Priest to return to Iraq as chaplain
ears after getting back from a tour on active duty as a chaplain in Iraq, Monsignor Brian Donahue has decided to go back.
The Roman Catholic priest, a vicar general of the Fargo diocese and a pastor in Kindred and Wild Rice, received a Bronze Star for his service in 2005 in Iraq with a unit of the Texas National Guard.
Last year, he retired as a major from the North Dakota Army National Guard after 20 years of service as a chaplain, including active duty in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
But the commander of the same Texas Guard unit asked Donahue to go with the soldiers again when they return to Iraq next fall.
"I had been praying about it the last year or so, working with my spiritual director," Donahue, 52, said Thursday. It's a matter both of the spirit and the body for Donahue.
"I'm a little bit out of shape right now," he said Thursday with a laugh. But more significant was discerning if this is what God wanted him to do, he said.
He talked to Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila and told him about the request and his own leanings.
"I was really looking for guidance from him, in this journey of faith," Donahue said. "Where is the Lord in all this? Is it something the Lord was calling me to? And we both came to agreement. Of course, it can't be done without (the bishop's) consent. And that really confirmed it for me, that, yes, this is where the Lord wants me to be."
Aquila issued a statement announcing Donahue's plans.
"Our soldiers need priests with them to minister to them and to offer them the sacraments. As I prayed about releasing Monsignor Donahue, I sensed that this is what God is calling him to do.," the statement said.
It's not clear yet if Donahue will join the active Army, or rejoin the Guard.
Donahue grew up in Fargo, graduating from South High School in 1973. He worked three years as a cameraman for KXJB-TV in Fargo before deciding to become a priest. He was ordained as a priest in 1983 in Fargo and served in Grand Forks for a time. He joined the North Dakota Guard in 1987.
But his connections to the military go back to his early teens, when he tracked on a map where his three brothers were as they served in combat in Vietnam.
One of his brothers was in the Marines and was wounded twice.
"I remember feeling, after my brother in the Marines was wounded the second time, that if I ever became a priest, I would do my best to be with soldiers during times when they feel most alone," Donahue said in the statement issued by the diocese.
Practically speaking, Donahue is answering the call. "There is a real shortage of Catholic chaplains," he said. "There are only 92 Catholic priests on active duty right now."
He will be the only chaplain for the same group, the 1-133 Field Artillery unit of the Texas National Guard. There will be 500 to 800 soldiers in the infantry battalion to which they are attached.
"We obviously grew very close," he said of his service in the Texas unit. "This time around, it's the same unit and brigade going, and it's without a chaplain. It's mainly the same guys."
"You develop such a bond with those you are with, that sometimes you miss that," Donahue said. "I maintain contact with the guys, usually by e-mail. It's the whole band of brothers thing."
It changed his life, and deepened him spiritually, he says.
"My faith grew stronger . . . the whole aspect of God's providence, how it works in our lives. I became more convicted of that."
As a chaplain, he plays a dual role: as a Catholic priest hearing confessions and presiding at Mass for Catholic soldiers and also as a general chaplain for the whole unit, and an officer, answering to the commander on morale issues and other matters.
While Donahue hopes to spend the rest of his life serving in the military as a chaplain, he will remain a priest in the Fargo diocese.
He won't leave for active duty until sometime after Easter.
Donahue hasn't heard of a chaplain being killed in Iraq, but some have been wounded.
Last month, Donahue went to St. Paul to visit the Rev. Timothy Vakoc, who was severely wounded as a chaplain in Iraq in 2004. After more than two years, he began to talk again and now gets around in a motorized chair, Donahue said.
The soft-spoken Donahue makes little of the danger he's all too familiar with.
"I am very, very happy to give my life to American soldiers, because they offer their lives for me and for you," he said.
The Grand Forks Herald and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.