Chaplain keeps family tradition going at Fort Sill
October 25, 2012
By Ben Sherman
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Many families have members who served in the military over several generations. Their family trees span the decades, where they often have seen action in many wars and famous battles throughout time.
Fort Sill's newest Catholic Garrison Chaplain (Maj.) James O'Neal knows exactly what that feels like. His family members have served in the Army, and other military branches for more than 100 years. And he is also the fourth generation of the O'Neal family to serve at Fort Sill. The Cannoneer recently sat down with O'Neal and talked about his family history.
Cannoneer: Who was the first member of your family that was posted here?
O'Neal: "The first of my family to come to Fort Sill was James Robert O'Neal, my great uncle. He was a member of the Alabama National Guard and was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Field Artillery branch here and trained to be a forward observer. He went to the Mexican border with the U.S. Army under Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing to fight against Pancho Villa in 1916."
Cannoneer: Did he serve under Pershing during World War One?
O'Neal: "He was part of the American Expeditionary Forces that Pershing took to France and again he served as a forward observer. And from what we have uncovered through research, he was at the battle of Chateau-Thierry in 1918 in France. He came back to the U.S. as a captain, and became the Commandant of the Georgia Military Academy."
Cannoneer: Who was the next family member that came to Fort Sill?
O'Neal: "James Elliott O'Neal, Jr. my uncle. He came to Fort Sill in the 1930s. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in Field Artillery, again as a forward observer. He was transferred to headquarters battery of the 87th Field Artillery Battalion, which was part of the First Army assigned to VII Corps. The 87th was a mechanized field artillery unit and his battalion landed in France on Utah beach on June 8,1944, shortly after D-Day. Later in the year he was assigned as a forward observe with the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge. He was promoted to first lieutenant and received the Meritorious Service Medal Award."
Cannoneer: What member of the O'Neal family was stationed here next?
O'Neal: "James Elliott's son, Richard J. O'Neal was next. He went through Basic and Advanced Individual Training here at Fort Sill as an enlisted man. Then he was assigned to a field artillery unit with the Army Reserves. This was during the late '70s or early '80s. I don't know as much about his time here as the others."
Cannoneer: Did your military career start here at Fort Sill?
O'Neal: "No, I got here by a very different path. I originally studied for the priesthood with the Jesuit Fathers in New Orleans for three and a half years, but left to finish my education at the University of Florida. I tried to get into the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Florida, but since I came to Florida in my third year I didn't have enough time left at the university to qualify for ROTC. And because the draft was still going on in 1970, and my number wasn't very high, I joined the Florida National Guard and served with the 53rd maintenance support company. And I stayed in the Guard for the next nine years."
Cannoneer: When did you become a Catholic priest?
O'Neal: "I was ordained a Catholic priest in 1980. During that time I was out of the Guard until I came back into the Florida National Guard in 1985 as a chaplain with a rank of first lieutenant. I did a three-year tour of active duty during the first Gulf war, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, then I went right back into the Guard."
Cannoneer: So you were a National Guard chaplain when 9/11 happened?
O'Neal: "Yes, and the Army began looking for every Catholic priest they could find in the Reserve and National Guard to call them to active duty. And my new bishop asked me if I were going on active duty, because I had asked for permission from the diocese to go. I was in the Guard and I wanted to make a contribution. And I've been on active duty ever since. There are about 100 Catholic priests on active duty and about eleven of us are retired recalls."
Cannoneer: Do people think you are retired, since you are a little older than the average Soldier?
O'Neal: "People think I'm retired and recalled, and I tell them that I have never been retired to be recalled, and I've said by the time I retire I'll be too old to be recalled, and the Army told me don't count on it. And, I just want to stay on duty to get as close to 20 years as possible. And I'm having a good time with these young Soldiers and they get a kick out of these gray hairs that I have. I'm a big guy to begin with so they look when I come in a room and then they see an old guy in uniform and they say 'What's this?' But it's a lot of fun and they get a lot of encouragement from seeing me."
Cannoneer: What did you think when you were told you would be sent to Fort Sill?
O'Neal: I asked to be sent to Kuwait and they sent me to another foreign country -- Fort Sill. I'm happy to be here. And my job as Catholic Garrison Chaplain is to encourage these men and women. Just like the members of my family who have come to Fort Sill, trained in field artillery and then gone around the world to fight wars over the past 100 years, these Soldiers serve our country and defend our freedom. The least I can do is be there for them when they need someone to lift them up or help them in their times of need."