Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP09: Combat Chaplain

Release Date: July 19, 2021

There are 16 chaplains on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In this episode we interview Jim Johnson, a former Army chaplain, recipient of three Bronze Stars, and author of two books about his experiences during the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


[00:00:00] (HOST) Tell the folks a little bit about who you are and what you do at VVMF.

(TIM) Sure, my name is Tim Tetz, I’m the Director of Outreach with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. So, I get to oversee the our efforts to have The Wall That Heals out on the road. I get to oversee what limited lobbying that we do. But certainly our relations with the legislative process and Capitol Hill, the executive branches that have a relationship with The Wall, whether they be the Department of Defense or the National Park Service, and then work with the veterans organizations and the veteran associations, both related to Vietnam veterans, such as the American Legion, VFW, VVA, other chapters, and then the specific organizations that are more directly tied to Vietnam, such as Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.

[00:00:54] (TIM) The Americal division, you know, various different unit associations that were stood up over the years, to honor the men and women who served there. And because of that, I think I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to get to know and meet a lot of people and learn a lot of stories related to The Wall and those on The Wall.

(HOST) I would have to say that, at least, at least informally, or unofficially, you’re probably the closest thing we have on staff, to a Wall historian. I don’t know anybody who knows more about the history of that Memorial, how many chaplains are on The Wall?

(TIM) So, there are 16 chaplains on The Wall, you would think chaplains would be very safe. And yet I think that when you read the stories of those 16, and how some of them fell, you recognize that in the great many cases, they wanted to be out there with their soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, actually in the field doing what they did best to do the math at 300, for 20 years, to have a casualty listing of 16 is still pretty significant.

[00:01:56] (HOST) It’s a surprising number, who actually felt like they needed to be where the action was where they felt needed.

(TIM) Well, I think it’s a majority, it’s certainly a majority of the 16. Anyone I’ve talked to who was in Vietnam, or those who have served since Vietnam, you know, in uniform chaplains were our tight at home, they were, you know, certainly they filled the role as your priest or your minister that you had at a church while you were growing up. But then moreover, they added additional roles. I mean, they got there to be there to help with the dear john letter, you wouldn’t think to go into your chaplain on a Sunday to talk about a dear john letter. They got to help, you know, celebrate moments or tell children of the passing of their parents and work in that role. They got to be there when they were sick and comfort them when they were sick. And certainly as we often read, they were there with them while they were dying, not just in a Catholic sense to provide last rites, but they’re you know, soothing them on the battlefield.

(HOST) And of the 16 is there one that kind of stands out to you as being particularly significant or moving in some way. I think perhaps the most visited chaplain on the wall and the best known chaplain is father Vincent Capodanno. Father Capodanno is one of the two Medal of Honor recipients. And Father Capodanno was known as the grunt Padre. He was commissioned in the Navy. He was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, and as a member of the Navy, he was actually serving the Marines and the Third Battalion, fifth Marine Division. And it was said that Father Capodanno, whenever they were going to go out whenever they were going to get dirty whenever they were going to, you know, have to get into battle Father Capodanno would be there side by side with them. And that’s why they gave him the nickname The grunt Padre. While he was serving in Vietnam, he had been wounded several times. And they, he knew that his men were going to be getting into a battle and got his way aboard a helicopter and went out to the fort post and was administering comfort to the wounded was calling for first aid, giving last rites and trying to comfort everyone that was there. The Marines was there. And it was wounded nearly 20 times in the battle that day. They had tried to pull him off the line they had tried to, you know, get him to step back and he actually went to aid a wounded medic and as he was shielding the medic with his body, he was hit a final three times killing him. And I believe the medic, he was killed on September 4 1967. For his heroism that day, he received posthumously, the Medal of Honor.

[00:04:45] (HOST) Is there another story from a chaplain on The Wall that that is a favorite for you?

