Priest dies 5 years after being wounded in Iraq
St. Paul, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota priest who was gravely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq five years ago has died, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis confirmed Sunday.
The Rev. Tim Vakoc was 49. He died at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale about 8 p.m. Saturday, "surrounded by family and friends who prayed him into heaven," according to a note posted on his CaringBridge Web site, where tens of thousands of people around the world had followed his struggle.
The cause of death was not immediately released. Vakoc was an Army chaplain on May 29, 2004, when the blast cost him an eye and severely damaged his brain as he was returning from celebrating Mass with troops near Mosul.
"A man of peace, he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America's fighting men and women," Archbishop John Nienstedt said in a statement. "He has been an inspiration to us all and we will miss him. We ask everyone to remember him in prayer."
Vakoc was believed to be the first military chaplain wounded in Iraq, officials at the U.S. Central Command said soon after he was injured.
The major was hospitalized for four months at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and was transferred in a near coma to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis in October 2004.
After many surgeries and infections, he slowly started to recognize friends and family, and began to communicate with squeezes of the hand or slight smiles. In the fall of 2006, he spoke for the first time in 2½ years.
Vakoc celebrated the 17th anniversary of his ordination June 10, his CaringBridge site said. He followed along in the prayer book and mouthed the words.
"In addition, he is now able to sing a bit with the brothers," the entry said, referring to the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. "His attention to the prayers and singing is a sign that his comprehension is deepening, and that he is picking up on more things happening around him."
Vakoc, a Robbinsdale native, served as a parish priest in St. Anthony and Eagan before becoming an Army chaplain in 1996, and serving in Germany and Bosnia. He shipped out to Iraq shortly before his 44th birthday.
Nienstedt said the archdiocese is grieving with Vakoc's family.
"We are joined in that grieving, to be sure, by the men and woman whom he served as chaplain in Iraq and those of who witnessed his extraordinary courage and faith at Walter Reed Hospital and here at our Veteran's Hospital," the archbishop said.
Vakoc's funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. He will be buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Visitation will be Thursday evening at the Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel, 15800 37th Avenue N., in Plymouth.
--- Editor's Note: The location of Vakoc's death was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.