FAIRFAX, Va. — The whole world seems to be noticing him now, but Jim Hamfeldt remembers the last time he saw Father Vincent Capodanno. It was on the Vietnam battlefield where the priest died.
EWTN will honor Father Capodanno with a special show this Memorial Day; next month a Boston homeless shelter for veterans will be named after him. Gaeta, Italy, the hometown of the priest's grandfather, will soon dedicate a naval hospital and a statue in the town square to the priest-hero. There's even talk that the Vatican may begin the process for his canonization.
Hamfeldt says he knows why — firsthand.
“I judge everyone I know by this guy,” said Hamfeldt, who served with Father Capodanno in Vietnam. “He's the most influential person in my life and that's saying a lot.”
Marines affectionately called Father Capodanno the “grunt padre” for his ability to relate well with soldiers and his willingness to risk his life to minister to the men.
It was during heavy fighting outside the village of Chau Lam on Sept. 4, 1967, that Father Capodanno died. Arriving with ammunition, Father Vincent's chopper had to land in the middle of the battlefield.
First, part of the priest's hand was shot off. Then a mortar shredded his arm. “Most guys would stop with one wound,” said Hamfeldt. “He kept going. He was willing to risk his life to save ours.”
He received the wound that killed him after he administered the sacrament of the sick to a wounded soldier. Hamfeldt said he wishes he could have taken that bullet for Father Vincent.
“But I would have had to stand in line for the chance,” he said, “because so many guys would have done the same thing.”
That kind of affection is spreading today as more people learn about the heroism of the “grunt padre.”
All of the attention to Father Capodanno is no surprise to Father Daniel Mode, who wrote a biography about the priest last year.
“Every month I get another story about some miracle that has occurred from knowing Father Capodanno,” said Father Mode. “There's a lot of healing related to Father Capodanno.”
Men usually prefer not to talk about their war experiences, he said. But Marines were excited to share their stories for his book, The Grunt Padre.
“He radiated Christ,” said Father Mode. “He was always with people at their time of need.”
Father Mode said that Bob Stagnold, president of the American Legion, became interested in the “grunt padre” after listening to the author. Now, a new effort is underway to reach veterans with Father Capodanno's story.
A screenwriter has even inked a deal with the Father Vincent Capodanno Foundation to develop a script for a major motion picture, said Father Mode.
All this attention to Father Vincent Capodanno makes his older brother Jim very proud.
“He served and helped the young grunts and now they are helping homeless veterans. It ties together well,” Capodanno said about the dedication of the homeless shelter in Boston. “Thirty-four years later and he's still being honored and I pray that people will always remember him.”
Marines, like Hamfeldt, continue to call Jim to tell him how much his younger brother affected their lives.
“They can't talk enough good about him,” said Capodanno. “They felt at the heart of the battle that they would have rather been killed than Father Vincent.”
And days like Memorial Day are when Capodanno reflects on the brave men, like his brother, who died in battle.
“I think of all the fellas that fought in all the battles for our country,” said Capodanno. “Their bodies are all over the world. You have to pray for the dead. And of course, I think of my brother.”