As armed members of the military lay on top of houses and walls and scanned the horizon to guard as others visited with townspeople, the Rev. Michael Frese felt it was important to be alongside those soldiers.
The U.S. Army chaplain said it was a great opportunity to not only give them another set of eyes but a chance to chat about family back home, their religious beliefs, what they missed about home and what they were going to do when they returned home.
“If the chaplain stays behind the fence in his tent while his soldiers are out every day pulling patrols, how are you supposed to build a relationship?” Frese said. “My assistant and I took it upon ourselves to be out there where our soldiers were.”
Story continues below gallery
That’s one of the reasons chaplains are needed in the military service, Frese said.
“We need to be engaged with a unit in a way that a parish pastor just can’t be,” he said. “A parish pastor is called to serve his parish. Chaplains need to be embedded in the military so that they can go out and build relationships with their soldiers, their sailors, their airmen, their Marines and be there in those difficult times in life.”
Frese was the keynote speaker during Wednesday’s Veterans Day program at Trinity Lutheran High School in Seymour. From January 2011 to January 2012, he was stationed in Afghanistan as a military chaplain with an infantry unit out of Fort Knox, Kentucky.
In February 2014, Frese received the Purple Heart, a combat decoration given to those wounded in battle, for injuries sustained during his deployment.
He currently serves as base chaplain at the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard and as associate pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne.
Frese said chaplains exist in the military to make sure everyone has the right to practice their faith.
“Even though chaplains don’t carry guns or grenades into battle because we are noncombatants, we go to war with the sword of the spirit, with the word of God,” he said.
The unit with which Frese served was the first to be placed in an area of Afghanistan near the border of Pakistan. That area has high mountain ranges and contained some of the only routes for munitions for the Taliban to be brought into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
The homes had mud walls ranging from 12 to 20 feet high surrounding them to serve as protection.
“My unit was the first to be placed into this area to cut off these roads for munitions coming to Afghanistan,” Frese said. “We had five different locations, which we used to run 24-hour operations to go out and secure the local population and to push the Taliban out of that area.”
Frese was the sole provider of religious support for 1,200 people in a task force that incorporated the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel and civilians. That included mortarmen to support troops on the ground in contact with the enemy and a platoon of snipers.
Twenty-four hours a day for 12 months, Frese had an armed assistant who served as his bodyguard. One of their duties was to prepare chapel.
“Preparing a place in the midst of war that will be a place away where a soldier could pray, could worship, could find a moment of peace in meditation, in prayer, in Bible study, chapel was a very important place for us to set up in this area of chaos,” he said.
Chapel was a place to hear a friendly voice and an understanding ear, and also it was a time for camaraderie and relaxation, Frese said.
“We would have the chapel open and make sure that one of us was available to talk to them, to pray with them and to be there for them,” he said. “They knew where they could go for that kind of support.”
During chapel and Bible study, Frese said, sharing the Word of God with soldiers who were facing dangerous situations every day was important.
“Even though the world was against them and they were facing harsh circumstances that could end up taking their lives or wounding them for life, they needed to hear that the Lord was with them in those times, as well,” he said.
Another task for Frese was teaming with the Afghan Army chaplain. They did joint operations where they talked to community members and asked if there was anything they could do to help them in the practice of their religion.
“We tried to make good relationships with the local members and showed them that we weren’t there to be hostile, we weren’t there to take away their religion,” Frese said. “We were there to support them in the faith that they held. Those were rewarding meetings that I was able to do with that chaplain.”
Frese said serving as a chaplain has meant a lot to him.
“I have been honored to serve with some very heroic men and women who have done some things that I could have never thought humanly possible,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. I give to them, but I learned things through them that I would have never learned had I not had those experiences.”
Being with soldiers who faced the danger of deployment and talking to them about life, family, death and eternal life was a life-changing experience, Frese said.
“It gives you a deeper understanding into the spirit of what our men and women in the military face every day,” he said. “It’s something I can’t really even put into words the benefit that I received having served with these men and women overseas.”