“Our job is two-fold. The chaplains who are back at the bases give the deployed troops peace of mind, knowing that their family is being taken care of. They’re receiving the sacraments. And if they have any needs we can help them with, we do that, too.
“At the same time, when you go to war with them, you’re also there with the sacraments or for any particular emergency with counseling should they need that. Even the Last Rites.”
Father Philip Llanos was explaining the special ministry he’s had for 24 years at a March 13 appreciation dinner for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, US (AMS) in Anaheim. The evening event — hosted by the national Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor — drew more than 100 chaplains, catechists and laity from different western installations, including Joint Base Lewis McChord in Seattle, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twenty-Nine Palms, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Los Angeles Air Force Base.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Archbishop of the Military Services, spoke after the dinner on “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”), the papal encyclical started by Pope Benedict XVI and finished by Pope Francis last June.
Father Llanos has filled both roles. He’s been the Catholic chaplain at the 412 Test Wing Edwards Air Force Base in California’s high desert for eight years and before that at other state-side installations. But he’s also been deployed seven times, starting with Desert Storm in 1990 and ending with two tours in Afghanistan.
Although never directly wounded in combat, the 63-year-old priest has a titanium right hip, a single bicep, bad knees, plus loss of hearing and severe tinnitus. Taken together, they constitute an 80 percent disability rating today. “From, basically, wear and tear,” he said with a shrug.
“It’s true, there are no atheists in fox holes,” Father Llanos told The Tidings. “When I was in Afghanistan and going to all the different outposts, I’m pretty sure there were people there that found God who didn’t before. When you’re on the front line like that, you have the possibility of meeting God any time. So God is definitely in your mind. And you want to have that preparation, that peace with God, should you go to meet him.”
Pope John Paul II created the Archdiocese for the Military Services in 1985 to provide pastoral care and sacramental services for members of the United States Armed Forces. Currently, it serves the spiritual needs of some 1.8 million Catholics at more than 220 installations in nearly 30 countries as well as about 250 priest-chaplains serving at 153 VA (Veteran Administration) medical centers throughout the U.S.
The AMS has no formal parishes, with base chapels being the property of the United States, and receives no funding from the government. Chaplains, who become commissioned military officers, serve on loan from their diocese or religious order. Archbishop Broglio, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, oversees four auxiliary bishops.
“We’re different that we’re a non-territorial archdiocese, and we provide pastoral services wherever the military deploys. So that makes us very unusual,” said Mark Moitoza, the AMS’ director of evangelization. “We also have a very young population — over 300,000 adult Catholics in all branches of the military services.
“It’s a challenge, and yet at the same time, a lot of these younger adults are asking the deeper questions, you know, especially the ones who are deployed. They might have seen a battle buddy who was wounded or dying, so they’re really asking the meaning-of-life questions. And that gives us an opportunity to speak into their life experience: ‘What is faith all about?’”
Coming home — the last big transition — has its own set of psychological, social and, more and more recognized, spiritual issues.
“We don’t know a lot about PTDS [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder],” Moitoza pointed out, “and there’s a lot of questions now what we call ‘moral wounds.’ How do you heal moral wounds? Could I have done something else to save a person? Did the decisions that I made lead to his death? So coming back with that trauma, on top of everything else they saw and experienced, can be extremely difficult.
“And yet in American society, sometimes we’ve even stopped reading about the war and what’s going on. Only one percent of our population has actually gone to serve in these recent wars. So that’s a challenge for all of us, too. First of all, they need a place where they can belong, where they can tell their story. Several dioceses are starting to figure out how to reach out. It can be a ministry in the church or helping veterans find a job.”
Deployments: ‘A little traumatic’
After a 21-year career with seven deployments, one to Desert Storm and two to Iraq, Jeff Kerr found both a home and second career working with Father Llanos at Edwards Air Force Base. The 43-year-old former Marine Corps mess sergeant started a youth ministry there three years ago with six kids. Today, the high-school-age group’s meetings average 22 teenagers.
A father of three daughters, 20, 16 and 12, Kerr says changing deployments never gets easier for military families.
“It’s a little traumatic,” he acknowledged. “My own kids learned at an early age that mom’s a single parent until I come back, and they needed to step up. And it is a little traumatic to some. But when you give them your support and help them understand, ‘Hey, you can kind of grow into an adult because you can help your mom or dad do certain tasks and chores, rather than waiting to be told to do them,’ that helps.
“I’m not a prototypical youth minister,” Kerr pointed out. “I’m very blunt: ‘The world’s a tough place. But if you keep going for your goals and shooting for the highest dream you can, you’ll achieve what you’ve got to achieve. God’s gonna help you.’”
At the end of the evening, after his impromptu but detailed workshop on “Lumen Fidei,” Archbishop Broglio thanked members of the AMS for “building up the body of Christ day-in and day-out” as chaplains, coordinators of religious education and catechists.
“Why do we teach our faith?” he asked before answering, “It’s no different than the apostles. Our faith in God is our greatest resource. And that faith is fundamental to the journey of those entrusted to our faith. So we want to communicate that faith and that understanding to those that we minister to.”