Madison Priest To Deploy Overseas As Chaplain

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  • By Jessica Arp
  • CBS 3
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With the influx of troops needed overseas following 9/11, there has also been an increasing need for their spiritual support, and a local priest is answering the call for help.

At St. Thomas Aquinas Parish on Madison's West Side on Sunday, the Rev. Donn Heiar shared his memories of 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"I went inside the rectory, turned on the TV and there we remember each and every moment of a very difficult, painful unimaginable day," Heiar said.

Heiar ministers to pilots and crews of F-16 fighter jets.

"When the jets go up, you're always thinking and praying for them," said Heiar. "It's like when you're a kid growing up in grade school and the nun used to say, 'When you hear an ambulance siren, pray three Hail Marys.' I've done that my whole life. Now when I'm out here and these jets go up, I always pray three Hail Marys."

Heiar brought his priesthood to the military base at Truax after a long journey of prayer and a suggestion from his spiritual director years ago in the seminary.

"He was a retired colonel in the Army, a chaplain with three tours of Vietnam," said Heiar of his director. "He'd always talk to me and say, 'Hey kid, you need to think about being a military chaplain once you're ordained.' I didn't think twice about it. I was so preoccupied with becoming a priest and what that meant. But the seed was planted."

So late last fall, Heiar went first to the bishop, then to the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing and offered to become a chaplain.

"It's very unique," said Gen. Joe Brandemuehl, commander of the 115th. "Not only is he the only (chaplain) in the state of Wisconsin, but there are many states that don't have a Roman Catholic priest. And we did not have one here for 15 years."

Brandemuehl said some 30 percent of the 115th is Catholic, so Heiar's arrival has filled a void for some. But, more importantly, he's there for service members of all faiths during regular deployments, Brandemuehl said.

"What I like to see from our chaplains is just visibility," Brandemuehl said. "They don't really have to say anything, but when our airmen are getting on a plane to deploy and they know the chaplain is walking around the hangar, talking with people; if they've got a concern they can walk up and talk to him."

Heiar said at the age of 46, the three months of training was far from easy. But he said it's the ministry he gets to do now that makes it all worth it.

"When you're out doing visits, it's just a great reward," said Heiar. "(They say), 'Hey chaplain,' or 'Hey padre' or 'Hey father' or 'Hey captain.' They let me into their lives because they're searching. What goes on out here is very real."

The sacrifice will become even more real for Heiar, when he's deployed to an air base near Afghanistan at the end of the month.

"I'm ready to get on a plane and go, and I don't say that as a greenhorn. I just know that where I'm going, they need a priest," said Heiar.

Heiar said that in his own parish he has heard too many stories of troops who never saw a priest once overseas.

"Whether I'm celebrating mass at home or within Operation Enduring Freedom, wherever it is, it's by the grace of God that we go," Heiar said.

Heiar is being deployed to an air base where troops will move in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. His four-month deployment is voluntary. He said he's helping out after an active duty Air Force chaplain became ill and had to return home.