Catholic Army chaplain from Minnesota critically wounded in Iraq

CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Family and friends of Father H. Timothy Vakoc continued to pray in early June for the U.S. Army chaplain from Minnesota who was seriously injured when a bomb exploded near his Humvee in Iraq May 29.

Fr. Timothy Vakoc

Father Vakoc, 44, lost his left eye and sustained brain damage and possible paralysis on his right side, according to family members. He underwent surgery to relieve brain swelling at a U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before being flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where, as of the evening of June 8, he remained in a coma in critical but stable condition. He also is being treated for bacterial meningitis.

Though not alert, Father Vakoc has responded to stimuli, according to family members.

In a June 1 letter alerting clergy of the incident, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis requested prayers for Father Vakoc "as he recuperates and then faces a difficult new challenge for the future."

Archbishop Flynn added: "I have come to admire and respect Father Vakoc greatly over the past several years. I believe he is an extraordinary person — friendly, outgoing, generous, dedicated."

Father Vakoc was driving an armored Humvee to his barracks after saying Mass for U.S. soldiers when the roadside bomb detonated. Two soldiers traveling with him were not harmed.

"Tim took the brunt of the blast," said his brother, Jeff Vakoc of Brooklyn Park. "(The soldiers) did first aid on him and determined they couldn't wait for the medics or they would have lost him, so they drove him back on two flat tires to the base, and he was flown to Baghdad from there," he said.

Vakoc said his younger brother couldn't always tell him where he was or what he was doing in Iraq in their communications by phone and e-mail, but the priest never expressed concern for his own safety.

"I think he felt that God had put him there and that was what he was supposed to be doing," said Vakoc. "There's got to be a reason he's alive. I've got to believe that there's a purpose."

Father Vakoc joined the Army eight years ago and had served in Iraq for nine months. He was injured on the 12th anniversary of his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"This wasn't the first time he had been in harm's way," said Dana Fath Strande of St. Paul, a friend of the priest. His military service also took him to Germany, Korea and Bosnia, she said.

"He was (in Iraq) because that's where the soldiers were, and that's where they needed him," said Strande. "He was ready to go."

Father Vakoc, who was the best man at Strande's wedding and godfather to her 2-year-old daughter, Amara Dolore, asked for Strande's prayers before he left for Iraq, she said. Father Vakoc stayed in touch with Strande and her husband, Michael, by e-mail and occasional phone calls.

In one e-mail, dated Jan. 30, Father Vakoc wrote about how he prayed with the company of a pilot who had died when his plane crashed in the Tigris River.

"He journeyed with these soldiers in their living and in their dying to the point of accompanying their remains onto the airplane," Strande said.

Father Vakoc's duties in Iraq included counseling soldiers, ministering to Catholics and soldiers of all faiths, escorting the bodies of fallen soldiers, speaking with soldiers' family members and keeping up morale.

In an e-mail interview with the National Catholic Register newspaper shortly before his injury, Father Vakoc called his work in Iraq a "ministry of intentional presence."

"I live with (the soldiers), work with them, eat with them, care for them, listen to them, counsel them," he said. "The soldiers know if you are real and genuinely care or not. The soldiers see me out there with them, and that makes a difference."

After a memorial Mass for a soldier who had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, Father Vakoc told the Register: "The bottom line in helping these soldiers through the grieving process is to be present to them and walk with them. I prayed with the soldiers, I prayed for the soldiers who died, I brought the sacraments of the church and the light and love of Christ into the darkness of the situations."

Father Vakoc, who graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret's School in St. Louis Park in 1978 and then from St. Cloud State University, served as associate pastor at St. John Neumann in Eagan from 1993 to 1996 before joining the Army.

He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., when he was called up for active duty in Iraq in September 2003.

One of 117 Catholic priests on active duty assigned to the Army, Father Vakoc is the only priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis serving in Iraq, according to Father Philip Hill, chief of staff of the Army Chief of Chaplains. He is the first Army chaplain to be seriously injured in Iraq, he said.

Father Hill said other chaplains serving in Iraq have expressed concern for Father Vakoc, but have not expressed an increased concern for their own safety. "They just simply charge on and keep working," he said.

Chaplains follow the same safety rules as other Army soldiers, Father Hill said. They travel in convoys and wear flak jackets and helmets at all times. But unlike other Army soldiers, chaplains are unarmed. Each chaplain is assigned an armed soldier, who is responsible for the chaplain's protection.

Father Hill said the soldiers in Father Vakoc's unit are praying for him.

"They miss him dramatically for the life he gave to their spiritual lives," he said. "That's a tremendous compliment for any priest — that he becomes essential or in any way influential in a person's spiritual development, and that's where Tim is."

Updates on Father Vakoc's condition are available on the Web here.

See also, "For God and Country".

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Julie Carroll. "Catholic Army chaplain from Minnesota critically wounded in Iraq." Catholic News Service (June 9, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Catholic News Service.

Catholic News Service, serving since 1920 as a news agency specializing in reporting religion, is the primary source of national and world news that appears in the U.S. Catholic press. It is also a leading source of news for Catholic print and broadcast media throughout the world.

Copyright 2004 Catholic News Service


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