On Christmas Eve 2006, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas DiMiceli was on an all-night convoy into Fallujah, Iraq. His unit, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Able Company, first platoon, arrived the next day at an old Iraqi base where they’d be staying but which had been inhabited by packs of wild dogs.
“We’d been awake all night and all morning because we were convoying and they (Army command) gave us some sleep,” DiMiceli said.
After they awoke, they celebrated Christmas with some Marines stationed at a nearby base, Camp Fallujah.
“We got to have hot chow and MRE’s (Meal Ready to Eat), things like that. We just had to sleep on the floor for a few days,” he said.
DiMiceli, a member of St. Matthew Parish, Oak Creek, enlisted in the Army in 2004 after graduating from Brookfield East High School.
Growing up, he said he had an “affinity” for the military and one day, after working at Circuit City, he walked into a nearby recruiting office and joined the infantry.
“Active duty was the calling for me,” he said.
Two years later, he was sharing a Christmas meal with Marines in Iraq, which would be the highest point of his deployment.
“That was just a staging point for what would be the worst set of experiences, I think, a group of soldiers would go through,” he said.
DiMiceli grew up Catholic and graduated from St. Agnes School, Butler, but practicing his faith in a war zone, with orders and missions, tested his faith.
On Dec. 27, 2006, his platoon occupied an empty building that was part of that abandoned Iraqi base.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in a section titled, “Avoiding war” addresses questions regarding military service.
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”106
2310 Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.
Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.107
“If you weren’t on guard and you weren’t building fortifications, then you were sleeping,” he said. “And if you weren’t sleeping, you were either building fortifications or on guard.”
While he was doing his job he encountered resistance from insurgents.
“We had significant sniper issues,” he said.
Two days later, he was repositioning sandbags on top of a guard tower and thought about a friend stationed at a base about a mile away.
“We played video games when we were in Alaska together; we hung out all the time, drank beer together, it was great,” he said.
He asked a soldier in his platoon what his friend was doing and added, “He’s probably hating this without electricity.”
The soldier responded, “You didn’t hear?”
“No,” DiMiceli said.
“He got killed by a sniper yesterday,” the soldier told him.
The emotions of that day remain with DiMiceli.
“The (expletive) we had to go through,” he said. “That wasn’t the first person we lost but that was my first friend that I lost.”
His faith was tested throughout deployment. To keep himself strong, DiMiceli brought with him a Bible, which he said he read often; a rosary, which he kept in his pocket during patrols; and a St. Michael pendant, on his dog tags, given to him in Iraq by a chaplain.
“If you don’t practice religion, you will when you’re deployed because when the (expletive) is hitting the fan around you, you want to have a relationship with your God,” he said. “You can’t control a whole lot of things that goes on … it’s my personal belief that I would want the God I’m praying to, to control those variables that I can’t.”
In January 2007, less than a week after losing a close friend, DiMiceli was patroling in a Humvee, investigating an explosion. He said it was a cloudy day with temperatures in the 40s.
“It felt damp outside, cold and damp,” he said. “Just in the blink of an eye (we) went from driving to hearing this piercing noise and I knew exactly what it was when it happened.”
DiMiceli’s Humvee ran over an IED (improvised explosive device).
“The engine was pretty much gone,” he said. “It was completely destroyed. The hood was gone; the engine had blown through the truck.”
Everyone in the vehicle was injured and was medically evacuated to the nearest hospital.
DiMiceli had cuts across his face, a concussion and sprained three fingers on his right hand.
“They thought my hand was broken,” he said. “I lost feeling for about six months in my fingers.”
The injuries to his eyes were treated with delicacy.
“I had concrete and sand and oil in my eyes,” he said. “They had to peel my eye lids back and scrape out my eyes, and then they put UV dye in my eyes to see how many cuts I had and I had about eight cuts.”
DiMiceli said it was ironic his eyes were hurt because he was wearing eye protection.
“I had the goggles on and they were blown off my face,” he said.
He was awarded a Purple Heart for his action that day, and granted his mid-tour leave, which he relunctantly took, even though he only had 11 months of deployment left.
“Prayer was the best thing I had. Memories and prayer,” DiMiceli said.
‘If today is the day I go…’
Before leaving, DiMiceli picked a friend to replace him for the 12 days he was gone. During that time, the person he chose, as well as three others, died in an IED attack.
“I got a call from his wife the day I got back saying, ‘He’s dead,’” he said. “After I came back from my mid-tour leave and he wasn’t there anymore, I just kind of asked myself, if he’s not here, where is he? It made me wonder, is there a heaven? What’s next? What is there, because it’s not here. Where does he go? Where is my friend that I can’t talk to?”
