By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

By the time you read this, Philadelphia’s Father Joseph Coffey, in his role as Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Coffey, U.S.N., will be in a place where one would not normally expect sailors to be – land-locked Afghanistan.

He’s there with the Third Marine Air Wing, MWSS 372 (Marine Wing Support Squadron 372). Its 700 officers and men fly and support the Huey and Cobra helicopters that are an integral part of the Marines’ combat mission.

They expect to be deployed for seven months, Father Coffey said in an interview three days before the unit left Camp Pendleton, Calif., where it has been training.

One of the nine children of Roseanita and the late Dr. William Coffey, Father Coffey, 49, entered St. Charles Seminary post-college and after working in Europe for a time. Ordained in 1996, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Katherine of Siena Parish in Northeast Philadelphia.

Because of the severe shortage of Catholic chaplains in the military, Father Coffey asked if he could be released for service with the Navy. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua gave permission provided he first serve in parish ministry for five years, which he did.

“I chose the Navy because my father was in the Navy and so was one of my brothers,” he explained.

“I was anxious to serve, and in the only way a priest can, by offering the sacraments.”

As a chaplain he’s had interesting assignments. He served in Okinawa with the Third Marines, then during Iraqi Freedom served on the Aircraft Carrier “George Washington” in the Persian Gulf.

His next assignment has to be one of the most coveted in the service – he was stationed as chaplain with the Coast Guard boot camp, which trains in Cape May, N.J.

In his spare time he also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania twice; once to the summit and once almost. “Age caught up with me,” he ruefully explained.

In his current assignment, he believes he may be the only Catholic Navy chaplain in Afghanistan. It is an area of severe fighting with American casualties daily.

Father Coffey quotes General Douglas MacArthur, who said, “No one hates war more than a soldier,” and adds, “We always pray for peace.”

Nevertheless, within his unit, “morale is very high; Marines all care for their country and are very dedicated.”

In any case, he takes with him the prayers of his very large family which now includes 46 nieces and nephews, half of whom he baptized himself.

And that’s a cue for all of us. Pray for peace, and pray for all of the men and women in the armed forces who are serving their country in harm’s way.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.