Catholic Chaplain Killed in Vietnam Leaves Legacy of Faith

ARLINGTON — Father Robert R. Brett, S.M., a Catholic chaplain and Navy Lieutenant serving in Vietnam, gave his life for God and country on Feb. 26, 1968, at age 33. He was killed in action by enemy mortar fire at the Khe Sanh Combat Base while waiting to celebrate Mass for U.S. Marines. "Father Brett was a martyr in the true sense of the word — a witness to the eternal life offered to us by an Almighty Father through Christ our Lord," read his funeral program, written by the Marists. Last week his body, which originally was buried in Pennsylvania, was reintered at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. The place in which Father Brett was initially laid to rest, St. Mary’s Manor Cemetery in Penndel, was sold. Many family members (in photo at right) and military dignitaries attended the Arlington ceremony. The U.S. Naval Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where information on Father Brett is incorporated into the curriculum, will soon be renamed in his honor. His name appears on two local monuments, both on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and a military chaplains memorial on Chaplains Hill in Arlington National Cemetery. In remembrance of Father Brett, an altar and shadowbox display of his military medals were donated to Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria by his nephew Ed Rouse, president of the school’s board of governors and a member of St. Michael Parish in Annandale. The original decorations were given by Father Brett’s family to the U.S. Naval Chaplains School in Newport. "In my mind, two words describe my uncle: a priest and a patriot. He has always been my hero," said Rouse, who coordinated the arrangements to have Father Brett’s body brought to Arlington National Cemetery. Assigned with the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, Father Brett had been in Vietnam since late the previous September. Especially during the few days before his death, he traveled frequently between war-torn outposts. "In addition to providing religious services and rites for Marines of his own faith, Lieutenant Brett provided services for personnel of other denominations and made himself available to all who sought his assistance . . . rendering spiritual aid and encouraging the men by his presence," read Navy reports. Due to security, space and staff restrictions, it was not possible for military personnel to gather in a large group, so Father Brett would go wherever he was needed. "During this time he celebrated Masses almost continuously . . . up to 10 per day under these circumstances," continued the correspondence. He was mortally wounded while in a bunker awaiting transportation to another area. He posthumously received the Purple Heart and later that year was honored with the Legion of Merit with Combat "V." On behalf of her son, Father Brett’s mother, Margaret, accepted the second award, which is one of the highest bestowed by the U.S. Navy. "Disregarding his own safety . . . to minister to battalion personnel," read the Legion citation in part. "His religious devotion and sincere concern for the welfare of his fellowman inspired all who observed him and greatly enhanced the morale of his unit." The Marines in Vietnam built a chapel at Khe San, constructed of local materials, in Father Brett’s honor after his death. A native of Pennsylvania, Father Brett was the son of Francis and Margaret Brett. He had two brothers, Joseph and Francis, and two sisters, Rosemary and Anastasia. He was also very close to his cousins Jack and Cassie, who were raised with his siblings. "By nature he was easy going and very giving, a peacemaker," said his brother Francis, who recently retired as an Army chaplain and is on staff at St. Joseph Parish in Norris, Tenn. "The biggest motivater in his life, even as a child, was to help people in their need." Born in Morton, Penn., Father Brett attended St. Edmond’s and St. Gabriel’s parochial schools through grade eight. He then went to preparatory seminary for high school and the first two years of college at St. Mary’s Manor Apostolic School in Penndel, Penn. "He always wanted to be a priest," said his sister, Rosemary Rouse. "He was always there for everyone." Father Brett entered the Marist novitiate at Our Lady of the Elms in Staten Island and made his religious profession on Sept. 8, 1956. His third and fourth years of college were spent at Catholic University in Washington, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1958, and a master’s degree in Latin in 1963. After studying theology for four years at Marist College Scholasticate in Washington, D.C., he was ordained to the priesthood in 1962 by Bishop Thomas J. Wade, S.M. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. "He was my buddy until he went away to the seminary, but he would come back in the summer," said Father Brett’s sister, Anastasia Lawlor, who was two years younger than him. They would work on parish activities together, such as the church carnival. "He always kept in touch. When I got married he gave me some advice, ‘discipline your children with love and never tell them no without a good reason.’ " Father Brett taught Latin at two high schools, one in Ohio and one in Louisiana. He became a Navy chaplain in 1967. After attending the U.S. Naval Chaplains School in R. I., and training at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Calif., he went to Vietnam. "He was like a brother to me and my hero," said Father Brett’s cousin, Jack Coleman of Secane, Pa., who was the same age, raised in the same household and went to school with him. "He was always available for us. He came from Cleveland to baptize my son." "He was very sincere and devoted to his ministry, teaching and vocation," said Father Valentine Becker, a fellow Marist priest and the order’s archivist who knew Father Brett. Father Brett left a legacy of faith and died as he had lived, in service to others.
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