Veterans Day

The role of a military chaplain a year marked by COVID-19

Allegra Thatcher, Assistant Editor.

While the world hunkered down and waited out the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, the members of military were doing what they always do — sacrificing their time and energy to be ready to defend the United States.

Father Bill Appel, chaplain with the Archdiocese for the Military Services who calls the Diocese of Covington home, has served in three branches of the military and witnessed to what kind of year it’s been for the sailors in the U.S. Navy.

A military chaplain since 2017, Father Appel was an active duty marine officer, with experience as a helicopter pilot and a special forces officer, before being ordained to the priesthood. After serving the required three years in the Diocese of Covington, he offered himself for the service of the military and has served the Navy and the Coast Guard.

“A lot of the priestly call is akin to the military: selflessness, giving yourself for a higher cause, obedience…” Father Appel said. “You’re at your best when you’ve died to yourself in both cases.”

Father Appel said the military uses Catholic chaplains very heavily because they’re rare, so he gets scant time between assignments. This year, however, it’s been even less than usual. After a month of intensive training and seven months deployed in 2019, he and the sailors spent six months on the waterfront of Paris, prepared to answer needs. Then after a deployment overseas, they had to pick up for another ship.

“It was taxing in terms of always being up and ready to go,” he said. “We had just come back from a deployment to the Middle East, we were tasked with a very rigorous schedule, and then just when we were looking at a break, they tasked us with a five month deployment because a member of another ship had caught COVID-19 and spread it to the ship.”

In the Navy, said Father Appel, the sacrifice is really day to day, behind the scenes. “What you see on the outside is a ship at sea that’s floating, and they might not appear to be doing anything, but inside that ship people are getting very little sleep, some guys were getting three hours of sleep for three weeks straight, there’s a lot of inspections to keep the ship up running, qualifications… it’s a force in readiness. Whether we see something or not, we always have to be ready.”

Amid the strain of constant preparation, the pandemic brought a new kind of worry for the sailors about their families at home. “For us, it meant taking our time that we were going to spend home with our families and absolutely erasing that,” said Father Appel. “It stressed out the sailors because their family was at home and they had to consider their family.”

The operation of the ship remained largely the same, he said, in regard to the rhythm of daily life. In the midst of it all, his presence was able to bring some peace to the sailors.

“It’s more of a witness than I thought it was. As a priest, you’re always a priest and you never expect a break. So when I got on board, I’m just being a priest to the people. I bring with me some prior service (to the military) so I can (get) through a little bit (better)… but in terms of being a priest I don’t feel like I’m doing a whole lot above that and I don’t always see how good that is. Then after the deployment, so many people come up to me, — atheists, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims — who have said, ‘I don’t think I could have made it without you.’ So really we’re just out there being a priest like we do every day, and to us it’s just that, but to them it’s extraordinary, and it IS extraordinary, the priesthood itself. But even we need the reminder. It’s what we were ordained to do.”

Since Father Appel came home from his last Navy deployment in September, he’s been with the Coast Guard. Here, he’s found yet another group of dedicated men and women to serve. He compared it once again to his own work because of the incredibly rich mission of service of the future officers.

“I’m blown away by the future officers,” he said. “They’re young, they’re searching, they’re excited about their faith, they’re questioning their faith, they’re prepared to do something extraordinary and they’re interested in service. It has been an incredibly rich environment. It’s draining but in a very good way.”

During this month of thanksgiving, the United States celebrated Veterans Day Nov. 11, a day to honor the men and women who have served and continue to serve, protecting the nation and its families. God bless the soldiers, their families and the United States.