June 20, 2014

His Air Force family gives Bob Bruno a

star-spangled send-off


Looking around, Fr. Kenan Freson says what other civilians are thinking:

 “I’ve never been in a room with so many generals and colonels, and I probably never will again.”

 Pretty overwhelming – but it’s also kind of cool.

 The place is the Falcon Club at the United States Air Force Academy, set against the blue-green backdrop of the Colorado Rockies. The occasion is a retirement dinner marking the departure of Fr. Bob Bruno from the Chaplain Corps. Tomorrow, June 9, is the ceremonial end of a career that has taken Bob from Thule Air

Base in Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle, to the 100-degree heat of Nellis Air Base in southern Nevada; from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to the rarefied atmosphere of the Pentagon. Now, after 34 years, 15 moves and countless adventures, he’s preparing

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Right, Bob Bruno with Jeff Scheeler and Kenan Freson; left, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson holds the retirement orders.

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for life after the Air Force. It’s been quite a ride, he says, “incredible, phenomenal, fast, exciting, exhausting, frustrating, rewarding. It’s been all those things in one, moments of peak joy and incredible sorrow and pain.”

But today is a celebration, a time for speeches and gifts, a chance to say thanks. For visitors unfamiliar with the pomp and gravity of military milestones, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sharing it with Bob are the people to whom he is closest: Relatives from across the country; brothers from St. John the Baptist Province; and those whose lives have intersected his at Air Force bases around the world.

Most people are lucky to have one family. Bob has three. And this weekend, all of them have bragging rights.

“We’re very proud of him,” says cousin Terese Valeriano of Syracuse, N.Y. “He’s served both our God and our country well.”

The highs and lows

Terese and her husband, Phil, are among those sharing the emotional events unfolding as the Air Force summarizes the career of a friar and colonel who has spent more than half of his life in uniform. At 64, Bob is youngish by friar standards, a senior statesman in the military.

To cousins like Dorean Altobano of Westlake Village, Calif., “He’s just Bob.” At friar gatherings, he’s the globe-trotting brother with the exotic resume. Air Force colleagues call him “an icon”, extolling the talent for strategic planning and collaboration that led to the Academy’s ground-breaking Religious Respect program to promote tolerance.

Few of Bob’s relatives have seen the world from his vantage point. Only 1% of Americans have served in a military sworn to support and defend the Constitution. The “peak joy” Bob talks about happens when “you pin a new rank on an officer’s uniform” or pray at graduation before a crowd of 23,000 that includes the Vice President. “There is exhilaration at the opportunity of having to do that,” he says.

 Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler, here with Kenan to represent the friars, visited Bob several years ago in his high-profile assignment as Joint Staff Chaplain at the Pentagon in Washington. Jeff was introduced to Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who insisted, “Call me Mike.” Slightly awed, all Jeff could muster was, “Yes, Admiral.”

The sorrow to which Bob refers comes when “you’re part of a death notification team, about to tell a 23-year-old woman with two children her husband just crashed and is dead. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.” In 1996 when Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s plane went down in Croatia, Bob was with the rescue squad. He remembers “having to climb that mountain, and I’m smelling jet fuel and human flesh incinerated in the explosion. I carried that with me for years and had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

Bob's beloved cat, Bentley, was not forgotten in the going-away gifts


Now he’s ready to begin the first leg of a year-long sabbatical with a renewal program for priests at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. (His last day in the job was June 20, the week after his replacement, Lt. Col. Randall Kitchens, arrived.) “The biggest adjustment?” Bob says. “When I wake up in the morning I’ll no longer put on an Air Force uniform. I’m no longer the lead guy in the Chaplain Corps. The mission will go on without me and do well. That’s gonna be tough, standing aside.”

 What he will miss most, he says, is “the people I’ve been privileged to serve, our airmen and families. It’s been awesome to be priest, pastor and confessor to people who are all committed to living their lives in a cause larger than themselves.” According to a friend, retired Col. Mark Fitgerald, “The Air Force is a small community.” Friendships are forged that last a lifetime.

