The Priest and the Marine

Born on January 3, 1936, one of five kids, Robert R. Brett knew from an early age what the wanted to be.    As his sister Rosemary Rouse noted, “He always wanted to be a priest. He was always there for everyone.”

He attended Saint Edmond’s and Saint Gabriel’s grade schools and then attended a preparatory seminary for high school.  Brett entered the Marist novitiate at Our Lady of the Elms on Staten Island and made his profession of vows on September 8, 1956.  Studying at Catholic University, he received a BA in philosophy in 1958 and a Master’s Degree in Latin in 1963.  He was ordained a priest of the Society of Mary in 1962 by Bishop Thomas Wade at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

While teaching Latin at the Immaculata Seminary in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1967, he decided to enlist in the Navy as a chaplain.  Neither a hawk nor a dove on Vietnam, Father Brett believed that it was his duty to go where he was needed the most, and he decided that the men fighting in Vietnam needed him.  He joined the Navy specifically to volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam with the Marines.  (The Marine Corps, although many Marines choke to admit it, is part of the Department of the Navy, and receive their chaplains from the Navy.)

Father Brett was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Navy, and, after training at the Chaplain School in Newport Rhode Island, and Marine combat training at Camp Pendleton, California, he arrived in Vietnam on September 15, 1967, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.  His goal was simple:  wherever Marines in his unit were in danger he was going to be there, to say Mass, give the Last Rites to the dying and help the wounded.  His own personal safety was simply going to have to take a back seat to this mission.

His superiors quickly realize that this priest was going to need an assistant and a guard since he was so intent on going into harm’s way.  They assigned him Corporal Alexander Chin, a truly remarkable Marine.

Of African-American and Chinese ancestry, Corporal Chin had served in Vietnam for several months when he had a religious conversion.  He announced that he could no longer kill the enemy, but that he had no problem still putting his life on the line for his country.  Assistant and guard to a chaplain seemed like an appropriate assignment for this particular Marine.

Much of Father Brett’s service in Vietnam centered around the Battle for Khe Sanh.  Situated in northwestern Quang Tri Province, Khe Sanh was next to the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.   The North Vietnamese sought to replicate their victory at  Dien Bien Phu over the French in the 1950’s by massing several divisions and overrunning the Marines at Khe Sanh.  They failed, and the Marines inflicted far more casualties on the North Vietnamese Army than they sustained.  Intense fighting at Khe Sanh lasted from January 21, 1968 to April 8, 1968, and Chaplain Brett was in the thick of it, along with Corporal Chin.

His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Kurth recalled Father Brett in his book Walk With Me:  a Vietnam Experience: (more…)

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Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Priest and the Marine  
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