From enlistment to ordination: veteran clergy reflect on service to God and country
President Ronald Reagan once said, “Veterans know better than anyone else the price of freedom, for they’ve suffered the scars of war.”
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Americans celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of those in the armed forces who served the country in times of peace as well as conflict.
While Memorial Day honors those who lost their lives while serving, Veterans Day is set aside to thank living veterans for their patriotism and willingness to protect the homeland and its freedoms.
The Diocese of Fort Worth is fortunate to have several men who served in the armed forces then went on to meet the spiritual needs of others as ordained clergy. A few of them shared with the North Texas Catholic how skills and insights gained in the military prepared them for the priesthood and diaconate.
A life of service
Father Jerry Ward was just 17 and a recent high school graduate when he joined the U.S. Air Force for the first time. The year was 1954 and the need for able-bodied servicemen was growing as tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union intensified.
“I lived in upstate New York and the number of draftees from that area was high,” remembered the 86-year-old priest. “If your health was okay, you were drafted.”
Instead of waiting for the inevitable, Ward and two of his classmates enlisted in the Air Force. The young mechanic spent the next four years tinkering with airplane engines, but that’s not what left a lasting impression.
“We had a chaplain that was really, really special,” said Ward, who served at daily Mass whenever he could. “I thought maybe I’d like to do what he does and began investigating how I could make that happen.”
What made Catholic chaplain Father Neil Enright so exceptional?
“It was his presence with the troops,” the Air Force veteran explained. “We would see him in the chow hall and flight line. He was just always available to the troops inside and outside of the chapel area.”
Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Fr. Ward was ordained a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate in 1967 and was accepted into the Air Force chaplaincy program five years later. The program serves as a branch of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA which provides Catholic priests for the armed forces and Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that the 1.8 million Catholic men and women in the U.S. military receive religious services and counseling.
For the next 21 years, Fr. Ward ministered to men and women stateside as well as tours of duty in Turkey, Korea, Okinawa, and England.
Death notifications were a difficult part of the job for the dedicated chaplain.
“The Vietnam War was just winding down, but we were still losing a lot of people,” Fr. Ward said, recalling his first assignment at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
As the base chaplain, he arrived at the home of a fallen soldier with a team of support staff to break the news to relatives.
“You can’t say a whole lot. I just let people know I’m available and encouraged them to visit us at the chapel,” Fr. Ward continued. “Many would. We had a good rapport with the families.”
Journeying to troops in remote areas was a favorite ministry. His monthly visits to outlying posts were always a morale booster for soldiers dealing with the rigors of deployment.
“In Turkey, I traveled all over the country to various remote sites to celebrate Mass and do whatever I could for people,” he said, explaining his duties were very much like having a parish in civilian life.
Catholic chaplains officiate at baptisms, weddings, and offer RCIA instruction as well as provide pastoral care and counseling to service members and their families.
“It’s a balancing act to keep the chapel parish going with the other outreach things you have to do,” he admitted. “I really did miss it when I got out in 1993.”
After retiring, Fr. Ward continued his ties to the military by helping at different air bases including Fort Worth’s Carswell, now known as the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base. Since 2004, he’s lived in Northwest Tarrant Country where he celebrates Mass occasionally at St. Thomas the Apostle and Holy Trinity parishes.
During his 56 years as a priest, the seasoned chaplain also ministered to traveling circus performers and race car drivers, often celebrating Mass and giving the invocation in pit row before big competitions.
“They are all such good memories,” Fr. Ward mused, looking back on his years of service to the military and the Church. “Being able to minister to all different people from different backgrounds. Those are some of the things I think about.”
A journey back to faith
Chaplains can help people in stressful work environments realize the need for God in their life. That’s the experience Deacon David Robinett had when he served as a military police officer in the Air Force.
Raised a Southern Baptist, the telecommunications specialist stopped attending Church as a 13-year-old because of “life events.” An acquaintance he met while patrolling the base eased him into rethinking that decision.
“We would talk about life,” recalled the Persian Gulf War veteran. “After a period of time, he advised me the thing missing in my life was God.”
His confidante eventually identified himself as the base chaplain and invited the patrol officer to Mass.
“The thing that struck me was his approach to faith,” Dcn. Robinett explained thoughtfully. “It wasn’t the typical ‘You’re a sinner. You’re going to burn in hell’ language. He was welcoming, parental and spiritually guided.”
Being reminded by the chaplain that “God loved me and wants to be in my life” began his journey back to the faith.
Years later, he converted to Catholicism and became active in his Austin parish as an acolyte, lector, and member of the Knights of Columbus. In 2022, he was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Fort Worth along with nine other men.
Busy with new responsibilities at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Carrollton, the deacon hopes to include outreach to veterans in his ministry. Knowing about 17 service members commit suicide each day due to post-combat trauma weighs heavily on his mind.
“In anything we struggle with, the number one thing we can do is pray,” Dcn. Robinett suggested. “We should thank our veterans and remind them they are loved and matter.”
Veterans Day is a time to remember the people who protected the civil liberties of our country and the principles it was founded on, Dcn. Robinett said, adding, “So many times we forget we are a country founded on a belief in God and His teachings.”
