The Rev. John Feltz, priest at Milton’s St. Ann’s Parish, displays his Legion of Merit award, given to him after his retirement from the Guard. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

After serving two deployments and counseling countless soldiers, the Rev. John G. Feltz retired from the Vermont Army National Guard on May 30 and Army Reserve on June 3. He served for 17 years as an Army chaplain.

Feltz is also priest at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Milton, a place of worship for more than 1,000 families, including maybe 15 to 20 military ones.

Feltz had worked with the Vermont Civil Air Patrol – a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force – for 15 years when he was approached to come on board as an Army chaplain. He was also pastor at two Hardwick churches.

“I told them, yeah, I’d give it a try,” he said.

Seventeen years later, Feltz, 66, retired with the rank of colonel.

“You don’t go in for the rank; you’re there to help the soldiers,” Feltz said. “It’s a nice recognition of the job that I do.”

Helping soldiers is a chaplain’s main duty, deployed or not. That’s why even though chaplains don’t possess weapons or lead in command, they go through what all other soldiers do to understand their mindset, Feltz said.

At 49, he went to boot camp and then officer school at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, taking many courses from the Kansas-based school by correspondence.

The Vermont National Guard has no Catholic chaplains now that Feltz is retired, he said. And as the Church has fewer priests, so does the Army.

Feltz said his service put strain on his parish as he juggled the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” Guard drill commitment, but the Army and his parish worked with his schedule, too: He was graciously granted leave during a two-week annual training to officiate a wedding, and when he got deployed, another priest filled in.

Feltz estimates a quarter of Vermont soldiers are Catholic. He thinks the Catholic chaplain shortage hurts the Army.

“You’re a chaplain for everybody,” he said. “I could cross the barrier for everybody.”

Feltz characterizes his time in the Guard as enjoyable.

“It’s a variety of experiences,” he said. “I always tell people, ‘Never say never, because you never know.’ Like when I came on, who would have thought I’d have two deployments or that I’d get [to stay on] beyond 60.”

Feltz’s career was marked by September 11 and two combat missions, the first to Kuwait and Iraq in 2005 and the second to Afghanistan 2010. He held Christmas Eve mass for the soldiers on duty at the Burlington International Airport just months after the attacks.

Four years later, in Iraq, Feltz visited soldiers at Camp Bucca, a former military prison that housed up to 3,000 inmates, including several Saddam Hussein impersonators. He said he eventually got used to walking in a building full of people who wanted to see him dead.

“After a while, you don’t think about it,” he said.

As a chaplain, Feltz represented a connection to faith and home. Parents found solace in knowing a chaplain was there when their sons and daughters died in battle. Soldiers of all religious backgrounds and nationalities found stability and peace in his presence, he said.

“You are called to lead them along,” Feltz said. “If they ask, ‘Why do you have a positive outlook?’ or ‘Why should I look at it differently?’ I can share personally what sustains me,” Feltz said.

And for the pastor, that’s a healthy mix of reading scripture, eating right and exercising daily. The Army actually required him to submit this plan before he deployed to make sure he’d keep his own wellbeing in check.

Feltz could relate to soldiers, too: Just as they missed loved ones’ birthdays and weddings, he missed the same for 1,000 families in Milton when he deployed.

Ed Malila, a St. Ann’s parishioner and Knights of Columbus member, said he understands why so many Guardsmen and women showed up for Feltz’s retirement party last Thursday, Aug. 30: “He’s very easy to talk to,” he said. “He makes people at ease. He just has a real calming effect.”

Malila has been a St. Ann’s member since 1971, and he now sits on the Finance Committee. As a Knight, Malila has worked with Feltz on numerous parish improvement projects. He said Feltz “exemplifies the meaning of service to God and country.” That’s why the Knights will award him with a plaque this month as a nod to his service.

“He just helps so many people, and he likes to fly below the radar,” Malila said. “He never wants to make anything of what he does.”

Malila was one of several parishioners who attended Feltz’s retirement party, where officials bestowed Feltz with his battalion’s flag from his first deployment, an American flag and the Legion of Merit medal, the sixth-highest in the Army.

But these marks of success don’t matter most to Feltz. “Just being there and the trust of the soldiers” was his highlight, he said.

Feltz remembers a time during training when a fellow chaplain turned to him and deftly observed, “Normally chaplains try to become part of the unit; the unit is part of this chaplain.”

Becoming part of that family was Feltz’s greatest achievement: “That is when you know you have arrived,” he said.

The Knights of Columbus will present their award to the Rev. John G. Feltz on Sunday, Sept. 16 after the 10:30 a.m. mass at St. Ann’s Parish, 41 Main St., Milton.