heninger helped me deal with stress and I, for him. We were a great team with confidence and ready to go. We liked adventure.”
She explained that their battalion dealt with military intelligence. “It was important for the soldiers to be one step ahead of the enemy. Our mission was to make sure their morals and morale were intact.”
In the military about one-fourth of the soldiers are Catholic, but only one out of 12 chaplains is Catholic. In this tour there were about five priests around Baghdad. While it’s easy for Catholics to become remiss back home about praying and receiving the sacraments, the priest in Baghdad saw clearly the importance for soldiers who risked their lives to receive the Eucharist in community. They also welcomed to Mass civilians from around the world who were working on Iraq’s rebuilding efforts—after giving each a security check.
“I have to say that all the people who would participate in the celebration of the Mass, they would come early and not a one would ever want to leave early. In two years I can’t think of one who ever walked out early. It was because it was there, and they were experiencing this larger sense of family and the presence and strength of God, and they wanted to maximize the opportunity and extend the goodness up to the last moment, and it was a real joy,” he said. “The generals would come to Mass, and they would be highly visible so that soldiers could see that spiritual fitness is key. I had one general who would always be there in the front row, and he would bring whoever wanted to come with him. This was an important element of staying mentally, physically and spiritually fit—taking that time for God.”
The Georgia priest personally experienced the mystery of the Mass in Baghdad. “The Mass really connects us. From having celebrated the Mass here as well as back in Iraq, you get a sense of that timelessness, that eternal moment we all experience in the presence of the Mass where no distance can really separate us, where we share that union with Christ, with family and friends across the ocean and next door, and that’s the beauty of community. Our church is universal.”
He recalled how one very determined group of soldiers he was instructing to enter the church did not even want to skip their weekly class at Christmastime, meeting at night after long, hard days on duty.
“They didn’t want a day off. They wanted to continue their journey, and I was inspired by that.”
Father Heninger recalled one “model” Army officer, Capt. Ingrid Tighe, who served six years in the Army and in Baghdad as supervisor of telecommunications and computer operations and who faithfully attended Mass and Rite of Christian Initiation classes.
“It is an honor to know her,” said the chaplain.
Now a civilian in Marietta, Tighe said she’d always wanted to learn more about her husband’s Catholicism and being in Iraq was a good time to start. Classes, Mass and prayer all helped her to reevaluate her priorities in life and belief in God, to cope with stress and stay grounded amidst the chaos of war. “It also gave me courage to face my fears of being in a war and made me feel at peace no matter what happened.”
She found Father Heninger was able to present the faith in a meaningful way relevant to soldiers’ daily lives.
“He is an outstanding instructor and mentor,” she said. “I felt a great sense of pride serving in Iraq. I am proud to have served my country and my fellow citizens … Additionally, attending RCIA with Father Mike made my experience even greater and taught me a lot about myself and helped me cope with the good and tough times in Baghdad.”
Sgt. Burgos said Father Heninger knew both the military and his ministry and that his spiritual presence was much needed. They both love people and enjoyed getting to know them one-on-one.
“The work and ministry that Chaplain Heninger did was more than outstanding. His words and sermons were well needed to many soldiers. We were able to travel around Iraq to minister to many, many soldiers. He is very humble and always went out of his way to help us,” she said. “Being away from family wasn’t easy at all—along with that came family problems. Chaplain Heninger always knew what to say and encourage us. He directed us in the right directions. He is a very spiritual man, one who leads by example.”
Also to combat stress, the Army provided recreation centers with books, movies, Internet access and a gym and dining facilities to help soldiers “decompress,” the priest said. While on his first tour “we kind of landed with our feet in the dirt and pitched a tent.” On the second tour “we had hard structures with air conditioning, hot chow and hot showers. We were living large.”
Father Heninger stressed the gratitude the soldiers felt for the generosity and concern extended by the faithful, as their prayers and support lifted their spirits and morale. And they delighted in receiving a mysteriously steady flow of notes from schoolchildren.
