Military Chaplains in Italy Touching Lives
For weeks, Italy was headline news as tens of thousands of Italians — and especially the elderly — fell victim to the coronavirus. The country went into a “survival-mode” lockdown in early March in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. What many may not realize is that the United States has several military bases in Italy, and Italian restrictions impact U.S. military personnel as well.
Three chaplains, endorsed by AG U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries
, are currently serving their respective military branches on U.S. or NATO bases in Italy. Due to the pandemic, their ability to meet personally with military personnel has been greatly restricted. In addition to creatively finding ways to meet needs on base, they’ve become aware of and have responded to needs outside of the base: Reaching out to civilians who are — or have become — poverty-stricken.
“Italy went into ‘phase one’ of lockdown at the beginning of March,” says Chaplain Michael McDonald, stationed at the Aviano Air Base in northeast Italy. “The national and regional Italian decrees outlined that no one was allowed to leave their house unless it was for essentials, such as working — which was limited — medical emergencies, and essentials like groceries. Outdoor activities were also banned. Restaurants were able to only conduct business though delivery services. Grocery stores in the local area and on base are limited to one person per family and only essential items are permitted to be bought.”
With these restrictions and the pandemic’s impact upon the world, travel becomes very difficult. If a military member receives a Red Cross call (an immediate family member near death or unexpectedly died), the logistics to getting home are daunting.
Captain Richard Hartenberg, chaplain at the U.S. Army base at Caserma (Camp) Ederle in Vicenza, which is less than 50 miles west of Venice, explains that when Emergency Status is requested in order to travel home, it can take a week or more for a decision to be rendered.
“It will also be a challenge to find a round-trip flight as there as so few,” Hartenberg says. “You’ll likely be in a 14-day quarantine when you arrive, you’ll be unable to visit loved ones in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions, funerals may not be able to take place due to civil limits, and when you return to Italy, you’ll again be in quarantine for 14 days.”
This is a time where a chaplain is often called upon as leave is not always granted, and even if it is, opportunities for in-person farewells/closure may not be permitted. But it’s not just Red Cross calls that can leave military personnel dealing with frustration and depression, McDonald says that the pandemic has created “spare time” for contemplation.
“The reality of isolation and loneliness has exacerbated needs that airmen had not previously examined,” he notes. “Airmen and families needed (and continue to need) personal connections, and this has led to extremely high counseling loads (for chaplains).”
CDR. Gary Foshee is command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Support Activity in Naples, located about 140 miles south of Rome on Italy’s west coast. As with McDonald and Hartenberg, his ministry quickly switched to online services. However, as he also has a large OCONUS (Outside Continental U.S.) chapel program that spreads over several bases, he also oversees contracted kids and youth directors that run programs for military personnel families.
“In addition to online services for military personnel, we’re also working with the kids and youth directors to maintain an online presence for their children,” Foshee says.
NEIGHBORS IN NEED
Much like every country, the poverty-stricken and the Italians who lived from paycheck to paycheck (prior to the lockdown and then lost their jobs), have suffered the most. Whereas U.S. military men and women based in Italy can have confidence in meals and sleeping arrangements, that’s not the case for all of their neighbors.
However, in working with local community organizations, McDonald, Hartenberg, and Foshee are all involved with efforts to provide food for those less fortunate.
“Since the COVID19 emergency started, the number of families in need has drastically increased,” McDonald says. “We began a relief fund for military personnel to support Caritas Diocesana di Concordia-Prodenone, a local ministry, if they so choose. In addition to food, Caritas also provides a place for the homeless to sleep.”
Hartenberg says that at his post they actively look for ways to help their Italian friends, such as providing food to needy Italian families.
Foshee was inspired to start a food drive for the Naples area.
“We have been able to bless numerous families and charities in the region,” Foshee says. “We have partnered with the community to make weekly donations . . . we are delivering about two pallets of food a week to different organizations who make sure the food goes to those truly in need.”
The heart of a chaplain is the heart of a pastor, where compassion for the hurting rises to the top and responding with the love of Christ is a salve for all. The responses to the chaplains’ efforts in their communities have been ones of gratitude and appreciation.
“We’re here to support our military personnel as well as the local community,” Foshee states about those serving as or assisting chaplains in the military. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives for Christ, we want to be a part of that.”