Military service is a second calling for these Diocese of Knoxville priests
By Bill Brewer
Photography by Stephanie Richer
Father Patrick Brownell and Father John Appiah speak highly — and reverently — about Diocese of Knoxville priests who have gone before them. Father Joe Brando, Father Frank Brett, and Monsignor Philip Thoni are among the ones who frequently come to mind.
The thread that connects these servants of God has a brownish-green camouflage hue. In addition to their standard clerical dress and vestments, fatigues are part of their priestly uniform as military chaplains.
In a scene far removed from the usual greeting among Catholic priests, when Father Brownell and Father Appiah were briefly reunited recently at the 278th National Guard Armory in Knoxville, Father Appiah stood at attention and saluted Father Brownell, who returned the salute.
It was a glimpse into the lives of priests serving in the military Chaplain Corps, where vocation takes on an added dimension.
Father Appiah, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and Father Brownell, a major in the U.S. Army National Guard, represent a vital element to the military and the Catholic Church: the presence of God among the men and women serving in the armed forces.
Not only do Father Appiah and Father Brownell serve in the Diocese of Knoxville, CH (Capt.) Appiah and CH (Maj.) Brownell serve in the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. As with many active members of the National Guard, CH (Maj.) Brownell serves part-time. He also is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Morristown. While CH (Capt.) Appiah has been a parish priest, too, Bishop Richard F. Stika has granted him a leave from the Diocese of Knoxville for full-time assignment in the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps.
Pope St. John Paul II in 1985 established the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, as an independent archdiocese, the only Catholic jurisdiction responsible for endorsing and granting faculties for priests to serve as chaplains in the U.S. military and Veterans Affairs medical centers. As a military rule, chaplains are non-combatants.
Priests endorsed by the Archdiocese for the Military Services serve at more than 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries, making it the nation’s only global archdiocese. Archdiocese of the Military Services-endorsed chaplains also serve at 153 VA medical centers throughout the United States. Worldwide, an estimated 1.8 million military-related Catholics depend on the archdiocese to meet their spiritual and sacramental needs.
Bishop Stika’s connection to the military hits close to home. His brother Bob served in Vietnam, and his brother Larry served in the Reserves. The bishop noted that the number of Catholics serving in the military is strong, while the number of Catholic chaplains serving them is small.
“There’s always a great need, and these chaplains provide a service not only for the Catholic community, but for anyone who comes to them,” he said, noting that younger service men and women are at a vulnerable age and confronted with difficult situations, “especially if they’ve been involved in actual warfare.”
“If we’re able to provide the sacraments and be there for them to listen or to advise, it’s a profound gift that we can provide to our military,” he added.
As countries involved in D-Day on June 6, 1944, celebrated the 75th anniversary of the allied invasion at Normandy, France, Bishop Stika remembered those who served in the military then, especially those who died.
On April 24, Bishop Stika took part in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to lay to rest Diocese of Knoxville priest and U.S. Army chaplain Father Frank Brett.
Father Robert Brett, Father Frank Brett’s brother, was already buried in Arlington National Cemetery after being killed in 1968 in Vietnam while serving as a U.S. Navy chaplain.
“I’m always in awe anytime I enter a military cemetery, whether it’s here in East Tennessee or back home in St. Louis, to see the thousands of individuals who gave service. They always talk about those in World War II as the “Greatest Generation,” but we also have Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and all the various situations in which Americans were called into service. So there’s always a special presence when you enter a military cemetery,” the bishop said.
The Brett brothers were such positive role models for the service and sacrifice of the priesthood, especially the military chaplaincy, he noted.
And while it’s a sacrifice for any diocese to allow a priest to serve in the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Bishop Stika believes it’s important. He said the Diocese of Knoxville is co-sponsoring with the archdiocese a seminarian, who will serve in the diocese for several years and then can serve in the military as a chaplain.
‘Make yourself useful’
Father Father Appiah doesn’t struggle to answer why he wants to serve God through the military. He instantly recalls his family’s motto: “Make yourself useful.” He thinks about that when he gives thought to his parents and siblings: six brothers and one sister. “Serve the Church, serve the country, serve the world. In whatever form that takes. Absolutely.”
The cradle Catholic was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Knoxville in May 1998. Originally from Ghana, he wanted to be a missionary priest when he answered the priesthood call. He was introduced to the Diocese of Knoxville by then-Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell and discovered this was a mission diocese.
“I visited with the Divine Word Missionaries, the Franciscans, the Salesian Missions order. I investigated them all, but I decided to stay in Knoxville,” Father Appiah said.
So, he became a mission diocese priest, serving at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Stephen parishes in Chattanooga, Notre Dame High School, St. Mary in Oak Ridge, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in LaFollette, Christ the King in Tazewell, and St. Jude in Helenwood, as well as Notre Dame Parish in Greeneville, St. John Neumann in Farragut, All Saints in Knoxville, and Knoxville Catholic High School from 1998 to 2013.
That’s when he answered a second call to serve God through the military and left for the Air Force.
