A Catholic priest who was critically injured while deployed with his Fort Lewis unit died Saturday, more than five years after his Humvee struck a roadside bomb in Iraq.
The Rev. Tim Vakoc becomes the first chaplain to die of wounds sustained during the war in Iraq. The former major from Minnesota – known to most as Father Tim – suffered brain damage and lost an eye from the May 30, 2004, attack. He had most recently lived at a nursing home in New Hope, Minn.
“He was a great man of God,” said Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek, who served with Vakoc on the fateful deployment to northern Iraq. “He was universally known and universally loved by the soldiers.”
According to an online journal that tracked Vakoc’s recovery, the 49-year-old died Saturday night while surrounded by friends and family. No further detail on the cause of the priest’s death was given, and family members couldn’t be reached Monday.
“A man of peace, he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America’s fighting men and women,” Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in a statement. “He has been an inspiration to us all, and we will miss him.”
Vakoc had been deployed to Mosul with the 44th Corps Support Battalion. The unit, a mix of active-duty and reserve soldiers, provided support to Fort Lewis units working in northern Iraq, including the first wave of Stryker soldiers with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The priest had celebrated Mass with soldiers in the field and was returning to the American base near Mosul when his convoy was attacked. The two passengers in Vakoc’s Humvee weren’t seriously hurt.
He underwent surgery at a field hospital in Iraq and was treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He transferred later that year to a veterans hospital in Minnesota that specialized in traumatic brain injuries.
His recovery was slow, but there were signs of progress lately. Vakoc celebrated the 17th anniversary of his ordination into the Catholic priesthood earlier this month, according to the CaringBridge.org journal. He remained on a respirator, was in stable condition and could answer questions by mouthing “yes” or “no.”
He also had full use of his right arm, which he used to give blessings.
On Monday, friends remembered Vakoc as a selfless man who worked to minister to troops in need of spiritual guidance.
Piek, who deployed with 3rd Brigade in 2003-04 as a lieutenant colonel, had lunch with Vakoc two or three hours before the roadside bomb attack.
Piek recalled midnight Mass for Christmas 2003, held in a cavernous former airplane hangar at an American base outside Samarra. He had played keyboard for the Protestant service earlier that night and agreed to play for the Catholic ceremony.
Vakoc’s message to the troops really struck home for many of them, Piek said. The soldiers sat on plastic chairs and listened as Vakoc compared that dark, cold night in the Middle East to the first Christmas.
Bethlehem “wasn’t so far away from here,” Vakoc said. “Just a couple days’ journey, depending on whether you’re on camel or Humvee.”
Vakoc arrived at Fort Lewis in summer 2002 after assignments in Germany and Bosnia.
Several chaplains have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Vakoc is the first to die of combat-related wounds from either war, said Tim Taylor, the collections manager at the U.S. Army Chaplain Museum in Fort Jackson, S.C.
“We join with his family, friends and all members of our military community in offering our thankful prayers for his presence and ministry among us, and for his restful peace now with Jesus the High Priest,” the Archdiocese for Military Services, USA said in a news release.