Antiochian Chaplain Fr. Stephan Close Reports From Afghanistan
Entry 40, July 11
Your Grace: Your blessing. By the prayers of the faithful, I am back in England and healthy and grateful. Divine Liturgy will resume here at RAF Mildenhall this Sunday. With love in Christ, Father Stephan
Entry 39, June 2
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: The straplatch on my case broke, but the other latch held and kept everything from spilling out. There was a great large tractor trailer parked on the shoulder, it was loaded with smaller vehicles- burnt, blown apart, bullet riddled battle casualties. I walked along the road when a terrible thrashing noise advanced upon me. A truck, heavy-laden, rolled past with a tire blown and shredded, flapping sadly; the other 17 carrying the load. One soldier has bourne the brunt of the enemy’s wrath, the other four bear the litter he lies upon, taking him to safety. Brothers, let us bear one another’s burdens and lift up those who are weakening. Your prayers.
Entry 38, May 30
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: A memorial service is impossibly hard when you know the person. The grief is overwhelming and I really need to crack the whip on my emotion so I can get through the service. A memorial service is also tough when you don't know the person. Never met them. It is hard to do the service feeling numb and disconnected when people are in such grief all around me. And then the eulogy. Oh, my. Our lives consist of so many little parts; so many of them of little significance: jokes and mannerisms and hobbies and favorite teams and stuff we own and relationships we've had all fading. But that there might be redemption for it all; Jesus came and died for us. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 37, May 29
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: What have I been doing? We are at war. Bad things happen. This is the end of the 'winter lull' and the fighting season is just beginning. Up until now we get rocketed a couple of times a week. When the alarm sounds we hit the deck and then get to a bunker until all is clear. More often than that are the memorial services for fallen warriors on their way home. Such things make a person prayerful. I hold services in the Romanian Chapel. It is the nicest church in the whole country of Afghanistan. It has no pews and many beautiful icons and photos of the Romanian soldiers who have died in this war. When I arrived, I had no place to serve. They had the facility, but no priest. So it works out. Pretty well. I do the Liturgy in English and they do the responses in Romanian. At first, they were used to having a choir back home doing everything, so they would just stand and be prayerful. I told them that it was ok if they were quiet in the Liturgy unless they were breathing. If they had breath, then they must praise the Lord because that is what the Scripture says. Then I would assign some to do readings and then some folks volunteered to chant one part they knew better and somebody dragged in a friend who wasn't coming but had a good voice and then a Greek girl wanted to do one part she knew in Greek which everyone thought was beautiful. So I have several folks who contribute a bit and we end up having a wonderful service out of what we have to offer. An average Sunday has about 30 soldiers in and out and about half-a-dozen nationalities; even some Americans. People will often just come in to look because it is the only place on base which clearly looks like a church temple- it is peaceful, clean, has a recording of chants playing, and smells like prayer. It is clearly the best part of my week and makes up for the difficulties of the rest. I have units which I visit to shake hands and see how my Airmen are doing- working hard (or ready to when the need arises) and keeping their spirits up and getting along with each other. I'll ask if anyone objects to a moment of devotion; usually someone will say they think that would be a good idea. I'll read the scripture for the coming Sunday and talk about it for a couple minutes and then we pray a bit. It generally doesn't hurt too bad and they end up being the guinea pigs for my next Sunday's sermon until I get something worked out. Morale is very good across the board because we take care of our troops; they are well trained and well led. If there are problems, it usually is something happening at home. If there were little problems when they left, they usually turn into big problems after a few months of neglect. The application of some humility and effective apologizing usually halt the disaster; and repentance can improve half of the issue. This is where some religion is VERY USEFUL. I am grateful for the prayers of my brothers of DOWAMA who love me and I look forward to returning healthy to them having done my duty here. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 36, May 18
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Christ is risen! I heard him coming up behind me, his pace more rapid than mine as I jogged my slog along the flightline. “Pahdon,” he said in the familiar rhythm and softened “r” common in my current homeland of England as he passed and shrank into the distance. His shirt bore the crest of the Royal Navy; he was likely a technician for the NATO forces serving here on base. He met his turnaround point and his visage grew as we reapproached. “Cheahs,” he greeted cheerily as he headed back; his blue-black skin shining with sweat. Possibly not born in the UK either, yet both of us from there and now here. Deployed together. Dusty. Doing our duty. Brothers. Your prayers. Father Stephan
Entry 35, May 7
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Christ is risen! What’s it like in Afghanistan? It’s dusty. I gets everywhere. You can tell it has gotten in your mouth when you notice that grinding in your teeth and it feels like you are chewing a mouthful of salt. The uniform looks clean (meaning nothing has spilled on it so far), but don’t pat yourself indoors or it will look like you’ve shaken the dust rag. When they are doing an archaeological excavation of my lungs centuries from now, they’ll find a layer of sediment. "How did an English graveyard turn up Afghan dirt? Maybe we’ve found Dr Watson! Clearly an Afghan vet.” When Muslims do their ablutions before prayer, they twist a finger in their ears- dust gets in there. It’s in my keeeeeyboard too. You walk into a room, the dust lays thick. “This must have been abandoned long ago.” “No, we were in here cleaning last week.” Our poor mechanics who try to keep vehicles running in this environment- nothing stays lubricated. Don’t lick your lips; dust crusts. Hand lotion=dust magnet. Sunglasses have a “cool factor”, but they also identify folks who can see where they are going. This is the stuff we are made of and to which we shall return and yet our Heavenly Father has somehow imbued us with dignity and value and placed eternity in our hearts. Then there are also the flies, but the locals say the heat will kill ‘em by next month. Oh boy. Christ is risen! Father Stephan
Entry 34, April 30
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Christ is risen! The good thing about living at the airport is...you learn to recognize various aircraft by their sound. The bad thing about living at the airport is...you learn to recognize the various aircraft by the earsplitting crescendos of noise they make- at any moment of the day or night. The good thing about living at the airport is...it is easy to get transportation. The bad thing about living at the airport is...it is easy to get sent someplace with no notice at all. The good thing about living at the airport is...new and interesting people cycle through. The bad thing about living at the airport is...a)sometimes they will be assigned to bunk in your quarters for a few days, b)sometimes they stay for more than a few days, c)eventually they will leave - usually in the wee hours of the morning, d)because they are trying not to wake you they won’t turn on the lights and take your laundry bag by mistake, and e) they wake you anyway when they knock over their luggage in the dark which is really scary. The good thing about living at the airport is...afterburners into the sunset are sooo beautiful.
