Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Our fragile and amazing First Amendment

At a recent evening hosted by the Crossroads Cultural Center, a young woman in the audience asked  how chaplains minister to troops of other faiths or no faith.  This is a question that always comes up, and, indeed, it was one of the issues that drove us to make the film: we wanted to see for ourselves whether and how a predominantly Christian clergy in the employ of the state served the needs of a religiously diverse population.  Chaplain Ken Bolin answered in a way that reminded us of the many chaplains we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq.  They reached to others out, fueled by their faith to love, not judge, fellow service men and women.

The more time passes, the more I realize how very important this is.  Anyone read the book Christian Nation?  It is a particularly chilling dystopia because it underscores that what we have is so very valuable and, possibly, so very fragile.  We take its existence for granted, but the  Constitutional balance that at once guarantees our free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing any one religion is delicate and finely tuned.  And it needs to be protected if it is to endure.  In his extremely well researched novel, author Fred Rich sets out how, through a confluence of planning and accident, a dogmatic religious faction comes to power in the US.  And, yes, military chaplains play a role in this dystopia: rather than reaching out in faith-inspired love to help and comfort troops, the chaplains in this novel love only those who share their faith and help the government impose that faith on those who do not.

We are so very lucky that the world Rich describes exists within the pages of a book and not in the world we inhabit.  As we approach Memorial Day, we want to thank all the chaplains and all the troops who have died upholding this delicate and oh so valuable balance in our Constitution.

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On view for another month at the Brooklyn Museum, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is an amazingly effective show.  It groups some 400 images taken over the last 166 years thematically — from training to deployment to combat, injuries, death, and the 1000-mile stare of returning troops.  By organizing the show this way, it drives home the constants of war.  The equipment and circumstances change, the realities of sending people into combat doesn’t.  There are acts of bravery, tenacity,  loyalty and love on the battlefield, in hospital tents, by gravestones. There is also unspeakable brutality, suffering, and devastation both individual and collective, military and civilian.

This was our take on it.  If you have seen the show in Brooklyn or any of its previous venues (Museum Fine Arts, Houston;  Corcoran, Washington, DC; Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles), please share your thoughts.

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Humanity Explored Film Festival up and running

Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 11.19.55 AMHumanity Explored Film Festival is up and running, and you can watch Chaplains Under Fire on-line as well as a number of other great documentaries and feature films.  And, please, give the festival your feedback and spread the word.  Thanks.

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Humanity Explored film festival

For all of you who ask us where you can watch “Chaplains Under Fire”– well, we are proud to announce that the documentary will be part of the next Humanity Explored film festival whose organizers, Culture Unplugged, make it easy for everyone to attend: it is on-line, free, and runs for a year.  Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 8.42.50 AMThe 2013 festival will launch later this month and, in the meantime, you can still check out the 2012 films.

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Veterans issues in latest issue of Dart Society Reports

The Dart Society is an  independent nonprofit organization of journalists who cover trauma, conflict, and human rights.  In its fourth publication, it highlights range of veteran issues, often with an eye to helping the media deal with these issues more sensitively and honestly.  You can read the current issue on-line — it is well worth it.

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Honoring service, sacrifice, and support

Silver Star Families of America placed May 1st on the national calendar as a day to remember and honor all those who have suffered wounds and illnesses while on active duty in a war zone.  It is also a day to thank groups like Silver Star Families of America for their consistent support of veterans and their families.

I first came across this group while researching a chapter for War Trauma and Its Wake: Expanding the Circle of Healing.  I conclude the chapter by “highlighting some interventions that benefit our wounded warriors and their families on their long, tortuous journey home.” Among them:

Recognition. Only those warriors injured in combat receive the Purple Heart medal.  This leaves many warriors wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with no concrete recognition of their service.  Silver Star Families of America (SSFOA) rectifies this by awarding silver star banners or certificates.  These are not to be confused with a Silver Star medal, which is issued by the government for gallantry in action.  The SSFOA banner/certificate is an unofficial recognition that expresses the community’s appreciation.  Similarly, one can submit a request to the SSFOA to honor caregivers, usually relegated to the ranks of unsung heroes.

