By Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 5, 2007 - From sitting down to lunch with Afghan mullahs, or Islamic leaders, to performing Catholic Mass for international servicemembers, one Air Force chaplain is experiencing a deployment here in Kabul that is very different than others he's had in the past. "I've been deployed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey, amongst others," said Lt. Col. Michael Weber, garrison chaplain for Camp Eggers. "But this is the first time I've deployed to a war zone for a mission this diverse."
As the garrison chaplain for this camp, in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city, Weber provides religious and spiritual support for the joint military population serving the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan.
He also supports Navy Capt. James Fisher, the command chaplain, who dedicates his time to the religious and cultural affairs ministry, which mentors and trains the Afghan military and police chaplain corps.
It's a position that urgently needed to be filled after the Army chaplain originally assigned here suffered a heart attack last month, said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Fred Hays, religious program specialist and Weber's assistant.
"An improvised explosive device detonated on the right side of our vehicle while we were outside the wire," said Hays. "Fortunately, nobody was injured, but the chaplain suffered a heart attack a few days later and was medically evacuated."
That's when Weber volunteered to come here.
"I was fulfilling a deployment obligation in Tampa, Florida [at MacDill Air Force Base at U.S. Central Command], "he said. "Word came back that they needed a chaplain here. I saw this as an opportunity to get some more experience in a war zone, so that later when I counsel war veterans, I would be able to relate better to what they've been through."
Though Weber has been in country only for a few weeks, he's already found himself dressed in full "battle-rattle", or body armor, accompanying Fisher outside the wire to meet with local mullahs as part of the religious and cultural affairs ministry program.
"If we do not win the mullahs, we will not win this war," said Fisher, referring to the Islamic leaders of the local villages. "Once we gain their trust, then the people will trust us, too."
Weber said his first meeting with the mullahs really helped in understanding the Afghan culture.
"This is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," he said. "Their entire culture and way of life is based upon their religion. Even though mine is a different religion, they saw me as a religious person and they respected that. There was a sense of camaraderie. We both understand the importance of religion in people's lives and because of that, we were able to come together and share ideas."
Sharing ideas is exactly the mission of the religious and cultural affairs ministry with U.S. military chaplains acting as mentors to their Afghan counterparts. Similar to U.S. military chaplains, the Afghan chaplain corps provides religious support to its servicemembers. That includes family services, counseling and morale, welfare and recreation services, all while being mindful of the Islamic way of life.
"We're also helping them develop educational programs within their corps," said Weber. "This country has a high illiteracy rate amongst its population, so the [religious and cultural affairs ministry] is trying to develop programs to help build literacy."
When not traveling for the religious and cultural affairs ministry, Weber is dedicated to providing traditional chaplain support to Camp Egger's population of U.S. and international servicemembers.
"For as long as anyone can recall, there hasn't been a Catholic chaplain here," said Hays. "Yet, there is a large number of Catholics serving here."
Once Weber arrived, he and Hays set up a Catholic Mass schedule. Religious services here are normally held in a room inside a two-story "con-ex" building during the week, but the first weekend Catholic Mass attracted about 70 people, requiring it to be held in the garrison's "clamshell" or large multi-purpose tent.
"With the stress level out here, it's important for people to be around things that are familiar to them," said Weber. "By providing them an outlet for their faith, to bring them the traditions of their faith, that helps them cope with issues of separation."
Weber said that while being in a war zone is stressful, he's thankful for the opportunity to serve here.
"I'm part of a large team which is experiencing similar fears," he said. "There is a distinct mission. It's important that people understand we are not here to occupy this land. Instead, we are supporting the Afghan people and it's a unique experience to see those efforts bearing fruit. You can't get that kind of satisfaction elsewhere."
(U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein is a journalist assigned to U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs.)