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Military

By USMC SSgt. Ryan Smith

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Pieces of Faith in the Heart on the Battlefields
(May 9, 2011)

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FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM II, Nimroz Province, Afghanistan (5/4/2011) -- “Sometimes life can be like an ugly piece of a jigsaw puzzle. When we place our lives into the hands of God, God can take them and put them into a bigger picture to make something beautiful.”
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM II, Nimroz province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan - Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. John Burnette, a Catholic chaplain for Regional Command Southwest, explains the lighting of the candle and blessing of the holy water during the Easter Vigil Mass (April 23, 2011) aboard Forward Operating Base Delaram II, Afghanistan. Burnette has been a chaplain for 10 years and is originally from Tallahassee, Fla. Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andrew Young
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM II, Nimroz province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan - Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. John Burnette, a Catholic chaplain for Regional Command Southwest, explains the lighting of the candle and blessing of the holy water during the Easter Vigil Mass (April 23, 2011) aboard Forward Operating Base Delaram II, Afghanistan. Burnette has been a chaplain for 10 years and is originally from Tallahassee, Fla. Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andrew Young
Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. John Burnette, a Catholic chaplain for Regional Command Southwest, has been helping military members for the past 10 years to understand the Catholic faith and its applications on the battlefield. With the help of the Navy Chaplain Corps, he is doing his best to support service members here.

Burnette, who is originally from Tallahassee, Fla., joined the Navy Chaplain Corps many years after four years of active duty service in the Air Force as an enlisted airman.

“I experienced during my time in
the Air Force the value of chaplains,” said Burnette. “Then during my trips to Haiti and Panama, I interacted with other military personnel and chaplains. An Army chaplain issued an invite for Catholic priests. I thought about it, prayed about it, and asked my bishop, and then in 2001, I was released for service in the Navy.”
Being a Navy reservist, Burnette served time as a priest in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., and was on call for duty abroad. His travels have taken him to Bahrain and Japan, including a combat tour at sea aboard the USS Harry S. Truman during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-2005. Now he is taking care of the men and women of Task Force Leatherneck.

On a daily basis, Marines and sailors are sometimes living in less than suitable conditions and subjecting themselves to all the horrors that come with fighting a war. But even in the worst circumstances, Burnette is there alongside them to keep their faith strong and close to God, despite the chaos that surrounds them.

“As long as our country is asking men and women to go to a foreign country and put their lives on the line and defend liberty, I think it's crucial that priests for the Catholics are sent with them to make sure they get the sacrament, they're grounded in their faith, and they get what they need spiritually. I wouldn't do it otherwise,” said Navy Cmdr. Christopher Fronk, the 2nd Marine Division chaplain with Task Force Leatherneck.

Serving alongside the Marines in areas throughout the battle space imparts a unique perspective to the chaplains working to provide the spiritual guidance needed in a time of war.

“In a real sense it's invigorating,” said Burnette. “I get to move where the Marines are serving, out to the forward operating bases, patrol bases and on convoys -- the Marines and sailors are always welcoming. Because of air travel, I can get stuck in different areas for additional days, but it always works out. It never fails, because of the extra time, I always get at least one or two Marines who now feel more comfortable, and want to talk about what is bothering them: marriage, career, challenges back home.

“I hear so many hopes and dreams -- hopes for the future and dreams about where they want to go and what they want to be,” Burnette added. “They talk about varying topics like faith, college and (the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Program) and wanting to go become officers and lead.”

Overall, Burnette relates his experiences to a saying: “No better friend, No worse enemy.”

“There's a sign in Sangin by the water that says it all,” said Burnette, referring to the saying. “The Marines have a sense of duty like no other. I see up close the ‘no better friend' side when they work with Afghans, (Afghan Uniformed Police) and (Afghan National Army). I see them like friends, working together and teaching them. Also, I see their interactions with the local children and the way they react to them.”

“On patrols, the kids take Marines by the hand like a big brother,” added Burnette. “The kids walk down the streets with them. The Marines enjoy it too. They know how to do their duty but their hearts are as big as houses.”

Even though the chaplains travel continuously through the area of operations, some units aren't as fortunate to have one on staff.

“An army unit out west hadn't had a priest for months, so (Regional Command Southwest) supported them,” said Burnette. “The Italians are in charge of the battle space. The U.S. Army is in charge of logistics. While I was there, I celebrated Mass for the Italian soldiers following the death of an Italian Army lieutenant killed in action. Their commander translated for me and read the scripture readings. He even translated the homily for me.

“The Mass is universal. They were able to answer in Italian and follow along despite the language barrier. It was an honor for me to help their soldiers find some closure,” added Burnette.

The deployed environment can take its toll on those serving, and often service members' grasp on faith is a solid foundation they can seek guidance from in an otherwise very unpredictable and dangerous environment.

“I was with Battalion Landing Team 3/8 when they got here,” said Burnette. “I was pulled back to Leatherneck by God's grace and met the commanding officer and their chaplain. They invited me to come out and be with the Marines. They brought me out on a convoy. I got there late at night and one of the first questions from a young Marine was ‘Are we going to have Mass?'

“Eight Marines attended Mass that night,” continued Burnette. “One Marine who had been in combat operations before had one concern, his wife and two children. The underlying thought during our conversation went unspoken, ‘What will happen if I die?'

“I got up that night and went out to see the Marines before they were inserted into the combat zone,” said Burnette. “For most of these Marines it was their first time in combat. Seeing their resolve and sense of mission, they knew they are part of something bigger.”

The pressures of combat take their toll on Marines serving in the region. Burnette uses his shared understanding of the situation to help service members deal with issues here and at home.

“I have perspective and insight into what military personnel are experiencing,” said Burnette. “It's easier for me to listen because of our shared experiences.

According to Burnette, there are two primary issues Marines seek counsel for: relationships at home and value of the mission.

“The number one issue Marines come to me with is relationship problems at home,” said Burnette. “In spite of issues, they do their duty, but problems at home are big distractions. The second issue revolves around the questions, ‘Will people recognize the value of what I'm doing here?' and ‘Do they appreciate what we are doing risking our lives?' I tell them the people back home really appreciate what you do. The people from my last parish told me before I left to make sure I pass on their appreciation for the troops.”

Rather than looking to faith for answers, for some, the comfort and advice of faith can be all one needs to navigate the rough roads of combat.

“When I was out at Forward Operating Base Edi, I was called back to Musa Qala after a unit had suffered some casualties during a patrol,” said Burnette. “I was asked to assist the Marines through the troubled times.

“Following the patrol, we gathered in the chow hall. The Marines took turns telling stories of the staff sergeant who died and of the other casualties. I told them I would come at this from a Christian perspective, and to deal with grief you can have gratitude for his life and what he brought to the team. Then they need to step back and gain perspective.”

The larger picture can be hard to see here. As each tiny piece of the puzzle is revealed, details are made more evident of where one fits in the grand scheme. Overall, it leads to one passing thought from Burnette.

“We don't always see where those ugly pieces go, but God can make them fit.”

By USMC SSgt. Ryan Smith
Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division
Copyright 2011

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