by Katie Peterson
Special to The Leaven
LEAVENWORTH — Chaplain (Maj.) Jason Hesseling spent eight years as a priest in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, with no doubt that he was doing what God had called him to do.
The product of a strong Catholic upbringing and Catholic education from grade school through college, he felt “like this is where God was calling me.”
“Priests that I had always been around seemed to have a secret — like a joy — no matter what was going on in their lives,” said Father Hesseling.
“As I would get to know them beyond just seeing them up there on Sunday, seeing them day to day, every day in high school and college, you get to see them in a different way,” he continued. “They just radiated a certain kind of joy that I found attractive.”
He was six years into his priesthood, and pastor of his first parish, when he realized that God might be calling him to something even more.
“While I was in seminary, I was 100 percent against military service. . . . But I had a whole bunch of folks in my parish deployed to Iraq as part of the Wisconsin [Army] National Guard,” he said. “They spent 12 months over there and thankfully everybody came back.”
Then, while at a restaurant with one of the returning veterans, Father Hesseling got advice that changed everything.
“I was complaining about the frustrations of parish life and battling with the parish council about what color to paint the church, and he basically slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘Father, paint the blankety-blank church and then go do something important,’” Father Hesseling recalled. “Then later, he talked to me about how he and his unit — they spent 12 months in Iraq digging up [improvised explosive devices]. They were part of a route clearance patrol, and, for 12 months, they had seen a priest four times.
“They were going out every single day, they were getting shot at every single day. People were getting hurt. Other people were getting killed, and they only had access to the sacraments four times,” he continued. “Here I am, I’m complaining about parish council and should the church be beige or off-white, so he kind of put things into perspective for me that this is where God needs me to serve more.”
Father Hesseling commissioned into the Army’s chaplain corps in 2008. He has since served at Fort Richardson, Alaska; Grafenwoehr, Germany; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington. In his various assignments, he has served as pastor of several Catholic military communities as well as worked to recruit Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests for the U.S. Army.
He has deployed to Afghanistan four times.
Now, he’s serving as a religious support integrator for the Mission Command Center of Excellence and the pastor of the Catholic community — the former St. Ignatius Chapel — on Fort Leavenworth.
Father Hesseling said being a priest in the Army has changed a lot of his former ways of how he viewed things.
“It has shown me how complex life is and [how] messy sometimes life is. As a young priest, I always looked at the world in a very black- or-white, right-or-wrong framework and lens,” he explained. “Being in the military has exposed me to places and people and situations that I never would have had to deal with, but God certainly is infused in all that.
“The soldier that is struggling with something that he did downrange — God is present in that. The family that is dealing with a loss back here at home — God is present there as well. It is trying to figure out how to give voice to that and help families navigate through the messiness and, a lot of times, the gray zones of life.”
God is present during the “messiness” of restrictions that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic, too, he said, as in-person services continue on.
“This is what the church does. People have the right to the sacraments,” he said. “We can forgo that right for public health reasons, but this is how we experience Christ and how God’s grace comes into our life. We can’t not do that or ever take that for granted.”