The bad thing about living at the airport is...there is a grey concrete blast barrier between. The good thing about living at the airport is...watching aircraft streaking overhead is always cool. The bad thing about living at the airport is...the ground here is really uneven. The good thing about living at the airport is...the stuff you need is always arriving. The bad thing about living at the airport is...it is carried off to other places on cumbersome vehicles which are too big for these roads. The good thing about living at the airport is...it's home. The bad thing about living at the airport is...its far away from home. The good thing about living at the airport is...there is a lot of high value stuff here which is well secured. The bad thing about living at the airport is...bad guys keep trying to find new ways to blow it up. The good thing about living at the airport is...the terminal is one of the most beautiful buildings in the whole country. The bad thing about living at the airport is...that’s not the place I’m living at! Your prayers. Father Stephan
Entry 33, April 23
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Christ is risen! I was asked to go to another camp and offer services with some Orthodox folks who importuned their chaplain who respected their request and knew what to do with it . So here I was with 3 Macedonians who were getting ready to return home after a loooong absence. Confessions? It took a little translating and, umm, it had been a while… I reiterated that they didn’t HAVE to, in which case they said, “I’m good.” They were standing right behind me as I served and were VERY quiet, these tough guys, and I wasn’t sure how much they were getting until I came to the prayer for the departed; when their weeping brought tears to my eyes. It is a wonderful thing how a blessing comes in disguise. 6 Rocket Attacks and 3 Dignified Transfer of Fallen Heroes.
I still can’t get over 72 verses in the Lamentations- and that was just the first stasis! I was given 2 lambs by a pious Afghan- a very generous gift. I went to pick them up at the appointed time and was met by them standing in their pen. Our benefactor wanted to be sure that we received them fresh and so had them carefully slaughtered right there. During the Paschal Liturgy, our heavy flyers were doing target practice. I'm sure they were far away, but the impact could be felt as well as heard. It was sooo still when we processed around the Church with our candles not being blown out. I just received today a box of sustenance and love from the hard-working evangelists of hospitality from a parish Sisterhood. Many people have benefited and are grateful. Our Resurrection service ended at 0300 and I am off to Agape Vespers and official ceremonies. We read the Gospel in 9 languages at Agape Vespers. The Serbs were so enthusiastic that 2 of them shared. One of them pressed a little icon of St Nicholas into my hand. It has been with him for 4 years on this contract away from home. He is ready to return and wanted me to have it as it has kept him well for so long. A new rotation of troops arrives and brings a relief carved icon of “Sweet Kissing”- church sized. Such beautiful devotion. Christ is risen! Father Stephan
Entry 32, April 17
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: He hadn’t been to Church since he was this high (maybe 5yo), when his Grandmother had taken him to the Orthodox Church. Not for any good reason; you get busy, get distracted, don’t get around to it, other things are more important. Now he is a soldier in Afghanistan, leading his troops on a patrol towards their objective. The ambush explodes around them; pinning them in a crossfire that would inscribe their epitaphs. Bullets holed his uniform and it wasn’t a big, baggy one; but did not pierce his flesh. In this deafening chaos, his training kicked in: his right hand reached for his helmet, then the chest plate of his body armour, his right and left shoulder; and a supernatural peace overcame him. He directed his team members to return effective fire and they fought their way out of this deathtrap still grasping life so much more precious than they had realized before. Today he returned to the Church as he promised he would. His training he remembers intuitively; the Sign of the Cross is still in there as he steps forward. Nothing is now more important than to receive the Life more precious than he had realized before. Christ is risen! Father Stephan
Entry 31, April 3
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: It has an odor...…the smell of our incinerated garbage. It is most intense in the evening after our daily offerings have been assembled. All of the water drunk in this desert camp comes in ½ liter plastic flasks; it is their disposal which is most pungent among our tons of trash. Our buildings are not very tight and the smell invades and scratches the throat and the eyes; like inhaling a scouring pad. When we step out into the night, it is a chemical assault which destroys any pleasure the cool of the evening at the end of a working day might bring. The gift of the burn pits, the gift we send ourselves. At the other end of base is the open-air sewage collection/treatment area, known colloquially as the “Poo pond.” Both more proximal to our domicile and magnitudes of olfactory intensity than any stockyard or chicken farm I’ve ever met; the stench is gagatrocious and constant if the wind is against you.It never normalizes. You never get used to it. It is constantly nose-curling. Our senses speak to us of our spiritual estate, sinful and adulterous; and propel us to turn our back to its fallenness as we flee to the chapel to pray-repentant and worshipful. The incense we offer along with the bowing of our heads and the lifting up of our hands purifies and beautifies. Oh, sniff and see that the Lord is good. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 30, March 30
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: …at a rocket attack. The alarm sounds at the detection of a launch- usually. At that sound, hit the dirt, or rocks, or mud; the lower the safer. No, you can’t do it and look cool. Standing up, your body is like a catcher’s mitt for shrapnel. Which is even less cool. The boom of the impact shakes buildings and shakes people up. This is unnecessary; a philosophical Marine explained: "If you hear it, you’ve survived it- be grateful- no need to melt down. And if you didn’t hear it then it was either too far away-no worry. Or you didn’t survive it- at which point it is too late to fuss." Forgive, Fr Stephan
Entry 29, March 22
