Veterans of Foreign Wars Chaplain Theo Bazdorf has two awards to hang on his wall at the post: Chaplain of the Year for District 1 and Chaplain of the Year for all of California.
He received the Post Chaplain of the Year award for District 1 on May 1 after Post Commander John Sullivan submitted him at the regional level.
“Then, I was told by Reverend James Wright that I had won for California, seventeen districts all up and down the coast,” Bazdorf said, beating out well over a hundred other posts.
He received that second, state-level award on June 9 in Anaheim but he’s already being considered for the top, national award.
“I only have to compete against 49 other states,” Bazdorf said with a mischievous smile.
In a more serious tone, he said it has taken him some time to learn how to best serve in his role at the post. When he first stepped into the volunteer job, about ten years ago, he downloaded the entire VFW Chaplain’s manual in an effort to find guidance or a standard for how to do the job.
“You don’t just read prayers at meetings. The Chaplain is involved with everything: Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, flag retirements, funerals, parades. I’ve been doing the opening prayer for Wall of Honor events for years. I don’t ask for the events but I also don’t say ‘no’,” Bazdorf said.
When District 1 and State Chaplain James Wright, who is based out of Chula Vista puts out a call for any chaplains available for services, Sullivan said, Bazdorf is the only one who says ‘yes’ every time.
“He is always available anytime I need a chaplain for burial responsibilities, in San Diego. We have 30 chaplains in the area and he is one of two who routinely take on memorial services or serve as honor guard. He’s always there chipping in, willing to volunteer. I think very highly of him,” Wright said.
Chaplains, Wright said, are required to participate in quarterly training, attend regular post meetings, officiate at 9/11 honors and services in addition to memorial services and holiday events like Veteran’s Day celebrations and Memorial Day commemorative events. Those responsibilities are a given for any VFW chaplain— a truly excellent chaplain also understands how to set a high standard regardless of whether they are “lay leaders” or have been through formal religious training, Wright said.
“I’m not asking for a chaplain to be a saint but I do ask them to set a good standard. You know, don’t be the first person at the bar in the morning and the last to leave in the evening- that’s not a high standard,” Wright said with a light laugh.
Theo is an “unsung hero” as a chaplain, Sullivan said, and a constant voice of reason.
“What people don’t know is how he helps out with the Quartermaster or how, since COVID began, there have been 40 or so funerals all over local houses, the posts. Theo does them all. Really, nobody does more for veterans,” Sullivan said.
“Well, I’ll be 83 on Friday and I’ve matured to the point where I think it is important to help others. I’m an Episcopalian but the same holds true for everyone, you know Muslim, Jewish, really anyone: we need to help our fellow man as best as we can,” Bazdorf said.
The small things that add up matter, he said, like checking on a widow or taking time to visit a Korean War veteran in the hospital. Auxiliary Chaplain Jan Bazdorf, his wife, is there by his side, he said, “a true partner” in service.
“I certainly don’t do anything for praise or glory. There’s a lot of turmoil in the United States today and we have to ask ourselves: what is the right thing to do?” Bazdorf said.
“I’ve been a chaplain at the VA hospital in La Jolla and Sharp Memorial. Normally, you visit patients- in this case sick veterans- and chaplains try to visit or send a get well card. If they haven’t seen a member of a post for awhile, they usually send a ‘thinking of you’ card. If a veteran passes away, they reach out to their family, offer assistance, and if they need to officiate a memorial service then they step up and do that as well,” Wright said.
The first time Bazdorf ever presided over a funeral, he wasn’t entirely sure what to say so he looked up the service in the VFW Chaplain manual.
“I was shocked that after the ceremony, a Navy chaplain, an officer came up to me and asked about the service. I thought ‘Holy Mackerel, it’s simple and it works’ so I’ve stuck with that same format,” Bazdorf said.
As a young man, he had considered becoming a priest.
“I was very active in the Episcopalian church growing up- I was in the choir, I served as an acolyte. Then, when I was in the Army, I didn’t get to know many chaplains. It’s an honor to do this. It validates what we’re doing here,” Bazdorf said.
A chaplain shouldn’t be self-promoting, Bazdorf said but Sullivan sees him as an asset to the post.
“He’s always humble but for us, it’s a bragging point to have him at our post. He represents what we want the Alpine VFW to mean to people. It’s important for veterans to be there for other veterans,” Sullivan said.
Being the post chaplain has “forced him to be a better person,” Bazdorf said in a quiet voice.
“When I started, I downloaded the Ten Attributes of a VFW Post Chaplain,” Bazdorf said.
The list includes items like a willingness to serve, committed to providing support and ministry to VFW members and their families, and a sincere desire to help others.
“I think I’ve grown into all these things,” Bazdorf said.