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Called to duty

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Posted: Saturday, December 18, 2010 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:11 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Killeen Daily Herald

Lt. Col. Eric Albertson grew up with the Army, but he wasn't sure that was the life he wanted. His father was a career officer in the Army's medical services corps and a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Albertson joined the ROTC at West Virginia University, but felt a calling toward the priesthood before he finished. ROTC released him to pursue that calling, hoping he could eventually return as a chaplain, Albertson said Thursday from his office at Fort Hood.

Twenty-four years after he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, Albertson took the lead as the 1st Cavalry Division's spiritual adviser. He assumed the division's stole from Lt. Col. (promotable) Barbara Sherer during a June 29 ceremony at Fort Hood.

Sherer, who was an ordained Presbyterian minister, accepted the stole in May 2008. She went on to attend the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

Albertson attended Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and was ordained in 1986. He served as an associate pastor at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, Va., and Saint Lawrence in Franconia.

Not long after he was ordained, Albertson said he felt a calling to return to the military. It was as intense as his calling to priesthood, he said.

There is a shortage of priests in the civilian world, which is reflected in the Army, and that encouraged Albertson to look further into becoming an Army chaplain.

He later found that the shortage of priests in the Army was affecting Catholic soldiers on an emotional level. While his Protestant brothers stepped up to provide care in the absence of Catholic chaplains, there was a population of soldiers who were a "desert that was thirsting," Albertson said.

Of about 1,300 chaplains in the U.S. Army, only 92 are Catholic priests.

Albertson petitioned six years in a row to be released for military service, but the nationwide shortage of priests influenced his bishop in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., to say no. His bishop finally said yes in 1993.

Albertson's initial tour was three years, though that increased as Albertson dove deeper into his military career, eventually completing the Army Ranger Course and Advanced Airborne Training. His time in the Army is twice that of a typical chaplain, he said.

Albertson previously served with the 82nd Airborne Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Recruiting Command as a chaplain recruiter, Installation Management Command, 3rd Infantry Division, 10th Mountain Division and U.S. Army Africa. He served in the 1st Cavalry, deploying with it to Bosnia. Other overseas tours include Haiti, Kuwait, Korea, Italy, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was during a deployment to Haiti in 1995 that Albertson saw the poverty the island nation's people lived with. A music composition enthusiast and guitarist, Albertson produced a Christian CD, and 100 percent of the profits - $15,000 - went toward relief efforts in Haiti. Albertson is also an award-winning photographer.

Before coming back to Fort Hood, Albertson served as garrison chaplain for Camp Eggers, Kabul, and deputy command chaplain for the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. He helped the Afghan National Army create its chaplain corps, which is called the Religious and Cultural Affairs Directorate, according to information from the 1st Cavalry.

Albertson is preparing to return to Afghanistan this spring with the 1st Cavalry's headquarters.

The Army is a high-intensity, demanding environment and it can be intimidating, Albertson said, adding he liked the challenge. One is never in his comfort zone too long in the Army, he said.

Albertson sees serving as a chaplain as an opportunity to travel the world and work with a congregation that is composed of a variety of denominations. Most priests tend to focus on one denomination because they are meeting the needs of their parishioners, he said.

He also gets to interact with a "beautiful fraternity" of chaplains, whether they be Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim. Chaplains of other religions received the same calls to serve that he did, and he respects and understands them more after talking about those shared experiences.

It's beautiful to see how much they have in common, he added. Those commonalities center around a love for soldiers and a devotion to their pastoral care and spiritual needs.

Albertson said he felt spoiled because of the opportunities he's been afforded as an Army chaplain - opportunities and experiences a civilian Catholic priest may not get.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at astair@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7547. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.

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