Progress, then setbacks
Judy McCloskey didn't know Father Tim. But she couldn't get him out of her mind. A military wife and mother of six, she had founded a group called Catholics in the Military to offer aid and comfort to fellow believers. She was haunted by the news that a priest had been critically wounded in combat.
Within days of his arrival at Walter Reed, she drove almost 80 miles from her home in Front Royal, Va., to pray at his bedside.
"I felt blessed being able to be there," she said. "I held his hand. I said, 'Father, if you can hear us and you are aware that we are here, if you can, can you please just move your hand?' And I could feel those fingers move."
She was one of the first of many.
Father Tim began to flex his left hand and open his right eye. Visitors sensed that he was aware of their presence. Within six weeks, he was thumb-wrestling his nephew from his bedside, according to updates on CaringBridge. A few weeks later, visitors reported that he was "able to bless a few people" (if someone held up his hand) and turn a page in his breviary, a prayer book.
But the improvements didn't last. He was plagued by infections, and in and out of surgery. By late summer, virtually all his progress had been wiped out and doctors were running out of options. He was given the sacrament of the sick. His mother remembers telling him: "Tim, if you want to go, we'll understand."
Meanwhile, people kept praying.
A priest who loved to laugh
Few suspected, when he was a kid in Robbinsdale, that Tim Vakoc would grow up to be a priest. The last of Phyllis and Henry Vakoc's three children, he was fun-loving and adventurous. After graduating in 1978 from Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park, he became president of his fraternity at St. Cloud State University, where he studied speech and business. Friends called him "Hollywood" for his stylish look.
When it came to jobs, he once told his mother: "I'm going to try them all, so I'll get experience in everything."
In 1987, he surprised virtually everyone when he entered St. Paul Seminary and joined the Army Reserve almost simultaneously. "I had no idea that he was even thinking on those lines," said his mother, Phyllis, 80, who now lives in Plymouth.
With his gregarious personality, Father Tim reveled in his role as a parish priest, his mother said. But after four years serving congregations in St. Anthony and Eagan, he decided to become a full-time Army chaplain in 1996. He signed up for an extended tour of duty in Germany, and later in Bosnia. In the fall of 2003, just shy of his 44th birthday, he shipped out to Iraq.
His family has no doubt that he believed in his mission. He felt he was ministering not only to the troops, but also to the community. "We've got to help these people," he told his mother. Promoted to major, he insisted on following his troops into danger zones to pray with them and celebrate mass. He was riding in a Humvee on just such a trip on May 29, 2004, when someone heard a cell phone ring, and then a blast.
A bedside congregation
Word spread fast. Friends started an online prayer vigil for the wounded priest. Messages poured into his CaringBridge site from around the world.
Four months later, Father Tim was flown to the Minneapolis VA hospital for its special brain injury program. There, a small congregation of devotees began to form around him. Total strangers were so touched by his story that they asked his family's permission to pray at his bedside.
Linda Louie of Andover was one of them. She had felt an immediate connection when she read a newspaper article about Father Tim, she said. She knew something about being confined to a hospital for long stretches of time; because of a birth defect, her legs were amputated when she was an infant.