FORT WAYNE – On May 16, 2011, then-Capt. Michael N. Frese of Fort Wayne had just finished setting up a teleconference for a routine staff meeting on an Army base in Afghanistan when the tent was sitting in was hit with a huge explosion.
“It knocked me out of my chair and put me on the ground and shredded the tent,” Frese said Saturday afternoon. “When I came to, I had ringing in my ears, spots in front of my eyes, and everything was in slow motion for a while.”
Frese had come under enemy fire from an 82 mm recoilless rifle, or RPG. It was fired, he estimates, from two to three miles off base.
“For those not in the military,” he joked during an otherwise solemn ceremony during which he was awarded a Purple Heart, “it was a rocket, and it blows up really loud.”
One of the military’s highest honors, the Purple Heart is awarded only to those wounded in combat. That made the medal presentation on the base of the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard in Fort Wayne a rarity, said Indiana Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. John P. McGoff, who pinned the medal onto Frese’s left lapel.
That Frese was serving as an Army chaplain at the time he was wounded made the presentation even rarer, added Col. David L. Augustine, base commander.
“Too often we forget these noncombatants … who are out there putting their lives on the line,” Augustine said.
Unlike most combat-wounded solders, Frese “didn’t take a weapon out on the battlefield. He took a Bible,” Augustine said, calling Frese “a chaplain under fire.”
The Rev. Mark Schreiber, a retired Navy chaplain and director of ministry to the armed forces for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said only two military chaplains were killed during the last decade or so of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps only a half-dozen have been wounded in that time, he added.
He said it’s uncertain how many have received the Purple Heart. But Schreiber, who recommended Frese as a military chaplain, said the father of three is the only ordained member of that denomination to receive the honor for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A graduate of Fort Wayne’s Concordia Theological Seminary and now assistant pastor at Fort Wayne’s Redeemer Lutheran Church, Frese said he was humbled by the award. After leaving the Army and moving to Fort Wayne, he joined the 122nd as a chaplain in 2013. He was promoted to major in October.
Frese said he knows that many who have received the medal were wounded much more seriously than he. He qualified for sustaining a concussion from the explosion; in 2011, the Army clarified rules so that all concussions were classified as war wounds.
Several others were wounded in the attack, which occurred during a weekly meeting for regional chaplains, but no one was killed, Frese said.
The base, in Ghazni province in remote eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, took four rounds of fire in about 10 minutes, he said. Three members of the units he served had been killed and about 140 wounded in other actions.
Frese said there were incidents “nearly every day” during his year of deployment in 2011-2012.
He called it “a miracle of God” that he wasn’t wounded by shrapnel from the explosion, which happened about 15 feet away.
“Thank God I wasn’t hurt any worse, so that I could come back to be a husband and a father,” he said, his voice choking a bit with emotion, as his wife Janet, 32, daughter Nadia, 7, and sons Alexander, 11, and Gabriel, 4, looked on from the front row.
Frese’s father and mother, Jerry and Brenda Frese of Leavenworth, Kan., also attended. Saturday also happened to be Frese’s 39th birthday.
Janet Frese said she was unaware of the extent of her husband’s injury until after he returned from deployment.
“I didn’t know a lot of the details, but I knew it was dangerous place,” she said, adding there would be communications blackouts when the base was taking fire.
She and her husband talked on the phone and through Skype, but he tried to shield her from worry.
“I kept busy taking care of the children and prayed for him a lot,” she said.
Half a world away, Frese, who was deployed to Baghdad from 2007 to 2008 and served as a chaplain in Germany from 2006 to 2010, said he also did his share of praying.
Every morning during private devotions, he said, “It would be always in my mind that that might be the last time I prayed before I would see God face to face.”
Now, he hopes his experiences under fire and being the confidant of soldiers will make him a better pastor to people “in their difficult moments.”
“It puts things in perspective, and it’s easier to focus on the lasting things,” he said, “when injury and death are close.”