"A setback is the setup for your comeback," shouts Chaplain Marks to the congregation of 30-plus in the North Island chapel that has served American sailors since December 1945. Knowing that many congregants are miles from home, Marks dwells on Saint Peter’s words that "for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials." Marks then explains how he tried to get out of a trial of his own, his second deployment with the Marines to Iraq. He says he pulled every string he could think of to avoid the duty. But finally, he says, he had to acquiesce in God's will. After church, in the chaplain offices across the street, Marks tells me that the Navy first assigned him in May 2002 to the United States Marine Corps, Seventh Engineer Support Battalion. He deployed with them to Iraq the following March and was there for the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "We went all over Iraq, wherever there was a need for construction or engineering. We supported the ground troops." He did the same kind of work during his second tour in 2004, but this time he worked with Combat Service Support Battalion One. "We did the same things, building stuff and retrieving downed vehicles."
Did Iraqi insurgents, I ask, ever attack your battalions?
"Every day. And we lost a few people," says Marks, not volunteering to elaborate.
During his second tour, the Navy assigned Marks additional duty with Bravo Surgical Company near Fallujah. "That was a very tough place to work," he says, "a unique ministry. We sometimes had to get medical personnel to treat the wounded even if they weren't on our team. That's part of the ethics they take on, not to be angry with enemy combatants and attack them in the medical facility.
"Beyond that, there were things you saw that you never want to see again in your life. When the casualties came in, and if the injured requested one, I was the go-to chaplain for the company. Because of my denomination, I don't do last rites. But I will pray with somebody in a minute.
"Still, as bad as things were," says Marks, "so many wonderful things came through there. We had some of the best patch-and-get-them-back work that was going in Iraq. The medical staff performed wonders. The technology has come so far beyond the days of World War II and Korea and Vietnam. They were able to treat our wounded on the front lines and get them back. And if they couldn't, they did a heck of a job of sending them someplace where further medical treatment could be given."
I ask whether Marks "preached" outside of chapel, whether during the desperate circumstances of Iraq he ever tried to convert any non-Christian Marines. A chaplain proselytizing, he tells me, "is never appropriate in the military. I'm not here on active duty to convert anybody from Islam, or any other religion, to be a Baptist. When I'm in chapel, I preach what I believe. But not outside."
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The 36-year-old Marks grew up in Tennessee and had extensive military experience before becoming a chaplain. At age 18, he joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, then graduated from Tennessee Tech University with an Army ROTC commission as a nuclear biological chemical warfare officer. After a stint in the Army, he attended seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. There he was ordained a minister in the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the largest African-American denomination and the second-largest Baptist church after the Southern Baptist Convention. The denomination is noted for placing great emphasis on social outreach.
"In the ministry, we say that we have a calling upon our lives," states Marks, "and I knew a long time ago that I was going to serve God's people in the military. I was a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. Eventually, after a lot of prayer, I requested that I be endorsed to go on active duty in the Navy Chaplain Corps. The denomination has an agent who signs off on a document and sends it to the Navy, saying we endorse him fully to become a chaplain."
In 2002, Marks joined the chaplaincy, first attending the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, Rhode Island. Since he was bound for a Marine ground unit, he also attended the Marines' Chaplain and Religious Program Specialist Expeditionary Skills Training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Among other things, the schools teach chaplains, who may have no previous experience in the military, how to relate to enlisted personnel and officers of various ranks. "But also," says Marks, "not everyone is a believer in what the chaplains do, or even a believer in God, so in order for us to be able to speak to people properly, we also have to have ranks."
All chaplains come into the Navy as officers. "Right now, my command is the Naval Base Coronado, and I'm a lieutenant," says Marks. "There's a certain respect that comes to me from that, and I have to have a corresponding respect for others." Chaplains are paid by the military services, not by their churches. So besides the status and influence they carry, ranks determine their salary ranges.
Since at least 2000, a number of disputes over fairness in promotions have arisen among evangelical Navy chaplains. I ask Marks if he has opinions about these disputes. He tells me he has heard about them, but "I believe that if God wants me to be somewhere or to do a certain task, God's going to equip me to do it. I don't worry about those other things. They're not important to me," he says.
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According to an August 6, 2001, story in Christianity Today, "[Lieutenant Commander] Patrick M. Sturm, a Navy chaplain based in San Diego, filed suit after being denied promotion five years in a row. After seeking reconsideration by a naval board and filing his suit in federal district court, Sturm was promoted retroactively. The Navy then sought to have the case dismissed.