It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Indeed, facing mortal danger has long been a catalyst for faith — especially on the battlefield where life meets death every day. This is true now as ever. Soldiers facing death are still searching for and finding God.
On the Fourth of July, 2009, more than 200 Taliban fighters attacked a tiny, remote U.S. infantry outpost in the dusty mountains of Afghanistan. A hundred U.S. soldiers returned fire from the sand-bagged compound, about the size of the small chapel at Ft. Richardson Army Base near Anchorage.
Two days later, as the attacks continued, Father Jason Hesseling, 37, chaplain and major in the U.S. Army was helicoptered in, along with his assistant Sergeant Patrick Neal, 27.
By then, two soldiers were dead and others were spiritually shaken. But even in the suffering, God was at work, Father Hesseling observed.
He recently returned, along with Sgt. Neal and First Lieutenant Robert Doak, 25, of the Airborne’s 725th Brigade Support Battalion, from a year-long deployment to the Central Asia war zone.
Dressed in fatigues and sitting within the peaceful walls of Ft. Richardson’s chapel office, the men spoke to the Catholic Anchor on May 14.
“You’re not going to remain unchanged from combat,” Father Hesseling explained.
For a year, he ministered to soldiers at 13 military outposts across the Afghan combat zone. There, in the middle of war, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, counseled soldiers and administered last rites to the dying.
In crisis, many soldiers immediately appeal to God, and they are desperate for a chaplain’s help, Father Hesseling observed.
Referring to the small insignia on the chest of a Christian chaplain’s fatigues, he said, “They’d see the cross, and that’s all they need to see.”
For Sgt. Neal — a Catholic — facing mortality inspired a greater trust in God.
As part of the 83rd Chemical Battalion, Neal spent six months in Kuwait during the invasion of Iraq, and another 14 months in Iraq with the 509th Infantry Battalion, which suffered a number of casualties. His latest deployment was Afghanistan, where he served as chaplain assistant to Father Hesseling.
For soldiers on the front lines, “the war is right there in their face. They see it every single day. They see the trauma, they can see all the devastation of it,” Doak added. “And I think it awakens more the need … for something.”
“I discovered that within a few trials, I had to rely more on God,” Neal said. “There’s no way you could ever do this by yourself.”
Indeed, Neal discovered, “(God is) right there, just staying right there with me.”
Catholic Lt. Doak, who earned a Bronze Star medal during his deployment to Afghanistan, had his own “crucible moment” there, as he described it, when he faced the mortality of others.
In Afghanistan, Doak’s duty was the transportation and security of military supplies on the road between outposts. Before every mission, he organized a group prayer asking God’s protection.
In one particularly difficult job, Doak was training his replacement who had just arrived.
“We’d gone on a very long mission and hit a number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the way to drop off our supplies,” the composed, young officer explained. After the safe delivery and a rushed refitting, they began the long trip back to base.
But along the way, there was a traffic accident involving Afghan civilians. Doak and his team treated the civilians and secured the help they could. But ultimately, a couple of those people died.
Fighting back a wave of emotion, Doak explained that for a long time, he held himself responsible and questioned why such a tragedy happened.
Only after serious prayer and several conversations with Chaplain Hesseling, Doak said he learned to trust God and believe “that you do have a Good Shepherd watching over the whole world.”
“Though you like to pretend that you have control,” he continued, “and though we train and do as much as we can to mitigate a lot of factors, ultimately, whether somebody lives or dies is out of our hands, and that’s definitely a huge call to come back to that side of the faith, to be able to just trust completely that things will work out.”
At Mass and in counseling, Father Hesseling helps soldiers grappling with profound questions of faith like, ‘“Where is God in all this? How could God let this happen? Why does evil exist? Why did this happen to my buddy instead of me?’”
Father Hesseling said he talks about the difference between God’s positive will and his permissive will — that God does not will suffering but he may allow it to occur when good can result from it.
Prayer, discernment and support of friends and faith are crucial to a soldier’s finding peace in the quandary, he said.
Grasping for Answers
But without a foundation of faith, soldiers can get lost in the spiritual “deserts” of war, Father Hesseling explained.
In facing death, some end up only “groping” for answers instead of turning to God, he said.
“They know something’s missing,” Doak said, but “they don’t know what to call it.”
Such was the case with some of the soldiers Father Hesseling and Neal met in the Afghanistan mountain compound last year.
“It was kind of a shell-shocked environment, people groping around emotionally,” Father Hesseling recalled.
Doak attributes that confusion to a lack of previous exposure to or sustained development of faith.
Prepare for the Test
But the ordinariness of life can also distract one from turning to God, added Neal.
Those, he said, in the safety of larger bases and back at home in the states, can become desensitized by the “nine-to-five job” life. The everyday can dull the urgency for eternal things.
To help soldiers stay focused, Father Hesseling often tells the story of 1st Lt. Brian Bradshaw, a Catholic officer with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment out of Ft. Richardson.
Two weeks before being killed by an improvised explosive device, Bradshaw asked Father Hesseling to hear his confession. And he went to Mass and received Communion.
“When you wake up in the morning,” Father Hesseling said, “you never know what’s going to happen that day … always, you need to take care of these things.”
“Use the graces, the strengths of those sacraments because you never know when they’re going to be put to the test.”