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Two Philly-born brothers, both priests and military chaplains, to be buried together in Arlington’s Chaplains Hill

A graveside ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery will mark a reunion of sorts for the Revs. Robert and Frank Brett, brothers who served as military chaplains in Vietnam, and died nearly 50 years apart.

The 1968 funeral of the Rev. Robert Brett.
The 1968 funeral of the Rev. Robert Brett.Read moreImage courtesy of the Archives of the Society of Mary, Atlanta, GA.

The Rev. Francis “Frank” Brett stood at the grave in Arlington National Cemetery to perform a priestly duty and an act of love for a military chaplain killed when an enemy rocket hit his bunker in Vietnam.

Few who chase the title of hero ever achieve it, Brett said, but this man, who wasn’t seeking the accolade when he volunteered for war, deserved it.

The year was 1998, and Brett was eulogizing his younger brother, the Rev. Robert Brett, in a ceremony marking the transfer of his remains to Arlington three decades after his death at age 32.

On Wednesday, the brothers, who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family in Grays Ferry and both became priests and decorated military chaplains, will be reunited in the Virginia cemetery.

The ashes of Frank Brett, who died two years ago at 86, will be placed in the grave with Robert at a 1 p.m. ceremony on Chaplains Hill. The military has not confirmed that they will be the first siblings buried together in that section, reserved mostly for clergy who counsel troops, but their situation is “unique,” according to cemetery spokesperson Timothy J. Lawson.

“When Uncle Frank is finally buried, I will feel like I have completed my duty,” said their nephew, Edward Rouse, who filed the paperwork. He had even helped arrange the long-ago exhumation of Robert’s body from a Bucks County cemetery in a first step to make sure both uncles were buried in Arlington.

For a time, Robert’s interment at the national cemetery had been out of the question. After her son was killed in Vietnam, Margaret Hannigan Brett was angry with the military, and did not want him in a military graveyard. When his body was sent home, she instead had him laid to rest on the grounds of St. Mary’s Manor in Penndel, where he had attended school.

She and her husband, Frank, had raised seven children, including a nephew and a niece, in a rowhouse on 29th Street in South Philadelphia. The couple led a staunchly Catholic household; attendance at Mass two blocks away at St. Gabriel’s Church was mandatory.

Robert and Frank showed early interest in the priesthood.

“I think the example of [their parents’] religious commitment inspired" them, said Rouse, 64, an accountant in Pensacola, Fla., and Marine veteran. “There was a strong sense in the family that people would serve the church and the community.”

Frank, the funny one in the family, enrolled in St. Bernard College in Cullman, Ala., a Benedictine school and seminary. Robert, quiet and studious, attended St. Mary’s Manor, then a high school and seminary run by the Society of Mary.

In 1959, Frank was ordained and settled in Knoxville, Tenn., where he taught at a Catholic high school. Ordained four years later, his younger brother began his ministry in Bedford, Ohio.

Robert also taught high school for several years, but when he heard reports about the horrors of the Vietnam War and the plight of the troops fighting it, he was moved to make a change, and signed up for the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center in Rhode Island.

When he graduated in 1967, he came home for a visit before shipping off to the battlefield. At the going-away party, Rouse recounted, at least one relative pleaded with him, “You’re a priest, you don’t have to go.” Robert replied, “But that’s where I’m needed.

In Vietnam, he was assigned to the 26th Marine Corps regiment at Phu Bai. He counseled troops who were terrified and shaken by war. He led services and performed baptisms and last rites, repeatedly risking his life to do it, said retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Larry McCartney, who was an 18-year-old Marine newly arrived in Vietnam when he met Father Bob.

“He was an encouraging and compassionate man. Very much able to give someone the inner strength to take a deep breath and keep plugging,” said McCartney, 69, of Black Mountain, N.C.

On Feb. 22, 1968, during the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh, Robert crouched in a trench with a group of Marines waiting for a helicopter to take them back to battalion headquarters. He prepared to board, but at the last minute gave up his spot to a Marine who transported mail to the troops. Robert said he would catch the next chopper and headed back to the trench. Moments later, it was hit by a 122-millimeter rocket. He died instantly, along with seven others.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit. A building at the Rhode Island chaplaincy school was named for him.

Within months, Frank, devastated by the death of his brother, decided to give up teaching in Knoxville. He joined the Army to become a chaplain, and eventually volunteered to go to war.

“When Frank went to Vietnam, [his mother] went ballistic,” Rouse said. “But she couldn’t do anything. He was an adult.”

Frank was assigned to the military police and then moved onto the combat field. He served for 11 months and earned honors including a Bronze Star for valor in 1970. All told, he was a chaplain for 30 years — Okinawa and Germany among his posts — until he retired from the military in 1998.

That year, with Margaret Brett dead and unable to object, the family moved Robert’s remains to Arlington.

Soon after, Frank decided that when the time came, he wanted to be buried with his brother, whose grave included enough space for two – usually reserved for a spouse. He returned to ministry in Knoxville for an additional 15 years, and then moved to an advanced-living community where he served the spiritual needs of retired residents like himself.

In December 2017, Frank died of soft-tissue sarcoma, a condition that has been linked to herbicides used in Vietnam. For his funeral, he elected to be dressed, not in his priestly vestments but in his military uniform.

He was cremated, and Rouse kept the ashes in an urn until the day when he would join Robert at Arlington.

The ceremony Wednesday is “a fine testimony,” McCartney said. “Both deserve burial in their own right because of what they did with their lives. But putting them in the same plot speaks volumes.”