When I ran across this story this morning on Facebook, my heart sank and tears suddenly welled up as my mind filled suddenly with a memory that is associated with one part of this story. It took me back to a moment in time 51 years ago on a hot day during the Siege of Khe Sanh in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Navy Catholic Chaplain, Fr. Robert Brett, was assigned to the 26th Marine Regiment at Phu Bai, the same unit that was defending Khe Sanh.
On February 22, 1968, he was there, hunkered down in a trench/bunker near the airstrip, waiting for a helicopter to take him and several other Marines back to battalion headquarters at Phu Bai. Trenches and bunkers were the architecture that we were all living in at that time due to the daily shellings we were taking from NVA artillery, rockets and mortars. Helicopters did not spend a lot of time on the ground during the siege because that landing area had been targeted and zeroed-in by the NVA. Whenever helicopters came in, they would begin launching rounds that way.
A helicopter came in. As Fr. Brett was preparing to get on, he gave up his spot to a Marine who was transporting mail out of Khe Sanh for the other Marines there. That was his nature. He always put his men before himself. He went back to the bunker/trench to wait for the next helicopter.
Moments later, the bunker took a direct hit from a 122-millimeter rocket round. He and several others were killed instantly.
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I was there. I was a Corpsman with Bravo Co. 3rd Recon Bn. at Khe Sanh. Our Recon duties were moot, as we were surrounded by 40,000 NVA. Because of this, we Reconners and Corpsmen were often ordered to cover other duties on the base.
That day I was ordered to help out at the Graves Registration tent as we had taken a lot of casualties. I arrived there, went into the tent, and found that the dirt floor along both walls were lined with the Marines that had been KIA that day.
I was assigned the duty of helping identify and prepare the bodies and to put them into body bags for transportation on the next available helicopters.
I looked to my left at one point and thought that I recognized one of the dead Marines. I asked who it was and was told that it was Fr. Robert Brett, the Catholic Chaplain.
As a Catholic, on one or two occasions, I had been to a Mass he had done for us there. Because of the situation we were in, these Masses were quick affairs. On one occasion he had enlisted me to help distribute communion.
To see him there, his body broken and torn by the violence of that rocket round, I was shaken to my core.
The shocking indifference of that violence we were all enduring at Khe Sanh became overwhelming. I was suddenly gripped more than ever with the sense of my own fragile mortality in that wildly violent place. I don’t know why but the sense that, “It’ll never happen to me,” left me that moment, forever.
Fr. Bob, as he was known by the Marines, was highly respected for his service to us. Now retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Larry McCartney first met Fr. Bob as an 18-year-old Marine “newbie” in Vietnam. Now 69, he remembers Fr. Bob as, “an encouraging and compassionate man. Very able to give someone the inner strength to take a deep breath and keep plugging.”
Fr. Bob was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit.
But that is not the end of this story. Fr. Bob had a brother, Francis, who also became a priest.
After his brother, Robert, was killed in Vietnam, Fr. Frank, as he was known, was devastated. He decided to leave a teaching position he had at the time in Knoxville, TN, to join the Army and go to Chaplaincy School. After he graduated in 1967, he started his chaplaincy with the Army. After a while he volunteered to go to Vietnam to serve the troops there.
When his mother found out that he had volunteered to go to Vietnam, she went “ballistic,” but there was nothing she could do about it.
Fr. Frank served 11 months in Vietnam in 1970. His service, care and courage were quickly recognized. While in Vietnam he would be awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” device. That is another story for another time.
These two brothers clearly grew up in a devout, Irish-Catholic family. Their dedication to God, to country, and to the young men and women in their military units, especially in the battlefield, was natural to them, arising as it did out of their faith and their willingness to live it out in service to others. When Fr. Frank retired in 1998, after serving over 30 years as an Army Chaplain, the Brett family had Fr. Bob’s body moved from their hometown to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, in the section reserved for Chaplains.
Fr. Frank presided over the re-burial ceremonies. He decided that when he died he wanted to be buried there with his brother.
Fr. Frank died in December 2017. It took some time for the family to make the arrangements and to get the bureaucratic necessities taken care of, but Fr. Frank’s ashes were finally laid to rest with his brother at Arlington National Cemetery last week. These two brothers who had sacrificed and served God and country so willingly in times of war and times of peace are now at rest together in the sacred ground of that most honored of military cemeteries.
The Veterans Site honors the memory and the service of Fr. Robert and Fr. Francis Brett. This writer remembers the life and the death of Fr. Bob, personally. You are one of the ghosts I have carried in my heart for all of the long decades since that day. I know that you are still joyfully serving your Marines in Heaven.
We will never forget! We remain Semper Fidelis to you both.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.