Fr. Conrad Targonski can still hear the call like it just happened.
“Fr. Ski, we gotta go!” Fr. Targonski – “Ski” was his nickname – said he remembers a Marine medic yelling that to him 10 years ago, Nov. 7, 2004, during the Battle of Fallujah.
“I was going over a hill,” Fr. Targonski remembered. “I was running with a medical officer who needed me … it was like one of those movies you see about Vietnam with bombs blowing up and explosions.”
He said he remembers thinking, “I’m not going to survive this.”
But survive he did. Retired from the military since 2010, he is now serving as chaplain at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
Fr. Targonski said for the first few days this November, his mind wandered back to the battlefields of Iraq.
“Uncommon valor was common,” he said of that time. “That’s exactly what I saw. These kids, I couldn’t believe what they were doing. I’m not talking about battle … I’m talking about the humanitarian efforts they were doing. Trying to get people out of the city. Trying to deliver pallets of water.”
When asked how he prepared himself to die on the battlefield, his response was simple.
“I was running toward Marines that were hit,” he said, fighting back tears. “That’s how I prepared.”
Veterans seek him out
He was 56 years old during the Battle of Fallujah and had been in the Navy Chaplain Corps since 1987. When he became a chaplain, he was assigned to the Marines. He describes himself as a “big runner” and thinks that’s why he was placed with them.
“I guess I can keep up with the best of them and I got assigned to the Marines,” he said.
Since leaving the service, Fr. Targonski said veterans seek him out, likely because of his experience and the 13 months he spent in Fallujah.
“When veterans want to talk and relate to the spiritual, many times they have a hard time with people who have not been there,” Fr. Targonski said. “I’m finding out that I’m getting swamped by these people who are looking for me. They know I’ve been there, but also because I try to take them where they are.”
Adjusting to civilian life is difficult
Each veteran returning home has a different response to what they’ve experienced.
“All of us have a hard time adjusting to civilian life,” Fr. Targonski said. “The response for someone who is adjusting is this: Do they respond inward or outward?”
The impact war had on Fr. Targonski was profound. After retiring, he said he went on a “sabbatical” and walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
“I was figuring out what to do and how to process the war…. I was trying to process the war in my own life,” he said. “Needless to say, I had my own issues as well.”
He underestimated how the shock would affect him.
“My faith was strong and I thought that I would be above this because I was older,” he said. “But I was wrong because, as they say, trauma after trauma, and the death was something I could not figure out the why.”
Despite being around constant danger during those first days of the Battle of Fallujah, his thoughts were on the men he served.
“My mind was with these Marines and soldiers and sailors,” he said. “And I was called relentlessly that night.”
During his time in Iraq, Fr. Targonski was commander of the chaplains whom he said had a “tight” relationship with each other.
“I remember traveling to one outpost and meeting the chaplain and looking at him straight in the eye,” Fr. Targonski said. “I addressed him by his first name and I said, ‘Mike, are you OK?’ And he was dazed. He just was in an IED (improvised explosion device) attack. I was in IED attacks as well, and well, they do a number on you.”
Losses occur back home, too
While he was abroad serving the needs of soldiers, he had another problem back home.
“My mother was not doing well and she died when I was in Fallujah,” Fr. Targonski said, adding that in late December 2004, or early January 2005, he received a call that he needed to make a “life decision.”
“I traveled 36 hours from Iraq to be at her side…. I stayed up the entire 36 hours just praying the rosary,” he said.
He spent time stateside to make funeral arrangements before going back to Iraq. When he returned, he was surprised by the response of his commanding officer.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘Father, my heart is with you. I lost my mom when I was 29 years old,’” Fr. Targonski remembered. “I thought to myself, ‘Here is my commanding officer ministering to me.’”
Even though his faith was strong, Fr. Targonski succumbed to the mental fatigue most veterans deal with on a daily basis.
“I finally decided last January that I had to talk to somebody,” he said. “Because I was getting too emotional and it would happen during Mass. A couple times.”
One in particular was during the Gospel from John where Jesus spoke to Peter after the resurrection.
“That was the Gospel my spiritual director read to me before I left for Iraq,” he said.
Pilgrimages help confront spiritual
The constant struggle to function under the weight of spending significant time on the battlefield can help combat chaplains connect with veterans on a level most civilians can’t.
