WASHINGTON –– Over the past nine years in Iraq, the sacrifice of the U.S. military “and our nation as a whole has been tremendous,” Army chaplain Fr. Joel Panzer said, and soldiers in general feel “it’s time for us to leave” to give the nationthe impetus “to function independently.”
As the troops prepare to leave and turn bases over to Iraqi forces by Dec. 31, he said, “morale is quite high” among members of his own Army unit, the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, which is ending a 13-month deployment.
“Tremendous progress has been made” in Iraq, he told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 6 interview conducted via email and phone from the southern part of the country, where he has been stationed for his final two months.
“Regardless of the outcome here, soldiers are proud of their faithful service, and the selfless sacrifice of nearly 4,500 U.S. service members. Nothing will ever change that,” said Fr. Panzer, 43, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
An Army captain, he is finishing his second tour of duty in Iraq and is the last Catholic priest serving in support of Operation New Dawn, the post-combat phase of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Currently, less than 10,000 soldiers remain in Iraq at five bases. At one point, in 2007, U.S. troops numbered 170,000 and were spread out over more than 500 bases.
As military units inspect equipment and pack it up, chaplains have related responsibilities, such as ensuring “all religious literature and sacred materials are properly packaged” for shipment home, according to Fr. Panzer.
“We remove all Christian and Jewish items from the buildings we have utilized as chapels simply out of a desire not to offend the people of Iraq, a predominantly Muslim nation,” he continued. “As a priest, I’ve been responsible for closing several chapels where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, including the removal of chalices and other sacred vessels.”
Fr. Panzer said the soldiers with whom he serves feel the U.S. military has “provided the people of Iraq with everything they need to function independently,” he said, such as “training for their military and police; funding of infrastructure, schools and hospitals; assistance with conducting elections and writing a constitution; and support in establishing a government.”
When asked if some fear instability once the troops are gone, the priest said, “Soldiers tend to be realists.”
“They have experienced the culture of the Middle East, and know that local religious and tribal loyalties bear greater allegiance than the national cause of Iraqi unity,” he told CNS.
“There is a substantial likelihood that ancient hatreds as well as present political, economic and security uncertainties will lead to continued instability here in the short term, and possibly even to civil war.”
“Creating an effective democratic government over here will take many years to come,” Fr. Panzer said. “However, now that the Iraqi people have experienced liberation, they will not go back.”
He said soldiers follow media reports and “many have noted an excessive focus on the problems in Iraq. In reality, we see the countless good news stories of what has happened over here that rarely gets reported.”
Unlike previous conflicts, in which “our nation’s forces have either remained behind even to this day, or we hastily withdrew in defeat,” he said, the accomplishments in Iraq are “amazing indeed,” with the overthrow of a dictator, establishment of a democratic government, and now “a peaceful and orderly withdrawal of all our forces on schedule and as promised to the people of Iraq.”
“The war in Iraq is both noteworthy and historic, even if the major news outlets don’t view it as such,” the priest said.
If Americans have grown weary of the war, they still support the troops, he said. As an example, he noted that he and others often received care packages from people they didn’t even know. “I do think most Americans understand what it is to sacrifice, to leave your family for a time and do something that’s hard, requires discipline, faith and trust in God,” he added.
Fr. Panzer, ordained in 1994, went to college on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Two years later, he entered the seminary.
In 2005, “I realized that the war in Iraq was going to last longer than anticipated and that there was a great need for Catholic priests. Most of those going without the sacraments were soldiers, and so that’s where I was needed,” he said.
About 20 percent of the Army is Catholic. One in five soldiers are Catholic; only one in 16 chaplains are.
“Being a Catholic Army chaplain is a tremendous ministry with opportunities unlike any other,” Fr. Panzer told CNS.
“I love providing the sacraments and spending time counseling soldiers, as well as training with them and keeping physically fit,” he said. “They have shown me great kindness, appreciation and camaraderie over two deployments. Catholic soldiers in particular appreciate having their priest around while serving in a combat zone.”
He has counseled troops and family members dealing with the loss of a soldier. In the priest’s unit, in the last three years two soldiers have committed suicide, one during deployment and the other after returning home.
“In many ways a suicide is harder for unit members to accept than a combat loss,” Fr. Panzer said, because they “wonder what they didn’t see, or could have done differently” for that soldier.
“When suicide happens, it’s a matter of reminding family and comrades they must not blame themselves, but rather must seek to be resilient and drive on with their lives,” he said.
“Resiliency comes through personal growth in those five key pillars of support that make life worth living: our belief in God, our family and friends, our physical and emotional health.”
Fr. Panzer’s next assignment will be as a recruiter of chaplains. He’ll be stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Of his nearly 18 years as a priest, his four years as an active duty Army chaplain “have been the most challenging and rewarding,” he said.
“Any priest who serves as an Army chaplain even for a few years will be blessed spiritually and strengthened physically by the opportunity to minister to some of the finest young American Catholics our nation has produced.”