Author: vetchapel

A Long Time Ago

It was December of 1972, and I was in love. I was spending the holidays on the snowy banks of the Mississippi in the charming city of Dubuque, Iowa. Susie and I had spent the day Christmas shopping as the snowflakes fell softly on our faces, and our late afternoon errand was to buy a Christmas tree and carry it home. That evening we decorated it and dreamed together of the days and years to come.

That same day, another family was shopping and buying a tree. A young mother and her three children were traveling home when they were struck by a tractor trailer. The woman, named Neilia, and her one-year old daughter, Naomi, were killed instantly. The two boys, Beau and Hunter, were critically injured and rushed into surgery. The husband and father was in Washington, preparing to be sworn in as a United States Senator.

Joe Biden received the message and rushed to be with his sons in Delaware. He thought of resigning immediately but was persuaded by leaders in his Democratic Party that the nation would understand what he was enduring and would support him in every way. So he grieved the loss of his wife and daughter, sat by the bedsides of his sons, and slowly regained his footing.

I read the story of the tragic accident in the morning paper when Susie and I awoke to even heavier snow. We wept together and prayed for the Biden family. She and the Bidens shared a Catholic faith that promised the presence of Christ and the touch of Our Lady to a family suffering so greatly. I resolved to continue praying for this family and to follow the career of the young senator, who exhibited such courage and fortitude.

He went on to serve six terms in the Senate and then was chosen to become Vice-President to Barack Obama. His public service continued unabated, although other trials invaded his life along the way. In 1988 he came close to dying of a brain aneurysm, which required a six-hour operation to save his life. In 2015 he lost his son Beau to brain cancer, and Joe Biden will grieve this loss until his last breath.

Out in Iowa, Susie and I parted ways, but the imprint of our time together will be with me always, maybe even forever. I’m grateful we share those Christmas memories of almost half a century ago. And I’m also thankful for the life of that senator whose story broke our hearts back then.

I learned that this man’s compassion, humility, and wisdom grew out of the dark valleys he walked. I now understand how he could relate so gently and compassionately to average Americans who’ve been frightened and hurt.

I also recognized a great inner strength that emerged from his trials, and I marveled at his strong stands against injustice and oppression. I saw him travel the world to work with our longtime allies and to confront those whose ideologies were inimical to our nation’s values, beliefs, and policies.

Most of all, I saw Joe Biden as an authentic human being whose word can be trusted and whose faith and convictions represent those of the vast majority of American citizens. I was grateful last week to cast my ballot for this exemplary public servant.

A Proud Moment

He was a little man with a big smile. A few teeth were missing, but that only made him more genuine and likable. He was commander of a small group of soldiers who were working with us to protect the nearby villages. We called him Thieu Uy Ngu, which means “Second Lieutenant Ngu.” He helped us learn how to pronounce his name, “Tee Wee Noo.” He never gave us his first name, and we never asked for it. Units like his had been given the mission of defending smaller hamlets across the country; they were known as the “Popular Forces.”

He and his platoon were fighting for their homeland; we were thousands of miles from the hills, plains, mountains, and cities of our own nation. But we were united in our effort to stop the spread of global Communism. I think most Americans have forgotten how dangerous the world was in those days; the Soviets and the Chinese both had nuclear capability. They were working toward hegemony in Southeast Asia and beyond, testing the mettle of the free world to see if we could stop their advances. And we rose to the challenge for a decade, shoulder to shoulder with our allies in South Vietnam.

Thieu Uy Ngu was drawn to me for some reason. I didn’t feel all that approachable on those dark days and darker nights. My mood was often sullen and dour, especially after a firefight with casualties. The burden of leadership weighed heavy on my body and mind. But because I spoke his language, this diminutive man often would come and sit with me when there was a lull in the action. I sensed a camaraderie from the outset.

I recall two occasions that haunt and bless me, often simultaneously. The memories always bring a lump to my throat. The first occurred on a partly overcast night in September of 1969. He and I were sharing information about the “night acts,” the ways we planned to deploy our troops in the coming hours. Suddenly a cloud cleared the sky and a bright moon bathed us in light. He gazed at the orb and said to me in his native tongue, “Americans just walked up there. I am so glad.” It had been a couple of months since Apollo 11 had made that historic journey to Earth’s primal satellite, and my newfound friend was overjoyed. His broken smile seemed to illuminate the shell-scarred landscape surrounding us. I silently thanked God for enabling and ennobling our nation to accomplish such a miracle, as I wiped a tear from my eye.

A few weeks later, we learned that Lt. Ngu and I would be parting ways. My company of Marines was under orders to move north into the mighty Que Son Mountains, and his unit would remain to guard the homes of his family and countrymen. There have been thousands of times over the last fifty years when I’ve wondered what happened to him after we departed. And after the Republic of Vietnam fell to the communist onslaught from the north. I shudder as I assume that he and his men were unable to survive the carnage.