[00:04:51] (TIM) I think that, I think that most of them have awesome stories. We could probably go through all 16 you know. We talk about angels as the nurses administer into the wind. And we talked about the medics who set aside and their well being while bullets bombs were exploding around. And certainly they had to do that job. chaplains didn’t necessarily have to do that job. But they did. The other Medal of Honor recipient. Major Charles Watters is a perfect example of that. There’s a remembrance on our page where he had said that Major Watters was serving him, in his, for his unit. And he said, I didn’t necessarily go to church with him at all, but we always recognize them. And we always greeted him. And he said, we were going through a base one day and, and major waters was walking through and it was the midst of a fight or had just finished a fight or something. And he wasn’t wearing his helmet. And they said, you know, Major, where’s your helmet at? And he looked and pointed to this guy, and he said, I carry my protection a little higher.


[00:06:07] (HOST) From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of The Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later.

[00:06:42] (HOST) This is Episode Nine, Combat Chaplain.


[00:06:55] (HOST) Welcome, everybody to our ninth episode. By the time you hear this, our little podcast will have passed a milestone, 4000 downloads.

[00:70:05] (HOST) Not too bad, considering that we just got started a few months ago. To everyone listening from everyone at VVMF. Thank you. And if you’re one of the people helping to spread the word about Echoes, well, thank you extra much. And please don’t stop now. My guest on the podcast today is Jim Johnson, former Army chaplain and author of two books, Combat Chaplain, a 30 Year Vietnam Battle and Combat Trauma, a personal look at long term consequences. Jim served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, and is a three time recipient of the Bronze Star, a declaration awarded to members of the US Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.

[00:07:52] (HOST) Jim lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, and not too far from Albemarle, North Carolina where he grew up. Standing six feet five inches tall, he was an all state lineman on his high school’s football team, and was courted by colleges around the southeast. But by that time, Jim had already heard his calling. And one school stood out for him above the others.

[00:08:15] (JIM) I settled on Wake Forest because I like the religion department there. And as I progressed through, you know, began more and more having a sense of, of Army chaplaincy or the military chaplaincy. I hadn’t settled on the army at that point. And so that became my goal.

(HOST) Does it run in the family? Was anybody in your family in the ministry?

(JIM) Oh, no. There’s never been anybody in ministry. Yeah.

(HOST) What about military? Any military in your face?

(JIM) Oh, no, no, I had an uncle in World War Two, the Navy but he was drafted. I graduated from Wake Forest in 1962. I immediately went on to seminary, in fact, I graduated one week and started my summer classes the next week. And so I worked pretty hard during, during those two and a half years, that’s normally a three year program. But I was able to graduate soon because I went year round. And during that time, I joined the reserves. I was not eligible to become a chaplain, but I could become what was what is was and is called a staff specialist, that sort of a precursor to becoming a chaplain. During my last year of seminary during the summer, I went to the chaplains basic court at Fort Hamilton, New York. That was for nine weeks, of course, but how am I finish that I was hooked on the fact that I really wanted to go into the army and this was pretty much pre-Vietnam.

[00:09:45] (JIM) We’re just beginning you know, get a little bit of news about that. But as I was just attracted to been doing ministry with what soldiers.

(HOST) Why that focus for your ministry, why what do you think you were drawn to that?

[00:09:58] (JIM) You know, I could not answer that. I thought about that a lot of times over the years, but I cannot I really cannot answer that specifically. It was a challenge.

[00:10:10] (JIM) Maybe an ulterior motive was that I could join the army and travel, I’ve never been able, my folks were very poor. I may have figured, hey, if I can do ministry with soldiers, that means I can leave and go in different places.

(HOST) And then at what point did they activate you?

(JIM) I was activated in the, in the spring of 1966, receive orders for Fort Knox, Kentucky. I served as a reception station chaplain, keep in mind, this was when the, the draft was going hard and heavy. And this was the first week that soldiers would get off the bus. And they would draw their gear and have some orientations before they went across the street for basic training. And so, I gave a lecture every day to introduce them to what chaplains where what they could expect spiritually, and I really loved it, you know, really loved it.

