Retired Army Gen. John “Jack” W. Vessey Jr. — who served in the military for more than 46 years, including as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, once said “… I’ve flown jet airplanes faster than the speed of sound … I’ve been shot at on four continents; I’ve conferred with and argued with kings and presidents and dictators from many different countries” but “nothing I’ve ever done … has been as exciting and challenging as serving on the [LCMS] Board for Mission Services … trying to help fellow Lutherans take the message of salvation to those who have not yet received that message.”
Vessey died of natural causes Aug. 18 in North Oaks, Minn., surrounded by family, at the age of 94.
A funeral service is planned for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel, Highways 5 and 55, Fort Snelling, Minn., with visitation beginning at noon. Interment will be at 1 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery (Camp Ripley), 15550 Highway 115, Little Falls, Minn.
Vessey, a lifelong Lutheran who had once considered becoming a minister, “was a surprise choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1982,” according to an Aug. 18 story in The New York Times. “Plain-spoken, he had none of the polish of former chairmen, and unlike most of them he had never been a service chief. He had mostly been a combat officer, out of Washington’s limelight. But he was regarded as a leader of proven courage and integrity who inspired confidence.”
He held that post until his retirement from the military in 1985, but continued to serve as a special envoy of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, making numerous visits to Vietnam to find out what happened to the hundreds of Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action since 1975, according to the Times. That service — which led to “breakthrough talks with Hanoi in 1988” and “on-the-ground searches by Pentagon teams that uncovered the remains of about 900 American military personnel,” reported the Times — earned him the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Bush in 1992.
Vessey — who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars — was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Joint Services Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal and the Purple Heart.
He was on the LCMS Board for Mission Services for 11 years, from 1987 to 1998, and led the Synod’s “For the Sake of the Church” campaign, initiated in 1999, which to date has raised $289,652,238 in cash and pledges to benefit the endowments at Concordia University System schools.
“He never strayed from his morals or values or faith, and he was an extraordinary patriot,” said Sarah Vessey Krawczyk of her father, as reported in an Aug. 19 Associated Press story.
In 1985, President Reagan said Vessey “always remembered the soldiers in the ranks; he understood those soldiers are the background of any army. He noticed them, spoke to them, looked out for them. Jack Vessey never forgot what it was like to be an enlisted man, to be just a GI.”
And President Bush, in 1992, called Vessey “the ultimate never-say-die soldier, the last four-star combat veteran of World War II to retire.”
Giving the sermon at Vessey’s funeral — as per the general’s wishes — is his longtime friend, the Rev. Dr. Donald K. Muchow, former U.S. Navy chief of chaplains and two-time chairman of the LCMS Board of Directors.
Muchow called Vessey “a superb follower of Jesus, a husband, a dad and a military leader — a humble servant of God and country.” The two and their wives first met, he recalled, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Falls Church, Va., “when, from a pew in front of us, he turned to greet us.” Their paths crossed over the next three decades at both military and LCMS gatherings, Muchow told Reporter, and Vessey always “elicited the very best from his colleagues.”
“In military circles, we all acclaimed him as a ‘soldier’s soldier’ — and that’s the highest accolade soldiers and military people can give.
“In the church, we all acclaimed him as God’s servant of servants,” he added. “What a gift God gave us in him and his dear family!”
In a 2012 interview for The Lutheran Witness when Vessey was 90, he was still serving his congregation, Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Garrison, Minn., as a member of a committee charged with writing a mission statement and making long-range plans. In that story he references Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession: “It is not only right to serve, but it is a duty for Christians to serve the civil community,” and he encourages “young people today … to consider a bit of service to the nation, whether it is teaching in schools or in the armed forces or what have you. It is an important thing, and you can take your Christian beliefs to that service, making both the service and yourself stronger.”
In his “final words of wisdom” in that story, Vessey says, “Our Lord has given us a few orders: Follow Me. And love your neighbor as yourself. And take the Word to the far reaches of the earth. It’s not ‘If you want to do this, then go ahead.’ There are no alternatives. And that’s an order!”
Vessey’s wife, Avis, died April 18, 2015, at the age of 92. The two were married for 69 years.
Survivors include three children — John William (Alida) Vessey III of Pittsboro, N.C.; Sarah (Skip) Krawczyk of North Oaks, Minn.; and David Christopher (Donna) Vessey of Colorado Springs, Colo.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
For more information about Vessey, visit the General John W. Vessey Jr. Oral History Project — a free resource from Concordia University, St. Paul, Minn. The project, conducted by Dr. Thomas Saylor, offers a collection of taped interviews with Vessey about his life and experiences.
Posted August 19, 2016 / Updated August 22, 2016 (with funeral information) / Updated August 24, 2016 (with comments from the Rev. Dr. Donald Muchow) / Updated August 25, 2016 (with link to Oral History Project)