Good days, bad days: life as a chaplain's assistant in Afghanistan
For Army Staff Sgt. David George, Afghanistan has its good days and its bad ones.
There are days when the chaplain's assistant from Fort Walton Beach feels like he is making a difference, helping people. And then there are those when he wants to slam his head against the wall.
"It's really difficult -- for all of us -- to be 6,000 miles away from our families, our homes and everything we've left back there," the 43-year-old said recently on the phone from New Kabul Compound in Afghanistan. "We don't have any tangible control over what's going on back home. We have to trust in our spouse and our kids and that can be really difficult here.
"If we can help service members deal with that in whatever way they need to and get back on focus and back on mission, that's very fulfilling."
Although it's rewarding when he can help, other days are more challenging.
Service members die, and grief comes, although there's hardly any time for it. George and his chaplain try to travel as often as they are needed to offer counsel, but arrangements can be difficult and movement slow in the war-torn country. They often miss flights or are stranded.
George's job is to protect the chaplain, a non-combatant who cannot carry a weapon.
Armed always with his pistol and often with his assault rifle, George accompanies him wherever he goes.
Sometimes they have found themselves in sticky situations.
"Not so much where we are here at our base, but when we travel, a few times we would get into bunkers because stuff was going on," he said. "It has crossed my mind once in awhile 'What am I doing here? Why did I decide to do this?' "
The decision that led him to Afghanistan started in 2007. A former member of the Army National Guard, George missed the service. With the wars dragging on and the country in need of more soldiers, he started looking into it and found a vast shortage of chaplain's assistants.
"We are a church-going family," he said. "We've been on mission trips before both in the U.S. and overseas and I thought this would be a good way to continue that but in a military setting -- not exactly the same but along the same lines in that I am helping people. Or at least I feel like I'm helping people."
New Kabul Compound, where he and his chaplain are stationed, is about the size of the Choctawhatchee High School football stadium and its parking lot, George said. Since he arrived in August, the two have traveled to eight different bases across the country.
During September, they worked at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters helping to conduct NATO memorial services for service members killed in combat.
The terse but moving services lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes, but brought together service members from dozens of countries.
They have held numerous suicide awareness trainings to try to stem the tide of soldiers taking their own lives. He hopes educating people on the signs of suicide risk and talking about it will make it easier for someone to get help.
George has his own difficulties dealing with the challenges of being away from home. He misses his wife and his six kids who range from 10 to 18 years old.
The family is supportive.
"They know that this is what I'm supposed to be doing and they appreciate it," he said. "Hopefully we're over here so our kids don't ever have to be."
Even so, he knows it's hard on them, especially on his wife who has the thankless job of ferrying their children to and from appointments, classes, after-school activities.
"She has to cook and clean, be the good guy and bad guy, the judge and jury," he said. "I couldn't do that."
There's no question he is looking forward to coming home.
"We're still two or three months away and I'm already planning it out," George said. "So yeah, you could say I'm ready."