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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 9, 2002

Priest reflects on war's terror

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Monsignor Roy Peters, pastor emeritus of Saints Peter & Paul Church in Pawa'a, has been a Catholic priest for 54 years. He's also a retired Army colonel who earned a Bronze Star for heroism.

Peters' service as a combat chaplain in Vietnam affords the 78-year-old priest a unique perspective of having witnessed good at its best and evil at its worst.

In the jungles of Vietnam, the enemy rarely took prisoners, he said, noting the horror of seeing American soldiers with bullet holes in their heads and wallets missing. There's no relief from terror in war — it's everywhere, Peters said.

Peters witnessed a 1968 incident, in which a young soldier who had assisted him as a Mass server, was killed when an elderly woman threw a bomb into a jeep.

"I felt so much anger that I just wanted to punch her," Peters said. "But not one of our boys did anything to hurt her. It was a lesson for me. I think Americans show respect and it hasn't changed that much since the '60s and '70s."

Peters felt that same kind of anger last Sept. 11. "I was never so shocked and angry in my entire life," he said. "I couldn't believe someone could do that to innocent people.

"I think what we've learned from this is that a lot of people (in the world) don't like us," Peters observed. "Jesus says we have to love everyone. But love doesn't mean we have to like 'em. I can't hurt them but I can defend myself, defend my family and defend my country."

Monsignor Roy Peters, pastor emeritus of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Pawa'a, earned a Bronze Star as a combat chaplain in Vietnam.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The message of Sept. 11 is clear, Peters said.

"We know not the day or the hour," he noted, referring to the Bible passage from Mark 13:32. "The result is we should always be prepared.

"America didn't become neurotic or panicky," Peters said. "We can live our daily lives but need to be alert and ready. I think we've learned we can't judge what other people will do by what we would do ourselves."

Peters was awarded a Bronze Star for his "exceptionally valorous actions" on Jan. 30, 1968 near Tuy Hoa North while serving as chaplain of the 4th Battalion of the 503rd Infantry (Airborne). Despite heavy fire from the enemy, Peters was moving around the compound comforting and encouraging troops.

A mortar round landed near the foremost edge of the compound's perimeter, wounding several men. The citation from Maj. John M. Byrne reads:

"Without hesitation, or regard for his own personal safety, Chaplain Peters rushed to where the stricken men lay, and with enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire crackling all about him, commenced to aid and evacuate the more seriously wounded. He remained in that exposed position until the men were successfully evacuated and receiving proper medical care."

Of his actions, Peters said: "The motive for bravery is always my buddy. It's looking out for your brother."

On Nov. 19, 1967, the priest was wounded doing a similar deed. "A mortar round killed a kid I was carrying," said Peters, who was struck on the neck by a fragment that kept him out of action for two days.

"Being there when they need you is a rewarding feeling," Peters said of his combat chaplain service. "A priest ought to be where people are and there's no more greater need than when people are in danger of death."

Peters estimates that he said at least three Masses per day and as many as 19 on Christmas Day on the battlefield. He said about one-tenth of the 500 Army chaplains in Vietnam served on the battlefield.

"When I'd say Mass for a company, either before battle or after battle, everybody would come," he said. "I would tell them I'm going to say a Catholic mass with a Protestant sermon."

Peters spent 2 1/2 years in Vietnam before returning to California, where he served as senior chaplain at Fort Ord in 1968. "I gave the final talk to the boys who were going to Vietnam," he said. "I told them, 'You are going to live like animals, smell like animals, be treated like animals ... but God loves you.' "

He was in Vietnam again from Sept. 18, 1969 to Sept. 17, 1970 as combat chaplain for the 25th Infantry Division. The chalice, cross, rosary and camouflage vestments are still in the bag Peters carried in Vietnam, which he keeps in his office.

"I'm against war because it never solves a problem," said Peters, who retired from the Army in December 1986. "But if I had to go to war again, I'd do it to defend my country."

A Sacramento native, Peters was studying to be a priest when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He wanted to volunteer for military service but decided to finish seminary and was ordained on June 12, 1948.

In 1962, he volunteered for Army duty and opted to become a paratrooper. "I was 38 years old training with kids who were 18," he recalled. "It took me 11 weeks to pass a four-week course."