DiMiceli said after that loss he watched the movie, “What Dreams May Come,” about heaven and after life, starring Robin Williams, once or twice a day to help him keep believing.
“It kept me remembering that part of the faith and belief in God is that there’s going to be an afterlife,” he said. “If today is the day that I go, there’s something else on the other side.”
But he knew that a simple belief in God and heaven wouldn’t be enough to prevent him from being killed.
“The first patrol I went on when I got back was on the same road, 50 meters away from where I got blown up,” he said. “And we had to kick in some doors and find some bad guys.”
He said going on that first patrol scared him.
“I had this nervous anxiety that it was going to happen again … but religion and prayer was all I had,” he said.
Many times, DiMiceli said, he thought he wasn’t coming back. One of those times was while driving a truck, during a firefight, with his squad leader.
“We both looked at each other, and excuse my language, but we both said, ‘We’re (expletive). We’re done.’ We thought we were dead,” he said.
He said, as a soldier, many times he accepted death. And as a Catholic he said he never felt any moral conflict with any order.
“When you’re getting shot at or the roadside bomb goes off, you don’t think about what, and let’s call it what it is – killing somebody – so let’s call it at its simplest term, let’s call it murder; in war, as a soldier, you don’t look at it as murder,” DiMiceli said. “We don’t go out there to murder people; we go out there to apprehend and serve justice … we go out there to defend ourselves.”
Getting shot at
During his entire deployment, DiMiceli said there was only one incident where he needed to fire his weapon. He and another solider were on guard in a tower and had been taking “pot shots from snipers” all day, he said, which put him on edge.
Then he heard some shots that were behind him and much closer.
“If you’re getting shot at, you shoot back,” he said about returning fire.
The problem, however, was with every shot the rifle concussion shook the tower; sand and dust fell, impairing his view.
“Once the dust cleared I looked out the window to see who it was. By then it was the Iraqi police,” he said. “They had shot at our tower by accident.”
DiMiceli said he was glad he didn’t kill anyone.
“But they (Iraqi police) were (angry),” he said. “They shot at my tower. Next time, don’t shoot at my tower.”
DiMiceli returned home in November 2007, and is an Army recruiter. He said potential recruits come in with personal issues with war.
“I took the time to hear their moral conflict and what they said are their issues with potentially joining the military … I’ve had individuals say, ‘I want to join the Army but I’m not sure if I agree with what’s going on.’ I said, ‘Then the Army is not for you.’”
Faith on the front
For soldiers overseas, practicing their faith is difficult but the military chaplains make it easier.
Fr. John Perez, currently a chaplain at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, Milwaukee, was deployed to Iraq in 2008 for 18 months.
Originally from New York City, Fr. Perez has been a chaplain since the 1990s, once serving as the chaplain for Fort Knox in Kentucky.
“I don’t belong to (any branch) but I’m supposed to work for everyone,” Fr. Perez said. “I provided services to the Catholics and then any counseling or service as needed to any faith denomination.”
During his deployment, Fr. Perez was flown by Blackhawk helicopter to locations around Iraq to celebrate Mass.
“They really wanted to spread me around and take me where I needed to be,” he said.
He flew 367 days during his deployment. During his only Holy Week there, Fr. Perez said he celebrated five Holy Thursday Masses, five Good Friday services, five Easter Vigils and six Easter Sunday Masses.
“Easter, they flew me six times that day. I started early in the morning; at 5-ish I was already out,” he said. “I came back at (zero) dark thirty, 1 o’clock in the morning (Monday).”
Fr. Perez said there’s a difference between celebrating Mass in front of civilians and military personnel.
“Soldiers are attentive, civilians, if they want to be,” he said. “Soldiers go to Mass because they want to go; civilians go, sometimes just out of habit.”
While in Iraq, Fr. Perez said he always had a “full house” at Mass.
“I not only had Catholics but different faith denominations wanted to come to my Masses,” he said. “They didn’t partake in the Eucharist but they would always be there.”
Upon arrival, a chaplain is assigned a “chaplain’s assistant,” basically a soldier bodyguard because, according to the laws of the Geneva Convention, chaplains aren’t allowed to carry weapons.
‘I almost got blown up’
Fr. Perez’s first night in Iraq was an eye-opener. His assistant was delayed because of orders and wouldn’t arrive at Camp Victory until the next morning.
“I was alone and I was in my living quarters and they (insurgents) breached the wall,” he said. “The sirens went off. Shootings left and right. All I did inside where I was staying was I turned off the light. With a broomstick in my hand, ‘If anybody comes through the door I’m going to smack him with a broomstick. I might die but I’m not going down sucking my thumb.’”
