Alaska priest talks of service in Iraq

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2005

KETCHIKAN #&151; A U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane twisted and dived through a midnight Iraqi sky last June, maneuvering sharply to avoid any fire from the ground as the plane prepared to land.

The Rev. Pat Travers, a Catholic priest in an Air Force Reserve uniform, sat strapped to his seat in the aircraft's belly and contemplated his upcoming service as a chaplain at the U.S. base in Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

An insurgent rocket had blown up a munitions dump at the base a couple of days earlier. CNN video of the huge explosions had flashed on TV monitors as the chaplain passed through the terminal at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to Iraq.

Seeing the damage was sobering, but he didn't have a sense of foreboding until the C-17 began its roller-coaster descent into Kirkuk. He noticed later the pilot wore a flack jacket.

That, he said, ''was a remind-er that we were in a very different situation.'' A situation very far away from Ketchikan, where Travers had then served as pastor of the Holy Name Catholic Church for five years.

Travers' plane landed safely that June night and he spent the next three months in Kirkuk before returning to Southeast Alaska.

''In the end, it was just a peak experience of ministry, my priesthood,'' Travers said. ''I truly felt I was where I needed to be, where God was calling me to be.''

Travers has been in the Air Force Reserve since attending seminary and has served as a chaplain for 12 years.

His current reserve unit is the 446th Airlift Wing stationed at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash. When the Air Force asked the 446th to staff three of four positions at the Kirkuk base chapel, Travers was assigned to go, along with Gary Ranson, the 446th's wing chaplain, and Lori McCracken, a chaplain's assistant. Travers said he wanted to serve in Iraq.

''I was looking forward to it in the sense that I knew it was a place in which ministry was very important,'' Travers said.

Still, he was nervous about the dangers. He spent a lot of time praying about it before going and continued to do so after arriving in Kirkuk and experiencing the regular rocket attacks on the base.

"I personally had to come to grips very much with the possibility that I would die, that I wouldn't be coming back to Ketchikan,'' he said.

The situation required him to be certain of why he was there, said Travers.

''Even though I was in the military, I was there primarily as a priest, to bring God's presence into that situation of death, that situation of violence,'' he said. ''I just really worked to make sure that I was approaching it in that spirit, that spirit of offering the Lord myself, potentially my life, in order to make him present in that situation.

''As I prayed over it more and more in those terms, it became easier to deal with.''

During Travers time there, about 1,000 U.S. Air Force and 2,500 Army personnel were stationed at Kirkuk. Another 1,500 people, mostly non-Iraqis, were employed at the base.

Travers began his work soon after his arrival.

''Most of the duties were the same as I have here at Holy Name,'' he said, including celebrating Catholic Mass at the Air Force and Army chapels on the base. Photos show Travers wearing desert camouflage vestments for the services. He'd also celebrate Mass in the dining facility for the nonmilitary workers, many of whom were Filipino or Indian. Once a week, he'd travel by supply convoy to Army forward-operating bases to celebrate Mass and do counseling and confessions.

Most troops were in their late teens to mid-20s, said Travers, adding that their spiritual awareness and participation in religious activities were higher than the average.

Also unexpected was the troops' reluctance to talk about combat during counseling.

''There's a tremendous amount of peer pressure among troops #&151; sort of a macho thing not to express fears or emotion about the dangers of the situation,'' he said.

Most counseling issues raised by troops were family matters such as marital and financial situations, he said.

He found that the Internet has significant role in the lives of military personnel stationed in Iraq, he said. Most troops have Internet and e-mail access that allows them to stay in almost daily communication with family and friends, he said.

There were about 30 rocket attacks while Travers was working in Kirkuk. Sometimes he could hear the whooshing sound of an approaching rocket. Other times, he'd hear just the thud as a rocket hit. Alarms would sound. He'd put on his body armor and helmet, and, if he was in his office, roll under his desk. Chaplains are not allowed to carry weapons.

''There were some incidents that occurred where we had the strong sense if it hadn't been for those prayers, if it weren't perhaps for a little divine intervention, that a rocket might have fallen a few feet either way that would have hurt or killed some people,'' he said.

Travers was called upon to say last rites for an Army soldier killed at one of the forward bases, and for an Air Force member who died in a rocket attack at the base. Before going to Iraq, Travers had accompanied some reservists who handle mortuary affairs to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of military personnel killed overseas are returned to the United States.

When Travers returned to Ketchikan and his duties at Holy Name, his thoughts lingered on the troops he had ministered to in Kirkuk, and who would remain there for several more months.

''I was very much aware of them still being there, and so, amid all the happiness of being back, I did have this very strong sense of connection with them,'' he said.

Travers offered at least one of the church's Masses each weekend for those troops until they left Iraq last February.

He remains a member of the Air Force Reserve and goes to the McChord Air Force Base once a month. If the need arises, Travers said, he hopes to be able to serve in the field again.

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