SUN CITY WEST, Ariz. — As a servicemember in the Vietnam War, Bill Ranzinger experienced loss. The deaths of comrades who didn’t make it back from a day’s battle were opportunities to look to God for understanding and strength.
“Your faith became stronger, particularly as a lot of your friends were shot down and killed,” recalled the Sun City Grand resident who served aboard an aircraft carrier in the war more than 50 years ago.
”We probably lost about a third of our air wing. I think when you realized how fragile life is and how important God is in your life, you realize it even more as you lose some of your friends in the service,” he explained following the Diocese of Phoenix’s annual “Red, White and Blue” Mass at Prince of Peace Parish in Sun City West Sunday, Nov. 7.
The annual event recognizes men and women from all military branches and typically falls on a Sunday within days of the national holiday, Nov. 11. The date was originally chosen to honor the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 that signaled the end of World War I. It was first observed in the United States Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the war’s end.
A different church is selected each year. The Diocese did not hold a Mass last year due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
An estimated 400 worshippers attended the Mass at Prince of Peace, a parish whose historically senior population is becoming increasingly infused with young families from growing areas just outside Sun City West. Still, many longtime members are 65 and older and include veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the first Gulf War.
The parish’s Pastor, the Rev. David M. Ostler, called the occasion a “very beautiful and sacred time” and an opportunity to thank, honor and show love to veterans of the parish and elsewhere.
“Being a Catholic should allow all of us — veterans, military, and those who are civilian — to very comfortably in our faith in Christ, love our country,” Fr. Ostler explained.
Mass was opened with a procession of flags from the nation’s service branches — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force, each carried by a uniformed flag-bearer. The Knights of Columbus served as ushers. Readings from the First Book of Kings and the Letter to the Hebrews were followed by the day’s Gospel reading from the Book of St. Mark (12:38-44) — the account of The Widow’s Offering.
In his homily, the Rev. Brian T. Bell used three short stories as examples of faith’s influence on men and women at war.
A lieutenant colonel and chaplain in the Air Force from 1973 through 2002, Fr. Bell retired as pastor from St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Scottsdale in 2019. He now celebrates Mass at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale.
He recalled the “terrible time” of 1979’s Iran hostage crisis and how America did not retaliate militarily.
“We brought our hostages home, we prayed with them, we asked God to forgive, and then we moved on,” he said.
Then came a television image from the Gulf War that Fr. Bell said he would never forget. A Marine sergeant was collecting Iraqi prisoners who had just been captured. At one point, the massive Marine grabbed the hand of each prisoner as they emerged from a hiding place — hungry and weary.
“He gently lifted them up and said, ‘We’re going to take care of you. We’ll feed you, and you’ll be alright,’” Fr. Bell recalled the sergeant saying to the captured enemy soldiers.
“He responded with his heart. It was a beautiful moment,” he said.
Finally, and in perhaps the most dramatic account, Fr. Bell related the story of a group of American soldiers during World War II who were seeking to attend Mass and kept finding nothing but empty church buildings. Eventually, they stumbled across a small church where Mass was celebrated. The GIs were grateful and ventured afterward into the sacristy to thank the priest.
“The next thing they knew, he took off his vestments, and he had a German uniform on,” Fr. Bell recalled. “Can you imagine?”
“The Mass precedes everything and goes everywhere,” he said.
Fr. Bell then thanked the veterans sprinkled throughout the congregation at Prince of Peace. Theirs, he said, is service that comes not with high pay but honor.
“You willingly offer your life out of love for this country. That’s why this morning is so special,” he said.
“We are thanking God for His blessings and the many men and women who continue to serve. May God bless you.”
Afterward, Cmdr. Ranzinger was reminded that service members returning from Vietnam were often treated harshly by Americans. He said over time, those attitudes “have melted away” and that today, “people are so appreciative of your time in the service.”
Other veterans noted the role of God in their lives during life after the military.
Richard Durso of Buckeye, also a Vietnam veteran, said the war left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. A former member of a Navy Seabees mobile construction battalion, Durso also fought with a rifle. He now attends a survivor’s group and said the Veterans Administration has helped with mental support. “But they can’t give you help spiritually. You have to believe in the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have the Holy Spirit, you don’t have anything. The biggest thing is believing in God and the Bible. That’s what it’s all about. Once you conquer that, you can do anything in life.”