Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A story of courage

A Catholic chaplain, seriously wounded five years ago in Iraq, has now died:

A Catholic priest who was critically injured while deployed with his Fort Lewis unit died Saturday, more than five years after his Humvee struck a roadside bomb in Iraq.

The Rev. Tim Vakoc becomes the first chaplain to die of wounds sustained during the war in Iraq. The former major from Minnesota – known to most as Father Tim – suffered brain damage and lost an eye from the May 30, 2004, attack. He had most recently lived at a nursing home in New Hope, Minn.

“He was a great man of God,” said Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek, who served with Vakoc on the fateful deployment to northern Iraq. “He was universally known and universally loved by the soldiers.” [...]

“A man of peace, he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America’s fighting men and women,” Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in a statement. “He has been an inspiration to us all, and we will miss him.”

Vakoc had been deployed to Mosul with the 44th Corps Support Battalion. The unit, a mix of active-duty and reserve soldiers, provided support to Fort Lewis units working in northern Iraq, including the first wave of Stryker soldiers with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

The priest had celebrated Mass with soldiers in the field and was returning to the American base near Mosul when his convoy was attacked. The two passengers in Vakoc’s Humvee weren’t seriously hurt.

He underwent surgery at a field hospital in Iraq and was treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He transferred later that year to a veterans hospital in Minnesota that specialized in traumatic brain injuries.

His recovery was slow, but there were signs of progress lately. Vakoc celebrated the 17th anniversary of his ordination into the Catholic priesthood earlier this month, according to the CaringBridge.org journal. He remained on a respirator, was in stable condition and could answer questions by mouthing “yes” or “no.”

He also had full use of his right arm, which he used to give blessings.

Catholic priests have been military chaplains in every war or conflict to which America's soldiers have been sent. The impressions they leave of their quiet heroism, selfless sacrifices, and dedicated service are strong even among men and women who themselves are living lives of heroism, sacrifice and service.

With our prayers for the repose of the soul of Fr. Tim, I'd also like to offer a prayer of thanks that so many of our servicemen and women can count on the presence of Catholic priests and the closeness of the sacraments, in particular the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist, to them when they are enduring the hardship, fear, violence, pain, and even--sometimes--the boredom of war. As greatly as we are blessed by the men and women in the military, and by the sacrifices they and their families make on our behalf, so are we blessed by the presence of priests willing to go amidst the fighting to be a witness to the power of the peace that passes all understanding.

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