On the last night we spent together, we were sitting on a large boulder. I was trying to find words to convey my gratitude for his courage and his leadership; it was obvious that he was loved and respected by his toughened troops. But before I could muster up the message I wanted to convey, he beat me to the draw. I’ll never forget that instant when our eyes met and he said in his own language, “I have seen many Americans come and go. You are number ten!” (I learned later that he didn’t mean tenth in sequence; “ten” represented the highest accolade possible.) He went on to say, “I have tried to thank your people for coming over here to help us, but no one has been able to understand what I am saying. But you speak my language, and so I tell you. Please take my message to all the Marines and the Army and to people in your country.”

I wept openly, and we embraced. We went on our separate journeys toward unknown destinies. I hope to see him again, in a place where there is final freedom and abundance. Where his Buddhism and my Christianity are bound together with the strands of common humanity. Where we all will speak one language: the dialect and discourse of love.

In the meantime, Thieu Uy Ngu, I am sharing your story with my fellow Americans. We were grateful to be able to help, we only wish we could have finished the mission. Thank you for making us proud to be a nation that has sacrificed throughout our history to light the torch of liberty in countries and on continents around the globe.


It happens every year around the time of my birthday. Images from the past come flooding into my mind. Some vivid, some clouded. But all conjuring up some moment that lodged itself in the vaults of memory.

I recall a time in my early teenage years when I was trying to do some yard work with Dad. He always included us in his daily activities, when he wasn’t on the road selling office furniture or styrofoam products or recruiting students to attend a Christian college.

The day was hot, and I was weak in body and spirit. Also rebellious. So I said I was tired and had had enough. And at that, the air stood still as my father turned to me and said two things that ended up changing the course of my life. His comments in response to my complaint of fatigue were, “You’re out of shape, son,” and “Wars are won by tired men.”

I don’t recall the sequence of events that followed that exchange, except that Dad forced me to keep working and sweating. A few days later, I acquired a small set of weights and began strengthening my body. Running followed shortly after that. Distance running.

It was only a year later that I won a trophy at school for being the “most physically fit sophomore.” That little treasure is still with me, sitting on my bookshelf.

And when the patriotic patriarch of our family challenged me with the reference to victory in warfare, his words struck a deep chord in my youthful soul. How that impression affected my choices through high school and college I’ll never know, but I thank God for the motivation that led me to serve in the armed forces a few years later. Maybe I became a Marine at the very moment of my father’s challenge.

Once again, Dad, thank you.

An American Story

Their names were Johan and Britta.  They lived in the land their seafaring forebears had settled a thousand years earlier.  They were in love and wanted to start a new life together, but those were hard times.  Some of their family had gone to America, a young nation just emerging from a vicious civil war and urging immigrants to come to help it heal and move across the continent. That was an era when the the United States realized they were all immigrants, each ethnicity and religion bringing the best ingredients of the old into the “melting pot,” as the poets described it. As Johan and Britta looked beyond the sunset, they saw themselves as part of this new generation.  The letters from the other side of the Atlantic spoke of good farmland and opportunities for prosperity.

The couple had also been deeply changed by a spiritual renewal that had swept with revivalist fervor through their home country a few years earlier.  It had given them a strong faith in Providence to carry them through the challenges that lay ahead. Their Lutheran beliefs persuaded them that God would guide and protect them all the way to the new world.

There were tears at the port of embarkation when they departed; it was assumed that that the newlyweds would never return to see parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  When words of farewell were spoken in the language of the Vikings, there was a finality to them. A benediction.

The voyage was stormy.  The billows rolled, the vessel quaked.  The quarters were cramped and conditions were cruel.  Children died and tears flowed among the huddled pilgrims. The little ones were laid to rest in the dark ocean, amid prayers that the One who walked on water would carry them to their immortal home.

Britta and Johan arrived in New York and boarded a westbound train.  Their tickets had been purchased by kinsfolk awaiting them at their final station.  They didn’t have to travel across the Great Plains.  They settled in Western Pennsylvania, where their family welcomed them into the circle of evening fires. Meals, shelter, and staples were provided to augment the meager supplies Britta had carried in a wooden basket aboard the ship. The basket became an heirloom for generations to come.

Johan found employment in a nearby factory, since he couldn’t yet afford the farm of his dreams.  The hours were long, the work was strenuous, even for a young man in good health.  Later in family conversations, the elders would tell of how he was weakened in the dusty workshop and died too young. Britta would never marry again.

Johan also faced the bigotry that many foreigners endured at that time.  He spoke no English; Swedish was his mother tongue.  The ethnic slur, “Dumb Swede,” pierced him when he learned its meaning, and the pain stayed with him all his remaining years.  He never forgot. But he forgave the perpetrators because his faith told him to pray in the language of his childhood, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Johan persevered and labored long enough to buy a small farm in the forests and rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I recall going often in my childhood to that verdant haven. The saga of the Swedish couple continued with the birth of a son, who helped them till the soil and tame the land.  They named the boy “Oscar.”

The rest of the story is found in the annals of my family.  Johan Alfrid Gustafson and Britta Sophia Larsdotter changed their names when they traveled from Stockholm around 1880.  They became John Alfred and Sophia Johnson…and Oscar Alfred Johnson was my maternal grandfather.

And so the story goes.  And keeps going.