Father Pete Zalewski, left, brings not only a spiritual presence to the troops,
but also his own experience with military life.

Father Peter Zalewski is a busy priest, serving as pastor of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Panama City, Florida, and hosting “Catholic in America,” a popular weekly television program. But even though his days are full, Father Pete, as he is affectionately known, also is an Air National Guard chaplain, and spends many hours each week ministering to military members in Florida’s Panhandle.

Father Pete is the newest member of Catholic Extension’s Mission Committee, a nationally representative “Advisory Committee” to Catholic Extension’s Board of Governors. He was a finalist for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award in 2012 and a shining example of the importance of the Church’s presence in the military and the value of chaplains with military backgrounds.

Father Pete finds that all men and women in uniform are drawn to chaplains.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Father Pete was deployed during the first Gulf War. “I had exposure to combat zones and worked in combat situations way before I became a priest,” he explained.

Father Pete’s spiritual presence, along with his firsthand experience of military service, is invaluable for the soldiers and families stationed in the area. He has ministered to them before they go, during their deployment and during their critical re-entry phase, in which the effects of serving in difficult situations can have ramifications years later.

“Troops love the chaplains, but they are especially drawn to them if they’re older or if they see specialty badges on them,” said Father Pete, who also is an active Guardsman in the Florida Air National Guard.

As a Guard chaplain, Father Pete visits his unit frequently, and when military members see the cross on his uniform, they quickly open up and start talking. “I go there every few days, and I walk around and make sure everyone’s okay,” he said. “I ask about their work and in about three minutes, the conversation often leads to spiritual direction. It surprises me how quickly a soldier or an airman opens up to a chaplain. Even the ones who aren’t overtly religious seek us out.”

While he may be called to minister at all points in the deployment cycle, Father Pete says the most difficult time for soldiers is when they return home. This is where a chaplain’s military experience is especially important.

“For example, a young man might have been deployed as a motor pool mechanic, and when he comes home, people think he didn’t do much,” said Father Pete. “But he’s not just in the motor pool. A military chaplain knows that a mechanic may have been doing convoy duty, which can involve intense combat and stress.”

Father Pete said that this disconnect can be difficult for returning servicemen. “They can feel misunderstood or undervalued because others don’t understand what they did – even friends and family,” he said.

But chaplains with military experience understand. This helps them support those struggling with critical emotional issues, from anger to guilt to posttraumatic stress disorder. “At any given time, I’m in touch with six to eight people dealing with combatrelated issues,” said Father Pete. “They get some care and counseling when they return, but after one or two weeks, they’re trying to rebuild their lives and deal with what they experienced.”

They often are dealing with a great deal of pain, and they don’t feel close to the Lord, or even have “the confidence to approach the Lord,” he said.

According to Father Pete, the Church offers comfort and care that can’t be found elsewhere, providing tools that include prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation.

“The Church is really good at healing at a deeper level than what a counselor can do,” he said. “Things stay in their hearts and they feel so bad. We reassure them that the Lord is still there for them.”

He added, “VA (Veterans Affairs) counselors do all they can, but there are often things that only the Church can do. We give them steps back to a normal life and a relationship with God.”