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Monday, June 22, 2009

"Priest gravely wounded in Iraq in 2004 dies"

Father Tim with some of the troops he ministered to in Iraq. (Provided by his family)

From the Star Tribune

Five years after being gravely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, the Rev. Tim Vakoc, a well-known and much-loved Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota, has died.


Five years after being gravely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, the Rev. Tim Vakoc, a well-known and much-loved Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota, has died, his family said Sunday.

Vakoc, 49, who most recently had been living at St. Therese Care Center in New Hope, died about 8 p.m. Saturday after being taken to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, said Barb Rode, president and CEO of St. Therese.

"Certainly, our thoughts and prayers are with the family right now," Rode said. "We are doing an investigation to make sure we have all the answers."

Vakoc died surrounded by family and friends, according to an entry on his CaringBridge website.

"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 wrote in a prepared statement. "He has been an inspiration to us all, and we will miss him."

Father Tim, as he was known, was the first military chaplain grievously wounded in the Iraq war. He was injured by a roadside bomb as he was returning from celebrating mass with troops on May 29, 2004, the day before the 12th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

The blast cost him an eye and severely damaged his brain. He was hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and transferred to the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center in October 2004.

After numerous surgeries and life-threatening infections, he slowly started to recognize friends and family, and to communicate with a squeeze of the hand or a slight smile.

For more than two years, he was in what doctors called a "minimally responsive state." Then, in the fall of 2006, he spoke for the first time in 2 1/2 years, raising hopes of recovery.

'Where angels fear to tread'

The Rev. Bob Schwartz, pastor at Our Lady of Grace in Edina and a longtime friend of Vakoc, said he would mime words with his lips. During a visit Schwartz paid him three months ago, Vakoc offered to give him a blessing. Later that day, he struggled but succeeded in maneuvering his motorized wheelchair down a hall and into an elevator to get to his therapy session, bumping against the wall the entire way because he lacked good motion control in his hands, Schwartz said.

"My sense of Tim is that if he was asked to walk across a landmine for somebody, he'd do it," said Schwartz, who served as priest at St. John Neumann Church in Eagan while Vakoc was associate pastor there. "He'd go where angels fear to tread."

Tens of thousands of people around the world followed Vakoc's story through his CaringBridge website. He had dozens of regular visitors, many of whom came to pray with him.

Teri Heyer of St. Paul visited him every other Sunday for three years, reading the newspaper to him. He communicated primarily with a "yes," "no," nod or facial expressions, she said.

"He was very aware of his surroundings," she said, adding that he once flashed a raised eyebrow at a story she recounted.

Ordained 17 years ago

When she last saw him a few weeks ago, he was doing well, she said.

Patricia Vacik of Colorado Springs, Colo., visited him three times, compelled by the friendship her family forged with him when he was their pastor at Fort Carson, Colo., in the 1990s.

"He use to take the babies and walk the babies on his shoulders during mass," she said. "He said the babies were so close to heaven [that] they really were still in touch with God. He was just so special."

Vakoc celebrated the 17th anniversary of his ordination on June 10 of this year, according to his CaringBridge site.

Vakoc, the youngest of three children of Phyllis and Henry Vakoc, grew up in Robbinsdale and entered St. Paul Seminary in 1987. He served as a parish priest in St. Anthony and Eagan before becoming an Army chaplain in 1996, and served extended tours of duty in Germany and Bosnia.

He shipped out to Iraq shortly before his 44th birthday. There, he was promoted to major and traveled to danger zones to pray with his fellow soldiers. He was returning to base from one of those trips when the roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee.

Family members declined to comment Sunday.

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