by Fr. Jerome Cwiklinski
Retired Navy Chaplain Archpriest Jerome Cwiklinski, CPT CHC USN, is one of the longest-serving military chaplains in the Orthodox Church in America. In retirement Father Jerome, together with his wife Matushka Wendy, continue to serve the pastoral and spiritual needs of the Orthodox Marines at Camp Pendleton, CA. through the on-base Chapel of Saint John the Forerunner. As for many who serve their country in the Armed Forces, this is not Father Jerome’s first Pascha away from home, not the first time he has served Pascha in peculiar circumstances. Father Jerome offers this reflection on his Pascha in Iraq in 2003, just one month after the U.S. invasion of that country, and his attempts to locate Orthodox servicemen, and find a place to hold Holy Week services and Pascha.
Father Jerome retired from active duty in 2014. At his retirement ceremony, at which His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon was in attendance, Father Jerome related this story about serving as a military chaplain during Pascha.
“And finally, I want to share one of the many blessings I received during my time as a chaplain. Often, while on my way to Iraq or Afghanistan, I stopped at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany to visit those in higher-level care. When we evacuate people from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is there that they receive treatment. A few years ago, I was there visiting soldiers from Georgia. I came into the room and declared, in Georgian, ‘Christ is Risen!’ And the one soldier being cared for there stood up and responded, ‘Indeed, He is risen’ and made the sign of the cross. The thing is, this soldier had no legs. They had been amputated at the knees. And this soldier’s right arm had been amputated at the elbow, but with his phantom hand, he traced the sign of the cross over his body. These are the blessings of serving as a chaplain. And these are the blessings to which I am thankful to God.”
The Pascha of the Lord, the Feast of Feasts, Holy Day of Holy Days – these lines from the Paschal Canon were sung solo by me amid the rank squalor of one of Saddam Hussein’s bombed-out palaces. This was a first for me since becoming a priest – to “celebrate” alone. I could not in that moment fully compensate my sense of failure with the joy of the Feast. There were Soldiers and Marines, and soldiers of Orthodox nations, as well as the members of the Orthodox Chapel left behind at Camp Pendleton, who were not having Pascha because the priest who should have been serving them was in the wrong place.
The Back Story
My assignment was the Religious Minstries Directorate, Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC – pronounced “See Flick”). This was the single headquarters over American, British, and other nations’ ground forces in the liberation of Iraq. One of my duties was coordinating Passover and Easter coverage which should have given me an edge to arrange Holy Week and Pascha. But at a video teleconference to schedule Passover, I was literally shut-down by the Senior Chaplain when I tried to segue our conversation to Pascha: “There have been no requests!” He abruptly turned-off his monitor effectively ending the meeting. This is not a good start.
Baghdad was in our hands by Western Easter, one week ahead of Pascha that year, and it was celebrated with great fervor.. Protestant and Catholic Chaplains could bet that 50% of their unit would be satisfied with their services, but my flock was small and scattered, requiring either a fixed central location for them to come to me, or my ability to reach them.
I had a large Orthodox flock at Camp Doha, Kuwait. It had grown from only a handful to about 20 U.S. Soldiers and more than 80 Romanians. Because our host country was Muslim our “weekends” were Friday and Saturday. That accommodated the Divine Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday which was my last service in Kuwait. As it turned-out, it was to be my last public service for all of Holy Week.
On Great and Holy Tuesday I moved up to Bagdad to CFLCC Forward. Its jargon handle was “LUCKY FORWARD” since its nucleus was the 3rd US Army, “Patton’s Own” - it was the very call- sign Patton had used. I was sent with the assurance I might find Orthodox personnel in Baghdad. Perhaps I would get “lucky”.
Arriving at the shattered ruin of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), the first thing that impressed me was “that smell” - one second only to the smell of war which no combat veteran forgets. Lord… he has been dead four days!
Destroyed Iraqi military vehicles and civilian cars were all along the route to our headquarters. The disposition of the civilian wrecks indicated they were not collateral damage but the remnants of “Feddayin” technical units. There were no obvious signs of human carnage except where the stench was so intense.
Our headquarters was in Al Fah Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s 70 palaces. The “grand ballroom,” with its imposing black marble columns, was filled with more debris than a Victorian faux ruin. Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down. The glow of our green chem-lights created the eerie impression of entering an ancient tomb – like the Well of Souls in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – thankfully without the snakes or screaming mummies.
Luckily a cot with mosquito netting was already set up for me next to an open window, so sleep was easy and almost immediate, especially because I had had no coffee that day. I was awakened in the pre-dawn hours by a cacophony of summons to prayer from the succession of minarets throughout the city. It was Great and Holy Wednesday, and I had a caffeine withdrawal headache.
My priorities were:
#1 – Find Orthodox personnel;
#2 – Find an Orthodox Church;
#3 – Find coffee!
I followed my nose to a detectable pleasant aroma. Its source was the agency tasked with the reestablishment of critical infrastructure: water, gas, electric, medical care, schools and coffee. I eagerly joined their mess - my donation would help ensure real coffee over the ersatz Iraqi stuff which resembled and tasted like (and probably was) pencil-sharpener shavings.
Already #3 was checked-off my list, but the rest would not prove as easy. My vehicle was the first to be absconded when other departments needed one for their “essential” missions. My caffeine providers had to go to the former government district, the “Green Zone” and kindly offered me a ride. There I sought the assistance of the Civil-Military Affairs Operations Center (CMOC) and the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the provisional government set up by our State Department. The pronunciation of these acronyms, “See-Mock” and “Or-Hah,” seemed especially derisive on the day when our Lord was betrayed, arrested, and mocked.