His involvement with the Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, in Franklin, is one of the ways Fr. Targonski tries to help veterans better cope with the trauma of war.
“I’m trying to get the veterans to look at the possibility of pilgrimage as an opportunity to confront the spiritual,” he said.
For those who want to help veterans but aren’t sure how, Fr. Targonski knows where to start.
“If you want to acknowledge a veteran, maybe you should say this, ‘Thank you for your service, but how are you doing? And is there anything I can do to help?’” he said. “I think it makes it more, ‘We don’t understand, but we want to walk with you.’”
VA chaplain works to heal pain of combat
On the eighth floor of the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center is a small office where Fr. John Perez works. His office is adorned with photos of religious paintings, along with action figures like the Green Lantern, Thor and army soldiers. A model of the USS Starship Enterprise hangs from the ceiling.
This is where he works to end the pain inflicted by combat or the pain that is a result of time in the service. As he pointed out, each veteran has a different story.
“You got to walk with them to see where they are first,” Fr. Perez said. “Then you can help them come back, out of where they are…. It’s really listening to where they are and see if you catch something; you can help them.”
Fr. Perez has been a chaplain at the Zablocki VA Medical Center since 2012. He knows the difficulties soldiers have when they cross the “moral threshold” of deciding to act and how to act.
“When American soldiers, with American mindsets, are sent to these situations, it’s very difficult to decipher what to do,” Fr. Perez said. “Soldiers act on orders and on impulse, out of survival, but later on, the remorse of ‘Was that right to do?’”
Soldiers cross ‘moral threshold’
Beginning in 2008, Fr. Perez spent over a year in Iraq and saw first hand soldiers crossing the “moral threshold.”
“I have seen, when I was deployed, soldiers had to shoot down a woman that was probably pregnant,” he said. “But later on, they found out that she was not pregnant; she was loaded with explosives. If they had not shot her they would’ve been gone.”
Young soldiers learn a hard lesson when they’re deployed, according to Fr. Perez.
“They get smacked with a very dirty reality – life is not fun anymore. Life is very hard and can bring death very quickly,” he said. “When they come back, they still have all of these emotions that they know for a fact that their wives and family are not going to understand.”
These frustrations can lead to a lack of faith.
“That’s why when some soldiers come back, they’re not thinking of God,” Fr. Perez said. “If they start thinking about God, then they start worrying that they’re wrong.”
Fr. Perez helps veterans gain closure and come to grips with their time on the battlefield.
“They have to feel a sense of forgiveness,” he said. “Even though they were doing the right thing by following orders.”
If they’re Catholics, Fr. Perez said, it’s easy.
“You offer confession,” he said. “Those who are not Catholic — then you got to work in some other way upon their faith … it’s a continuous process. You have to sit down with them several times.”
Faith is pillar of support
Fr. Perez credits his faith has being the pillar of support while he was abroad.
“You need a strong spiritual base in order to function,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the Masses and prayer and what not, it would’ve been a long year and a half in Iraq.”
However, despite all the good that can be done, VA benefits are not offered to those with a “less than honorable” or “dishonorable” discharge from the military.
Fr. Perez and other professionals at the Zablocki VA Medical Center go out to hospitals and conferences to educate people who might interact with a veteran.
But he worries they’re only reaching a small group.
“Unless they’re directly relating themselves, their professional work, to that (veteran) people aren’t really interested,” he said. “The people who are out of the hospital environment that will go to these places are people who do have soldiers … they go to these events to find out how they can connect, how they can help.”
According to the priest, a way to start is by showing some sort of appreciation for those who have come back. One memory in particular still makes Fr. Perez’s eyes swell with tears.
He and his unit were returning from Iraq and flew into O’Hare International Airport. They were going to transfer from their military plane to each of their civilian planes. To transition to that they marched in formation.
“When we did that march, everyone in that airport stopped what they were doing and they all stood up and gave a standing ovation,” he said. “It made all of us cry like babies as we marched.”
But it didn’t stop there. Fr. Perez went to the gate where his plane to Kentucky, along with its passengers, were waiting to board.
“The airline stewardess said, ‘Since it’s Veterans Day, we have soliders in uniform, they have a free pass for first class. They go first,’” Fr. Perez said. “When she said that – I sill become emotional – everybody stopped what they were doing and gave up their seat.”
Fr. Perez said he has a special license plate that says he’s an Iraq War Veteran. “I’m proud to have served,” he said.