My Desert Experience

A Spiritual Journey in Afghanistan

My Desert Experience

Article Tools

Even if you’ve never set foot in a desert, you’ve probably had what could be described as desert experiences. I’m talking about those times of trial or testing, when you discover that God is very near.

My journey into the desert began with a phone call in early June 2005. I was three years away from retiring from the New Mexico Army National Guard and was just beginning my third year as a deacon candidate for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I thought my future was all mapped out. Then I picked up the phone and learned that I was to leave for a one-year tour of duty to help train the Afghan National Army.

I have served my country in many places around the world and have been enriched by each experience. Afghanistan, however, was never part of my long-term plan. I did not relish the thought of the long separation from my wife and children. And though I had permission to keep participating in the diaconate program, I worried that there would be no opportunity to continue my formation. God, I prayed, is that really where you want me?

Foot Washing. As I went through the weeks of military training for my new assignment, my thoughts kept turning to something I had heard at a retreat for deacon candidates. The facilitator, a deacon, had said we were being called to imitate Jesus, to wrap a towel around our waist and wash the feet of our fellow man. I wondered how this applied to a soldier who was going to Afghanistan.

Two weeks after my arrival in the capital city of Kabul, I got a more literal answer than I expected. We had driven out to the firing range and were returning to camp when one of the soldiers was shot in the foot. I helped administer first aid.

Then, before we reached camp, one of the vehicles in our convoy broke down. We were immediately swarmed by curious children. After a few minutes, a fellow soldier emerged from the crowd carrying a young boy whose foot had been run over by a car the day before. Would I help to wash it so the injury could be assessed?

As I knelt in the middle of the busy street washing that boy’s foot, I could almost hear the retreat facilitator’s voice. Jesus Christ is the Word become flesh, and, in a way, the deacon’s words became flesh at that moment. It hit me that maybe I was where God wanted me to be.

Call to Service. From Kabul, I was assigned to Kandahar, in the South, and then to a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in a small village community in one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces. I had already passed through it and remembered how desolate it seemed. Like my hometown in New Mexico, Qalat village sits at six thousand feet, with bitter winters followed by a tremendous windy season. From it, you can see for miles across the Afghan desert.

I was crushed at the news of this assignment. In such an isolated area, my diaconate studies would be on hold for sure. Worse, I would probably not be able to receive the Eucharist even once a week, due to the shortage of priests.

On the eve of my departure, I slipped into the Blessed Sacrament chapel to tell God, Your will, not mine. A priest was sitting in quiet prayer, a Navy chaplain named Lt. Daniel Mode. With amazement and joy, I learned that he was stationed at another FOB in the area where I was going and that he was praying for someone to help him with RCIA and Confirmation programs. I could feel the Holy Spirit present as we formed a bond of friendship in front of the tabernacle.

Chaplain Mode and I have been working together ever since. He oversees my formation, and I travel to his FOB to teach classes and lead Communion services when he is at other bases. When people ask how I met him, I say that Jesus Christ introduced us!

Living in the Desert. Everywhere in this rural area of Afghanistan are images that evoke thoughts of daily life in the time of Jesus and the early church. The local villagers wear traditional dress, as they have for centuries. I see women drawing water at the communal well. When we drive across the desert in our armored cars, frightened sheep huddle around the sheep herder, who stands tall with his staff in hand.

I have met wonderful local people who treat us with generosity and a spirit of brotherhood, though we do not share the same faith. One day, recognizing a familiar aroma, I walked toward a mud hut and saw someone baking bread in the ground. I turned away to find a man standing in front of me. He was in his early thirties, with long hair and a beard, wearing a robe and sandals. He offered me a long flat piece of bread, nan, as I later learned. He spoke no English and I spoke no Pashto, but for a few minutes we stood together under the trees, sharing the bread and enjoying each other’s company.

Despite its hardships and the loneliness I often experience, this time in the desert has strengthened my spiritual life. I have been able to spend more time in prayer and renew my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My Lord and Savior has proven to be my best, most faithful friend. Though I am still unsure about why God called me to serve him and his people in Afghanistan, I have no doubts that this desert place is right where he wants me to be.

Lieutenant Colonel Norbert E. Archibeque is a native of Vaughn, New Mexico, and has served in the National Guard for more than twenty-two years. He and his family live in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.