Chaplain helps families through grief, joy
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- One week, he whispered prayers to a grief-stricken mother burying her soldier son. The next, his ears hurt from the roars of a crowd cheering the return of former prisoners of war.
In his role as chaplain, Lt. Col. Philip Briganti was a voice of comfort for families at Fort Bliss Army post whose loved ones will never come home from Iraq. And he was the person who helped give thanks when rescued soldiers came back.
Ft. Bliss had nine of its soldiers killed in the war and six who where POWs belonged to the post.
"I reached some of my lowest lows and also some of my most joyful moments," said Briganti, 56, who became a Catholic priest 30 years ago. "In all cases, I turned the families to God. That is my bottom-line answer. ... Even in the moments of darkest dread, God's light is there. You just have to be open to see it."
As head of religious operations at the sprawling 12,000-soldier post in El Paso, Texas, Briganti's mission is to provide religious support to soldiers and their families.
During the war, he organized weekly meetings to pray for peace, accompanied officers who told relatives that their loved ones were gone, and spent time counseling friends and relatives of POWs.
He "was right in there, doing all the things that families and soldiers needed," Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said.
Growing up, Briganti said, he had sometimes considered joining the military, following in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran. But after he became a priest at 26, he thought he'd never serve.
It wasn't until nine years later that he and his religious superiors agreed that he might be well-suited for a chaplain position.
He was nominated and, after passing basic training, he joined the Army. Even though chaplains are considered noncombatants and are forbidden to carry weapons, they accompany troops into battle.
"I'm expected to be there where the soldiers are," said Briganti, who was deployed with troops to Kuwait in 1996 and Egypt in 1990.
Although part of him wishes he could have accompanied the units sent to Iraq, he said he's glad he was able to offer spiritual guidance to those who stayed behind, helping them search for deeper spiritual meanings amid the sorrows of war.
Drawing the connection between war and faith, Briganti said his Easter Sunday services beckoned the largest crowd he had seen in three decades.
"We here at Fort Bliss have had an incredible experience: an experience of death, and, now, an experience of rebirth," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter after the Easter Mass.
"Our faith is what enables people here to look at death and face it. We can still hope for tomorrow."
Note: In every war there are acts of extraordinary courage where an individual, military or civilian, goes beyond what is expected to avert conflict, save lives or otherwise achieve an extraordinary mission. This special section highlights the acts of a few individuals who -- through feats of courage, nobility of purpose or life-risking situations -- have become "Heroes of War."