Photo: Courtesy U.S. Army

Mercy on the Front Lines

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By Felix Carroll (Dec 15, 2011)
Stationed out in a perilous province within war-torn Afghanistan, one Marian priest has two requests: your prayers and your assistance.

The prayer needs are obvious. Father Donald Van Alstyne, a U.S. Army chaplain, is ministering on the violent front lines of the 11-year American-led war in Afghanistan.

The monetary needs may not be so obvious. Living in primitive conditions in what is known as a forward operating base (FOB) — essentially a miniature Alamo ringed by barbed wire — the men and women with whom Fr. Donald serves lack basic necessities (like toiletries) and comfort items (such as snacks and coffee). Some of these FOBs have restricted shower availability, and the warm water runs out quickly.

The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass., are collecting funds to purchase and ship these items. Please consider making a financial contribution.

"The soldiers in this work space are under pressure 24/7, so these items will go a long way," Fr. Donald says in an interview conducted through e-mail.

The Afghan war — called Operation Enduring Freedom — began Oct. 7, 2001, to dismantle the Al-Qaeda terrorist network there. The goals of the mission have grown to include working with Afghans to create a stable democratic state. That requires removing from power the Taliban, whose terror tactics include indiscriminate violence against civilians and giving explosive devices to unsuspecting children to carry to our soldiers.

In the midst of his second deployment in Afghanistan, Fr. Donald is operating out of the headquarters for the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division.

+ + + View a photo gallery of Fr. Donald's ministry in Afghanistan. + + +

In an email on Nov. 11, he explains what life is like there at the base:

Because we are infantry, we travel light. We either patrol on foot or in armored vehicles. We do not have tanks when we fight. We fight on foot. ... Our area of operations covers two huge provinces: Logar and Wardack. We are situated in one of the worst infested areas where the Taliban and Haqanni drug network thrives. Most of our operating bases are mortared and attacked with small arms practically every night. Our soldiers oftentimes are attacked with similar engagements when we go outside "the wire" on supply convoys and ... road clearing missions. These attacks usually occur when we run over a buried or a remote-controlled or trip-wire improvised explosive device (IED). ... Our Brigade has been in theater for about four months. I must write a story soon that I would like to entitle "Mary's Mantle — Miracles on the Battlefield." Soldiers have shared some remarkable stories.

Our mission here is to be in partnership at all times in all activities and mission with the Afghan National Army (ANA). The focus is not what we American soldiers are doing but what the ANA is accomplishing. I highly value this responsibility because it fits with my Marian spirituality and the intent of our Renovator [Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927)]. We are crediting the work of the Afghan people and deflecting focus from us. Our other mandates from higher command include protecting and supporting local and provincial governments and insuring safe passage of the main roads to Kabul.

A month later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, the news from Fr. Donald was not good:

We lost three soldiers recently. I gave last rites to one when doctors saw that it was impossible to resuscitate. Two others were prayed over. At our base (FOB Shank-Eastern Afghanistan) there was a brief Hero Ceremony before the bodies were flown to Bagram Air Force Base.

He writes of how a few days earlier he was involved in a so-called "ramp ceremony" at division headquarters at Bagram. A ramp ceremony is a solemn memorial ceremony for a fallen soldier that takes place at an airfield just before the soldier's remains are flown home. In this case, the flag-draped coffins transported by individual military vehicles were slowly driven. Honors were rendered with a solemn, slow salute just prior to movement onto a C-130 Air Force plane to be flown to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where family members were waiting.

When Fr. Donald returned back to his base, he participated in a memorial ceremony "designed to inspire, give strength to our soldiers, and to give personal tribute to the soldiers who died," he says.

Ministering to the wounded and dying never gets any easier, Fr. Donald says, but his priestly vocation has deepened in profound ways. He says he has become "more focused on who we really are in the eyes of God" and how "our lives are framed and defined by the love and mercy of God for each of us, the Afghan people and for the whole world."

"I am also inspired to see in the eyes of our soldiers the need to know and love God," he says. "My mission is to bring God to soldiers and to bring soldiers to God. All of these experiences give me a joy and energy in my heart and soul that no one, or no tragic moment, can take away."

Ever since Fr. Donald was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War in 1966, he wanted to be a military chaplain.

"In the spirit of Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz, the Renovator of the Marians, I've always wanted to go where the need is greatest," he says.

