PENNEY FARMS – Dean Veltman, who served in the U.S. Army briefly during World War II and later as a 20-year chaplain in the Navy during conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, has been around the world and back with the stories and experiences to prove it.
Veltman is now a member of the Penney Farms Retirement Community. USS Yorktown memorabilia, a painting of a woman in a straw hat and pictures of his family feature prominently in his room.
During the embers of World War II, Veltman was an engineer with the Army, serving from 1944 to 1947, he said. Veltman was later based out of Ft. Campbell in Kentucky. He recalled a mentor, Sgt. York, who helped him get back in school.
“It might not be exciting to anyone, but it was tremendously exciting to me because it was there, I met a master sergeant who turned my life around,” Veltman said. “That’s something.”
A generous company commander let him hitchhike to Michigan for school. Veltman was able to get more leave than normal, he recalled with a laugh.
“(The commander said), ‘Just make sure you get back because my neck is on the line here if I ever get caught doing something like this.’ … You’ve worked very hard. I want to let you know that hard work pays,’” Veltman smiled. “That’s the Army way.”
During his stay in the Army, he turned to Jesus. After being discharged, Veltman got married to Mary Frances Coffey, who passed away in 2015. They were married for more than 60 years.
Veltman graduated from seminary school and wanted to return to the service as a chaplain. He imitated a phone conversation where a soldier asked him why he wanted to get back in. The Army didn’t work out.
However, Veltman had to decide what to do because his family had to eat. Mary was fine with Veltman reentering the service. Now in Chicago, a Navy recruiting office caught his eye.
“It was a pretty warm welcome. They said, ‘Sign right here,’” Veltman said. “I didn’t know I was even going to join the Navy. I thought the Navy was a place where you went in, got seasick and stayed seasick until they put you out.”
“The USS Yorktown was a praying ship,” begins the religious section of the carrier’s cruise book from Oct. 16, 1968, to Feb. 28, 1969. Much of the booklet is about tasks and ceremonies related to the Apollo 8 mission, where astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders circled the moon and photographed the other side of it. Lovell took the photo, “Earthrise,” the first photo of the Earth from the perspective of the moon.
It was Veltman who wrote a Christmas prayer toward the end of the cruise book. He prayed for the safety of the astronauts, their families and the crew recovering them. His writings convey the joy and isolation of celebrating the holiday on the ship. The sailors made adjustments to make Christmas function, he wrote.
“And so it was with the Yorktown in this very holy time. Gifts from home, received and held for weeks, were opened beneath makeshift Christmas trees, praise in the form of Christmas carols was sung in Chapel Services and played on the phonographs and sound systems throughout the ship, and love was experienced over the distance, often in terms of loneliness and the heartfelt desire to be with those were separated,” Veltman wrote more than 50 years ago.
Veltman was based out of Okinawa after about a year of service. He served in the Navy from 1954 until 1976. Reflecting on his work as a chaplain, Veltman said it was important to understand what soldiers or sailors were going through.
“I was completely captivated by what I was doing. Somehow God had put me there,” Veltman said. “I didn’t know much about God, but I knew that I knew more than the men who were serving.”
An officer would ask him if a sailor was worth saving. The answer was always yes, Veltman recalled. The chaplain’s first responsibility was to Jesus first, and Veltman used the phrase, “in the Navy, but not of,” to describe a chaplain’s role.
He had a decision to make: to leave the Navy or continue working his way up the chain of command. Veltman presses three fingers on his shoulder.
“Of all the crazy things, I had three stripes on my sleeve!” he said. “I just did what I loved to do.”
Some things stay with you
The wall is still a bulkhead, Veltman jokes back in Penney Farms. Some things the Navy teaches stay with you.
Next to the window on the wall is a painting, Mary Veltman’s recreation of French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s, “Young Girl in a Straw Hat.” Her art teacher asked for a perfect copy, and Mary Veltman delivered, her husband said.
“When she brought it in, (the teacher) took it home,” Veltman said. “He came back the next day and he said, ‘I don’t know which one is the original.’”
Veltman has four children and he describes their career paths with ease and in great detail. He has more than a dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. He remembered his wife teaching Sunday school.
“Children were just drawn to her,” Veltman said.
Being a chaplain was a lonely life at sea. After the service, Veltman later became a United Presbyterian pastor for several churches in West Virginia. He sought to eliminate prejudices through his teachings.
“We’re all going together and as a church, we’re together,” he said.
In the middle of the conversation, Veltman stops and says he looks forward to meeting Jesus. There will be a day, Veltman adds, he can kiss Jesus on the cheek.
“I can’t understand anything so beautiful in all my life as to kiss Jesus Christ on the cheek after being kissed by him,” Veltman said, his voice rising. “I don’t know how anyone could ask for anything more in all of creation.”