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Father Steven Vanden Boogard is a military chaplain who is returning to Iraq for the third time — even after being wounded and being in a close call.
BY Laura Nelson
Father Steven Vanden Boogard has one piece of unfinished
business he has to attend to before he retires: a third deployment to Iraq. As
of March 19, U.S. troops will have been in Iraq for five years.
Considering the fact that the Humvee he was traveling in
blew up during his last deployment, this a daunting task.
As a Navy Lt. Cmdr. and a military chaplain since 1993,
Father Vanden Boogard has seen the number of military chaplains slowly decline
and many military base chapels close.
He spoke with Register correspondent Laura Nelson just
before his third deployment to Iraq.
What was your first
assignment as a military chaplain?
I was stationed in Orlando, Fla., in a boot camp for two
years. Then I sailed with the Destroyer Squadron 20 to the Mediterranean, the
Black Sea and the Caribbean for the next three years. In 2002 I sailed on the
John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier, and was still on that ship when it went to
the Persian Gulf in 2004.
We were supporting the ground troops during the battle of
Fallujah when the Marines were retaking that city. I ministered to the pilots
and crewmen on that ship. They were like angels flying around waiting until
they were needed.
I understand you did a
tour in Guantanamo Bay?
Yes, in 2005 I was the command chaplain for the naval
station there, running two parishes and serving the soldiers, Marines and
sailors stationed there.
And then you returned
In June of 2006, I was assigned to the Fifth Marine Regiment
as their chaplain. I joined them in Fallujah. By then things had calmed down
there a lot.
It was quite an experience walking over the same territory
that my sailors had flown over two years previously. I had 1,200 Marines
assigned to me and was the Catholic chaplain for four battalions and one army
brigade. In addition to that, I ran two base chapel programs in Fallujah and
With the dangers they
are facing, I would think they would welcome a priest with open arms.
There are so many opportunities for prayer over there.
When a soldier is killed, his buddies need to be consoled
and prayed with. When a Marine is injured, I pray with the medics and other
Marines present as they medevac the wounded Marine to the nearest hospital. I
prayed with those bringing the injured into the hospital in Fallujah [across
from the interdenominational chapel] and, of course, the wounded being treated
in the hospital.
What was a typical day
like for you as a military chaplain in Iraq?
Up to six times a week I would leave the camp to visit the
brigades, battalions and companies. I would travel as part of a convoy of
Humvees. I was completely wrapped in body armor, but because I am a priest and
considered a noncombatant, I never carried a gun.
There was always a sailor assigned to protect me and, of
course, I always traveled with a convoy of Marines who would also protect me.
Kind of like the president who has his civil service to watch out for him.
Where did your travels
I would make four to six stops a day to the FOBs [forward
operating bases] to say Mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick and
wounded. I would leave early in the morning and attempt to get back to the base
to say the 6:00 p.m. Mass, but things like IEDs [improvised explosive devices]
appearing on the road, flat tires and enemy attacks often disrupted the
How often would the
average Marine get to attend Mass?
The territory each military chaplain has to cover is so
great that I would visit each FOB every four to six weeks to say Mass. But a
good number of the Marines were often on patrol when I got there, so many
Catholic Marines could easily go for months without attending Mass or having
their confession heard.
In spite of all the protection you received, you were still
in a combat zone and ran some pretty serious risks of getting hurt. Did you
have any close calls?
Yes. In one of my travels an IED exploded right next to the
Humvee I was in. It was about 120 degrees, so we were sweating bullets. In the
thick black smoke of the explosion I couldn’t tell whether I was bleeding or
whether it was just the sweat. Thank God no one was seriously wounded, and the
only injury I sustained was a broken tooth.
A lot of people think
that if you’re on a base you’re pretty safe. Is that true?
I used to think that traveling from point A to point B was
the most dangerous part of my job. But then I was saying Mass in the base
chapel one day when the air raid sirens went off and we heard a big bang. A
mortar had just exploded through the chapel ceiling. Then another one came
through, and the Marines wanted to leave the chapel. I told them they were
safer inside in spite of the attacks, and the corporal attending Mass agreed
with me. We told them not to leave. A couple of minutes later, two more mortars
landed in front of the chapel exactly where the Marines would have been if they
How many priest
military chaplains do we have now?
We have about 100 for the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard
combined (there are about 300,000 sailors and 180,000 Marines).
We have another 100 or so for the Army (about 500,000
troops) and about another 100 for the Air Force. We are losing 20 to 30
chaplains a year in the Navy, so we may have 75 very soon.
You mean for the
entire U.S. military stationed all over the world we have only about 300
Yes, and one reason base chapels are closing is because we
don’t have enough military chaplains to man them.
How did you find your “vocation within a vocation” to be a
I joined the Navy in 1972 at the age of 18 and worked as a
hospital corpsman for the next four years in a boot camp in Pensacola. The GI
Bill helped put me through St. Norbert’s College after that, and when I
graduated I entered the St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wis., in 1979. The
priesthood was always in the back of my mind since my first Communion. I took
it one step at a time, and I was ordained in 1988.
While I was teaching religion and sociology at St. John
Neumann High School in Philadelphia from 1988 to 1993, the Navy ships would
come there to be repaired. The children of Navy captains were some of my
students. My conversations with them and their parents got the juices running,
and I thought this may not be a bad idea to return to the Navy as a chaplain.
Also, I had seen lots of recruitment ads and I knew there
was a real need for military chaplains.
Yet you are returning
to Iraq, not just out of a sense of duty, but because you feel you are
In spite of all the danger and hard work, being a military
chaplain is an extremely rewarding job. You’re bringing the sacraments to men
and women who are risking their lives for others.
There are conversions, baptisms, confirmations. You’re there
at the bedside of the severely wounded anointing them, giving them last rites.
They don’t take any of it for granted because they don’t get a chance to see a
priest too often.
You feel needed because you really are needed. And the
Marines, sailors and soldiers appreciate you so much. Laura Nelson writes from
Laura Nelson is
based in Chicago.
LCDR Steven Vanden Boogard
FPO AP 96426-2110