St. Edward pastor, deacon are bound by faithful service at Catholic church and as veterans

November 13, 2012

SPRING — Before serving the liturgical and pastoral needs of the St. Edward Catholic Church community, Father Joe Gietl and Deacon Nick Thompson answered another call.

Both men are veterans of the Vietnam War as members of the United States Marine Corps (USMC). With Veterans Day on Nov. 11, the St. Edward pastor and deacon recently discussed their days of suiting up in “dress blues” before donning cassocks.

“Of course the fact that we were both jarheads (slang for “Marines”) came up during my first interview,” Deacon Thompson said. “I remember during the interview the topic of rank came up. It turns out that I made Sergeant prior to mustering out while Father Joe only made Corporal. Father Joe said, ‘Just remember, you come work for me in this parish and I’m the General.’”

“We laughed but I understood that analogy perfectly and over the last 11 years, have always maintained the integrity of that piece of our relationship.”

Before pulling rank at the parish level, Father Gietl enlisted in the USMC in the summer of 1966 and was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 26th Marines. He received orders to Khe Sanh and endured the siege of that base in 1968. He was discharged from active duty in 1968.

Deacon Thompson served the USMC from 1970 to 1974. Attached to Naval Helicopter Carrier USS Inchon as a crew chief, he served in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Deacon Nick Thompson (CENTER) with flight crew next to a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. (Photo courtesy of St. Edward Catholic Church)

He flew medevac missions (for wounded soldiers) in Cambodia in May through June 1973 during the Phnom Penh evacuations. He also participated in the North Vietnamese de-mining operations in the summer of 1973.

The trials of wartime are vivid in the memories of both men. It took “many, many years” after the Vietnam War for Father Gietl to feel that he was finally home. The pastor said the moment came to him when he was celebrating Mass at St. Edward.

“A fifth grader approached me and said ‘Father, I have a school project. I need to interview a veteran,’” Father Gietl said. “It was then that I finally felt as if I had finally come home. God bless the U.S.A.”

Deacon Thompson said he and the pastor speak regularly of their time spent in service as Marines.

“My being an air winger and his being a grunt has never been an issue,” Deacon Thompson said. “We both saw more than enough action during our hitches.”
“No, we never do push-ups, nor ask others to, nor do we practice marching,” Father Gietl said. “We try to be faithful to our Archbishop and serve our fellow man.”

Although previously enrolled in high school and college seminary, Father Gietl was not planning to re-enter the seminary following the war. But when attending a classmate’s ordination in 1969, “I knew my career.”

He returned to the seminary and was ordained in a class of 26 older vocations in Sept. 1973.

“I always say the Marine Corps was the icing on the cake of my spiritual formation,” Father Gietl said. “While on duty in the Marines, I ran into three ex-seminarians from high school — all Marines!”

Fittingly, both Father Gietl and Deacon Thompson simply point to the well-known Marine motto when discussing their transcendent bond.

“I believe Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”) says it all,” Father Gietl said. “It is even written in Latin. I will not try to parallel Vatican II and the Marine Corps language similarities, but … in America, we say ‘I’ve got your back.’”

“We know where our roots are,” Deacon Thompson said, “and with that knowledge comes mutual respect and understanding. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”