When Pete Bernardo ’67, ’72G speaks about Bishop Neal Buckon ’75, he talks about a man who has an uncompromising view of right and wrong. It’s an excellent belief system for the recently- named Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services to hold.
“This is a quiet way but a determined way,” Bernardo says. “He will quietly do what’s necessary and right.”
That principle has been with Bishop Buckon for decades and is the reason he became involved with the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program and military.
“Even before college, I knew I wanted to be in ROTC,” Bishop Buckon says. “It wasn’t something that was popular at the time with Vietnam, but my grandfather and other family members served. I felt every citizen ought to consider being of service.”
After graduating from Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, Bishop Buckon, who grew up on South Belvoir in the home where his mother still lives and attended Gesu Catholic School, decided John Carroll was where he wanted to continue his education and participate in ROTC.
“Having grown up in the neighborhood, John Carroll was like a second home to me,” he says. “I cut through campus every day when I walked to grade school. My dad (John ’50) went there, and my older sister, Elizabeth, who was a year ahead of me, was attending the University. I knew it was the right place.”
While a student, Bishop Buckon pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology and was a member of ROTC. He was a student of Fr. Casey Bukala, S.J. ’54, ‘55G and knew Frs. William Bichl, S.J., Henry Birkenhauer, S.J., and Joseph Schell, S.J.
“They were all great men but also great priests who inspired me,” he says.
During his senior year at Carroll, Bishop Buckon started to hear a call to a vocation. But he was contracted for the military route and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army May 25, 1975. After a stint as an infantry officer at Fort Benning, Ga., he was assigned to Germany in February of 1976 as a line officer in the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry of the 1st Armor Division. When he arrived in Germany, he was reunited with Bernardo, his ROTC instructor at Carroll. In Europe, Bernardo was reminded about Bishop Buckon’s character.
“Keep in mind Neal completed Ranger School,” says Bernardo, an Army Ranger. “Neal made it through – and that’s not an easy school. You have to be tough.”
How tough? Tough enough that Bernardo tasked Lt. Buckon to serve as the transportation officer for the Headquarters of the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force Land (AMFL).
“AMFL was a multinational light infantry task force that deployed to Denmark, Norway, and England,” Bernardo says. “He deployed to Norway in February and slept in a tent 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle when it was 40 degrees below zero. That’s something that has stayed with him all through life.”
The toughness and strong belief in good intertwine in another of Bernardo’s favorite Bishop Buckon stories. Bishop Buckon, who resigned from active duty in 1982, was ordained a priest in 1995 and named a chaplain in the Army a year later. On one of his visits to see the troops, he smuggled wine into Saudi Arabia so he could celebrate Mass with soldiers and was almost caught at a Saudi guard post.
“Just his determination, toughness, and sense of duty – that right and wrong – on display,” Bernardo says.
In 1998, Bishop Buckon was assigned to the Archdiocese for the Military Services as a military chaplain before retiring from the Army effective at the end of the 2010 calendar year. His retirement was short-lived, however, because Pope Benedict XVI named him Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services Jan. 3, 2011. He’s one of four
auxiliary bishops under Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a Cleveland native.
The archdiocese is headquartered in Washington, but Bishop Buckon doesn’t expect to be home too often.
“The bishop I’m replacing was home 104 days and spent 261 days traveling in 2010,” he says.
There’s lots of traveling to be done. Bishop Buckon will visit Catholics in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines. He’ll oversee the Western region, which includes 18 states and requires overseas travel.
Bernardo, who, along with Chrisit ’75 and Gen. Carter Ham ’76, traveled to Washington for Bishop Buckon’s ordination in mid-February, knows he’s going to excel in his new position.
“Having served himself, he knows what these people are going through,” Bernardo says. “He’ll be great for the military because there isn’t always a Catholic Church nearby, and troops want and need that in their life. I’m proud of Neal and what he’s done. I’m proud he became a ranger, and I’m proud he became a priest, but I’m more proud to call him my friend.” JCU
– Tim Ertle ’11