Riding the Circuit — Sans Mule (from 2007)

At the end of Easter week, Father Gary Linsky collapsed into bed and slept 15 hours straight.  The only Catholic chaplain in the southeast region of Afghanistan, he said 15 masses in as many locations over the course of five days.  For two of those days, I traveled with him and his assistant, Staff Sergeant Shontel Robinson.  We waited in clearings for the Black Hawk helicopter to show up.  We got pelted by grit and dirt as the blades whipped the air into a strong wind. We hauled our gear into the din of the motor and rotors and clambered into the body of “the bird” with 20 pounds of body armor encasing our torsos.  The noise never abated during the rides, though earplugs made it at least possible to think as the scenery below shifted from mud flats to irrigated valleys to rocky, barren mountains with snow still clinging to their folds.  On the first leg, Chaplain Linsky read his Bible, looked out the window, read his Bible again, then put it away and sat, hands folded over his chaplain’s kit.

Chaplain Linsky, a Roman Catholic priest, rides off in his faithful Blackhawk to celebrate Mass at smaller FOBs in southern Afghanistan

Chaplain Linsky, a Roman Catholic priest, rides off in his faithful Blackhawk to celebrate Mass at smaller FOBs in southern Afghanistan

The first FOB, Puli Alam, was near the border, a small outpost under the command of a female officer.  The only place to hold mass was the cafeteria, where the tables were set out in a horseshoe with seats lining the outer edge so that everyone could have view of the giant TV screen.  The walls were dingy blue, so the screen, even with its grainy picture, afforded some relief from their drabness.  There, in the center, Sergeant Robinson set up a table for the altar and two rows of chairs.  Seven soldiers showed up and the chaplain took off his army shirt and slipped on his priestly garb – a white alb that covered him almost to his boots with a stole around his neck, a cross sewn at its center point.  Linsky kissed the cross then lifted the stole over his head and settled it around his neck.  In middle of nowhere, with a congregation of seven people who were thousands of miles away from their homes, Linksy intoned chants and the hymns as though he were in a cathedral.

On that first day, he traveled by helicopter to three FOBs, then rode in a truck to a fourth, while some of us rattled behind him in a clattering Humvee.  The next day, the round robin resumed as we headed for three more FOBs before returning to the chaplain’s home base of Salerno.  The rockets hit two hours after our return, six or seven of them, two exploding inside the base in what old-timers say was the most sustained attack yet.  The next morning, Chaplain Linsky once again fastened on his body armor, grabbed his kit, and headed to the flight line to climb into another helicopter and head out to three more FOBs.  “It is Easter, and these kids deserve a Mass,” he says. — Lee


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