“We have to go where the suffering and dying are”

Military chaplains bring the light of Christ to some of the world’s darkest places.

On September 4, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA honored one of its outstanding military chaplains, Vietnam War hero and Medal of Honor recipient Father Vincent R. Capodanno, MM, with a special memorial Mass in Washington, DC. Dubbed “the Grunt Padre,” Father Capodanno was killed on a Vietnam battlefield in 1967 while administering to wounded and dying US Marines; he was officially proclaimed a “Servant of God” in 2006 and his cause for beatification has been initiated. Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio was the main celebrant of the memorial Mass, which was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. During his homily he called on those present to remember Father Capodanno’s sacrifice and to “continue his Maryknoll missionary spirit, his Marine courage, and his absolute fidelity to his ministry as a priest in service to all.”

As evidenced by the example of Father Capodanno, military chaplains play a vital role in attending to the spiritual needs of a unique community that often finds itself in adverse circumstances. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI described the role of a military chaplain as bringing about “renewed adhesion to Christ,” setting the bar of “holiness as the high measure of Christian life in response to the new pastoral challenges.”

Catholic chaplains must do their work despite dwindling numbers; in the last decade the number of Catholic military chaplains has fallen from 400 to 260. CWR recently spoke with four military chaplains, both active and retired, about their service.

“You’re a real spiritual father to them”

father carl subler

Father Carl Subler is a US Army captain. He was ordained a priest in 2004, and joined the Army three years later. He’s currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, after returning from duty in Afghanistan.  He was the subject of a recent photo essay for Time, “Battlefield Priest.”

Father Subler joined the Navy as an enlisted man in 1995 and served four years. He was assigned to a missile cruiser, and remembered how a Navy chaplain would come via helicopter to celebrate Mass for the Catholic sailors. Inspired by his example, Father Subler said, “I knew then that I wanted to go into service as a priest.”

Upon being discharged from the Navy, he entered the seminary for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, and served as a priest in a parish for three years. Father Neal Buckon, a priest-friend who later became an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Military Services, persuaded him to join the Army. Father Subler was stationed in Iraq for a time, and then southern Afghanistan. More than once, his service on the front lines brought him under fire from the enemy.

Once, the Taliban opened fire and Father Subler found himself crawling through a poppy field with bullets cracking overhead. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Neal Buckon and beat the hell out of him for getting me into this mess!” Father Subler joked later.

Another time he was part of a convoy to a remote outpost in Afghanistan and his team encountered nine roadside bombs set by the Taliban. Upon reaching his destination, he was stranded for 10 days while the return route was cleared. Military vehicles were frequently lost to roadside bombs, he noted.

Father Subler likes Army life, and sees it as being a bit like monastic life (“we all wear a uniform,” he noted). Unlike civilian parish life, in the military he serves a transient community, as soldiers are frequently transferred from one location to the next. But they’re always happy when Father comes to visit. “They love having a priest out there,” he said. “They’re like kids when dad comes home from work; you’re a real spiritual father to them, particularly in a dangerous combat zone.”

Father Subler’s duties might take him to the bedside of a wounded soldier awaiting surgery, or to the morgue to bless bodies of the recently deceased. Central to his job, he stressed, is providing the sacraments. “That’s what a priest is about,” he said.

Father Subler is pleased to see Father Capodanno being honored this month, because “he’s the kind of priest in the military I want to be. He’s all about the troops. That’s what I strive for.”

Living out the priesthood in harm’s way

father eric albertson

Father Eric Albertson is a lieutenant colonel in the Army (soon to be promoted to colonel). He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Arlington in 1986, and, after seven years of civilian ministry, joined the Army in 1993.

Since joining the military, Father Albertson has done two tours of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He has found himself under fire from the enemy many times, and was once wounded after his convoy struck an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Iraq. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

“We encountered multiple IEDs; it was the third one that hit us,” Father Albertson recalled. “It knocked me out briefly, and the force of the explosion almost rolled our vehicle over.”

He suffered a concussion, which caused dizzy spells, ringing in his ears, and nausea. The following weekend, however, he was back at work again in the combat zone.

In another incident in Afghanistan, he tried to enter the chaplain’s quarters at one base, but had failed to get the keys from a fellow chaplain. Two Taliban mortar teams attacked the camp, hitting it with 16 rounds. Father Albertson took cover near a machine gun position, and observed as the American soldiers coolly returned fire. Once the battle ended and both attacking mortar teams had been wiped out, Father discovered that the chaplain’s quarters had been struck with shrapnel from one of the mortar rounds. Had he been inside, he would likely have been severely wounded or even killed.

“Your angel was looking out for you that day,” his fellow chaplain told Father Albertson when he returned to the base.

Despite the risks, Father is grateful for his time in the military. The soldiers he served are always pleased to see him, some saying that they had hadn’t come to appreciate the Mass until they were without it. “Sometimes they get quite emotional; I remember one guy who cried when he received Communion,” he said. “It’s been my great privilege and joy to serve them.”

The toughest part of his job, Father Albertson said, is seeing soldiers killed. Some in the military can become “callous” when dealing with death on a daily basis, but not a chaplain. “Each time we lose someone, it hurts just as much as the first time,” he said. “It’s the most stressful and tragic part of this ministry.”

Father Albertson also comforts the steady stream of wounded. His last night in Afghanistan he was called upon to anoint a quadruple amputee.

In order to be most effective in his ministry, Father Albertson has to get close to the troops.  One of the techniques he uses to build rapport is offering guitar lessons to his fellow soldiers (watch him in action here).

