Honor the Fallen: U.S. Army Chaplains Honor JFK, Commander in Chief

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” -John F. Kennedy

On a day when the world seemed to stop for many in the United States, several U.S. Army chaplains were called into action to honor their fallen Commander in Chief as the nation grieved.

“I was in my office at Ft. Myer on that fateful Friday, 22 November 1963,” recalled Chaplain Peter S. Lent, chaplain with the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard. “I heard a Soldier outside the window call, ‘have you heard the news? The president’s been shot.’ I immediately turned on the radio and heard the initial reports from Dallas.”

Four days later, Lent would serve as an escort officer for VIP clergy in one of the most historic funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I remember the schedule of burials that day,” Lent said, “because the last one on the list was John F. Kennedy and his rank was listed as ‘Commander in Chief.’”

The Most Reverend Father Phillip M. Hannan, a former WWII paratrooper and Catholic Army chaplain with the 82nd Airborne served as counselor and confidant to JFK, the nation’s first Catholic president. Hannan delivered the eulogy at the president’s funeral in St. Matthew’s Church on November 25, 1963.

“President John Kennedy was fond of quoting the Holy Bible,” Hannan said in his eulogy.  “At the last dinner of his life in Houston, Texas, last Thursday night, he applied to a friend, as it should be applied to him, this combination of passages from the Proverbs and the prophecy of Joel: ‘Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And where there is no vision the people perish.’”

As Auxiliary Archbishop of Washington, DC at the time, Hannan was not officially supposed to perform the funeral eulogy according to church protocol, but Jacqueline Kennedy specifically requested the former Army chaplain. His connection to Kennedy began in the late 1940s as Hannan served as assistant chancellor in Washington, DC while Kennedy was a young Massachusetts Congressman. Hannan became a confidant and counselor for Kennedy through his presidency.

In his eulogy, Hannan pulled from the president’s favorite Scripture verses and from his famous 1961 inaugural speech.

“At this time of sorrow and burden,” Hannan said, “he would have you remember the passages from Joshua and Isaiah he had used in accepting the presidential nomination; ‘Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary.’”

An estimated 800,000 people lined the streets of Washington to pay their final respects to the fallen president during his funeral procession. Leading that somber convoy was U.S. Army Chaplain Lawrence K. Brady. A Roman Catholic chaplain, Brady was the first chaplain to wear the green beret of the Army’s Special Forces. His selection to take on this role was an unintentional yet fitting coincidence given the favor and attention President Kennedy gave to this elite force.

1963 - JFK funeral

President John F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery

The legacy of Army Chaplains’ roles in honoring the fallen Commander In Chief continues today. In June 2013, the Kennedy Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery was transferred for the first time since it was lit in 1967. The Senior Army Chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery, CH (Lt. Col.) Timothy Hubbs, pronounced a blessing over the ceremonial torch that shared and carried the fire to the Kennedy family homestead in New Ross, Ireland.

Upon President Kennedy’s assassination, American citizens experienced grief, fear, and uncertainty. Through their three core competencies (Nurture the Living, Care for the Wounded, and Honor the Fallen), chaplains bring strength and hope to those who have been wounded or traumatized in body, mind and spirit and assist in the healing process.

In the case of JFK’s death, these current and former U.S. Army chaplains shifted their traditional roles of helping Soldiers and Families cope with loss to saluting the fallen Commander in Chief as an entire nation grieved. Then and now, U.S. Army chaplains are committed to taking care of all Soldiers, Families and DA Civilians from all faiths and to those with no religious affiliation at all. Through prayer and presence, the chaplain provides courage and comfort in the face of loss.

Submitted by Megan Doyle, Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH)

Visit site:  

Honor the Fallen: U.S. Army Chaplains Honor JFK, Commander in Chief