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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vocation Story part 2 - Air Force

As I was undergoing the preparation for Confirmation, I said that my plan included going to college and getting a degree right after high school. That plan changed fairly quickly as I started getting the recruiting packages from colleges and universities throughout the country. I became overwhelmed with the different schools that I could choose from and the different majors that were available to me.

While that was bad enough, I also started looking at the costs associated with these schools and became even more overwhelmed. You see, I wasn't what one would call the most dedicated student in the world. I pulled fairly decent grades, but I was not applying myself for anything. A few subjects I enjoyed, like Math, Science, Band and Choir, and was rewarded with good grades in those classes. Other classes, such as English, weren't my favorites and the grades suffered accordingly.

As I started to look at the costs of colleges and universities, I realized that full-ride scholarships probably weren't in my future. I just didn't have the grades, and it was all but impossible to be in the top ten percent of your class when you were one of only 31 members. I started to look for other options, and found it at a college fair in a neighboring town.

I think most people are familiar with the concept of a college fair. All the colleges that are trying to recruit high school seniors gather in a school gymnasium and give out free pens, brochures and other goodies to try sign up as many potential students on their mailing lists as possible. My school was too small to hold its own college fair, and instead joined several other small towns in Sidney, MT, for a larger fair.

I was walking around this fair, talking with representatives from both major Montana universities and looking at the smaller colleges that were there, when I came to a booth that had been placed underneath the basketball hoop at one end of the gym. It was the United States Air Force, an option I hadn't considered, and a well-dressed military recruiter was visiting with a couple of other high schoolers. I went over and started looking at the all the information he had available. The other students left, and he started talking with me for a few minutes. My interest was peaked, especially over the college money available through the Air Force, and gave him my contact information.

Over the next couple of months, I met with him a couple of times when he would make his rounds through the northeast corner of Montana. The more we talked, the more interested I became in the Air Force. My parents were concerned, as I think most parents are when their children start talking about joining the military, but were supportive. I eventually decided that this was what I needed to do after high school, and began the paperwork and physicals. Little did I know the effect this would have on how I would grow in my faith.

The rest of my Senior year continued as expected. People around town were surprised that I would consider the Air Force, as I wasn't the most athletic person in the world (I'm still not). The recruiter kept in touch throughout the time of waiting for graduation and my date to ship out for Basic Training. It was a time of anticipation both for the end of high school and start of a new life, and the Faith still wasn't an important aspect in my life. It was there, just not very important.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, graduation came and went, and my date for Basic Training arrived. I went off to Basic Training, with the expected tears from Mom, and the world changed. Anyone who has ever been through one of the training programs when entering the military can tell horror stories about their time at Boot, Basic, or whatever the military branch calls it.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and it may be true, but there are also no atheists at Basic Training. On Sunday morning, we were given the option to go to services or clean the barracks. What do you think most of us chose? My Mass attendance at Basic was exemplary, didn't miss once in the six weeks of training. All the Catholics were given a cheap Rosary during Chapel orientation, and I actually carried it with me throughout the entire training. I don't remember praying it once, but I did carry it.

Following Basic, I went to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS, for the technical training for my Air Force job, computer programmer. While I was there, learning a bunch of great stuff about programming computers, I started to wane slightly on Mass attendance. It wasn't as crucial that I be out of the barracks on Sunday morning, and could even start to sleep in on weekends after a couple of weeks. I've always liked my sleep-in time, and I could get away with it a couple of days a week, so Mass suffered. Besides, the base chapel was a pretty good walk from the training dorms, a walk I really didn't want to make too badly on some Sundays, so sometimes I didn't go to Mass.

I completed my technical training more or less without incident on Thanksgiving Day, and flew home to visit my parents before heading off to my first duty station, Scott AFB in southern Illinois. I'd like to say I wanted to go to Mass when I was home visiting because of my desire to receive the Eucharist in my home parish, but mostly I wanted to go in order to show off the uniform. There's not much that'll get more respect in most small towns in America than coming back dressed in a military uniform. Yep, I had earned the uniform, and Mass was the perfect reason to show it off. The priest even welcomed me back at the beginning. Definitely not the most pious and spiritual reason to go, I admit.

Following my short leave, I reported to my unit at Scott, and began to settle into my dorm room. After a couple of weeks, I decided that I should walk over to the chapel and check it out, especially since it was only two or three blocks away. Looking around the vestibule, I found the Catholic section of the pamphlet rack. Much to my surprise, I found out that they have a Knights of Columbus council on base. Taking some of the information in the rack, I thought, “Hey, I know the Knights. My Dad joined them when we moved to Culbertson, and seems to enjoy doing things with them. I'll join the Knights here, and that'll give me something to do on my time off.”

As I continued to look around, I noticed a copy of the Catholic community bulletin sitting on a table. In the back of my mind I figured that if I was going to join a Catholic group, I should at least act like a Catholic by going to Mass once in a while, so I grabbed a bulletin to find out the time for Mass and returned to my dorm.