[00:11:08] (JIM) So, while I was there, I decided that whenever I was given orders to go to Vietnam, that I wanted to get into the field, I wanted to go to where the infantry was. And, and so that’s, that’s what I did end up going to the ninth Infantry Division, and was assigned to a battalion down in the Mekong Delta. Little did I know what I was getting into, but it’s where I should have been needed to be, and was called me.

[00:11:39] (HOST) At what point did you realize that you, you were in the right place that you were, where you should have been?

(JIM) I think that that probably came about three or four days after I arrived there, I stayed in the, in the processing center for about three days, then I went from the division headquarters, which was nearby, and my division chaplain loaded me up on a helicopter and, and we landed in a number of different places, you know, for short service, you know, just been able to interact just for a short period of time with, with some of the soldiers that that confirm, hey, I’m, I’m where I need to be.

[00:12:17] (HOST) You had a wife and two children at home at the time.

(JIM) That’s right.

(HOST) So that calling must have been very powerful for you, given what you had at stake.

(JIM) Well, it was very powerful. And, and of course, now my wife was on board to cause them, none of us could foresee what was going to happen, what we’re going to be exposed to. But she was behind me 100%, she’s a wonderful woman, she, she was responsible for the kids, well, after a 10 month old son, and a two and a half month old daughter with her for the year, couldn’t call them. They couldn’t call me. But, you know, we, we just were both intent, hey, this is gonna’ get better. And it did get better.

[00:13:04] (HOST) I’m assuming that that one chaplain has to serve men of many different faiths and denominations within those faiths. How do you deal with that?

(JIM) That’s true. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, those who did not believe they were all my people. And what I tried to do was to how have a ministry of presence. My goal, whenever I first got there was to go to every unit and be around and be seen every day. We were not actually on combat operations for the first two or three weeks after I got there. I got to know a lot of the guys right away. That of course, many of them sought me out for counseling, many of them simply wanted to go home. Of course, that was beyond my purview to, to get them home, but I couldn’t listen to them. And I did. I did a lot of listening and then a lot of support. Well, actually, I did not have a lot of services in the field. Not the opportunity, but occasionally, I could and then when we would come in for like, two days or three days, I would. And I found that that the guys were as they still identified us as Catholic or, or Jewish or whatever. It really didn’t matter to them.

(HOST) You wrote in your book that you were the second youngest chaplain on active duty. You were 25 years old.

(JIM) Yes.

(HOST) And it also seemed to me from reading the book that you spent an unusual amount of time for a chaplain in combat operations. Do you think there’s a link there?

(JIM) You know, I think that probably that’s it. I was younger, you know, to those guys. I think they probably saw it looked at me as an old man. But I was still I was still young, and I didn’t know how old a chaplain was supposed to be because they’ve never been around a chaplain.

[00:15:03] (HOST) It seems like they were surprised that you were in some of the situations you were in.

(JIM) Yeah, but they were and, and of course, like I said, I, you know, I went out on every one of our combat operations, every one of them, I would rotate, I would go out like with a company and, and I would try to maneuver with one platoon. And then whenever I could, I could switch off to another platoon. And then the next operation, I would go out like with our beacons then it got to where if one company had been hit especially hard, that’s the company I would go out with on the next combat operation. Because there were always a lot of new guys there who had come in as replacements as well as the ones who survive, the, the battle. You know, I couldn’t be all places at one time, but I tried to be visible. And I tried to maneuver around, and I was pretty darn successful with that. And of course, I didn’t carry a weapon, I never carried a weapon. I wasn’t out there shoot people, I wish they are to minister in whatever way I possibly could. And that did not go unnoticed by for soldiers.

(HOST) I’d like to talk a little bit more about the combat experience, I’m not really interested in, you know, having you repeat some of the really harrowing accounts that you’ve already written about very vividly in the book. But I am interested in exploring the ethical terrain. I mean, that is a unique situation to be a noncombatant, and particularly, you know, a member of the clergy, in situations where bullets are flying and people are being killed. There must have been times when you were tempted to pick up a weapon.

