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6/26/2009 (5 years ago)

Catholics in the Military (www.catholicmil.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=185)

He chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America's fighting men and women.

(Father Vakoc: Heroic Virtue lived in a true Priest of Christ)'When people saw him, they became grateful for their own lives, no matter what they were experiencing.His ministry didn't end at the time of his injury; it just changed.'

(Father Vakoc: Heroic Virtue lived in a true Priest of Christ)'When people saw him, they became grateful for their own lives, no matter what they were experiencing.His ministry didn't end at the time of his injury; it just changed.'

Highlights

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Catholics in the Military (www.catholicmil.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=185)

6/26/2009 (5 years ago)

Published in U.S.


ST. PAUL (Catholics in the Military) - Father Vakoc, a Minnesota Army chaplain who was seriously injured in Iraq in 2004, died June 20. No cause of death was given. Family and friends were with him when he died, according to his CaringBridge Web site.

Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel, 15800 37th Ave. N., in Plymouth. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday, June 26, at the Cathedral of St Paul. Interment will be at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, 7601 34th Ave South, Minneapolis.

Father Vakoc, 49, had been living at the St. Therese of New Hope nursing facility in New Hope. He lost an eye and sustained brain damage when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee on May 29, 2004, as he was returning to his barracks after celebrating Mass for U.S. soldiers.

In recent years, Father Vakoc (pronounced VAH-kitch) had been showing signs of physical and cognitive improvement.

A June 11 entry on Father Vakoc's CaringBridge site noted that he participated with family and friends in a special Mass June 10 celebrating the 17th anniversary of his ordination, five years of post-accident life and appreciation for all those who were contributing to his care.

‘A man of peace'

"All of us in this Catholic archdiocese are grieving with the family of Father Vakoc," Archbishop John Nienstedt said in a statement. "We are joined in that grieving, to be sure, by the men and woman whom he served as chaplain in Iraq and those who witnessed his extraordinary courage and faith at Walter Reed Hospital and here at our Veterans' Hospital."

Calling Father Vakoc "a man of peace," Archbishop Nienstedt said "he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America's fighting men and women. He has been an inspiration to us all and we will miss him.

"We ask everyone to remember him in prayer," he added.

Praying with soldiers

Father Vakoc was born Henry Timothy Vakoc Jan. 8, 1960, and attended Our Lady of the Lake in Mound. He graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret's School in St. Louis Park in 1978 and then attended St. Cloud State University. Prior to entering seminary, he worked with college students and university officials as the regional president of Tau Kappa Epsilon international fraternity. He was an avid traveler.

After his ordination in 1992, he served as an associate pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony and St. John Neumann in Eagan from 1993 to 1996 before joining the Army.

His military service took him to Germany, Bosnia and Korea. He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., when he was called up for active duty in Iraq in 2003. He was the first Army chaplain to be seriously injured in Iraq.

According to a National Catholic Register story printed just a month before his own accident, Father Vakoc flew to a combat surgical hospital to be with two soldiers who had just been injured in a roadside bombing in which two others had been killed. One died before he reached the hospital.

He prayed for the soldiers who died and with the injured soldier, and then prayed with the other soldiers in the convoy who were not injured, but "in the state of shock."

Father Vakoc's ministry - which earned him the rank "major" - also included presiding at a memorial service for a young man killed in a roadside explosion, who just days before had talked about faith with Father Vakoc and read at Mass.

"The bottom line in helping these soldiers through the grieving process is to be present to them and walk with them," Father Vakoc told the Register in an e-mail. "I prayed with the soldiers who died. I brought the sacraments of the church and the light and love of Christ into the darkness of the situations."

‘Intentional presence'

Father Vakoc called his ministry one of "intentional presence," and it 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.

"I live with the soldiers, work with them, eat with them, care for them, listen to them, counsel them," Father Vakoc told the Register. "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."

The day Father Vakoc was injured in Mosul, Iraq, the two soldiers traveling with him were not harmed and administered first aid to him, Jeff Vakoc told The Catholic Spirit in June 2004.

"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." Father Vakoc underwent surgery to relieve brain swelling at a U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before being flown to Washington, D.C. He eventually went into the care of the Veterans' Hospital and St. Therese of New Hope nursing facility.

‘A reason he's alive'

The date of his injuries was also the 12th anniversary of his priesthood. Just days after Father Vakoc was injured, Jeff told The Catholic Spirit that he felt God put his brother in Iraq, and he was doing what he was supposed to do there.

"There's got to be a reason he's alive," he said. "I've got to believe there's a purpose." He still believes that, he told The Catholic Spirit June 22.

"He just plain old inspired a lot of people towards the Lord," he said. "There are a lot of people who were very needy spiritually, and just his example and fortitude and strength really played on that for a lot of people and helped them along."

Jeff's own faith grew during the five years after his brother's injury, he said. "I think it has brought me closer to the Lord. I've seen things that are miracles - little things, but I think that's how miracles come. It's changed the entire family."

It is a tremendous feeling to know people are praying for him and his family, Jeff said. "We're going to miss him. He was a part of our lives," he said.

Jeff visited his brother every week as his guardian and conservator, he said. Members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace also visited and prayed regularly with Father Vakoc, who followed along in a prayer book and mouthed the words.

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace were friends with Father Vakoc's sister, Anita Brand, at the time of his injury, said Brother Paul O'Donnell. Because of his pro-life work, Brother Paul consulted on Father Vakoc's medical care shortly after the accident. After his condition stabilized, the brothers continued to visit him regularly to pray and help with exercises.

Those who knew Father Vakoc before his accident described him as having a sense of humor and an inclination to reach out to others. Those qualities were still evident after his injuries, Brother Paul said, describing how he would joke with the brothers.

Along with his family, the brothers advocated on Father Vakoc's behalf to continue to receive physical therapy, Brother Paul said.

"His greatest gift is that he accepted the cross that God gave him, and for any one of us, it would be a tremendous hardship, but he accepted it," he said. "He obviously had a strong, strong will to live."

Father Vakoc taught others about the value and sacredness of life, Brother Paul added. "We can learn from Father Tim to embrace the crosses that come our way," he said. "They may not be the end of our life - they may be a new beginning."

Members of Franciscan Brothers of Peace spent time with Father Vakoc just a few days before his death, and three of them were present at his bedside when he died.

A changed ministry

The brothers feel as if they have lost a very close friend, Brother Paul said. He recalled Father Vakoc placing his hand on the brothers' heads and blessing them. They asked him to pray for them, too.

"When people saw him, they became grateful for their own lives, no matter what they were experiencing," he said. "His ministry didn't end at the time of his injury; it just changed."

Father Vakoc received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He also received the 2007 Distinguished Alumnus Award from St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and the Combat Action Badge in 2007, which is awarded to soldiers actively engaged in a hostile action by the enemy in a combat zone or imminent danger area.

Jeff is very proud of his brother, he said. "We all wished he had been around more, but he was doing what he considered his calling," he said.

While stationed in Bosnia, Father Vakoc told his sister, "The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be."

Catholic Spirit staff members and the National Catholic Register contributed to this story. Used with permission of the author Maria Wiering and TheCatholicSpirit.com, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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