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Time to Give Iraq a Chance to ‘Function Independently’

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Father Joel Panzer, right, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., who holds the rank of captain in the U.S. Army, is seen with other military personnel in late August outside Hope Chapel on Camp Victory in Iraq. Father Panzer is a chaplain with the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters and is last Catholic priest serving troops preparing to depart Iraq’s by 31 Dec. (photo: CNS/courtesy U.S. Army) 

09 Dec 2011 – by Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Over the past nine years in Iraq, the sacrifice of the U.S. military “and our nation as a whole has been tremendous,” Army chaplain Father Joel Panzer said, and soldiers in general feel “it’s time for us to leave” to give the nation the impetus “to function independently.”

As the troops prepare to leave and turn bases over to Iraqi forces by Dec. 31, he said, “morale is quite high” among members of his own Army unit, the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, which is ending a 13-month deployment.

“Tremendous progress has been made” in Iraq, he told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 6 interview conducted via email and phone from the southern part of the country, where he has been stationed for his final two months.

“Regardless of the outcome here, soldiers are proud of their faithful service, and the selfless sacrifice of nearly 4,500 U.S. service members. Nothing will ever change that,” said Father Panzer, 43, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.

An Army captain, he is finishing his second tour of duty in Iraq and is the last Catholic priest serving in support of Operation New Dawn, the post-combat phase of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Currently, less than 10,000 soldiers remain in Iraq at five bases. At one point, in 2007, U.S. troops numbered 170,000 and were spread out over more than 500 bases.

As military units inspect equipment and pack it up, chaplains have related responsibilities, such as ensuring “all religious literature and sacred materials are properly packaged” for shipment home, according to Father Panzer.

“We remove all Christian and Jewish items from the buildings we have utilized as chapels simply out of a desire not to offend the people of Iraq, a predominantly Muslim nation,” he continued. “As a priest, I’ve been responsible for closing several chapels where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, including the removal of chalices and other sacred vessels.”

Father Panzer said the soldiers with whom he serves feel the U.S. military has “provided the people of Iraq with everything they need to function independently,” he said, such as “training for their military and police; funding of infrastructure, schools and hospitals; assistance with conducting elections and writing a constitution; and support in establishing a government.”

When asked if some fear instability once the troops are gone, the priest said, “Soldiers tend to be realists.”

“They have experienced the culture of the Middle East, and know that local religious and tribal loyalties bear greater allegiance than the national cause of Iraqi unity,” he told CNS.





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Tags: Iraq Middle East United States