[00:16:48] (JIM) That was never really a time that I was tempted to do that. What I thought was, if we ever about to be overrun by the enemy, there would be enough people who had fallen weapons available that I could grab and, and defend myself and I would have I’ve never, you know, got to that point, though. But as far as the moral implications, the spiritual part of that, you know, sure, there were times when I’d raise a question of, well, where’s God, where’s God in the midst of all this chaos?

[00:17:24] (JIM) You know, I could say, it was a miracle that I was not shot. It was a miracle that I was not killed. And I could recount the numerous taps that I came close. But if I say, it was a miracle that I was saved, how am I going to deal with the question of what about the guys who did get it, who were shot who were killed? To this day, I’ve never been able to completely rational where God is in the insanity that we call war. And so, the moral dilemma for me centered around, I can’t answer these questions. But what I can do is love my soldiers, and I did my very best to love them and let them know that they were loved. And I think for the most part, I was successful.

[00:18:14] (HOST) In reading your accounts of combat situations, once they were over, and everybody else had a chance to sort of exhale, that’s sort of when your work really began. Because that was when you go around and visit everybody or fly to a surgical hospital.

(JIM) To a large degree, you’re, you’re, you’re right about that act. But my first objective was to get some hot food and get a few hours sleep. And then I would hit the road, I’m not going to the Hello patents, and hitchhiker route out to division headquarters there, I would get someone to take me around to Saigon, Long Bein some of the other hospitals and give no chopper, fly back to the base camp or back to the ship where we were, wherever we happen to be. And if it was near a Sunday or Sunday, I would try to work in a service. I think one of the most important things that I did, I was able to go each First Sergeant would come and commander and say, Hey, you know, you had six guys wounded. And here’s their status. This guy and this guy in about a week, he’ll be back. But this other fella is going to be medivac to, to Japan, or to the states or something of that nature. So, they they had a pretty good handle on that. Likewise, after a little while the soldiers who were left there by wanted to know about how is so and so where did you see somebody else? And I could, I was probably the only direct link that they had with, with our buddies who have been wounded.

(HOST) I found several times in your book where you thought that you were going to get some food and some sleep but then you found that somebody needed to talk and so instead.

[00:19:59] (JIM) Yeah. You know, it was sailed on, but I could put myself first

[00:20:14] (HOST) We’ll have the second half of my interview with Jim Johnson, right after this short break.

[00:20:24] (HOST) I heard on the radio recently that some of our national parks are seeing record visitation this summer, even with the heat waves and without the crowds of Europeans who would normally be here. I guess, folks, we’ve had enough of staying but I know I have. Even so, we know it isn’t easy for many of you to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. So VVMF created The Wall That Heals an exact replica of The Wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America, The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Tonawanda, New York, July 22 through 25th. And Athens, Ohio, July 29 through August 1. For more 2021 tour dates and locations, visit

[00:21:16] (HOST) We hope you’re enjoying this interview with former Army chaplain Jim Johnson, did you know that you can learn more about chaplains in the Vietnam War, including those on The Wall? by visiting our topics page, you’ll find [email protected]/topics.

[00:21:33] (HOST) And now, back to my interview with Jim Johnson.

[00:21:45] (HOST) Have you talked with other chaplains who served in Vietnam and been surprised at the degree to which your experiences are, are different?

(JIM) Yes, I have I you know, I’ve I’ve talked to a number of them over the years and, and some went out in the field like I did, how much I don’t know, some did not some, some took the approach that my job is to be at, at the aid center, where these guys were brought in. Well, we didn’t have that that was World War II and Korea philosophy, where there was a front line and there would be a battalion aid station behind the land well we didn’t, we didn’t, we didn’t have lunch, we didn’t have scrimmage lines. We would go out and have a combat operation, and then pack up and come back in and fly back in or float back in. And I couldn’t be in one place at a time.

[00:22:41] (HOST) Well, let’s shift gears a little bit. Let’s talk about your, your exit from Vietnam and coming back home to the States.

