by Veronica Szczygiel
A few weeks ago, my husband Arthur and I traveled to Virginia to celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary. As Arthur is a Marine veteran, we paid a visit to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. We perused military artifacts in the meticulously curated galleries that flow chronologically from the colonial times of the Corps’ foundation to Vietnam (exhibit halls featuring Iraq and Afghanistan are set to open in 2025).
Arthur reminisced about his deployments, friends made, and friends lost. It was an emotional but incredible experience.
For me, the museum was also a sobering reminder of the brutalities of war and how military veterans come home scarred with the physical and psychological pain of surviving it. Whether or not we agree with the often murky politics and complex moralities of war, we as a Church have a duty to take care of the flock who so often make grave sacrifices in service of our country.
One way the Church does support the spiritual and emotional needs of the military is through priests serving as military chaplains, who are noncombatants and are not issued weapons.
In fact, the Museum featured in one of its exhibits a priestly stole and chalice used by a chaplain in the Vietnam War. The chalice was crushed at the top, having been damaged by a North Vietnamese rocket in 1969 during Operation Swift.
The items belonged to Catholic priest Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno Jr., who ministered to the Marines in Vietnam when he volunteered as a chaplain in 1965. The plaque that described his life stated: “On September 4, , when intense fire inflicted heavy losses on Marines near Da Nang, Capodanno bravely ministered to the fallen until a burst of fire killed him as he used his body to shield a wounded man.”
When remembering Father Capodanno, a fellow lieutenant remarked, “He kept going, from wounded to wounded and from dead to dead.”
Born in Staten Island in 1929, Father Capodanno was the tenth child of Italian immigrants and was ordained a priest at the age of 29. He served as a missionary in Taiwan for several years and briefly in Hong Kong before volunteering to deploy to Vietnam. He died at the age of 38, riddled with 27 bullet wounds. Father Capodanno received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. In 2006, the Catholic Church designated him as a Servant of God, an initial step on the path to sainthood.
We can bring the light of Christ to our veterans, too. This Veterans Day, let’s honor our veterans with the care they deserve. Let’s speak with them and hear their pain and triumphs, and listen to their lives and lessons. Thank them for their service.
Veronica Szczygiel, PhD. is the Director of Online Learning of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University.