“The USA has been very good to me and my family. How do you pay back? You serve where the need is. There is a big need in the military,” Father Appiah said, noting that there have been as many as 150 priest chaplains in the Air Force, but that number has dwindled to just over 50 active-duty Catholic priests. The archdiocese is actively recruiting and ordaining priest chaplains to overcome the chaplain deficit.
Father Appiah currently serves at the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey, but he also has been deployed to Afghanistan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia since becoming a chaplain.
All of those outposts have provided opportunities for him to be the face, hands, feet, and heart of Jesus.
“In a crisis, I assist Air Force personnel to counsel them and just be present. It’s incredible,” he said. “One of the joys was a deployment where an airman’s wife was pregnant and expected to deliver. He was to be alerted and skyped in to be part of the birthing process. I went through the process with the airman. Also, I gave holy Communion to a child in crisis who had to be airlifted to receive a kidney transplant.”
Father Appiah compared his military ministry to serving in a parish, ministering to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He described how chaplains are taken anywhere they are needed, so he always has his Mass kit at the ready. He also explained that military chaplains work with hospitals and medical issues involving troops and with mental-health issues, such as suicide-prevention counseling.
“We have an important role as a counselor. You can come to us and we will help you get the help you need,” Father Appiah said. “The daily challenge is individuals separated from family, illness in extended family, not present for a child’s birth, or first day of school, or first Communion, or graduation.”
Providing the sacraments to military personnel is central to the military ministry of Father Appiah and Father Brownell. Father Appiah noted that the seal of confession is observed in the military, and he pointed out that privileged communication between a chaplain and a service member also exists.
“Everything that is in the Catholic Church is to be accorded to Catholics in the military. If there are no priests, there are no sacraments, no Eucharist, no confession, no anointing. Catholics in the military are very receptive to priests,” he said.
Father Appiah and Father Brownell serve in the Chaplain Corps with the approval of Bishop Stika, who determines how long a chaplain serves. “It’s totally the bishop’s call,” Father Appiah noted.
He underscored that point by adding that no branch of the military can have discussions with a priest without the bishop’s OK.
And the archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services does not determine where chaplains are sent. Those assignments are military decisions.
Prior to serving in Turkey, Father Appiah was deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which is in a combat zone and routinely comes under fire.
“Once you sign up, you know you’ll be sent somewhere. The fighting is with us and around us. Daily challenges are different everywhere, whether in Afghanistan or Mountain Home, Idaho, where I was first stationed,” Father Appiah said.
Father Appiah returns to the United States this month when he is transferred to Lackland Air Base near San Antonio, Texas.
Influenced by ‘M*A*S*H’
Father Brownell attributes his military calling to —“M*A*S*H.” Yes, the hit television series left an indelible impression on him as a boy.
“I liked ‘M*A*S*H’ so well I wanted to be in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. I was born in an Army hospital, so it’s in my blood,” Father Brownell recalled, noting that before his May 1994 ordination to the priesthood he served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1985 to 1990 as a medic and pharmacy technician. “I wanted to do what they did on M*A*S*H.”
The diocesan priest and chaplain, who marked the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood May 21, initially wanted to be a male nurse and worked toward that goal early in his career. He joined the Army Reserves as a way to make money while pursuing his career interest.
During basic training, thoughts of a priestly vocation began to take hold.
After fulfilling his military contract, he left the Army and thought he would never go back.
“I’ve always wanted to heal people, and I never thought of anything other than medical. But I started thinking about healing on a spiritual level,” Father Brownell said.
After being recruited to the Diocese of Knoxville by Bishop O’Connell, a then-young Father Brownell recalls attending a diocesan priest meeting and speaking to Father Joe Brando, who at that time was the State Chaplain for the Tennessee National Guard. Father Brando continues to serve the Diocese of Knoxville as a retired priest.
“He said, ‘We need priests for the National Guard.’ I prayed about it. It was in the Army that I began discerning a vocation to the priesthood,” Father Brownell said.
He discussed the military ministry with then-Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who approved it.
Because of his previous years of service in the Army Reserves and his priesthood, he joined the Army National Guard as a direct-commission officer in December 2005 and began serving immediately as a chaplain. “I came in as a captain because of my years of experience. I drilled one weekend a month and two weeks each summer,” he said.
Father Brownell remarked that during his five years of duty in the Reserves, he was never deployed, and all of his military training was stateside.
That wasn’t the case in his second stint after 15 years away from the military.
“I knew if I joined there was a good chance I would be deployed some day, and I was. And it didn’t take long. I was activated during the summer of 2007 and went to Iraq for a year. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared,” Father Brownell said.
“With Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. began activating National Guard units, and those troops were fighting and dying just like active-duty personnel. Now, we’re training right along with the active-duty troops. Our training is equal to active-duty troops’,” he added.
He explained that he was serving in a field artillery unit in Iraq that was guarding 25,000 Iraqi detainees, “very angry Iraqi men, and at the time it was the world’s largest detention facility.”