(JIM) Let me back up before I’ll get into that. But let me back up just a little bit. Just so there’s no misunderstanding about you know, the 9 or 8 and a half months, you know, with my amateur soldiers, these were guys who were most odd between 19 and 21 years old, just barely out of high school. You know, we normally put out about 375 guys in the field at one time. And during my 8 and a half months, you know, I had 96 my guys killed and over 900 were wounded. We couldn’t have replacements come in fast enough to be fully fit.

[00:23:26] (JIM) Put it in today’s comparison. We have a lot of mass shootings these days. Some gunmen will go in our grocery store or movie theater or some other places shoot the place up. And that’s horrible. We had mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting.

[00:23:46] (JIM) I personally was in 22 different firefights. Well, what does that do to a young man who is 19 or 20 or 21 years old? What did it do to me? What did I bring back? What did we come back with after we’d seen dead bodies not only of the enemy but, but of our buddies that we would load on to into body bags…

[00:24:11] (JIM) and couldn’t mourn their loss could not, could not attend a wake? We did have memorial services but those were brief 20 or 25 minutes and then it was hey, gear up we’re going back out in 20 minutes or an hour or two. I mean, no it was basically what is did that we brought home was it was sort of like having an emotional blown inch. You know, for, for, for, all of us and we didn’t know that.

[00:24:42] (JIM) We had no way of knowing what that was all about. Much of what we thought about was being able to get away from this hellhole and go home to what is normal.

[00:24:57] (JIM) But what we did not realize I did not realize was there was no normal that we were coming back to. nothing had changed at home. But everything had changed. Yeah, with me, you know, because I was, you know, I mean, I’m still only 27 or I guess 26 or 27. Whenever I got home, I’m still young, you know, but I had seen so much death and destruction and, and havoc, and I didn’t know how to process that, didn’t have anybody to process it with.

[00:25:31] (JIM) People would say, well, what was it like in Vietnam? You know, what do you say to people, I lost 96 of my guys killed, nobody wants to hear that. So as a result, I’ve developed sort of a bunker mentality. You know, I was two people. I was one person, I was a good husband, good father, good friend, a good son. I was successful in my ministry of the different units that I had, ended up serving him, but, but there was another part of me that nobody knew it, not even my wife. Nobody saw her, you know, the things that would trigger me the things that would cause flashbacks, or splashes of deep, sometimes bitter feelings that I would have, but they didn’t come out or, or that other people saw them, but I felt them waking up in the middle of the night.

[00:26:26] (JIM) The government pretty much said to everybody who came back, shut up and get on bout your business. Leave that behind. Well, you know, what about having had 10 or 15, mass shootings? Shut up and forget all that? No, you can’t, you wouldn’t shut up. And most of us did for many, many years. Fortunately, fortunately, I still had a strong, strong sense of calling that I could focus on many of my buddies, my combat brothers did not have that. I had a strong sense of family, my wife and my two little kids. We had twin boys born the next year after I came back, so I was busy in the army, at Fort Bliss, Texas, trying to maintain my own equilibrium. And I think I did a good job doing that. And I never said a whole lot to, to Barbara, about what I experienced. I have written in a lot of detail in letters, what had happened. But it was still difficult for her to grasp what all I had been through, so I just shut it down for, for 25 years.

[00:27:43] (JIM) I retired from the army in 1996. No, I’m sorry, 1986. And then I went back school, got my doctorate in marriage and family and I did Marriage and Family Therapy until 2005. And that’s when, when these emotional demons were beginning to get worse. The last probably three years before I retired fatigue became a real thing with me, I’d come home from work. And I would just hit the sofa. And I’d have to lie there for an hour or two just to get enough energy up to finish my day and night. And I had a number of experiences that would bring these PTSD symptoms up to the surface. That along with the fact that I developed kidney cancer, and was going to have to have a right kidney removed, made me decide, hey, it’s time to retire, which I did. But I was out of commission, emotionally and physically for a while after 2005.

