Mission of hope

Father Patrick Travers completes seven-month deployment in Afghanistan

Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hope can sometimes be in short supply for troops serving in war zones, but that's where Air Force Maj. Patrick J. Travers comes in. Providing hope is his specialty, particularly during the bleakest of times.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Known as Father Travers to his Juneau parish at St. Paul's, a Catholic church in the Mendenhall Valley, the 58-year-old Air Force Reserves chaplain returned home last week from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan, his third overseas in the last six years.

Though it was his first deployment to that region, Travers knows the routine all too well, spending time in Iraq in 2004 and later, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2007. He volunteered for the Afghanistan deployment, fearing that it might be his last chance to serve troops overseas before being forced to the sidelines.

"I thought that it would probably be good for me to volunteer sooner rather than later, partly because I'm approaching retirement age for the military, and because the need in Afghanistan seemed to be growing," he said Thursday, two days after arriving back in Juneau. "I wanted to make God present in a situation of tremendous violence and evil, and remind others there is hope - in both human relationships and our faith in salvation."

Assigned to the 4/77 Fighter Group at Elmendorf Air Base, he was part of a Joint Task Force under the Army's 82nd Airborne Division during the most recent deployment.

Travers' mission was one of emotional and spiritual uplifting. At Bagram Air Field where he was stationed, about 70 miles north of Kabul, he led mass - sometimes in a chapel, other times in converted military-issue tents - counseled soldiers and Department of Defense civilian workers, provided last rights to Catholic soldiers killed in action and offered a sympathetic ear to those wounded.

"(Chaplains) give troops a chance to unload about what was happening in their lives, and ... to provide practical help and introduce a note of hope," he said. "Sometimes that would be hard, especially with someone who was badly wounded."

"For those who are in extreme pain, it was about being there and offering gestures, like the sacraments and communion. For those who were in less pain, it was letting them talk about what happened and trying to express a deep interest in what they were going through."

As a military chaplain, his conversations with troops were "as close to absolute confidentiality" as can be found in the military. Some sought spiritual guidance, while others needed a little sage wisdom.

"I'd encourage people to talk to us (chaplains), even if their problem wasn't religious," Travers said. "They could talk with us and know that anything they told us wouldn't go any farther, and we could refer them to those who could help."

Even military chaplains need a lifeline back home, and Travers found his in phone calls to his father, letters to siblings and weekly updates to his parish at St. Paul's. Retired Catholic Priest Peter Gorges filled in for Travers during his deployment.

Travers missed the familiarity and safety of Juneau, along with the relationships he built here dating back to the 1970s, before attending seminary while working in Juneau as an attorney for NOAA. He said there was one other Catholic priest at the base he palled around with, along with troops involved with church activities he could confide in.

Many of the wounded troops Travers would visit with were injured by Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. He recalled one encounter with a Polish unit hit by an IED. Because of the language barrier, Travers communicated with the Polish troops in Latin as much as possible.

"Some were killed, some were badly injured, and others were less badly injured, and I was with them in the hospital and dealing with the Polish liaisons there," he said. "It struck me because I was administering to people who in some ways were so different from me, but they were in the same situation and shared the same faith."

Bridging the language barrier was a frequent challenge. Travers would travel around the country several times each month, often to Eastern and Northern regions of Afghanistan. He visited a New Zealand base in the Bamyan province, spent Christmas Eve at a Polish base in Ghazni, and participated in a mass in Warsaw.

"They celebrated Christmas very well," he said of the Polish troops. "They had their traditional foods for Christmas Eve, and we had a midnight mass."

Militry chaplains don't carry weapons of any type, but Travers said being unarmed "didn't really bother me." He understood the danger, and randomness, of violence associated with serving. He also believed in the power of prayer, witnessing a few miracles firsthand.

"There was that sense that at any moment something could come through your tent and kill you," he said. "The randomness of the violence ... really hit home. There was one particularly dangerous situation on Valentine's Day when a rocket went right into the middle of a hut and into a hallway, but it didn't explode. Had it exploded, it would have killed about a dozen people.

"There were a number of instances like that. I was convinced that prayer for the safety of people there is very valuable."

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