How many of you all heard about this anniversary in today’s sermon? Bueller?
This was originally published on February 3, 2011
On this day, in 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a troop transport taking soldiers across the Atlantic, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat. On board were four chaplains: Reverand George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, and Reverand Clark Poling. These saints in the flesh not only provided a calm hand to guide men to lifeboats and assisted the wounded, but they also gave up their own life vests so that others might have a better chance at survival. Soldiers and sailors who survived the sinking remember watching these men pray together on the deck of the ship as it went down. Their sacrifice probably saved more than a few lives that night, and has been an inspirational example to me since I first heard their story.
Military chaplains are the quiet heroes among the rough men and women that make up our armed forces. They provide moral guidance to leaders, comfort the wounded in body and spirit, and remind all of us that there are better things than the heat, cold, sand, mud, and heartache that comes with the military. They act as staff confessor, conscience, and counselor to most military units. Any soldier knows that if he has a problem, he can go to the chaplain, if for nothing else than to find someone who will listen attentively and make suggestions that are reasonable. On more than one occasion I have taken Holy Communion from the back of a truck, with the Father just as wet, cold, and miserable as the rest of us. The difference was that he chose to leave the relative warmth and comfort of the TOC to make sure that the soldiers in his flock were taken care of.
I have known chaplains that were saints walking among men. I have known chaplains who were only slightly more holy in their manners than the men and women they tried to guide to a better life. One Catholic chaplain I served with was Airborne, Air Assault, and Ranger qualified, could drink like a fish, would flirt with waitresses as much as the rest of us, and was as viciously loyal to Notre Dame football as anyone I ever met. He was also the man who baptized my oldest son, blessed my marriage to his mother, and helped to bring me peace when I came home from a particularly hard assignment heartsick and broken.
To all of our chaplains, I say thank you. There are some debts that can never be repaid, but I hope that my words have some worth in that process. Even though a good minister can always find a comfortable, safe posting if they look hard enough, they go into the wilderness to preach to and care for the men and women who need them the most.