Memorial Day is a federal holiday with the designated purpose of remembering those who have fallen in defense of our country. Military chaplains are an often overlooked group of veterans, and sadly, it seems many people also forget about casualties among military chaplains on Memorial Day.
Since the Revolutionary War, chaplains have served the United States Armed Services. In 1971, Congress authorized the hiring of the first Army chaplain. Chaplains have the rank of a military commissioned officer but do not posses the duties and responsibilities of command.
According to the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps website “the mission of the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps is to provide religious support to America’s Army.”
The purpose of chaplaincies, according to the Department of Defense, is to “accommodate religious needs, to provide religious and pastoral care, and to advise commanders on the complexities of religion with regard to its personnel and mission, as appropriate. As military members, chaplains are uniquely positioned to assist Service members, their families, and other authorized personnel with the challenges of military service as advocates of religious, moral, and spiritual well being and resiliency.”
Douglas Carver, former U.S. Army chief of chaplains, says that the entry of the United States into the First World War effectively cemented the chaplain’s role in the military. At the beginning of the war, there were only roughly 150 chaplains serving, but that number had exploded to more than 2,300 by the end of the war.
In World War I, chaplain duties included providing pastoral and personal counseling, ministry to the wounded and dying, conducting memorial ceremonies and services and leading worship in stateside camps and for troops deployed in Europe, Carver said.
WWI chaplains almost universally had college and seminary degrees, and all were 41 years old or younger, North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder newsjournal reported Jan. 30, 1918.
“Chaplains serve as a constant reminder to our troops that God is present with them, especially in a combat environment,” Carver told Baptist Press in written comments. Carver continues:
“Today’s chaplains continue to provide personal ministry, pastoral care and training resources for our troops who suffer the ‘spiritual damage’ of war.” That damage can include post-traumatic stress disorder and “moral injury.”
In 1940, Rev. George S. Rentz, a Presyterian minister, was assigned to the USS Houston. Rentz served as a Navy chaplain during both World Wars and served tirelessly during the February of 1942 Battle of Makassar Strait. During another battle one month later, the USS Houston was attacked by the Japanese, and the ship began to sink. As Rentz tried to hang onto an overcrowded piece of wreckage, he offered his life jacket to other sailors, but no one wanted to take it. Rentz ordered Seaman First Class Walter L. Beeson to take the life jacket, then Rentz prayed and quietly abandoned the float so that there would be room for other sailors to take his place. He was one only one year away from retirement. For his bravery, Rentz was awarded the Navy Cross after his death, and the frigate USS Rentz was named in his honor.
Another example of a chaplain hero is Lieutenant Colonel George Russell Barber of the U.S. Air Force. When Barber passed away in 2004 he was one of the last surviving D-Day chaplains. Despite having no weapon to protect himself on that fateful day, Barber was the first man from his landing craft who waded ashore an obstacle-laden beach. Unconcerned for his own safety, he instead heroically focused on providing spiritual support to wounded doughboys – some of whom would never make it back home.
“I talked to as many as I could and prayed with them,” Barber recounted. “I said, ‘Trust in God.’” Barber vividly remembered that as soldiers fell all aound him, he recited from John:14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions…”
Father Herman Felhoelter was an Army chaplain in World War II and received a Bronze Star for his service under fire. World War II concluded, and Felhoelter subsequently became an assistant pastor. He was re-commissioned in 1948. After serving for two years Felhoelter was present during the Battle of Taejon in July of 1950, in which North Korean troops cut off a supply line road trapping a portion of the 19th Infantry and preventing the evacuation of wounded U.S. troops. The infantry attempted to carry the wounded over the rough terrain, but overcome with exhaustion, were forced to leave behind those who could not walk. Father Felhoelter chose to stay behind and administer last rites with the wounded. He was unarmed and wore the insignia of a chaplain clearly indicating his non-combatant status. As members of the 19th Infantry watched through binoculars from a set of hills in the distance, a North Korean patrol approached Felhoelter and his wounded compatriots, shot him in the head, then proceeded to kill roughly thirty wounded men. For his courageous service, Felhoelter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. He died one day before his thirty-seventh birthday and was the first of several military chaplains to lose their lives while attending to the spiritual needs of those engaged in the Korean conflict.
Father Tim Vakoc was an Army chaplain for seven years during which he served in Germany and Bosnia. Sent to Iraq in 2003, he defied danger, traveling extensively in order to celebrate mass for all military personnel. On the 12th anniversary of his ordination in May 29, 2004, Father Vakoc was seriously injured by a roadside bomb shortly after leading a mass. The bomb attack paralyzed him and he sustained brain damage. For his dedication and service, Vakoc was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Action Badge. and A Purple Heart. He was in a coma for six months, showed some signs of improvement in 2005. and even began to speak in 2007, but passed away on June 20th, 2009.
419 military chaplains have died since the Revolutionary War up until 2010 during the Iraq and Afghan Wars (as of September 2010).
Despite the invaluable work and support that military chaplains provide, they are being attacked, not only by enemies who wish to physically harm them, but also by organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation who wish to silence their free speech and suffocate religious liberty.
We must encourage the current administration to take decisive action to honor our military chaplains and protect religious freedom in the military against anti-Christian assault.