Saint Michael the Archangel, Defend us in battle; Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, By the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits Who wander though the world for the ruin of souls, Amen.
There is a war casualty that will not make its way into any DoD announcement of US service personnel. The death occurred fourteen months ago, and I will admit that I didn’t hear about it for several months. And when I did, I was deeply saddened but cannot truthfully say I was surprised.
I first met CDR Dennis Rocheford in 1990, not long after he had joined the Navy. He arrived to be the new Recruit Depot Chaplain at Parris Island, where I was stationed as a Series Commander training recruits. Tall and lanky, he looked born to wear the Marine Alphas I first saw him in. And indeed he was. At a time and place where almost nobody wore more than one or two ribbons, Father Rocheford had a chest full. And those he wore had gravitas. Two Purple Hearts, from a VC bullet through his side, and mortar fragments to his chin and face. A Bronze Star. Combat Action Ribbon. The story of this handsome, friendly, fiercely faithful new Chaplain spread quickly. He had been Ray “E-tool” Smith’s radio operator as a Lance Corporal on Hill 881 at Khe Sanh with Alpha Company, 1st Marines, and had survived the fierce fighting in Hue City. When he was asked how he came to join the Navy as a Chaplain, he told us that, after surviving Vietnam, he promised God he would not waste his life.
Father was from Worcester, MA, not far from where I grew up, the city where I attended college. I immediately struck up a friendship with this gentle man of immense strength. I admired the way he ministered to recruits who sought his counsel. He would not hesitate to tell those whom he knew to be “skylarking” to quit bellyaching and get back to their platoons, while providing spiritual guidance to those whom truly were in need. Father Rocheford would show up at any and all PT events, and at 40 (which seemed OLD then, but somehow not so much now that I am 46) displayed his remarkable physical condition by always leading the events from the front.
When we had a chance to chat, he would talk with me about home, and mutual places and acquaintances, of which there were surprisingly many. We also discussed faith, and why I was no longer attending Mass (I am Catholic). To my surprise and relief, instead of reading from the “script”, he listened. (My hometown was the site of very serious abuses by a number of Priests in the 1970s. Some of my friends and people I knew were victims who’d had their lives destroyed.) I was thrilled to have Father Rocheford preside over my wedding in 1992. He made a very good impression on my parents, who talked of him in the years that followed quite often, and always in glowing terms.
Following Parris Island, I saw Father Rocheford on occasion at Camp Lejeune, where he was the Chaplain of 3rd Bn 8th Marines, and then 26th MEU. Even after months or years, he was able to make me feel as if we were picking up a conversation from hours or minutes before, and always had time for a smile, a handshake, and inquiry about myself, my life, my parents, and my Marines.
When I left active duty and joined the 25th Marines headquartered in Worcester, MA., whom do I see on my first Sunday drill but Father Dennis Rocheford. He had transitioned to the Reserves as well, and was our Regimental Chaplain. I found that he was very popular with the unit of tough, largely Catholic Officers and Marines of the Regiment. There were, it seemed, legion Marines who had served with Fr. Rocheford at 3/8, on 26th MEU, and even at Parris Island. His services in the end-hallway classroom were always packed, but I still found standing room in the back. After three years I transferred to 3rd Bn 14th Marines in Philadelphia, but on occasion would attend planning conferences at 25th Marines, where Father Rocheford always greeted me with a smile and a hearty handshake.
When I deployed to Iraq’s volatile Anbar Province in 2004, the 1st Marine Division Chaplain was Father Bill Devine, another Northeast boy, who knew Dennis Rocheford well. Father Devine spoke often of Dennis, and unsurprisingly professed the utmost of respect and admiration for him.
I had heard in 2007 that Father Rocheford had gone to Iraq as the Chaplain of II MEF, to Al Anbar and Ramadi. As was the case with the superb Father Devine, I knew the spiritual welfare of the Marines was in the best of hands. And it was. Nevertheless, Father Rocheford was remembered on prayer lists for both his personal safety and the incredibly demanding responsibility he bore.
The last time I saw Father Rocheford was a chance meeting in a pub in Worcester. It was about a year after the death of my father, July of 2009. He greeted me warmly, and told me he had seen my Dad’s obituary, and offered his deep condolences. We talked of my time in Iraq, and his time as well. Of Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Qa’im, Hadithah, and the names of places that mean nothing to anyone who was not there. But Dennis’s eyes, once so shining with his faith and his strength, were sad. Almost as if he were mourning as he recalled a fond memory. He was troubled. I remember thinking as we said our goodbyes, who would minister to him? This brave and stalwart soul who knows both the killing and healing side of combat, who daily, must steady the souls of young men whose faith has been shaken? What answers has he for the Lance Corporal whose best friend disappears in an instant of fire and smoke, or lies bleeding and praying on a filthy street while his comrades look on helplessly? If anything, I departed his company with a deeper admiration than ever before, and a profound sadness at what I suspected was a tortured soul.
When I heard of Father Rocheford’s passing, and finding that he’d taken his own life, my sadness could not prevent me from thinking of the character of Father Karras in the final scenes of The Exorcist, who takes the Devil into his own body in order to save the young girl. It seemed to me that Father Rocheford had performed small exorcisms on hundreds, perhaps thousands of young Marines and Sailors, releasing the demons that months and years of combat had placed in their souls. Some small part of each of those demons Father Rocheford took inside himself. There, with his own demons of death and fear and pain from combat with the enemy, they pressed a mighty weight on his soul. Unlike Hollywood, real life teaches us time and again that there are limits to what even the strongest of us can endure. On that bright Wednesday morning, September 9th, 2009, Father Rocheford reached his.
“Greater love hath no man, that he should give up his life for his friend.”
The Department of Defense announced the death of a Sailor and a Vietnam Marine who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Commander Dennis Rocheford, USNR, 60, of Worcester, Massachusetts, died September 9th, 2009 of wounds, visible and invisible, received in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, and in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, while supporting Marines and Sailors from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
My apologies to the reader, as the first person pronoun is used in this post perhaps too often. Rest assured, however, that there are hundreds of Marines and Sailors who would have similar stories about this remarkable and courageous man.
Semper Fidelis. In Pace Requiesca. Father, yours was a life not wasted.