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On the eve of ANZAC Day

A good report from the Sydney Morning Herald about the medical care given to wounded troops in Afghanistan.  The article includes a video (below) about the work of doctors in the multinational medical unit in Kandahar.  On the eve of Gallipoli anniversary, it is a reminder that Australians and New Zealanders are sending troops into this war, too.



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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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Just when we were starting to feel at home…

FOB Salerno, Afghanistan

… (or, we’re not in Kansas anymore)

Sitting at the picnic tables outside the chaplains’ offices at “our” FOB is pleasant. The area is sheltered by a shade net and is cool even under the naked sun. A couple of evenings ago, while waiting for Lee to unload after her rough, two-day trip with a chaplain to several outlying FOBs, I saw two nurses from the trauma team dining al fresco at one of the tables, watching the setting sun and finishing their fruit during a laughter-filled conversation. Other men and women soldiers were playing volleyball on the courts next to the chapel. Everyone was enjoying a beautiful evening much like those in our American Southwest. I was sitting on the end of one of the tables watching the volleyball fly high, then head down and up again.  A leaping soldier spiked the ball; another equally athletic soldier on the other side tapped it up again.

All of us heard the explosion in the same instant. And I think we all wondered if we had missed the warning over the base speaker system about an impending detonation. Just as suddenly we realized there had been no warning. Men and women in various forms of military dress began running. They ran in different directions, to be sure, but with purpose. I remembered from the in-brief that the best place to be during a rocket attack was our quarters, so that’s where I ran. The two chaplains I share the space with were already there, as was the Rabbi, a chaplain down from Bagram, and his chaplain assistant. There were other explosions, some too close for comfort, but not in quick succession. Sometimes minutes would pass before the next high pitched hsssss, immediately punctuated by a shocking burst.

After a lengthy silence came the call for sweepers, designated personnel who are responsible for accounting for the troops or civilians in their area. Chaplain Bishop headed for the hospital, along with the med response team, to prepare for casualties, but everyone else has orders to stay put inside until the all clear was announced.

I grabbed my camera to hurry to the hospital, stopping by Lee’s quarters to tell her what I was doing.  But, alarmingly, her roommate didn’t know where Lee was. I found Chaplain Bishop, who was talking with Sergeant Bone, a nurse from Vancouver, Washington, at one of the triage tables. No casualties had been reported yet, but the sweepers were still doing their work. The chaplain had seen Lee, though; she had run from the showers to shelter in a nearby bunker, then moved to another bunker when the rockets got uncomfortably close. He assured me she was safe.

Twenty minutes later, we heard the “all clear;” this time, there were no casualties.  — Terry

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The postman cometh (from 2007)

Running headlong into a fury of sand and gravel, the eight soldiers hurried to the rear of the Chinook the instant it touched down.  Working quickly, they dragged mail bags from the helo to a small corner of the pad about 50′ away.  When all the bags were off-loaded, the eight, in what was clearly a practiced maneuver, threw themselves across the cargo while the helo lifted off, heading to another remote FOB (Forward Operating Base) or Fire Base.  Without the weight of the soldiers pinning the cargo to the ground, the accelerating rotors would have blown bags and boxes of mail over acres of rocky terrain.

The mail then was taken to the Alamo, a compound with large mud walls and enclosed structures baked hard by the sun.  As the bags spilled envelopes and boxes across the concrete courtyard, the soldiers quickly gathered to help sort or listen for their names in the first mail call in six weeks.  Mail call, even in the age of email, is an important occasion at bases throughout the theater.  Most of these soldiers have daily contact by email or phone with the important people in their lives, but it’s different to have something tangible recently held by a family member, friend or, sometimes, a stranger who cares.  What else would explain the joking and laughing and end zone dancing?  The sudden brightening.  The shared moment that reassures and eases the passage of time and loneliness.  — Terry

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