Chaplains are a strange and unique group within the military, but they have been an integral part of the Army since its inception. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of them during my twenty years of service in the Armed Forces. Just like any other branch of the officer corps, they are made up of unique personalities and this impacts how they fit into the military culture. One of my favorite chaplains was a Catholic priest who was attached to my Brigade Combat Team (BCT) during my second tour of Afghanistan. We used to play chess almost daily. Being a religious man, he was exceptionally humble. Being an arrogant and stubborn individual, I am the opposite.
My best day came towards the end of our tour after a chess win; I managed to get him so riled up that he directly swore at me. For the rest of my life I will remember the look of horror on his face as he realized the words that had come out of his mouth. I loved that chaplain! There are other chaplains who come from the depths of the military itself — enlisted men who desire to care for their fellow soldiers in a way that has a positive impact on their souls. In my experience, these men are cut from a very different, but no less important, cloth. These men have no problem swearing at, with, or for the soldiers under their umbrella.
What I found interesting during my time with these incredible men is the rules which govern them within the military. While they are ordained by their specific churches and faiths, they are required to cross those boundaries to be able to minister to all troops, regardless of their specific beliefs. I always found that interesting — it gave me a lot of respect for these individuals, especially considering how exclusive some faiths are.
Aside from one chaplain (who clearly did not understand what his role was), all of the chaplains I served with recognized the importance of being there for the soldiers while they engaged in combat with the enemy. The same chaplain that I would play chess with was actually chastised by our commander for being out at the remote FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) too much, and ignoring the troops who were relatively safe and secure at our mega-base. But this is their role and calling, and I have immense respect for these men.
It is from this well of respect that I turn this article towards Chaplain (MAJ) Charles Watters. Chaplain Watters served in the military during the Vietnam war. He was born in 1927 and ordained as a catholic priest in 1953. In 1964, he entered into the active duty army. Two years later he was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and deployed to Vietnam.
The father, although technically assigned to the brigade, felt it was his duty to administer to the soldiers conducting the combat operations. He would normally be found down at the company level providing services on the bases and sometimes patrolling with the American service men. He even voluntarily took part in Operation Junction City, which was the only paratrooper combat jump of the conflict. This desire to be with the soldiers regardless of his own safety earned him the respect and adoration of those in the military. He even extended his tour in Vietnam for an additional six months due to his commitment to his soldiers.
On November 19th, 1967, Chaplain Watters conducted an early morning Mass prior to moving out with the unit to assault Hill 875 in Dak To. The belief was the hill was lightly protected by battle weary and depleted troops. What the Americans were unaware of, but would quickly come to learn, is that the Vietnamese Army had been fortifying the hill for quite some time. Not only had they been building an intricate series of tunnels and multiple fighting positions, they had also been storing up supplies to engage in a protracted fight with the U.S. Military.
At approximately 10:30 AM, the forward companies came upon the enemy and were quickly engaged with recoilless rifle (essentially a shoulder fired artillery round), small arms fire, and grenades. The forward movement halted under the intense fighting. While the lead elements were engaged, Alpha Company began setting up an emergency airfield to evacuate the wounded and resupply the soldiers. Chaplain Watters immediately rushed up to the front where the fighting was increasing in intensity. He came upon a wounded soldier in shock and unable to disengage from the enemy. Placing himself directly into the line of fire, the chaplain quickly rushed forward and carried the soldier to safety. After returning back to the firefight, he found another soldier who was wounded. Once again, he moved through enemy fire in order to save the soldier’s life. From this point, the chaplain moved throughout the engagement area, ministering and helping wherever he could.
At 2:30 PM, the North Vietnamese Army launched a separate attack from the rear of the American position, thus completely enveloping the American soldiers. Fearing they would be overrun, the American companies pulled their lines in tighter. This act left some of the men outside of the lines and surrounded by the enemy. Seeing this, Chaplain Watters attempted to leave the safety of the permitted area to bring the men back. He was physically restrained and only managed to reach the men after fighting off other soldiers attempting to keep him safe. Three times he ran through machine gun and mortar fire to save the lives of these men. Unarmed and with only his faith to protect him, Chaplain Watters did not once stop to consider his own mortality.
For the next several hours, Chaplain Watters found himself moving throughout the fight. He encouraged those fighting, rendered aid to those wounded, and gave the last rights to those who were dying. At approximately 7:00 PM that evening, a marine corps bomber was called in to provide air support for the embattled troops. In one of the worst fratricide incidents in the war, the pilot released his bombs too early and one of the 500 pound warheads detonated above the command group. Included in this area were the medics and Chaplain Watters, who were administering medical aid to the injured men. He was killed instantly and posthumously awarded with the Medal of Honor.
The number of lives that Father Watters saved cannot be properly enumerated. His presence on the battlefield inspired the men around him and gave hope to those who would have simply given up. The communists had hoped to destroy an American combat unit in order to use it for propaganda. In the end, while the 173rd took heavy losses, it was actually the North Vietnamese Army which was forced to withdraw from its defenses. While this cannot be attributed singularly to the actions of Chaplain Watters, his impact can in no way be minimized.
In a day where secular thoughts and actions reign, we should give pause to think back to the actions of this chaplain. He believed in a power greater than himself. He willingly risked his own mortality so that others could live. It’s a shame we don’t all have that same willingness to sacrifice. Think of how the world would be if we did.