Army chaplain smokes, swears and prays with Catholic soldiers in Afghanistan

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Monday, February 22, 2010

In Afghanistan, Sunday Mass on a makeshift altar

BADULA QULP, Afghanistan — The U.S. Army brigade’s Catholic priest spits, smokes, cracks jokes and has come under fire like so many other American soldiers. He keeps altar bread in an empty grenade canister. On Sunday, he donned purple and white vestments over his uniform and celebrated Mass on a makeshift altar of four stacked boxes of MREs.

Capt. Carl Subler stood in the dust at an earthen-walled compound and prayed for the safety of those assembled, half a dozen soldiers who are fighting the Taliban near the contested town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. He also prayed for peace in a country that has known war for decades. The men kneeled in their faded uniforms and some took communion, a reflective moment in a time of war.

“I find that my prayer life kind of suffers when I’m back home. I can pop a top on a cold one and watch TV,” said Subler of Versailles, Ohio. “I find the more creature comforts are taken away from us, in many ways, we look to God with even more hope.”

A busy Subler gave Mass on Sunday in three patrol bases — “Keep it rolling, baby,” he said — in the Badula Qulp region of Helmand province, where the Army is supporting a Marine offensive against an insurgent stronghold. He is the only Catholic chaplain in the 5th Stryker Brigade, which has lent 400 soldiers to a mission that has waged daily firefights as forces push the Taliban out of villages.

“When you’re separate from your families, sometimes you feel powerless to do anything when they’re in trouble,” Subler said during the service. “When you’re over here, you kind of feel helpless.”

On the roof above, a soldier in helmet and flak vest scanned surrounding fields for any threats. A man moving in a treeline, or a distant motorcycle rumbling down a track, or a tractor rolling too close to the base could all mean trouble.

Explosions and gunfire are routine in the area, though just one loud boom was heard during the Mass.

Subler noted that the passing of Ash Wednesday last week and the beginning of Lent, and he drew a parallel between the suffering of Jesus Christ and the emotional and physical pain of soldiers who miss home, fight and witness the death and wounding of comrades.

“You are in good company when you suffer,” the priest said. The men recited the Lord’s Prayer, voices murmuring in unison.

Subler, who carries a small chalice and a little bottle of wine in his assault pack, said he visits units by hopping rides on military helicopters or on Stryker infantry vehicles, a frequent target of insurgents who plant roadside bombs.

Sometimes, war intrudes.

“There’s been sporadic shooting while I was celebrating Mass,” said Subler, 34, who started his military career as a radar operator in the Navy. There was a time, he said, when the Taliban hit a unit he was traveling with, firing machine guns and grenades.

“We ran like hell,” Subler said. “I never did well in track in high school but I wish there had been someone out there with a stop watch.”

Subler has spent time with soldiers who were gravely injured by explosives, an unnerving experience because he would then go back out on the Strykers with troops in the field. After a while, he said, he accepted the constant danger:

“You know, ‘Lord, I’m in your hands.’ Whatever happens, happens.”

Subler went to seminary in Columbus, Ohio, later went to parachute school and was based at Fort Lewis, Washington. He worked as an army chaplain in Iraq for four months and celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome last month. The hushed atmosphere there contrasted with the noise surrounding many of his services in Afghanistan: men shouting, vehicle engines grinding.

The chaplain talks privately to troops about marriage and other problems that are sometimes exacerbated by instant computer messaging and other communication they enjoy on bases. Often, a soldier will argue with a loved one back home, then take his dark mood out on a mission.

As a chaplain, Subler does not carry a weapon, even though soldiers have offered him pistols when he is on the road with them.

“If it gets to the point where the chaplain has to start shooting, then…,” Subler said.

There followed an expletive.

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