FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHAMSHER, Afghanistan – Helicopters are used for many reasons in Afghanistan, but only a few are called the “Holy Helo.”
That’s the nickname U.S. service members give to the aircraft used to deliver chaplains to military bases in a war zone. They’re frequently on bases just a few hours, long enough to conduct a religious service and say hello before moving on to the next location.
That was the case Sunday morning when The Rev. Kevin Sweeney arrived here at the home of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. Sweeney, a Roman Catholic priest and Navy commander, celebrated a mass in the base’s chow hall after landing in an MV-22 Osprey. He was on the second leg of a three-part stop in northern Helmand province, he said.
“Typically, we’re flying,” Sweeney said. “We’ll take a convoy if there’s something close by, but we joke that we have frequent flier miles on the ‘Holy Helo.'”
There are about a dozen chaplains assigned across Regional Command Southwest, home to thousands of Marines and sailors in Helmand province. Many of them are assigned to infantry battalions, providing spiritual guidance and a friendly ear to troops who seek them.
Protestant ministers cannot say a Catholic mass, however. That’s primarily where the “Holy Helo” comes in.
There are currently three Catholic priests deployed to RC-Southwest as chaplains. Sweeney is one of two based at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan. All three make flights to say masses across the Corps’ area of operations, Sweeney said.
Sweeney said he felt called to become a Catholic chaplain in the military. He was commissioned as an officer aboard the battleship Missouri in 1991, and became a priest in 1994 after graduating from seminary school. He is on loan to the military from the Diocese of Orange in California.
“It’s very rewarding work,” he said of being a chaplain. “You definitely feel appreciated. Not everyone gets to do something meaningful in life, and we get to every day.”