The VIP section

Bob’s relatives and out-of-town guests have prime seats for the dinner; all are mentioned in an exclusive list whose names are announced as VIPs. Confirming Kenan’s comment, it takes a while to read through the colonels and generals.

Near the front are Bob’s brothers Bennett (accompanied by Marilyn Bianco), and John (with wife Ann) as well as cousins from both coasts. (Older brother Ernest was unable to attend), Seated with them are friends like Joanne McCoy, a secretary and mentor from his first assignment at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, and Josephine Lilley, who grew close to Bob’s mom when she visited him at Nellis. “A lot of people took me under their wing and helped me along and set me up for success,” says Bob, who has tried to do the same.

Others are lovingly remembered. Bob’s dad Ernest, a World War II veteran, died the year his son entered the Air Force. His mother Kathleen was able to see Bob rise in the ranks before her death in 1996. “Typically, I would miss Christmas because I was on duty,” he says. “My birthday is Jan. 25; my mom would keep the tree up and leave all my stuff under the tree so we could celebrate” when he made it home to East Palestine, Ohio. Time with family was sometimes fleeting, always precious.

So Bob built community wherever he went. “I will feel a great loss when he goes,” says Ed Scott, director of the Academy library. “He’s the most wonderful, warm, kind, thoughtful individual, an absolutely marvelous senior chaplain.” Echoing that is Mai Fitzgerald, wife of Mark and an accomplished singer who will cantor at Bob’s retirement ceremony, set in the context of Morning Prayer. “We’re just so glad he could be with us. He’s made a profound difference in so many people’s lives.” Husband Mark agrees. “What makes Bob so good is his absolute sense of what people need and his total commitment to what he does. He is a man of great peace.”

Retired Lt. Col. Regina Aune of San Antonio is one of many decorated heroes in the room. As a flight nurse in Vietnam in 1975, she led a medical team during Operation Babylift. On one Saigon-bound mission, she was seriously injured when the pressure door of a C-5 blew off in an explosion and the plane broke apart at landing. With a fractured leg and broken bones in her foot and back, she helped drag 145 orphans to safety. Regina says that Bob, a friend from way back, was a lifesaver 15 months ago when her husband died. “He was great; his joy is contagious. He emulates St. Francis.”

Looking back

At dinner Bob sits next to his boss, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, Superintendent of the Air Force Academy and a colleague since 2003. In the first of many emotional moments, lights dim for a slide-show history of Bob’s life as a friar, a priest, a chaplain. The poignant soundtrack of rising and fading trumpets, mixed with images of Bob baptizing babies, celebrating Mass, posing with family, suiting up for a flight and greeting wounded warriors, leaves him visibly moved. The Superintendent gives him a comforting pat on the shoulder.

“We’re closing out one monumental career,” she says, setting the tone for the presentation of gifts. “We have a personage who’s greater than one installation in the Air Force….Bob Bruno has meant so much to our nation, our Academy. For those of you who have cared about Bob lo these many years, you are part of his success.” Her meaning is not lost on Bob’s brothers, who are intently clicking and panning cameras to capture every second.

Among Bob’s going-away presents are a commemorative plate with the seal of the Chaplain Corps and a plaque embossed with an image of the circular staircase from the campus library. A tribute from retired Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, former Joints Chiefs Chairman, reads in part: “Our Armed Forces in this great nation are better because of you.”

The gift from the staff of the Chaplain Corps is a traditional military shadow box, a triangular display case for service medals and ribbons. A folded flag occupies the top niche – but it’s not just any flag. This one draped the casket of Navy veteran Ernest Bruno in 1980 and has accompanied his son around the world. Before it was packed in the shadow box, the flag was sent to Washington, flown over the Capitol, returned to Colorado, flown over the Academy, then carefully folded by an honor guard.