Any Blackhawk in the air is a target for enemy insurgents. But during the summer when the temperature is consistently near 100 degrees, the doors of the helicopter are sometimes removed to help keep things cool.
During one hot day, while being transported by Blackhawk to another base, Fr. Perez remembers being shot at from the ground. He said the pilot took evasive action, steering the helicopter through sharp turns. Fr. Perez said he saw the bullets fly by.
“I could’ve been mashed by a couple of bullets,” he said, adding there was nothing his chaplain assistant could do.
But it didn’t stop there.
“They practically threw us out of the Blackhawk and they left,” he said. “They never do that and we said, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
It was then, as Fr. Perez was gathering his mobile Mass kit, that they were informed the area was under attack from mortar rounds.
“I saw the mortars coming and I froze,” he said. “My chaplain assistant grabbed me … and literally dragged me into a bunker.”
As he was being pulled away, Fr. Perez said he remembers the feeling of pressure from the blasts on his face.
“I almost got blown up,” he says laughingly. “The thing is you don’t know how you’ll act until you’re there. So when I saw those mortars coming, I don’t know if it was a New York thing, you don’t run, but I didn’t move!”
Those types of experiences help Fr. Perez relate to the Catholic veterans, and veterans of other faiths, he meets at the VA. Like many veterans he encounters, Fr. Perez has seen his share of death.
The priest remembered one attack while waiting to be picked up by a Blackhawk. Bombs were going off in a part of a base that was occupied by commercial restaurants (the military will often bid out contracts to companies like Burger King and Starbucks, which are staffed by civilian contractors).
“The Blackhawk came; they were supposed to take me but they didn’t; they rejected me, because they were bringing soldiers,” he said. “That’s when I saw a soldier, they brought a female, her skull was half missing. They tried to tie it with some cloth … I knew she was going to die. We prayed.”
Fr. Perez didn’t know what faith denomination she was, but held her hand and prayed anyway.
“When the Blackhawk took off and she was there,” he said. “I looked down and I was literally standing in her blood.”
That was the only time he prayed with a dying soldier.
“We prayed with soldiers that were going into battles,” he said.
During his time in the military and while in Milwaukee, Fr. Perez has reminded soldiers and veterans that killing during war to save others isn’t a sin.
“(Soldiers) have a moral obligation to go and defend their loved ones,” he said. “The weapon is not to kill just for the sake of killing; it is to defend. Some might have to kill someone because they were defending somebody or they were defending themselves.”
Fr. Perez said that for those in a war zone, the people around them become their family.
“If you see someone in danger and you don’t move or do anything about it, there’s something wrong with you,” he said.
Fr. Perez said parish priests need to be aware of what’s going on in the veteran community.
“There is a military culture that exists in their pews that they also have to take care of,” he said.
The relationship between military service and faith continues to challenge young Catholics in the military today.
It takes physical and mental strength, and Seipel remembered when each was being pushed to the limit.
“It’s the middle of the night; we’re doing push-ups, we’re doing sit-ups, we’re getting screamed at, going up and down stairs,” Seipel said. “At this point I’m kind of thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
Seipel said he was in a bad mood, but then something changed.
“Then just all of a sudden a calm came over me, almost out of nowhere and I wanted to crack a smile,” Seipel said. “But I quickly caught myself and didn’t because smiling in those circumstances makes you stick out.”
It was a feeling he had a hard time putting into words.
“Out of nowhere you develop a strength that wasn’t there a couple minutes ago,” Seipel said.
But Seipel said his faith helped him relax.
“The first couple days of basic training is just, probably the closest thing to hell on earth, for lack of better words,” he said. “Just want it to be over with and get done and kind of reaching out to God for strength.”
Seipel said when he was training he would find God during small moments of peace.
“Especially laying in my bunk that night, when we’re fortunate enough to get some sleep, that was a nice time to slow down and do some reflection,” Seipel said. “Give thanks for the challenges I overcame during the day and also to ask for the additional strength to keep going.”
Seipel said without prayer, he would have been bitter about his experience.
“By having that prayer, that faith, that relationship with God, is really what brings a lot more strength and calm in the face of adversity,” he said.
During his time on base, Seipel attended Mass regularly with about four or five other Catholics in his platoon.
“It was honestly the thing I looked forward to every week,” he said.
The priests’ homilies were directed toward Seipel and the roughly 300 other Catholics attending Mass in their makeshift church, an improvised altar with folding chairs in the center of a “multi-purpose” room, a gymnasium with bleachers.
“A lot of drill sergeants (say) it’s about war, war, war. You need to kill the enemy,” Seipel said. “Being at a Catholic Mass, it reframed our purpose. You’re here to serve for peace and do good throughout the world as opposed to just that kind of combat focus.”