KODIAK — Navy Cmdr. Michael Williams, a chaplain from Kodiak, risks his life every day in Afghanistan.
He doesn’t carry a rifle, but to Marines who need counseling or spiritual guidance, he’s a lifesaver.
Williams is serving a one-year tour as an overseas chaplain for Regimental Combat Team 7 in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
This is Williams’ second overseas tour in a war zone — he served in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 — and the work he does requires heavy traveling.
“I’ve been here seven months so far,” he said. “I’ve traveled over 6,190 miles. I’ve gone on 59 helicopter missions. I’ve traveled on 35 convoys for 820 miles.”
Williams spends anywhere from three days to two weeks at a time traveling to different bases where he talks with Marines, soldiers, civilians and contractors who need someone to talk to.
Marines open up to Williams because he is often the only person they can have a confidential chat with or get advice from.
“Marines love having chaplains come around and visit them,” he said. “Most people just love to talk about their life situations with someone who holds the conversations completely confidential. Sometimes they’re on a base where they don’t get to talk as openly or as often as maybe they’d like to.”
Williams helps people talk about their faith — or lack of one — and has even performed three baptisms since arriving in the country.
“I believe that when a person is put into a bit of a stressful situation or is away from all things that occupy the mind and time, they think about many things and consider faith,” he said.
Williams is not the first chaplain from Kodiak to serve overseas. Navy Lt. David Bradley, a Protestant chaplain at Coast Guard Base Kodiak, served in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, when fighting reached its peak.
Bradley frequently traveled with soldiers who were crossing the desert into hostile areas. It often took days to get to distant outposts because the troops would encounter insurgents who would fight them with guns and IEDs.
“I always prayed with them when they were rolling across the lines,” Bradley said. “They always enjoyed me going out with them. When you’re there, it’s all around you but you’re not scared. You’re doing your job.”
Part of Bradley’s role as a chaplain was to lift the spirits of the troops enduring 120-degree to 140-degree temperatures, dust and insects.
“It was about giving cheer and hope to people,” he said.
Bradley injured his knee jumping over a ditch as he was nearing the end of his tour and was medevaced to Camp Pendleton for surgery.
While Williams hasn’t suffered any major injuries, he has helped others heal from loss. He remembered an incident where a Marine was killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. All of the man’s friends struggled with his death, and Williams was able to go to remote bases to meet and pray with them.
“It meant a lot to them,” he said. “I think having a chaplain do those kinds of things is very important to people.”
Williams, who grew up on a small farm in Illinois, said he felt a calling to the ministry when he was around 12 years old. He later attended Denver Seminary in Denver, Colo. and worked as an associate pastor before he joined the Navy.
“I just really have an affinity for Marines and what they do,” he said. “In my opinion, the ministry is the richest when crisis and tragedy is the greatest.”
Williams’ tour in Afghanistan will be over in the fall. He and his family plan to retire to Kodiak, where he previously served as a chaplain for Coast Guard Base Kodiak for three and a half years.
“Mostly I like the people in Kodiak,” he said. “The straightforward approach to life, the ruggedness of the environment seems to attract a certain rugged person and of course, the beauty of Kodiak.”