Recently my father sent me a rosary that belonged to my Great-Uncle Ray. This was not just any rosary; it had been given to my godfather by his mother (my great-grandmother) when he fought behind enemy lines during World War II. As a symbol of faith, this rosary, with its unique history, is a source of grace and empowerment to me in the daily challenges I face in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Five years ago, while I was a student at Georgetown Law School, a Jesuit fueled my passion to fight for human rights and social justice. During a study-abroad program in London, the late Robert Drinan, S.J., assured each of us that we could make a personal difference in working for justice in the world. Moved by his conviction, I felt called to public service. When I was commissioned an officer in the U. S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps, I knew I would be serving the nation and justice. Yet I had no idea that I would spend 2009 working in the most dangerous place on earth.
Everywhere I walk I keep that rosary with me. When I recently rode in a convoy through the streets of Kandahar to an outlying firebase, I was comforted by its presence in the shoulder pocket of my uniform. While I silently recite its prayers as we hold our breath along winding roads laced with improvised explosive devices, this palpable connection to my family’s past represents a deep longing and trust I have for God and his protection.
No week goes by without the threat of rocket attacks. While the blaring alarms used to make my hands tremble, I have gotten somewhat used to them even though rockets sometimes find their mark. Not long ago two soldiers were injured here at our NATO base, and a civilian contractor lost his life. I do not know when the rockets will come or how many at a time; I just have to learn to live with the constant threat that each moment could be my last.
The dangerous environment of my daily life prompts me to ask: Should I choose to live in fear? Of course not. Living in fear is not something any of us can afford. So how do I face this fear? With faith that God has a purpose for me, is present as my daily companion here, where I offer my best in service to my country and to its mission of improving conditions in Afghanistan so that justice can flourish.
For over four months I have attended what are called ramp ceremonies for our fallen soldiers. Watching the bodies of these brave soldiers being lifted by their platoon brothers and placed on military air transport home is always difficult. It is more so when I realize how young they are and think of the families who await them back home.
I struggle to understand the meaning of their premature loss of life, but the presiding chaplain always has a few words to fill the void that is all too real to us. He says their passing is beyond our understanding and that this is the time God has called these brave soldiers to him. The humbling awareness of the fragility of life and of the mystery of these losses finds me choking back tears at night as I clutch my great-uncle’s rosary beads and pray for deeper understanding.
This far-off venue provides an environment ripe for Ignatian reflection. Many nights when I am tempted to dwell on tragedy and the human loss about me, I remind myself of the good we and our NATO allies are accomplishing by our presence and work with local civilian populations. Surely the respect and friendships that have been formed through our coalition’s efforts owe their inspiration to God’s work to bring the human family together.
In my time here I have also supported two Provincial Reconstruction Teams, one in Farah and one in Zabul—remote areas. These planners and engineers have constructed over $5 million in humanitarian projects. They are building schools, roads and health clinics; providing electricity, wheat and mentoring programs for teachers and farmers. This is not to put a gloss on the ugly reality of battles and the tragedy of war, but we can forget too easily the central dimension of our presence here: to protect and work with the Afghan people as they try to re-establish systems of governance, education and justice that are the backbone of lasting peace and a stable society.
We will not resolve Afghanistan’s problems anytime soon despite remarkable progress already made. But I believe we are doing the right thing and have to be patient. Somehow this is a reminder to the world of how our fate, even in this far-off land, is intertwined with the justice and peace of others. As I lay awake at night in the cool desert air and hold those rosary beads close to my chest, I thank God for all the good people he has put in my path who have formed me in the faith. I pray for them all, including my brave Uncle Ray and the remarkable Father Drinan. I also pray for a deeper faith to see things here in Kandahar as God does.