By LOU PONSI     11/9/2023

They call him “Sgt. Bob.”

That’s the moniker bestowed on Bob Kohler by his fellow parishioners at St. Thomas More Parish in Irvine, ever since the 92-yearold Korean War veteran started a veterans ministry to honor the service and sacrifice of parishioners who served in the military.

A website created by Kohler’s son Ryan, stmveterans.us, lists the names of the roughly 70 parish military veterans categorized by each veteran’s branch of service.

The site also features an honor roll with the photos and names of deceased parishioners who were veterans.

Every Veterans Day, Kohler puts up a temporary display in the church plaza made up of poster boards with the names and photos of veterans who are St. Thomas More parishioners.

The tribute will be displayed on Saturday and Sunday, during which time eight Masses will be celebrated. Kohler, a husband and father of four, also sets up separate display on Memorial Day weekend, displaying poster boards with the names and images of deceased parishioners who served in the military and another display for the church’s fall festival in October which chronicles the
ministry itself.

St. Thomas More is believed to be the only parish in the Diocese of Orange with a veterans ministry.

“I always say I’m just the messenger, not the message,” said Kohler, a lifelong devout Catholic and a parishioner at St. Thomas More since the parish formed in 2008.

Kohler was inspired to form a parish ministry, in part, after watching the documentary “The Greatest Generation,” a three-part video series by award-winning television journalist and author Tom Brokaw, who wrote book series of the same name.

About the same time, Kohler became even more motivated to launch the ministry after noticing a license plate on his neighbor’s car inscribed with the acronym, “POW.”

“So, I went to meet the guy (Tony Chiarilli) and he was a paratrooper,” Kohler recalled. “He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, and he was a POW.”

Chiarilli landed at Utah Beach and helped capture Carentan, France. Eventually, he was shot down behind German lines in Holland.

“We landed on top of 10,000 Panzer troops,” Chiarilli said in a 2013 interview with the Orange County Register. “We had no chance.”

While a POW, Chiarilli was forced to march for four months as his German captors fled the advancing Russians.

A charter member of the veterans ministry, Chiarelli died on June 7, 2017, and is now memorialized on the ministry’s wall of honor.

Kohler started the ministry with the full support of then St. Thomas More’s pastor, Fr. John Janze, who served as pastor from 1996 to 2021. Fr. Janze died on April 19,

“I think it is important to honor those who have made sacrifices for us,” Fr. Janze said in a 2013 interview with OC Catholic.

When a parish veteran dies, Kohler and members of the ministry also perform a flag ceremony at the grave site during the funeral.

“I call it a flag tribute for veterans,” he said. “I contact the family and if they approve, we come.”

Kohler is also an avid runner and has completed 43 marathons.

But Kohler hasn’t simply run the 26.2 miles. He completed nine marathons holding a U.S. flag to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and then added a second flag in 2003 to honor the military, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Kohler ran with a flag for the first time on a jog through his neighborhood on Sept. 14, 2001.

“My flag was hanging outside, so I just took it on the spur of the moment,” he said.

“And away I went.”