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Living The Golden Rule

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HE WAS ORDAINED A PRIEST IN 1992 FOR THE CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF ST. PAUL-MINNEAPOLIS. Father Tim Vakoc served in two parishes there before joining the Army as a chaplain in 1996. He counseled soldiers of all faiths and no faith in particular. He celebrated the sacraments, met with the injured, and he spoke to the families who lost young men. He called it a ministry of “intentional presence.” After celebrating Mass for a group of soldiers on May 29, 2004 in Iraq, the young priest was severely injured when a roadside bomb exploded as he returned to the barracks.

Father Vakoc was hospitalized for months, returning to Minnesota in October 2004 in a near-coma state. As the years went by he began to show small signs of mental and physical improvement. In 2007, he was able to attend a banquet in his honor. In a wheelchair, he was asked to give a greeting. Working up all his strength in the silence of the gymnasium, he finally managed to say thank you. Then he added in a whisper, "And... God... love".

Father Timothy Vakoc was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Award. On June 20, 2009, he died at age 49, of the injuries he had received in Iraq.

A history of service
There have been approximately 25,000 chaplains in United States history, serving the Army alone in 270 combat engagements. Nearly 300 have been killed in action.

Only days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, George Washington directed that each regiment in the new American Army “procure chaplains, persons of good character and exemplary lives…The blessings and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger.”

Chaplains would serve in the American Revolution and in the Civil War, on both sides. One of the chaplain heroes was Father William Corby, a Holy Cross priest who would later become president of the University of Notre Dame. He was chaplain to the New York Irish Brigade, and a statue of him offering absolution to his troops before battle stands at Gettysburg.

In World War I, World War II and Korea, military chaplains served with distinction. In Vietnam, there was a growing concern over the role of chaplains, though three would receive the Medal of Honor. Some feared they were meant to “bless the cannons” and be at the service of their military bosses rather than the men themselves.

Chaplains Today

As in so many aspects of military life, the Vietnam experience both clarified the role of chaplains and expanded it. Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Sherri Wheeler, an Episcopalian minister, joined the military at age 40. “It’s clear service members do not make defense policy, we just carry it out,” she said. “Chaplains see themselves as serving those who serve. They are there to listen and to be that intentional presence.”

All chaplains stress that they do not represent specifically their own particular faith, but are there for those of any faith. Donna Welder is a Presbyterian minister and a retired colonel one of two women to rise to that rank as a military chaplain who served as chaplain to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, and ran to assist the injured when the Pentagon was hit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

She describes the duty of a chaplain today: “Be sure you absolutely feel called by God, and are supported by your faith group for this form of ministry. Also, be sure you understand what is most important in your own faith tradition…Then ask yourself whether that understanding would allow you to provide religious support to people of all faith groups, without trying to change them to your own group’s belief.” Father Edson Wood is a brigade chaplain at West Point.

Father Wood says that while most cadets are Protestant or Catholic, there are more than 70 denominations represented at West Point. “Each is important and requires attention,” he said, noting that “human beings are human beings even when they wear a uniform…They have fears and problems and family issues and they need time and attention and someone to listen.” Father Ulysses Ubalde, a Navy lieutenant serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan, states that the role of the chaplain is to “carry the presence of Christ, not just for our own sake, but to bring him to all who labor, are frightened, who need our help.”

Father Vincent Capodanno, M.M.

One of the best-known hero-chaplains from the Vietnam War is Maryknoll Father Vincent Capodanno, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A Navy chaplain assigned to a Marine unit, Father Capodanno was with his troops when they were overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers near the village of Dong Son on Sept. 4, 1967.

Even though he was wounded twice, in the face and hand, the Maryknoll priest continued to administer last rites to dying Marines until he himself was killed by enemy fire. His family accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor in his name in January, 1969. Father Capodanno’s cause for canonization was formally introduced in 2002


The gift of life
The Dorchester was a converted freighter, carrying troops from Massachusetts to Greenland in January 1943. Accompanying the men were four chaplains ⎯ Father John Washington, a young Catholic priest, George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling, Protestant ministers, and Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi. On a frigid night, the Dorchester was slammed by a torpedo from a German submarine. In a matter of seconds, bodies filled the frigid Arctic waters and men scrambled to survive. In the midst of this horror, the four chaplains moved among the men offering words of hope while trying to organize a safe abandoning of the sinking ship. When the ship began to shift dangerously, they yelled at the men to leap into the frigid water, to swim to the few lifeboats nearby. A young man shouted that he had no life jacket, and one of the chaplains tore off his own to give to the soldier. Soon, all four chaplains had given away their only chance to survive. The chaplains linked arms on the deck as the ship vanished over a crested wave, then sunk beneath the surface. Because of the selfless gift of life that night from four heroic chaplains representing Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths, four men were able to survive.

Another inspiring chaplain was Joseph T. O’Callahan, also known as “Father Joe.” Born in Boston, Massachusetts, this Jesuit priest was appointed Lieutenant, J.G. in the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve on August 7, 1940, and went on to serve his country valiantly during World War II. On March 2, 1945, Father Joe was assigned to the aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin. Seventeen days later, while 40 miles off the coast of Japan, the ship was hit by bombs and gunfire from a Japanese warplane. Gas tanks and ammunition exploded on the Franklin’s hangar deck, creating a blazing inferno. One thousand men were killed, one thousand were in the water, and another thousand were onboard the ship, wounded and disoriented. Though he himself was hurt, Father Joe fearlessly moved through the flames and destruction, comforting the injured and giving last rites to the dying. He also organized a group of survivors to dispose of live bombs and live ammunition that would have destroyed the rest of the ship and crew if they had exploded. For this, Father Joe was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.

Father O’Callahan calmly braved the worst of situations to comfort and protect those on the ship— soldiers of all faiths and of no faith—risking his own life to prevent further death and destruction. He used brains, brawn, and spiritual strength to tend to the needs of those around him.

The need

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services of the Catholic Church in the United States. He speaks of the need for chaplains. “We cannot abandon them at the moment of their greatest need,” he said.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services is responsible for recruiting chaplains and providing spiritual, sacramental and counseling services to Catholics in the Armed Forces, who number approximately 400,000. These Catholics are served by only 275 priests in a territory that covers the globe, he said in an address to the bishops of the United States. He asked each bishop to provide at least one priest from his own Diocese.

The Archdiocese receives no government support. Without parishes, it relies on the free-will donations of servicemen and women and the Catholics of the United States. To learn more about the Archdiocese for the Military Services, and to donate, visit its website at:

The prayer of the Archdiocese for the Military Services

“Almighty God and Father, look with love upon the men and women in uniform and protect them in their time of need. Give them health and stability and allow them to return to their loved ones whole and unshaken. Be with their families and sustain them in these uncertain times. “Grant strength and peace of mind to the veterans who have given their best for the country they love. Support them in infirmity and in the fragility of old age. Teach us to remember their sacrifice and to express our gratitude. “Manifest your tender care…to those who serve our nation far from home. Teach us to remember the sacrifices of those whose efforts contribute to ensuring our way of life.”