The next Sunday, I actually got up early, at least for what I had become accustomed to on Sundays, and went to Mass at the Chapel. Mind you, I hadn't been to Confession in at least nine months and missed several Masses just in the few months that I was in the Air Force, but still received Communion at Mass. This is a good example of the spiritual state that I was in at that time, something which embarrasses me to this day. I met the celebrant, Fr. Hilaron, as well as one of the members of the Knight of Columbus council.

In the months following, I actually started to develop a fairly good attendance record at Mass. Fr. Hil, the junior Catholic chaplain who I had met, encouraged me to get involved in the Catholic community, and I helped out at Mass by monitoring and running the sound system from the back of the chapel. I was an electronics geek, and it sounded right up my alley.

The Knights of Columbus on base were no slouches for recruiting, and they quickly made contact with me and invited me to join. Within a year of arriving on base, I had joined the Knights and become active within the council, helping out with many of the activities the Knights were involved with both on and off base. I made it a point not to miss a meeting or activity unless official duties conflicted, which they rarely did.

For about my first couple of years, I maintained a certain status quo. I was somewhat active with the Knights, helping out with most of the activities and attending most meetings. I became a “more Sundays than not” Catholic, meaning I attended Mass more Sundays than I missed. I felt I was doing well, but didn't have a prayer life, and hadn't received the Sacrament of Confession in several years. In short, I was like many Catholics, even those we consider active, throughout the United States.

One day, after a couple of years in the Air Force, I was surfing the Internet, playing with the pre-Google killer search engine Altavista. On a lark, I entered “Catholic” into the search bar, just to see what would turn up. To my surprise, a great number of sites popped up, each containing a lot of information. Now that I know the amount of garbage that is on the Internet today and likely was on it back then, I feel that the Holy Spirit was really guiding me in what happened as part of my search.

One site in particular caught my interest, the Catholic Information Network. I started to first skim, then read, then devour voraciously, the information that was contained in this site. I couldn't believe it, all this is Catholicism? You mean it's more than just Mass once a week? Suddenly, things that I had learned years before in Religious Education came back. The Hail Mary and the Rosary. What the Mass meant. I had pushed all this to the back of my mind, never to be remembered, until I stumbled across this site.

Over the next few months, I had read almost everything on the CIN site, so I found other sites. There was this organization called Catholic Answers that did apologetics work. Lots of great information there. More reading ensued. I became interested in doing apologetics, but was too scared to try attempting to defend the Faith. I didn't know much and realized it.

At some point, I found a link to EWTN's website and began to read through their library as well. I knew who Pope John Paul II was, but I didn't anything about him except that he lived in Rome and I'd seen his picture a bunch of times. Of course, EWTN had a lot of great information on the Pope, so I learned about JP2 and his predecessors. I also learned about Church history, and the Second Vatican Council, and so much more. I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Unfortunately, we didn't have EWTN on our cable, so I had to settle for the documents in the library.

I just couldn't get enough information on Catholicism, and at some point along the way, something clicked in my mind. I realized that I needed to either commit myself fully to the Catholic Faith that I had been spending months reading about or just give it up altogether. Half-heartedly attending Mass and not being active in the Faith wasn't going to cut it. This really is the moment of conversion in my life, the point where I took this Catholic faith, which had been passed on to me, and made it my own. For the first time in my life, I took responsibility for living the Faith and continuing to grow in it.

Because of my new-found excitement for the Faith, I became more active in the Catholic chapel. I once again began to Lector at Mass, and recommitted myself to Knight of Columbus activities. I was elected one of the trustees of the council, one of the officer positions within each Knights of Columbus council. I even began to pray on an irregular basis, beginning with devotions like the Rosary, and started to understand that Jesus wasn't just some abstract historical figure. I became aware that He was present and active in my life from the beginning.

At this point, I started to feel a little nudge. You see, I came across a vocations website. I don't even remember what diocese it was with, but it was a site dedicated to discernment of vocations. At the time, I looked at the site, laughed, and moved on. “Yeah, like that's going to happen,” I thought.

Later on, I felt a little tickle in the back of my mind, almost a nagging. I remembered the Confirmation instructor telling me that I was going to be a priest. No, that's not going to happen. Go away. I'm not called to be a priest, others are. I'm going to finish up my enlistment, get a computer job that pays lots of money, find a wife, have a family, live happily ever after.

By this time, I haven't had too much luck with the dating scene. One girlfriend turned out to be trouble. Another girl that I was very interested in turned out to be a devout Mormon who expected to marry another Mormon. That's not happening either. I've read enough Catholic apologetics to know that the Mormon church is bad news. All this is going through my mind, as I'm pushing the thoughts about the priesthood away. After all, I told myself, there's still plenty of time to find the future Mrs. Sticha.

