Battlefields & Blessings

May 18-24, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 19
Battlefields & Blessings
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) CNS
Catholic Chaplains and Soldiers Persevere with Faith

Dec. 22, 1824, Father Adam Marshall, SJ, stepped aboard the U.S. naval vessel the North Carolina. Officially his capacity was that of schoolmaster but Father Marshall acted as chaplain to the Catholic sailors. Although he is thought to be the first Catholic chaplain to serve in the U.S. military, Father Marshall joined a long line of priests whose careers have been yoked to those who defend their nations. Since the era that produced Deuteronomy, priests in the Hebrew and Christian faiths have played an integral role in military organizations.

According to legend, the word “chaplain” originates from the famous tale of St. Martin of Tours’ charity. The military cloak, which he cut in half to share with a beggar, was a treasured relic in France, a nation that numbers the fourth-century saint among its patrons. When marching into battle, a priest who carried with him the bit of cloak accompanied the Frankish army. The priest entrusted with the cloak was called a cappellanus, or chaplain.

St. Martin of Tours had himself been a soldier, serving in the Roman army before becoming a monk, then a bishop and, eventually, a patron saint of France. But he is not the only saint to have claimed a military career before pursuing one of peace. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. George and St. Maurice were also either soldiers or associated with the military at one point or another in their lives. St. Ignatius initially wanted to call the order he founded the Company of Jesus, complete with its military connotations. The Roman emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity by a vision of a cross with the words “In this sign you will conquer” in front of the sun. He later had a dream in which he was instructed to emboss his army’s shields with the labarum. It is said his success in an ensuing battle led directly to his conversion. At the very least it may have had a hand in the Edict of Milan, which eliminated laws forbidding Christianity and returned confiscated property to the church.

Faith remains an inspiration for soldiers in the field today.
Greg Hotaling, whose home parish is St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool, enlisted in 1996. His assignments have included tours in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. He also led 45 infantrymen into Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the first three months he served as an infantry platoon leader. During the nine ensuing months, he coordinated supply runs. “My faith has been important to me since I was born,” said Hotaling, a captain in the U.S. Army who is now stationed in Carson, Colo., and attends St. Patrick’s in the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

Hotaling relayed that one of the most stressful elements of life in Iraq isn’t so much actual combat, but the stress of anticipating it. “Anticipation weighs on you,” he said. “Having a faith as strong as it was, I threw the anxiety to the wind and put my strength in my faith.” Throughout his tour in Iraq, Hotaling always had his rosary nearby. He also kept close a St. Raphael medal his son had sent him from Liverpool. Hotaling was dimly aware of the Vatican’s criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq but his workmanlike approach to military service kept him focused on the task at hand.

“The job is really cut and dried and I like it that way,” he said, noting that in both the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq, he was responsible not only for executing a mission but also for safeguarding the lives of his men, a responsibility best approached on its own terms. His mother, Gail Hotaling, said that her faith was critical in giving her the strength to endure her son’s time in Iraq. “I wouldn’t have made it through it without it. It sustained me throughout,” she said. One thing that helped both the mother at home and her son abroad was the support they received from the parish. “My parish has been unbelievably supportive,” Greg Hotaling said. “Father Major has been very close to my family. He’s been a part of the family more than anything else.”

“Our parish is supportive of the military,” his mother said, elaborating that a board in the back of the church bears the names of all of the relatives of parishioners serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulletin also features the same names. In the Southern Region of the diocese, Phyllis Gonzalez of St. Ambrose also found a source of support in her parish when her son, Brian, enlisted in 2001 shortly after graduating from Union-Endicott High School. Her son celebrated his 21st birthday in Iraq, and Gonzalez said that there was an outpouring of cards sent from her fellow parishioners. One friend wrote to Pope John Paul II asking him to pray for Brian Gonzalez. Gonzalez was deployed to Afghanistan first and then later to Iraq. In the latter conflict, his rosary was lost in an explosion and a parishioner from St. Ambrose immediately replaced it with one blessed by the late pope. Gonzalez relayed that one priest wrote to her son, “Nothing can happen to you, you’ve got so many people praying for you.”

