MILTON — After nearly a quarter century as an ordained priest, Father John Hoke was seeking a change in the late 1990s.
His father had retired from the Air Force and his older brother had been killed in Vietnam. There was a need for Catholic chaplains at the time, so Hoke got an OK from the bishop and entered the Navy chaplaincy school in Newport, R.I.
Having turned 50 in 1999, Hoke was a white-haired elder among his peers, some of whom were in college, and some in graduate school.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “I was the oldest in the class, having been ordained for many years, and because of that many of my superiors saw me as more than just a student.”
Both his parents had passed and Hoke sought to “rediscover” some of his roots. He was just 18 when his brother, then 19, was killed Dec. 21, 1967, in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam.
“I closed down (after his death),” said Hoke. “My father suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with the loss of his first son.”
The experience aided Hoke in his priesthood. An experience later in life — a meeting with the commanding officer there when his brother was killed — aided further, though Hoke wished it had happened while his parents were still alive. His father died in 1990, his mother in 1999. Neither learned the specifics of how their son lost his life in Vietnam.
Hoke graduated from chaplaincy school a lieutenant in 2000, and was assigned to Iceland at a Naval Air Station.
“The Air Force and Navy were together there,” remembered Hoke. “I was raised on an Air Force base so it was neat to see airmen and Air Force families.”
Hoke spent 18 months there and called the experience a good introduction to the military. He witnessed commanders make a tough decision when pondering the air rescue of an Icelandic fisherman in high winds.
“It was a tough decision — do I risk my personnel, my equipment? It was dramatic.”
The fisherman was indeed rescued just prior to his boat being slammed into the massive rocks ashore.
From Iceland, Hoke was assigned to the Marines and Camp Lejeune, N.C. While in Iceland, 9-11 had happened and Hoke and the Marines knew that an overseas combat deployment was likely.
He first served with the 10th Marines, an artillery unit which did not deploy. He was then transferred to an infantry unit — the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
“We knew we were going to Afghanistan,” said Hoke.
In 2004, they were on the ground in Afghanistan. The MEU was comprised of approximately 2,400 Marines.
A corporal, Daniel Lasro, from Easton, lost his foot during an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion while Hoke was there.
On May 7, 2004, Cpl. Ronald R. Payne Jr., 23, was killed near Sahmardun Ghar, during a firefight with Taliban insurgents. Hoke conducted the service at Kandahar Air Field in July.
It was the fourth service for Payne Hoke had conducted. The original service with Payne’s unit was held in the field, Hoke noted.
“Corporal Payne was the first to go home ahead the rest of us,” Hoke said during the service. “I don’t mean the soil of his home state of Florida which now covers his body in peace... I mean he is home in Heaven. Surely the Heavenly Father has given him a homecoming greater than we will receive in September on the shores of Camp Lejeune.”
During one unit exercise, Hoke took religious medallions, blessed them and placed them under the mats of each of the military vehicles taking part in the convoy. The unit made it safely without encountering any IEDs.
“The Taliban knew they were coming,” said Hoke. “They knew they were heading out.”
Hoke remembered the officers, and the Marine Corps as a whole, had expected a lot of casualties with the deployment. They were all relieved with the relative few experienced.
Hoke spent 10 months in Aghanistan and was in the field approximatly four months. He noted the bravery of the young Marines and the challenging conditions and terrain they experienced.
“I saw my brother in every one of them,” he said. “That was with me all the time. It was a privilege and honor to be out there serving them. They expected so little and they appreciated everything you did for them. They took good care of one another.”
Hoke also served aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a California Coast Guard base and at (then) Bethesda Medical Center.
There he saw the gruesome injuries military personnel suffered with after serving in Afghanistan.
“That’s where it kind of came full circle for me,” admitted Hoke.
In more recent years, Hoke met the commanding officer who was injured in the attack that killed his brother, a Navy corpsman and a Vietnamese interpreter. That meeting came at the dedication of a monument erected in honor of Golf Company Marines killed in Vietnam. Michael was part of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
The effect of that explosion and the pain associated with losing three men still lived with that Marine and he asked Hoke about a line in the movie Saving Private Ryan.
He asked Hoke if he’d seen the movie and remembered the scene, “Where Private Ryan was an old man visiting the cemetery at Normandy Beach? (Ryan) said to his wife, ‘Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.’ Almost every day of my life I’ve asked that question.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal and author of three Vietnam-based books, “Remembering Firebase Ripcord,” “A War We Can’t Forget” and the novel, “We Answered the Call.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.