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Military Chaplains - Serving god and Country

Father Dennis DeGuzman gives a military woman Communion while serving as chaplain for the U.S Army in Iraq. Father DeGuzman, who returned from active duty in the Middle East in March, said he was proud to serve both God and his country, especially since he recently becam a U.S. citizen.

Father Jerome Dillon (right) stands with RP2 Julius McClain aboard the USS ANTIETAM (CG 54) in this 2002 photo. Father Dillon, who at the time was command chaplain on USS CARL VINSON (CVN-70), said his 20 years as a military chaplain for the U.S. Navy have been a blessing.

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

Father Jerome Dillon walks the polished decks of nuclear powered aircraft carriers and through the blowing sands of the desert to care for souls in need. As a military chaplain for the U.S. Navy for 20 years, these remote locations have become his home away from home, where he serves his parishioners with love.

"I feel it is a great responsibility to provide for the sacramental and spiritual needs (of sailors and Marines) at sea and abroad, but especially when they are in harms way," he said in an interview from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California.

Father Dillon is one of several priests from the Archdiocese of Omaha who are making sure the spiritual needs of military men and women are being met. These chaplains serve personnel and families of the Army, Air Force and Navy, with Navy chaplains also serving the Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard.

Fathers Doug Hall and David Reeson are currently on active duty and serve as chaplains for the U.S. Air Force. Archdiocesan priests on reserve as chaplains are: Father R. Michael Fitzpatrick, U.S. Air Force; Father Dennis DeGuzman, U.S. Army; Father Mark Tomasiewicz, U.S. Air Force; and Father Mark Beran, who just started training for the Nebraska Army National Guard.

Father Frank Lordemann, senior associate pastor at St. Mary Church in West Point, retired as an Air Force chaplain last November.

When on active duty, these men spend their time ministering to about 1.4 million Catholics in the military, Bishop John Kaising, vicar of chaplains for the Archdiocese of Military Services, USA, told The Catholic Voice.

He said 349 priests serve full-time as chaplains on loan from 147 dioceses and 37 religious communities.

Ministry of presence

Priestly ministry is priestly ministry wherever one serves, but a military chaplain is expected to work day and night and to visit people everywhere – on land, in the air and at sea.

Many times they are the only Catholic priest in the area.

They supervise other chaplains, manage budgets and serve as pastors for Catholic parishes. They also make hospital visits, and provide worship services, sacramental rites, religious education programs and spiritual direction.

Hospital visits are much like that of any other pastor, Father Dillon said, except that chaplains might be seeing "a Marine recovering from wounds received in combat who is the sole survivor of a vehicle explosion that took the lives of five of his fellow Marines."

A large part of their ministry also involves counseling.

"In my 14 years as a priest, I've never counseled so many people as I have as a chaplain," said Father DeGuzman, pastor at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Dodge Sacred Heart Parish in Olean, who just returned from serving as an Army chaplain in the Middle East.

Many are dealing with a family crisis back home, problems within their own units, racism, spousal problems, suicide and separation from loved ones, he said.

Most of the people in Basic Training are away from home for the first time, in an environment that is completely different from anything they have ever experienced, said Father Hall, senior Basic Military Training Chaplain for the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

"For most of them, this is the most demanding and difficult experience they have ever had, and the strength they obtain in prayer and worship is the key for many of them making it through," he said.

Military chaplains, too, face challenges, many of which are the same as civilian priests. But priests in the military also must deal with the unique circumstances of serving thousands of parishioners, many who are young people from various backgrounds, cultures and religions. The parish community is constantly changing, too.

Father Reeson, a lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Air Force serving at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, said he welcomes the challenges. For the past seven years, he has enjoyed working with different faith groups and finding common ground, he said.

"There are some wonderful and faithful young people who serve in the military and I am encouraged by the interest of many who are considering entering religious life or the seminary when they complete their commitment to the Air Force," he said. "My goal is to find four young men who will be ordained and serve the people of God in the military and then in their home diocese."

Need for more

With thousands of women and men serving in the military, the need for priests who can minister to them continues to grow. This year, 10 bases in the United States will lose the priest assigned to the installations, Father Reeson said, which means that those bases will depend on a part-time civilian priest from the local area.

In the Air Force, Father Hall said about 140 chaplains are needed, but that they only have about 95 serving now. In the next two or three years that number may well be down to 80, he added.

"It's important that we keep a Catholic chaplain presence in the military so that those who daily put their lives in harms way have the assurance that their faith life continues to be nourished and cared for," Father Lordemann said.

The military is full of young people who are ready and willing to give of themselves. They just need guidance, Father Dillon said.

"These young people are hungering for food for their souls. They are not faithless, but they do need shepherds to lead them," he said. "There are many things out there to lead them astray, but for anyone with courage to get out and be with these men and women, they will listen and take in what is given them."

Fulfilling ministry

During his 27-year career as an Air Force chaplain, Father Lordemann spent time on Air Force bases throughout the world. Those years were some of the best years of his life, he said.

"I especially enjoyed being overseas in remote areas where the chapel was often the center for people to gather to support one another," he said. "Being part of forming that leadership for the future was most satisfying."

Father Hall, who has served on active duty since 1992, feels the same way.

"The greatest joy is forming religious values and strengthening faith in the young people who are the future of our Air Force," he said.

For Father DeGuzman, the opportunity to serve both God and country at the same time made him very proud, especially since he is a Filipino-born priest who recently became a U.S. citizen.

"It feels good to serve this country," he said. "It is hard work, but it's worth it."

Father Dillon said serving with the young men and women of this nation and providing for their spiritual and moral well-being have given him many blessings.

"The men and women of the armed forces are doing much to make the world safe and secure for all people. They do their tasks well and professionally because they believe in what they are doing, and they do it because their country has asked them to do it," he said.

"When they return to the United States, they will have the satisfaction of knowing they have made a difference in this world."

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