The Cross and the IED

Paul Passamonti, A84, tends his flock under fire and through a tsunami

You might say that knighthood is a family business for Paul Passamonti, A84. His lineage includes knights going back to the thirteenth century, among them the Italian military hero Ettore Fieramosca, and now Passamonti has attained chivalric status himself—though he goes about it unarmed. A U.S. Army chaplain, he was inducted last October into the Vatican’s Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the highest accolades of the Catholic faith.

Passamonti earned the honor for achievement above and beyond the call of duty—much of it under duress and even under fire—in Iraq and Japan. (He is currently stationed in Germany.) Serving in Iraq for 14 months during 2007 and 2008, he tended to the faith and counseling needs of troops and civilian contractors.

Military chaplains are not allowed to carry weapons, but that doesn’t stop the other side from opening fire or worse. In Iraq, one of Passamonti’s fellow clergymen, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped, and died in captivity. Passamonti himself was in 11 different convoys that came under attack, mostly from roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs). “More than a few times, my ears rang,” he says.

On top of that, the almost nightly mortar attacks produced frayed nerves. “Some of the chaplains who’d been deployed before were kind of shell-shocked and not visiting their people out in the field,” Passamonti says. “So the commander sent me in, and I took some risks to go see all those folks. I went many places other chaplains did not.” That was enough to earn him a Bronze Star and a Combat Action Badge when his tour ended in 2008.

Passamonti’s post-Iraq tour turned out to be almost as eventful. He was stationed in Zama, Japan, last year when the March earthquake and tsunami caused widespread destruction. Passamonti sprang into action, helping coordinate relief efforts both on the base and out in the community. He handled everything from bringing in relief supplies to keeping everyone calm in the disaster’s aftermath.

His contribution did not go unnoticed. “Paul’s actions to take care of those injured and left desolate and homeless called themselves to my attention,” says Colonel Richard Spencer, the bishop in charge of military chapels in Asia and Europe. “It was lots of long hours under very stressful conditions, without electricity or water. Being a selfless server of others, he took care of the needs of hundreds of people.” Spencer was the one who nominated him for the Holy Sepulchre award.

Passamonti didn’t know what honor was in store for him, only that it was “strongly recommended” he make plans to come to Washington. He was, he says, “quite shocked” to win a title that usually goes to priests more senior than he is.

God in a War Zone

A native of Boston, Passamonti went to Tufts because, like knighthood, it ran in the family. His father, Gino, DG55, DG57, D58, was a professor of prosthetics at the dental school. His younger brother Mark, A88, SMFA88, is a military physician at Bethesda Naval Hospital. After getting his degree in French, Paul entered the military in 1986 and worked four years in military intelligence while stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He also taught French to American and NATO soldiers.

It was in that period that Passamonti discovered he had a gift for counseling. He decided to become a Catholic priest. After his enlistment ended, he went to study theology at Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. A decade later, he rejoined the Army as a chaplain, serving in Korea, Central America and the Balkans.

Then came Iraq, where a typical day might begin at 3 a.m. with a ride in a convoy from his home base of Kirkuk to more remote areas. Once out in the field, Passamonti would sit down to advise the troops on matters of faith and life during wartime. It wasn’t unusual for soldiers to come to him upset over something they’d seen or done, and here he was able to pass along a lesson his father taught him.

“My father had to escape the Nazis during World War II when they occupied his parents’ house in Italy, and he had many bad experiences,” says Passamonti. “But he talked about them all the time. Talking about wartime experiences is better than dealing with them in self-destructive ways like drugs or alcohol.”

Passamonti would tell soldiers to record disturbing episodes in a journal—including hand-drawn pictures or diagrams—and discuss the events with as many people as possible. “For people who have had traumatic experiences, the healing is in the repetition of the story, so that the emotion is less intense or toxic.”

Such agonies might be expected to shake a person’s faith. But it’s not impossible to hang on to God in a war zone, according to Passamonti.

“It requires a redefinition and understanding of God,” he says. “If God is blamed for all human shortcomings, failures and evils, and only ‘luck’ is credited for gifts, then faith is indeed shaky. Or it can be nonexistent because one may feel God does not micromanage as we want him to, or is deaf to our nine-one-one calls for help. I keep faith going through prayer, strong friendships and just knowing I helped a few people because I passed their way and lifted them up.”

David Menconi is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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