“I don’t know where people got my name, but very often I would just get letters and packages from all over the United States, and we would gladly share anything and everything that came through the mail,” he said. “We would walk around, my assistant and I, with a pocketful of goodies as well as religious items and letters from the kids, and we would all just take time to gather, and one by one the soldiers would open them and read them, and we would all enjoy the moment together. There’s nothing like the words of a young person to make you smile and lift your spirits.”
And they really needed that support, as during his first tour “90 percent of the people (of Iraq) were very warm and receptive and supportive,” but in the second tour after the insurgency organized “it was much harder for the general public to demonstrate support and so the soldiers didn’t receive that immediate reinforcement.”
Although aid and rebuilding projects were carried out around Iraq, it also was much harder for them to visit hospitals, schools and orphanages because this would put those places at risk of becoming targets. This left soldiers frustrated over their inability to focus on community development.
He explained that there is extra pressure on newly arriving soldiers on their first tour to learn the rhythm of war and how to operate “because you learn that what you do very often is the difference between life and death.”
But just as Iraqis courageously voted Oct. 15 for their new Constitution, the chaplain recalled during his deployment being deeply encouraged by the strong voter turnout for the Jan. 30 election for a transitional National Assembly, a time during which he was praying—and holding his breath.
“There were a variety of scenarios that could have unfolded, but people stepped out in the midst of harm’s way to vote, which was very encouraging, as well as the people who were determined to continue to participate in the government, the police force, and the military despite the death threats,” he said. “So there are people who are determined to take back their country from the terrorists—that’s a very strong spirit.”
While some feel that American troops need to be withdrawn immediately from Iraq, this soldier and chaplain believes that “any decision to withdraw should certainly include consideration of the many wonderful people of Iraq who fear the terrorists. It’s not about us as a nation. It’s about us as a world because terrorism is not a national problem. It’s an international problem, and I don’t like war, but I hate terrorism even more,” he said.
Father Heninger returned to Texas in February and helped prepare soldiers’ families for the soldiers’ return in March. “I was overwhelmed by the reception we received from civilians.”
He then worked to assist the soldiers in the transition back into civilian life. With his obligation to the Army completed, he is taking a yearlong sabbatical to focus on spiritual renewal before returning to serve in the Atlanta Archdiocese where “my feet are firmly planted.” Regarding the possibility of re-enlisting, however, it’s “never say never,” he admitted.
For now he has caught up on needed sleep and has taken time to reconnect with his family and friends in Georgia. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail to North Carolina, listening to God’s creation as he awoke in a down sleeping bag. As he shared his background with hikers he met, “almost without qualification they would share their support for soldiers, and that was very encouraging.”
Since his return he has visited Atlanta’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which is “excellent, but needs more funding,” and he stressed the need for society to take care of its veterans.
“As a community we owe it to them to be ready to receive them back into our faith communities, our business community, and we, as a community, cannot forget about the importance of the Veterans Administration. There are thousands of soldiers who have been affected by war in so many ways, inside and out, and it is our responsibility as a community to provide for them for any war-related issue,” he continued. “I feel so much for those soldiers who, without reservation, have stepped in harm’s way for the good of our country, for the good of the world in a time of need.”
Early in his sabbatical he was inspired to use his time to study Spanish to better serve Hispanic Catholics and is now in Guanajuato, Mexico, for six months. He recalls advice a wise monk once gave him: “In all that we do, let our motive be to love others and God even more, and then our pursuits will draw from God’s inexhaustible source of power.”
Certainly his experiences as an Army chaplain during wartime remain with him.
“I don’t think you can ever let it go—between those who died and those you met and the sadness of war. I think (they) will always be on our hearts, and I think you try to grow through it, but it certainly gives me a reason to pause and pray for those other people and to reflect upon what happened,” he said.
The priest prays for wisdom for national leaders and the safety of the soldiers and civilians.
“Let’s pray our soldiers home by praying for peace,” he said.