LIVING IN THE MIDDLE EAST*:
A Chaplain’s Christmas Story
By Chaplain Greg Uvila, USMC
So greetings from the land of two camels! Yep, I saw two of these beasts lope by my office door recently, just a few hundred yards away. I could only see their bobbing heads and their tell-tale bumps because the protective berm was partially blocking my view. Probably the only two camels in the Middle East!
The Gulf War was just yesterday, wasn’t it? 25 years later I find myself in the same region as Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, where coalition forces, under General Norman Schwarzkopf, liberated Kuwait* from the occupying Iraqi army, led by someone named Saddam Hussein. Every day I jog by war-torn airplane hangars riddled with massive holes; decades old reminders of bombs our air forces dropped in the successful effort to push out the invading Iraqis. To say it is very surreal around here is understated. Who would have known then I would be here now?
On that same dusty trail, I jog inside this air base in the middle east, triple strand barb wire surrounds our perimeter, guard shacks dot the landscape; so peaceful here, the small structures on stilts look more like a cub-scout paradise than buildings to ensure our security. As safe as we are, every day in intel briefs we are given reminders of the alarming presence of ISIS in nearby Iraq. My home for the next 8 months is run by the Air Force in cooperation with the local government. We are here in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (Hear the attached CBS radio report by Kami McCormick).
Today, December 23rd, I returned to the same running trail with the nearby bombed out hangers. I did my pull-ups, sit-ups, and ammo can lifts like a good wanna-be Marine. As I finished the lifts I looked to the east and was startled by an image that I had seen before. However, it was in a different locale, but the same war on terror- Afghanistan 2010. This similar surprise was at Camp Leatherneck. I saw one of my heroes, a Marine I did not know, an amputee, still serving on active duty- why not? However, today this was not an unknown Marine; this was a fellow officer I have known since July! I had no idea of his injury. Before my run, I sauntered over, “Major, what happened to your leg?” (I was 95% sure of what happened but I wanted to leverage my curiosity to sincerely thank him for his very personal sacrifice on behalf of our nation). “I lost it in an ice skating accident doing a triple salchow.” “Max, what?” “No, Chaps I lost it in Afghanistan in 2011 during a fire fight.” “Wow, I never knew.” “That’s good. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” I paused, hesitated, and gathered my composure, “Major, thank you, thank you for your sacrifice.” As I started to jog away, I yearned to say more, so I slowed, and spoke over my shoulder, “Max, that comes from a deep part of me.” “I know Chaps, thanks.” Wow, no more frustration over a water heater that doesn’t work in my hooch. Such is my privilege to serve among nobility! To quote my brother-in-law drawing from his Viet Nam War experience, “I walk among Heroes.” Let me back up and add some color to my journey before arriving…
Over Veterans Day I was able to travel to St. Louis and see the medical school that Gregor attends. The journey was full of simple, sacred events. Then I had 10 days back home prior to deploying. Thankfully, the bulk of the time was spent with family, playing Catan with the gang, Candyland with Ashton, basketball, tennis… Speaking of getting stuffed, we had an early Thanksgiving and even earlier Christmas dinner (luau) with everyone. It was too much fun and time flew by way too quickly.
After the house emptied, Nancy and I worked on last minute honey dos- Tank and she will be moving down to 29 Palms, California when I return from deployment next August, after Gregor and Britney’s wedding. Nancy and I made some special memories when I was home… enjoying the hearth our friendship has become.
We departed for the Middle East on the 75th anniversary of D-day, the day that still lives in infamy, the day when Pearl Harbor was crushed by the Imperial army of Japan. Today another army crushes us emotionally, the loss of life is less, but the emotional toll at the capricious hands of terrorist is so incredibly disheartening. So to go to the Middle East “to protect those who cannot protect themselves” seems to be just. I pray for peace in the Middle East every day.”
Surprisingly, JBLM, (Joint Base Lewis-McCord) was our first stop. As we touched down I noticed it was one of those glorious Northwest winter days, crisp, clear, blue sky, a chilly 37 degrees. Nancy told me the forecast was for snow, but the weatherman was being sneaky, only a few clouds dotted the clear, dark blue sky.
The 3-hour layover at Lewis-McCord strains at my soul. I muse to myself why couldn’t we just head straight east? My emotions are running amuck. My heart aches as I embrace the glory of Mount Rainier. I wish I could stay here. Our JAG (lawyer) leans across the aisle, knowing I ski and that I am from this region, “Hey Chaps, you ever ski Crystal?” I casually respond that I had, recalling the wide open spaces “the fam” had skied not too long ago.
After leaving JBLM we had a short flight to Germany, Frankfurt I believe, only 11-12 hours in the sky- easy day, hah! Anyway, we spent about 3 hours on ground for fuel and food and off we soared to the Middle East. We arrive at our destination about 3:30am, 28 hours after gathering in the parking lot of the Marine Corps base, 29 Palms, CA.
