By RENEE WEBB
Just a few years after his ordination to the priesthood, Father Miles Barrett said it was a Lutheran minister who asked him to consider serving in the Navy Reserves because they needed priests.
“He was God’s messenger so to speak,” recalled the now retired U.S. Navy chaplain, who had earned his pilot’s license in 1979 before he was a priest. “I thought I’d enjoy going to Alaska as a priest/bush pilot and supply sacraments. But God had other ideas and his idea still let me be in aircraft of all types and serve his children who didn’t have sacraments available each week.”
After this native of Sioux City graduated from Briar Cliff University in 1972 with a degree in vocal and instrumental music education, he taught at the elementary, high school and college level for five years. He also completed a master’s in music from the University of Michigan.
Upon his Feb. 20, 1982 ordination, his first assignments were as assistant pastor at Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City, Sacred Heart Parish in Spencer and Corpus Christi Parish in Fort Dodge. During his service as parochial vicar at St. Cecelia Parish in Algona, Father Barrett joined the Navy Reserves in 1986.
He served as pastor at St. Cecilia Parish in Sanborn and Hartley for three years before Bishop Lawrence D. Soens let him go active duty in the U.S. Navy at the age of 41.
At that point, Father Barrett had no idea how long he would serve in the military “yet the Holy Spirit year to year just drew me more in tune to the troops and their families. Families were sacrificing so much for others to have the freedom and liberty Americans enjoy and other countries desire.”
The Navy detailer sent him to the 1st Battalion 12th Marines artillery where he served the whole expeditionary brigade including serving
on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk where he celebrated two Masses daily and was available to counsel the 5,500 troops on board as well as ministering to the other ships within the battle group.
“Within its battle group of 10 ships, as a Roman Catholic priest, I enjoyed the whole 10-ship mission field flying 10 hours per week on the ‘Holy Helo’ - flying between ships for Mass, confessions and sacramental preparation,” said Father Barrett. “What a great way to get to church.”
On ships too small to land upon, he’d be lowered in a “horse harness” as a sailor discharged the static electricity the blades made with rubber gloves and a steel rod grounded a line to the deck before the chaplain’s feet hit the deck in pitching seas.
“I loved it,” Father Barrett said. “What a great way to arrive at Mass. That alone could increase vocations - it sure inspired prayer in me.”
The Navy sent him back to school at age 45 for another master’s degree in pastoral studies focused on medical ethics and just war theories. Prior to 9-11 he served for 39 months at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as the hospital’s ethics chairman. He later was named the first ethics fellow doing research and teaching midshipmen to make ethical decisions at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2003-2004.
Throughout his 26-year military ministry, he served throughout the world.
“I rejoiced in children of God found in Iraq, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Australia, Hong Kong, Guam, Spain, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Kuwait and the USA as all are children of God,” said the decorated vet who received two Meritorious Service Medals, four Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, a U.S. Coast Guard Commendation Medal, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, various presidential unit and campaign awards as well as the American Red Cross Lifetime Award.
Father Barrett said he enjoyed his three U.S. Marine Corps tours, the last being in Iraq, covering Army troops as well.
“My Iraq deployment was the most dynamic and fruitful even with the 149 shipmates who died in 2007 to 2008, who sacrificed their lives and thousands more who were wounded for life, left without limbs, PTSD and mental health challenges – for all of us to have the privilege of freedom of religion and speech here in America,” he said. “A freedom that is not free if you value their sacrifice.”
In Iraq, the chaplain said his time was filled with monthly baptisms, first Communions, confirmations and marriage prep. Enlisted and officers alike as they left Iraq after six months told Father Barrett they had never grown so much in their faith. They thanked him.
“That was the God’s Spirit in the desert moving among 149 shipmates lost, moving us all to our true center and Christ loving presence in our lives, between weekly Bible study, daily Mass and the memorial services of fellow shipmates,” he said.
Because it was so fruitful and spiritually enriching, he asked to extend back-to-back years. After 9-11 he served as Command Chaplain on the USS Bonhomme Richard with 2,700 service members – 1,200 Navy sailors and 1,800 Marines that went from San Diego to Kuwait. He called that time and his service in Iraq the most fruitful of his military service.
The ministry has given him many memorable experiences and times when he knew he made a difference. He recalled one experience when he was visiting an Army National Guard service member in the Al Asad Iraq MASH unit. The serviceman, on his second tour in Iraq, lost his legs from the knees down due to an improvised explosive device. All others in the Humvee had died. The doctor and nurse thought he wouldn’t make it because he had lost his will to live because of survivor’s guilt and his unknown future.
But then God stepped in, with the help of the chaplain.
“Well he encountered Christ in the sacrament of the sick, reconciliation and a little counseling prayer so I left seeing a normal good-spirited wounded soldier not knowing how far he turned around while he encountered Christ in the moment,” said Father Barrett, who noted the man did survive and thanked them and the medical personnel. “Now that’s one of many God-incidents but it shares the power of God’s love in the sacraments and a moment as service member experiences such with a priest who he/she knows shares the same sacrifices and risks day and night. Both are being a servant of God and country.”
Father Barrett retired as a Commander, O5, but insisted the title means little more than a rank. As a chaplain he found it a blessing to serve all and generally be welcomed by all – enlisted and officers alike.
Today he lives in Cape May, N.J., covering for active duty priests who need a base, ship or hospital covered for a month or two. He also lends his priestly service to St. John Neumann and Our Lady Star of the Sea Parishes in Cape May. Having received additional pilot training, he has served as a flight instructor, SAR pilot, counter drug pilot, check pilot, mission pilot, transport pilot and chaplain for the Civil Air Patrol since 2009. He is active in the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 44, Knights of Columbus and had helped with the annual Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage several years.
“God has been too kind and generous within my life and pulled me through deployments healthy and safe from harm over the years. For that, I’m most grateful and wish more young men would give the priesthood a chance,” Father Barrett said. “The fruitfulness of his love is amazing. And it’s never boring.”