Mission Kosovo

Creagan, right, met soldiers from many of the NATO countries, including a soldier from Hungary. (submitted photos)

The Rev. Michael Creagan got to see the sites of Kosovo including the Sharr Mountians see here.

Creagan, right, would meet with U.S. Army National Guard soldiers like the ones pictured above from North Carolina and West Virginia.

Creagan took soldiers on pilgrimages to different religious sites like this 13th century Serbian Orthodox monastery in Peje, Kosovo.

The Rev. Michael Creagan, right, would bring communion to soldiers on duty who were unable to attend mass.

Kosovo is part of the Balkans in Southeast Europe, boarded by countries like Serbia and Montenegro. (curtsey of CDC, http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/Kosovo)

Local chaplain returns from serving overseas 

Getting to where he is today meant the Rev. Michael Creagan’s life changed course more than once. First off, he says he never thought he would be in the Catholic priesthood -- let alone that it would lead him to serving as an Army chaplain in Kosovo.

Creagan, 45, majored in international studies at the University of St. Thomas with the hope of someday working for the U.S. Foreign Service.

“It was probably half way through college, that God really called me to priesthood. In fact, at first I thought ‘oh no’ because I don’t like public speaking and I tried to come up with all the excuses,” Creagan says.

He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1997 after attending St. Paul Seminary. Then he never thought he would join the Army National Guard. 

However, four years ago, Creagan visited a former parishioner in the hospital who served in the National Guard. During Creagan’s visit, a head chaplain for the Minnesota National Guard was visiting as well.

The head chaplain asked Creagan to have lunch with him. During lunch, he asked Creagan to join the National Guard. He said no because he thought he would be too busy with his parish. This happened three times before a fourth meeting

“He looked at me and said, ‘Father, you have something that others don’t have.’ Now, because he was a Methodist minister I was trying to think what he could be talking about,” Creagan says. “After a long silence he looked at me and said, ‘You can forgive sins.’”

Looking back, Creagan jokes he was “guilted” into the Army.


Call to serve

Creagan, who is the pastor of Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, recalls that he started hearing rumors of a possible deployment of his National Guard unit, but it wasn’t until last spring that it was confirmed that he would be deployed to serve in Kosovo for six months. In June of 2015 he left his large parish and then returned to the U.S. in December of the same year. 

“I was certainly nervous because I thought, ‘I’m leaving the parish for a long time.’ But there was also a sense of gratitude in being asked and chosen to serve the needs of the Army in that part of the world” Creagan says. 


Why Kosovo?

Kosovo is located in the former Yugoslavia -- it’s a small, landlocked country that has been independent since 2008.

Ethnic Albanians make up the majority of its population -- most are Muslim -- with Serbs and Roma accounting for much of the rest of the people in the nation.

Some Albanians are Roman Catholic, and this has resulted in frictions in the region for centuries.

These ethnic tensions led to the Kosovo War in 1998. The Kosovo Liberation Army, made up mostly of ethnic Albanians, fought forces from the former Yugoslavia. As the war escalated, NATO stepped in and the fighting ended with a treaty, though the alliance of countries has had a peacekeeping force on the ground since.

“The mission of NATO forces is very simple. The mission right now is to provide a safe and secure environment, and to provide freedom of movement,” Creagan says.


A National Guard chaplain

During his deployment, Creagan says he had five main duties, one of which was taking care of Catholic sacramental needs. 

He performed daily Mass at Camp Bondsteel, where he was stationed, as well as one Mass on Sundays. There were two other bases Creagan would travel to on Sundays to perform the Mass as well.

He was also chaplain for everyone assigned to Camp Bondsteel, including U.S soldiers and those of eight other nations who were based there. This meant he either performed or provided for the spiritual needs of all on the base.

“If there’s soldiers of other faiths, maybe even non-Christian faiths, I can provide for them by finding the resources they need to have their needs met,” Creagan says. 

He also served as staff officer for the commander, and helped advise on questions of a religious nature and was a point of contact for key leader engagements.

He says chaplains in the Army National Guard don’t carry a weapon. Each chaplain is assigned a chaplain assistant, who is in charge of his or her security as well as being an administrative aide.

“I was very fortunate because my chaplain assistant was from the North Carolina Guard. She had been in the Army for 23 years, and in her civilian life she was a vice president for Bank of America,” Creagan says. “I was in very good shape; well taken care of.”


Support from back home

Throughout the six months he was away from home, St. Joseph parishioners offered support, both through prayer and care packages.

“It was a great thing -- not only for the U.S soldiers but it was a new experience for some of the other NATO partners we were based with, because some of their countries don’t always have those traditions.” 

He also Skyped with students back at St. Joseph’s Catholic School seven times. Each time he Skyped a class, he had a solider from a different country with him. 

Students looked up information about the peacekeeping forces and asked the soldiers questions to learn more about their homelands.

After his tour, Creagan spent time in Texas being debriefed, and now is back at St. Joseph parish. He occasionally does slide-show presentations and speaks about his experiences to various groups. 


Bonds formed

He says being on the military base meant interacting with soldiers from a variety of cultures and countries. He discovered a lot of the countries had placed a great deal of emphasis on hospitality when inviting other soldiers into their barracks. 

There was a recreation hall with pool and ping-pong tables. Creagan says many nights were spent hanging out with people from different nations.

Creagan says he was “adopted” by a group of Armenian soldiers and welcomed in as their own chaplain. It all started when one night, some of the Armenian soldiers told Creagan they wanted to talk to him.

“They brought me a gift. They were in the village and had bought me a quilt,” he says. “They knew winter was coming, and they thought the chaplain needed a quilt, so I was touched.”


Lessons learned

During his deployment, Creagan took groups of soldiers from different cultures on different pilgrimages. Some of these journeys took them to Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

There were times the groups were made up of soldiers from countries that didn’t always get along.

“Hopefully, as people are moving on in their careers in the military ... they’ll remember the friendships they made [on the pilgrimages],” Creagan says. 

For both the Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo, families ties are particularly important, and they come together often for celebrations and parties. Creagan says families there stick together, and he realized that families in the U.S. could learn from them about the benefits of maintaining strong family relationships.

Since the majority of the country is Muslim, Creagan says he learned a lot about the faith. In a visit with an imam and through his work with Muslims, he says he learned that many of them want to live in peace and have values similar to Christians. 

Creagan was asked to talk at an Islamic college in Kosovo on the subject of religious tolerance, and he specifically spoke on working with chaplains in the Army of different faiths.

He found he had a friendship with the other chaplains he worked with because of the common nature of their work. As they grew closer together they were able to learn about each other’s faith.

“If we can build the friendships first,” Creagan says, “then we’re able to have some of the [more difficult] conversations.”


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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