At the end of Masses throughout the Memorial Day weekend at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Maryland, a trumpet player is playing taps and Boy Scouts are presenting the American flag, all to honor veterans who’ve laid down their lives for their country.
The pastor, Father Samuel Giese, knows firsthand the importance of remembering and honoring those who’ve paid the ultimate price. From 2005-06, he was deployed to Iraq as a combat area chaplain with the Army National Guard.
Now, in addition to serving as pastor in a busy suburban parish with 1,900 households and a Catholic elementary school with about 500 students, the 58-year-old priest serves as a senior Army chaplain for the D.C. National Guard, with the rank of colonel.
“It’s hard for anybody serving in the National Guard to balance work, family and the National Guard,” he said, noting that it typically requires duty on one weekend a month and 15 other days during the year.
“It’s kind of a juggling act,” Giese says, but one he’s more than willing to perform.
The priest of the Archdiocese of Washington – a West Virginia native – is a plain-spoken man with a military bearing and an easy smile. Asked whether he believes his 23 years of service with the National Guard, including in wartime, have made him a better priest, he said, “Without question.”
“I think as Catholics, particularly as priests, we often talk about sacrifice. In situations like war, you have the opportunity to see people sacrifice for others, so it puts a lot of things in perspective, including Jesus’s sacrifice,” Giese said.
During his tour of duty in Iraq, Giese served with the 155th Brigade Combat Team of the Mississippi National Guard, in a time frame where those soldiers not only faced the anxiety of war in that country, but also worries about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in their communities back home.
The members came from all walks of life. His chaplain’s assistant worked in a wood mill. One of the JAG officers served on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Another friend serving there was a high school history teacher. They shared a mission, and formed bonds as team members and comrades.
The priest said as a combat area chaplain, he had three core missions: “To nurture the living, to comfort the dying and to honor the dead.”
In the fall of 2005, those responsibilities came to the forefront when Giese was dropped off at a camp to celebrate Mass. During the liturgy, a major whose reserve unit had been deployed to Iraq was inspecting a nearby road with his Iraqi interpreter when a roadside bomb was set off, killing them both.
After Mass, the chaplain was told about the fatalities.
“I went to his detachment to notify his unit members that he had been killed. It was awful,” he said, recalling the raw emotion and deep sorrow of that small, tight-knit team upon hearing of their friend’s death. The priest prayed with them.
While he was in Iraq, the chaplain filed dispatches from the combat zone for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. In his column about that incident, he wrote, “The loss is more than heartfelt. It is heart-rending.”
A team member spoke about their fallen comrade, noting that the married father of three children “believed that our country is worth fighting for.”
Later, the priest joined other members of the unit in saluting as a helicopter carried off the bodies of those fallen heroes. Those chopper missions were called “Angel Flights.”
During the war in Iraq, the priest said about 30 members of their brigade were killed in action, and 90 others were wounded.
Memorial Day reminds him of the people in uniform whom he knew, who died serving their country, such as a friend in a Maryland National Guard unit – “a likeable guy, friendly, helpful, who had the worst jokes” – who volunteered to go overseas and whose helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
During the 1990s, Giese was among Catholic army chaplains from the Washington area who led services for Catholics interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2012, he wrote a Memorial Day column for the Catholic Standard, saying the day reminded him of “the majestic sight of each of the nearly 300,000 graves decorated with a small American flag. My thoughts will also turn to the nearly 800 souls for whom I presided at their burial and whose graves I blessed.”
Those honored dead included heroes from World War II who survived the war, and family members of military veterans buried there.
The priest said he doesn’t limit his time of remembrance to Memorial Day. During the year, he recommends that people visit national battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam and take a walk through the cemeteries to “say a prayer of gratitude and thanks.”
His gratitude is also for the sacrifice of veterans who returned home.
“I think of all the times people risked their lives for me to do my mission,” the chaplain said, remembering a time when a sergeant risked his own life to drive out on a road and make sure it was free of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), so the priest could head out along that way to another base.
The sergeant, who was Catholic, had attended the chaplain’s Mass the night before. He told the priest, “We cleared the road. You should be good to go.” Ten years later, that man’s action still humbles the priest.
“You think, somebody did that for me,” he said.
As a younger priest, Giese served as an army hospital chaplain at the Walter Reed Medical Center, visiting soldiers who had been seriously wounded in Desert Storm, the first U.S. war with Iraq.
“I tried to be a source of encouragement and a source of hope (to them), and sometimes just a companion,” he said in an earlier interview.
The priest said he has witnessed heroism in combat zones overseas and also on the home front, as wounded warriors rebuild their lives. He recently celebrated the wedding for such a man, a West Point graduate and devout Catholic – “just a fine young man,” the priest said – who lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
“We often think of heroism in terms of actions on the battlefield. The decision to go on with your life bravely and courageously, and never give up” is equally heroic, said the veteran chaplain and parish priest.
Giese said he believes that remembering and honoring military members who served is something to do not only on Memorial Day, but throughout the year.