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: A most amazing sight: one of our largest transports with the tailramp open to disclose that it was full of our largest helicopter. The two sets of rotors were off, but it still filled the plane right up- just a couple of feet or less clearance on every side. Slowly, carefully with 15 soldiers assuring every angle stayed clear of obstruction top to bottom along the entire length; it was winched off the aircraft. Once on the tarmac there was a sigh of relief and it was swiftly towed away into the darkness. A new weapon system will be assembled and added to our fleet. Our imposingly capable transport did not remain unemployed for long. Unfortunately. Part of the scurry to get the helo unloaded was to make way for even more expensive cargo flying out this night. Under the watchful eyes of a dozen chaplains and a couple handfuls of our highest ranking officers and a century of international warriors, six lockstepped Marines shouldered our Nation’s most valuable resource up into the bay of that empty aircraft. One small coffin filled the space. One human frame; a ballast of enormous gravity. This most costly weapon system is withdrawn from the war. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 28, March 19
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Respire. The benefit and the bane of being in the military is that it is a condition of employment to stay in shape. So on days where the temperature is survivable and the air is breathable I will get out and go for a run, dancing on gravel and dodging fuming diesels. I take my wellbeing into my hands in an attempt to stay healthy. I give the Afghan gate guard a right-handed wave as I huff-and-puff by. He gives me a big grin and yells, “Sportsman!” I can’t afford to break my breathing rhythm to laugh. A passing truck fills the road and I hug a bit of shoulder squeezed between a groaning Mercedes and razor wire. I pass industrial buildings and torn-up concrete and shrapnel barriers and the detritus of our fallenness leaving a path of footprints in the dust. At my turn-around point (I’m grateful to be here) the flightline ends and the outlook is bleak; where overworked asphalt ends, the landscape can only utter a barren gasp. The wind picks up and tosses handfuls of it in my face. I turn and reassess my return in a pause between tractors and Lockheeds. What? A cheerful cheep pierced this ironic intermission; there! A yellowish finch rakishly crested perches concertina wire with adept bird toes and proclaims a joyful prophesy that there is a garden for us to return to. A sonic reminder for me, we were all alone. I breathe and spit. He breathes and sings. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 27, March 13
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: What's in a name? Utilitarian, uniforms give us the necessary information: country, branch of service, rank, technical specialty, and name. At Liturgy, an Army officer approached for the Eucharist with steely-eyed resolution. A hard-working lieutenant with an impressive last name connoting strength, durability, and burliness strode up to the chalice, arms crossed and chin uplifted; 'Your name?' I asked. 'Rosemary,' she said. She also says that this was the only Orthodox Liturgy she has been able to attend in her military career and that folks back home put her onto me (thanks everybody!). Only in Afghanistan does the Church end up being only a few minutes’ walk from where you live. Forgive, Father Stephan
Entry 26, March 9
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: An F-16 is a piece of aeronautical art; every line backswept, beauty of motion engineered. Watching one taking off, there is practically no sound as it approaches. You wouldn’t even know it is coming at you except for the low rumble turns to crackling as it draws near- and then it is too late. In less time than it takes to get your hands to your ears we are beside the afterburner which is doing its technical best to put the aircraft high into the air with the secondary effect of using sound to pound everything in range.
At this instant we become aware that all of our internal organs are separate pieces and each one of them will rattle at varying frequencies according to their mass. I am particularly interested in how delicately suspended my cardiac organ is as this assault sends it careening around my rib cage. Like when Jesus says, 'Follow Me.' Forgive, Fr Stephan
Entry 25, March 5
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: This is not about piercings and studs. Air crews take pride in their aircraft and historically have decorated them with cartoons, pin-ups, or fierce grins. Sometimes this creativity transgressed public good taste, so the AF has clamped down on this quite a bit. The extravagances of the Second World War are largely extinct. Hardly a pinstripe remains. Pity the poor A-10 “Thunderbolt” crew who are saddled with one of the ugliest (according to those who have taste in these matters) aircraft flying today; popularly known as the “Warthog”. Camouflage gray, all business, intentionally dull. Even at war though, the human spirit will not be denied. While visiting the flightline, one of our maintainers was explaining the work he was doing to keep his bird flying. He opened one of the panels hinged into the skin of the thundercloud-coloured aircraft, exposing the workings within. When this door swung open, it also revealed that on the inside of the door was a screaming eagle airbrushed onto a brilliant background of sky blue. So during this Fast, let us neglect our public appearance and attend to making our interior beautiful, enhancing the colours of our soul through spiritual discipline. Your prayers, Father Stephan
Entry 24, March 1
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: I was up at 0430 to put one young man on a plane and will be up until 0200 tomorrow doing the same again. One long day that began and ended the same way. Your prayers. Father Stephan
Entry 23, February 22
"Clear blue sky
But the planes won’t fly
"Brisk little breeze
But the jets are at ease
"Gas is full
But chocks won’t pull
"Checked off is the Pilot
But the engines remain quiet
"Mechanic’s work is done
But can’t give ‘er the gun
"Takeoff is clear
No afterburners to hear
"The reason for the hesitation?
Is that the destination
"Is under a foot of snow!"
Entry 22, February 18
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Just off the flightline is a scrap heap leftover from the days of the Soviets which is just now getting cleaned up. Truck chassis, busted helicopter tails, snapped wings and severed bodies of transports, shreds and detritus. The mound is being hauled off and now only the founding parts remain: a stubborn tail section, proud though detached; and a flying freighter body oddly sliced at the beltline now belly up with detired wheel carriages skyward. As I ran by the other day, it reminded me of a dead roach. A couple of decades ago, these were the monuments of warfighting technology. Pilots flew them, mechanics maintained them, soldiers depended on them; none of them would have given them up without a fight. Their life’s blood was on them. All that is left now is a dusty junkyard, the voices are gone; long gone. And forgotten, except by me now as I stand in the shadow; they whisper.