“One word I’d say summarizes how I feel,” Bob says. “That word is ‘gratitude’…. grateful to God for the gift of life, the call to ministry and priesthood, grateful to my gutsy grandparents who wanted a better life for the children and grandchildren” and left Italy for America. “There is a German saying, ‘Those who live in the Lord never see each other for the last time.’ Whether here or beyond, it has been a privilege serving in the Chaplain Corps.”

Right person, right place


From Bob's "awesome" staff: TSgt. Cecilia Toomey, SSgt. Max Guin and SSgt. Jonathan Velazquez

The next day Bob’s family, instructed to arrive early, files past an honor guard at the Academy’s Cadet Chapel. They are led to the choir loft for a personal meeting with the Superintendent, who outlines a retirement program that will begin with Morning Prayer led by Auxiliary Bishop Richard Higgins, Vicar for Veterans Affairs at the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA in Washington, D.C. It will include a reading from Bob’s brother Bennett, General Intercessions by brother John, and remarks by Jeff Scheeler, who admits to slight trepidation at addressing this impressive crowd.

Above, a family portrait following the retirement dinner; right, Mai Fitzgerald with her husband, retired Col. Mark Fitzgerald, and grandson Lewis.


The roll call of honored guests starts once friends and family are seated in reserved rows. This time, their names are announced from the pulpit. Mai Fitzgerald’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is so beautiful that no one wants to spoil it by singing along.

Bishop Higgins, who oversees 270 Catholic chaplains in 153 VA Medical Centers, knows Bob well enough to joke that, far from being a simple, humble friar, he is complex and sophisticated, “a legend certainly in his own mind, but in the minds of others as well.” And he knows Bob’s work well enough to say, “In his own wonderful way, the good Lord picks the right people for the right place at the right time. Bob Bruno is one such.”

Lt. Gen. Johnson puts Bob’s service in perspective, calling him “a person of consequence” and “a leader in the Air Force across all missions.” She reviews Bob’s career as “Father, Chaplain, Colonel”, and the strengths he brought to his role at the Pentagon. “Because he sees beyond tangible limits, he made sure detainees at Guantanamo Bay had chaplain support. It was the right

thing to do.” She cites performance reviews that attest, “He has the strength of his convictions.” And she agrees with the assessment of his former boss, Admiral Mullen, who said, “He has my unequivocal trust and he’s the best chaplain I’ve ever served with in my career.”

Making it official

The retirement segment is steeped in Air Force tradition. The audience rises as the citation is read for the Legion of Merit Award, and the Superintendent pins it to Bob’s uniform. There is a reading of the retirement orders – “By order of the Secretary of the Air Force, effective 31 August, you are relieved of active duty” – and the presentation of certificates from the Air Force Chief of Staff, Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama and others.

Jeff comes forward to congratulate Bob on behalf of the friars. “It’s certainly clear you have earned the respect, admiration and affection of your peers, your superiors and subordinates,” he says. “I’d like to think that your effectiveness as a leader is due in part to your Franciscan training.” There is laughter. “I think your leadership has been formed by Franciscan values and Franciscan spirit….You certainly have lived more than most of us our Franciscan vow of itinerary.” More laughter. “For years you’ve been known by many titles….We friars are also very happy that you carry the title of friar and that you are our brother. You have represented us so well, and your Franciscan community is immensely proud to endorse you in your continuing service on behalf of the Gospel. You have given yourself and served with dignity. We could not be more proud.”

Jeff attaches the official retirement pin to Bob’s lapel, and he is introduced as, “Chaplain, Col. Robert Bruno, United States Air Force, Retired.”

When it’s his turn to speak, Bob confesses, “I learned a long time ago I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer….how I’ve accomplished this is a leadership of collaboration.” He recognizes his staff, “the most awesome team in the Air Force in the United States. Nothing happens apart from a team. Nobody does things on their own.”

He thanks his family and friends for being here. “This is all brand new to them,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve been to over the years, and all of a sudden, it’s yours.”