In addition to his two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Fr. Donald, now a major, served in Bosnia for Operation Joint Forge to help minister to soldiers involved in peace keeping operations in the disputed territories of the Balkans. He also served in Korea and Germany, in addition to serving stateside. His military awards include the Bronze Star.

His military service harkens back to the founder of the Marian Congregation, Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczynski (1631-1701), who reportedly served as a chaplain in the Polish army at a time when Poland was being ravaged by foreign invaders. Having witnessed thousands of casualties on battlefields and from plagues — many of whom presumably had no time to spiritually prepare — Blessed Stanislaus called the Marian Congregation to the charism of praying for the souls in purgatory.

"My soul — like his was — is filled with anguish to see young men and women cut down in the flower of their youth for such a noble cause — the defense of one's country and, in our day, an end to the scourge of terrorism," says Fr. Donald.

Father Donald adds that soldiers have shared experiences with him that "now have convinced them that God had protected them when they clearly should have died. I thank Mary for her intercession for me. I find myself saying the Hail Mary throughout the day."

The Afghan war has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. servicemen and women. Even as the United States has begun drawing down its military presence in Afghanistan, the military continues to battle a widespread Taliban insurgency, which has been responsible for the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties.

As if life weren't difficult enough, soldiers in forward operating bases usually receive only one hot meal a day. And unlike in garrisons, which have fully stocked stores, called Postal Exchange facilities (or PXs), there are no PXs on forward operating bases except at Brigade Headquarters.

"Soldiers are dependent on family members to send them supplies, which over the course of deployment becomes rather expensive," says Fr. Donald.

Soldiers experience a "huge morale boost" when they receive supplies from back home, Fr. Donald says. Such shipments, he says, "serve as an acknowledgement that people back home are thinking of them and haven't forgotten the hardship, fear, and sacrifice" that defines daily life in Afghanistan.

With your financial help, the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge will purchase items from a wish list that was drawn up by men and women at Fr. Donald's base. The items include coffee packets for a Krup coffee maker; soap and soap dishes; shampoo; razors; shaving cream; skin cream; deodorant; mouthwash; toothpaste; toothbrushes; hair jell; baby wipes; and feminine products.

Please consider making a financial contribution.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

betty - Jan 15, 2012

God bless you and the fellow
heros you serve. My deepest thanks for seeing the eyes of Jesus in our military men and women. I firmly believe this is ultimately a spiritual battle and love and mercy will prevail through the blood sweat and tears you and our troops shed in service and prayer. God be with you always.

Lynda - Dec 29, 2011

God bless you, Father Don, for all you are doing for the Soldiers of the 3d Brigade, 1st AD! You and they are in my daily prayers. May God be your strength and give you His peace during this extremely challenging time. We are so proud of all our heroes in Afghanistan, and that includes you!

Eugenia in PA - Dec 19, 2011

GOD bless you and keep you and the "troops" you minister to. I offer my personal sufferings for you all in this Christmas season.

J. Gray - Dec 18, 2011

Our son is stationed there now. Your supply list
Is greatly needed. We have visited the Shrine many times from NJ. Keep all in your prayers..

Sue - Dec 17, 2011

The rosary has been my solace since my daughter's deployment to Shank. Losing her soldiers was difficult. Thank you for your continued spiritual support to all of the troops. May the Archangel Michael protect and bring all home.

CH (MAJ) Don Van Alstyne, MIC - Dec 17, 2011

The Post Exchange (PX) does not offer such services. Of the 15 FOBs I visit in Battle Field Circulation, only FOB Shank, Brigade HQ, has a very small shop which limits 25 soldiers at a time. Thast is why soldiers are depencdent on family members, volunteer organizations and great incredible people who are members of the Association of Marian Helpers. I thank our Marian Associates for your contant prayers, rosaries, Novenas and heartfelt devotion for our men and women in Uniform. You are transforming the heart and souls of our service members for the good. MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL! Yours always in Mary Immcaculate, Fr. Don

Veronica who served NEXCOM - Dec 16, 2011

Is it possible to use these funds, buy from the US military PX system - there are stores already over in Afghanistan - & have the military forward these supplies to the front line where these men serve? AAFES General Questions(800) 527-6790 DSN 967-2011 Catalog Center (800) 527-2345 Don't reinvent the wheel; I'm sure a program to ship care packages to forward deployed military already exists. God bless you!