I recalled a similar experience in a clean bright art shop in London. I was admiring icons; large, beautiful, old. And dissonant. This was not the place for these, they belonged in a church. They belonged back in the church where they had called worshippers to devotion for hundreds of years. Here they are just art for collectors of discriminating taste and deep pockets. How did these end up here? I heard the whisper of a deacon’s call to prayer. I knew he would not have let them go without a fight. Your brother, Stephan
Entry 21, February 13
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Sweeping the steps in a dusty desert as a metaphor for the priestly labour, Part II. There wouldn’t be so much dirt if there weren’t so many people traversing through. Actually, the number of people wouldn’t matter so much if they would be more mindful to wipe their boots. Or if they would stick to the swept walks and avoid walking through so much dirt. Boots get the dirtiest on the part where people can’t see unless you aren’t standing on them. A smooth sole collects not much dirt. A little clump of dirt can make a lot of smooth floor feel and sound gritty. My own boots must be clean or I undo my work immediately. The broom is less effective with repeated use; time to get a new one? If you sweep most meticulously, most professionally, most hygienically, with all of your strength to the best of your ability; it is undone with the first passage. Is that ok? To keep the room clean, the steps must be swept. After all the hard work, most people won’t even notice. The one who does and catches you to say thanks; is a real encouragement to keep at it. Part of the added cost of improvement- floors, sidewalks, and such- is the upkeep. This is an incentive to let things be natural. Sometimes natural is ugly or uncomfortable or dangerous. Improve it and sweep it. I don’t know if Afghans sweep. I think they have carpets, which they beat. My sweeping gift to Afghanistan is a bequest of my Mother, my Wife and my German neighbors. Some of this is deeply and mystically metaphorical, some is just maintenance. Like my priesthood. Your brother, Stephan
Entry 20, February 11
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: I was saying my prayers this morning when there was a rocket attack. I am trying to learn to pray for my enemies. My patron, St Stephen, Archdeacon and Protomartyr; in icons, kind and meek. In death, like his Lord, praying forgiveness on his persecutors. Trusting the wisdom of our Metropolitan, who ordained me, I seek to learn from him whose name I somewhat ruefully bear: wisdom. I am trying to learn to pray for my enemies. I am not sure if this morning made it easier or harder. St Stephen help me! Lord help me! Your brother, Stephan
Entry 19, February 10
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Sweeping the steps in a dusty desert is a metaphor for the priestly labor. Dust accumulates slowly, it is always there. It never amounts to much. Folks get used to it. Why bother sweeping? It will just be there again tomorrow - or in a few minutes. The one who sweeps gets the dirtiest. The sweeper is in the way of people who are busy and need to get by. Do I sweep for me or for them? Or is there a higher principle? When you sweep, it raises a cloud of dust; it looks pretty impressive; passers-by get irritated. If you sweep REALLY HARD, it raises a cloud of dust; and you can’t breathe. If you sweep REALLY HARD, it raises a cloud of dust; which then settles right back where it was. If you sweep REALLY HARD, it raises a cloud of dust and if the wind is blowing right it can be your neighbor’s problem. (Love your neighbor.) But if you sweep really gently, you can still breathe. If you sweep really gently, you can gather the dust and remove it. At the top of the stairs, it doesn’t seem like much. It is easy to sweep. By the time you get to the bottom it is a lot. By the time you get to the bottom, it is hard and you are tired and it would be easy to quit without finishing. The corner is the hardest part, the most dirt hides there the longest; sweeping isn’t effective, stabbing is required. It is hard to know when to quit; the sidewalk goes on and on. Remember me. Your brother, Stephan
Entry 18, February 6
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Let me apologize for the presence of my absence, as I won't be with you at our Clergy Brotherhood Retreat next week. I'll miss all of your bright, shining, hairy faces. I'll miss meeting the new ones. I'll miss Gus’ old one. Retired? Who will pitch for the Palestinians? Be generous to our orphan. And you'll miss my Air Force recruiting materials- probably… a little. Somebody bringing the vino? Find the corkscrew and remember me with kindness. It's dry here. I’m really not so far away. When you pray for our Armed Forces, I’m with you and grateful. When you pray for peace, you have touched my most fervent longing; I’m there. When the weather does there what it always does during our Retreat - it does that here too; except that dust doesn’t melt. Somebody can have my audience with His Grace; those ten minutes are worth a thousand dollars and a week of my life; his blessing and kiss on my noggin get me through a year of this. The Western Rite chanting, I hear it in my heart. Is there a recording of it? The power of that prostration in the candlelight; my Bishop breaks my heart. It is one of the most sacred moments of my year. This war has taken that from me and that I rue. God will give another that I will search for with equal dread and desire. I miss your fellowship; I miss the embraces; I miss conversations trivial in the dinner line and tremendous strolling the cemetery. Half a globe away, your love is not strange to me -- 'Grace proceeds from all that is good, but above all from brotherly love.' Remember me, father and brothers. Your son and brother, Stephan.
Entry 17, January 31
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: According to the plan of the day’s events, I had walked through the morning’s chilly sunshine to visit some of my units. Stuck my nose in on some soldiers fixing an old truck; a labour of love, they were actually fixing it up. Under the hood will work an air cleaner painted bombastic yellow. I visited our Medical Evacuation folks and we read some scripture, I gave Sunday’s sermon a test run and we prayed. I stopped by the folks who run the freight terminal and heard their stories and commiserated with their frustrations. At the passenger terminal, they were busy but glad to see their chaplain for a moment.
The firefighters were inordinately proud of their faded orange truck, hospitable (a 'Marmite' sandwich!) and happy to chat. The last visit is to the mortuary. They fix me a cup of tea and we talk about their work and how the team takes care of each other. They like a smoke, so I bring out my pipe and we pull some seats out beside the flightline and watch the aircraft: various commercial jets from around southwest Asia, attack helos buzz around and heavy lift Chinooks wait in line floating a few feet off the ground, a Russian cargo freighter, fighters loud and loaded, American contract flight full of folks going home, airframes with nobody in ‘em going with a mind of their own.
