MANLIUS — The path to Maj. Kenneth M. Bolin’s Catholic priesthood as a married man was unusual. He was ordained a priest Thursday during a ceremonial Mass. Since age 10, the Bureau County native knew ministry was his calling, but he did not know many stages of his life that would to lead him to this point.
A U.S. Army helicopter flies over the Euphrates River in Iraq and inside is a man from Manlius who realizes, suddenly, how far he is from home. He becomes aware of himself and how small he is in accordance to the great history of the world. He says a quick prayer and regroups.
Years later, he finds himself strapped into a seat, staring outside the helicopter door and watching the ground flash by — the Hindu Kush mountains looming over the Afghan landscape — he thinks about home, the Alaskan mountain range, the past and future, passing over the world and what most men and women only dream of witnessing in their lifetime, and for Bolin it has seemingly only just begun.
The several occasions when Bolin, an Army chaplain, was deployed to the Middle East he found himself surrounded by relics from stories in the Bible he remembered as a child. From the rocky deserts of the Sinai peninsula to the ancient city of Babylon, he walked the land where documented history began and he was at war.
Just after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bolin was a communications officer in charge of 70 soldiers and 70 civilians in Saudi Arabia. During the first year of operations in Afghanistan, Bolin was sent to the country, briefly, to help establish a communications structure during the infant stages of the conflict.
No matter the rank or success Bolin had achieved during his time in the military, there still was something nagging at him. After his deployment and a decade of military service, he resigned from his post and enrolled in seminary school to pursue ministry.
“I was, for lack of a better term, ‘called.’ Like Jiminy Cricket from ‘Pinocchio’ God got my attention and I realized it was time to leave my active duty military service.”
Since age 10, growing up attending Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church along Backbone Road outside of Manlius, Kenneth knew at some point in his life he would end up in ministry. His faith journey would continue at Dallas Seminary School where he graduated with a master’s degree in theology in 2006 and, once again, find something nagging at him.
The opportunity opened up for Bolin to re-enlist in the military after finishing seminary, only this time as a chaplain. This allowed Bolin to serve the two things that called him most: God and country.
Chaplains take on two distinct roles. First, much like they would as a civilian, chaplains can perform religious duties and ceremonies much like a pastor. Secondly, chaplains serve as religious support staff officers, helping soldiers maintain relationships with friends, family and the divine. They are considered for civil affairs issues, such as working with local religious leaders in areas where U.S. troops are deployed or a combat zone. Bolin said chaplains are not considered psychologists or therapists.
“We bring a distinctly religious flavor to (soldier) support,” Bolin said. “It is not distinctly religious. We don’t go out to push our religious traditions down the throat of others.”
War does not affect everyone the same. There are those who experience physical injury, those who experience psychological injury. The need for a chaplain often arises when someone is facing their own mortality and extreme pain. Bolin recalled a dehydrated soldier who showed up in the emergency room.
“It was the only time I had to walk away from a hospital bed,” he said. “The doctors and nurses had an extremely difficult time getting an I.V. into him so they could push fluids into his body.”
In the meantime, doctors had to address the wounds and prepare to take out shrapnel but could not introduce pain-killers soon enough.
“This soldier who was injured, wounded and psychologically distressed because of what he had just been through, was lying on the bed screaming about how much what we were doing to him hurt. Even though I was trying to talk with him and keep him calm, the pain he was feeling came through to me.
“The problems I faced as a chaplain overseas were mostly other people’s problems. Some of the situations are absolutely heart-wrenching.”
There were many things that took this farm boy from Manlius across the world several times. The first was Bolin’s decision to join the military right out of high school. Peggy, his mother, said Kenny approached her one afternoon and said, “I think this is what I want to do.”
“I was nervous like any parent, but that was what he chose,” Peggy said. “It was hard taking him and leaving him (at West Point). When you’re from a small community, you are at every concert every ball game, everything. With him being far away that was not a possibility.”
Living 2 miles outside of town, in the middle of a cornfield, Bolin’s concerns in life consisted of what happened on the farm and what happened in town. A regimented farm life growing up helped prepare Bolin for life in the military.
“We had morning chores. We had to take care of animals, livestock, crops and things like that,” Bolin said. “There was so much about joining the military that was already familiar.”
Son of Ken and Peggy Bolin of Manlius, Kenneth graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. He then enrolled and was accepted in military school. From there, joining the Army took Bolin around the world and opened his eyes to some of the good and bad in life that goes on beyond Bureau County.
While at West Point, Bolin sang in the cadet chapel choir along with another cadet named Sharon. Living close to New York City, the two went to see “Miss Saigon” on Broadway as a first date. They would soon marry and have three children. Bolin plans to stay in the military as long as he can.
“I’ll be eligible for military retirement in six years, but I could theoretically stay in another 20 years beyond that,” said Bolin, currently stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. “As long as God and the Army want me to. When I’m no longer needed, then I’ll go.”
Bolin had been overseas five times, completing his most recent tour in Afghanistan last October. Before the recent tour, he had been in Iraq for over a year in 2007, Tunisia in 1995 and a five-month deployment in Egypt in 1999. He was waiting for winter deployment to Saudi Arabia when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.
“I was sitting in a classroom in a military school just outside of Augusta, Ga., called Fort Gordon. Once I got a hold of my wife on the telephone, we wondered aloud whether or not I had chosen the next correct assignment. Going to Saudi Arabia in January made you wonder aloud if that was a wise choice.”
In order to become a chaplain, one must be a religious leader in a certain faith group, whether it be Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Episcopalian, etc., before receiving the rank. Bolin’s endorsement for chaplain came from the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, a nondenominational organization.
“I did not know, based on my prior time in service, where I really fit in terms of a faith group because I had been so many places and seen so many different faith traditions, I wasn’t really sure who to tie into.”
Eventually, the chaplain became an Anglican priest.
In November 2009, Pope Benedict outlined a structure called personal ordinariate, with a purpose to bring Anglicans back to the Catholic church. It was then where Bolin’s life would take yet another transition, becoming a married Catholic priest with children.
“At first I let that sit for a while,” Bolin said. “I was quite content with being an Anglican, but little over a year ago there was something nagging at me spiritually saying I needed to reconsider this.”
After speaking with his wife, who had been experiencing the same feelings about conversion, the chaplain filed the necessary paperwork to continue his work in ministry with the Catholic Church. After several months of waiting, the chaplain was ordained a Catholic priest on March 7, 2013, during Mass.
“Even though the formal process of becoming a priest is over, my journey will be never ending.”
Lee Strubinger can be reached at (815) 879-5200 or ntprinceton