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Ministering through the ordinary, extraordinary

Lt. Col. Patrick Travers, 477th Fighter Group chaplain, conducts a Catholic mass at the local parish here on JBER. Travers entered the Air Force Chaplain Candidate Program at the age of 39 while studying theology and canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome .(US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Dana Rosso)

Lt. Col. Patrick Travers, 477th Fighter Group chaplain, conducts a Catholic mass at the local parish here on JBER. Travers entered the Air Force Chaplain Candidate Program at the age of 39 while studying theology and canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome .(US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Dana Rosso)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- I was very fortunate as a young man to have wonderful educational opportunities at Georgetown University in international relations and Harvard University in law.  These were made possible by the love and support of my Dad, a retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt, and my late mom, who cared for the six of us children through all the transitions of my dad's military career. For more than 20 years after my Dad retired in 1968, I had little contact at all with the military, graduating from college just as the draft was ending. 

After graduating from law school, I worked for more than a decade as an attorney, I became very active in the Catholic Church, and began years of discernment about the possibility of becoming a priest.  Eventually, I decided to give it a try, and entered the seminary in 1988.  While in the seminary, I discovered that many of the spiritual issues I was addressing had their roots in my military family background. For example, the hesitation I experienced in making close friendships seemed to be rooted in the frequent moves we made while I was growing up:  if I made a friend, I knew that either they or I would probably be gone within two years in a world that as yet had no internet or Facebook. 

At the age of 39, I entered the Air Force Chaplain Candidate Program in Europe, since I was studying theology and canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and ministered at a number of bases in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.  This ministry was so fulfilling that, with the permission of the Bishop of Juneau, I continued as an Air Force Reserve chaplain after my ordination in 1994. 

Priestly ministry in the military has much in common with that in civilian life, particularly in the celebration of sacraments, preaching, and counseling.  Of course, fulfilling all the special requirements of being in the military can be quite different from life in a civilian parish, and my parishioners sometime express wonderment when I'm getting ready for a PT test or taking an Air War College course. 

For me, the best part of being an Air Force reservist has been the opportunity to meet and minister to wonderful people who are making tremendous sacrifices on behalf of others; with whom I have much in common; and whom I would, for the most part, not have had the opportunity to work with in civilian life.  The opportunity to make God present to them in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of their lives, including those that are most distressing and tragic, is something that is tremendously precious to me.

I think the most challenging experience that I've had in the Air Force was the first few weeks of my deployment to Kirkuk, Iraq, in the summer of 2004.  It was my first experience in a combat zone, and I knew things were going to be different when our C-17 into Kirkuk began the steep zig-zag of its combat approach.  There had been a major rocket attack on the base right before our arrival, and much more was expected as the time approached for the handover of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government.  And, indeed, such attacks were a regular occurrence.  The fact that they were "undirected" fire meant that their destinations were very random, and that we all were in quite immediate danger as a result of them.  In addition, as the only Catholic chaplain in the area, I made Humvee trips "outside the wire" to the forward operating bases that had Catholic troops.  It was quite sobering to discover that a bridge we regularly used had come to be known as "The IED Bridge"! 

The fear and anxiety that I experienced could well have affected my ability to minister to Army and Air Force troops who faced much greater dangers than I.  In the end, it was prayer that made the difference.  I acknowledged the danger and my lack of control over it, and turned it all over to God, knowing that whatever happened to me would be in his service, and a manifestation of his will and of the purpose of my life and ministry. While the dangers continued throughout the 100 days of my deployment and required constant precautions, the fear dissipated, and I was able to help others experience that presence of God in the face of death, destruction, and confusion.

I think that almost every aspect of my civilian ministry has been affected in good ways by my military ministry, and vice versa.  The core functions of priestly ministry in the Catholic Church are similar regardless of the setting, and the variety of settings and situations that I get to experience have, I believe, enriched my ability to serve others as well as my personal life.

I hope that, as a result of reading my story, others will be encouraged to explore changing their lives in the ways that call them at any stage of life.  Where I am now is very different from where I thought I would be in my twenties, and the difference has been full of surprises and disruptions, but also immense rewards.  I also hope that readers will feel encouraged to explore the spiritual aspect of their lives, as I did, and to discover new and unexpected possibilities for themselves and those whom they love.