“It’s my last mass, my last mass to love…”
It’s funny how a slight twisting of the lyrics of a classic Disco song can blend with one’s wartime experience, instead of my last dance, it was my last mass, to love….
I was in Iraq in December 2007 on an 11 day expedition to American advisors to Iraqi Army and Border units in Al Anbar Province toward the end of my tour in Iraq. The mission was to provide chaplain support and spiritual succor to the American soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and civilians, as well as the Iraqi and other Arab interpreters and contractors serving in incredibly isolated parts of the province near the Syrian border.
For me it was one of the last magical times in my life. I was exhausted and already suffering from insomnia and nightmares caused by PTSD that I was unaware of having, but while I was there that didn’t matter, in fact if I would have been allowed to extend in Iraq back then I would have. It was my life and the men and women that I served mattered more to me than anything. It still does…
After a number of visits with other elements we traveled out to a small base near the Syrian border called COP South. It was the location of two teams of advisors, one which supported elements of the Second Border Brigade and one which supported the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division. We were not strangers to either team. Following the vista there we made our way to COP North, also along the Syrian border to do the same for two other advisor teams, one supporting a different Border unit and and the 2nd battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Division.
With the Bedouin on the Border, I’m the bald guy without the helmet.
These outposts were terribly isolated. The men who served there served in incredibly austere conditions where danger lurked just beyond the sand berms that were the boundaries between them and the Islamist extremists of Al Qaeda Iraq and their supporters. The berms were not much comfort to anyone on either of the two most west most COPs in theater. Just to the west was Syria, a haven and support to the Al Qaeda Iraq insurgents and their supporters. All around were Iraqi Sunnis who many only recently had changed their allegiance to support the Americans against the largely foreign AQI forces.
The men that I served were not a typical congregation that you would find in the states. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Catholics, non-denominational types, Latter Day Saints and even a few Iraqi Christians, some who had not received Eucharist from any priest for years gathered for mass at COP South and COP North that Christmas of 2007. Iraqi Moslems wished us well. Peace on earth in the midst of war.
At Border Fort Five on the Syrian Border
As I mentioned I was exhausted. We had been on the road, flying and in small convoys of just a few vehicles since we arrived in theater, I was also on my last legs. I had stood with and stayed with the wounded, I had seen the destruction wrought on Iraqi facilities and people by both sides. All that mattered was to get out with the men and women who had no other formal spiritual support. I would have stayed another year to provide that support, but I knew that would not happen.
When they were done and we headed back to Ta’Qaddum, the base that we operated from I realized that the support we had provided was the high point of my military Chaplain career as well as my priesthood. Instead of my “last dance” as Dona Summer’s song said, it was my “last mass” to love.
Since then things have not been the same for me. I have talked and written about this before on this site, but those masses with those small groups of Americans and Iraqis meant more to me than any I have ever celebrated, especially those after my return from Iraq in 2008. For me, the magic and mystery have disappeared. I struggle with faith and belief even as I chose to believe in spite of my doubts.
There are times I wonder if it would have been better to have been killed by a rocket, an IED, an ambush or to have been shot down in Iraq, rather than to have to deal with this seemingly endless crisis of faith and to inflict my shit on those that I love. But then such is life and such is war.
Honestly I have to say that I believe again, but I am not sure why. I have to say that while I believe my doubts encompass me.
Christmas will never be the same for me. Yes, I have celebrated man masses since I returned, but to quote the Barry Manilow song, I’m “trying to get the feeling again” and sadly, despite my efforts I don’t think that will ever happen. If it does I will rejoice. If it doesn’t I will persevere just hoping and praying that feelings and facts matter less than faith and doing the best that I can.
Anyway. I am tired and just hoping that this Christmas will be different and that maybe I will get that feeling again, if not now, maybe someday….