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CURRENT ISSUE:  November 9, 2009
VOL. 47, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Home loan protests in Antioch draw Bank of America to negotiating table
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Bishops send bulletin inserts to all parishes on health care reform
Former Martinez pastor recounts
Iraq mission as base chaplain

Father Neal Clemens stands amidst ruins of the ancient city of Ur in present day southeastern Iraq.
Father Clemens, the only Catholic chaplain on the base, shared offices with other chaplains.

When Neal Clemens was a 13-year-old public-school student in Martinez, he told his mother that he felt called to be a Catholic priest.

His father, a Presbyterian then employed as a mechanic at Philips Petroleum, had always said his son could do whatever he wanted with his life — except be a mechanic. His mother, a Catholic, thought it wasn’t possible for Neal to become a priest: He had to come from a Catholic school and enter the seminary before he was 13, she told him.

Fortunately, that bit of misinformation did not sidetrack young Neal’s vocation permanently.

He would answer the call to priesthood a bit later in life, after finishing high school and spending 10 years in bakery work. For the last four of those years he was with the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department, where he taught baking skills to inmates at the Marsh Creek Detention Facility and the Richmond Jail. It was a job he had acquired over 100 other applicants because, in his words, “I was the only one who passed the polygraph test.”

The desire to become a priest returned in his later 20s, but “I thought if I waited on it, it might go away,” he said. When it didn’t, he decided to check it out with his pastor at the time, Father Bill Marshall. He hesitated, thinking Father Marshall might dissuade him.

Father Neal Clemens prays with service personnel during Mass at Ali Air Base in southern Iraq.
“So I prayed the night before, ‘God, if you really want me to be a priest, help me here. Have him stand outside the church, and I’ll do everything else,” Father Clemens recalls. “So I drove up, and he was standing outside the church, nobody else around. So I said, ‘OK, God, you did your part, now I’ll do mine.” He found Father Marshall to be “delightful, just wonderful” in guiding his vocation.

After nine years of seminary formation, he was ordained in 2001 and assigned as an associate pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon. A few short months later came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a horrific event that took the lives of two persons related to families in his parish and set in motion the circumstances that would lead to his chaplaincy in the U.S. military.

“When 9/11 happened, [Bishop John Cummins] gave me two weeks to move to St. Michael’s in Livermore because the pastor there [Father Ray Sacca] was a reserve chaplain for the Navy and he would be called back to duty,” said Father Clemens. He was told he would take Father Sacca’s place if he were to go on active duty but would remain at that parish “no matter what.”

Three months later, he received a phone call telling him he was being moved to St. Catherine’s, his home parish in Martinez, as parochial administrator. Not that he minded: “They let me come home and give back to the people who gave me so much,” he said.

Soldiers walk to one of the ancient sites in Iraq, led by Father Clemens.

A great shortage of chaplains

During his years there, Father Clemens got to know many men and women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned of the great shortage of military chaplains, especially Catholic priests. “The more and more I heard that, the more and more I started hearing God say, ‘Give me some of your time to help out with this,’” he said.

His late father had been a World War II veteran who didn’t talk much about his war experiences, but what little he said conveyed the pain and sadness he had witnessed. That and having grown up during the Vietnam War had led Father Clemens to view war “as something painful and something I didn’t want to be involved with.”

Nevertheless, he answered his country’s call, too. He wrote to Oakland Bishop AllenVigneron for permission to apply as an U.S. Air Force chaplain. The bishop phoned him and responded, “Neal, if I say no to you, I won’t be able to sleep at night.” At the time there were no Oakland diocesan priests serving the active-duty military and only one with the reserves.

After passing his physical and completing commissioned officer training at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, Father Clemens was assigned as base chaplain at Whiteman AFB in Missouri. A year and a half later, he was sent to Iraq, where he served from January through July of this year.

“It was a really good experience,” said Father Clemens. “I ended up getting assigned to Ali Air Base in southern Iraq, which is near the city of Ur,” the biblical birthplace of Abraham. During his time there he led dozens of tours of the ancient city, site of the Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur and a reconstruction of Abraham’s home.

Although situated 225 miles southeast of Baghdad, the “ground zero” of the Iraq War, the base was attacked several times by Iraqi insurgents. Explosions sometimes could be heard in the distance as well, and one had to watch for undetonated ordnances on the ground. No one on the base was ever injured or killed in these attacks, although Father Clemens did officiate at an honor ceremony for an airman who had died in a vehicular accident.

Father Clemens stayed on the base the entire six months, but it was a very large base that had sections for the Air Force, Navy and Army as well as international forces from Romania and Uganda. As the only Catholic priest on the base, his weekend routine was to celebrate Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses with the Air Force and later Sunday Masses with the Navy and Army. He also would celebrate weekday Masses, including a Friday Mass for the Ugandans on base.

He said the Ugandans surprised him at his first Mass by breaking out in applause at the elevation of the Eucharist. They later explained to Father Clemens that the clapping was to take the place of the altar bells that would normally be rung at that point in the Mass.

“The Ugandans are wonderful, especially when celebrating Mass,” he said. “There was so much reverence. I had never seen anything like it. It was quite moving.”

Pastor and counselor

Father Clemens didn’t see much of the war, but he got a good long look at the battles within. He witnessed the stresses and difficulties the deployed men and women of the Armed Forces and their families go through during their separation. Spouses sometimes poured out their exasperations by phone or e-mail; soldiers had stresses of their own and felt badly that they could not be home to help resolve the daily crises taking place. “Dear John” letters were not uncommon.

He said the base had a “hot spot” with computers and webcams where military personnel could contact family members using the Skype voice-over-Internet service.

“Almost every time I went in there, I would find somebody who was having a heated argument with their spouse back home,” said Father Clemens. “It’s impossible to really communicate when you’re on the other side of the world… You have your deployed universe where you can’t express the things you go through back home, and they’re thinking of problems with the house, the kids, the car . . . and everyone gets frustrated.”

He often would counsel service personnel who were experiencing these issues as well as those contemplating the deeper issues of war. “Sometimes, when attacks would happen, some people who were ‘rattled’ needed to sit down and talk about life and death,” he said.

Chaplains enjoy what the military calls “privileged communication,” which allows them to maintain a strict confidentiality with service personnel. “So if they feel suicidal or afraid, they can say whatever they want to a chaplain, and we can’t share it, but we can find them help,” said Father Clemens. “It allows them to have someone they can approach without fear of consequences.”

Father Clemens didn’t say there were no atheists in foxholes, but he did state that military men and women generally “are far more open to looking at their spiritual life.”

The exceptions were some of the younger soldiers. “On their first deployment, they’re still in the rock-n-roll mode,” he said. “But once they’re there awhile, their attitude starts to change, and they start asking the big questions about God, and you see a deep development of faith.”

It’s a development that does not always become permanent, however. “Some probably come home and continue to grow spiritually, while others probably chalk it up as part of the military experience and don’t really let it change them,” said Father Clemens. “Sometimes people fall back into the old routines. Faith is a hard challenge for people to meet.”

What’s next

Now back at Whiteman AFB, Father Clemens is unsure of what the future holds for him. He expects to be reassigned to another base next year, and he would like to have one more deployment. But he doesn’t see the military chaplaincy as his career and expects to return to the Oakland Diocese to resume parish ministry.

“As much as the military chaplaincy would love to have me for 20 years, right now I don’t think God is calling me to spend that length of time with the Air Force,” he said.

“That’s what I think and say now, but it’s God who always has the big picture. I don’t.”

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