December 25, 2013

Safeguarding Soldiers & Souls

During the holidays and far beyond, Capt. David DeRienzo – ‘Chaplain D’ of Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion – provides an invaluable gift to others who serve.

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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.

click image to enlarge

Capt. David DeRienzo, chaplain for the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard, leads his congregation in prayer during a Christmas Eve service at battalion headquarters at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Sgt. Alan Feener of Jefferson adjusts his Santa hat and beard to fit over his body armor as a group of carolers from the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard stopped by some of the barracks at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan to sing Christmas songs before a church service Tuesday, December 24, 2013.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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