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CAMP AL QA'IM, Iraq- Naval Commander Dennis Rocheford, a Catholic chaplain with II Marine Expeditionary Force, fills a goblet symbolizing "the blood of Christ" during the Eucharist at St. Michael's Chapel. Rocheford is a former Marine during the Vietnam Conflict.

Photo by Cpl. Eric C. Schwartz

Vietnam Veteran turned chaplain helps Marines cope with combat

20 Jul 2007 | Cpl. Eric C. Schwartz

“Lord,” said Lance Cpl. Dennis Rocheford, a Marine with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, “I will not waste my life.” The bus hummed along the flight line transporting Rocheford, a Vietnam Veteran fresh from the war-torn jungles of the Quang Tri Province, to Okinawa, Japan en route to the United States.

Forty years later, after joining the Marines in 1966, now U.S. Navy Commander Dennis Rocheford, a Catholic Chaplain with II Marine Expeditionary Force, serves a higher power, giving spiritual guidance to deployed Marines with Regimental Combat Team 2.

“It was my war, my country, my generation, my time,” said the Worcester, Mass., native.

Fate saved Rocheford one night during a bridge ambush where a bullet entered and exited his torso missing all vital organs.

“The wound was scoured out with surgical soap, bandaged up, and we continued to march,” the chaplain said.

Rocheford earned his badge of courage that night. It wasn’t the last time his blood spilled for America. The young lance corporal later fought in Hue City during the Tet Offensive with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.

“We weren’t trained for house to house fighting; we were trained to fight in the jungle,” Rocheford said.

The urban battle went on for five weeks, but the Marines weren’t giving up.

“Dozens of guys were getting killed from my company,” said Rocheford.

The young Marine brushed against death with every building he cleared, every street he crossed. And once again he tempted fate, as he was struck in the face by shrapnel from a mortar round.

“I felt the blood dripping and then felt my face,” Rocheford said. “I started getting really scared.”

Rocheford kept fighting soon after finding the wound to be a superficial scar. After almost sacrificing his life again for his country, his company was once more thrust into battle. This time tasked with recapturing hill 881 on the Khe Sanh plateau from the North Vietnamese.

“Hill 881 was like reclaiming Mt. Suribachi and putting the flag up,” he said.

The battle scarred Marine became the A Company Commander’s radio operator. It became a routine job sitting at a field desk relaying messages back and forth daily with patrols.

“Two platoons left the hill one day to patrol,” said Rocheford. “I was the only radio operator there, and that’s when we got attacked.”

The company relied on Rocheford to keep communicating with naval and air support, artillery and his fellow Marines during the battle, which he successfully did.

“I was a lance corporal directing naval gunfire, telling Phantom Jets where to drop their napalm bombs and giving grid coordinates to the regimental artillery battery,” the chaplain said.

“Being alone in that bunker was pretty intense.”

Rocheford’s intensity in the Marine Corps died down immensely when he finished his contract at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He began attending confession.

“I confessed to killing in Vietnam,” the chaplain said. “The priest was gracious to me and told me it was not a sin if it was combat.”

The Marine’s contract was almost finished and instead of re-enlisting, he chose college.

“College was a balanced experience for me,” said the chaplain. “There were parties on Thursdays and Mass on Sundays.”

Rocheford quickly blended into college life but avoided discussions on the topic of the much-debated Vietnam Conflict.

“People didn’t really know I was a war veteran because it was so volatile at the time,” he said.

Studying and dating kept him focused on college, but his love of Christ pushed him to his destined livelihood.

“I loved Christ, but I didn’t think I could be a priest,” the chaplain said.

A priest explained to Rocheford that he still qualified for priesthood, so after college he attended seminary school.

“I was overwhelmed with the beauty of learning scripture,” he said. “It was like being a brand new Marine again.”

Rocheford would take the Eucharist, wafers and wine, extremely seriously, while many of the older students understood its importance, but weren’t as excited as he.

“The guys in the seminary would say, ‘Dennis, you don’t have to salute the Eucharist,’” the chaplain said.

Rocheford entered priesthood proclaiming a chaste life. He was placed in a missionary in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, and later moved back as a priest in his hometown.

Pope John Paul II asked men of the cloth to join the military because there were few Catholic chaplains. Father Rocheford joined the Navy Chaplain Corps because “the Marines don’t have one.”

As a chaplain, Rocheford has been stationed many places including Officer Candidate School, Parris Island Recruit Training Depot, and deployed with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“Everything has been a blessing,” Rocheford said. “It comes back to that commitment January 16, 1969, when I said I wouldn’t waste my life.”

Lance Cpl. Dennis Rocheford stepped off the bus wearing his jungle utilities. There wasn’t applause for his heroism or a thank you from anyone for proudly serving his country. The silence struck the Marine as odd, but he was alive and therefore happy. He had a bright future ahead of him and a promise to keep.