By Katie Camario, Catholic News Service
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (CNS) — Father Eric Albertson said he felt called to serve God and country, and as a military chaplain he is doing just that.
The U.S. Army colonel and Purple Heart recipient has served alongside troops in Iraq and other war zones and currently is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and is the command chaplain for the U.S. Special Operations Command.
“All I wanted to do was go in the Army, but the calling to the priesthood was so strong and so profound,” Father Albertson told Gulf Coast Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
He was ordained for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, in 1986 and served there for seven years before seeking an Army commission as a chaplain.
Father Albertson and other Catholic priest-chaplains serve on loan to the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services from their home diocese or religious order and are released for a term of military service.
Once a priest receives the endorsement and the subsequent faculties of the military archdiocese, he becomes a commissioned military officer of the United States. The Office of the Chief of Chaplains of each respective branch of the U.S. military provides a priest’s assignments.
Ministering to military members is different from the parish setting where everyone flocks to the church, according to Father Albertson.
“In the military setting, the congregation is there, and we’re inserted into the congregation,” he said.
That means wearing their uniform, being in their world, speaking their acronym-filled language and sharing their risks. He has been in dangerous and difficult situations in the middle of cold nights as soldiers are digging trenches.
But that’s where he’s needed.
Taking the Eucharist to the troops is essential. For some, he said, it is their last holy Communion: their viaticum, the Eucharist given to a person in danger of death.
Such was the case for an Army specialist, an infantryman, who received Communion and the sacrament of penance from Father Albertson. One week later, he was tragically killed in the line of duty. When the battalion returned home from deployment, Father Albertson shared what happened with his relatives.
“His family didn’t know, so they were greatly comforted that he had been able to go to confession and receive Communion a few days before he was killed in action,” said Father Albertson.
The priest has had his own close calls in a combat zone. He credits his survival to angelic protection.
“There have been a number of times when I’m celebrating Mass and we’re coming under fire. Everybody gets down and we wait until the barrage is over,” said Father Albertson. “God and the angels were watching over us and we were hit a lot, but 90% of the rockets and mortars didn’t do anything except to make a hole in the ground.”
Back in the U.S., it has been difficult for Father Albertson and his close friends who watched as active-duty members made their final exit out of Afghanistan.
For Veterans Day, he wanted to send a message of positivity to veterans who may be struggling with what happened.
“We did plant the seeds of freedom there, and the country experienced a significant reprieve from oppression, a lot of good was done. Good things can come from good efforts,” said Father Albertson. “Veterans have a spirit of selfless service and a willingness to sacrifice for a cause bigger than themselves and that is noble and worthy of respect.”
The Diocese of St. Petersburg currently has one priest on loan to the U.S. military archdiocese. Father Ryan Boyle has been serving as an active-duty chaplain for three years and is currently stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.