By Ed Brock
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien has a large congregation, one that is often in harm's way and needs the support not only of their priests but also of the people they're fighting to defend.
O'Brien is the Archbishop for Military Services, and on Tuesday he said mass for the portion of his flock stationed at Army Garrison Forts McPherson and Gillem. Then he sat down with them for an early Thanksgiving dinner.
"They set the pace and they set the tone for the rest of our country," O'Brien said. "I think we need to tell them that."
A former Army chaplain who served in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Cavalry Brigade, O'Brien was appointed to the position he holds now in 1997. A native of the Bronx in New York, O'Brien now lives in Washington, D.C.
Tuesday was his first visit to the forts.
"This seems like a very tight, close knit community. A very caring one, I think," O'Brien said.
During Tuesday's mass, which was followed by a luncheon, O'Brien talked about the need to recruit more priests for the chaplain services that must minister to the 1.5 million Catholics in O'Brien's archdiocese. That includes all branches of the military with civilian employees of the Department of Defense.
"We need 800 (priests) in uniform for all the Armed Services and we have 400," O'Brien said.
One way to address the issue is to get more locations to recruit young men who are finishing their military tour, O'Brien said.
"What greater thing can you do then give yourself to the needs of those who need you the most," O'Brien said.
That was one part of O'Brien's speech that stuck with 64-year-old Bob Kelly of Morrow. Kelly was stationed at Fort McPherson for two years before retiring.
"He really was inspiring," Kelly said about O'Brien. "I was very impressed."
Kelly's wife Mary Ann Kelly was equally excited about the visit.
"Just the opportunity to meet him," Mary Ann Kelly said. "You don't get to meet an archbishop all the time."
The war in Iraq has highlighted the need for chaplain services. While O'Brien said he is concerned about the stress the war puts on military families, he said that, when asked about the morale of the troops, he answers that it is good.
"I think the people over there see the good that is being done," O'Brien said.
They would rather be home, O'Brien said, but they are willing to make the sacrifice needed to finish the mission, a mission he believes will have an impact on the next few centuries of history.
As for the role of religion in the conflict, O'Brien cited a recent survey that showed that 80 percent of the American people think the root cause of the conflict is political and socioeconomic and religion is involved only as a matter of geography.
"I think the call of all religious people has been for peace, at least in the Western world, and it will continue to be," O'Brien said.
And O'Brien urges all Americans to show their support for the troops.
O'Brien's visit was welcomed by Fort McPherson's chaplain services staff, including Staff Sgt. Greg Starling. They have also been busier since the war began, especially in helping troops who have recently returned from the war.
"You've got a lot of soldiers who are married and they've been overseas a while, they have to settle back into their marriage," Starling said.
Spc. William Lang, who is stationed at Fort Gillem, returned last month from serving in Kuwait where he had been since March.
"You get kind of depressed over there. You need someone to talk to," Lang said, adding that the issues can range from family matters to the war itself. "It just depends on what's bothering you more."