The saying of goodbyes for service members, their dependents, for family and friends is one of the hardest challenges of military service. The cost is clear when you walk through it or observe it. Many of you know this first hand… Chaplain McCarthy instructed me over thirty years ago that when one says goodbye a little piece of him or her dies. This lancing of the soul hurts- hurts bad, real bad. For some reason I have dreaded this deployment more than the others. Perhaps because I have a better sense of what lies ahead? Trudging through the sands of Afghanistan in 2010, will there be similar moments this deployment?
There are hidden tolls to these long deployments. It is such an upstream push to know that you are not going to see loved ones for a loooong time. Emotions brace for shock. Yet, precious moments are the rich rewards of the knowledge of painful goodbyes and upcoming deployments. Time crucibles, intensifies, makes precious the moments and memories before departing, minutes count, hours more, a single day is almost as sacred as a Mariners game with my three sons, by the way the guys and I did just that back in the spring, yes!!
Saying goodbye to my sons is a forever imprint. For one it was watching the blue sedan pull out of our driveway and head north up Cascade Circle. For another it was next to the warmth of a wood stove in a small cabin in the woods. And for the other it was SeaTac, Terminal D, as he waited for me at my gate (working for Alaska has privileges). Hugs from Ashton, Hadley, Melanie, Britney and Sydney…my heart is full. And then there was Tank…loyal to the end, I miss my buddy. But I am thankful that he is there to keep Nancy company in my absence.
Saying goodbye to Nancy who has stood by me through 35 crazy-great-awesome sauce years was insufferably crushing. The memory of her tender eyes as we embraced on the side of the road marked “departures” at SEATAC simultaneously haunts me and woos me; the haunt, the dark shadows that lurked too close, 9 months away from my bride; and the woo, the precious brown eyes speak for themselves…
Ministry in the present takes courage… As the Boeing 747 whisked us away from Puget Sound it tilted its wings to say good bye to the glorious snowcapped Cascades and majestic Mount Rainier under the light of a full moon. I looked to my left and my long-time friend of all of 20 minutes was bent over, hands in his face. Clearly something was amiss. I took a guess, he must be afraid of flying. I gently placed my hand on my fellow traveler. In doing so I honor something deep within me, but I must admit in doing so I was conflicted. Will he understand my motive? As I heard the plane’s wheels seat themselves in the belly of jet, I removed my hand from the soldier’s shoulder, and I reflected on how simple ministry can be if we are present in the present, oh presence you waskily wabbit!.
I soon discovered that his name was Jeremy and he was younger, much younger. He was in fact Kramer’s age. He was Army, I’m Navy. Doubts returned. What is he thinking? I fuss to myself. Does he even know I am a Chaplain? More fussing to myself, such pointless musing, and nonsense!
An hour or so into our flight Jeremy, turns toward me and softly says, “thank you.” Without immediate context or clarification, nothing more was needed to be said. Content, I settled back into my chair and remembered once again how much I love my family, my friends, and the great Northwest! God is good… good all the time!
Ministry here is about presence, listening, watching, observing and hopefully asking a good question once in a while. A few God moments to pass along… encouraged a young officer who is struggling with his wife who is in therapy for abuse; sat with a Marine struggling with a boyfriend who is suicidal; met several times with a Junior Chaplain- helping him with his annual performance review; meeting twice a week with a Marine officer who is mandated to attend AA meetings for a year- AA doesn’t exist here so I am the next best thing?; friendships beginning to bloom with junior and senior officers in the wardroom; mentoring a young Marine who is an Oak Harbor high school grad (Class of 2015), mentoring two junior chaplains in different locations. I am once again preaching on a regular basis and am really enjoying it, commitments have already been made and faith is forming in the lives of our young Marines. I was stoked to see several senior officers at the service on Christmas day!
As I wrap up my first update, Christmas 2016 is behind me. A solid 48 hours of hustle and bustle, not through shopping malls, nor up and down I-5; but preparing and performing worship services on the flight line and at the chapel; visiting Marines all over the base…playing Elf as my assistant, Brad Smith of Reno Nevada took the role as Santa. RP1 used his green sea bag in lieu of the classic white bag. We hand delivered dozens and dozens and dozens of stockings stock full of candy and snacks and “America Cares” to thankful Marines. Care packages and Christmas stockings have poured in from every region of the U.S. and almost every state!
I routinely share that military service is a story of extremes, a tale of opposites, tremendous sacrifices and tremendous rewards. It is very fitting to share a quote that Nancy shared with me; it is something she pulled out of her journal from our days in Camas. “Thank you Father for your goodness to us, we have the commitment from you that you will help lead us and guide us. Help us learn to walk beside you and trust you and know that our future is in your hands. You are a God that walks with us thru the difficulties of darkness–thru the deep shadowy places as well as when our hearts are full of praise. You are indeed a good shepherd.”
Thanks for taking the time to read this novel. Thanks too for your love, prayers and friendship. I would love to hear from you. Calling? I can receive messages and talk on the application called “VIBER”. I can also facetime and facetime audio at no cost. I am eleven hours ahead of you, PST. By the way… today’s high was 70 and the low is to be about 50… niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice!!!! “God is good….all the time.”
LCDR Greg Uvila, Chaplains Office
SPMAGTF 17.1 CE
*It is best to just refer to me as being in the Middle East…