Lessons from the post-Vietnam military

In mid-September, I ran into retired General Barry McCaffrey in the green room at the NBC studios in Washington. He was discussing the latest turn in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell wars; I was providing commentary on Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K. In between our appearances (known in the trade as “hits”), McCaffrey asked me about my new work on John Paul II, “The End and the Beginning,” and we discussed the late pope’s role in the Long Lent of scandal in 2002, which I describe at length in the book. We then fell to talking about the reform of the U.S. military after the debacle of Vietnam, in which McCaffrey played a significant role. I mentioned that I had long had a hunch that there were lessons in that process of institutional self-renewal for the Church, and he promised to send me a book on the subject, “Prodigal Soldiers” by James Kitfield.

“Prodigal Soldiers” confirmed my hunch that authentic Catholic reformers have a lot to learn from the men who turned a crumbling Army—riven by racial hatreds, beset by drug problems far greater than those of society at large, weak in discipline and even weaker in strategic understanding—into the high-tech, high-energy, no-nonsense force that is the U.S. Army today. The American military, in 2010, is arguably the best-functioning major institution in our country, despite the strains caused by two wars and a large number of smaller overseas deployments. How did this happen?

The Army was in terrible shape after Vietnam, and it was its younger officers—the captains and majors who had seen their men’s lives wasted by stupid civilian strategists in Washington whom the brass declined to confront—who began to say, “Never again.”

They refused to accept the ingrained American attitude that, while our typical lack of preparedness meant that we almost always lost the first battles of any war in which we finally engaged, we would inevitably bludgeon the enemy into surrender with a vast industrial mobilization. There wouldn’t be time for this in future wars, the reformers believed; and in any event, it was an immoral waste of soldiers’ lives to use Napoleonic, massed army tactics rather than the maneuver warfare mastered by such great commanders as Alexander the Great and Robert E. Lee. Concurrently, the reformers jettisoned the hoary prejudices and ancient inter-service rivalries that had been another impediment in Vietnam, creating a new model of “joint operations” in which land, air and sea forces are thoroughly integrated in the command structure, with everyone therefore pulling on the same oar, in the same direction.

They insisted that the Army stop accepting social misfits in order to fulfill recruiting quotas. They were determined to rid the Army of racism, and took the educational and disciplinary measures necessary to do it. They worked vigorously to stamp out drub abuse, both by rehabilitation programs and by discharging those who couldn’t be helped. They convinced the authorities, both military and civilian, to make life something less than an ongoing, low-grade misery in barracks. They stressed educational opportunity for recruits, and they rebuilt the backbone of the Army, the career non-coms whose ranks had been particularly decimated by Vietnam.

Above all, they were self-critical, and learned to be even more thoughtfully self-critical in the revamped graduate programs they helped force into the military’s advanced command schools.  They took risks in challenging superiors, and they challenged those of their peers who couldn’t cut it. They were prepared to resign rather than see out their careers in comfort, if the latter meant risking a repeat of the disaster through which they had lived as young officers.

There are important lessons here for seminary reform, for the relations between priests and bishops, and for relations among the bishops themselves. Catholic clerical culture today, especially at its higher altitudes, still exhibits some of the characteristics that helped turn what came to light in 2002 from sin and crime into scandal. The analogy to the post-Vietnam Army isn’t a perfect one, but there’s a lot for the Church to learn from the hard path of self-renewal taken by the U.S. armed forces.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”