Army chaplain enters busy period in Afghanistan as Easter approaches
KABUL — Chaplain Mike Charles sits in an office on the second story of a nondescript, square building in the heart of the NATO base at Kabul International Airport.
Below his feet, in a community room, a welcome briefing is being held for troops fresh overseas.
Next week, there will be a flurry of activity of a different kind.
Charles, a colonel with the 18th Airborne Corps, is the senior chaplain for all coalition forces in Afghanistan. He and his network of chaplains and chaplain assistants stay busy, he said.
But Sunday, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of one of the busiest weeks for religious leaders stationed in Afghanistan.
Charles must ensure that religious leaders are available for the week's numerous religious events - from Passover to Easter Sunday - and that troops across all corners of Afghanistan are able to worship appropriately.
Charles, who will leave Afghanistan and the 18th Airborne Corps shortly after Easter, has deployed four times to either Iraq or Afghanistan. He said the week before Easter is one of the busiest times of the year for chaplains.
Unlike Fort Bragg, where soldiers have an estimated 700 churches near post, the military must provide everything, Charles said.
"Here in this footprint, there is no off-post place to go," he said. "We have to do that from within - to ensure the freedom to worship.
"It's all got to happen here if it's going to happen."
Ahead of the religious events, chaplains will be pushed out to regional hubs, Charles said. And soldiers who want to worship will be brought into those hubs from smaller posts.
The movements will involve at least two Orthodox priests, 13 Roman Catholic priests and at least three rabbis.
In Charles' past deployments, he's seen church services on the hood of Humvees and altars made of boxed meals. But his current role is more administrative.
Outside his office, cabinets are filled with religious materials. Judaism, Catholicism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have their own shelves. There are various translations to serve the dozens of nations who contribute forces to the Afghanistan efforts.
By Charles' count, there are more than 128 denominations in Afghanistan. His building in Kabul hosts at least 15 different services each week, and fliers posted across the base advertise a host of services, including Wiccan.
Being able to practice religion is key for many to stay resilient and ready, Charles said.
"All folks who want to worship will be able to," he said.