Retiring military chaplains reflect on service

| December 14, 2018 | 0 Comments
Father Jerome Fehn receives the Legion of Merit Medal Dec. 1 from Major General Neal Loidolt, deputy adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, at Joint Force Headquarters of the Army and Air National Guard in the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

Father Jerome Fehn receives the Legion of Merit Medal Dec. 1 from Major General Neal Loidolt, deputy adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, at Joint Force Headquarters of the Army and Air National Guard in the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. COURTESY MINNESOTA NATIONAL GUARD.

When Father Jerome Fehn accepted a U.S. military Legion of Merit Medal Dec. 1, he said it was more for those with whom he served than for himself, even as the award recognized his exceptional service during 20 years as an Army National Guard chaplain.

“When you are in the Army as a chaplain to soldiers, you don’t look for recognition or awards,” he said. “You help each individual as best you can.”

The 20-minute ceremony in Joint Force Headquarters of the Army and Air National Guard at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul capped a career for Father Fehn that included deployments to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Father Fehn, 66, retired in August from the military as a lieutenant colonel.

He is one of three military chaplains from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who retired this year. Father John Echert retired in October after spending most of his adult life in the military, including 28 years as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, with deployments in Kuwait, Qatar and Germany. And Father Eugene Theisen retired in April after 30 years in the Air Force, including 19 as a chaplain.

Each of the priests continues to minister in the archdiocese. And at least three other archdiocesan priests are serving as military chaplains.

Father Fehn, who works as a hospital chaplain at Fairview-Southdale Hospital in Edina and Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, where he has served for 33 years, said the archdiocese has generously provided chaplains to the U.S. military for decades. The tradition goes back at least as far as the Civil War, when before being named a bishop, Archbishop John Ireland served as a chaplain with the First Minnesota Regiment. Retired Fathers Patrick Ryan and Patrick Hessian both served as the chief of chaplains in the U.S. Army, Father Fehn said.

Father Fehn’s duties have included praying for soldiers’ safety and presiding at Masses, military honors, memorial services and funerals for fallen soldiers. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in a combat zone in Iraq. He and his Army National Guard unit hold the military record for continuous deployment — 23 months — after six months of training in Mississippi and 17 months in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, Father Fehn said.

Father Echert, 61, pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Augustine in South
St. Paul, said he is “proud to be among the many veterans who served their country,” but he will miss the military that has been such a big part of his life. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

From his earliest years he wanted to serve in the Air Force and be a priest, and he was able to realize both wishes by serving as a military chaplain, he said.

He first entered military service at age 17, enlisting and serving four years in the Air Force. He followed that with eight years in the seminary that included a chaplain internship program, then served in the Air Force Reserves, and later the Air National Guard.

Father Echert’s late father, John, served in the Air Force overseas in World War II and the Korean War. He worked as a mechanic on the aircraft, the Enola Gay, that dropped the first atomic bomb on an enemy target, Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

Father Echert was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal at his retirement ceremony at the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 133rd Airlift Wing base at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Joint Air Reserve Station in Minneapolis.

He continues to perform duties as a chaplain for the Air National Guard when needed. He expects another priest to fill his position in the next year or so.

But priests are needed in the chaplain service, Father Echert said, and he has reached out for volunteers among priests the past two years. To qualify, priests need the permission of their bishop or religious superior, and an endorsement from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. They also must meet physical and other requirements.

Father Theisen, 53, retired as a major after serving as a chaplain for three years in the reserves and 16 years on active duty in Wyoming, Korea, Guam, North Dakota, England and Texas. He was deployed twice to Iraq, once to Afghanistan, and once to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief. Upon retirement, he received the Meritorious Service Medal and fourth oak leaf cluster.

Now parochial vicar of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague, St. Scholastica in Heidelberg and St. John the Evangelist in Union Hill, Father Theisen said he discerned that after 30 total years in the Air Force, including active and National Guard duty before he became a priest, he was no longer called to serve in that fashion. He is honored to have served God, family and country in the military, and he is excited now about serving the local Church, he said.

Fathers Fehn and Echert also said they were proud to serve. Father Echert said leaving is bittersweet, but it is time.

“I will miss this ministry,” he said.

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