Father Robert Barnhill from the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska recently returned from two months of active duty as chaplain during this past Advent and Christmas season to military troops stationed overseas. As Lieutenant Colonel Barnhill in the United States Air National Guard, he serves deployed military troops as often as he is able.
“I have volunteered three times in seven years to be overseas during the Advent/Christmas Season,” said Father Barnhill, who is pastor at St. John Parish in Cambridge and St. Germanus Parish in Arapahoe.
He has been a chaplain for the Air National Guard of Nebraska since 1995, when he asked Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln to allow him to become a military chaplain in addition to his regular duties as a diocesan priest.
“The chaplaincy was my response to a sense of patriotism, and my interest in the ministry needs of young military families,” he said, noting that there is an ongoing shortage of Catholic priests in all branches of the U.S. military.
At the time Father Barnhill became a military chaplain, he was director of the Diocesan Family Life Office. For the last seven years that he has been a parish priest, his brother priests step in to substitute for him when he is deployed. His deployments have been fairly short durations – 45 to 60 days at a time – limiting the hardship on his parishes.
“My first duty is to the diocesan priesthood,” he said.
He stays in touch with his parish families while he is deployed by using e-mail. At times, he was even able to handle administrative matters for the parishes through e-mail. He also strove to write a personal letter to each parish family while he was serving a medical base in Southeast Asia during this last tour.
Father Barnhill’s parish families have been very supportive of his military service.
“The parish members have learned to care for many matters in my absence,” he said. “I was grateful for their prayers for me and our service men and women overseas, especially those in harm’s way.”
Parishioners also sent the occasional care package.
“Mail took approximately three weeks to arrive, so I had Christmas cards and gift packages arriving overseas well into January,” Father Barnhill said.
The packages contained snack foods, toiletries and religious articles for distribution to the military personnel he served.
While Advent and Christmas together are a difficult time for any parish to spare a priest, it’s also a difficult time for military personnel, who feel the separation from their families and friends more acutely during the holidays.
During Father Barnhill’s 10 weeks of service to the troops this winter, he celebrated daily or weekend Masses and provided other sacramental needs, along with a second Catholic priest who was assigned to the same base, and chaplains of other faith traditions.
He served multiple branches of the military, including the Air Guard personnel where he was stationed, Army personnel recovering in the medical clinic there and Navy personnel whose planes were stationed on the same base.
Chaplains are frequently called upon to offer invocations at ceremonies. This last tour also brought the opportunity for Father Barnhill to give individualized Catholic instruction to four servicepersons. Each is completing his or her instruction at their home bases.
On this assignment, Father Barnhill helped tend to some of the most difficult parts of military service.
“Our airbase had the sad duty to lead Patriot Details,” he explained, “Prayer services for fallen warriors in Afghanistan whose bodies were being transported back to the USA for burial.”
In addition to that, Father Barnhill counseled personnel who came to the chaplain’s office for confidential assistance with work-related stress, marital problems or other difficulties.
Sometimes a person who walked in would ask specifically for a Catholic priest. More often than not, the chaplains served the personnel regardless of any difference in religious affiliation.
“Some personnel see the chaplain as a morale officer. Some see us as their pastor to care for their spiritual needs,” Father Barnhill explained.
He continued, “Sadly, a good number of the young adult military members have no religious affiliation. They see the chaplain as a staff officer for the base commander.”
Those who recognized him as a Catholic priest or got to know him personally would address him as “Father,” but most of the others would simply address him as “sir” in keeping with his rank as a military officer.
Even among military chaplains, there are some who consider themselves to be officers first and chaplains second.
As Father Barnhill said, however, “The debate is always won by the priest who knows his calling prior to his military commission.”
He encourages all faithful Catholics to remember service men and women in their prayers.
Printed with permission from the Southern Nebraska Register, newspaper for the Diocese of Lincoln.