By Sgt. 1st Class Abram J Pinnington (101st Airborne)March 31, 2013
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (March 28, 2013) --Within the early days of their deployment, a team of chaplain's assistants came together with a plan: a mutual agreement making something beautiful for all to enjoy, helping make days here in Afghanistan brighter.
Within their offices at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, the team of assistants from various battalions within the 3rd Brigade Combat Team "Rakkasans," 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), decided to restore the chapel after it had been heavily damaged in an attack in the summer of 2012.
Located in a throughway, the building's only distinguishing features are its tiny steeple and the zebra patterned wood on its exterior. Like battle wounds, the building stood resilient with scars of unpainted wood.
When the team arrived from Fort Campbell, Ky, to the large FOB in eastern Afghanistan, much of the chapel was already repaired. However, one feature remained absent.
"When we arrived here, the chapel was all boarded up and didn't look like a chapel," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Eric Esposito, brigade chaplain's assistant. "All the windows were covered with wood. It was hard to distinguish where the chapel was."
While working long hours with multiple responsibilities, they made it a common goal to repair the stained glass windows within the chapel. The task required many hours of planning, designing and building, much of which would take place during their personal time.
"We have a lot of priorities here in theater. So, obviously the windows were pretty low on the list," said U.S. Army Spc. Erika Espeseth, chaplain's assistant, 3rd Special Troops Battalion. "We worked on this together while juggling our everyday tasks. This was all voluntary."
As the group discussed their desires to restore the chapel, they discovered each possessed a certain trait that would help benefit the project.
"I have carpentry experience," said Esposito, who worked as a carpenter for more than four years before enlisted.
The group then turned to Espeseth, who studied stained glass artwork while in school. "I did art metal and glass in high school. I got to use the skills from an art class that most people would think is just fun and you never get to use them."
Soon the team began to set their vision into motion.
The group quickly discovered designing stained glass windows for a multi denomination chapel in a country where Islam is the religion of more than 98% of the population, while keeping in good taste for every background of faith that will use the chapel for prayer and worship; is no easy task.
"Whenever you're doing anything with a chapel you have to be very concerned about all the different religions," said Esposito. "Especially here in a different country, you have to be very careful not to offend the local population. Every detail needed to be reviewed by the brigade chaplain."
Additionally, the team needed to consider the future disposition of the chapel.
"We wanted to make sure when [we] leave here and this building is handed over to the people of Afghanistan, they can look at these windows and say 'oh, these windows are pretty' and not be offended by anything," said Esposito.
Not only taking into consideration the customs and courtesies of the land in which the chapel stands on, but also thinking of the many different religions that will use the chapel, too.
"Our Soldiers are multi-faith," said Espeseth. "This chapel is not just a Christian chapel. It is for any Soldier who wishes to pray or worship. So we needed to make sure anything we did with the windows didn't offend any of them either."
While taking everything into careful consideration, the team drafted up more than six different design proposals before concluding on a final design.
"The original design from the time we started until now, it took more than three months," said Espeseth.
While the team drafted their dream of colored light coming into the chapel; Esposito was collecting supplies that were to be used for their project.
While utilizing some of the relationships built while being a brigade chaplain's assistant, Esposito was able to acquire more than 10 sheets of plexiglass, all the wood and paint needed from various outlets around the FOB. One assistant even ordered foam brushes off the internet.
Shortly after the Christmas holidays, the group had their final design, supplies and the motivation to finally bring their dreams to reality. It was now time to put it all together.
Once they began to put paint onto plexiglass, they each began to develop their own interpretation of the design.
"What I like about the design is that it's different for each person," said Espeseth. "Each person looks at it and sees something different. The way I designed it and intended, it has a whole story for me. It's not that way for everyone, like we said, the purpose of it was that it was for multi faith."
Painting a meaningful design on windows is not as simple as painting a flat wall. Details and intricacies provide challenges for even the most patient of people.
"The step before the painting took the longest," said U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Corbin, a chaplain's assistant assigned to 626 Brigade Support Battalion. "The taping was challenging. We had to tape out the design. We pretty much had to tape the whole window and draw the design and then cut it out."
As they began to figure out the best method of placing their designs on the glass, the group began experimenting with different types of paint in order to achieve their desired effects.
"We spent a total of two weeks trying new methods of painting with different types of paint," said Esposito. "We had water paint, oil-base paint and spray paint. Figuring out which paint we're going to use took a long time because we wanted this to turn out and look really good."
All ten windows were hand painted by the ministry team. Each window, though displays the same overall design, are different with the uniqueness of each brush stroke. Every inch of every window is different.
Throughout all this preparation and construction, a large religious holiday filled with multi-day worships and services was fast approaching the team: Easter.
Though the team never set a deadline for their project, but as they progressed, they began to realize the close proximity of Easter.
"Easter wasn't our deadline," said Corbin. "But, once we got closer to the date and realized it was a possibility. We worked a little bit harder, stayed up a little bit later and really pushed through to get it completed in time."
"I was really pushing them. They were working on it really hard," said Esposito. "Once the process got started and we got closer, it motivated us because we wanted that."
With little more than five days before Easter services set to begin on FOB Salerno, the team saw their dream, become a reality.
The Salerno chapel is now whole.
"Everything happens in God's good timing," said Espeseth. "Everything came together all at the perfect time. The brushes arrived just in time. The weather was nice at the exact time we needed to install the windows. It all really came together perfectly."
The chapel is no longer just another building amongst a wooden village. It is now distinguished with color and easily identifiable while walking by. A place where talk is normally dominated by operations, insurgency and headlines within the news; now there is a quiet buzz about the chapel and the beauty it has brought to the inhabitants of FOB Salerno.
"It really made the chapel stand out," said Esposito. "It is almost a beacon on Salerno."
Indeed, the chapel has become an appealing place of worship. The interior is now painted with beams of yellow, red, blue and green light as the sun peers through the new windows.
As the chapel brings people together throughout the Easter holiday weekend here at FOB Salerno, the chapel similarly brought the group closer together as well.
"It really brought us all together like a deployed family," said Espeseth. "It was like our family project we could all work on. We're all proud of it. It's all our own. It's not just one person, one person didn't design and install. It's everyone's. Just like the windows are everyone's to enjoy."
In addition to providing the personnel at the large facility something to marvel at, the team has another interesting outlook on their success.
"Doesn't matter we're in Afghanistan, doesn't matter we have all this stuff going on around us. But it is important as human beings we can still glorify God and make beautiful things no matter where we are," said Espeseth. "To help people through that, people walk by and say 'this is really great,' 'this is awesome' and 'thank you.' It brightens their day and makes them smile a little and in this environment; that is really important."
By coming together as a team, with a common goal of making something better for others around them, their efforts have brought joy to an entire community