Friday, May 24, 2024

Otto Otnes answers the call as VFW chaplain

Valley Press | May 24, 2023 12:00 AM

For Plains resident Otto Otnes, it was a simple matter of the door being knocked on and he answered the call.

He had already volunteered for military duty during the volatile years that were the Vietnam War, serving as an aviation supply man aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

This knocking was not from his country.

It was from his soul.

“I was at a meeting (VFW) and we needed a blessing to be read,” Otnes said. “One night the post chaplain failed to show, it had to be done.”

More than a decade and a half later, this quiet, affable seaman was still reporting for “duty,” doing the things a chaplain does.

And yet, in official terms, Otnes was not a chaplain.

To the scores of veterans and their families, an official ordainment was not a factor.

“I volunteered to do what had to be done,” he said in his quiet, unassuming voice. “I had no actual training in such matters, but there were blessings that needed to be read and I said I would do them. I had no experience but I was a church goer".

Since that day in 2008 when he assumed the role of post chaplain, Otnes estimates he has visited hundreds of veterans and their families in hospitals and other settings, offering comfort and kind words to those in despair or in need of Heavenly words of encouragement.

“When I deliver the prayer there is a line which reads ‘comfort and console those bereaved by the hand of death,'” he said. “I try to identify who is most upset and look him or her right in the eye when I say those words. I want it known that I meant every word of what I just said”.

Along the way, Otnes said he has taken comfort in the fact he is providing the comfort he was directed to give. “Orders” from headquarters on high, as it were.

Otnes said he vividly remembers the first funeral he directed, one of what would be scores of such events over the years. He got to a part of the ceremony which required a certain prayer to be read.

He didn’t know the prayer.

“The guy (deceased) was a friend of mine,” Otnes said. “My voice was breaking. I was totally unprepared but I got through it somehow”. He glanced skyward while recounting the moment.

Another moment that stands out during his time as chaplain came during an interment at a local cemetery.

“I remember a funeral where it was a particularly hot day,” he said. “Everyone was standing in the shade when I saw a shadow of a large bird sweep by. It was a large eagle flying overhead at that very moment. I knew it was time to begin the funeral for that veteran, it was a sign”.

The burden of responsibility Otnes took upon himself on several occasions took an emotional toll, he recalled.

“There was a funeral I was directing for my good friend Glen Rummel,” Otnes said. “It was a tough time to keep composed. When family members started crying it was tough not to shed a tear.”

That, he said, was all part of the task he was called to do.

Otnes, who said a big part of his job was visiting ailing veterans in local hospitals, something he felt compelled to do for his fellow veterans.

“I remember back in the fourth grade, my Sunday school teacher asked if anyone knew how to pray, and if so that person should step forward,” he said. “It was part of what became a lifelong experience. Moments like that were telling me God does have a plan”.

And there were also many joyous, if not humorous moments amid the grief. Talking with veterans and helping them deal with a gauntlet of issues became a source of comfort for the chaplain, as well as the veteran being counseled or consoled.

One particular funeral involved a group of veterans who was late for the ceremony of a fellow soldier.

“We had conducted a ceremony on private property in the Blue Slide area,” he said. “It was a simple wooden box coffin, and it was a nice ceremony with no tears. A Navy Seal team had flown in for their buddy’s send off but they were hours late getting there. They had apparently gone to Niarada. They must have missed map reading 101”.

A regular and longtime member of the Wild Horse VFW post color guard, Otnes is known for his love of his Norwegian heritage, which he proudly shares with those who ask.

He said the lessons he has learned during his time as chaplain have intensified his belief in God and the power of prayer.

“All of this has made me even more of a believer than I was before,” he said. “I completely believe in the power of prayer. I recently suffered some injuries from a fall and prayer helped me get back on my feet. I learned there were a lot of people offering prayers for me. It’s all part of the plan”.

Otnes stepped down from his position as Post Chaplain two years ago. However, due to health issues affecting his replacement, he is still called on to help out when needed.

“I can say I’ve received a lot more than I’ve given from this whole experience. I never would have thought things would work out this way but God has a plan.”

As Saint Paul said, Otnes recounted, citing Scripture, “All things work together for good, for them that love God.”


Plains VFW Chaplain Otto Otnes reads scripture during last year's Memorial Day ceremony in Plains. (Chuck Bandel/VP-MI)