Business in the CMOC was slightly calmer than the town hall meeting in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Locals queued in Black Friday at Macy’s fashion to present their grievances and be compensated. My uniform put me to the head of the “line.” I attempted to spin how my serving in a local Church would be good for future relations. The desk officer cupped a hand to his ear: “Hear that?” There was not-so-distant gunfire. “There’s your Church!”
On Great and Holy Thursday I went to the ORHA where I hoped to validate my plan, except that the Ministry of Religion had been chopped and so religious matters were sidelined. Furthermore, I was reminded a curfew had been in place since “liberation” began. That meant local Orthodox Christians would not be observing Holy Week in the traditional manner. At least when reading the various services to myself I would be in solidarity with my fellow believers.
My chauffeurs this time made for the International Red Cross. My price to pay for their help was to tag along for their meeting with a former Minister of Health. The Red Cross receptionist had a Greek name and responded affirmatively and somewhat enthusiastically when I asked if he was Orthodox. Then I asked him the location of the Church. “I wouldn’t know. I’m an atheist.” I asked why a moment before he said he was Orthodox. “Because of my nationality!”
Following the meeting, my drivers tried to make good on their offer. Being unable to read signs in Arabic we used architecture as a clue. The first church we entered was Syriac Catholic. Its priest commented through an interpreter, “It is good that you’re here, but what will happen to us when you leave?” In Sadr City we spotted the distinctive steeple of an Armenian Church. A woman originally from San Diego translated for us with a curious group that had gathered. After many pleasantries they posed the same question as the Chaldean priest: “what is going to happen to us?” I reflected with no messianic pretensions: I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered. It might be difficult for me to celebrate Pascha now, but the ability of Iraqi Christians to do so in the future was unpredic-table. We had to return by curfew and, because of the perspective they gained from their interaction with local Christians, my drivers bore me no grudge for our fruitless search.
The Feast of Feasts
Despite reaching out to units which had the Orthodox Soldiers I served while still in Kuwait, none could be found by Great and Holy Saturday. I had to accept that amid the “fog of war” those units could not vouch for their exact whereabouts. All I could do was leave word of my location. I set out a foot locker as a bier for the Holy Shroud. Field desks with Icons taped to ration carton sleeves were my iconostasis. And so I commenced Nocturn – alone. They have taken my Lord… then she turned around and saw Jesus standing there. CHRIST IS RISEN! Despite the hour, I triumphantly sang El Messiya Qam – those within earshot probably assumed it was a call to prayer for that appointed time of night.
I split the service hoping an Orthodox Soldier might find me the next morning. I prepared for liturgy, but when no one came by the posted time, I resigned myself to serve a Typika. Only after I had consumed the Gifts from Proskomedia did a Soldier ask about Sunday services. Did I cancel Liturgy too soon?
The grand banquet hall was available, swept clean of debris for meetings, so hastily I transferred my “altar furnishings.” The number who attended could have easily fit in my office chapel but there the air was cleaner. There were four Soldiers and one civilian contractor – none of them Orthodox.
As I explained about Pascha and what we were about to do, their sideways glances betrayed their disinterest. Though I trained them to sing “Lord, have mercy” and most importantly, the response “Indeed, He is Risen!” I heard only my own voice for most of the service. When I faced about to read the Gospel, I saw that two of the soldiers had left as the others stood with pained expressions. Despite the service in progress, workmen noisily entered to measure something. No doubt, when Christ descended to death to free the captives, Hades was far less accommodating. After the final blessing I would have embraced the remaining attendees, but they were gone in a flash. One I knew stood at the door, arms folded. CHRIST IS RISEN! I proclaimed. “Well, that was different!” was his answer.
As I de-rigged the banquet hall from services, I thought of Saddam Hussein’s cooks. Not knowing in which of the 70 palaces he would stay, they had to prepare a lavish meal for him and an anticipated large entourage. Then at the unselected palaces, so I was told, 6,900+ individual servings were discarded. I no longer regretted my false start with Proskomedia. The risen King of Glory had entered my reality, despite all its flaws, and I would share, even if vicariously, in the Feast of Faith.
I performed the blessing of fleshmeats on the non-vegetarian MRE I had been savoring. But first, I voraciously tore open the accessory packet and indulgently added creamer to my coffee.
Priest John Brown, an Army Reserve Chaplain had arrived with his unit in Kuwait at the stroke of Pascha midnight. Army Chaplain Fr. Joseph Velez was able to conduct a service in his own unit. To my relief, back at Camp Doha, Air Force Chaplain Fr. Timothy Ullman held Pascha services for my former flock of now over 120 personnel and even had an Agape meal with red-dyed eggs to boot. Further away, Navy Chaplain Archpriest Mark Koczak of USNS COMFORT held Pascha services for three Orthodox crew members on the island of Diego Garcia. And at my chapel members from Camp Pendleton were welcomed by parishes throughout the San Diego area. Later, to my tremendous joy, Army Chaplain Fr. Peter Baktis was able to join me to concelebrate at Mid-feast.
In the days and weeks ahead, Orthodox Soldiers did find me and to our mutual contentment found that Pascha was undiminished by our tardiness. We celebrated as those who labored from the eleventh hour, received with all graciousness as we entered into the joy of our Lord.
CHRIST IS RISEN!