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VA chaplain brings end to 'Heaven on Earth' career

WALLA WALLA — If only Ben Vegors' mother could see him now.

“There was a time in my life that my mother would say, ‘Here I’ve raised six children and you’re the only one that turned out bad,’” the chaplain recalled from his pulpit last Sunday at Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s chapel.

No longer, not for a very long time.

Vegors, 91, will bid goodbye after the 9 a.m. Easter service this Sunday to the 42-year career he calls “Heaven on Earth” in the little white chapel. He will also be stepping down as the oldest, full time chaplain in the national VA system, as well as the longest-tenured, said Linda Wondra, spokeswoman for the Walla Walla VA.

It wasn’t the direction a young Vegors seemed headed — not the apple of his mother’s eye by any means, to his great consternation, he told his flock. “I felt ashamed, seriously ashamed.”

In 1940, however, Vegors happened to attend a church retreat at Sequoia National Park. Freshly back home in California from extended National Guard drills in Washington state, the young man agreed to go to appease his sisters, he said.

It didn’t start well. He felt awkward and embarrassed by his lack of wardrobe. He didn’t know how to pray or what to say. But then and there, he said, his heart broke open to receive the message of Christianity.

When World War II broke out, Vegors served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Europe. He said he would endure ridicule, spite and hate for his beliefs, but he credits his relationship with God in keeping him safe.

“He flew 30 missions without incident,” Wondra wrote in a sobering timeline of Vegors’ life for a national VA publication. “On three occasions, however, he missed getting on the planes, and on all three occasions, the planes crashed with no survivors.

“He also tells the story of one particular mission over Germany when two of the plane’s outboard engines were shot out. The plane left formation and slowly lost altitude.

“The pilot needed to make an emergency landing quickly. The enemy soldiers were in pursuit, and Ben felt certain that they were all going to die. If they bailed out of the plane, they surely would be shot in the air; if they stayed in the plane, they were sure to go down.”

Vegors crewed in a number of planes. For this flight, he was in a B-24 Liberator bomber, a difficult plane to fly in the American arsenal.

Wondra’s story continued. “While sitting in his usual landing position, which was on top of the bomb bay, he unhooked the snap of his parachute harness, set it aside, and said, ‘Lord, if you will please spare my life, I’ll serve you as long as I live.’”

Both kept their end of bargain.

Upon his discharge from the military, Vegors enrolled in Bible college and then began his long pastoral career in 1950. Eventually he and his wife, Betty — she died in 2010 — made their way to Walla Walla where Ben was installed as pastor of Grace Baptist Church.

There was no time to relax. Jim Dennis, chaplain of the Walla Walla VA at the time, showed up at Vegors’ first service in the front pew, and asked the new pastor for a favor.

“He wanted me to come out and look at doing some volunteering at the chapel,” Vegors said.

He said it was love at first sight when the pastor drove in from Chestnut Street, the sole entrance then. He tagged along with Dennis on night calls in the VA hospital for seriously ill patients before slotting into an official intermittent chaplaincy with the VA.

In 1972 part time became full time. In the years since, he’s helped many men and women recover their faith as their bodies recovered from the effects of military service.

“Here in the chapel it’s been a real good thing,” said Vegors, his voice rich with the memory. “I’ve directed hundreds back to their churches.”

Not a small thing in the Pacific Northwest, which according to the Pew Research Center has the lowest rate of church attendance in the nation.

It’s been Vegors’ experience that many veterans come from church-going families and were steeped in the practice as children.

“I ask them, ‘And when did you stop attending church?’” he said. “It’s almost always when they started drinking or drugging. Their conscious tells them, ‘What you’re doing is incompatible with church attendance.’ So they continue drinking or drugging until the day comes they have to make a choice.”

As chaplain, Vegors assures the men and women in his ministry they can reconnect spiritually.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “And I’ve been able to do that here for years.”

He’s had the opportunity to cross paths with some of those veterans years later. He rarely remembers them at first glance, Vegors said, but they remember him. And more than a handful went into ministry themselves, later telling the VA chaplain how influential he was in their decision.

While Vegors has asked his church to pray a blessing for the new Walla Walla VA chaplain — whomever she or he turns out to be — that individual will have to discover the ministry’s needs on their own.

“I don’t think it’s my place to give any advice,” he said.

What’s next for Vegors?

“I’m going to do a lot of visiting, and I’ll end up someplace,” he said.

Information from the biography of Ben Vegors, “The Lord Will Preserve Thee,” co-authored by Vegors and Walla Walla educator Scott Reardon, was used in this article.

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