War memoirs of Fr. Kenneth Schroeder
© Copyright 2009 CatholicHistory.netThe following is an edited transcript of an oral interview with Fr. Ken Schroeder conducted by Darrin Poeppleman, February 10, 2007. It is edited for readability.
DP: Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1936, 70 years ago in a little place called New Cleveland Ohio, which is about 65 miles north of Maria Stein.
DP: And can you tell me a little bit about your family?
Well, I’m one of eight children, the second youngest of eight children. There are four of us left. My mother and dad passed away and two brothers and two sisters have passed away.
DP: Were you raised a Catholic?
Yes, I yes was raised a strict Catholic. My mother and dad were very good Catholics and they gave all of us children the fundamentals of our Catholic faith.
DP: And what age did you enter the seminary?
Right out of the eighth grade. I was 14 years old. I went to Brunnerdale Seminary in 1951 as a freshman in high school, graduated from there five years later.
DP: Who was the main influence on you becoming a priest? What influenced you or did you always have it on your heart to become a priest?
Well, I’ve told the story a number of times, even around here to our parishioners. That I never really had a strong inclination to be a priest or anything professional because I never cared for school too much. But I had a little friend that we chummed around together—he wasn’t a really a good student either—and he’s the one who talked me into going to high school seminary. And we both went and he stayed for about two weeks and left and then he looked at me and said, "Well, Ken, I can’t take this; I’m gonna go home. Besides I got you this far: You're on your own." And I stayed. And so who knows what the Lord has in mind for any of us?
DP: What year did you enlist in the army?
Boy that’s a fast forward. I took my oath and became a first lieutenant on September 26, 1972 while I was stationed in Columbus. I was teaching high school in those days and working in a parish and then I became a reserve chaplain beginning that day.
DP: Did you enlist in the army or were you drafted?
I volunteered. I was completely volunteer and I remained in the reserves for six years and after that time then I got permission from my superior to go on active duty in the army in 1978. But during that time in the reserves I maintained a regular civilian priest type of ministry working at a parish teaching high school and then my last five years before going on active duty I was director of seminarians at our college in Rensselaer, [Indiana] St. Joseph’s College.
DP: Can you tell me when you found out you were going to serve in Operation Desert Storm?
Yes. I was a brigade chaplain in Erlangen in Germany at the time; this was in 1990. I was just completing my three years and I was prepared to go back, and as a matter of fact I had orders to go back and work at the Pentagon in the Chief of Chaplains' office, when President Bush ordered the First Armored Division to go to Desert Shield at that time. And of course I was part of the First Armored Division with the Second Brigade. So we learned this in November, very late November. I had all my things packed and ready to go back to the United States but that was all put on hold because my commander, Colonel Meigs, wanted me to go with the soldiers and that was the right thing to do.
We left on December 24, 1990, right before Christmas, which was a tough day to leave the families behind. So we arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on that day, the 24th of December, and I remember having midnight Mass for ... a number of soldiers because we were in an initial staging area of—we had about 12000 American soldiers in this one area, this initial staging where we gather together, then a few days later we’d disperse and go to our assigned areas in the desert preparing for whatever was going to happen in the war.
So we actually stayed in this initial staging area for about a week, I recall, because I think that we celebrated New Year's Day about 60 miles away in the interior of the desert, in the middle—I mean there was nothing around. We set up our headquarters, and then we waited for the word. We were still in Desert Shield ... it was in late January when that bombing began, then the name became Desert Storm. And then it was still it was another month almost before we got orders to go into Iraq.
We were part of the Seventh Corps, ... led by three-star general, General Franks, and we had that west hook around into Iraq, and it was unknown by the Iraqis. Their communication system was completely taken apart and they didn’t know that we were coming and so it was just 100 hours that we were in battle. It was four pretty intense days; nobody got much sleep. And so that all took place in just a hundred hours. Then we remained in Iraq after the war ended and we were there, if I recall, for about thirty days into Easter... I was one of four priests for 24000 soldiers. We were very short of Catholic priests; we had to have multiples Masses every weekend. I would have at least 8 or 9 Masses on a weekend myself. Needless to say the homilies weren’t very long and it was fatiguing, no doubt about it, and I was in my mid-fifties.