De - Dec 16, 2011

Fr. Donald - THANK YOU for your sacrifice. If at all possible, please have the soldiers register at Adopt A US Soldier ( It is a wonderful organization that connects civilians from all over with our deployed soldiers (I am a volunteer Admin at Adopt A US Soldier). We assign each soldier who registers a minimum of 4 supporters (normally more than that) to write, e-mail, and send care packages (if it is in their budget) to a soldier thoughout the soldier's deployment. There is no fee to register for either the soldier or the civilians. God Bless you and all of the soldiers.

Father Donald - Dec 16, 2011

Dear Father Donald,
My prayer are with you and the troups,I attend mass every day and will pray every day for you,
Now I make rosaries Military cord Rosary,,I would love to send to you and your troups, could you email me your address, so I can mail them,, Please advise, Thanking you in advance,
God Bless and Thank you for all you do.
Mary Agnes

Bishop +Mark - Dec 16, 2011

Chaplain Donald+: You and your soldiers will be in my prayers and I will be offering the Eucharist for you all. May St. Michael and all the holy angels protect and watch over you and may the prayers of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Francis and St. Philomena be with you.

Gwen - Dec 16, 2011

Fr. Don, daily prayers are offered for your safety and the troops as well. May you continue to be that courageous light and hope for the troops; and keep that peace and joy in your heart through these sad and dangerous times. You have my support. May you return safely; may the wars end soon.

Tinear - Dec 16, 2011

Thank you so much Diane for reminding me (us) of the Christmas Novena! I too will dedicate it to Fr. Van Alstyne and the troops in his compound.

Diane - Dec 16, 2011

I will make a contribution but also, today, Dec 16 - Dec 24, is the day to start to pray the Christmas Novena. I will dedicate the Christmas Novena to Father Don and all the priests on the front lines. Here it is if anyone ones to pray it too: O, Adorable Infant Jesus, my Savior and my God. Who art so good and Who hast loved me so much! In this night in which Thou bestowest great Graces on so many souls, grant Thy Heavenly consolation to this poor soul of mine also. I ask of Thee the Grace to love Thee always from this day forward, with all my heart. Set me all on fire with Thy Holy Love. I love Thee O my God. Who hast become a Babe for love of me. Never let me cease from loving Thee evermore. Dearest Jesus, our Lord and God, deign to grant me, during this Joyful Season of Christmas, (mention your request, ie., Father Don), if it be Your Holy Will, Amen. (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be). It is short and sweet but we can do this for Father Don and all the priests in the military can't we? Sure.

Lorraine Okie - Dec 16, 2011

Thank you Father Donald for your Frontline Mission to our Soldiers may Divine Mercy Bless ALL

Ellzeena - Dec 16, 2011

Father Donald, may St. Michael the Archangel and his legions of angels protect you and the men and women whom you administer to and may God bless you abundantly for your work.

Ramon - Dec 16 - Dec 16, 2011

Thank you for your spirited letter Fr. Donald. God's mission and His continual presence through you is rewarding to the men and women serving.
Love and prayers and God bless you all!

Diane - Dec 16, 2011

When we pray our family Rosary we will be especially remembering you Father Donald and all those who serve! May Our Lady cover you in her Holy Mantle and St. Joseph cover you in His Holy Cloak !

Dcn. Bob - Dec 15, 2011

Well written Felix and Thank you Fr. Don for your very important service to Our God and Country. Your own sacrifice and hardship that you serve with the troops as Chaplin/ Soldier is greatly appreciated. As a Vietnam era veteran myself I solute you as our modern "Padre Grunt" . We are very grateful for your service and very proud of you. Our Love, prayers and support are with y'all. God's Blessings!

Marie-Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy - Dec 15, 2011

Amazing service -we are here to help you Fr. Don and we will ask all Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy to assist. May the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary be your health and your protection.

Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC - Dec 15, 2011

Thanks for your service to God and country, Fr. Donald. You are in our prayers!

Lori - Dec 15, 2011

When I Pray a Rosary and a Chaplet of the Divine Mercy Always praying for All those who are sick,suffering from War,Famine and Natural Disaters and for All those who have died from War,Famine and Natural Disaters.God Bless You All