A life lived fully and faithfully
CAMP RIPLEY--Long before rising to the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John W. Vessey Jr. began his military career fighting side-by-side with other soldiers in North Africa during World War II.
CAMP RIPLEY-Long before rising to the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John W. Vessey Jr. began his military career fighting side-by-side with other soldiers in North Africa during World War II.
Thursday, he was laid to rest among his fellow soldiers in the Camp Ripley State Veterans Cemetery near Camp Ripley in Little Falls. The Minneapolis native died at 94 of natural causes at his North Oaks home on Aug. 18.
Usually, service members who achieve the rank and accolades Vessey did are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, said Staff Sgt. Anthony Housey, Camp Ripley public affairs, following the religious service. Instead, Vessey wanted to be buried near his wife, Avis, who died in April 2015 and is buried at the Camp Ripley State Veterans Cemetery.
"Few officers are buried among the troops," Housey said.
A horse-drawn caisson procession brought Vessey to and from the chapel. Flags lined the procession route and lightly flapped in the wind as the procession passed. Pallbearers representing the different branches of the military carried Vessey's casket, while members of his family served as honorary pallbearers. About 100 members of the military and the public attended the service.
The service Thursday at the chapel at Camp Ripley was led by Chaplain John Morris of the Army National Guard and featured a stirring message from the Rev. Ludwell Brown. At the start of the service, Morris jokingly encouraged the Lutherans in attendance to move to the front of the chapel and to feel free to smile, as Vessey had "one heck of a sense of humor."
Brown worked closely with Vessey when he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is close friend of the Vessey family. Brown shared insight into who Vessey was and what he valued. Vessey would "zip around" Fort Lesley J. McNair near Washington, D.C. in an orange Volkswagen Beetle, he said, and deeply loved his wife and family.
While Vessey's day job involved coordinating the greatest military defense in the world, when he came home to his wife and family, it was easy to "see the connection between Gen. Vessey and Mrs. Vessey." Brown thanked God for the chance to be around a "mighty leader" who knew "in Christ, all things are possible."
Vessey didn't just read his Bible during breakfast every morning, Brown said, he lived the messages he was reading.
"It's one thing to work for somebody and feel it's your duty to work," Brown said. "But it's another thing to extract something from somebody that's doing something right, and share it with folks you come in contact with."
Psalms 1 best describes Vessey, Brown said, which is why he concluded his message with a powerful recitation of those six verses. Building to a crescendo, he said, "Gen. Vessey stood upon the word of God."
Commenting on the emotional tenor of Brown's remarks, Morris joked, "Lutherans, that's how they preach in Virginia." With Vessey gone, Morris said he was asking himself what to do, now that he can't visit with Vessey and hear about his experiences and share his wisdom.
"What are we going to do to fill that hole?" Morris asked.
Vessey would have chastised those in attendance for having two funeral services in his honor, Morris said, as there were services for Vessey Wednesday at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. However, it's a fitting tribute to a man who exemplified commitment, loyalty and honor, he said.
"That's the man we're remembering today and he's challenging us from the grave to be those things," Morris said.
Vessey was a giant who can teach us three things, Morris said: to live life fully, to live life with faith and to live life with hope. After surviving dark days as a member of the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa during World War II, "I have a sense that (Vessey) had a sense that every day was a gift," Morris said.
"And it was your choice to make the most of it," Morris said. "Because life could end suddenly, swiftly and violently."
Vessey's close experiences in combat meant he had a very real sense of death, Morris said, and realized death was a certainty. Because of this, his faith was a "combat-tested, graduate-level, experiential faith rooted in Scripture," he said.
Vessey always stayed positive and could always see a way through any situation, despite the odds stacked against him, Morris said. He always had hope, which was fueled by his love of God, Morris said.
Vessey was one of the last members of "The Greatest Generation," who struggled through the Great Depression and then went on to fight in World War II, Morris said. Those soldiers didn't ask to fight, but they were called to serve their country and they answered the call, he said.
"Live your life fully, live it faithfully and live it with hope," Morris said. "Because great men and great women gave it all so you and I could have all we have."
Vessey was born June 9, 1922, in Minneapolis and enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard at 16 as a motorcycle rider, before graduating from high school.
He was in the 34th Infantry Division during World War II in North Africa and was later sent to Korea and Germany. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for defending a military base in Vietnam in March 1967.
Vessey became the 10th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior ranking members of the U.S. armed forces. He was appointed to his post by President Ronald Reagan.
During his tenure from 1982 to 1985, there was an increased emphasis on defense in space among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believing it possible to defend against nuclear weapons from space within the next century. Reagan seized on the idea and U.S. Space Command was launched in September 1985.
Vessey retired in 1985 and went on to serve under presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as a special emissary to Vietnam, where he led U.S. efforts to account for military personnel listed as missing in action in Vietnam. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992.