ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Army National Guard Lt. Nick Kehtel found himself in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert in July as part of a training session simulating war conditions.
He was able to attend Mass on all 23 days of training. And he was grateful.
“If Father Creagan was not there, there would be no access to Mass or the (other) sacraments,” which are important in stressful times, said Kehtel, who serves with the 147th Human Resources Company in Arden Hills, Minnesota. “It’s 12-plus hour days. It’s extremely hot. You’re away from your family.”
Kehtel’s reference was to Father Michael Creagan, pastor of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, who holds the rank of major and is the only Catholic chaplain in the Minnesota Army National Guard.
As the nation honored those who have served in the military this Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Kehtel, 31, and Father Creagan, 49, said they hold a special place in their prayers for priests who put their lives on the line as military chaplains and hope that other priests will respond if they feel the call.
“I am praying that there may be some others whom God is calling,” said Father Creagan, who was commissioned as a military chaplain in 2013 and knows well the need for Catholic chaplains across the armed services.
“Given the number of Catholic soldiers … having (Father Creagan) there to supply support is really critical,” said Kehtel, who typically attends Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and Pax Christi in Eden Prairie.
The Minnesota Army Guard has 11,000 soldiers and about 25%, or 2,700, are Catholic. Father Creagan is a brigade chaplain serving with the 347 Regional Support Group headquartered in Brooklyn Park. Kehtel’s unit is part of that brigade.
The National Guard is unique because its members are called to serve locally but also globally. Father Creagan served three months in Afghanistan last year and six months in Kosovo in 2015.
“In my experience being sent overseas, I have supported not only Army personnel, but also Catholics from the other services and even partner nations with NATO,” Father Creagan told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The priest comes from a military family that includes his late father’s service in the Air Force, an uncle who retired as a four-star general in the Air Force and three great-uncles who served in World War II.
While in Afghanistan to support soldiers on five bases, Father Creagan met Army Capt. Thomas Batina, who attended St. Anne Parish in Hamel, Minnesota, and graduated from Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota.
The encounter was faith-filled and provided a little insight as to why he was so far from home — to serve someone from the archdiocese, as well as all the others there, Father Creagan said.
“A soldier sat next to me on the bench, and to start conversation I said, ‘Where are you from?’” Father Creagan said. “He said, ‘I am from the Twin Cities.’“
In a few moments, Father Creagan realized he knew Batina’s parish, school and even his confirmation sponsor. And Batina had a request: a way to participate in eucharistic adoration.
“I went back to the main base chapel where I was stationed and was grateful to find a 6-inch monstrance in storage,” Father Creagan said. “The next time I flew to his forward operating base we had a 30-minute period of adoration with Catholic soldiers representing three nations.”
With mandatory retirement age generally 60 in the military, Father Creagan said he is determined to serve until there are two Catholic chaplains in the Minnesota Army Guard, “or as long as my knees hold out and I can pass the physical training test!”
For priests who might consider such an assignment, he encourages each to “bring it to prayer, visit with a spiritual director, inquire with the archbishop and not be afraid. If God is calling, he will provide.”