By U.S. Army Lt. Col. Eric Albertson, RC-East PAO, BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan— He is a priest, a soldier, an Army chaplain, and yet he is also a bishop, serving as an Auxiliary for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
U.S. Army Col. Rick Spencer wears many hats besides his zucchetto, the small head covering marking his clerical position; including the Army’s patrol cap, field “boonie” cap, and combat helmet.
A former military police officer commissioned in 1973, he answered the call to the priesthood in 1980 and was ordained for the Diocese of Baltimore in 1988. Having served initially in the U.S. Army Reserves, Spencer later joined the active force and served with distinction in varied assignments, including Bosnia, Egypt, Korea, Germany, and multiple combat deployments to Iraq.
Answering the call from Rome, he was ordained a bishop in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2010. Unique in the history of the Military Archdiocese, as the only actively serving auxiliary bishop, he retained his status as an Army chaplain in the Reserves, allowing him to deploy in support of combat operations and provide needed sacramental and spiritual support to the troops in the forward operating areas.
Bishop Spencer commented that he always finds it humbling and rewarding to work and serve in a joint environment—one that includes the Air Force, Navy, Marines, in addition to the Army. Although his roots are with the Army, as a military bishop, his concern is for all branches of service.
“The privilege to support the different branches with pastoral care, and seeing them work together to bring peace, stability and hope to the people and nation of Afghanistan is very rewarding,” the Bishop said.
Yet the reward goes both ways. The Bagram congregations, made up of the different branches, all commented on how special it was to have the Bishop celebrate Mass for Advent and the holiday season.
Although tremendous military success has occurred in the past year, the fighting in eastern Afghanistan remains intense. Helicopters routinely brought in the wounded, and multiple ramp ceremonies and memorial ceremonies were conducted to honor the fallen. The long hours and continuous combat operations, the cumulative effects of grief and the emotional strain associated with caring for the wounded takes its toll.
Most of these troops have deployed multiple times. Sometimes it takes a little more grace when the spiritual need is so great, perhaps only the grace and presence a bishop can bring, one who possesses the fullness of the priesthood, one who is soldier, chaplain and shepherd.
Father Eric Albertson is a priest from the Arlington Diocese serving in the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Currently he is the command chaplain for Regional Command-East, 1st Cavalry Division, Combined Joint Task Force-1, Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.