In Iraq, Soldiers Find Their Greatest Allies in Chaplains

NEWPORT, R.I. — In an unexpected way, Father Michael Dory is reassured about the generation that is carrying out the war on terrorism.

Father Dory, basic course training officer at the Navy's Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., spent a month in Iraq around Easter time, a few miles from Falujah. He counseled soldiers and Marines who struggled with the notion of killing the enemy.

“We had a lot of time to talk about what it means to take a life,” said Father Dory, who holds the rank of commander. “I was quite moved that so many were struggling with killing an enemy, especially in the age of computer games where violence and killing is so prevalent. They have not been numbed by it. They understood the seriousness of taking a life. And they wanted to talk over those serious moral issues with a priest. They've not become hardened.”

When it comes to coping with the violence of war and keeping morale high, troops in Iraq find their greatest allies in the chaplains at the front.

“Priest-chaplains are crucial to the morale of our soldiers in the way they show them the face of Christ in the darkness of terror and death,” said Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, vicar general of the Archdiocese for Military Services U.S.A. “Even in war, they remind our people that they must fight with a spirit of peace in their hearts to re-establish justice and freedom. They are to be ambassadors of peace and guardians of life.”

Like Msgr. Callaghan, Father H. Timothy Vakoc, an Army major in the 44th Corps Support Battalion, also speaks of “dark situations.” When two soldiers were killed in early May, he flew to the Combat Surgical Hospital to be with other soldiers who were in the convoy. Another died at the hospital just before he arrived. He prayed for him and prayed with an injured soldier.

“I spent time with the other soldiers who were physically all right but in a state of shock,” Father Vakoc said in an e-mail interview from Iraq. On his return to the unit's main base, he met with another company who had lost a soldier that morning in an attack.

On another occasion, the priest listened to a soldier as he discussed his faith. The soldier was a lector at the Mass that day. Just days later, Father Vakoc celebrated a memorial Mass for the young man — he had died after being hit by a roadside explosion.

“The bottom line in helping these soldiers through the grieving process is to be present to them and walk with them,” Father Vakoc said. “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.”

Soldier's View

Specialist Frank O'Farrell knows the value of having a Catholic priest close by. Until earlier this year, he was in Baghdad with the Army Reserve's 411th Civil Affairs Battalion. He was stationed at the U.N. compound when a truck bomb there last August killed 23 people, including the U.N. envoy.

“The chaplain corps was right there,” recounted O'Farrell, who spent that afternoon loading medivac helicopters. “They were all over us after that making sure we were okay through this and encouraging us to talk about what we saw and what we were feeling not only with them but with each other. They were great with stress counseling.”

“Guys going out on patrols are looking for the Catholic chaplains to give a blessing and say a prayer,” said Father David Kloak, a captain and deputy chaplain of the Marine Corps. “They want all the support they can get.”

Father Dory said the sacraments are vital. Confession might be out of style in stateside parishes, he said, “but not on the battlefield.”

Well Protected

The Army realizes the importance of chaplains, said Father F. Richard Spencer, an Army major and action officer at the Office of the Army Chief of Chaplains in the Pentagon.

In Iraq until May, he testified that every time he went somewhere to say Mass, he had four armored vehicles to provide protection along the way.

“When we flew, it was with two helicopters,” he said. “The military is willing to dedicate those kinds of resources to make sure their troops are receiving the sacraments and services.”

Father Dory concurred.

“Every time I went for Mass, I had a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun in front of me and in back of me,” he said. “You're always under threat.”

Father Spencer is based at Camp Cook, home to 16,000 coalition troops just north of Baghdad Airport, the Forward Operating Base used by the coalition forces. He saw chaplains heavily involved in the midst of combat situations, taking care of the wounded and administering last rites.

“The troops love their chaplains,” he said. “They knew the chaplains were right there with them and that gave them great courage and spiritual strength.”

Father Vakoc calls it a “ministry of intentional presence.”

“I live with [the soldiers], work with them, eat with them, care for them, listen to them, counsel them,” he said. “The soldiers know if you are real and genuinely care or not. The soldiers see me out there with them and that makes a difference.”

After one attack that left 17 dead and 37 wounded, Father Spencer found that nine medics had never experienced or been around death before.

“I became like a counselor to process their emotions during this critical incident,” he said.

“The chaplains were always ready to help, especially for confessions to prepare your soul for peace in anything that happens,” said Marine Cpl. John Paul Marchetti, who served on a ship in the Persian Gulf escorting Marines in and out of the war zone.

“I wanted to be as close to Our Lord as possible,” he said. “My first sovereignty is to Christ, then I can properly carry out my duty to my country as a Marine.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.