Catholic chaplain tends to deployed flock
April 8, 2011
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan - In a little chapel made of plywood and nails, a small congregation gathers for Mass after a long day's work.
The chapel isn't fancy. It's barely able to hold eight unfinished wooden pews, but for the first time in several weeks a Catholic priest has made the journey to Forward Operating Base Goode, Afghanistan, to hold services, March 28.
For U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joseph Hannon, an individual augmentee chaplain with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, and a native of Leavenworth, Kansas, it wasn't the first time he'd said Mass to a group who hadn't attended services in a very long time. As a Catholic chaplain, he traveled from FOB to combat outpost ministering to a flock spread among 24 installations and 5,000 square miles of eastern Afghanistan.
Hannon has traveled around Khowst Province, Paktya province and parts of Ghazni province five days a week during his year-long deployment, visiting military personnel and civilians who don't have access to a Catholic priest.
In an Army where the two most predominant religious denominations are Catholics and Southern Baptists, there are only about 100 priests of the more than 1,700 active duty chaplains.
It's not easy traveling as much as he does, especially being an older Soldier at age 68.
To make it easier on himself, Hannon, a tall, thin man whose enthusiasm gives the impression that he's younger than he is, has developed a routine. He packs the same things the same way, each morning before a trip.
It makes traveling easier, and he has fewer chances to forget something, he said.
"I can pack very well in the dark," he joked.
Becoming a chaplain in the military was a long road. He knew as early as second grade he wanted to become a Catholic priest. He grew up in the '50s, and it was a very different culture back then, he said.
The desire to join the priesthood back then was supported 100 percent by his friends and family. His eighth-grade class even threw a surprise party for him when they learned he was going to a preparatory high school to get ready for seminary, Hannon said.
It took Hannon 12 years after graduating high school to become an ordained priest.
First, he had to go to a five-year seminary college before attending ministry for three years. Lastly, he had to attend a four-year university before he could be ordained.
While in high school, he became very interested in the military, but kept it in the back of his mind while pursuing the priesthood. It wasn't until three years after ordination that he was allowed to enter the Army Reserves in 1977, Hannon said.
His religious order wouldn't let him go active at first and he spent 15 years as a reservist. It wasn't until 1992, when the order had a new supervisor partial to military vocations, that he was allowed to become a full-time soldier.
One of the aspects of deployment he enjoys is ministering to many men and women from all military services.
In particular, he especially enjoys celebrating Mass. On his previous 14-month deployment to Iraq, he held Mass up to six times a weekend.
"I never get tired of it," he said. "I enjoy the religious and spiritual aspect of it."
To help him in his work, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Monica Williams, a chaplain assistant from Virginia Beach, Va., and an individual augmentee to 3rd BCT, 1st Inf. Div., TF Duke, is in charge of his travel arrangements and takes care of the administrative side of being a chaplain.
One role of a chaplain assistant is to act as a bodyguard for the chaplain, who, while in a combat zone, does not carry a weapon, allowing him to focus solely on the work of a chaplain.
"Taking care of your chaplain involves knowing your chaplain," Williams said. "It helps out big time in forming that relationship."
Hannon admits keeping him on the road is a tough thing to do, especially in the winter months of January and February, but Williams does an excellent job. At times she gets up at 4 a.m. to check flight status and occasionally she stays up late making sure they get onto the right flight, Williams said.
One of the toughest aspects for both of them is constantly being on the move. It's easy to build a religious relationship with the people at these bases, but there isn't any time to build anything but a surface friendship, Hannon said. They can only make it to each base about once every five weeks. Even when they do make it to a FOB, some people will be on a mission or have moved, making it another five weeks before Hannon and Williams can see them.
Still, that doesn't make Hannon and Williams any less determined to reach people in the outlying FOBs and COPs, Hannon said. They send emails to the congregation and publish an electronic bulletin focusing on soldiers' lives. Hannon also appoints a lay leader who leads services and organizes readings in Hannon's absence. This person is usually a volunteer at one of the installations.
"He brings so much to the table," Williams said, speaking of Hannon. "I'm not even Catholic, but I love listening to his services."
On the weekends that Hannon makes it back to FOB Salerno, he can be seen running for as long as two hours on Saturdays. He credits his energy as a nice gift from God, citing it as one of the reasons he wanted deploy.
Being an older soldier, he wants to do as much as he can for the troops while he still has the energy, Hannon said.
Whether it's traveling, running, or providing religious succor to his congregation, Hannon's enthusiasm for his job shows through and provides an inspiration for others, Williams said.
"I take preaching very seriously, and I put a lot of work into it," Hannon said.