What If I Hadn’t Gone Back? A Vietnam Chaplain Recalls A Fateful Sunday Service

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“There are no atheists in foxholes.” You may have heard this old saying before, but unless you have been there, been in a foxhole, or a bunker in the middle of a firefight or an artillery barrage, you may not understand the full meaning of that simple remark.

Those who have known the wild wizardry of war up-close-and-personal, know that there is nothing like bullets whizzing past your ears, or the sound of incoming heavy artillery rounds to take you into the interior depths of one’s self and to confront the stark reality of one’s own potentially immanent and violent death and what may come next.

I remember only too well the long days and nights that my Marine brothers and I spent hunkering down, tucking our bodies up into as tight a ball as possible during the many heavy barrages of NVA artillery that rained down on our base at Khe Sanh during the siege.

Source: YouTube/PatriotsPoint
Chaplain Ray Matthis speaks to men in Vietnam.


I prayed. I prayed hard during those moments and even more when I heard Marines shouting “Corpsman Up!” meaning someone was wounded and in need of my skills as a Corpsman.

I can remember vividly praying two specific prayers every time I answered that call and started running down the trenches toward the wounded Marines. One was, “Please, Lord, don’t let me get hit.” And the other, “Please, God, help me know what to do for this Marine.”

Source: YouTube/PatriotsPoint
Matthis led a small Sunday service for four men at a bridge.


There are other men who are not usually thought about in the context of combat that were always with us, often right in the heat of battle. They were our chaplains. They were from all faiths, but were trained to serve all faiths if there was a need. And these men of God were truly needed and much appreciated and admired for their courage, their total dedication and love for the men they served.

In the first video you will meet Chaplain Ray Matthis, as Vietnam veteran chaplain. He shares one of his own experiences while serving in Vietnam. He was with his Chaplain’s Assistant in a jeep making the rounds, visiting the troops in his unit.

Source: YouTube/PatriotsPoint
Matthis later learned what happened to those men.


Matthis stopped at a bridge that was guarded by a small squad. There were only four of the men there when he stopped. He asked where the others were and was told the other five were out on a patrol nearby. He said “OK,” and told the four men that he would come back later when the others were back to conduct a service for them.

As he continued down the road he felt funny. Something told him to go back to that bridge.

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Chaplains in Vietnam were often called to the front lines.

When he got there, he said he would do a small Sunday service for them. They all asked to receive communion, which he was happy to do for them. He then left them and went back to base. An hour and a half later at a briefing about the daily events in their Area of Operation (AO) it was revealed that the four men at that bridge had been attacked, and two of the four had been killed in action.

You can see the emotion in Chaplain Matthis’ face as he remembers that small moment in time and its terrible import and says, “What if I hadn’t gone back?”

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The second video is about a Catholic chaplain as he is remembered by several of the troops he served with in Vietnam. It shows actual film of him in action, caring for his men under fire. That’s the kind of stuff that these chaplains were made of. They were there with us, helping us, listening to us, caring for our both our corporal and our spiritual needs.

We can not thank them enough.

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These two videos bring together the interior memories of a combat chaplain in Chaplain Matthis, and the attitudes and appreciation and admiration of the troops that these chaplains served. They are our unsung heroes. They were God’s angels, his comforting words and hands caring for us in the midst of the fires of the hell of war.

They have our total respect, and our eternal thanks.

The Veterans Site thanks all the men and women who serve in the Chaplain Corps of our military services. In the midst of war, they keep the faith and honor the love and mercy of the God they serve through their service to their military brothers and sisters. Our thanks to all. We do not forget what you meant to us.

Read more from veteran Dan Doyle: Click “Next” below!

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.
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