And this time, thanks be to God, we came back unscathed, and I lost very, very few people in my entire brigade. We had about 4400 soldiers just in my brigade and I don’t think we lost one in enemy fire. We lost one to suicide, unfortunately, and several from ordnance that exploded after the war; they were mines that blew up when soldiers were leaving their vehicles to look for trophies and so forth, and they kind of brought it on themselves unfortunately.
DP: When you were over there, were you very scared at all when you first found out you were leaving and you found out you were going into battle?
Yes, we were all concerned, even when we went to the latrine, or took one of these makeshift showers. We took our protective masks with us because we never knew whether Sadam Hussein would have—he was known to use mustard gas and those types of biological weapons and so that was a very scary thing. As it turned out he didn’t use any of that, thanks be to God, but we never knew that he wouldn’t and it was just a difficult time getting around.
My assistant and I—Sergeant Mike Warner, who is out of the army today—we had our humvee and we had no lighting at night; they called that light discipline, so that we could drive around in complete darkness. We had a Loran which is a kind of a GPS system, but a very rude system compared to a GPS (global positioning system) and with that we were able to find ourselves around the desert for different meetings and so forth and maybe to help different soldiers for counseling and so forth. It was scary. The time we went across the lines in Iraq, we went for four straight days without any sleep. We were about fifteen minutes just behind the front lines, my assistant and I, and we heard all the firing and so forth. The Lord took care of us, protected us.
DP: What would a typical day—instead of those four days—what would a typical day consist of for you?
That’s a good question. It’d start at four o’clock in the morning. My poor assistant. Chaplains don’t carry any weapons. We're part of the Geneva convention: if we're taken prisoner they have to honor us for not having weapons, but he's supposed to protect me. And so he would get roused up from his bed—we had a two man tent—and he’d have to go and perform guard duty. But I would get up too. I didn’t have to go out and guard but we’d go to bed at 7:30 at night—now not during the war; we didn’t sleep at all [then]—but in our preparations out in the desert, this happened every day ... our routine. We had a big coffee pot and a twenty-cup percolator and it would take about an hour to perk and be ready for consumption. And it got down to about 42 degrees in the tent at night and our sleeping bags were good and we could sleep pretty comfortably but getting out of bed was an ordeal. And we had rats in the tent, and the boys had to worry about scorpions and so we would always turn our boots over in the morning, and make sure there weren’t any in the boots. It was not comfortable. But anyway we’d get up early in the morning, Sergeant Mike Warner and I would get in our humvee and start going around to the different companies that were a part of our brigade and we would regularly go around visiting. We put 100 miles on our humvee. I had six chaplains working for me so I’d always check in on them to see how they were doing, try to be a pastor to them, because they left wives and children behind. I was always concerned about that.
DP: What denominations were those chaplains?
Well, one was a Baptist and one was a Lutheran and one was an evangelical; a Presbyterian—he was about the most ... mainline. They were all good men, though; they did a fantastic job. I was satisfied that they took good care of their soldiers. I’d come around and I would have Catholic services for them, and they would make sure all the Catholics were notified that Father Ken would be in the area to have Mass. They would show up and Catholic soldiers would really appreciate our ministry. I know that some of these guys who didn’t go to church back at home station in Erlangen in Germany, they were at my Masses out in the desert—and that was after the war, too, not just before the war when everybody’s scared, but after the war they continued coming.
DP: So their faith was stronger during the war?
Yeah, and I think it was maintained afterwards and I think there was a certain amount of joy and happiness that came through pretty well.
DP: And how about you with your faith; do you think the war strengthened your faith or deepened it? How did it change your faith?
Well, I don’t know if it changed my faith. What it did for me ... was demonstrate how important religion is to ordinary Joe. And I recall after the war was over, I wanted to find my commander Colonel Meigs. I didn’t get to see much of him during the fighting and I wanted to tell him how happy we were that everything turned out right and congratulate him. So he had a meeting with all the battalion commanders and sergeants major, so I showed up and I said, "Sir I just wanted to thank you and thank God," and he says, "That’s right, let's thank God. Father Ken’s gonna say a prayer," he says, "First things first, so Father Ken, you say a prayer."
