Humor helped priests cope with tragedy
The Rev. Jose L. Del Toro said a sense of humor helped him cope with some of the challenges of working in a war zone.
He wasn’t permitted to minister to parishioners on the battlefield while deployed to Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, due to the danger outside the wire. But the Misawa Air Base chaplain came face-to-face with his own mortality nonetheless.
A rocket exploded just above the base’s chapel — “By the grace of God, it was an air burst,” Del Toro said.
Except for shrapnel on the roof, the chapel was unscathed. “But it sure scared the hell out of us,” said Del Toro, a military captain. “It actually pushed me two feet back on my chair. After that happened, I was very nervous. I was almost on the edge of tears because it was so close and so real.”
An airman in the chapel office at the time “was crying after the event,” Del Toro said. “We talked about how vulnerable we are and how scary it can be. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re not going to make it, so we laughed at ourselves, we laughed at the situation. That’s a form of healing.”
Though Kirkuk base had its fair share of attacks, northern Iraq was quieter than Baghdad, where The Rev. Gary Linsky, a lieutenant colonel, spent about five months deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, last year as the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing chaplain. The pace was intense: At one point, Linsky was the only Roman Catholic priest for 30,000 people assigned to the air base and the surrounding Camp Anaconda. He held Mass every day and was on call 24 hours. The command chaplain for U.S. Forces Japan, 5th Air Force and the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, Linsky worked with five protestant Air Force chaplains. Each provided a tremendous boost to one another, Linsky said.
“Our team prayed together, we prayed for each other at our staff meetings,” he said. “It was the best team I ever had.”
Del Toro, who shared a trailer with the protestant Air Force chaplain assigned with him to Kirkuk, made a point of often visiting airmen stuck with 12-hour watch at the base towers. Sometimes he invited his counterpart to foster a team ministry, Del Toro said. “Both of us got along so well.”
Linsky found another coping mechanism: sleep.
“I never slept so well in my life. I think the stress made me sleep like a log. I needed every hour that I got, and that’s how I coped,” he said.