Captain Joel Panzer, Catholic battalion chaplain, celebrates Mass at Camp Liberty near Baghdad, Iraq. Courtesy photo

The Archdiocese For the Military Services, USA, based in Washington, D.C., serves 1.5 million Catholics at stateside and overseas bases, veterans’ hospitals and combat zones. 

In a September Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio called on believers to follow the example of Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno, who was killed Sept. 4, 1967, as he ministered to dying Marines on a battlefield in Vietnam. 

“Yet, I am certain that he was convinced that he was only doing his duty, realizing his apostolate and serving those in need,” Archbishop Broglio said. “We honor him so as to cultivate within ourselves that same spirit of devotion and fidelity. Putting into practice his example would be the highest form of praise.” 

There are currently 31 new seminarians intending to serve in the military, up from only three in 2001. They will begin filling the critical shortage of chaplains who, like Father Capodanno, Archbishop Broglio said, bring “consolation, encouragement and even physical support” to our troops. 

There were 400 chaplains in 2001. Now there are 274, and three tell their stories of the blessings of serving with the Armed Forces. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. 

Chaplain, flock look forward to special holiday

Thanksgiving dinner will have special meaning to soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division at Camp Liberty near Baghdad. 

“We will be preparing to go back to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in late November and early December,” said Capt. Joel Panzer, the Catholic battalion chaplain. “We will have a special Mass and a special meal as we wind down on our way out of Iraq.” 

Father Panzer, 43, was ordained in 1994 in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., and joined the Army in 2006. He previously was administrator of a Catholic school and pastor of North American Martyrs Catholic Church in Lincoln. 

There are about 800 soldiers in the battalion, and 25 percent are Catholic. Father Panzer ministers to them and also travels farther for soldiers who don’t have priests in their units. 

“My soldiers are my congregation and I take care of them like I would take care of my parish in Nebraska,” he said. “I feel blessed to have this sort of ministry.” 

Being in the military made him stronger physically and in his outlook on life. His work with all soldiers, not just Catholics, made him more aware of other religions. 

“It changed my perspective of military personnel and showed me how much they endure,” Father Panzer said. “I had this perspective that soldiers were all tough and strong, physically well-conditioned people who could go off to war and handle it well. But they are vulnerable people, too. Deployments and life in general wear them down. They are very human and much in need of the same things we all need — the help and support to go off and do a tough job.” 

Great source of comfort 

He sees their gratitude that their families and friends stand behind them while they are away. 

“They tell me that they are grateful that people in the churches back home are praying for them. Those prayers and thoughts give them great comfort,” he said. “Their faith life, the grace of God, is part of what gives them the ability to handle the challenges and loneliness. Having a chapel where they can go to church, like they did back home, helps greatly, too. They also find a lot of strength and comfort in each other.” 

Father Panzer sees some blessings in facing his own mortality in a dangerous environment. 

“It gives me a sense of peace to know that God is with us when we are flying around in a helicopter or having Mass in an armored convoy,” he said. “We realize that at any time, something may happen. Turning everything over to God and accepting that gives a certain amount of peace and requires a great amount of trust in this sort of ministry.”

Chaplain who served in Vietnam provides spiritual care to troops stationed in Bahrain

Cmdr. Chin Van Dang is thankful for being able to share his faith as a chaplain to the troops in Bahrain, a major U.S. Navy staging area in the Persian Gulf. He is grateful to see the chapel filled, and that many Catholics are returning to the Church. 

“Maybe it’s been 20 years and they come back to confession and want to redirect their lives,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “That’s a positive thing and not just for them. It’s positive for us, too. As a priest, I say that I caught a big fish.” 

Father Dang, 61, is the command/supervisor chaplain for Naval Support Activity Bahrain. His vocation and military journey began in the 1960s in Vietnam when he attended Holy Redeemer High School and then St. Joseph’s Seminary, both in Saigon. He was drafted in 1968 and sent to the School of Naval Officers in Nha Trang. He was a lieutenant when Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, and his fleet fled and turned their ships over to the U.S. Navy. 

“I am thankful that I am alive, that I escaped the Vietnam War and that I am being of service to our people here,” he told OSV in a phone interview from Bahrain. 

Keeping up morale 

Father Dang never gave up his desire for a vocation, and a priest sponsor in Virginia arranged for him to continue his studies in the United States. He was ordained in the Diocese of Richmond in 1983, served in parish assignments, then in 1988 responded to the shortage of Catholic chaplains in the U.S. Military Services. 

“The command is always responsible for the morale and welfare [of the troops],” he said. 

That includes enabling them to stay in phone and email contact to home, and encouraging them to pray for their loved ones. Father Dang even encourages them to arrange that prayers from home are being said simultaneously. 

“That is one way to keep time going faster for them,” he said. 

They make the best of holidays away with a festive turkey buffet for Thanksgiving, and a food drive for local people. At Christmas, gifts are available for troops to send back home. 

“It is good for the soldiers and sailors to send to loved ones and family,” Father Dang said. “They appreciate that very much, that their loved ones are taken care of.” 

And what can people back home do for the troops? 

“Pray for them, and send care packages and notes,” he said. “And we thank all the people and organizations who take the time and energy to send packages. They know that we are fighting for a good cause.”

Faith serves as anchor for those moved from base to base and into combat zone

Military troops overseas no longer wait weeks for an exchange of letters from home. Modern technology enables them to keep in touch by email, Skype and cell phones. 

“They talk to each other and see each other,” Franciscan Father Robert Bruno told Our Sunday Visitor. “But nothing removes the vacuum of not being with loved ones, of not going to church with them, or being with the family when dinner is served. There’s just no substitute for that.” 

Father Bruno, 61, is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and is chaplain at the USAF Military Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo. He was ordained in Ohio in 1977, joined the Air Force in 1980, and has been deployed all over the world. 

“It has been very appealing to be with a very young part of the Church,” Father Bruno said about his current assignment. “I am here with 4,500 who represent America’s brightest and sharpest. They want to serve a cause larger than their own self-interest, and faith is very much a part of that plan.” 

A new appreciation 

Faith becomes an anchor, he noted, when they are moved from one base to another, or overseas. Faith is especially important when they are going into combat. 

“We pray to God that they come back, but will they come back wounded? Will they come back changed from having seen horrible things?” Father Bruno told OSV. 

He sees gratitude in men and women who have returned from “another part of the planet that you wouldn’t know was this same planet.” They have seen horrendous living conditions and experienced things that some won’t talk about. 

“They come home and will literally kiss the ground,” he said. “They have a whole different appreciation for things that they never knew they were taking for granted until they didn’t have them.” 

They return with warm welcomes, and for that, he said, “The older guys from Vietnam are grateful.” 

“Today, people make a distinction between the war and the warrior,” he said. “We learned from the mistakes [of Vietnam] to not repeat that this go-around.” 

As for what he will be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day, Father Bruno said, “I wake up every morning with a prayer of thanksgiving. I have been blessed far more than I could ever deserve. I am thankful for my family, my country and the Church, and grateful for my vocation, the friars and priests, and for being a pastor and confessor to the newest generation of Great Americans.” 

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