MUSA QAL’EH DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – For many, faith provides a foundation of core values and an inner strength required to accomplish any mission and weather any hardship. It is a difficult word to define, however, as it means many things to different people. For service members deployed to a combat zone, faith takes on a whole new meaning. For many Marines and sailors, the tragedies of war are apparent on a daily basis and often require a reserve of mental, moral, and physical strength that can only be found in a person’s faith.
“Faith – I’ve never really thought about putting it into words,” said Ventura, Calif., native 1st Lt. Robert Mahua, a Weapons Platoon commander with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. “Faith is something we believe, something abstract, something you can’t hold with your hands or see with your eyes.”
“Faith is the ability to believe, know, and trust that there is a higher power greater than me, which is helping me stick to the principles that I believe in,” said East Chicago, Ind., native Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, the senior nurse for the Shock Trauma Platoon with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
“Faith, for me, in its basic format, is the belief in a god and something greater than ourselves,” said Monaca, Pa., native Cmdr. Christopher Fronk, the command chaplain for 2nd Marine Division (Forward). “Faith is my whole purpose for being here. As long as we’re going to ask people to go to distant places to fight, it’s crucial for them to have chaplains to help remind them of their faith, to help them grow in their faith, and to help them prepare for meeting their maker, should that happen.”
Fronk has been a Catholic priest for 16 years, but gladly welcomes service members of all faiths, listening and offering advice to all. He has a great responsibility as the division’s chaplain, ensuring each of the 12 other chaplains of various faiths within the division have the support they need to travel within the division’s battle space and making sure they have what they need to conduct their services once they arrive. He is also the only Catholic priest in the division, so Fronk travels to the many forward operating and patrol bases to conduct Catholic services for those looking to practice their faith.
Fronk accomplishes this mission with the help of his religious program specialist and Worcester, Mass., native Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s primary responsibilities include protecting the chaplain during trips throughout Helmand and Nimroz provinces, acting as a one-man personal security detachment, scheduling the chaplain’s travel, various administrative functions, and setting up for services. Hawthorne explained that an “RP’s” personal religion doesn’t factor into how he is paired with a chaplain, but that he and Fronk happen to have a lot in common.
“I am Catholic also, so working with a priest is easy for me, but I’ve (also) worked with protestant chaplains and rabbis,” said Hawthorne, referring to the 25 chaplains he has worked with in his nearly 18 years of service. “Understanding the tenants of their faith and understanding the way their services are run is the biggest challenge – knowing what their expectations are and being able to exceed those expectations.”
The two travel together, making trips once a week to the many Marines and sailors spread throughout the division’s area of operations. They have the opportunity to speak and listen to service members, some of whom are on their first deployment, experiencing things that most people will never go through.
“I talk to service members who are 18, 19, 20 years old, who for the first time in their lives have lost someone close to them because of (a firefight), and help them process that experience,” said Fronk. “I love to get out and be with the Marines in their areas of operation and get to know them. But it’s tough for me when later I see (one of) them on the operating table at the hospital or when I’m saying the prayers of the dead over (one of) them. The only way I can make sense of that is because of my faith; I believe something better awaits us.”
For many service members, being deployed to a combat zone, away from family and friends, seeing what war can do to people, presents a test of faith.
“Every day my faith is challenged,” said Gennari, who sees the consequences of war on the operating table. “I’m a nurse, a warrior against pain, disease and suffering. My faith reminds me of fundamental things. I didn’t cause the damage to that person, but I have a talent that I’ve been given where I can help take the pain away. I like to help people – that’s my talent. My faith tells me not to become saddened that human beings do this to one another, it reminds me that we are still lesser, and it helps keep me from being prideful. My faith keeps me guided; it’s my foundation.”
“Faith helps me get through a lot of the little things that tend to pile up and tend to get the best of me after a while and wear me down,” said Mahua, who recently attended one of Fronk’s services. “My faith helps me put those things in perspective and reminds me why I’m here.”
Faith sustains and strengthens many service members through stressful and difficult times on deployment. With the help of the Chaplain Corps, these service members are able to practice their faith in the remote patrol bases throughout the battle space.
“People out here are in far more dangerous circumstances and situations that challenge them to look at questions of faith, and because those questions come to the surface, they are more ready to talk about them out here than they are at home, which makes it even more important for the chaplains to be with them,” Fronk said. “It is a privilege and an honor to serve the men and women of the military, especially those in dangerous situations. I firmly believe that they have the greatest need and deserve to have their priests and chaplains with them.”
Editor’s note: 2nd Marine Division (Forward) heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.
When will people leave off talking about satirizing war, or denouncing war, or defending war, or being for or against war? War is not a proposal; it is the refusal of all proposals. War is not an institution; it is the breakdown of all institutions. It is not something that we all agree to have; it is something that we do have when we do not agree. It is idle to talk of it at all in terms of the collective and co-operative action of two parties; it is by definition the condition in which they have to consider themselves separately. It is not the problem of two men and how they shall act together; it is the problem of one man when the other man will not act with him. They do not agree to have war; if they could agree to have war, they would probably agree to have peace.
---Gilbert K. Chesterton, 17May1924
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