Mid-flight, soldiers pull open the doors on either side of a cavernous C-17. Wind rushes in as the aircraft’s engines roar through Alaska’s night sky. It’s minus three degrees with snow and ice covering the ground far below.
Two lines of U.S. Army Airborne paratroopers in white camouflage, with 100 pounds of parachutes and weapons on their backs, are ready to jump. On one side of the plane, Assistant Jump Master Peter Pomposello inspects the door for sharp edges. He leans out the door to see the drop zone. Pomposello commands, “Stand by!” and waits for the jump light to turn green. “Go!” he shouts to the first paratrooper standing at the door. The soldier jumps from the plane and disappears into the darkness. In a 29-second succession, 12 more file out and into the air. The last jumper is Pomposello, Catholic priest.
Father Pomposello, chaplain for the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, sees parallels between preparing for a safe jump and preparing for the next life. He says soldiers and souls have to get serious.
“There are about 478 things that are going to happen that could kill me before I even get out of the door of the aircraft,” he told the Catholic Anchor. “You want to make sure everybody’s sharp and everybody’s on their toes,” he explained. “Get your head in the game. This is for real.”
Father Pomposello, 47, has laser focus — alongside a lightness of heart. He was raised in Staten Island, NY. In 1987 he joined the U.S. Army as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet in college. In 1991, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry. For the next eight years, he served in the Reserves, drilling out of Ft. Dix, NJ.
When not in uniform, Father Pomposello taught in the New York City Public School System — teaching computer technology. At nights, he taught high school graduation equivalency classes — a job he found deeply “rewarding” because students were pulling their lives together, “everybody was there ready to learn.”
At the same time, Father Pomposello’s own path was changing.
In high school, he had thought about the priesthood, however “briefly,” thanks to the good examples set by teachers who were priests. But “I kind of rationalized it away,” he said. “I was like, ‘I could never be a priest. Maybe I could be one of the brothers.’ I said, ‘Nah, I could never be a brother. Maybe I could be a school teacher.’ And that’s why I became a school teacher.”
But the priesthood never faded away and by age 28, it was front and center.
“I just couldn’t ignore it anymore,” Father Pomposello recalled.
He had been dating a woman from church, and they were heading toward marriage. “I loved her dearly,” he said, but the priesthood persisted.
He finally mustered the courage to announce, “I’m thinking about going to the seminary.” After some distress, his girlfriend observed: “You’d make a good priest.” Laughing now, Father Pomposello said, “When your girlfriend tells you you’d make a good priest, you got to look into it!”
Six months later, he moved forward with seminary. “I’m chicken if I don’t do this,” he recalled.
In 2004, Father Pomposello was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York. For 10 years, he served in parishes, including as pastor. But there was another flock in desperate need of shepherds.
About a year ago Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military, spoke to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asking that they be generous in allowing their priests to serve in the military. At that time he said there were just over 200 priests serving roughly one million Catholic military personnel and their families. The shortage of military priests has only worsened since then.
As “non-lethal forces,” military chaplains aren’t “trigger-pullers,” Father Pomposello explained. Rather, they exist so military personnel “can freely exercise their religion.” A Catholic chaplain provides the sacraments and counseling to Catholics, and also advises and helps other soldiers meet their spiritual needs.
Father Pomposello sought permission from his bishop —New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan — to become a military chaplain. Cardinal Dolan agreed but stipulated Father Pomposello had to work directly with the troops.
“I’m looking to go to Alaska to jump out of airplanes,” Father Pomposello told him. “That’s what I want to hear. That’s what I want you to do,” Cardinal Dolan responded.
PURSUING THE HARD STUFF
For Father Pomposello, becoming a paratrooper was a childhood dream. It began with seeing a movie about paratroopers in World War II when he was eight.
“I could show you the scene in the movie,” he said.
As a priest Father Pomposello views that desire in a new light. He observed that God has “graced” him with the ability and the physical fitness to serve as a paratrooper — and these are gifts to be given back to God.
“Not all my brother priests have the desire to jump out of airplanes in minus eight-degree weather,” he said. “They don’t even want to think about doing that. The fact that I’m at all attracted to it, you know, I got to go here, I’ve got to do it, because if not, I’m kind of holding out,” he explained. “I’d rather pursue the hard stuff that God’s given me the ability to do as far as I can do it because the day’s going to come that I’m going to have my last jump.
“But as long as I can do it, I feel obligated to do it,” he added. “And then when I’m too old, too injured, whatever and it’s over, then it’ll be over. I want to offer this while I can. It’s a limited-time offer, you know,” he said, smiling.
Of the 90 Catholic priests in the Army, only about 10 are paratroopers, and about three of those are jump masters, including Father Pomposello.
It starts with basic Airborne training at Ft. Benning, Ga. To become Airborne “qualified,” a soldier needs five jumps out of a high-performance aircraft.
Those who wish to become jump masters must attend jump master school, which qualifies them to inspect paratrooper equipment, teach classes on jumps, and keep track of paratroopers on the plane and on the ground after a jump.
To become a senior-rated jump master, one must have 30 qualifying jumps — including one at night, directing paratroopers’ and then jumping oneself. Father Pomposello completed his senior-rated jump in December. There’s one more step to master-rated jump master, which requires another 35 leaps from the plane.
NO FIVE-JUMP CHUMP
Father Pomposello admitted that “current” paratroopers have a somewhat derogatory name for those who stop right after Airborne school: “Five-jump chumps.”
“You jump out five times, you pin on the badge, and you never have to jump out of an airplane again,” he explained. But paratroopers who are “current” jump once or twice every three months. They’re ready to “jump out of an airplane into a foreign country, into a firefight,” he noted.
There are spiritual lessons there.
“We got to be careful of being just qualified Catholics, not current Catholics,” Father Pomposello said. “The qualified Catholic: ‘Oh, I was baptized, I received First Holy communion, I went to confirmation. Yeah, I don’t really go to church.’ You’re not current,” he observed without harshness. “You got to be current and qualified. You got to get out the door every Sunday and go to church, live your faith.”
“Stop doing things you’re not supposed to be doing, start doing what you’re supposed to do,” he added matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to be a five-jump chump spiritually.”
Like good paratrooper training, Father Pomposello believes raising one’s spiritual life provides peace and the ability to do great things.
“The door of the aircraft is the great equalizer,” he observed. “Every paratrooper, from the colonel who’s a battalion commander to the private who hasn’t even been in the Army for a year, we all have to face our fears and exit that door safely and with confidence, not just going out kicking and screaming, but confident, trusting our equipment, trusting our training — that hey, this is just the beginning of it. I got to hit the ground…and we got a mission to do.”
‘AS BEST I CAN’
Before every jump, up to 400 paratroopers in gear assemble in a large plane hangar for a flight briefing and prayer. Father Pomposello begins with a short prayer and entrusts everyone to the patron of the Airborne — Saint Michael, the Archangel. He prays the traditional prayer — which often elicits compliments from the paratroopers. They’ll ask, “Did you write that?” And then he gives them medallions bearing the image of Saint Michael with a plane and paratroopers in the background. Conversations ensue with those who’ve fallen away from their Catholic practice. “It can be a moment to really bring people back to the faith, to the sacraments,” Father Pomposello said.
Being a jump master is “added value,” he noted, “because now soldiers relate to me as a soldier.” That opens the door to non-Catholics, too, he said, like the soldier from Mississippi who’d never met a Catholic before. “And he’s talking to a priest who’s sharing his vocation story with him. I may be the only priest he ever talks to but at least he got to talk to one, and my responsibility is to represent the church as best I can.”