[00:28:54] (JIM) So what I did, Michael, I started writing, I didn’t write a book, you know, but I got legal pads. And at least once a day, whenever I’d get the feelings of some of these so called demons that were inside, emotional demons, I’d simply start writing I’d let, let these thoughts and feelings go from a man down through my arm through the pen onto a piece of paper. Then try to write in sentences. I just wrote in thoughts, Barbara, periodically say, well, you know, do you mind if I read what you’re writing? I said, no, I don’t mind. But wait, you know, let’s let you read those. This later. Well, we waited for 25 years. When ever I finally decided that it was time to do something with all those thoughts. And that’s whenever I started converting that into a book. That’s when I was able to let Barbara in on some of the stuff. I didn’t do it maliciously or our secretively I just I guess I just did not want to wound her with my emotions. I knew there was a lot wrong with me. I didn’t know what it was. And now know, it was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the term was not even coined until 1981.

[00:30:20] (JIM) Finally, I decided that it was time that I get some help. So, I went to the VA was hooked up with some folks who were able to help me. Now eventually were sent to the VA Medical Center in the Batavia, New York, which is near Buffalo. And I spent a month there with 12 other combat veterans. And that was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. So as a result, I feel like I’ve been able to help a lot of other veterans who have been, and continue to be trapped in their passion. And so all that led to the second book.

(HOST) We haven’t talked very much about a second book, what would you like to say about why you wrote that?

(JIM) Let me put it this way. I do not know of a single infantry combat brother who does not suffer from PTSD. And many, many men, including myself, were in denial.

[00:31:19] (JIM) Hey, there’s nothing wrong with me what’s wrong with you, sort of that kind of attitude. And when you could see, maybe drinking had become a problem, maybe spouse abuse had become a problem, inability to hold a job, detachment from their offspring, things of that nature. And so, the more I got to be in a situation where I can help these guys leave, and they were not just we’re not just guys in my unit, but you know, other combat veterans too. I realized that there were so much unknown out there about this disorder.

[00:31:57] (JIM) So, once I had accepted the fact that, that I have it, and I’ll have it for the rest of my life, is there some way that I can help other people that I have not even met, I took the lives of 15 of my combat brothers, people, I knew, most of them were in my unit. But there were some in some sister units. And one was a Navy river rat that I know very well. So, I took the symptoms of PTSD and made a chapter out of each one of these, there’s a chapter on guilt, the chapter on anger, sleep problems, etc. So, I basically told the story of all 16 of us. And I’ve had them to derive a lot of stuff about their own experiences, but you know, I talked to them extensively by telephone and by email. So, I was able to put that book together, combat trauma, personal look at long term consequences.

[00:33:01] (JIM) And as a result of that, you know, I’m not bragging about this, but it’s a statement of fact, that it has a lot of ways become a template by a lot of people in the VA system, you know, who work with, with combat veterans, and all the profits from, from both of these books go to Wounded Warrior Project. I’ve never received any, any funds for myself.

[00:33:27] (HOST) You and Barbara have been married for 60 years.

(JIM) 60 years.

(HOST) And, and you know, one of the things I love most about your first book, combat chaplain is the little, little snippets of letters that you write to her.

(JIM) There’s no way that I could ever have had a better partner in life than her. You know, I just cannot say enough good about how she has blessed my life over the years and continues to do so.

(HOST)You still follow Wake Forest football?

[00:34:02] (JIM) Yeah, Yeah, I do.

[00:34:05] (HOST) I enjoyed reading combat chaplain. And as I told you, before, we when we were scheduling this, I did order both combat chaplain and combat trauma at the same time. I haven’t read combat trauma yet, but I but I intend to, and I appreciate you talking about it.

(JIM) Well, my pleasure. My pleasure.

[00:34:36] (HOST) Well, thanks for checking out another episode of the official podcast from the founders of The Wall in Washington DC. We publish a new episode every two weeks, so be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, please share it with a friend who might like it as well. Another thing that helps us out a great deal is if you leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts like Apple podcasts or Spotify for example. You’d be surprised how much that little gesture helps new listeners find us. In the meantime, you can always let us know what you think by emailing [email protected].

[00:36:00] (HOST) See you in two weeks.

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