A chopper with a red cross settles on the ramp beside us and offloads a stretcher to an ambulance. That looked awfully light, I remembered thinking. Later that afternoon, our flag is at half-staff and my heart sinks. In the coldest, bleakest, darkest and smallest hours of the next morning I am back on the flightline where I join my fellow chaplains in line opposite our generals as we all render honors as mortality passes between our vitalities and on up the tailramp journeying. After the ceremony, I grimly stride from the darkness into the brightly lit working space of this large aircraft; empty but for the broad stripes and bright stars which separate this young soldier and me. I am humbled by his heroism. He lies, I kneel. He reposes, I pray. We both touch the flag and are connected at these words, “O God of spirits and of all flesh…”
Entry 16, January 28
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,"according to one of our Founding Fathers. I do not consider myself much of a patriot. The Viet Nam Era left its scars on me. And I didn’t like our flag all that much-going through grammar school, it was technically challenging to draw and have it come out right. Kids in Poland (white piece of paper, color half red-done), or Italy (white piece of paper, green stripe, red stripe- done) had it easy. Figuring out the stripes was hard; fifty white stars on top of blue; neat and straight-impossible.
I have achieved a modicum of reconciliation in the course of my occupation. One of my first attractions to the Divine Liturgy was the sense of dignity and the rendering of honor occurring there. As a home-based officer, at the trumpet call, all else stops, I come to attention and hold the salute at the moving of the colors. I can honor the liberty it stands for and be proud of my commitment to that. "The land of the free and the home of the brave." Here deployed, the flag flies in the courtyard just outside my quarters. I fall asleep hearing the halyard strumming the metal pole in the breeze. But the flag can also cause my heart to sink and fill it with horror, fear, and dread- when it is set to half-mast. That means that death has come to our camp.
Entry 15, January 27
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: I have said my prayers, taken pills, had a cup of green tea and some oatmeal. I will sort through my email, sweep up, go visit some units and have devotions with them. Then I will get in a work out, maybe see the Three Musketeers (notice how they hardly ever use a musket?), there is a monthly dinner tonight, I'd like to get some reading done. We'll see how the day actually unfolds. Christmas was a month ago. It seems like a lot longer. There are ways of marking the progress of time. A box of tea has 20 bags in it. A bottle of pills have 60 doses. Finish a 5# tin of Danish butter cookies (not by myself). Pull a page off a calendar. There will be a ceremony in 2 weeks. People joke about "Groundhog Day" (seen the movie?) and everyday being the same when you are working 12 hour shifts with down days uncertain. Sundays are important, they at least put a pause in that. The Liturgical calendar helps. After this weekend, I will have been gone 2 months. It seems like a long time but it doesn't seem like much progress. It is 1/3 of the way. Still uphill. Teach me, O Lord to value my days. You have ordered me to be in this, my new home. Help me to obediently serve you as best I can in this strange place. And not grow weary with my days here, for you have numbered them for my salvation.
Entry 14, January 20
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: It's been a rough week, with too many rockets and caskets and trouble and sorrow. However, such a week ends with a Day of New Beginnings, a whiff of Eternity and a glimpse of a Kingdom through a glass darkly. Because we get one day a week for service, it was also Theophany according to the Military Calendar; we journey through this desert of multiple dimensions, but our Lord recalls us to the Jordan’s bank and allows us a withdrawal of water, Holy. After such a week, this day is JOY (sing that part) and we are in a different land- one that speaks Romanian and Bulgarian and Greek in soprano. I don’t have deacon (even though I keep dropping hints about how badly I need one) but I do have a pious Logistics Officer who is all there but for the nuance of ordination.
He came up with a great pot which was filled with multiple liters of clean water and set up in the morning’s brisk sunshine. I have the cross and the prayers… what else? ' … ' (he doesn’t have the word, but makes a throwing motion). I shrug and point to my hand for the water delivery mechanism; all I’ve ever used in my priestly simplicity. That was obviously inadequate and would not do; off he sprints back into the Chapel. Back he emerges with dried basil sprigs (still aromatic, mind you) bound in a bunch; two of ‘em. Hmmm… I’ve never used these before, wonder how they work? Answer: They work great, delivering cleansing a shower of nearly Noahic proportions. That was the congregation; next stop: the Bulgarian Regiment. Their Commander had requested a blessing of the Troops and the Colors. They were all formed up; expectations were high- would the Amerikanskii priest meet them? Diligent research had uncovered prayers for such (thank you, Your Grace) and greetings in Bulgarian from Metropolitan Joseph, who had stood in their shoes in his day. Armed with copious wands of the basil Epiphany artillery, God’s gracious embrace washed over them with baptismal recollection. I made sure nobody felt left out and honored the brave banners of their Homeland. It was not in Bulgarian, but it was enthusiastic. 'May God have mercy on you, and strengthen you in the day of battle, and save us.' I have pictures, and a video; but when I finally got them to open up, I could neither save them nor send them. So a disc is on its way to my Khouriya Annette who should not need to hurdle security walls to get them to you a bit later. With my compliments to Your Grace and the Brethren, Father Stephan
Entry 13, January 16
