To hell and back

| August 3, 2011 | 1 Comment

Priest describes life as an Army combat chaplain

Father Jerome Fehn, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a chaplain for the Army National Guard, has served in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq and Croatia. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

A line of young men and women clad in Army fatigues poured out of the plane into the sweltering, black night. Still groggy after crossing several time zones, the soldiers boarded windowless buses waiting to transport them to their camp.

“In the bus I sensed a very eerie silence,” said Father Jerome Fehn, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who was one of the passengers that night in 2006. “I felt it was more than the fact that all of us were dog-tired, almost like, oh, gosh, we’re really here now. . . . The fact that anything could happen was already starting to hit us.”

After six months of training at Mississippi’s Camp Shelby, the “Red Bulls” of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division finally had touched down in Kuwait, where they would remain for a short time before proceeding to their permanent base in southern Iraq.

As the caravan of buses rolled through the desert that first night, Father Fehn remembers praying for the soldiers’ safety. “That was my constant prayer,” he said.

Providing spiritual support

Father Fehn joined the Army National Guard in 1998. Now a major, he served six months in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 17 months in Iraq, and, in June, two weeks in Croatia for a training exercise.

As an Army chaplain, Father Fehn’s mission is to provide spiritual and emotional support to the soldiers. Although he is a Catholic priest, in the Army he serves soldiers of all faiths, ensuring that their religious and spiritual needs are met.

“A chaplain’s motto is: ‘Nurture the living, care for the wounded, honor the dead,’” he said. “That’s our mantra.”

In 2006, Father Fehn’s battalion received notice that it would soon be deployed to Iraq. At 54, Father Fehn was three decades older than many of his fellow soldiers. Nevertheless, he completed the Army’s grueling training regimen — climbing over and under obstacles, running, learning how to march and salute properly.

In Iraq, Father Fehn wore everything the other soldiers wore: 40-pound body armor, a helmet, glasses, gloves — everything except a weapon. An armed soldier protected him during dangerous missions.

At times the mercury would soar to 120 degrees. “But it’s a dry heat,” the priest added in all seriousness.

Days were long. At 5 a.m. he would rise for prayer. Sometimes his work wouldn’t be finished until after midnight.

In addition to celebrating Mass and the sacraments, Father Fehn attended meetings, conducted suicide awareness workshops, and counseled the soldiers wherever they were stationed — in the motor pool, the supply room, the garbage dump.

“You can’t sit in the office in a rocking chair waiting for them to come,” Father Fehn said. “As a chaplain at the battalion level, you’ve got to go to them and present yourself.”

That often meant putting himself in harm’s way.

“It’s always a scary thing to be out there because you never know what can happen,” Father Fehn said. “Even when I was in the base, we would get occasional rocket fire and mortar attacks. You’d hear ‘Ba-boom!’ and you’d immediately put on your equipment.”

During Father Fehn’s time in Iraq, three members of his battalion died. One soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle, another died in a vehicle accident, and the third suffered a medical condition. Father Fehn presided at memorial ceremonies for all three.

After a loss, he would make himself present to any soldier who wanted to talk. “They ask questions like all of us do,” he said. “‘Where is God in all of this? How does this fit with my faith? Why this person? Why now?’”

Father Fehn also wrestles with tough questions. “You’ve got war, but we are a church of peace. You’ve got evil, but we are a church of forgiveness. How does one rectify and help the soldiers who do battle and who may have to kill and who have killed with [spiritual laws like]: ‘Do not kill. Turn the other cheek. If your enemy makes you walk one mile, walk two. If he wants your coat, hand him your shirt as well.’”

“You can understand defense,” he added, “but how do you make that jump to doing battle with another country, another people? That’s probably the hardest thing.”

Thirty-year training

Military chaplain Father Jerome Fehn celebrates Christmas Mass in 2006 in ancient Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wood/ United States Army

When he is not on active duty, Father Fehn serves as a hospital chaplain at Fairview-Southdale Hospital in Edina and Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.

Nearly 30 years of hospital chaplaincy work prepared him well for the Army, he said. He has learned to accept people wherever they are in their faith journeys without judgment.

“All those years of hospital ministry converted like hand in glove because when I see soldiers I don’t know if they have faith or don’t have faith,” Father Fehn said. “But they are a child of God, and I try to do my best to respect that, to honor that, to give witness to my faith if the opportunity should present itself, but always making sure that the person knows that they are important.”

As a hospital chaplain, Father Fehn has dealt with death and dying countless times. While that work helped to prepare him for the battlefield, still he hasn’t grown accustomed to it.

“The day that I get used to it, the day that I can’t cry with a family or shed tears with a soldier because of a tragedy is the day that I have to quit doing hospital work, quit being an Army chaplain,” Father Fehn said. “If it doesn’t make you pause and think and feel sad inside, then something is wrong, something has happened to you. Somehow you encased yourself.

“You have to have some type of [emotional] cushion,” he added, “but it should never be a hard, steel cushion. You’ve still got to feel for what you’re doing.”

Father Fehn said he realized long ago the importance of having someone in his life to talk with, to provide spiritual and emotional support when his work begins to weigh on him. “You can’t keep getting all this dumped on you and expect to carry it yourself,” he said.

Prayer and a close relationship with Jesus Christ are vital, he said. “But even Christ himself ran up to the mountain a couple of times and got away from his apostles, got away from the crowds. He knew the importance of regrouping in his own heart and mind with his relationship to God. He also had Lazarus, Martha and Mary, a close relationship with the three of them.”

Challenges and rewards

Despite its many challenges, chaplaincy work also has its rewards.

In Iraq, Father Fehn welcomed several new Catholics into the church, validated the wedding of two soldiers, and celebrated Christmas Eve Mass at the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the father of our faith.

At 58, Father Fehn is approaching the Army’s retirement age of 60; however, he hopes the Army will allow him to serve for several more years.

“In the Apostles’ Creed, I like the phrase that the church uses — Jesus descended into hell,” he said, slapping the table for emphasis. “And on the third day, he rose again.

“If not me, then who would bring the word of God to people who are seemingly living in hell?”


Army to priests: We want you

Gen. George Washington established the Chaplain Corps in 1775 — a year before the United States officially became a nation — making it the second oldest branch of the U.S. Army.

Today about 230 active duty Catholic priests serve 1.5 million Catholics in all branches of the armed services, according to Deacon Michael Yakir, chancellor for the Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington, D.C.

The dwindling number of priests in recent years has led to a severe shortage of Catholic military chaplains, Deacon Yakir said. He has heard stories of priest chaplains serving as many as 20 bases, meaning some Catholic soldiers have access to Mass only about once every six weeks. Another 400 priests are needed to meet the demand, the deacon said.

Four Minnesota Catholic priests currently serve as military chaplains: Father Jerome Fehn, Army National Guard; Father John Echert and Father Thomas Foster, Air National Guard; and Father Lawrence Blake, Air Force Reserve.

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  • Great article.

    Father Fehn is a Holy Inspiration.