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For priest, move to accept Fort Hood post was calling

Gave last rites to a majority of the victims

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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The Rev. Edward McCabe didn’t want to go to Fort Hood when the assignment came for the Army Reserves captain to become senior Catholic chaplain at the sprawling military post.

McCabe, a priest from Milton attached to the Archdiocese of Boston, had lived around water all his life, and a land-locked post in Texas offered no appeal.

But, he said, something called him to accept the post.

Two months after he arrived, when he was needed to pray for those felled by a gunman, McCabe came to understand why Fort Hood was where he needed to be.

After Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly went on a shooting rampage that left 13 dead and many more wounded, McCabe provided last rites to soldiers dying of gunshot wounds and prayed over the bodies of nine more who lay slain in a building on the post.

“In retrospect, I know why I came here,’’ McCabe said by phone last night from Texas, his voice hoarse, and nearly gone.

“A priest has to believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding you. I was led by the Spirit, and here I am,’’ he said.

McCabe, a 30-year Army reservist who declined to give his age, was born in Boston and attended St. John’s Seminary. He was ordained in 1968, and for more than 10 years, he ministered at parishes in Boston, Hull, and Burlington, until he was called into active military service. He joined the US Army Reserves in the 1970s and has served around the world, including in Miami, Hawaii, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday, McCabe was 10 minutes into a weekly chaplains’ meeting when reports came in about a gunman on the loose. He rushed to the post hospital, where a short time later, McCabe said, one of the wounded female soldiers died.

“It was chaos, because we had 15 to 18 wounded in and medical people trying to run around dealing with all of these injured, but I was able to bless her and anoint her,’’ he said.

An hour later, McCabe was taken to the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Center, where the attack was centered. “I was able to enter the building,’’ he said. “In there, on the floor, there were nine dead. I was able to say some prayers over the dead.’’

Then, he was taken to an off-post hospital to anoint another soldier, minutes before he died from three chest wounds.

Then, it was back to the post to consult with military and religious leaders on how to deal with the living - both the physically injured and those touched emotionally by the death and violence. McCabe was on duty until about 3 a.m. Friday.

“Now we’re in healing mode, comforting soldiers who lost members of their units and making funeral arrangements,’’ he said. Several religious services have been held, and McCabe said Mass yesterday.

Chaplains are plentiful in the military and in police and fire departments across the country. A soldier on duty at Fort Hood said by phone yesterday that the post has dozens of clergy. Fort Hood had more than 33,000 residents in the 2000 Census. On such a sizable post, chaplains handle all matters of faith, including soldiers’ weddings and baptisms for their children.

Of the 13 people who died, McCabe blessed 11 of them.

“Chaplains are very important,’’ said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Almarah Belk, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. “For a lot of people, their faith guides them through their lives.’’

Belk underscored the importance of religious leaders in the military, both at home and abroad on deployments.

“You can see the importance of it from both sides,’’ she said. “You have a family at home on base that will follow their faith, and it helps them get through the trials and tribulations of having a loved one deployed. On the flip side of that, in our deployed locations, almost as quickly as you will see a chow hall go up you will see a facility of some kind, even if it’s just a tent with a dirt floor, dedicated to worship.’’

McCabe agreed.

“Absolutely it does make a difference,’’ he said. “We pray with them, bless them, and give them guidance. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything. Just make eye contact, smile, tap them on the shoulder, and try to encourage them to hang in there. Even in darkness, the stars still shine.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.