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ … Sorry about the lag. The difficulty of the preacher is how to say something complex simply (although some would say it is resisting the temptation to say everything you know). My Sundays enrich the intricacies with multiple monolingualities. Many of the Romanians and Bulgarians don’t speak English. I must be even more careful because they are not theologically stupid. Many were brought up faithfully in the Church and were well taught both in their families and in the Community of Faith by scholarly priests and often within the shadow of a Monastery counseled by pious monastics. Thus I also dread undershooting them with a sermon insultingly elementary. Furthermore, (and totally beyond my comprehension) are the variations in the readings. So, last Sunday’s Gospel here was Jesus healing the Ten Lepers from Luke 17. When Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priest, I had the Law from Leviticus 14 read so my crowd could understand what He was referring to. It speaks of the healed person offering two birds. One is killed and its blood is sprinkled with hyssop over the live one which is then set free. This is what King David refers to in his Psalm of Repentance. The person is cleansed and reunited to the community. Thus the Lepers teach us to pray, 'Lord, have mercy,' and Jesus heals us to join the worshipping community. So went the sermon. Too convoluted? Did they get the connection between the readings? I could not tell; this is not a 'Hallelujah' crew. They stand stock still. They don’t shuffle. They hardly blink. Nonetheless, the rest of Liturgy went swimmingly. My chanters even surprised me with a Marian hymn (which they had practiced!) of rotating verses in three languages; they found one they all had the tune for- lovely. We finish our offering. Folks come forward for a blessing which blesses me the more- funny how that works. So we are cleaning up and I hear a rough noise rarely heard in this desert battle station- a bird chirping! I call a few remaining to the Deacon’s door (I still need a Deacon- the doors are here). 'Listen!' 'Yes, that is the One Set Free, we sing.' Sundays are the best! Your prayers, Father Stephan"
Entry 12, January 6
Your Grace and my dear Brothers in Christ: Happy feast! For the first time … it rained! Just enough to get the sidewalk wet (and rinse off our vehicle- poor thing). The last thing I remember as I finally got to bed was the sound of drumming on the roof. Awaking this morning, it was cold and clear and damp. The cold was brisk, refreshing, and enlivening; a new freeze. For those who have been in the grip of winter for months now, you forget the thrill of the first embrace. Just like I no longer notice redundant sunshine and shirtsleeve weather, shame on me, it is such a blessing. The overnight wash brought a clarity to the air. The closest mountains are often unseen due to the haze. Today, I see them and those behind them and those behind them. The sun was announcing its premier with pinks. The few trees remaining are released from their entombment of grey and shine green; new rinsed. I breathe without the sense of sandpapering my pipes. The air is less my enemy necessitating a defense of lotions and chapsticks and goggles and bandannas. So I celebrate Theophany and consider a bracing renewal with blessed water. I remember my baptism and the faith which took me from coddled babyhood to new life all goosebumped. Theophany lets us see far and wide and clearly into our own world and up into eternity. The eternity which is always there, but the dust and havoc of our world shroud us from it. Our eyes are meant to see up and far. As I trudge this place I am too tired even to look up, avoiding the next pothole or rock gets my attention instead, until that is all I can see. The Baptism of our Lord gives me a hope of a garden where my world and I are not enemies locked on a mortal grapple, but co-nurturers. We are not what we should be either of us. But we are not what we shall be either. Soon this respite shower will evaporate. What remains at all will be churned to mud. That is my doing. God blessed the water. With your prayers, Fr Stephan
Entry 11, January 4
The commander of one of our air combat squadrons asked this question the other day and related how he came to an answer. When he first arrived, he thought the answer was, "To kill the enemy." There was no end to that. Then he thought, "We are here to protect our troops." That did not answer the larger question. Kandahar Air Field is a large base with much foreign military activity, but it is primarily an Afghan civil airport and the Afghan Air Force also operates on a part of it. Hospitality is a marvelous part of the culture here and they held an Open House to show off aircraft and inform the public. The public came, local schools used it for a field trip and several hundred children were among the guests. Even though we are in southwest Asia, childishness is not restricted by geography; they were chaotic, cool, colorful, and noisy. They were citizens of a country which had been constricted by war all of their lives. And the lives of their parents. And more. Observing this mass of youthful humanity swirling around displayed aircraft, our commander realized the answer to his question, "Why are we here?" We are here to give the Afghans a chance. We are here to let them show their kids a future. With your prayers, Fr Stephan
Entry 10, December 31
Christ is born! My Bishop does not simply invite me to pray, but invites me to join him in prayer. Here is an opportunity for fellowship, I'll not pass it up! I need a rope. I do not have one here. I find a rosary and make it work. I begin to pray for the repose of Kathy's soul and discover a blossoming of peace in my own. I only met her a handful of times while studying at St Vladimir's Seminary and had occasion to talk with her on the phone maybe a little more than that. As I prayed, I remembered her capable professionalism, her unstinting helpfulness, her warmth and confidence. Even as a student and a new priest, I felt she remembered me. And now I remember her. God rest her soul and comfort her family. Thanks for praying with me; I am no longer so far away. Father Stephan
Entry 9, December 27
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ of DOWAMA's St Raphael Clergy Brotherhood: Christ is born! Other things do happen around here... Some funny: Watching a petite, blonde soldier at dinner demurely wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, knuckle to wrist. Towards the end of the Fast, the guy sitting across the table from me finishes off a succulent slab of turkey breast by slathering the contents of a ketchup packet all over it. I could hardly help staring. I tell an office-mate, “Hey, we are invited to the New Year’s Eve party.” Oh,” he replies, “when is it?” Passing by the fast food island at the cafeteria (despite the name, there usually isn’t much one can eat there during the Fast), I spy a bin of onion rings; unmarked on the counter. I haven’t had much fried lately, that would be a nice change. I took a tongful and plated it. At my seat, I bit into one and encountered maritime rubberiness. I like kalamari, but I bet it was a bad surprise to others. Some poignant: My fellow chaplain was handing out Christmas stockings at the center of base when the alarm sounds for a rocket attack. When he got up, he grabbed the remaining stockings and took off at a dash. He handed them out in the bunker until the “all clear” was announced.
