Bringing us back: the Chaplain Corps' critical role in AF resiliency

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Madeline Krpan
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

It was sunny, 75 degrees, and breezy outside in the San Diego spring. Tourists strolled the marina and lazed on the pier while sailboats careened through the bay, their wakes trailing brightly in the lapping waves.

The scene was whimsical, carefree – the image of leisure.

I, however, was inside the conference room of the Sheraton San Diego along with 150 other women listening to a lecture. The air conditioning had made the room unbearably cold, and I sipped on a styrofoam cup of coffee, leaning in to hear the speaker better.

After several minutes, I couldn’t feel the freezing air blasting from the vents above me, nor was I dreaming of the sun-soaked panorama outside. I was completely enthralled.

The speaker, Father Daniel Mode, a Catholic priest and Navy chaplain from the Office of the Chief of Chaplains of the Navy at the Pentagon, was recounting the story of Fr. Vincent Cappodano, a Navy lieutenant and chaplain to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in 1967.

The story went something like this: It was the Vietnam War, and Cappodano had already served in eight battle campaigns and been awarded a Bronze Star. He was known as “the Grunt Padre” by his troops, revered for his willingness to hunker down with them and participate in any task – from carrying heavy gear on long hikes to keeping the watch overnight. His ministry focused on the youngest Marines, the “grunts” who recently joined the service and were perhaps serving in their very first campaign. He talked with them, reassured them, administered sacraments, heard confessions and accompanied them as a constant companion.

On September 4, 1967, Lt. Cappodano volunteered to accompany a small rescue team to aid a group of Marines who were pinned down. Their rescue helicopter was shot down in a rice field and the crew escaped. Cappodano insisted on continuing the mission.

“I need to be where my Marines need me most,” he reportedly repeated aloud. While the team worked to set up a command post on the safe side of the knoll, Cappodano heard a radio operator on the other side relaying that they had been overrun. He dashed over the knoll to recover the wounded radio operator, dragging him to safety. The firefight continued and Lt. Cappodano sustained a gunshot wound to his hand, breathed gas from a chemical attack after he gave his mask to a young Marine who did not have one, and was wounded in the right arm and shoulder by a mortar. Each time, he insisted on going back, refusing to abandon the battlefield or his men. He was able to pray with one dying Marine who was heavily wounded and propped against a tree despite heavy fire. He then rushed toward an area near an enemy machine gun nest that three Marines were trying to take out. Two were shot fatally, and he ministered to each of them as they lay bleeding.

To the first, he said, “Stay calm, Marine. God is with us all today and you’re going to be okay.”

As he prayed over the second Marine, he was shot 29 times in the back.

The story of Lt. Cappodano has been shared across generations and he has been venerated by both religious and non-religious groups for his heroic actions that day. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969 and has been submitted to be considered for canonization as a Catholic saint for his selfless sacrifice over the course of his life.

As I sat in that icy conference room at the Military Council of Catholic Women Worldwide Forum in San Diego this past May, I reflected on what Lt. Cappodano’s sacrifice meant, and continues to mean.

How much strength must Lt. Cappodano have had to return time and time again to mortal danger to provide spiritual support to his men? How much strength have my brothers- and sisters-in-arms had in Syria, Iraq, Niger, and all around the world present-day in similar situations where they faced certain death but carried on anyway?

What makes us, U.S. Airmen (and soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guard) commit our lives for the sake of others in an all-volunteer military force? And how do we keep it up, year after year, assignment after assignment?

These questions ricocheted in my mind as we wrapped up the session for the day, and I finally stepped outside into the warm, salty sea air.

Now, as I remember the story of Lt. Cappodano, I am serving a short tour at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea. I’m much closer on the map to Da Nang, Vietnam, the spot where this military chaplain made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet I continue to wonder about what exactly it is that kept Lt. Cappodano--and keeps all of us—“going back” in spite of immense challenges.

The answer, in my opinion, is resilience. More specifically, spiritual resilience. 

Spiritual resiliency is the glue that keeps us together—as military units, as families, and as individuals. It is the answer to our “why?” and the salve for our wounds, both physical and psychological. Spiritual resiliency is the ability to step outside of oneself in the fog of emotion and remember who we are, who we belong to, and where we want to go. It takes practice, focus, and effort.

As a force, we need to not only maintain the heroic resilience of people like Lt. Cappodano and our fellow service members, we need to strengthen it. One way to do this is by tapping into our Chaplain Corps.

The Chaplain Corps is perhaps the greatest, most underutilized tool Air Force members, religious or not, have to combat the issues that have historically plagued our military: loneliness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, and suicide, among other things.

Its ability to directly help build the spiritual and overall resiliency of service members and their families has been mission critical since before Lt. Cappodano’s time, and is more relevant than ever today. 

Chaplains offer free-of-cost counseling and have a staff specifically dedicated to keeping their fingers on the pulse of our organizations, who are committed to providing the care to keep us in top spiritual shape to accomplish daily tasks.

The Corps delivers--with 100% confidentiality.

The power of the chaplain lies in the ability to see what the commander doesn’t in terms of the morale and welfare of Airmen. The services they provide are intended to serve all Airmen emotionally and spiritually, whether actively church-going or not.

I can personally attest to how valuable this confidential counseling has been, both for myself and for the Airmen closest to me. As service members, we carry out our duties sometimes far from our family members, in a state of constant life transition, and with ever-changing rotations of coworkers, responsibilities and locations. The doubts, the small failures, and the anxieties of daily life lurk in the background always ready to pounce in what seem like the worst, most inopportune moments. I have relied heavily on chaplains and the resources they provide to help navigate my way through some of my darkest, murkiest situations personally and professionally, along with some of the brightest, most hopeful ones.

The chaplains were there, each time, ready to help in whatever way they could. I imagine that’s what the Marines of the 3rd Battalion came to know, too, as they struggled their way through the jungles of Vietnam.

Because of the selfless chaplains I have met, I’ve managed to build my spiritual resiliency little by little, and gain skills I hope to continue to build upon for the rest of my life.

It’s the ability to press on, the courage to continue and the willingness to “go back” that fueled Lt. Cappodano’s heroic actions and guides the important missions our Airmen carry out each day, both at work and in family life.

It’s our visible reminders of the holy, our chaplains, who help us navigate the grey area between the black and white scenarios in which the military often asks us to operate.

As we develop our spiritual resilience and rely on the Chaplain Corps to continue directing our minds to the higher ideals we serve, I know we can and should count on them to bring us back.

Father Cappodano did.