Mercy on the Front Lines

Stationed out in a perilous province within war-torn Afghanistan, one Marian priest has two requests: your prayers and your assistance.

The prayer needs are obvious. Father Donald Van Alstyne, a U.S. Army chaplain, is ministering on the violent front lines of the 11-year American-led war in Afghanistan.

The monetary needs may not be so obvious. Living in primitive conditions in what is known as a forward operating base (FOB) - essentially a miniature Alamo ringed by barbed wire - the men and women with whom Fr. Donald serves lack basic necessities (like toiletries) and comfort items (such as snacks and coffee). Some of these FOBs have restricted shower availability, and the warm water runs out quickly.

The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass., are collecting funds to purchase and ship these items. Please consider making a financial contribution.

"The soldiers in this work space are under pressure 24/7, so these items will go a long way," Fr. Donald says in an interview conducted through e-mail.

The Afghan war - called Operation Enduring Freedom - began Oct. 7, 2001, to dismantle the Al-Qaeda terrorist network there. The goals of the mission have grown to include working with Afghans to create a stable democratic state. That requires removing from power the Taliban, whose terror tactics include indiscriminate violence against civilians and giving explosive devices to unsuspecting children to carry to our soldiers.

In the midst of his second deployment in Afghanistan, Fr. Donald is operating out of the headquarters for the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division.

+ + + View a photo gallery of Fr. Donald's ministry in Afghanistan. + + +

In an email on Nov. 11, he explains what life is like there at the base:

Because we are infantry, we travel light. We either patrol on foot or in armored vehicles. We do not have tanks when we fight. We fight on foot. ... Our area of operations covers two huge provinces: Logar and Wardack. We are situated in one of the worst infested areas where the Taliban and Haqanni drug network thrives. Most of our operating bases are mortared and attacked with small arms practically every night. Our soldiers oftentimes are attacked with similar engagements when we go outside "the wire" on supply convoys and ... road clearing missions. These attacks usually occur when we run over a buried or a remote-controlled or trip-wire improvised explosive device (IED). ... Our Brigade has been in theater for about four months. I must write a story soon that I would like to entitle "Mary's Mantle - Miracles on the Battlefield." Soldiers have shared some remarkable stories.

Our mission here is to be in partnership at all times in all activities and mission with the Afghan National Army (ANA). The focus is not what we American soldiers are doing but what the ANA is accomplishing. I highly value this responsibility because it fits with my Marian spirituality and the intent of our Renovator [Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927)]. We are crediting the work of the Afghan people and deflecting focus from us. Our other mandates from higher command include protecting and supporting local and provincial governments and insuring safe passage of the main roads to Kabul.

A month later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, the news from Fr. Donald was not good:

We lost three soldiers recently. I gave last rites to one when doctors saw that it was impossible to resuscitate. Two others were prayed over. At our base (FOB Shank-Eastern Afghanistan) there was a brief Hero Ceremony before the bodies were flown to Bagram Air Force Base.

He writes of how a few days earlier he was involved in a so-called "ramp ceremony" at division headquarters at Bagram. A ramp ceremony is a solemn memorial ceremony for a fallen soldier that takes place at an airfield just before the soldier's remains are flown home. In this case, the flag-draped coffins transported by individual military vehicles were slowly driven. Honors were rendered with a solemn, slow salute just prior to movement onto a C-130 Air Force plane to be flown to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where family members were waiting.

When Fr. Donald returned back to his base, he participated in a memorial ceremony "designed to inspire, give strength to our soldiers, and to give personal tribute to the soldiers who died," he says.

Ministering to the wounded and dying never gets any easier, Fr. Donald says, but his priestly vocation has deepened in profound ways. He says he has become "more focused on who we really are in the eyes of God" and how "our lives are framed and defined by the love and mercy of God for each of us, the Afghan people and for the whole world."

"I am also inspired to see in the eyes of our soldiers the need to know and love God," he says. "My mission is to bring God to soldiers and to bring soldiers to God. All of these experiences give me a joy and energy in my heart and soul that no one, or no tragic moment, can take away."

Ever since Fr. Donald was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War in 1966, he wanted to be a military chaplain.

"In the spirit of Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz, the Renovator of the Marians, I've always wanted to go where the need is greatest," he says.

In addition to his two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Fr. Donald, now a major, served in Bosnia for Operation Joint Forge to help minister to soldiers involved in peace keeping operations in the disputed territories of the Balkans. He also served in Korea and Germany, in addition to serving stateside. His military awards include the Bronze Star.

His military service harkens back to the founder of the Marian Congregation, Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczynski (1631-1701), who reportedly served as a chaplain in the Polish army at a time when Poland was being ravaged by foreign invaders. Having witnessed thousands of casualties on battlefields and from plagues - many of whom presumably had no time to spiritually prepare - Blessed Stanislaus called the Marian Congregation to the charism of praying for the souls in purgatory.

"My soul - like his was - is filled with anguish to see young men and women cut down in the flower of their youth for such a noble cause - the defense of one's country and, in our day, an end to the scourge of terrorism," says Fr. Donald.

Father Donald adds that soldiers have shared experiences with him that "now have convinced them that God had protected them when they clearly should have died. I thank Mary for her intercession for me. I find myself saying the Hail Mary throughout the day."

The Afghan war has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. servicemen and women. Even as the United States has begun drawing down its military presence in Afghanistan, the military continues to battle a widespread Taliban insurgency, which has been responsible for the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties.

As if life weren't difficult enough, soldiers in forward operating bases usually receive only one hot meal a day. And unlike in garrisons, which have fully stocked stores, called Postal Exchange facilities (or PXs), there are no PXs on forward operating bases except at Brigade Headquarters.

"Soldiers are dependent on family members to send them supplies, which over the course of deployment becomes rather expensive," says Fr. Donald.

Soldiers experience a "huge morale boost" when they receive supplies from back home, Fr. Donald says. Such shipments, he says, "serve as an acknowledgement that people back home are thinking of them and haven't forgotten the hardship, fear, and sacrifice" that defines daily life in Afghanistan.

With your financial help, the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge will purchase items from a wish list that was drawn up by men and women at Fr. Donald's base. The items include coffee packets for a Krup coffee maker; soap and soap dishes; shampoo; razors; shaving cream; skin cream; deodorant; mouthwash; toothpaste; toothbrushes; hair jell; baby wipes; and feminine products.

Please consider making a financial contribution.

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