Fort Knox, Ky. – At approximately 4 p.m. on August 3rd, 1973, Richard Spencer raised his right hand and recited the oath of an Army Officer after graduating from Jacksonville State University and completing the Army ROTC program.
This newly commissioned lieutenant was heading to Airborne School that afternoon full of excitement. Little did the then 2nd Lt. Spencer know what the next 50 years would hold.
Spencer began serving in the Active Duty Army in January of 1974 as a Military Police Officer.
“My first duty assignment was very unique since I had a college degree, which was very unusual in the 70s – a college degree in law enforcement, the Department of the Army assigned me to Fort McCoy Wisconsin as Provost Marshall,” Spencer said.
From there, Spencer’s Army career took him to Korea before coming back to the states to serve in the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID).
Spencer viewed his occupation as one of service and was inspired to set his sights on a new way to serve – Chaplaincy.
“Initially I was a Military Police Officer, and, as that is a service-oriented type of branch, I also saw Chaplain Corps as another expression of service orientation to help others,” Spencer said. “So, I transitioned from MP to seminary to chaplaincy.
“I have always viewed my life as a life of service,” Spencer said. “As a young teenager Boy Scouts was a way to be a life of service to others, then the military law enforcement, military life and church life.”
Spencer attended Washington Theological Union in Washington D.C. and earned his degree from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.
His new role would require extra faith as he experienced several life altering and potentially fatal events.
“After 34 years, they say a cat has nine lives, I have used all nine of my lives plus, I have been in Iraq five times, I have been to Afghanistan to the war two times, I was inside the Pentagon on 9/11 when the plane crashed into the building and then my rectory church house exploded in March of 2005 and burned,” Spencer said. “My life nine times has been tested, but my faith in God has always been there to support me and protect me.”
Being in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was yet another impactful experience for Spencer.
Not only was Spencer in the building, but his usual office was located where the plane impacted. Thankfully, due to a renovation, all Chaplains had been relocated – originally planned to move back a mere two days after the date of the attack. After9/11, Chaplains were in high demand to support victims and assist with relief efforts.
“It was definitely a difficult moment,” Spencer said. “You arose to the occasion of the demands that required many sleepless days and nights because of the ongoing effort. And so, you are very tired, very exhausted but you know you are doing the right thing of repatriating the remains of those who died…. [it was] very humbling to be participating in that recovery.
After 34 years in the Army, Spencer retired from Active Duty in February of 2014. He now serves as the a Bishop with the Military Archdiocese.
“We at the Roman Catholic Church have the responsibility to service all of our DoD families and members,” Spencer said. “Depart of Defense, Men and women in uniform, their dependents, their spouses but also all of our Department of State embassies around the world. We supply the Roman Catholic Program for those two groups plus our Veterans hospitals and nursing homes.”
The transition wasn’t difficult.
“I am still participating in military activities and military life, but just in a different capacity. I still get to serve our great men and women who wear the uniform as well as our contractors, spouses, and dependents, so not too much has changed except the outside garments.”
Exactly 50 years after receiving his commission, Spencer found himself at Fort Knox, Ky, conducting a field service for Cadets completing Cadet Summer Training – A duty Spencer believes is vital for service members.
“Our troops need spiritual nourishment just as they need physical training, they need military training, they also need spiritual training,” Spencer said. “That is an important resource to sustain and guide them in their decision making.”
“I went to the service today because I am very religious and I find calm and peacefulness going to Mass every Sunday,” Cadet Matthew Keane, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, said.
[Attending Mass] has made a very positive experience, I know I haven’t been able to go every Sunday, but even the times I have been able to go has made my life happier, because out in the field sometimes you can be miserable, but even just the little victories and big victories coming to Mass, makes it all worthwhile.”
Keane’s sentiments are shared by several fellow peers including Cadet Court McElroy, Fordham University, who describes Cadet Summer Training as a trying experience.
“It is the longest I have been in the field. I have had three-day FTXs before, but it has definitely been physically and emotionally challenging, I guess, being outside in the elements for so long,” McElroy said. “The stress of missions when you are in leadership – a lane where there was seven stars worth of Generals watching, was a bit stressful, but all good besides that.
[Mass] is definitely something I look forward to, I have definitely been able to find solace in coming to Mass. It is usually a pause to my weekend, here it breaks up not the monotony of the days but the training every day, every day, every day and then it is a break. You get to reflect on your prayer life, your faith life and your life outside of the Army, in the church.”
Spencer’s advice to Army ROTC Cadets is to “Stay strong, stay steady, take care of your health, take care of one another, and keep your focus on God.”