Albert M. Hansen serves as father to a family of thousands.
As staff chaplain at Fort Meade, the Roman Catholic priest supervises the spiritual needs of an entire army base. He educates, he counsels, he celebrates Masses for Catholic soldiers, he talks about God. And especially in these days of Desert Shield, Hansen comforts.
Two of the three battalions stationed at Fort Meade have left for Saudi Arabia since August, some leaving spouses and children behind.Hansen, four other chaplains and five assistants conduct ongoing support groups -- the Family Information Network Exchange -- answering questions and assuaging anxieties as best they can.
"Why. They want to know why," says Hansen. "They're looking for someone to say (tragedy) is not going to happen, but you can't say that."
What the chaplains can do, he says, is "listen and try to give them hope. And encourage them to pray -- a tool we do have -- to support each other with prayer."
All around the base these days, Hansen says, "people are aware of the value and importance of prayer." As the troops left for overseas, many came to the chaplains and requested baptism or made a confession or just talked, Hansen says.
This overhaul of souls isn't an unusual reaction in the face of war, says the priest, who hasserved as an army chaplain for 21 years.
"We saw this in Vietnam,and also in basic training. Often the chapels will fill, and you'll have 700 at Mass."
While motives can be mixed, Hansen supports renewed spiritual interest, whatever the cause. "Maybe out of that something real does happen, and that's good," he says.
The priest sees soldiers expressing spiritual interest with their money, too. In offerings taken at all religious services one Sunday last month, the troops gave an unprecedented $6,700 to provide food and toys for needy families.
As head chaplain at the base, Hansen makes sure religious services and training are offered for all faiths. The chaplains have had no requests for Orthodox or Islamic services, he says, but Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services are provided. He also supervises religious education for adults and children, aided by several hundred volunteers.
The work has increased in recent months, but the cause is worthy, Hansen says. Units headed overseas have requested Masses said just for them as a unit. "Maybe they haven't been very religious, but they're saying to God, 'We still believe in you,' " Hansen says. "I think that's good and healthy."
For some soldiers in the 85th medical battalion, leaving families was their biggest worry, says Chaplain Jim L. Pittman, who ministered to the 85th before they left for Saudi Arabia.
"I told them I'd do whatever I could" for about 150 families of the 85th left at the army base, says Pittman, who also serves as pastor of Cavalry Chapel on the base.
Visiting with the families, Pittman finds they have a great need to talk. Many have renewed their spiritual commitment and attend worship services regularly, he says.
"I encourage them to find strength in that, and also I try in practical ways to help with programs to keep them busy."
The challenge isn't easy for anyone. Spouses left behind wake upto empty beds and realize they are suddenly single parents, says John Hall, the chaplain in charge of Family Life programs at the army base.
"We hold seminars on how to identify stress, how to combat stress and depression," says Hall.
However, the stresses aren't unique to wartime, Hall points out. During peacetime, spouses can be assigned to overseas tours in countries such as Korea or Germany. And simply entering the army culture can be stressful in itself, he adds.
"Think how hard it is for an 18-year-old bride, away from her family for the first time, in a new part of the country, and a new way of life," Hall says. "He's at work long hours and she's at home. It's hard."
But, adds Hansen, he's been impressed through the years by the courage of spouses, usually women, left behind. "Once they deal with the initial stress, they find great strength, and they support each other," he says.
Also facing extra difficulties are the 650 families deemed "exceptional" -- families stationed at Fort Meade in order to receive treatment for spouses or children at medical institutions such as Walter Reed Army Hospital, the chaplains say.
Pittman recalls visiting a young couple in the hospital after their 3-month-old infant died. "It's like any chaplain, you encourage them to express their feelings, you offer hope, you just listen. The mother talked and talked, and they seemed so glad I was there," he says.
Chaplains remain on call 24 hours a day for everything from a soldier who just wants to talk to an emergency call from the hospital.
Adds Hansen, "It's heartwarming when you hear from people and they say you've helped them.
Sometimes they write letters, or call, and it reminds you of the reason you're a chaplain -- primarily for the soldiers."
The staff chaplain wishes he were overseas with the troops.
"If I could, I'd have been on the first plane to Saudi Arabia," he says.
But there's plenty for him to do, working with the one battalion remaining at the army base and with the families who need help.
"You never know what's going to come through your door," he says.