In an effort to connect with Americans back home, he became a combat photographer, chronicling the experiences of his fellow soldiers overseas. When people sent care packages to the troops, Father Albertson sent them photos in return, as a way to tell the story of what the troops were experiencing. He also records memorial ceremonies for soldiers killed in action and sends the videos to family members back home. “It offers them a window into the tenderness and honor the military extends to the fallen,” he explained.

Father Albertson is currently assigned to the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, his 13th assignment in 10 years. He’s pleased with the career he’s enjoyed in the military, remarking, “It’s a great way to live out the priesthood. I love the traditions of the Army, and I think it’s neat to be a part of this subculture. I feel spoiled, self-actualized. My work is my play.”

A military chaplain at Ground Zero

father karl-albert lindblad

Father Karl-Albert Lindblad recently retired from more than two decades of service in the US Navy. Today he serves as chaplain at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. He is a native of New York City, and remembers watching Navy ships come and go from the harbor as a child. After entering the seminary, he contacted the Navy and asked if they had chaplains.

“They said, ‘Don’t move! We’re coming for you now!’” Father Lindblad recalled, laughing.

The military has long been in need of more chaplains, he explained—“We’re lucky to have the priests that we do.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the armed forces are looking for younger, fit men who can meet the challenges of military life—the same kind of new priest bishops seek for their parishes.

Father Lindblad was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York in 1987. After spending several years in a parish, he became a Navy chaplain. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, equivalent to the rank of major in the Army. While the duties of a military priest are often similar to those of a civilian priest, there are some important differences, Father Lindblad said. “We travel a lot, we can get shot at, and we’re asked to live in small spaces,” he explained.

Unlike a civilian priest, a military priest lives with his congregation. “It can be both exhilarating and challenging,” he said. “While you’re trying to be a role model and witness Christ to them, some days they see your worst side.”

According to Father Lindblad, soldiers and emergency service personnel typically have “very immediate concerns,” whether because they’re going into combat or daily working with military equipment that can be dangerous. Being away from home six months or more at a time can be a burden, too. Those who are forced to kill others in battle approach him with moral concerns about their actions.

Father Lindblad has been assigned to military bases all over the US and throughout the world, and was even part of a mission to capture Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. But the assignment that was most profoundly memorable for him came in 2001, when he was working at the US Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, New York. The Academy was just 20 miles from the World Trade Center, and he witnessed the 9-11 attacks in progress.

“When we first saw the smoke, we thought it was an accident. When the second plane hit, we realized it was a terror attack,” he said.

Father Lindblad was the first Navy chaplain on the scene, and played a key role in securing the services of a Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort.  As a teenager, he had worked as a messenger in the World Trade Center, and knew its buildings well. “I looked at the pile of steel ruins, and thought, ‘We’re going to need more help,’” he remembered.

One of his most vivid memories was of the many shoes of the victims strewn about Ground Zero. The pressure of the collapse of the buildings had vaporized the bodies of the nearly 3,000 victims, he said, leaving behind only their shoes: “I came to realize just how many had died.”

Father Lucky

Father Clement Davenport

Father Clement Davenport, age 88, saw many die in his years serving as a US Army chaplain in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  

Father Davenport was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1948. He volunteered to join the US Army after the outbreak of the Korean War. The infantry units in which he served, both in Korea and Vietnam, often found themselves in the thick of the fighting. Father Davenport was repeatedly advised to return to the safer rear areas, but he wanted to be on the front lines with the troops.  

“That’s how we serve as priests; it’s part of our nature,” he said. “We have to go where the suffering and dying are.”

The strains of war can be tremendous, Father Davenport said, but God’s grace can help you endure. He recalled one incident, when he was serving with soldiers protecting a water plant in Saigon, Vietnam. He was suffering from food poisoning, but since his unit was expecting an artillery attack that night, he opted to stay rather than go to the hospital.

At 3 am, the North Vietnamese barrage hit and “all hell broke loose,” he said. Casualties were high, and Father Davenport went about ministering to the wounded and dying, pausing from time to time to vomit because of his illness. The next day, he celebrated nine Masses. His only “food” for the day was a can of Coke, which it took him eight hours to get down. He reflected, “I don’t know how I did it, but God takes care of you.”

Despite his many times in combat, Father Davenport made it through unscathed. Once on the battlefield, an artillery shell exploded nearby, sending a piece of shrapnel tearing through his fatigues. But he was left uninjured. The experience helped earn him the title of “Father Lucky.”

He recalled another incident in which his driver, who had not yet experienced combat, took him to the front lines. While Father Davenport was speaking to some tank crews, artillery rounds began coming in. Father asked his driver, “Are you scared?” He replied, “Not when I’m with Father Lucky.” Father responded, “Well, I am. Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Father Davenport believes in the adage “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Soldiers fighting and dying were often receptive to his ministry; some wore rosaries he had given them around their necks into battle.

According to Father Davenport, the Catholic chaplain shortage was always a problem; seven Protestant chaplains ministered to the same number of men he did. He had spent enough time in combat to earn a ticket home, but opted to stay with the troops until the end of both wars because “there was no one to replace me.”

Father Davenport is pastor emeritus and in residence at the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California. He has fond memories of his time in the service. He says that while war is “terrible and stupid,” the work of a military chaplain is “beautiful.”

“You hold wounded and dying kids in your arms, 18 or 19 years old, some calling out for their mothers,” he recalled. “I told them not to be afraid, and talked to them about Jesus and Mary. My time in the military was the most important part of my priesthood.”

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About Jim Graves 217 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.