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Fallen Hero Finds His Voice

Terri Schiavo Family Adviser Helping Iraq Chaplain

BY BARB ERNSTER

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

March 4-10, 2007 Issue | Posted 2/27/07 at 11:00 AM

 

NEW HOPE, Minn. — Father Timothy Vakoc, who sustained a brain injury in Iraq that left him paralyzed and unable to speak, is defying medical prognoses.

He is slowly regaining his physical and speech capabilities, and from his room at St. Therese nursing home in New Hope, Minn., he witnesses in silence to hundreds of people who seek his blessing.

In an interview with the Register, his last interview before being attacked in Iraq, Father Timothy Vakoc described his own chaplaincy as a “ministry of intentional presence.” He was there for the men and women in Iraq — even if it put him in harm’s way.

Visiting his hospital bed last year, U.S. Military Archbishop Edwin O’Brien told Father Vakoc, “You are still a priest. This bed is now your altar and this is where you are now called to serve as a priest.”

His mother, Phyllis Vakoc, can attest to that. “Half of the people who come to see him have never known him,” she said, from her nearby home. “They hear about him and it’s on their mind until they come see him. Most of them say they get more from him, but they give Tim so much. He’s like the Pied Piper.”

He has received more than 200,000 e-mails from well-wishers around the world and hundreds more cards and letters, she added. More are coming in since October, as news spread that he was able to speak his first words in 2 1/2 years.

“I heard ‘Hi Mom’ in the other room and I thought I was hearing things,” said the Army chaplain’s mother, recalling that it wasn’t long after Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, had come to bless and anoint him while he was in town for a talk. “Now we have to call in the Pope.”

In late January, Father Vakoc was transported to Benilde St. Margaret Catholic High School in St. Louis Park, Minn., where he graduated in 1978, to accept a place in the school’s Hall of Honor. It was only the second time he had been outside since he came home to Minneapolis in September 2004. With much effort, he told the crowd, “Thank you” and “God loves you.”

He also started using a touch-screen communicator that allows him to communicate more than “Yes” or “No” to his therapists and visitors. He relies on it a lot, said Phyllis Vakoc, who said she has never given up hope on her son, even when death seemed imminent. Her husband, Henry, who died of cardiac arrest in January at the age of 83, had also never given up.

“He always said Tim was going to make it. And, like my daughter, she quit saying, ‘Why’ and says, ‘When?’” she said. “It’s very slow, but we can see it. They said he’ll never live, walk or talk. He lived and he talked. We’re not going to give up until he’s back on that altar saying Mass.”

Father Vakoc was wounded in May 2004, when a bomb exploded near his vehicle as he was returning from Mass near Mosul. Shrapnel sprayed his head and left eye, and may still be lodged in his brain.

After battling serious infections, he was stabilized and transferred that September from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis, which specializes in traumatic brain injuries.

By December 2005, Father Vakoc could only move his left hand and wrist, and had little strength in his legs. He also needed a tracheostomy. Doctors at the VA told the family that nothing more could be done to restore his physical and mental capabilities, and all therapies were stopped.

With help from the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul, Minn., who minister at the hospital, the family started doing their own exercises with Father Vakoc, trying to get him to communicate. Eventually they sought publicity in the local media, which prompted the VA to reintroduce his therapies. Not long after, Father Vakoc began to make progress in “leaps and bounds,” according to Franciscan Brother Paul O’Donnell, who was also the spiritual director for Terri Schiavo’s family.

“Last May on the anniversary of the accident, all he could do was squeeze his hands to yes-and-no questions and raise his slightly paralyzed hand to give a blessing,” said Brother Paul. “Now he really acknowledges you when you’re there. You can see it in his eyes. For whatever reason, he loves to talk on the phone. It’s much easier for him to pick up the phone and say ‘hello’ and start talking,” he added, guessing that it is due to using a different part of the brain.

Brother Paul said he once told Father Vakoc that if therapy was too much for him, the family would be okay, but that seemed to make him fight more.

“He’s very determined, and it takes a lot of energy,” the Franciscan said. “I’m sure he’s suffering, but I’m sure he’s offering it up to God. He knows that God is using it.”

Father Vakoc is on a daily regimen that includes physical therapy, Mass and rest. Each day, a scheduled visitor comes to work with him on speech or movement, read to him, play games or just sit quietly and pray. In between, other visitors will come.

“He likes to play ‘thumb wars,’” said Bonnie Brever, whose family became good friends with him in the early 1990s, while he was the assistant pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in St. Anthony, Minn.

“I always felt that Tim knew what was going on. We were all sad when they decided to stop therapy because we all knew he was there,” she said. “Tim always did things on his own time and it wasn’t ‘Tim time’ yet. He’s been a witness to the doctors.”

Brever is amazed at the hope and encouragement he gives to others, and the impact he has had on her own spiritual life. Visiting him is the highlight of her week.

“Tim has brought so many wonderful people together from all over the world,” she said. “Many people passing by will pat him on the hand and say, ‘It’s good to see you.’ I told him, ‘This is your mission now,’ and he shook his head ‘Yes.’”

Barb Ernster writes

from Fridley, Minnesota.