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 to Iraq?
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 Baharia.
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 take you?
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 schedule.
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 had left.
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 military chaplains?
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 chaplain?
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 genuinely needed.
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 Chicago.
Laura Nelson is
based in Chicago.
LCDR Steven Vanden Boogard
FPO AP 96426-2110