A Romanian colonel asks if I could find him a Bible in English which would not be overly difficult to read. He particularly wanted the Hebrew Scriptures; intending to read them through, this tour. The best I had access to was the Orthodox Study Bible; my personal copy. I was glad to give it and ashamed of my moment of reluctance. Some peaceful: Receiving a gift of a locally grown pomegranate and finding a serene moment in the sunshine to sit and savor this luxury; tetrahexagonal, juicy, jewel- colored nugget by nugget. Some ironic: An Airman from Puerto Rico grew up eating them all the time and could not fathom my bliss. Some platonic: Being greeted by an Airman I last saw in Basic Training years ago; in Church. A Soldier with the same unusual last name as an esteemed chaplain in our Archdiocese who was absolutely sure that he was not related to a priest; and looked immoderately relieved. Some tragic: In the event of an InDirect Fire (IDF) attack; we are trained to dive to the ground at the sound of the alarm. Just showered, in a freshly laundered uniform while crossing a dusty, gravelled truck parking lot…It would have been oddly less tragic if it had been a false alarm. Some, it’s better not to know: HOW did that truck (a) end up sideways in a ditch with a door now level to the road? (b) bash head-on into that storage container way off the road? (c) tear such a gash in that barrier? (d) put tire marks so high up that concrete wall when the strictly enforced speed limit is only 20 kph? And, finally, WHAT really transpires behind the chanter’s stand between the Romanian Army officer and the Greek-American Sailor when I inadvertently skip half a page of the Divine Liturgy. Christ is Born!
Entry 8, December 25
My dearest Bishop, Christ is born! Thank you for conveying the Nativity Greetings Of Patriarch Ignatius. His words were so gracious and mild for a man whose pastures and vineyards are being subjected to such violent upheaval and whose future promises much insecurity. They were heard this morning by hearts of sympathetic understanding here. As I printed off your attachment, I thought that most of my congregation is Romanian and Bulgarian and would treasure hearing from their own Spiritual Fathers as well. I had trouble getting past Security to the Romanian Patriarchate in time, but found the Pastoral Letter from Archbishop Nathaniel which, though two pages long, was read with much gusto. I accessed the Bulgarian Patriarchate website and zipped off a little note requesting Nativity Greetings, hoping to receive the standard letter in time from some attentive staff person covering the mail. I printed off the Archpastoral Nativity Message of Metropolitan Joseph of the Bulgarian Diocese USA, just in case. Much to my shock, my inquiry was met that same day with a short personal note from Patriarch Maxim himself. Its impact belied its brevity. That's the backstory. Merry Christmas to Your Grace and all my brothers in DOWAMA!
Entry 7, December 19
Your Grace and my Brothers: It was not a gang you would want to tangle with. They looked tough; trained and fit. They handled rough living on a regular basis and it is nothing for them. They have been at war; several tours is the norm. They have done without comfort and entertainment for a long time; there are no tubby, no soft, no excuses. They are capable to accomplish the hard job in extreme circumstances against fierce opposition. They expect to win. Their hands are trained for war. Civilians, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines in the uniforms of many nations with a range of skills to meet any necessary task. Smart, educated, experienced; they have been at this for many years and understand the costs. Their hearts are sturdy, steadfast.
In disciplined rows, an impressive gathering of talent and resources. Threatening, if that would be the intent. We stand silent. Women and men of stern determination and united purpose. Aircraft thunder by armed for destruction. Battle- scarred vehicles rumble in the background, missions of conflict to accomplish. We stand silent. Attentive. Faces dispassionate. An honest, but treasonous tear honors the eye as one from our number is bourne by, flag-draped, on the rugged shoulders of six most courageous compatriots. Their step is measured, heavy. With the slowest salute we dignify his passage. In a far away land he will be received by other warriors, faces pain moistened: his wife, their children; reunited, bereaved. Lord have mercy on the souls of the departed. Holy Spirit comfort those who remain. Amen. In Christ, Father Stephan
Entry 6, St. Eleftherios Day
Your Grace and my Brothers in Christ: Happy St Eleftherios Day! Another priest was passing through, so the Akathist for St Eleftherios was done. Outside the chapel, it smelled really bad; but inside the chapel it smelled really good. Outside the chapel you could hardly see for the dust, while inside the chapel you couldn’t see either- but that was due to the candlelight and the prayers of the faithful gathered. Everything is covered with dirt without, while within-due to much diligence-clean-aaahhh. Over the chapel, helicopters and fighters roared off to battle; but within we are still and quietly harmonious … 'Alleluia' at peace. Or are we? We chant of injustice, cruel torture, bloody wounds and death. We stand self-accused sinners, losers in our fight for life; hoping to grasp a faith we can live from a victorious Holy One. No, the battle is within our Chapel, less so without. Glad Advent to one and all, Fr Stephan. PS Glory to St Mary Orthodox Church of Wichita (great state of) KS and her intrepid pastoral leadership for being the fastest with the mostest in response to my pitiful incense plea. Their generosity will be aired this Sunday.
