By Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson, Combined Joint Task Force 1 - AfghanistanJuly 5, 2011
LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - With 16 people in attendance, the chapel at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan, was nearly at capacity June 26.
Fifteen soldiers and one civilian seated folding chairs listened as U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Michael Willer, the battalion chaplain for 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Ironman, part of the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, TF Red Bulls, gave his final sermon of the unit’s deployment.
“The record here is 23, and that was on Easter,” Willer said with a warm smile. “So attendance has been between two and 23 on Sundays.”
For the past eight months, Willer has been preaching from the connex chapel. Actually, it is two connexes joined together, or a “doublewide,” but the chapel doesn’t occupy all the space.
“There’s also a closet in here and a barbershop,” Willer explained. “I get my haircut there all the time. You can get your haircut and worship in the same spot all before lunch. Occasionally, the Afghan barber will leave his music on Saturday night before he leaves, so we’ll enjoy Middle Eastern music through the wall while we worship.”
Though it may not be a fancy church, Willer said he is fond of the chapel.
“Even though it is two connexes put together " even though there’s a birds nest in the wall and they get loud at times,” Willer said with a laugh, “it’s still a chapel; it’s still holy ground.”
Willer’s final sermon in Afghanistan focused on Psalm 150, his favorite, he said. Willer said it is his favorite because it breaks down the why and the how of worshiping. During the sermon, he discussed how people often worship or have other routines in their lives which they forget how and why they do them.
To illustrate this point, Willer spoke about a woman who cooked a delicious ham every Sunday after church, each time she cut the ends off the ham. When a friend asked the woman why she cut the ends off the ham, and if doing that gave the ham its delicious flavor. The woman admitted she did not know and that her mother had always done it that way. When the woman asked her mother why she cut the ends off her hams, her mother told her “it didn’t fit in the pan I had to cook it in.”
In the front row of the chapel was one of Willer’s regular attendees, U.S. Army Sgt. Toby Hall, a civil affairs team leader with Company A, 413th Civil Affairs Battalion, assigned to the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, from Amarillo, Texas. Hall said he has attended all but three or four of Willer’s services this year, either because he was on leave or on a mission.
He said he likes Willer’s “laid-back style,” and how he relates to the soldiers in the battalion, despite not having been a career soldier.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy,” Hall said. “When you talk to him, you don’t have to feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you’re talking to a messenger of God. He’s a normal human being, and he doesn’t ever try to act like anything else. He’s funny, and he doesn’t just sit in his office and use the cross against everybody that walks in because they cuss or something like that. He knows he’s in a war zone and he knows that he’s with soldiers and everybody’s not perfect.”
Willer does far more than hold a Saturday night and Sunday morning service. He handles Red Cross messages for soldiers, and has the difficult task of holding memorial services as well. He also travels between the other forward operating bases and combat outposts were the Red Bulls have soldiers, tending to their religious needs. He said numerous soldiers at the smaller and more remote FOBs and COPs in Laghman province have brought their bibles and read them regularly, as well as host prayer groups and bible studies on their own to keep the faith.
Just traveling around has been a “big deal” to Willer, he said.
“Just seeing the changes in the countryside from one place to another " from here to say Torkham Gate or Najil has been a huge highlight for me,” Willer said. “It really does change over a short distance.”
Willer, a lifelong Iowan, serves as a preacher outside of the military, also. He went to college at the University of Iowa before attending seminary and went straight from college into the ministry.
He has only been a chaplain for four years. Willer said his calling into the Iowa National Guard came not from above, but from an article in the Des Moines Register.
“About a year before I got in, the Des Moines Register ran a full page article on the fact that the Iowa National Guard had a shortage of chaplains " they had 16 slots and only seven were taken,” Willer, now 41, recalled. “When I read that, it really just bothered me that I was still young enough that I could be doing something and that I wasn’t. My wife and I went through like a week or two process of praying about it and asking ourselves what that meant, and we came to the conclusion that if they needed chaplains there was not a reason I shouldn’t do it.”
Willer will return home to Webster City, Iowa, where he preaches at a church, as well as in a neighboring town. While he was gone, a retired pastor from the church filled in for him.
This is Willer’s first deployment, and he said it has been a different experience preaching for soldiers instead of civilians.
“It’s been different in that the life challenges that people here face,” he said. “People are away from their families and separation is difficult. People’s prayer concerns tend not to be so much for the soldiers here, but for their loved ones back home. Church here is really lifting up our prayers for our loved ones back home in that they’re able to carry on and be alright without us there.”
His churchgoers are overall much younger, too, Willer said.
“A lot of them are 18, 19, and some of them have never been away from home,” he said. “So the soldiers here have experienced things for the very first time. Back home, when you go through ups and downs, you have friends and family that are close; here, your family are your friends that you deployed with.”
Willer said helping soldiers deal with the emotional separation of being away from family, as well as dealing with it himself, is one of the challenges he faced during his deployment as a chaplain. The other, he said, has been dealing with the role of performing memorial services for fallen soldiers.
“I’ve done funerals back home, but many of them were for older people who had lived out life,” he said. “Here, the memorial services I’ve done have been for young people that had a full life ahead of them and felt called to serve their country and gave their life serving it. That’s a very emotional, and humbling thing to be part of for someone like that.”
He said his year in Afghanistan has given him a new perspective to return to the U.S. with.
“I think that being in a country like this and seeing what we have in the States and how blessed we are compared to what the people here have, and yet they’re still happy here. It’s given me a new perspective to take back,” Willer said. “In the nine months that I’ve been here, that’s kind of a struggle that I’ve had.”
Still, through the good times and the bad times, Willer said he doesn’t regret his year here.
“Each person that came through this church has given me memories that I’ll keep for a long time,” Willer said. “It truly is a blessing and a calling from God to be here and help others keep the faith while they are separated from their families during the deployment. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, because it really has been a life-changing experience.”