Philadelphia’s Father Joseph Coffey prays with soldiers fighting in Afghanistan

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Military chaplains stationed in the field are used to long days and often cover great distances as part of their ministry, but Christmas can be especially exhausting. Certainly, Lt. Commander Joseph Coffey, a Philadelphia priest and Navy chaplain serving with the Marines in Afghanistan, found this to be true.

“It started off on Christmas Eve with an 8 p.m. Mass at Leatherneck Chapel Number 2,” he said in a telephone interview Dec. 26. Leatherneck is a huge Marine Corps complex adjacent to Camp Bastion, a British base where he lives.

That first Mass, before a congregation of about 100, was followed by a well attended midnight Mass in a much larger chapel. Christmas morning saw a 9:30 a.m. Mass at a nearby U.S. Army Chapel, then on to Camp Barber for an 11 a.m. Mass for Marines, and finally a 4 p.m. Mass at Camp Leatherneck.

That was five Masses in less than 24, hours and “I was tired, completely wiped out. All priests will understand that,” Father Coffey said.

One thing in his favor was the fact that all of these Masses were within a relatively short distance.

Although he is attached to Marine Wing Support Squadron 372, his congregation is far-reaching because there are not many Catholic chaplains in Afghanistan.

On Dec. 27 Father Coffey was scheduled to leave Leatherneck for a nine-day tour visiting FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Travel time is relative to the mode of transportation. The trip out to the area of the FOBs is probably about 15 minutes in a C-130 – a large turboprop Air Force plane. If it were by land convoy, the same trip would be nine hours.

Because of the danger of mines on the road, land travel is usually by MRAP (mine-resistant personnel carrier) which Father Coffey explained is a super heavily armored, very futuristic vehicle that looks very much like something out of a Mad Max movie.

Father Coffey has been in Afghanistan since September and most of his travel has been by helicopter, perhaps a Navy CH53 Sea Lion, an Army Blackhawk, or most recently by Marine V22 Osprey – the recently introduced hybrid aircraft that cruises like an airplane and takes off and lands like a helicopter.

While there is always danger on the roads there is less in winter.

“When we got here in September the days were well into 100 degrees,” Father Coffey said. “Now the nights are very, very cold and there seems to be a lot less activity when it is cold, which is fine by me. From what I can gather from news reports we tend not to have as many casualties, something we can be thankful for.”

The Christmas season can be a stressful time for the young men and women serving abroad in the military because for some it is the first time in their life away from home during the holidays.

“I talk to some of them and tell them the importance of what they are doing. I just try to cheer them up a little and be a morale booster. All in all, I didn’t see anyone who was overly upset, so I think the guys are pretty strong,” he said.

Certainly, the military does all it can to keep the troops’ spirits up. The food is more than adequate, Father Coffey said. Christmas meant turkey, ham, stuffing, pumpkin pie, ice cream and all the other trimmings. “The taxpayers are providing very good chow for us, and we are very grateful,” Father Coffey said.

Communication with the folks at home is quite different than in past wars.

“We have a very good phone center where we can have telephones and computers,” Father Coffey said.

“In the computers they can ‘Skype’ (a voice and video communications web site) their families and actually see their families on the computer screen. Some also check their Facebook account pretty regularly so it’s a new, modern kind of warfare; there is no longer waiting months for letters,” he said.

“This kind of instant communication with families is a mixed blessing. I always tell the guys who are married, ‘Do not argue with your wife by e-mail. It’s not a good idea.'”

On a personal note, on Christmas day Father Coffey was able to call home and talk to his mother. Through Skype he saw his mother, seven of his brothers and sisters, their spouses and about 38 of his 45 nieces and nephews on the computer screen.

“It was pretty exciting. They all got a chance to stand in front of the computer and say Merry Christmas to Uncle Joe,” he said.

On the whole he believes the troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are receiving a lot more support from the people back home than those who served in Vietnam.

“They got a much different reaction when they came home than we are getting,” he said. “I think the American people in general, even if they don’t like the war – no one likes war – are really supporting the troops. We are getting many CARE packages and people are saying they are praying for us.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.