(OSV News) — Fifty years after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam, a New York priest told OSV News his combat experience there continues to shape his pastoral ministry.
“It gave me sympathy for the brokenness in people and the difficulties they have to face in life,” said Msgr. Charles Fink, a retired priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, now in residence at Notre Dame Parish in New Hyde Park, New York. “And it gave me a great sense of camaraderie with the guys with whom I served, the brotherhood of soldiers.”
After graduating in 1968 from St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Msgr. Fink served a 21-month tour in Vietnam, first as an Army specialist and then as a sergeant in the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light), receiving a Purple Heart for his service. His deployment coincided with the peak years of U.S. combat presence in the 1954-1975 conflict, during which the communist government of North Vietnam sought to dominate the U.S.-allied South Vietnam government.
Amid the Cold War fears of communist expansion, the presence of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam was increased during the 1950s and early 1960s, with combat units arriving in 1965. Four years later, President Richard M. Nixon began withdrawing U.S. troops — who at their maximum deployment totaled more than 500,000 — in response to U.S. domestic demands, and in 1975 the remaining U.S. diplomatic staff were evacuated as Saigon fell to North Vietnam’s forces.
Halfway around the world, far from the college philosophy courses that had led him to come into full communion with the Catholic Church from his Episcopal faith, U.S. Army Spc. Charles Fink would step off a military transport plane and quickly learn lessons in life, death and sheer survival.
He watched as his 19-year-old squad leader Claude Van Andel, who had switched positions with him on a patrol, was killed by a landmine. Wounded in combat, Fink quickly returned to the field, where both nature and the enemy challenged attacked body and soul.
“Out in the field, it was very primitive and harsh,” said Msgr. Fink. “You were sleeping on the ground, with rats crawling all over you. During the six-month rainy season, you were so drenched that almost always your skin was wrinkled.”
The torrents were often his only means of bathing, since “you’d go without showers for weeks at a time,” he said. “It was just a really gritty, dirty life.”
All the while, “you were on guard for being ambushed,” he said. “There were sniper fire and booby traps everywhere. There were days when you would have 10 to 12 guys wounded by the traps. You would be walking through rice paddies and pineapple fields, and there would be an explosion. … A lot of times, you weren’t in physical contact with the enemy, but were still suffering because of his presence.”
Msgr. Fink said his faith enabled him “enormously” in remaining “mostly sane” during his nearly two year deployment during which he became a sergeant.
“I began then, and have continued since, to be very devoted to the rosary,” he said. “I prayed it every day over there and have ever since.”
Also bolstering was a conviction that U.S. involvement in Vietnam, though divisive and disdained in the U.S., was just.
“I thought then and now that we had a legitimate interest there, and that our mission was noble,” he said. “If I really thought the whole thing was unjust and sinful, I wouldn’t have gone; I would have been a conscientious objector or just refused. But that wasn’t the case. … We were invited to come, to save the South Vietnamese people from being taken over by communists. We didn’t impose ourselves.”
He mentioned “there were atrocities committed” for which there could be “no justification.”
Yet such crimes were inaccurately “portrayed as if (they) were happening every day” at the hands of U.S. troops, he said.
“I still feel that our abandonment of those people was a greater act of immorality than our being there in the first place,” he said. “And I don’t mean just in the sense of removing troops. We were supporting them financially and with arms, and at a certain point, we decided to walk away and say, ‘It’s not our problem,’ while the other side was armed by China and Russia.”
Msgr. Fink said he returned home after his tour to a nation that seemed to want to distance itself from the war as quickly as possible.
“It was like, ‘You’re back, it’s over, let’s just move on,'” said Msgr. Fink. “It became an unhappy subject; no one wanted to talk about it.”
But Msgr. Fink, who entered the seminary after first completing graduate school at The Catholic University of America, soon found himself speaking out.
Listening to a presentation at the seminary by antiwar activist and former religious Elizabeth McAlister, Msgr. Fink was troubled by hearing U.S. troops labeled as moral transgressors.
“(McAlister’s) portrayal was very distorted and biased,” he said. “I was the only one in the building who had ever had firsthand experience with the war.”
Angered, he wrote the poem “Bury Me With Soldiers,” denouncing the “hypocrisy of lectures by the wise” and lauding soldiers who “didn’t want the war” but fought nobly and “though scared … faced the guns and died.”
The text, which Msgr. Fink often shares in presentations, has circulated widely over the years, with one copy left in 1987 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and now part of a National Park Service collection.
Msgr. Fink told OSV News his war experiences have helped him serve others with a deeper sense of compassion for their inner wounds, whether they are struggling with moral injury, grief or other traumas.
While pointing to the healing and forgiveness Jesus Christ freely offers, Msgr. Fink also cautions against “glib” attempts to rush through recovery in search of a “closure” that is not necessarily possible until eternal life.
“You can remove a level of pain just by getting people to accept the things they cannot change, and to accept that they’re different because of what happened to them,” he said. “Let it teach you and change you for the better. This is not heaven, but these things can help you to get to heaven if you learn from them.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesse Reina