Military service helped priest 'grow up'

1970s and now

There's nothing like aimed shots from a zeroed-in, Soviet-made sniper rifle cracking over your head or auguring into the sand around you to clear one's mind on staying alive.

- CNS/NCR

That's how Peter Smith reacted in 1976 when his South African army rifle platoon engaged insurgents in northern Namibia. 'There's nothing like the possibility of sudden death to help one focus on what's really important,' said the former infantryman who, at age 18, saw the opportunities of life before him and death an infinity away. 'The experience really helped my self-confidence, and it helped me grow.'

Now 55, Fr Peter Smith, vicar-general of the Portland archdiocese, is the Number 2 official of the Catholic church in western Oregon. The priest, who also is moderator of the curia, said he would not wish to repeat his wartime experiences in Southern Africa but he is grateful he had them. 'God used those experiences to give me direction in my life,' said the canon lawyer, who lives in community with two other priests and a religious brother in north Portland. He is a member of the Brotherhood of the People of Praise.

'When God intervened in my life, I was able to see it,' he told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland's archdiocesan newspaper.

He spent almost six months in the bush along Namibia's northern border with Angola, where Soviet- and Cuban-backed insurgents of the Namibian independence-seeking South West Africa People's Organization operated out of sanctuaries in Angola provided by the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.

His unit operated in the flat savannah, bush-covered desert, setting up ambushes or overturning ambushes sprung on them in so-called ''shoot and scoot' small unit skirmishes. The weather stayed in the 100-degree zone many days and was either hot, dry and dusty or hot, wet and muddy, depending on the seasonal monsoons. The South African troops were better trained than the opposition, but mines and booby traps took a toll on the troops.

FULL STORY Military service helped priest 'grow up'

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