Entry 5, December 13, 2011
Master bless! I am sooo sorry I will not be attending the retreat this year, especially since my neighbor is the main presenter. Anyhow, permission was granted and my first Liturgy this past Sunday was such a blessing. I had chanters! They were not very musical but they were very brave. They were in Romanian and I was in English and I only lost them on a couple of little points- that is the great thing about the Chrysostom Liturgy; that it transcends language. Over twice as many folks showed up compared to my service in England. They stood still (nothing to sit on here) and were quiet, which I am also not used to. The grasp of what time one shows up for a Liturgy was similar, however. The woman from lunch the other day made it, even though I told her 0900 and it actually was at 1000. I delivered the sermon slowly, clearly, and in short sentences. They took it in grim stoniness. I was concerned about the Eucharist. I had heard that the tradition was mandatory confession, and I had heard none. I was dreading more of that grim stoniness when I stepped out, "With the fear of God..." But come they did; many, reverently, with pious joy. These are people who love the Gospel, "A man once gave a Great Banquet..." Come they did. I love my Bishop- many years! Father Stephan
Entry 4, December 11, 2011
Your Grace and my beloved Brothers in Christ: At what point do we call it miraculous? USO runs a morale program where they will record you reading a book and then mail a recording and book home so the family can hear you read and follow along turning pages- it is cool and fun and takes some of the distance out of being deployed. I had stopped by yesterday and saw one of our Advent favorites on the book table, Dr Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I came back the next day only to find the table had been picked clean! All that was left were Chanukah stories. I approached the front desk all disappointed. The manager was apologetic, full of excuses, but not helpful as far as when another "Grinch" might show. A young soldier was working there, "You want the Grinch? I have one." He had a strong Spanish accent; growing up he was not exposed to Seuss and did not know what a "Grinch" was, so he took a book and read it in his tent. He said he could bring it back for me. Big smiles. I'm not Boris Karloff (who narrated the cartoon) but it was a fun read and my family will have something under the tree from me. In the "dining facility" (DFAC- dee-faak in militaryspeak) I was eating across from a Romanian soldier who was passing through on her way home, having finished her tour. There are many Coalition forces here; lots of different uniforms and accents but working together fantastically. A civilian contractor leaned over my shoulder and ascertained (in English) that she was Romanian and then asked her when the Orthodox service was. The Romanian didn't know as she was just passing through. "I think it will be at 0900," I said. She looked at my American uniform and replied that she was looking for the Orthodox service. I told her I was the Orthodox priest and that I thought the Liturgy would be at 0900 on Sunday. She reconsidered my uniform and restated that she wanted the time of the Orthodox service in the Romanian chapel. I affirmed that I believed that I was the only Orthodox clergy on post and , God willing, it would be me offering on Sunday. "Americans can be Orthodox, too. Come and see and bring some of your friends." "0900," she smiled. I hope to see her, and her friends. Glad Advent, Fr Stephan
Entry 3, December 8, 2011
Your Grace: Bless me. I'll be here for six months. Another Romanian chaplain rotated through the base yesterday and we were able to meet. It is so edifying to have a few moments of fellowship, and it is always a blessing to meet a brother across so many lines and times and geographies. I was a bit early and the chapel was sparkling hygienic and empty but for the saints and angels who patiently await our company.
He proposed to have a service (it ended up being an Akathist) that evening. I walked over that night, through the dust and the diesel fumes (and delivered my CV to the Battalion Executive Officer, they are having to be careful about who they let offer services; it is unfortunately appropriate). I dawdled along the wall, greeting and praying and reflecting and inspecting; my heart settled and my soul brightened. The Martyr Saints Theodore (this is a military chapel) greeted me in full armor, swarthy- bearded and manly with weapons gripped at the ready. I know that in their last earthly moments their appearances were stripped, tortured, degraded, dishonored while their souls rose at the apex of perfection; and the icons tried to let me see that.
I see with shocking clarity our soldiers wounded and torn; I sense and hope for souls being made pure in the cauldron of suffering. Soldier Martyr St George held rank beside them; fair, clean shaven, serene.
His weapon, ready for deadly purpose nonetheless, floated above his open hands. His faith and virtuous character preserved his soul as he faced his dismal martyrdom. So in these days, I try to be purposeful in my faith and careful in my ministry. In a mysterious way, in that battle zone's quiet chapel, I saw our bishops as Generals in our warzone.
Entry 2, December 5, 2011
Your Grace: Many years! (from this context, that greeting has a whole new gravity). With an expeditious clearing of entirely appropriate restrictions from just anybody presuming to tread up to the altar of their beautiful chapel, I was able to serve Liturgy with the Romanians yesterday. Their chapel was one of the first constructions when they first came into theater at the beginning of the war (about 10 years now, Lord have mercy on us). It is not a prefab, but was purpose built-some of the interior supports are hewn and fitted, not nailed; a beautiful devotion of handiwork. The steeple can be seen for quite a ways throughout the camp (and served the purpose of helping me find it for the first time). It is clean (which is a living miracle in this dusty, breezy place) and well maintained despite regular use. It is well populated with diverse icons, many of which are evidence of personal commitment and graceful skill; with a particular gathering of Marian devotion.
Refreshing and life pronouncing also were four pots on the chapel floor with GREEN PLANTS carefully tended and watered; one might have been just grass but here in this place of gravel it is quite the wonder (I have also been told that the Australian compound also has a bit of lawn by someone who was able to sit on it- a marvel of landscaping cleverness to combat the gray).
The chapel is a memorial to the soldiers who have died; their pictures look out upon us from the back wall. They are young, sturdy looking men with names which are hard for me to pronounce but whose spiritual presence is palpable even though their physical being could no longer bear life. In this setting, it is pointed that our Armed Forces are prayed for specifically thrice in the course of the Liturgy in the translation of our Little Red Prayer Book for which I am so grateful.
"Peace" is mentioned in 28 instances and each one gives me pause: "In peace let us pray..." we are in a war zone with "incoming" daily. "Peace be to all," when "all" are in uniform with weapons accessible and the rest of the "all" beyond the sound of my voice were facing off with weapons in hand. For the majority of Afghans, their life experience has been, "War be to all." Lord hear our prayer. "A mercy of peace..", I've never had anyone adequately explain what this is doing liturgically; but as much as my brain is not settled with this, it speaks comfort to my heart in a poetic embrace. Intuition works better here. Just as we conclude our work and are edging toward the doorway, "Give peace to thy world,..." This prayer makes me want to stay longer, sensing that my work is not yet done.
Why do I cry now? Why do I not cry? And with gratitude, "Among the first...grant...peace," for my beloved Bishop and all our Hierarchs who are seasoned warriors scarred and decorated, and my brother priests who are well acquainted with both the battle and our Peace.
Entry 1, December 1, 2011
Greetings from KGZ! Jet lag is giving my psyche a bear hug. I spent last night in a tent with 40 warriors- we were a fellowship of strangers, brothers of profession. Despite so many, we were quiet, respectful. The pajama parade was diverse; my baggy longies among the most comical I hope. Folks were reading e-books; they work in the dark until the battery goes. One fellow fell asleep hugging one like a teddy bear blinking blue through the night. I didn't sleep much (enough) but in my semi-wakefulness it was hard to pray more than the smallest prayers. Not very elegant, but my heart was peaceful. I am thankful for those who pray for me. I am thankful for those with whom I was praying. I am thankful for Him to whom I pray.