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Defenders of Freedom

Bert Kozen ‘I was there to support the mission’

Immaculate Conception and St. Luke Church sits on a small hill providing a panoramic view of the Nippenose Valley.

This peaceful, bucolic setting is Father Bert Kozen’s home, a far cry from the war zones where he spent time as a military chaplain.

Kozen served with troops in Iraq and also in Bosnia and Kosovo.

His military service, he said, was a rewarding experience, even if it could be harrowing at times in war zones.

“You are out with the soldiers,” he said. “That’s one thing I liked. Wherever the unit goes, you go with them. It’s one of the things that attracted me.”

Kozen grew up in Williamsport and though he would one day become a priest, he didn’t necessarily see that in his future.

As a youth, his interests were divided among the church, military and music.

He ended up going to the University of Scranton and majoring in music before deciding to go into the priesthood.

“I was ordained in 1982,” he said.

The next year, he said, John J. O’Connor came into Kozen’s life.

O’Connor briefly served as bishop of the Scranton Diocese and was later appointed archbishop of New York and administrator of the Military Vicariate of the United States.

“He asked me if I wanted to be a military chaplain,” Kozen recalled.

Kozen ended up joining the Army National Guard.

For much of his early National Guard duty, he was training.

Aside from the brief Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. military was not heavily involved at that time in overseas skirmishes.

Among his missions was a deployment with Army special forces to Nicaragua to help rebuild infrastructure following natural disasters there.

“I was there supporting the mission as a chaplain,” he said.

He ministered to the troops, performed scripture services and provided counseling among other duties.

Kozen recalled it was good “to get off the bench and get in the game” rather than just spending time training.

But everything changed after Sept. 11, 2001, with the attacks by terrorists against America.

At the time, Kozen was serving as priest in Canton.

Shortly thereafter, he resigned his post, and ended up going to Bosnia.

“We were the first National Guard division to go into The Balkans,” he said.

Kozen said he often went out on patrols with troops that involved capturing insurgents.

Unlike the soldiers, Kozen was not armed, but he was very much involved and part of the mission.

Kozen conceded that the death and disaster he witnessed could test anyone’s faith.

Later, he served with troops in Kosovo, where he encountered many similar experiences.

“After Kosovo I was demobilized,” he said.

He went to St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Dushore, Sullivan County.

In the meantime, he was appointed division chaplain of the 28th Division, Army National Guard.

What followed was a National Securities Fellowship at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University.

He was among 22 people from different branches of the military assigned to the school.

His time there in 2005 and 2006 involved different duties, including putting together a guest speaker program.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “It really was.”

Following his time at Harvard, he returned to St. Basil’s and later was assigned by the military to the Army National Guard’s 56th Stryker Brigade Team in Iraq.

“We did the full spectrum of combat operations,” he said. “By then, I was a lieutenant colonel.”

Among his duties as division chaplain was the responsibility of sending chaplains out on missions.

He was later promoted to full colonel and became state chaplain for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

He retired in 2010 as a brigadier general after 30 years of military service.

These days, Kozen stays involved in veterans activities.

Looking back at his time of service, he said, “Part of being a chaplain is the rapport you get with the troops. You do what you can for them.”