success stories

Posted June 5, 2004

For God and Country

The military chaplain corps suffers its first casualty

We all know the one about the rabbi, the priest and the minister. But in the case of the "Four Chaplains," there were two Protestant ministers -- and they were no joke. In February 1943 the four were Army chaplains serving aboard the Dorchester, a transport ship, when it was torpedoed off Greenland by a German U-boat.

When all the life jackets had been handed out, the chaplains took off their own and gave them to those who had none. The last sighting of these chaplains was by the few lucky enough to make it to the lifeboats, who reported seeing the four men bracing themselves against the rails on the slanting deck of the sinking ship, their arms linked together and their voices raised in prayer.

As America prepares this weekend to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing, we are tempted to think of this kind of story as belonging to a misty past of black-and-white
movies and World War II. But the example of an Army chaplain now fighting for his life in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington tells us otherwise. Maj. H. Timothy Vakoc is a Catholic priest who was serving in Iraq when his Humvee was hit Sunday by a roadside bomb. Maj. Vakoc -- Father Tim -- has lost an eye but, at this writing, doctors are hopeful despite his serious wounds.

The Maj. Vakocs do not attract the headlines that we so readily extend to the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. That's a pity, because by their mere presence chaplains help remind soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of the higher law that obtains even in the thick of war. To put it another way, the chaplain is the unarmed soldier whose job it is to serve those who serve. In a story on chaplains in Iraq published by the National Catholic Register just before he was injured, Maj. Vakoc described this as "the ministry of intentional presence."

In pursuit of this calling, the major has become the first chaplain seriously wounded in Iraq. But he is part of a tradition of distinguished service much larger than himself, one that dates to a year before Independence, when the Continental Congress instituted a chaplain corps for the Army. The memorials at Arlington National Cemetery speak to the many chaplains who have given their lives on the battlefield. A number have even earned the Medal of Honor, including three in Vietnam.

In the age of Michael Moore, the phrase "for God and Country" may be greeted in some quarters with cynicism. But we take the measure of Father Tim and his fellow chaplains by their willingness to put their lives on the line for these words. Where others see a mass of troops, they see individuals with souls and troubles that need tending. As for the risks involved, Father Tim took the chaplains' view: "The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's Will," he explained to his sister during a previous deployment to Bosnia, "and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be."

The cliché has it that there are no atheists in foxholes, which has never been true. The more inspiring reality is that Americans such as Maj. Vakoc, knowing the odds, make those foxholes their ministry.