Following a reception in the Academy’s Arnold Hall Ballroom, Jeff and Kenan head outdoors with other guests for photos which, Bob insists, must be taken with mountains in the background. There is much scrambling – “Now take one with this camera” – as they enter and exit the photo frame.  Finally they assemble for a group shot that dissolves into giddiness before they part ways, vowing to stay in touch.

“I was thinking of how very proud I was to be his cousin,” says Dorean, “how proud his mom and dad would be. I thought, he’s leaving the Air Force, but he’s still ours."

A short course in philosophy

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

Do you find philosophy obfuscating?ᅠ Well, here is a book that is enlightening, lucid and readable, filled with modern examples and implications.ᅠ While I did not excel as a student of philosophy, despite the best of teachers, e.g., Fr. Paul Desch, as I read this book I found myself saying “ah huh, yeah, OK, now I get it”.ᅠ Perhaps it’s the wisdom of old age (?), or just the fact that the book is well-written.ᅠ Nonetheless the author, after giving a short

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course on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, traces their influence on subsequent generations of philosophers, teachers, mathematicians, scientists and theologians down through the centuries in Western civilization.ᅠ It is an illuminating historical journey that has opened for me new insights and understanding on how we got where we are.ᅠ It is a worthy read that merits your thought and time.

– Fr. Michael Chowning, OFM

Implementing the JPIC proposal


At the very first Duns Scotus Friary chapter, after the big one at St. Meinrad, Br. Michael Radomski, Fr. Alex Kratz and I spent time discussing the recently passed JPIC proposal.  What two new ecologically preferable practices could we undertake as a friary, we wondered? Along with Song and Spirit we already compost and recycle.  We do our best to remember to bring reusable shopping bags when going to the market.  And we only purchase and use CFL light bulbs.

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Well, after a bit of quixotic dialogue, and yes, we discussed the possibility of windmills, we settled on a couple of somewhat less ambitious initiatives. You see, Michigan is one of the states in the country belonging to a network called “Interfaith Power & Light” whose mission is: “Promoting energy efficiency in faith communities through education, advocacy and action.” And so it was decided that our first new initiative would be to pay the annual fee of $50 and become an active member of the Michigan chapter!

By simply doing this we will now be receiving relevant newsletters, e-mails, “how to” DVDs, free admission to workshops as well as discounted access to a variety of local, eco-friendly vendors and manufacturers! Not wanting to let ourselves “off the hook” too quickly, however, we decided that our second “new” initiative would be to only purchase household cleaning supplies and paper products from the vendors recommended by the organization that we were now cardholding, dues-paying members of!

Oh, by the way, should we ever consider installing windmills or, for that matter, roof-top solar panels here at 2599 Harvard Road, “Michigan Interfaith Power & Light” says they’ll be there to help!

Today’s first reading spoke of Elijah being taken up “in a whirlwind.”ᅠ I feel like I have been caught up in a whirlwind, too.ᅠ At the end of Chapter, we began a rather discombobulated Congressus, schedule-wise.ᅠ Due to previous commitments of those elected, we held the Congressus on various days over a week and a half.ᅠ In fact, because there were still some loose ends, we did not officially close the congress until lunch after Fr. Richard Goodin’s ordination!ᅠ In addition to the ordination festivities, I also participated in the departure ceremony at St. Mary of Lourdes in Metamora, Ill., and Fr. Bob Bruno’s military retirement at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.ᅠ This week the Council met with the boards of our Sponsored Ministries.ᅠ This weekend I will speaking for the missions at three parishes north of Dayton, Ohio.ᅠ I am not complaining; we are all busy and I would rather be busy than bored, but I am looking forward to some down time after the 4th of July. I remember our Visitator, Fr. Francisco, telling us how important it is to “push the pause button” every once in a while.ᅠ I’m ready and willing!ᅠ I hope the summer will provide each and all of us with some time for rest, renewal, and relaxation.ᅠ Happy summer!

— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM

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