Father Brownell has discovered he is a rarity, especially in forward areas of the military. Currently, he is the only Catholic National Guard chaplain in Tennessee.
“The military is 25 percent Catholic. I volunteered to serve as a Catholic chaplain. When I was sent to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, where Army, Navy, Air Force, and civilian contractors were, there were 40 Protestant chaplains there, but not a single Catholic chaplain. I celebrated Mass for Navy Catholics, Army Catholics, Air Force Catholics, and civilian contractors who were Catholic. There were guys who hadn’t been to Mass in a long time,” he pointed out.
He explained that each day for three months the military would fly him or drive him in a convoy to military outposts throughout northern Iraq where there were pockets of Catholic soldiers for whom he would celebrate Mass. On one Easter Sunday, they flew him to five separate locations to celebrate Mass. At the time, he was a priest assigned to St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain.
He recalls delivering homilies in Iraq that dealt with the contrast of being near the Holy Land as war was taking place.
His chaplaincy in the field of battle attracted the attention of U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who wrote a letter to Father Brownell’s commander applauding Father Brownell’s service in hostile territory.
That service earned CH (Maj.) Brownell a Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone.
He was deployed again for a year in 2011 to Kuwait, where he served as a Brigade Chaplain, overseeing a number of chaplains from various faiths.
While military service is second nature to Father Brownell, he’s mindful of the inherent conflicts that exist between Christianity and combat.
“That’s one of the things I struggled with. What if there was a war I didn’t believe we should be in? In chaplain school you’re taught that you don’t get to pick which conflict you will serve in. Soldiers don’t have the luxury to decide which wars they’re in. You might approve of one but disapprove of another one,” Father Brownell said.
“Now I have come to peace with it if that’s where the soldiers are, that’s where the chaplains need to be. My focus is that there are soldiers right now who need to be ministered to, and some of them have no one to minister to them,” he added. “You have to set your personal thoughts aside. There are soldiers who are struggling and they need my help. They want the presence of God, and the ministers of God help them make sense of what is occurring.”
Service and Sacrifice
Father Brownell lamented the shortage of priests in general, and specifically priests in the military.
But he acknowledged military chaplaincy isn’t for every priest and that it isn’t easy for a bishop to approve of military chaplain assignments. Father Brownell noted that he must find a priest to cover his weekend parish duties when he is serving as a National Guard chaplain in Tennessee. On his second deployment, he stepped down as a pastor because of the hardship his yearlong deployment would cause the parish.
“You must have priests and seminarians who want to go. And bishops must be in a position to let a priest go,” he said.
“The military is over 25 percent Catholic and needs chaplain support. I think it’s only fitting that we supply Catholic chaplains to serve Catholic Marines, Airmen, Navy, Army, and civilian contractors.”
Father Brownell highlighted another important element of Catholic military chaplaincy: evangelization. Catholic military personnel on active duty have a better chance of being ministered to by a chaplain of another faith than by a Catholic priest. The absence of holy Communion and the sacrament of confession can have a profound impact, according to the Morristown chaplain.
“Most Christian chaplains in the military are Protestant, and most of those now are evangelicals and fundamentalists. They are very happy to evangelize Catholics. When you have a soldier who is Catholic and there are no Catholic chaplains around, they are ripe for converting,” he said, noting that mainstream denominations have previously had no interest in proselytizing Catholics.
Father Appiah said that he has served alongside chaplains from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Orthodox, and all Protestant denominations, so Catholic military personnel are exposed to a variety of faiths.
To underscore the priest shortage, Father Brownell pointed out that when he became a chaplain 13 years ago, the Catholic Chaplain Corps was at 5 percent strength — for every 100 Catholic chaplains needed, there were just five. I believe that percentage is even lower today.”
“In desperation, what the Army has done is it will accept a Catholic priest with no years of service until age 50. The mandatory retirement age in the military is 60. Catholic chaplains can serve until age 70 because they have so few. It’s not unheard of that Catholic chaplains are the oldest soldiers in the military,” Father Brownell said.
Given that mission-critical adjustment, Father Brownell may have more deployments ahead of him.
“As long as you’re in the National Guard, there’s always a chance you’ll be deployed,” he said.
Father Brownell and Father Appiah enjoy their military ministry and service to men and women in harm’s way. The priests give God all the credit and place their faith in His hands when challenges arise.
And as long as there is a military, they believe chaplain priests will be in demand.
“People who join the military don’t say goodbye to their faith. As a result, they will always have chaplains who provide for the free exercise of religion. No one is forced to attend religious services in the military, but (religious services) will always be there, I believe,” Father Appiah said.
“There is death and destruction around us. It is painful to see those who die due to war and conflict. I have consoled the families of those who have lost loved ones. The role of the military that is overlooked is that of preserving peace,” he added. “I have yet to meet any airman who joined the Air Force to ‘kill.’ I have met countless service men and women who joined to preserve and protect the vulnerable. I have no reservation about serving in the military as a priest. The Catholic Church will not endorse the arbitrary killing or destruction of life or property.”