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European edition, Sunday, August 5, 2007

CHIÈVRES, Belgium

Chaplains like to pray to a full house.

Monsignor Sidney J. Marceaux, a colonel in the U.S. Army, is of that faith, though he recently found solace in the adage “less is more.”

It came to him during a monthlong stint in Iraq, as did an agreeable passage from the Book of Matthew. While there are variations, it goes something like this: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”

“I loved dropping in on a FOB (forward operating base) where there were just a few guys, armed, tired, dirty and waiting for you,” Marceaux said from the comfort of his office on Daumerie Casern.

“If something happens to them,” he added, “they want to be reconciled with their creator.”

War often brings clarity.

Take the case of Marceaux, a 68-year-old Catholic priest raised in the rice fields of southwest Louisiana, a man who has been a soldier for more than four decades.

Due to retire from the military at the end of this year, Marceaux hopes to be recalled to active duty, providing the Army sends him to Iraq for a year or two. There is an acute shortage of Catholic priests in the Army, so chances are good Marceaux will get his wish, if for only one 15-month tour.

Any other assignment may not be enough to lure him back into the fold, he said.

While in Iraq over Christmas, “I was able to exercise my priesthood in a way I couldn’t in a diocese,” Marceaux said. “I was able to help them face death daily. They knew they had to go out and they knew they may not come back.”

Chaplains are not immune to injury or death, though.

In May 2004, Chaplain (Maj.) H. Timothy Vakoc, who had just finished saying Mass, was gravely injured in Mosul by a roadside bomb that detonated near his Humvee. Vakoc lost his left eye and suffered a severe brain injury, but is slowly, yet miraculously, beginning to heal.

“Bullets penetrate us, too,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ron Leininger.

Leininger covers the Benelux region with Marceaux, so he’s well acquainted with the padre. When Marceaux returned from Iraq in January, Leininger said he could sense the veteran priest “was deeply affected” by the experience.

Maybe that’s because Marceaux knows what it’s like to be a young soldier, since he was in their boots a half century ago when he joined the Army at 17. A member of the Texas National Guard from 1955 to 1963, Marceaux served as a rifleman, truck driver and radio operator over those eight years of service.

“I even pulled a little KP (kitchen police) duty every now and then,” he said.

After he left the service, Marceaux finished college and taught social studies for a few years at a public high school before answering God’s call.

In the mid-1970s, during some weekend training that was part of his seminary studies, Marceaux found himself in the basement of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, attending to the spiritual needs of soldiers seriously wounded in Vietnam. It was at that juncture he decided to rejoin the military, but this time as a full-time chaplain in the Reserves.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” said Marceaux, who was elevated to the title of monsignor a couple of years later.

Due to the shortage of priests, Marceaux formally joined the active-duty ranks in 1995. Since then, he has spent a few years in Japan and much of the rest of the time in Belgium, where his French language skills have come in handy.

One man who has gotten to know the monsignor well is Rob Mackson, an Army planner for USAG Benelux.

“He’s a very dynamic man,” Mackson said. “I rediscovered my faith because of Monsignor Marceaux.”

In a way, it could be said that Marceaux’s first tour to Iraq has reinvigorated his faith in God and country. A person need only to think of those huddled few waiting for a father to arrive.

“They are human beings,” Marceaux said. “You can only go to the well so many times before the well needs to be replenished.”

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