Father in the field

Father Sean O’Brien is serving his country in Afghanistan

Father Sean O’Brien, the pastor of Christ Our Light in Pulaski, leads a double life.

When he is not overseeing the day-to-day operations of his parish in northern Oswego County, he is tending to another flock: the men and women of the U.S. military.

A United States Navy Reservist, Father O’Brien traveled from ship to ship in the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, providing spiritual support for servicemen and women stationed there in 2002 and 2003.

In March he was summoned to duty once again, this time to Afghanistan. Recently, The Catholic SUN had an opportunity to interview the Syracuse Diocese priest via email.

“Big navy called and said, ‘tag, you’re it,’” said Father O’Brien, who left Pulaski in mid-January for special training before venturing to Afghanistan in mid-March. Initially, Father O’Brien was sent to Ft. Jackson, S.C., where he experienced convoy training and combat awareness.

“It was good training and it has come in handy when I’ve been on convoys,” Father O’Brien said.

Currently, Father O’Brien is stationed at Bagram Air Field, about 40 miles north of the Afghani capital, Kabul.

Father O’Brien serves not only as the Catholic chaplain for the entire base but also as the Catholic coordinator for the American presence throughout the country, which is composed of five priests in addition to the pastor of Christ Our Light.

His routine consists of visiting Forward Operating Bases to celebrate Mass, hear confession and provide counsel for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.

“It is an extremely rewarding ministry,” Father O’Brien said. “Taxing…but rewarding.”

He said that the issues of those in the service in Afghanistan are little different from those in Iraq.

“Issues are the same. Marital problems, personal problems, homesickness,” he said.

Father O’Brien is no stranger to dangerous situations. While stationed in the Persian Gulf he was assigned on one occasion to an Australian amphibious craft as it accompanied a humanitarian vessel en route to Um Qasar. Both vessels trailed a minesweeper.

While his previous experiences in combat situations helped prepare Father O’Brien for some of the dangers he would face in Afghanistan, he said some memories from Iraq were not very pleasant to relive.

“It was not shocking to get back into the field,” he said. “Some experiences from my previous deployment were revisited in my mind. That wasn’t easy.”

While in Afghanistan he has become accustomed to a different kind of danger: hacky sack.

“I was running backwards, eyes on the hacky sack,” Father O’Brien narrated. “I did a heels together, knees bent, outside the ankle kick and bang — I kicked that hacky sack far and wide.”

Although Father O’Brien managed to generate a lot of force to propel the hacky sack, another result was a broken leg.

“I came down 45 degrees on my right leg and the bones aren’t built to support that weight at that angle,” he said. “I broke my fibula in two places and my tibia sheer across — ouch.”

Although he is still somewhat hobbled, Father O’Brien has a sense of humor regarding his injury and is not pressing a case for a Purple Heart just yet.

“I am out of my cast and in a boot, still with crutches,” he said. “It slows me down but it hasn’t stopped me. I still get ‘down range’ by convoy.”

In addition to the hacky sack crisis, Father O’Brien has had his share of problems in the field of both natural and human origin. While he has been in Afghanistan, the priest has experienced an earthquake that registered 6.2 on the Richter scale as well as rocket and mortar attacks.

The ongoing problems in Iraq have occupied most of the headlines at the expense of some of the positive stories Father O’Brien noted are happening in Afghanistan.

Father O’Brien believes it’s important that Americans keep a perspective on Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is where the Global War on Terrorism began,” he said. “Our troops of the coalition forces in cooperation with the Afghani Army work hard to ensure stability, protect and educate the local population, and hunt down bad guys. I guess because that is all good…the press isn’t interested. Young men die here too. I guess because the entire free world agrees that being here is necessary to end terrorism, the press isn’t interested. It seems the press is only interested in Iraq because it is so politically charged. This is a shame.”

One of the most overlooked aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan, according to Father O’Brien, is the welfare of the children. He noted that American troops have been very capable when it comes to helping repair the country.

“Children in any war-torn country suffer,” he said. “It is sad but it is the reality. Our troops are great in community relations projects at schools, medical health and the necessity of everyday living.”

Father O’Brien noted that the military personnel at Bagram perform valuable services for the young people in the area.

“Here at BAF we help the people of Bagram,” he said. “Operation Care is a great program I have gotten involved with. We supply the eight area schools as well as provide sandals, clothes, food and medical attention. Just yesterday the surgeon who operated on me was in the OR until after 7 p.m. operating on several local Afghanis.”

After spending so much time abroad, Father O’Brien hopes this is the last time he’ll be called to Afghanistan after he returns to the U.S. in September, although he recognizes the service chaplains provide.

“I hope this is my last deployment to this part of the world,” he said. “I miss home but am needed here and am proud and honored to serve the men and women here at the Tip-of-the-Spear.”

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