by Mike Berry • 5 min read
On August 19, 2021, America lost a hero, and First Liberty Institute lost a friend. Former U.S. Navy Chaplain Wes Modder passed away, leaving behind his amazing wife, Beth, and their four beautiful children, James, Julia, Joy, and Jana. But Wes also left behind an incredible legacy for the cause of religious freedom.
My first interaction with Wes was in February 2015. At the urging of Louise Derrick, who works with Dave Roever—a Vietnam ceteran who was seriously wounded in combat and now uses his platform to encourage others—Wes contacted First Liberty because he was the victim of religious hostility by his commanding officer.
As a Navy chaplain, part of Wes’ duties was to conduct individual pastoral counseling with service members. Pastoral counseling sessions are private, one-on-one meetings during which a service member can talk to a chaplain confidentially about anything they wish, from homesickness, to financial problems, to spiritual crises. Like all chaplains, Wes was trained to explain to each person who sought his counsel that, as a chaplain, he is an ordained minister and that his counsel and guidance would be in accordance with his Christian belief and training.
In late 2014, a handful of Sailors from Wes’ unit complained that he had said things with which they disagreed. An atheist Sailor complained that Wes did not agree with atheism. A homosexual Sailor complained that Wes answered affirmatively when asked whether the Bible characterized the Sailor’s lifestyle as sinful.
Some may question why Wes would be so forthright in his responses to such sensitive questions. But Wes was no ordinary Navy chaplain.
Long before becoming a chaplain, Wes enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He quickly learned that the men and women serving in our military are likely to face danger each day. As a Marine Corps mortarman, Wes knew danger all too well. He deployed overseas multiple times, and he earned the Combat Action Ribbon which is only eligible for those who directly engage with enemy forces. Wes understood that those facing life-or-death circumstances need someone who loves them enough to tell them the truth. That compelled Wes to eventually attend seminary and to become a chaplain.
As a chaplain, Wes continued to boldly speak truth. For the most part, the Sailors and Marines with whom Wes served valued his counsel. Whether it was combat-hardened Marines, the quiet professionals of SEAL Team Six, or the many thousands of Sailors who crossed his path over the course of his career, Wes never stopped loving and serving those around him. Wes’ commanders described him as “the best of the best,” and as the standard-bearer for military chaplains. The Navy even featured Wes in its chaplain recruiting video! Although the number of complaints in late 2014 were very few, they caught Wes off-guard. He had nowhere to turn for help until that fateful recommendation by Louise Derrick.
First Liberty immediately came to Wes’ defense. We joined forces with the powerhouse law firm of WilmerHale and together we secured victory and complete exoneration for Wes. This meant that he would be able to resume his chaplain duties—including the right to provide counseling in accordance with his Christian beliefs—and that he would be able to retire honorably with full benefits.
I had the privilege of attending Wes’ retirement ceremony on the flight deck of the famed USS Midway, which is moored in San Diego Bay. It was a beautiful southern California day. Wes and his beautiful family were joyful, and thankful. As always, Wes was magnanimous and gracious. Not once did he give even a hint of contempt for what he had gone through to get to that point. Instead, true to Wes’ character, he used the occasion as an opportunity to focus on others.
As I write this, I have just returned from attending Wes’ funeral, where I had one final chance to thank him for boldly speaking truth, even when it hurt. The celebration of Wes’ life testified that he was a man who lived and loved well, and one who leaves behind an incredible legacy of selfless service and sacrifice. Perhaps no better phrase sums up everything about Wes Modder than “Semper Fidelis.” Always faithful.