So I remember that was important to him. We are still very good friends. He became a four-star general ... and we are still in touch with each other and so the relationships between the chaplain and the soldiers and the commanders and so forth have remained strong even after the war.
DP: Were there any restrictions on the way you could minister? Did they have strict guidelines for you or could you have pretty much free rein?
Right at first General Schwartzkopf didn’t want us to wear our crosses. We never took ours off. He was afraid it would dishonor the Muslim religion but we were so far away from everybody. When everything was over and we were preparing to return to Germany—we actually came back on May 4th, 1991—we were in a place called Dammam. We were in an area where just soldiers were but there was a town there and we were about to go into town and all we had was our BDU’s—battle dress uniforms—and none of us took our crosses off. We went to dinner in their restaurants and walked their street and the little kids with their white dresses—I call them dresses—they would want that cross. They were looking for all kinds of mementos. They would point up at the cross on my hat. I would never give it away though.
DP: If you had to tell me what one thing stood out from the war—what was your most memorable experience that you had while over there, whether good or bad?
I was just so impressed with our soldiers. First of all I’m probably not [garbled] to make that good of a judgment on this, but I just thought they were so far above the quality of Iraqi soldiers in terms of abilities, and the equipment that we had was just so superior. But also the character of the soldiers. I had fellows come up to me—he was a gunner on a tank; we were a tank brigade—he said, "Father, I knew that if I would pull the trigger on this gun I might kill somebody and when I did I would say a little prayer for the person because I knew he probably died because I saw the top of his tank blew off."
They didn’t want to kill anybody ... and how they were with all the Iraqi people in the streets and so forth and how they would share their MRE’s and that’s the American soldier for you. There was no big desire to have revenge or anything like that. And so after the war was ended when President Bush called the war off and I remember how excited I was. I said, "Man, I get to go home." I guess that's something every soldier goes through: War over I can go home. Now I think about those people in Iraq today. Will they ever get to come home? So I keep them in my prayers always. But I would say the highlight was right after the war. Everything was over, when everybody was safe. Extreme happiness.
DP: Did soldiers of other denominations come to you quite often?
That’s a good question. I had been there the longest. And I don’t mean to say this with any ...[superiority?] but there was a real attraction to priests. Perhaps it's because we are unattached. So at my Masses, when I’d have Masses out in the field, I’d have Protestant soldiers coming. The commanders—not one was Catholic, not one battalion commander—but they would come to my services and they would ask my advice, because the other fellow were younger. I was a major at the time; all the other chaplains were captain, a rank below. Then I got promoted to lieutenant colonel when I was in the desert, and so then I was on the same plane with the battalion commanders, who were also lieutenant colonels, so they felt a little more closeness to me. And I was in Erlangen longer than any of my chaplains were, so I knew their families real well and the Protestants and their families, I’d see them. It's like one big family.
DP: If you had anything you could change about the service that you had to do in the Gulf War, is there anything you would change or do different that you can think of?
I know this is going to sound funny, but I would eat less. I ate too many MRE’s (meals ready to eat). And I actually gained weight when I was in the desert. What would I do differently? I think that I performed the way I should have as a chaplain and I did the best that I could with my age and everything. And I never got sick. I think I was of real service to the soldiers over there. So I don’t know of anything, except facetiously, maybe, I would probably try to watch my eating habits. Food was all over the place. People sent cookies. The eating was pretty good.
DP: How has this experience in the Gulf changed you with your current position here as a priest at St. John's. I know you get to share your experiences in with your homilies. Does that help?
Has it changed me, has it affected me...? I just think the military experience was such a great experience for me. It made me a better priest. It made me aware of human nature. And just the experience of being over the world, around the world, if you will, has allowed me to have a better relationship with the people right here in Mercer County. But I would not trade what I’m doing now with anything else. This is as good, even a better, experience as being in the military.