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Looking back on two years with Operation Jump Start, it was worth it

Chaplain (Maj.) Mike Martinez (right) serves a hot meal on Christmas Eve to an Airman assigned to an entrance identification team in Yuma, Ariz., as part of Operation Jump Start. (Army National Guard photo by Sgt.Ed Balaban)

Chaplain (Maj.) Mike Martinez (right) serves a hot meal on Christmas Eve to an Airman assigned to an entrance identification team in Yuma, Ariz., as part of Operation Jump Start. (Army National Guard photo by Sgt.Ed Balaban)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Last month, while on my way home from drill, I stopped at the grocery store to get a few items. While I was standing in line to pay the cashier I felt a tug on my arm. I turned around and standing there was an elderly couple. With tears running down their faces they said "thank you for your service."

This tugged on my heart, and without thinking, my response was "you are worth it." They looked at me, smiled and said, "We thank everyone we see wearing the uniform, but no one ever said that to us." The encounter prompted me to reflect on my previous 18 months serving Operation Jump Start. Looking back, I know in my heart that serving my fellow Guardsmen on OJS was worth it as well.

I started this mission in October 2006. I had three days of in-processing in Phoenix with Airmen and Soldiers. It was my first experience working everyday with the Army and with agents of the Border Patrol. There were six chaplains on the ground in Arizona working under the state Chaplain, Chaplain (Col.) Dan Butler. Our mission was to cover all the deployed locations of Airmen and Soldiers in our state.

We had troops in Douglas, Naco, south of Sonoita, Wilcox, Nogales, four locations on the Tohono O'odham Nation, Ajo, Tucson, Casa Grande, Phoenix, and Yuma. The chaplains were placed in different regions to ensure proper coverage. I was in a challenging situation in that I was the only Catholic Chaplain. I couldn't cover just one region. I had to travel to all areas to meet the needs of the Catholic servicemembers in particular, and all the troops regardless of religious affiliation. After almost 2 years of being a road warrior I memorized just about every rock, tree and bush along the way! I logged 74,216 miles. It was worth it.

One of my duties as a chaplain is to meet the spiritual needs of the troops. I was able to do this on a daily basis. We assisted the troops with religious services and materials, hospital visits, counseling, Red Cross notifications, marriage preparation, baptism preparation and morale and welfare visits.

I estimate that nearly 80 percent of my contacts were occasions for the troops to have a safe and confidential place to vent in exchange for encouragement and advice. The remaining 20 percent concerned various crisis situations and serious issues. Some circumstances were easy to handle and some were very difficult, but helping our Airmen and Soldiers was worth it.

One of the great things about any deployment is the people you meet and the experiences you share. I could write a book about Operation Jump Start. I met people from at least 20 states, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As part of the joint mission, I met many Soldiers from our own state, and had the daunting challenge of trying to learn how to speak "Army." Hooah!

I will never forget the smile on the face of a Soldier from North Carolina working in Yuma as he landed a 40-pound catfish from the Colorado River.

I will always remember trying desperately to find the words to comfort a Native American Soldier from Arizona and his wife as they found out their son, serving a second tour in Iraq, was unfortunately receiving his second Purple Heart.

I remember Wisconsin Soldiers who were feeling under appreciated and the look on their faces when the chaplain team surprised them with pizza.

I could go on and on with memories and experiences. On June 30, I completed my last day on Operation Jump Start. Looking back, I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to serve our Airmen and Soldiers. They were all worth it.