For Father David Glassmire, pastor of Ascension Parish in Batavia, Veterans Day is about much more than a day off, as it is for many. Instead, it is a day to recognize the accomplishments of all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, including himself, as a Navy chaplain assigned to the Marines.
"I think it's a very important day to stop, reflect and pay respect to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and those who continue to sacrifice and are out there on the front lines," he said of the holiday, held yearly on Nov. 11 to thank all living veterans who have served honorably. "It's a day of remembrance, a day of thanksgiving for the sacrifice they made, to allow certain freedoms that you and I take for granted."
Before being ordained to the priesthood in 1994, Father Glassmire started out as an enlisted person in the Navy in 1979. He then became a Navy intelligence officer and remained for 13 years, even while studying in the seminary. After this, he applied for commission in the Chaplain Corps.
"The Navy (chaplains) pretty much join all the services, but we get assigned to Marine installations, Navy installations and Coast Guard installations," he explained.
While in the Navy, Father Glassmire served in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf states and "pretty much around the globe," he said, in addition to being stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq assigned to the Marines within the past five years. He is now assigned to United States Northern Command, also known as Commander NORTHCOM, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
After having served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, Father Glassmire is no stranger to serving in combat zones. He said of his role, "I think it's more or less being a calming presence in the midst of the war and fighting, and all the chaos and bloodshed."
"In the more senior positions, I had probably seven or eight chaplains working for me. They, along with myself, went around to what are called battle positions in the country. There were about 179 battle positions. I was in Helmand Province, which is southern Afghanistan. There would be forward operating bases - those are called FOBs, and there would be COPs (combat operational posts) and OPs, outposts. The PBs, or patrol bases, would be the smallest bases, with five or six Marines and a Corpsman."
While on assignment, Father Glassmire said chaplains would have services, hear confessions and offer counseling. They frequently worked with mental health professionals, so they had a team that offered "sprint" spiritual and mental health services, in which they would visit several outposts in the field. They also assisted at the main base at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, with the 31st Combat Surgical Hospital.
"Any time we would take casualties, we would rotate," he remembered. "It was like being on call for a hospital for the emergency room. Sadly, when you have casualties that don't make it, you have what they call 'ramp ceremonies.' It's called 'dignified transfer of human remains,' so it would be taking the deceased from the hospital and putting them on a plane for shipping home."
During his time overseas, Father Glassmire said his experience both challenged and enhanced his faith. He recalled that while there, he might be in the middle of celebrating Mass when gunfire would break out and the congregation would have to interrupt what it was doing. However, even in the midst of chaos, "when shells were raining and bombs were exploding," he felt it was his duty to provide "a certain resolve and a certain peace within those constraints. While these emergencies happened, his military training and instincts of self-preservation would naturally take precedent, but prayer was still important.
"Where prayer was very important to me was in dealing with death and dying: holding injured Marines, wounded Marines in my arms, watching people die in front of my face, and just having to bring comfort not only to them as they were dying, but their fellow Marines who were around, and even helping the medical staff deal with that. You're there to save lives, and sometimes that's not always possible."
Father Glassmire said the biggest struggle for servicemen and women is balancing their life in a combat environment, for those who are married with spouses and children, with home life, as well as dealing with death, dying and the moral questions that come with war, such as taking of human life versus self-preservation and defense. While overseas, he also tackled issues related to religious conflict.
A program Father Glassmire began, called Voices of Religious Tolerance, took Afghan civil leaders, military leaders and religious cultural advisors to Jordan for a week to see that Islam could peacefully coexist with a civil government. It would result in a "shura," or an Islamic decision-making assembly, which he said was key to peace and restoring a more moderate version of Islam to Afghanistan.
"A lot of the chaplains were involved with that. They'd be paired up with their Afghan counterpart in the Afghan National Army, and bringing civil relief - things as simple as school supplies, gifts for the kids, tennis shoes, clothes, food and fuel to the villages," Father Glassmire said. "For a lot of them, they'd never been exposed to anything outside of Afghanistan. For some, it was their first trip on an airplane."
Father Glassmire also emphasized the importance of realizing the Afghan people "want the same thing that you and I have: family, protection, civil rights, education and prosperity."
"The biggest misunderstood thing is that when you refer to Muslims or people that are Islamic, that it is not equated with terrorism. Islam is a religion of peace. The Navy sent away to graduate school to study Christian-Muslim relations at Emory University (in Atlanta, Ga.). That's one of my graduate degrees. It's really not equating every person who practices Islam, or is Muslim, with being a terrorist."