On Memorial Day we remember the men and women of our armed services who have given their lives for our country. We are blessed to enjoy our freedoms which were purchased through their great sacrifice. Among the thousands of stories of bravery and selflessness are those of the many chaplains who serve God and His flock in the battlefields of war. America has had chaplains of all faiths since the time of the Revolutionary War. There are currently about 2900 chaplains on active duty. They provide care and comfort in all kinds of situations and settings. And in the course of their service, 406 chaplains have lost their lives. In World War II alone, 182 chaplains were killed and 158 chaplains were lost in the Civil War. All of their lives and sacrifices are noteworthy but a few are extraordinary examples of unselfish love and devotion.
World War II saw our government enlisting civilian ships to transport troops and supplies across the Atlantic to the war in Europe. One of these transport ships, the USAT Dorchester, was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Newfoundland. On board were 904 troops including 4 chaplains: a Methodist minister, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a minister of the Reformed Church. As the ship floundered, the four men helped others into the lifeboats, even giving up their own life jackets to help others. Witnesses reported seeing the chaplains joining arms and praying together as the ship sank. They say they heard the chaplains praying to God in English, Hebrew, and Latin. Only 230 men survived the attack and surely many of those lives were saved through the heroic actions of “The Four Chaplains” who perished at sea on February 3, 1943.
Father Emil Kapaun was a Catholic priest who served in the Army during the Korean War. As the troops fought their way northward, Fr. Kapaun constantly ministered to the wounded and dying. He baptized and heard confessions and celebrated Mass on the hood of his jeep. Several times his Mass kit and jeep were lost to enemy fire. On October 7, 1950 he was captured by the North Korean army and taken to a prisoner of war camp. During the bitter winter, he did all he could to minister to his fellow prisoners and to improve the conditions and morale of the men. He would steal food to feed the starving and steal medicine to treat the sick. Letting his own health suffer, Fr. Kapaun developed a blood clot in his leg as well as dysentery and pneumonia. And yet he continued his priestly service as long as he could. On May 23, 1951, Fr. Kapaun died in the prison hospital. On April 11, 2013 President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to the chaplain. In 1993, the Catholic Church named Fr. Kapaun a “servant of God” which began his case for possible sainthood. Since that time, the Church has investigated several purported miracles attributed to Fr. Kapaun’s intercession.
Finally, the story of Father Tim Vakoc unfolded on the battlefields of Iraq. To date, Fr. Tim is the only chaplain to have been killed in action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fr. Tim was born in Minnesota and after his ordination he served as a pastor before enlisting as an Army chaplain in 1996. In 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq. He served in Mosul, offering the sacraments to men involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. On May 29, 2004, the twelfth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, his Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb and he sustained a severe brain injury. He died on June 20, 2009 at a nursing home in Minnesota. He was just 49 years old.
The love of God suffuses the world, leaving no spot without His grace. Even on battlefields and sinking ships. Even in shattered Humvees and dark and cold prison camps. God is close to the brokenhearted, the lame, the suffering, those terrified and facing death. The brave and loving chaplains who answer His call of service bring God to the hearts and souls of the men and women who fight our wars for us. Too often their duties and sacrifices are lost in the fog of battle. But these chaplains serve in the trenches of the heart and their victories have eternal consequences. Remember them in your prayers and thank them when they return home to serve us here. God bless our faithful chaplains.
“The safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be,”
—Father Tim Vakoc, in a letter to his sister