Shortly after my third anniversary in the Air Force, I received some bad news from my supervisor: I'd been chosen to spend five months in sunny Saudi Arabia. The unit needed to find someone to send on a deployment that had UNIX server experience. I had the experience and was getting close to the end of my enlistment, so I was perfect for the assignment. I tried to fight it, coming up with every excuse in the book, but ending up having to go. As I saw it, the only saving grace about this assignment was going during the winter months, when it would be a more comfortable temperature in Saudi in contrast to the cold temperatures in southern Illinois. It was also at a time when there were no active hostilities with Iraq, although we were watching Saddam Hussein very closely.

As part of my preparation for deployment, I had to undertake some training that I never thought I'd face. Because we thought that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons (and yes, every major country in the world thought that at the time!), I had to go though Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training, also known as the “Chem gear”. I also had to renew my certification on the M-16 rifle, much to my great amusement. The base was well away from any theoretical front lines that might develop, so there wouldn't be a lot of the US military forces left if I had to pick up a rifle and fight.

Training complete, I take a short period of leave and fly off to the sunny deserts of Saudi Arabia. Before I left, I was advised that all religious articles were not allowed to enter the country for any reason. Although I had been praying the Rosary on occasion, my Knights of Columbus Rosary stayed Stateside for fear of things going ill with Saudi customs over it.

I arrived at the deployment base and discovered that the base chapel, a temporary hard tent set up in an empty block, was right across the street from my quarters. The base was a permanent facility built for Bedouin tribes, but later turned over to the Air Force when the Bedouins refused the houses. Each house had five bedrooms and three bathrooms, and everyone had their own rooms. I found it quite interesting that I could look out the window of my room and see the chapel, especially since I had become so interested in the practice of my faith.

Being active in my faith didn't prevent me from missing Christmas Mass. I was still of the mindset that missing Mass once in a while was fine, so I didn't hurry over to the chapel to find the schedule for Masses. I arrived shortly before Christmas, and it wasn't until after New Years' Day that I actually began going to Mass again. I obviously still had a lot to learn about the Faith.

When I did start going, however, I met Fr. Raymond (a.k.a. Fr. Red because of his red hair), the Catholic chaplain who was there on deployment. He had arrived shortly after Christmas, and was deployed there for six months. After a couple of Masses, he asked me to do something that I had never considered: cantor at Mass. Me? Sing in front of people on my own? Are you serious? There was one other person, a Navy Lieutenant who had been cantoring on his own and was willing to train me so that I could sing with him. I agreed, and joined him in leading the music.

As my deployment went on, I began to enjoy the assignment. It was pretty easy work, the weather was nice, at least at the beginning, and I was getting active in the chapel. By the time Easter rolled around, the Navy LT had returned to his permanent assignment and I was cantoring on my own. I also helped Fr. Red set up the chapel for the different celebrations of the Triduum, not to mention attending Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil for the first time in my life.

As I became more active in the chapel, I began to know Fr. Red better. As I began to know Fr. Red, I began to realize that priests are just normal men (well some priests are, anyways). Guess what came back? Yep, that little tickle in the back of my mind. Those memories of the Confirmation instructor came back as well. Once again, I pushed them away and recited my litany of plans for my life. This wouldn't be the last time that I felt that little tickle by any stretch of the imagination.

I finally finished my deployment, and not a moment too soon. It was 102° F when I left Saudi Arabia at the beginning of May. I was eager to get back to the United States and begin the process of finding a job so I could start raking in the big bucks that I knew were out there for me. I was ready to go, ready to put an end to my Air Force career and start my civilian life.

When I got back to the United States, I plugged back in with the Knights of Columbus council on base. Many of them were military retirees who had retired from Scott and decided to stay in the area, so I knew that they would have an idea of which parishes near the base were good. One of them invited me to St. Clare Parish in O'Fallon, about 5 miles away from the base. One Sunday, I decided to attend Mass there instead of at the base chapel. I was blown away. Here was a relatively young community, mostly active military and families or military retirees, with a pastor who didn't look like he was even 40 years old. I knew this was the parish I wanted to belong to. Once again, the Holy Spirit guided me in ways that were far beyond my understanding, as this decision would affect my discernment greatly.

As I was job hunting, and getting the usual uncertainty and flat out rejection that comes with the territory, I started to become unsure of myself. Was I going to find a job. The end of my enlistment was approaching rapidly, and there were no firm commitments coming forward. Once again, God tried to speak to me through that little tickle in the back of my mind, and once again I ignored it. I continued my job hunt, and ended up leaving the Air Force without finding a job, but didn't have to wait too long before one came around.

Continue to Part 3 - Civilian Life

4 comments:

Melanie said...

Love your story!
You have a such a talent for writing!
Many Blessings,
Melanie

memoriadei said...

Yep, what Melanie said...great talent for writing. And you didn't do so well in English? Well, you really do now. Very interesting, very.

William Newton said...

Am really enjoying reading this series. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Brother Juniper said...

Father,

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.

Funny thing is that I went through the same thing in my own discernment. The call got louder and louder, but I always pushed it away. As a wise man once said, "God works in truly mysterious ways."