On June 20 of 2009, Lt. Col. Father Timothy Vakoc passed away. Five years before on Mary 29th, 2004, Father Vakoc was terribly injured when he was ordered to return to Mosul as some troops had been injured and required his presence.
But on his way, a bomb tore into his Humvee and he suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost his left eye. When he arrived at the base, there was massive pressure on his brain due to swelling. They had no choice but to induce a coma for any chance of survival. According to reports, just before he went under he told another chaplain to "Take care of my men."
Father Tim survived but it wasn't easy. For five long years, he struggled, sometimes lapsing into comas, suffering numerous infections, and painful kidney stones. While in Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center he was awarded the Purple Heart. Though he had been slipping in and out of a coma, he awoke and grasped that hand of Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman just as he was presenting him the Purple Heart. His sister, Anita Brand, was quoted in USCatholic, saying, that typical parish work was never for him. "His first priority in life," she said was "serving his soldiers."
"He loved caring for them," she added.
After his funeral, Tim Drake wrote for the National Catholic Register:
The Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. In answer to the question of where was God five years ago, the homilist, Father Stan Mader, a seminary classmate of Father Vakoc’s, said, “Jesus wept. But then he turned to his Father, had Lazarus unbound, and then let him go.” Father Mader urged those in attendance to let Father Tim go “from the bed that had been his altar of sacrifice.” “Let him go ... for the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will, and that is where he is now.”
Perhaps the most beautiful moment of the funeral Mass for me personally was the cathedral bells being rung during the consecration as Archbishop John Nienstedt sang the words of institution. From inside the cathedral one could faintly hear them. I imagine that outside, in downtown St. Paul, they made quite a long and impressive sound. In that moment, one could clearly see the link between the sacrifice of Father Tim’s life and the sacrifice of Christ.
Father Mader also beautifully spoke of Father Tim’s various ministries — his ministry of intentional presence to fellow soldiers, and, then later, after his accident, of his ministry as a witness to the value of human life, his ministry of prayer, and his ministry of building a community of people who cared for him.
Father Tim had been quoted as saying, “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.” When asked if he regretted his decision in light of his injuries, he said that in order to pastor to the men and women in uniform he would do it all again "in a heartbeat."
That is the kind of bravery we should keep in mind this Memorial Day. Please pray for many souls who have sacrificed all today.