Veterans Day, Nov. 11: Military chaplains reflect

On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, many priests in and from the archdiocese can look back on their tours of duty in the military chaplain corps, a unique ministry serving those who serve in uniform.

“The major bond between the men and women serving in uniform is their Church or synagogue, and the military chaplain must be the strength of that bond,” said Msgr. John P. McDonough, the interim Secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization. Msgr. McDonough served as an Air Force chaplain from 1963-1991, and retired a major general and the chief of that service’s chaplain corps.

“Being a military chaplain is different because he is part of the military, he wears a uniform and he has a rank, which gives him a place in the structure,” he said. “But, the source and strength of that place is the word ‘chaplain.’”

The Monsignor said Boston traditionally sent more priests to the chaplain corps than any other diocese, “In my class, 1952, 13 of us became military chaplains.”

Another example of the Archdiocese of Boston’s prominence in this ministry is that there have been four other priests from the archdiocese who have risen to become the chief chaplains of their service, he said.

The most remarkable time of the Monsignor’s career as chaplain was during the ceremonies for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, he said. As the Air Force chief of chaplains in Europe, Msgr. McDonough said he traveled with the military’s senior leaders to offer prayers during the programs.

“In each village, the children were all dressed up and carried an American flag and a flower,” he said. The children would place a flower at the monument in the center of the village and then place flags at the American cemetery.

Msgr. McDonough explained that a military chaplain may be called on to celebrate holy days from other religions and minister to people of other faiths.

“It is a responsibility which you accepted most graciously and which you proudly provided. You are a priest to your community, but a chaplain to everybody,” he said.

It is a life that one has to be called to, he said. A priest cannot apply to join the chaplaincy until three years after his ordination.

Some priests find it to be a difficult life because of the unpredictable nature of events and the isolation from mainstream society, he said.

Being a military chaplain is a different kind of ministry, said Father Richard M. Erikson, the vicar general of the archdiocese, who served as an Air Force chaplain in Iraq, because, like other military personnel, the chaplain is willing to lay down his life in his ministry.

Father Erikson said when he deployed to Balad air base in the summer of 2004, the situation was dangerous, given the daily mortar and rocket attacks, but he simply accepted it. “The soldier or airman can never let his guard down but, at the same time, he still has to do his job.”

The vicar general’s own work schedule was the 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift, he said. “But most days I worked until one or two o’clock in the morning.”

Despite the danger and the hectic operational tempo, Father Erikson said it was an environment in which his own faith and vocation were renewed, as well as the faith of the military personnel who were his flock.

“When you are in a life and death situation, faith, God and the questions of life are that much more present to you,” he said.

“At that time, 50 percent of the convoys were being hit with either roadside bombs or small arms fire. Hearing confessions from guys about to go out on convoy was very intense, as was anointing the injured sailors, airmen, soldiers and Marines coming off the helicopters,” he said.

When the chaplain comes home from a combat zone and returns to life in the United States, he often has trouble making the adjustment, he said.

There is a heavy sense of guilt when you are now safe and comfortable, unlike the men and women you left behind, he said. It is vital that the chaplains take advantage of counseling and reach out to others for help.

There is also an adjustment to not being under attack.

“Three months after I came home, I was in a Walmart parking lot and a car backfired. My first instinct was to hit the ground. I didn’t, but the reflex was still there,” he said.

Recently, while concelebrating Mass in the Pastoral Center, when the other priest raised the chalice and said the words, “this is my blood,” Father Erickson said he immediately felt a jolt and flashed back to a blood soaked operating room at Balad.

Being a military chaplain is more than being a morale officer, said Father Edward D. Cowhig, a senior priest who was an Army chaplain with troops during the Korean War and later in Okinawa, Japan.

“It is more than making sure you get a cup of coffee or providing human comforts -- our real job is to administer the sacraments, especially celebrate the Mass, hear confession and perform the last rites,” he said.

The military chaplain often operates in a hostile or dangerous environment, said Father Cowhig, who made 198 jumps during his 11 years with the paratroopers. More than once he landed in trees and one time as he attempted to pass over high tension wires, he instead bounced off one of the wires on his way down. Another time, a soldier 10 places ahead of him “on the stick” jumped without his chute opening.

During the Korean War, while he was at jump school at Fort Benning, Ky., he said he learned that his classmate Father Frank Coppens was killed. “He died in May 1951. Frank was walking out of his tent during an attack and the Red Chinese shot him right between the eyes.”

Father John L. Mansfield, a senior priest, whose service as an Air Force chaplain included a year-long tour in Nha Trang, Vietnam, said as the chaplain of that base on the South China Sea he granted general absolutions before the Sunday morning and Saturday evening Masses.

Military personnel and their families have unique spiritual need and pastoral needs, especially the single GI’s, who are often forgotten, he said. “I have been out (of the service) for 20-plus years, and I am still hearing from families and single people that I met back then.”

There is disruption to people’s lives from being away from their country and the constant nomadic existence as they move from base to base. But, there is a bond from sharing the same experiences and working together far from home, said the priest, who before entering seminary, served two years as a Navy radioman, and then served 18 years as a military chaplain.

“I worked hard as an enlisted man, and I worked hard as a chaplain -- and I loved it,” he said. “The bottom line is this: I am 82 years old, and I would go back tonight, if I could.”