Memorial Day has always been a mixed holiday. We cook out, laugh, enjoy life, and thank God for our freedom. Yet overshadowing the lighthearted festivities is the price paid for our freedom: the death of our service men and women. Today, I’d like to remember a particular serviceman, a man whose life exemplified what it means to give oneself fully to both God and country.
Vincent Robert Capodanno was born in Staten Island, NY, in 1929. He accepted Christ as a young man, and spent his young adulthood as a missionary priest in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
But, not one to hold anything back from the Lord, he desired to serve God in even more challenging circumstances than these. Father Capodanno requested an assignment with the Navy during a difficult era in our nation’s history: the Vietnam War.
As U.S. Navy Chaplain with the 7th and 5th Marines, Capodanno ministered to Marines of all backgrounds, drawing everyone he encountered into a deeper relationship with Christ. According to the official website dedicated to his canonization (http://www.vincentcapodanno.org/), the chaplain radiated the love of Christ and, “gained a reputation for always being there - -for always taking care of his Marines.”
On September 4th, 1967, Fr. Capodanno’s reputation proved true to the end. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines encountered a Vietnamese Unit of 2,500 men near the village of Dong Son. The Marines were greatly outnumbered, and a bitter battle ensued.
After sustaining 26 deaths, Company D requested the assistance of Chaplain Capodanno’s company. The chaplain could have stayed behind but insisted on joining his men on the battlefield.
Not long after approaching the village of Chau Lam, Capodanno and his comrades became trapped on a small knoll, engaged in intense, close-range battle. Fr. Capodanno bravely ministered to the wounded and dying in spite of his own painful wounds and the danger of enemy fire only a few feet away.
Marine Ray Harton remembers the battle well. He was hit and thought he was going to die. As recounted in a 2006 interview with the National Catholic Register, Harton shared what he experienced while he faded in and out of consciousness on the battlefield:
“When I looked it was Father Capodanno… He was down on his knees, his left arm behind my head. He said in a real calm voice, ‘Stay calm, Marine, someone will be here to help soon. God is with us all here today.’"
The badly wounded chaplain could no longer use his right hand, so he gave Harton a blessing with his left. In that moment, God’s peace overwhelmed Harton in a way he’d never experienced before.
Just moments later, Fr. Capodanno was killed as he left Harton’s side to reach another dying comrade. News of the beloved Capodanno’s death hit his men hard.
Father Vincent Capodanno posthumously received the military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” While this award is truly special, something tells me that this Marine received an even greater reward in heaven.
Father Vincent Capodanno is just one of the many heroic men and women who forfeited their lives to serve this country -- to preserve, among many things, our freedom of religion. As we celebrate Memorial Day, take a moment to remember those who followed Christ to their own crosses so that you and I might live life more abundantly.
Chaplain Capodanno was a quiet man, but he served the Lord with boldness. In what ways could you serve the Lord more boldly?
Galatians 5: 13
The Grunt Padre by Father Daniel Mode (CMJ Publications, 2000)
Pronechen, Joseph. “He Died With His Men.” National Catholic Register. 26 May 20006: http://www.catchingthespirit.net/capodanno.htm
Vincent Capodanno Foundation: http://www.vincentcapodanno.org/