Boonville in the Syracuse Diocese is home to New York State’s first fatality in the Iraq War when Forestport native and St. Patrick’s parishioner Greg Huxley was killed by enemy fire April 6, 2003. “It was an awful thing. It knocked the wind out of us,” said Father Donald Karlen, the pastor at both St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s in Boonville.

Father Sean O’Brien of Christ Our Light in Pulaski is part of a longstanding tradition of priests in the field. A navy reservist, Father O’Brien was sent to the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain in 2002. As the fleet chaplain, he traveled from ship to ship not only among the American troops but also coalition forces in general. His orders were to remain overseas in March of 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Initially, he was aboard the destroyer class ship USS Milius, which launched Tomahawk missiles into Baghdad. After the missiles had been launched, Father O’Brien recalled the somber experience of sitting below deck with the crewmen and watching the footage of their missiles descending on the Iraqi capital. He believes American citizens would be proud to know that the soldiers abroad took little delight in the destruction their ship unleashed. “The kids were very professional but they were also aware of the devastating potential so there was very little cheering,” Father O’Brien said.

Later in the same month, Father O’Brien was assigned to the Australian amphibious vessel the HMAS Kanimbla. He relayed one particularly harrowing experience in which HMAS Kanimbla accompanied a humanitarian vessel bound for Um Qasar. Father O’Brien’s ship was directly behind the minesweeper that led both and encountered nine mines along the way. “It was very scary,” he said. The life of a chaplain in the field is rigorous. Father O’Brien relayed that on Easter Sunday in both 2002 and 2003 he celebrated six Masses on six different ships. During Christmas of 2002, he celebrated Mass on eight different ships over two consecutive days.

Among Father O’Brien’s highlights was an assignment aboard the USS Nassau, a transportation ship on which a full 80 percent of the Marines were Catholic. “The sailors and Marines on that ship, officers and soldiers alike, were so great that I requested to sail home with them,” Father O’Brien said. The chaplain said that the key to his job in the field was not only listening to the problems experienced by the service men and women, but also trying to maintain their morale. “You have to listen to their problems and they confide in you but you also try to keep their spirits up,” he said, adding that humor was integral to his ministry in Iraq.

After returning home to the Syracuse Diocese, Father O’Brien was assigned to the 25th Marine regiment. His responsibilities include supporting battalion (three battalions comprise a regiment) chaplains abroad and also supporting the families here in the U.S. and the Marines when they do come home. “You have to get the Marines and families ready not only for when they go but you also have to get them ready for when they come back because that Marine won’t be the same boy who left,” Father O’Brien said. Father O’Brien said that he has two parishes here, his own parish of Christ the Light, and also his military parish. The same goes for when he is in the field.

“You’re not just serving the military but also the people from the Syracuse Diocese who are over,” he said, adding that while in Iraq he frequently came across Catholic soldiers from Central New York. “It means a lot when they come across someone from [their own home].” A priest in Watertown in the Ogdensburg Diocese, Father Steve Murray is intimately familiar with military life as a significant percentage of his parish is populated with personnel from Ft. Drum. “Your heart goes out to the families,” Father Murray said. “It’s a struggle for families when they’re constantly being deployed. It’s especially hard on the children. Every week we pray for servicemen.” Each parish in the North Country city and its surrounding satellite communities has a significant percentage of military personnel.

At Holy Family, Father Murray said, the parish not only tries to support the families spiritually but also physically. For instance, when a husband is deployed to a foreign country, the parishioners try to help the mother with her tasks at home. The community is familiar with the pope’s stance on the war but Father Murray said that priests must concern themselves with their flock.

“We’re very supportive of those individuals,” he said. “We have to help our servicemen and women who are in the field.” Much of Father Murray’s time with soldiers who have recently returned from a conflict is spent in counseling. “They often come back with concerns about things they’ve seen,” he said. “They have trouble talking about these things. They may also be upset by the things they’ve had to do. It’s very traumatic when someone has to take another’s life. You have to explain to them, ‘This wasn’t something you planned.’ It’s a touchy, difficult situation. You were just out there doing your job and protecting your comrades.”

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