How Deployment Has Given me a New Appreciation for the Universal Church
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As I write this, I am living at a small military base in the capital city of Afghanistan, currently deployed with the US Army, and barely 2 months into a year long endeavor. I am assigned to an infantry unit with the Arizona Army National Guard, so my service has always been “part time” and until now I have never been on an overseas mission.
Deployment is something I have always wanted to experience. Anytime someone stops to thank me for my service, I always struggle to force a smile back and thank them in return. My one-weekend-a-month commitment has never felt worthy of praise. Serving overseas does not automatically make one a war hero, but it certainly allows you to experience military life (and life in general) in a completely new way. And on our end of things, it makes those “thank you” moments a bit easier to get through.
I anxiously and excitedly awaited this deployment from the moment we were informed of it. Eight years of drill weekends finally seemed like it had a purpose. I prepared myself mentally, which certainly was not easy. Our unit scheduled extra training in order to prepare us physically and tactically. But where my preparation was lacking, was spiritual. Finding routine here has been a challenge. I work a 12 hour shift every single day with a possible day off every two weeks or once a month. Everything has blurred together and I often am unaware of what day of the week it is. I have to set phone reminders just to make time to pray. And more often than not, I let my tiredness dictate my time with the Lord. The sacraments are sparse. We do not have a resident priest at this base, but there is one scheduled to travel here for Mass every Sunday. Sometimes he will come early, if he can, to hear confessions. However, due to the current situation or space availability of flights, there have been weekends where he never shows up.
At times, all of these little things frustrate me. Back home I live in a large city and there are multiple parishes within a 10 or 15 minute drive of my house. I have handfuls of Mass times to choose from and confession is accessible nearly any day of the week. This has been quite the change... to only have one hour each week where the sacraments are available is difficult to get used to.
But through all the busyness and frustrations, the Lord has revealed a beautiful thing that to me: the Church truly is universal.
Catholicism comes from the Greek kata holos literally meaning “according to the whole” and translates into “universal”. I have always known this, I have studied this, but never have I concretely experienced it. Until now.
On Sundays when Mass is available, the celebrant is a priest from the Czech Republic. I stand in the pews among US service members of all branches of the military. There are contracted civilians, American and foreign. In front of me sits Croatian soldiers. Behind me, British. Every once in awhile I might see an Australian or Danish person. And among the different countries that we all belong to, there is diversity of language, race, and culture. During the very first Mass I attended in Afghanistan, this was all I could think about. I looked around the small chapel with tears in my eyes thinking “this is the universal Church.” I may be on the other side of the world but, during that hour of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, my soul is at home.
Sisters, I wanted to share this experience with you all because I know that at times our situation feels impossible. We have all the right intentions, but our circumstances seem to want to tear us down.
It can be easy to let the frustration take over. Some days I want to give up all together. But if I have learned one thing thus far, it’s that the Lord is very patient. And being here, His patience has been revealed to me in a whole new way.
I often have to remind myself that my situation here is unique. He knows all things. He knows the schedules are crazy and the days are long. He knows I’m forgetful. He knows I can be lazy. He knows all my flaws and He sees each time I fail Him. Yet, He still waits for me. When I have given up on my prayers because I fell asleep before I could finish, He patiently waits for the next time I come to Him. I often find that when I do have a moment to stop, take in a deep breath, and listen to Him, the Lord graciously shares with me these beautiful little experiences of His love in the most unexpected ways.
Sisters, He is waiting for you. Whatever season or time in your life you may be experiencing, no matter the circumstances, our God is patient. Stop, take a breath, take your time, He waits.
With love, in Christ alone,
SGT Nykole Lee Willmore
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Full name: Nykole Lee Willmore
State-in-life / Occupation: Single / US Army
Location: I am currently deployed in Afghanistan but home is Mesa, Arizona.
Educational background (If you attended school): I have a BA in Theological Studies and an MA of the same study is currently in progress.
How does your Catholic faith affect the way you live your day-to-day life?
My faith informs my receptivity and perception of the people that I interact with each day. From my own experiences, I know that the Church welcomes everyone with open arms, no matter your past or circumstances. I know that I fail at this, but I try my hardest not to judge another person for their choices in life, because I have no idea when or what might shift for them to bring them home.
Has there been a particular teaching of the Church that has intimately transformed the way you see yourself and others?
Theology of the Body has been the most influential in my life. I really entered into my faith around sophomore year of high school and it was at that time someone shared with me Christopher West's version for teens. From that point on, Theology of the Body has informed my decisions as well as guided me back onto the right track whenever I have swayed.
How is Jesus challenging you to greater love in your current place in life?
As I mentioned patience in my letter, this is also how Jesus is teaching me how to love. I see the same people every single day here. We live together and work together, finding "alone time" is seldom. In these circumstances, it is not hard to quickly get annoyed with other people. The Lord is teaching me patience to let go of the little things, and focus on what really matters.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
As cliche as this might sound, my spirit animal is St. Joan of Arc! My deployment in Afghanistan is nothing compared to the French battlefield that she endured, but even still I draw strength from her fierce example of courage. Along with that, I am constantly inspired by other devout Catholic women in the military and their witness to the faith in a sometimes hostile and profane environment.
Fill in the blank.
My morning routine consists of: chaos! I work the night shift out here so in the morning hours, I get off work and usually hit the gym for about an hour. This varies day to day. After the gym, I shower and get ready to go to bed. Once I am in some cozy clothes I will some time to relax, wind down, and pray before falling asleep.
I’m currently obsessed with: Mocha flavored Starbucks Coffee! I received this in a care package and it's all I want to drink.
I feel most inspired when: I hear other people talking about their goals in life. It amazes me how each person is unique and we are called down different paths with different interests/passions that drive us.
My favorite part about my life right now is: a regular gym schedule. At home, I would often get lazy or struggle with my routine. Here, although I do slack off some days, I have found relaxation and peace in running, which is something I never thought would be possible!
The advice I would give to the millennial Catholic woman is: always remember that the Church is your home. In my brief 25 years, I have encountered more trials and challenges than my naive younger self could have ever imagined. No matter how many times I tried to run away or wanted to give up on the Lord, He never gave up on me. I have always been able to come home.