Father Timothy Vakoc says Mass in the field.
Chaplain injured in Iraq to receive seminary’s Distinguished Alumnus Award today
Father H. Timothy Vakoc, a U.S. Army chaplain recovering from injuries suffered nearly three years ago in Iraq, today will receive the 2007 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas.
Vakoc, 47, will receive the award at a ceremony that starts at 5 p.m. today, April 26, in St. Mary’s Chapel on the seminary campus. The award has been presented annually since the seminary’s centennial in 1994; it was established to recognize alumni “who have lived their vocation in an extraordinary way.”
Family, friends, seminarians and seminary faculty members will be on hand for the presentation, which will be followed by a reception.
Vakoc was injured May 29, 2004, when the armored Humvee he was driving was hit by a roadside bomb. It was the 12th anniversary of his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and he was returning to his barracks after saying Mass for U.S. troops near Mosul.
He lost one eye and suffered brain damage. After surgery at an Army hospital in Germany, he was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. When transferred to Minneapolis more than two years ago, he was still in what doctors said was a “minimally responsive” state and required constant care.
Last year he began showing signs that he was becoming alert, and in the fall he started talking for the first time since the injury.
According to some recent updates on the CaringBridge Web site: “All of us have prayed for the incredible therapy Father Tim is receiving. Recently, a friend told Father Tim, ‘You have two jobs, to work hard in therapy and to rest for that therapy.’
“Father Tim’s family, friends, and therapists continually notice small changes and positive progress. He appears more alert for longer periods of time. He smiles more and laughs more … and, yes, that mischievous twinkle is often there.
“Father Tim is getting better at recognizing people, and greeting them by name when he sees them. He is responding more to questions people ask him, and even though he may not always be correct, he is thinking and reacting.
Father Timothy Vakoc, pictured with his sister, has been an Army chaplain since 1996.
“Recently, when asked whether he would like to be able to say the Mass again, Father Tim nodded his head enthusiastically. He seemed able to associate a spoken word with a written word when a friend wrote the beginning of the Our Father on a marker board – and he recited the words, ‘Our Father who art … .’ Another person at the nursing home is helping him say the Rosary and recite the Apostle’s Creed.”
Vakoc grew up in Robbinsdale and graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in 1978. He graduated in 1983 from St. Cloud State University with a degree in marketing and went on to study theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. After his ordination in 1992 he served as an associate pastor at St. John Neumann in Eagan until 1996, when he became an Army chaplain.
Vakoc was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington and was called up for active duty in Iraq in September 2003.
In an e-mail interview with the National Catholic Register newspaper that was published shortly before his injury, Vakoc wrote that his work in Iraq was a “ministry of intentional presence.”
“I live with (the soldiers), work with them, eat with them, care for them, listen to them, counsel them,” he wrote. “The soldiers know if you are real and genuinely care or not.
“The bottom line in helping these soldiers through the grieving process is to be present to them and walk with them. I prayed with the soldiers, I prayed for the soldiers who died. I brought the sacraments of the church and the light and love of Christ into the darkness of the situations.” His comments also were quoted in a story distributed by the Catholic News Service.
Updates about Vakoc’s progress can be followed on the CaringBridge site at http://www.caringbridge.org/mn/timvakoc/.