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updated 04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 01:00AM

The situation was simple and critical: Early on a summer morning in 1966, units of the 502nd Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, were in danger of being overrun by North Vietnamese near Dak To, South Vietnam. In desperation the company commander called in a napalm strike, even though it meant that some of his own men might be injured by the incendiary bombs. "A few people were burned," recalls Bruno Masotti, then a Roman Catholic chaplain assigned to the 101st. "But the napalm saved everyone." Two and a half hours later, in a camp near the battleground, Masotti held an impromptu Mass of thanksgiving (right, captured by photographer Larry Burrows), one of nearly 1,000 Masses he offered during a year of very active duty in Vietnam.

"Sunday was never Sunday," says Masotti, a burly, energetic man who before enlisting in 1963 had grown bored with life as a teacher at a college run by St. Bernard's Abbey in Cullman, Ala. When the church called for chaplain volunteers, Masotti signed up, eventually enrolling in paratrooper school. Longing to be assigned "where I was needed, where people got hurt," he requested duty in Vietnam.

He saw action almost at once. When the white vestments he wore for his first open-air Mass drew enemy fire, he switched to a camouflage robe sewn from parachute cloth. "The 101st was a reaction force, always moving around," says Masotti. "I felt like I was married to a damn helicopter." A typical day started "out in the jungle. You'd have Mass or hear confessions, whatever was necessary. The troops were always happy to have Mass. You don't have to get shot at very much to know that there is something besides this." Two priests accompanied the troops, one in the field, the other at an aid station to comfort the wounded and administer last rites. "A lot of the wounded men who were going to make it would become more afraid if they saw me coming because they thought it meant they were dying," says Masotti, who always hastened to reassure them. When they didn't make it, he often wrote to their parents. "If I knew the boy, I would write that he had died fighting for something worthwhile and that, most important, he had received the last sacraments or general absolution. I told them I would remember him in my prayers and that I shared their ache, their loss." When soldiers asked why a buddy had been killed and they had been spared, says Masotti, "I'd say, 'Damn, I don't know the answer. I'm not God. There is probably a reason because nothing happens without a reason. But you are living, so dammit, start living, start doing. You can't dwell on it.' "

He could speak from experience. Shortly before Masotti's arrival in Vietnam in 1965, his younger brother, Jim, an Army captain, died in a helicopter accident. Later during Masotti's tour, the 101st's other priest, Father William Barragy, and 22 others were killed in another helicopter crash. Masotti, whose brand of Catholicism is both passionate and pragmatic, lives by the advice he gave a chaplain's assistant who was devastated by Barragy's death: "I assured him there was no shame in crying and told him we are better people for having known those men. But we have a job to do, and our job is to continue, to go on."

After his tour, Masotti's Benedictine superiors ordered him to return to the abbey. Reluctantly he obeyed. In Vietnam he had felt "something special—total surrender of self," a feeling he believed would be hard to recapture teaching some "piddly-ass" class in Cullman. (At the abbey, Masotti's robust language sometimes raised eyebrows: "I was not," he admits, "given to external appearances.")

There was another, more important, difficulty: Shortly after his return, he met and fell in love with a nurse, Patti Maxwell. After a year of soul-searching in the monastery, Masotti left the priesthood, and in August 1968 the couple were married in a Lutheran ceremony. His mother, he says, didn't speak to him for three years.

Now Bruno, Patti and their three children—Alex (Patti's son from an earlier relationship), John and Mari—live in Lafayette, La. where Masotti is director of the International Student Office at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He's happy that his job entails counseling and working with young people, but he misses his former calling. "If priests could be married," he says, "I'd go back." He is still deeply religious: John and Mari attend parochial schools, and a crucifix, framed Bible passages and a painting of Masotti in his clerical robe decorate the family's neat red-brick home.

Some of his feelings about Vietnam, however, have changed. At the time, he says, "I thought our mission was peace. It looked as though we were developing a defense completely around Red China. That's how I related to it." But he also regards the war as a tragic waste. "Very fine young men got killed over there, looking back, for no damn reason at all. It wasn't a case of holding ground, or taking a sector and securing it. It was a case of moving around, losing 35 men to take a section of rice paddy, then coming back again three weeks later to take it again and lose 20 more." But Masotti is certain that his own role in the war was worthwhile. "I would offer Mass, hear confessions, console, give last rites, everything," he says. "It was before you every day. I think I fulfilled my priesthood in Vietnam."

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