National Catholic Register

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Humor and Guts

Stories abound about injured priest hero

BY Tim Drake

June 20-26, 2004 Issue | Posted 6/20/04 at 12:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON — He had a sense of humor and a disregard for danger. That's how friends and family sum up a Catholic priest who has become the first chaplain wounded in Iraq. That was while the priest was in Bosnia.

Father Timothy Vakoc (pronounced Va-KICH) was critically wounded by a roadside bomb May 30 while returning to base after celebrating Sunday Mass for soldiers in the field. It was the 12th anniversary of his ordination.

“He took the brunt of the blast,” his brother Jeff told the Register.

The blast caused Father Vakoc to lose his left eye. He sustained trauma to the brain, has paralysis on his right side and, as the Register went to press, was fighting a bacterial meningitis infection common among soldiers injured in Iraq.

After being treated at an Army field hospital in Baghdad, he was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. On June 2, he was transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

According to his sister, Anita Brand, his condition is “critical, guarded, stable and hopeful.” Doctors have been keeping him in a chemically induced coma to allow his brain to heal.

Father Vakoc felt Iraq was “where he needed to go,” said his brother, Jeff. “He felt it was God's will and was positive about what the military was accomplishing in Iraq.”

Father Vakoc once told his sister, “The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will.”

The Register interviewed Father Vakoc shortly before he was injured. That interview, in which he described his “ministry of intentional presence” was widely quoted after the attack.

“The bottom line in helping these soldiers,” he said in the e-mail interview, “is to be present to them and walk with them. I prayed with the soldiers, I prayed for the soldiers who died, I brought the sacraments of the Church and the light and love of Christ into the darkness of the situations.”

The family said what they need most now is prayers. “We're very blessed. Everyone has a prayer chain going for Tim,” Jeff added. “My hope is that he comes back and is at least able to function.”

Disarming Faith

His colleagues and parishioners describe Father Vakoc as “very down to earth.”

“He's a man with no guile,” Father John Echert said. “He worked hard at preparing his sermons and people felt very comfortable with him.”

Polly and David Novack agreed. They were married by Father Vakoc in 1995. She commented on Father Vakoc's honesty and humor.

“If he felt you should get your life in order, he would say so,” Polly Novack said. “When I discovered I was pregnant with my third child, I was very upset. Father Vakoc told me, ‘God must think you're a good parent. Thank God for it.’”

She said Father Vakoc also had a knack for bringing humor to tough situations.

Capt. Felix Acosta of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion in Mosul confirmed that.

Father Vakoc forgot to bring holy water to this year's Easter Mass, so he took a bottle of drinking water soldiers carry around, blessed it and made “what he thought was a small opening on the cap,” Acosta recalled. “Boy, we got drenched.”

Father Francis Kittock supervised Father Vakoc's first assignment at St. Charles Borromeo Church between 1992 and 1993.

“He was a free-spirited person who loved people,” said Father Kittock, now retired. “He usually packed too much into one day and had a reputation for being late, but he always made it. He could travel anywhere, anyplace, anytime and feel at home, so he found the right niche when he went into the Army.”

One of Father Vakoc's superior officers said he was impressed by the priest's dedication to serving God and his fellow soldiers.

“The fact that he was returning from service for our soldiers shows that he never let the dangers of our battlefield prevent him from serving,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Thompson with the 296th Brigade Support Battalion stationed in Mosul.

Thompson explained that Father Vakoc's attempt to provide Mass to all the soldiers in the Stryker Brigade was most challenging.

“Our soldiers are often spread out in numerous places over an area the size of Connecticut, always through hostile territory,” Thompson said. “None of this prevented Father Tim from being there for the soldier. Wherever we went, Father Tim would conduct a Mass, often for only two or three soldiers who were located on remote outposts.”

A 1978 graduate of Minneapolis’ Benilde-St. Margaret's Catholic School and a graduate of St. Cloud State University, Father Vakoc was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 1992. He first served as associate pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in St. Anthony, Minn., and later as pastor at St. John Neumann in Eagan, Minn., from 1993 to 1996. He left that post to join the Army.

Father Vakoc served a three-anda-half-year assignment at Fort Carson, Colo., before being assigned as chaplain for the 44th Corps Support Battalion from Fort Lewis, Wash. The 44th provides logistical support to the Fort Lewis-based units working across northern Iraq, including the Task Force Olympia headquarters and the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the Army's first Stryker vehicle brigade. Father Vakoc was deployed to Iraq last November.

At War, At Ease

Col. Thompson recalled Father Vakoc's service when their unit was in a particularly tight spot.

While returning to home base from one of their visits, Thompson's vehicle broke down. Unable to repair the vehicle, the convoy was forced to tow it the rest of the way.

“As we entered the outskirts of Mosul, one of our vehicles was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade,” Thompson said. “We had to stop, treat casualties and secure our convoy.”

Father Vakoc “immediately responded and cared for the casualties and made sure no one else was hurt,” Thompson said. “We eventually made it home in a safe manner. As we dropped him off he quipped that he appreciated the exciting trip and was looking forward to the next one.”

Hundreds of well-wishers — including priests and religious, family and friends from around the world — have left messages and prayers for Father Vakoc. His sister, Anita, has posted updates regarding his condition on a Website that keeps family and friends informed of the progress of hospital patients (www.caringbridge.com/mn/timvakoc).

Whether it's fellow soldiers, fellow priests or parishioners, Father Vakoc has always made an impact on those he meets.

In November 2002, shortly after the birth of their third child, the Novacks had Father Vakoc over for breakfast. The priest was on leave at the time.

“Our son Charlie was then 3 years old,” Polly Novack said. When she recently told Charlie that Father Vakoc had had an accident, Charlie said, “He's the man that made you laugh and cry when you told him goodbye.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.