Japan-based Catholic priests watched over troops in war zone
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The Rev. Jose L. Del Toro, a Roman Catholic chaplain assigned to Misawa Air Base, saw the heartbreaking and the horrific while deployed to Kirkuk Air Base in northern Iraq for 4½ months.
He held the hand of an airman with a gunshot wound to the leg, writhing in pain on a hospital bed. He reached for a hand no longer there of a young female soldier who lost her arm and life in a mortar grenade attack. He counseled grief-stricken doctors and nurses who couldn’t save all their patients.
Death and tears, like the desert’s dust and grit, were inescapable.
But the 40-year-old military captain said he also saw many people grow closer to God and find comfort in the power of prayer.
“I had more people question their faith in terms of wanting to deepen their faith and wanting to make a commitment to God again,” he said in January after returning from Iraq. “People are alone, they’re without their spouse and children; they have time to think. They see something lacking in their lives. There’s ample opportunity to look into your soul.”
Del Toro was one of two Air Force chaplains at Kirkuk. The 900 or so airmen deployed with him were responsible for supporting about 3,000 soldiers and protecting the base “so the Army can go home and … put their guns down for a little bit,” Del Toro said.
He was the only Roman Catholic priest in addition to the half-dozen Army chaplains at Kirkuk but denomination often was unimportant.
“Chaplains are there to provide affirmation, strength and courage,” he said. “We’re not there to proselytize or to bring anyone into a faith. We’re there just to love them, care for them and let them know they have a safe person to talk to. For us, it’s just a ministry of presence.”
Del Toro said most of his time was spent visiting with troops on base because most Air Force personnel were not allowed off base. He counseled airmen and soldiers, helping them with issues such as depression, adjustment, conflict with a superior, loneliness, mourning the loss of a grandparent and missing friends, family and even the comfort of their sofas back home.
“I heard many confessions,” he said. “Many people who went to confession hadn’t gone in years.”
Prayer was an oft-used tool.
“It gives them strength, it gives them perspective, it gives them peace of heart,” Del Toro said.
Prayer as a retreat from war
The Rev. Gary Linsky, a lieutenant colonel and the command chaplain for U.S. Forces Japan, was the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing chaplain and for a period the only Roman Catholic priest for about 30,000 people while deployed to Balad Air Base from December 2004 to May 2005.
“Some of my chaplains led prayers for the convoys, especially the Air Force convoys,” he said. “In some cases, the presence of a chaplain was a talisman, almost like a good luck charm. They had to have a chaplain there to provide prayer: If you’re going to go out and get shot at, you’re going to be more lucky if you pray” was the thinking.
Del Toro and his troops prayed for peace and for fellow soldiers not so fortunate.
Mass was celebrated daily in a clamshell tent with a concrete floor and small cushioned pews.
The chapel tent also was a retreat from war.
“When the soldiers came into Mass, they took off their guns, and many times they would bend their knees and just pray,” Del Toro said.
Linsky said his faith also deepened.
“Sometimes you find your faith grows stronger as you witness the faith of those you serve,” he said.
He recalled one urgent phone call that woke him at 2 a.m.: A soldier’s eye was blown out. Linsky was needed at Balad’s hospital.
“The thing that humbled me forever was he didn’t care about his eye,” Linsky said. “He could not go to sleep until I came and prayed with him for his platoon. He felt guilty leaving them behind.”
Many injured troops told their stories to Linsky.
“Some people suffer with moral qualms of self-defense or having to be a sniper,” he said. “First and foremost, they’re thinking of others, but as the injury sinks in, as they get further away from battle, they become more self-aware.”
Faith can be vulnerable in war.
“Sometimes people will see awful things and wonder where is God in the midst of all this?” Linsky said. “To question is OK. Some may accept faith because they were given a wonderful gift by their parents but at some point, they have to make it their own.”
Tragedy strengthens their faith
Linsky and Del Toro each performed the anointing of the sick, formerly known as last rites. The prayer usually is reserved for the living — “Catholics believe the sacrament is there to aid those who are sick, not necessarily who are dying,” Linsky said. Del Toro, however, said a prayer of healing for the first Filipino-American to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom, to comfort the living and her family. The 23-year-old woman, who wanted to be a nun, was killed Christmas Eve when her Humvee was attacked by mortar grenades. She died en route to the hospital.
“I went to grab her hand. I couldn’t find it,” Del Toro said. “And then someone said, ‘Father, it’s gone.’ She looked so peaceful. But the most sad thing was the males … they were crying terribly around her. She was the only female in her little group.”
Such tragedy, however, did not shake the priest’s faith.
“It gives me great hope that this war is not the end of the story,” Del Toro said. “When you die for a cause, it’s something greater than yourself. And that’s what faith is. Faith is believing in something invisible, something greater than yourself. Still, it has a presence in your life and that presence gives you peace, that presence gives you courage, that presence gives you hope.”