The Grunt Padre

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A few of his fellow Maryknolls, who objected to the war, may have eschewed Fr.

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Holy Week was beginning. All around him, a relentless tropical heat and humidity assaulted the body. Political unrest grew daily in intensity. Without a doubt, the missionary had landed in a live war zone, where the living and working conditions were primitive, and the need for spiritual guidance among courageous young men bordered on desperate. The missionary had changed, too.

Within a day of arriving, when most officers would have sought respite to acclimate to the weather and circumstances, Fr. Capodanno and a fellow chaplain were lobbying with a sense of urgency to expedite transport to their assignments. Just a few months after his dramatic arrival during Easter week, Fr. Capodanno was asked by a reporter why he had chosen to become a chaplain to grunts in the far-removed fields of Vietnam.

The number of troops deployed in Vietnam had increased significantly. Fighting was intensifying, and casualties in some conflicts were very high. One fact added to the pressure: In the Vietnam War there was an historic paucity of chaplains. Along with all the impossibilities of facing war in its day- to-day reality, the troops needed additional spiritual sustenance as news of the anti-war movement at home reached the battlefields.

The hunger and thirst for reassurance and charity were greater than ever. Here, the mundane actions and daily work of Fr. Capodanno and his fellow chaplains assumed even greater meaning. No one could deny that these brave chaplains were serving a cause of charity blind to ideology, eyes only on the call to service. From the beginning with his first military assignment, Fr. The battle scenes and piques of terror were interrupted by hours of boredom and haunted by sleepless nights.

Known for a remarkable courage and tenacity, the grunts could hardly be prepared for the horrible realities of the war they routinely saw each day—deaths, brutal woundings, endless loneliness and depression, temptation to despair. To combat the darkness of the combatant, the light of Christ needed to be lit and carried. Such was the job of the Christian chaplain in a war zone.

The U. Capodanno for his charges. Assigned first to a battalion in battle and then to a medical unit, Fr. Capodanno chose to be more than just a priest assigned to minister to the tragedies of war. He became a spiritual comrade by removing all distinctions and obstacles between his grunts and himself in the way he had learned in his Maryknoll training and ministry. He lived, ate, and slept as the men did. He knew how the grunts thought and felt because he was with them wherever they were and in a way few chaplains, even good and devoted ones, sought to be.

Grunts recall in vivid detail their padre keeping company with them through an entire night, isolated in distant and dangerous jungle outposts. Others recall the Grunt Padre leaping out of a helicopter in the midst of battle, blessing the troops, serving Eucharist to the Catholics, and then leaping into a chopper heading off to another corner of active conflict. The light in his tent was ever burning, waiting for someone to drop in for comfort and guidance.

In any spare hour, he could be found writing letters of personal condolence to parents of wounded and dead Marines. He remained at the side of the dying, present until the end, rather than let any man die alone, and he then sought to offer solid grounding and hope to the buddies who grieved the loss of friends. He established a library and readily shared his rations and cigarettes with anyone in need. Often when time and circumstances allowed, he mobilized volunteers to help local villagers with repairs and health care. For Christmas, he ran a relentless campaign to gather gifts from friends and organizations all over the world; he wanted no grunt in his care to suffer being forgotten.

He spent his own money buying his grunts items they needed but could not afford.

The Grunt Padre - In ricordo del valoroso Tenente Cappellano Vincent R. Capodanno

He heard confessions for hours on end, instructed converts, and visited outlying company bases and hospitals to offer prayer for those soldiers whom he had joined in combat. This level of engagement in active battle is not expected of military chaplains, but during the first eight months of his Vietnam missionary work, due to scenes like these, Fr.

Capodanno quickly became the most recognizable chaplain serving the Marine Corps. An official citation recommending Fr. Capodanno for the Bronze Star captures the snapshot well:. Invariably, he sought out that unit which was most likely to encounter the heaviest contact. He would then go with that unit and continually circulated along the route of march.

Vincent Robert Capodanno: The Grunt Padre - Crisis Magazine

During breaks, never resting, he moved among the men. His bravery, his humor, his right word at the right time contributed to the success of the unit. An astounding portrait of Fr. Capodanno emerges as the stories of these heroic episodes accumulate in tapes and transcripts on my desk. Many veterans who served in Vietnam carry these memories like a salve, along with the St. Christopher medals the missionary distributed generously, close to the pain in their hearts.

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While working for his second assignment with a medical battalion, Fr. He requested an extension, and it was granted. Responding to the inquiry from a Maryknoll classmate who wanted to know why he chose to stay, Fr. As his short extension drew to a close in , Fr. Capodanno worked tirelessly in his new duty assignment among the 5th Marines, who were now in a constant state of battle alert due to an ominous development—growing strength and numbers of the North Vietnamese Army in the immediate vicinity. Rather than abandon the 5th Marines as the holidays drew near, Fr. Capodanno requested another extension to stay with his men through the end of the year.

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It was again granted, and it was understood no further extension was likely. These would be his last weeks in Vietnam. On September 4, , Company M of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, encountered an ambush by the North Vietnamese Army in what was to have been a routine mission. Outnumbered 5-to-1 by 2, North Vietnamese troops, the Marines were encircled by gunfire with little protection, and they scrambled to defend themselves. Buddies made heroic efforts to retrieve the wounded from the field of fire.

Capodanno had already suffered wounds that almost shattered his right hand and shredded his right arm, but he refused to be medivacked. The men in battle that day who survived recall rallying at the sight of the tall, lanky chaplain caring for the wounded and anointing the dying. The radio report that the Grunt Padre had been sighted traveling down the line praying for their comrades was like a ray of hope for the tortured communications audience.

After hours in the fighting, the battle-seasoned chaplain spied a wounded corpsman who had been knocked down by the burst of an automatic weapon and was unable to move. Sprinting to his side, Fr.

Author sees heroic faith at root of Father Capodanno’s sacrifice

Capodanno began to administer medical attention. After serving a year-long tour, he signed up to continue serving as a chaplain with the Marines.

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On Sept. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Instead, he directed corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman.

Vincent Robert Capodanno: The Grunt Padre

At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U. Naval Service.

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