SAN ANTONIO • Out of Msgr. James Sanner’s 58 years in the priesthood, 50 have been spent serving the military. It all began when he prepared to graduate from Cathedral Preparatory School in Eerie, Penn., in 1951. The Korean War was underway and many of his classmates were entering the military. “So I thought that would be a good thing for me to do,” he remembers.
A talk to his counselor, Msgr. Homer DeWalt, however, gave him second thoughts. He had, after all, pursued a classical education with the goal of becoming a priest. “Why don’t you go to the seminary,” said Msgr. DeWalt, “and if you did become an ordained priest, then you could come into the military as a chaplain.” The monsignor had been an Army chaplain himself for three years.
After graduation from St. Bonaventure University and Christ the King Seminary, Msgr. Sanner was ordained on May 7, 1959, and, for over eight years, served in several Pennsylvania parishes before requesting to serve as a military chaplain. Entering the military in 1967, he was sent first to the officers basic chaplains course at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for eight weeks, then to Fort Bragg, N.C., assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. After parachute school at Fort Benning, Ga., to become a paratrooper, he shipped out with his brigade for Vietnam on Feb. 11, 1968.
“It was right after the Tet Offensive in January 1968,” recalls Msgr. Sanner. “That’s when everything broke out in Vietnam and so they sent more troops there.” For a year they were in Hue and in the thick of the fighting. The last eight months were in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. “
I anointed those who were dying,” he recalls. “Then we had memorial services for those from our unit who died.” In his time there, which included a second tour of duty from July 1970 to July 1971, 227 soldiers in his brigade were killed.
He would fly by helicopter to the mountain tops, where troops were positioned, to say Mass, celebrating at least seven every Sunday. He traveled by jeep for the daily Masses for the ground troops, about four daily. Whenever he heard his unit had been hit, he would drive at night to a hospital tent where the wounded were being received, and he vividly recalls the night the military doctor was performing a tracheotomy when he arrived. Thrusting a suction tube into his hands, the doctor said, “Hold this,” as he cut into the patient’s trachea.
“I also saw a soldier whose leg was almost off,” Msgr. Sanner relates. “What’s going to happen?” the man asked, and Msgr. Sanner tried to assure him he would be OK. “You’ll get a prosthetic leg and you’ll get around,” he told him, but he wondered if he was telling him the truth. As a result, in 1971, he entered the Clinical Pastoral Education program (CPE) at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to better understand what to do in such situations. He grew close to a patient there and his family, a major who was an amputee. When he died, Msgr. Sanner accompanied the entire ward, some in wheelchairs, to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and concelebrated the funeral Mass. He was asked to keep his eulogy under two minutes, as the schedule of funerals was so high. “In those days,” he recalls, “there were possibly 17 funerals a day at Arlington.” Afterwards, they walked to the gravesite, where he presented the widow with the flag, something he would never forget.
His next assignment was Fort Knox, Ky., where he was involved with President Gerald Ford’s clemency program at Camp Atterbury to repatriate, through community service, those who had fled to Canada or in other ways evaded the draft, followed by a stint at Indiantown Gap, Penn., where 50,000 Vietnamese and 900 Cambodian refugees were being assimilated into a new life. He earned a master’s degree in education in guidance and counseling at Long Island University and served tours in Germany, Japan and in the states, including San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston.
A full colonel in the army by then, he retired at 62, but due the priest shortage was recalled to duty four times before retiring and becoming a contract priest/chaplain there the past seven years. Besides serving all branches of the military, he helps out at St. Pius X, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Helena and St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. In May, he was the honoree at Catholic Charities’ inaugural Veteran’s Luncheon.
The present shortage of military chaplains, says Msgr. Sanner, may stem from issues as to what constitutes a “just war.” People confronted him during the Vietnam War about his serving there and he told them, “Our soldiers and military personnel deserve to have the sacraments. They deserve to have Mass.” It is important that there be priests willing to serve in this capacity wherever our military are serving.