On May 29, 2004, Father Tim Vakoc climbed into an armored humvee near Mosul, Iraq, after saying Mass for the U.S. troops. It was the 12th anniversary of his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. During the ride, a roadside bomb exploded next to the vehicle. Vakoc’s skull was pierced by pieces of concrete and shrapnel and his body was paralyzed. He suffered extensive brain damage and could neither speak nor swallow. One eye was lost and the other failed to register even a glimmer of recognition. Few expected the priest would survive until nightfall, let alone the next four years.
But like all good stories, there is far more at work here than the bare facts of what happened to Vakoc on that spring day. Nobody left reeling from that horrible blast – not the Army medics and doctors who first treated him nor the Vakoc family members thousands of miles away who would get those first terrifying phone calls – could quantify or logically explain what was to happen in the coming days, months and years.
“Tim was not supposed to live,” says his mother, Phyllis Vakoc. “He did. Tim was not supposed to talk again. He did. I know God has got a hand in all of this.”
Beyond the astonishing physical recovery – this spring Vakoc, who is confined to a wheelchair, was speaking, raising his left arm to offer blessings and even thumb-wrestling with visitors – is the amazing spiritual impact Vakoc’s story continues to have. Among several hundred heartfelt entries on the guestbook section of his Caring Bridge Web page are posts from as far away as Australia and England speaking of how he’s inspired others, along with comments from many of the former soldiers he ministered to during his time in Iraq.
“I want you to know what happened to the small band on Diamondback who started a gospel service with your help,” wrote one such soldier, Frank Selden of Bellevue, Wash. “We missed you greatly, but we carried on. Remembering your faith, we prayed for anyone who asked for prayer. Remembering your courage, we strove to become examples of … our Christian duties as well as our soldier duties. Our numbers grew to over 120 at services by the time we left Iraq. In God’s name, and with God’s power, your work continued. The seeds have been sown again in the United States as soldiers returned home with stories of faith in action many of us have never witnessed before. Although I hardly knew you, Father Tim, you inspire me to continue serving God in ways I never did before Iraq.”
Then there is the testimony of those who have spent time visiting with Vakoc after his injury.
“People walk into his room and say they feel the presence of God,” Anita Brand says of her younger brother. “Nurses would tell me, ‘I didn’t have Tim today, but I pretended to be busy doing stuff for Tim to feel the peace inside his room.’ There’s just something very spiritual that’s been going on. Tim continues doing what he’s always wanted to – touching people’s lives.”
The world has noticed. Along with receiving a Purple Heart and other military honors, Vakoc, now 48, was named the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas’ 2007 Distinguished Alumnus. The award was established to recognize alumni “who have lived their vocation in an extraordinary way.”
What has stunned Phyllis as much as anything is the endless outpouring of support for her son and his family that continues to come from people who never met him.
“Perfect strangers have become my best friends, bringing me to the hospital, driving great distances to come and visit Tim and pray over him,” she says. “There are a lot of good people in this world yet. This is a story that should be told.”
Alas, it is not a story devoid of heartache – Vakoc’s father, Henry, died in January 2007, and his older brother, Jeff, nearly lost his wife, Jill, to a massive heart attack a few months later. And Vakoc’s days at St. Therese, an assisted living care facility in New Hope, Minn., can be hit or miss. There have been numerous setbacks, including a stroke a few years ago that wiped out most of his recovery to that point and nearly killed him, along with too many infections and illnesses to count.
Still, the demand to visit him remains so strong that Brand and others continue to chart weekly appointment schedules for guests, many of whom say they simply felt drawn to visit Vakoc even though they’d never met him before hearing his story. He attends Mass regularly at St. Therese and is able to use his left arm to make the sign of the cross and bless visitors who come to see him.
Conversations are brief and take great effort on Vakoc’s part, but the fact that he suddenly started speaking more than three years after he was injured is considered a miracle in itself.
“Back in September 2007, they were going to stop speech therapy because nothing seemed to work,” Brand says. “He hadn’t talked for three years. The next day he spoke his first words.”
Brand remains convinced God isn’t done telling her younger brother’s story.
“When all this first happened, a friend asked me to pray to God for a scripture,” she says. “The one that came to mind was Lazarus. And I truly believe that God is going to continue to raise Tim from the dead and defy all logic.”
Phyllis sees her son – who first felt the calling to be a priest when he was a 12-year-old growing up in Robbinsdale, Minn. – being used by God to touch hearts and remind people of the power of prayer.
“I think God allowed Tim to keep living and has kept him here to bring the world back to prayer,” she says.
God places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension – and yet don’t. Your ministry to soldiers inspired me … and I learned that life is not about us – that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God’s love for others.
– U.S. Military Chaplain George Okoth, Ft. Riley, Kan. (in a guestbook entry)
To learn more about Father Tim Vakoc and read updates on his progress, visit his Caring Bridge Web site at caringbridge.org/mn/timvakoc.
John Nemo is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the magazine.