Following Jesus requires discipline
A parish can do simple things to make men and women leaving military service feel welcome as they return to civilian life, said Father James Flynn, who served as an Army Ranger in the first Gulf War.
The parish he shepherds, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller, hosts a monthly support group for veterans.
“They go through ways of building virtue and service to God while helping each other navigate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through conversation and encouragement,” the pastor explained.“The Knights of Columbus is also a great organization that includes many veterans. They help connect a veteran with fraternity and service — something that comes naturally to those who have served in the military.”
While there are differences between serving the Church and serving the country — specifically in terms of missions and practices — common threads of discipline, sacrifice, leadership, and a strong sense of purpose exist, according to Fr. Flynn.
“I found the values and skills the army helped me develop were beneficial when transitioning to serving the Church,” he added. “My military service prepared me for my role within the Church — particularly as a Catholic priest.”
Like a well-trained soldier, following Jesus requires discipline, the Army veteran observed. The ability to commit to a goal, exercise self-control, and maintain consistency in one’s actions is key to successful ministry.
“The military provided me with a strong foundation of discipline which I continue to uphold in my life today,” Fr. Flynn pointed out. “I am capable of cultivating the disciplines necessary to maintain a robust prayer life, dedicate time to a daily Holy Hour, and develop virtues that help me temper my vices, though I have a long way to go.”
A family of veterans
Instilling discipline and responsibility in recruits is necessary for an effective military. But Father Daniel Kelley had a head start in his training. “I went to Catholic schools so that prepared me for the Air Force,” he quipped.
After graduating from Bishop Lynch High School, the pastor of St. Jude Parish in Mansfield joined the military and spent 1979 to 1984 developing reconnaissance photography from spy planes like the SR–71 Blackbird and other sources.
“I enjoyed the mystery of the stuff I was dealing with,” admitted the Dallas native who served a tour of duty in England, but there was also a downside to the assignment. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was at an all-time high, so the work was constant and stressful.
“My religion and faith were a reprieve from that,” Fr. Kelley explained. “I loved living in England and my colleagues, but I knew I didn’t want to make the Air Force a career. I began thinking about the seminary.”
After his discharge from the military, he attended daily Mass at his home parish — St. Pius X. It was a habit developed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska where the Columban Fathers celebrated Mass and ministered to the airmen.
Inspired by Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, the former Air Force sergeant began exploring different religious communities including the Trappist Monks. Advised to enroll in college by a vocation director in the Diocese of Dallas, the veteran began studying at the University of Texas at Arlington where he attended Wednesday Mass at the Catholic student center.
“The priests I met from Fort Worth knew I was interested in joining the priesthood,” Fr. Kelley recalled. The following year, he began his studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio and was ordained to the priesthood in December 1995 by the late Bishop Joseph P. Delaney.
With a family history that dates back to fighting in the American Revolution, Fr. Kelley considers military service an honor. His forefathers fought in every U.S. war, and he currently has a nephew in the Marine Corps. Other nephews were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s important to acknowledge the service of our military veterans,” said the pastor who plans to recognize veterans with a special blessing at Mass.
Honoring those who gave all
Ask Father John Martin why he wanted to be a Marine and he responds by saying, “I always knew my life was about giving of myself in some capacity.”
His father was career Navy, and an uncle was a 35-year Army veteran, so he grew up immersed in a military culture that deeply respected service. Joining the Marine Corps as an 18-year-old seemed a natural choice. During a nine-year stretch in the military, he trained as a mechanic working primarily on C-130s, CH-46s, and F-4s in California, South Carolina, and Okinawa, Japan.
“When I was in Okinawa in 1987, a friend asked if I would go to RCIA with him,” Fr. Martin said, explaining his instruction of the Catholic faith came from Navy chaplains.
“I did that for a year and was baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil Mass in 1988.”
But the convert also felt called to serve beyond the military. Inspired by a televised Catholic liturgy he witnessed as a youth, “I always wanted to be a priest from a very young age.”
Confiding in a priest about his vocation, the Marine sergeant was told he was too old for the seminary. After a 21-year career at Bell Helicopter but still determined his calling to religious life was real, the quality control specialist contacted the diocesan vocation office. Two years later, the former Marine entered Sacred Heart Seminary in Wisconsin and was ordained in 2017. He is now pastor at St. Peter Parish in Lindsay — the spiritual home for many fellow veterans.
“The military helped discipline me to do what I needed to do to get through seminary,” he explained, touting how the experience aided his religious formation. “It also introduced me to people all over the world and different cultures.”
Veterans Day is important to Fr. Martin because “I love our country,” the pastor asserted. “It’s a time to honor people who gave their all for what is right — just like our faith.”
A prayer for veterans
Lord God, Almighty Father, creator of mankind and author of peace, as we are ever mindful of the cost paid for the liberty we possess, we ask you to bless the members of our armed forces. Give them courage, hope, and strength. May they ever experience your firm support, gentle love, and compassionate healing. Be their power and protector, leading them from darkness to light. To you be all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever. Amen. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2021)