Jagged, barren mountains frame the horizon, creating spectacular sunrises and sunsets, reminiscent of the high desert regions of the homeland I miss. Deployment is hot, dry and challenging, in that “far from home, always on duty even when you’re not officially on duty” sort of way. Living conditions are moderately austere, but our basic needs are covered—housing, food, laundry, showers. We are blessed with care packages from home and decent phone and internet access that keep us connected with friends and family. Even so, the life of a deployed Soldier can be can a peculiar, lonely world. It occurred to me that I may go this entire deployment without seeing a child. I call it a “bubble world.”
This is the world in which I practice ministry. As Religious Support Leaders, chaplains ensure the free exercise of religion for all Soldiers and their families. If we can’t “perform” religious support for a Soldier, we do our best to “provide” religious support by linking the Soldier with a chaplain of the Soldier’s faith group or other resources. As Religious Staff Officers, we advise our commanders regarding religion, ethics, morals and morale within our units. We guard what Soldiers disclose to us in strict confidence, a pastoral responsibility protected under “privileged communications.” My commander grants me full access to the unit and counts on his chaplain. It is deeply humbling to be trusted in this way.
Like many of the staff members, pilots, and senior leaders, I live on the edge of the flight line in a wooden building that serves as office space and living quarters. Unit operations run 24/7 and I want to be accessible 24/7. I enjoy making late night rounds with maintenance and flight crews on night shift and leaders who are working late. Chaplains call this wandering about “ministry of presence.” I go where the Soldiers are to simply be present with them. They might teach me about the engine they are working on or the medevac equipment they are loading at shift change or pull out a phone to share a photo of their kids. I’m just checking in, letting them know I’m around and approachable. Sometimes this might lead to a conversation about a situation at work or a concern at home. I might offer to pray with a Soldier; mostly I listen.
A night owl by nature, my daily battle rhythm rarely begins at dawn. On days when I run (2-4 miles, 3-4 mornings per week), I try to get going by 0730, when the sun is already baking the dusty road. Mondays, I attend a meeting with the battalion executive officer and staff. I share a brief, inspirational “word of the day,” exchange information with and receive direction from the executive officer. Tuesdays, I meet with the brigade unit ministry team, comprised of two other chaplains, their chaplain assistants and my chaplain assistant. Most days I make rounds to check in with crews on day shift. I do my best to carve out an hour for prayer and study/sermon preparation and I might have counseling appointments with Soldiers, scheduled or impromptu. I check in with Soldiers visiting The First Cup, our brigade ministry center that includes worship space and an internet café, where there is free coffee and snacks and toiletries from the generous care packages we receive.
On Sunday mornings, I preach or celebrate communion at the Protestant Worship Service. On Tuesday evenings, I lead a Women’s Fellowship that includes sharing, prayer, Bible study, and communion. Every 2-3 weeks, my chaplain assistant and I fly to another location to check in with medevac or air traffic control teams at one of the forward operating bases (FOBs).
Two days a week, my chaplain assistant and I take our turn at Operation Cool Down, when the brigade unit ministry team carries ice cold treats to crews during the heat of the day. We ride up and down the flight line in a Gator four-wheeler, hauling a cooler of ice pops as the phone in my shoulder pocket plays the corny ice cream truck tune I downloaded from the internet. It makes the pilots and crew members smile and I smile too, especially when one of them runs after the Gator to get an ice pop.
What can you do to support us?
Pray. Pray for our safety; for focus in our mission; for our relationships with our Families and co-workers. Pray for our loved ones back home. Pray for the people and leaders of Afghanistan. Pray for peace.
The Rev. Andrea Baker is a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve and Associate Rector at Faith Episcopal Church in Cameron Park, CA. She is currently deployed to Afghanistan where she serves as a battalion chaplain for an Aviation unit.