By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 22, 2008
Fred Wendel got drafted into the Army as the Vietnam War raged. One thing led to another, and he became a chaplain’s assistant in Germany where he served for two years and got out.
He may have left the Army, but the Army never left him.
Close to 40 years later, he is one of two Atlanta priests this summer joining the U.S. military to serve as a Catholic chaplain.
“You can serve in a multitude of ways. This is very much a way I want to serve as a priest. I like the military way of life. I believe soldiers have souls,” said Father Wendel, a newly commissioned Army captain.
Father Wendel and Father Kevin Peek, the chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, are off to the Army’s clergy boot camp for 13 weeks in June.
Chaplains serve a military flock where many are in harm’s way around the globe. And Catholic priests are especially scarce among the chaplain corps. Close to one in five soldiers are Catholic and the Army needs about 300 priests. There are 90.
“The bottom line is they are needed and loved because there is such a need,” said Lt. Col. Ran Dolinger of the Army Chief of Chaplains Office.
The goal now is that Catholic soldiers see a priest for Mass, confession or for any thing else once every three weeks, said Dolinger, a chaplain. “That’s considered good.”
Army life as a priest is different.
First, they are concerned about the spiritual lives of all soldiers, not just Catholics. Priests must be open to other religions expressions of faith. The Army recognizes some 115 different religious groups.
“You are a chaplain. You are ministering to people according to what their faith permits,” Father Wendel said.
For instance, he cannot lead an evangelical Christian prayer service, but he’ll be responsible to ensure the prayer services take place for those soldiers.
“We are ministering to a 21st-century group of young people. … There has to be an openness to taking them where they are at,” he said.
The Army expects a chaplain to serve like every other solider, except without carrying a weapon. No chaplain has been killed in Iraq, but several have been wounded and six have earned combat medals for valor.
The two Atlanta priests will be assigned to the Archdiocese of Military Services, which serves 1.4 million men and women, but remain affiliated with the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Two Atlanta priests already are military chaplains. Father Patrick J. McCormick, a Navy chaplain with the rank of commander, is stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Father Dennis Niemeier is an Army chaplain.
Another priest is eyeing taking his priestly ministry to the military. Father Hieu Ha, of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, has applied to become a military chaplain.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory called the priests generous in caring for the women and men in the U.S. armed forces.
“Our chaplains care for the sons and daughters of this archdiocese as well as the sons and daughters of dioceses throughout our nation and they do so with generosity, zeal and courage. We should all keep them and all of our military personnel in our prayers and hearts,” he said in a statement.
Father Wendel celebrates 30 years as a priest this summer. After his stint in the Army came college, seminary, and life as a parish priest. He served for several years as a chaplain in Army National Guard units in Wyoming and in Georgia. He has been pastor of Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch, since 2002.
His Army service fulfills a long-held dream.
“I know the Army well enough to know, you can’t figure it all out. You take it as it comes,” he said.
Father Wendel’s father served at the Army’s Fort McPherson near Atlanta. He attended school at the now closed St. Anthony of Padua School.
At 59, he is older than most starting chaplains. However, because of an Army technicality, he can put on the uniform. It helps that he stays fit with long-distance bike riding. In 2006, he toured Alaska by bike, pedaling 500 miles.
His first assignment is Fort Belvoir in Virginia. He is on a three-year loan to the military. He appreciated that Archbishop Gregory allowed him to pursue this opportunity with the military.
“He was very open to me following this dream, if this is something I wanted to do,” Father Wendel said.
Father Kevin Peek, who was ordained in 1998, is breaking family tradition. His father graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and one of his sisters is a Navy Reserve nurse. His brother, Father Joseph Peek, is a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve and a Navy chaplain candidate. Father Joseph is to commission his younger brother in the military.
Father Joseph said his brother is always “seeking to serve in hardship.”
At the family gathering to watch last year’s Army-Navy game, Father Kevin said, “I guess that this is the last time I’ll be rooting for Navy.”
“What’s your name?” quipped his father.
Born on Long Island, N.Y., Father Kevin grew up in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. He earned a history degree before entering seminary. Since ordination he served at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City and as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur before beginning the high school chaplaincy.
Father Kevin, who is 38, told the Blessed Trinity school community in an open letter of his desire for the military.
As a college student, he longed to be a military pilot. He worked in a law firm at one time. He has other aspirations as a priest.
“The chaplain has the blessed opportunity to bring the presence of God where it is needed most; and to show, especially through charity, generosity, compassion and forgiveness, the relationship between justice and mercy so necessary to establish a truly united and peaceful society,” he wrote.
Blessed Trinity principal Frank Moore said Father Kevin left his mark on the school, especially in setting up the popular mission trips.
“It’s a great loss,” Moore said. “There’s a real depth to his faith. You sense it when you are around him. I’m sure the soldiers will sense this too.”