By Sam Campbell (Leonard Wood)December 17, 2018
Born, raised and educated in Romania, Chaplain (Cpt.) George Oanca, pronounced Wonka, currently serves as a religious support officer for the 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Chemical Brigade here on Fort Leonard Wood. But how he found himself here is no average tale.
"It is a long story, but I'll try to make it short," he said humbly with a subtle accent.
Although Romania is a secular state, a clear majority of the population identify themselves as Eastern Orthodox Christians. It is this faith that guides Oanca every day, through good times and bad.
"I was 19 years old when the revolution came in Romania," he said. "I remember that it was December, and I was in my third year in the seminary. I was caroling, and when the revolution started, we were so happy."
"We heard about freedom and about democracy," he said. "We were thinking we are blessed because now we can experience that."
In the years following the 1989 revolution, "everything was good," Oanca said. He married his wife in 1992 and they had their first child in June of the following year. "In 1993, I got my first parish as an orthodox priest," he said.
Oanca dedicated six years to building this church from the ground up in Ibrianu, a farming village of about 350 families. "Wonderful people," he said fondly. "Good memories."
But life has its twists and turns, not all of them happy or productive.
"Our second child was born in October 1997," he said. "Unfortunately, the little angel came with a broken wing."
Oanca's daughter, Elizabetha, was born with VATER syndrome, a collection of birth defects affecting the esophagus, kidneys and vertebrae. It currently has no known cause.
"It couldn't be fixed (in Romania)," he said. "So, with the generosity and help of the people from the United States, we came here." In September 1999, Dr. W. Hardy Hendren of the Boston Children's Hospital offered to perform the surgeries that would save Elizabetha's life.
Following her recovery, "we decided to immigrate to the United States," Oanca said. "The Romanian Episcopate sent me to Las Vegas on my first assignment as a parish priest."
This parish was a little different, he said. Families struggled, and came and left through the revolving door of gambling addiction. But the experience in Ibrianu fortified him for his new assignment, he said, so "it was easy for me to adapt and start a ministry there."
Less than two years later, a crisis appeared again -- and he answered.
"I saw what happened with the twin towers," he said. "The war started, and I saw the Soldiers going into combat."
"I thought, 'now it's time to pay back what this country gave me -- how it saved my daughter's life,'" he added.
Oanca walked into an Army recruitment office, told the sergeant his story, and joined. "I want to serve those who serve, where others fear to go," he said. Upon completing the Army Chaplain Center and School program, he was assigned to the 367th Engineer Battalion in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
"By March 7, 2010, my boots were on the ground in Iraq," he said. "It was quite a different ministry."
"I think when you are in a combat zone, your faith is tested every moment, going on patrol, going outside the wires, and knowing that you have to face the enemy," he said.
Although chaplains are defined by the Law of Armed Conflict as non-combatants, that did not mean Oanca was detached.
"I slept where they slept, in the tents, on the cots, on the ground," he said. "Doesn't matter if it was raining outside, if it was snowing, if it was muddy, I was with them."
Through this bonding with fellow service members, he learned and formed a message he hopes can help Soldiers coping with deployment stress today.
"The biggest enemy out there is not the bullet or the RPG, or the enemy that wants to kill you, to destroy you," he said. "The biggest enemy is the separation that we have to endure during the deployment."
That is why "the ministry of presence," a principle he was taught in training, is so important. "(Chaplains') presence brings a lot of moral courage and support for the Soldiers," he said.
To any service member looking to talk, "it doesn't matter when -- I am available 24/7," he emphasized.
Oanca has had his own struggles after returning. "I found myself putting the uniform on after I came back," he said. "My wife would look at me and say, 'You are in the Reserves. You are a priest, back at church.'"
"My family is back in Colorado Springs. I miss them," he said, having not lived with them for four years. "But I am grateful at the same time, because they support me and understand the sacrifices that we, as parents, make."
Elizabetha, whose life led Oanca to join the Army in the first place, is now 21 years old, studying biochemistry, and plans to attend medical school to become a doctor.
"She wants to give back to the people that are suffering or in need of help," he said.
"The United States is my adopted mother," he continued. "I would like to express my gratitude to all the wonderful people I've met since I came here."
The family still visits Romania every other year.