BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — He once rode on the back of a gun truck, an infantry mortarman on the perilous streets of Tallil, Iraq. Now, in the place of an M-4 rifle, Capt. David DeRienzo carries a Bible.
So which is it, a visitor asked the ever-popular chaplain for the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion this week as he prepared for this most difficult of holidays in a war zone: Is he here to save souls? Or is he here simply to help his fellow soldiers?
“Yes,” DeRienzo replied with a smile. “Yes to both.”
From a distance, the 32-year-old officer with the black cross above his name tag looks like any other battlefield pastor: quick to smile, eager to listen and forever walking that fine line between man of the cloth and counselor in camouflage.
But in DeRienzo, members of the 133rd will tell you to a man and woman, they have someone truly special – a chaplain who has walked in their combat boots and now dedicates himself to helping soldiers whose war-zone baggage, especially around Christmas, extends far beyond their government-issue duffel bags.
“The last 10 days, there’s certainly been an uptick,” DeRienzo said as he welcomed soldier after soldier into his open-door office and, between visits, contemplated what he’d say in his first-ever battlefield Christmas homily.
“I come in some mornings with 10 things on my list of priorities,” he said. “And at 2 p.m., I have my face in my hands because I haven’t even reached Number 2.”
ENLISTED A WEEK AFTER SEPT. 11
The sixth of seven children, DeRienzo grew up in Gorham and attended the Greater Portland Christian School in South Portland before enrolling as a history major at the University of Southern Maine. Then, just a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he enlisted in the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry.
“I knew that my peers would be going over, that my generation would be fighting in who-knows-how-long a protracted war,” he recalled. “And I didn’t feel right about not going along with them.”
He deployed with Bravo Company to Iraq in 2006, classified as a mortarman but in reality working as a gunner and communications specialist on the often-perilous streets of Tallil.
He still vividly recalls the Easter sunrise service that spring, when Bravo Company’s chaplain proclaimed, “He is risen!” and Staff Sgt. Dale Kelly of Richmond, DeRienzo’s close friend and comrade, echoed enthusiastically, “Indeed! He is risen!”
Three weeks later, Kelly and Bravo Company Staff Sgt. David Veverka were dead – killed by an improvised explosive device near the Tallil Air Base.
“That’s a searing memory that I have, and it gives me a profound appreciation for what these soldiers are doing, the sacrifice that they’re making,” DeRienzo said. “It gets me up and motivated more so than it haunts me. I use it as an agent of inspiration. I don’t want their sacrifice to be in vain.”
He thought he’d finish his six-year stint with the Maine Guard and move on to a civilian ministry, but in DeRienzo, other Maine military chaplains saw something special. They persuaded him to enroll as a chaplaincy candidate at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and, from there, go on to chaplain basic training school at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
It was on that trip south from Maine in 2008, while stopping over with a friend in Virginia Beach, that DeRienzo met his future wife, Jenna. They now have two little boys – Vincent, 3, and Roman, 1.
Pictures of his family cover his office wall, along with a lipstick-adorned note from Jenna: “I just wanted to send you a (kiss)! … Army strong, Jenna.”
“She swore, before she met me, that she would never marry a pastor or a soldier,” DeRienzo said with a chuckle. “And she got both.”
As does the 133rd during a season that tugs oh so heavily on a deployed soldier’s heartstrings.
CAROLS WARD OFF ‘DOOM AND GLOOM’
Tuesday afternoon, as the sun set behind the towering, snow-covered mountains and the nightly blanket of bone-chilling cold spread across sprawling Bagram Air Field, the loudspeakers blared that from sunset to sunup all personnel were to don their helmets and body armor before venturing outdoors.
It came as no surprise – several rockets launched by insurgents had fallen harmlessly on the massive base the night before, and common sense would suggest that insurgents lurking outside the perimeter might try to disrupt Christmas Eve.
No matter. Led by a beaming DeRienzo, a dozen flak-jacketed carolers from the 133rd serenaded their comrades, first at the mess hall, then at a nearby USO center, then outside the battalion’s tactical operations center and, finally, in front of the enlisted soldiers’ barracks.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light,” they sang in unison, their breath fogging in the cold. “From now on our troubles will be out of sight …”
“A little bit of brightness amid the doom and gloom!” exulted Sgt. Elysia Mumau of Augusta, one of many who came out of their barracks – some with tablets and smartphones in hand – to soak up the revelry.
“It’s amazing how the level of morale just went up,” echoed Sgt. Janice Lord of Richmond. “You could, like, feel it going up.”
Carols completed, DeRienzo led his small flock to a makeshift chapel where some three dozen soldiers laid down their rifles and filled the benches surrounded by garlands and the brightly lit battalion Christmas tree for the 30-minute service.
They began with “O Come All Ye Faithful,” led by vocalists, Spc. Holly Parker of Brooks and Spc. Joshua McNinch of Littleton; a guitarist, Sgt. Steven Oliver of Manchester, N.H.; and a drummer, Spc. Jeffrey Hamel of Portland.
Then Maj. Scott Lewis of Monmouth, the 133rd’s executive officer, read from the Gospel of Luke: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them ‘Fear not …”
After more singing and Scripture, Capt. Lisa Sessions of New Gloucester and 1st Lt. Jonathan Bratten of Portland stepped forward for a moving rendition of “O Holy Night.”
While Sessions sang in a clear, pitch-perfect voice, Bratten accompanied her on a violin donated for the duration of the 133rd’s deployment by the Johnson String Co. of Newton, Mass.
(DeRienzo, upon hearing that Bratten played the violin, recently contacted a viola player who belongs to DeRienzo’s civilian congregation at the Second Parish Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Portland. The next thing the chaplain knew, the violin arrived in the mail with all rental charges waived.)
Finally, it was time for that homily.
CONNECTING WITH HIS CONGREGATION
DeRienzo invoked the movie “Back to the Future,” drawing appreciative chuckles as he recalled the scene in which Doc Brown tells Marty McFly that he can travel all the way back to Dec. 25, 0000, and witness the birth of Christ.
From there, it was on to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose contention that we experience only what our senses permit was the equivalent of these soldiers having no idea what was going on outside the tightly secured perimeter of Bagram Air Field.
“So essentially, what Kant is arguing is that God is unknowable. The wall is too high and we cannot climb over,” DeRienzo said. “Well, my friends, on (the day of Christ’s birth), that wall came crashing down. In the sleepy town of Bethlehem, the invisible became visible.”
It was heady stuff for a roomful of soldiers in helmets and outer tactical vests, surrounded by tiny tea candles and holiday cards from grade-school children half a world away. Yet clearly, this man on a new mission, a soldier’s chaplain if ever there was one, connected.
Some in the Christmas Eve congregation, even to the eyes of a stranger, were clearly regular churchgoers. Yet others, as DeRienzo is quick to acknowledge, have found religion here but may not carry it back home when the 133rd returns to Maine in June.
Either way, the soldier who once marched alongside them now finds himself watching over every last one of them.
One day last week, DeRienzo arrived at his office with a full day already planned, only to find three soldiers waiting to see him about difficulties they were having with their deployment. He no sooner finished up with them when another soldier appeared, struggling with being away from her family for Christmas.
Then, his half-hour with her concluded, DeRienzo looked up to find an entire eight-member squad asking if “Chaplain D” had time to chat about trouble they were having with their chain of command.
Schedule? What schedule?
“You don’t really get time to switch gears in your mind,” DeRienzo said. “You don’t get to exhale. I mean, I could. I could say, ‘Go away. Come back. Make an appointment.’ But I just can’t bring myself to do that. My top priority is to meet soldiers in their greatest moment of need.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: