"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."
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.
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.
"U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan dismissed the part of the suit relating to Sturm's promotions but decided to consider his claims of stacked selection boards within the Navy.
" 'The pleadings contain specific and detailed factual allegations which suggest the Navy may be favoring certain religious groups over others,' Whelan wrote, 'causing an unconstitutional religious preference or an infringement upon plaintiff's rights to religious freedom.' "
This summer, on July 12, Laurie Goodstein wrote an article in the New York Times called "Evangelicals Are Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps." The article shows how the numbers of evangelical chaplains are increasing, while chaplains from mainline denominations are decreasing.
"Figures provided by the Air Force," wrote Goodstein, "show that from 1994 to 2005 the number of chaplains from many evangelical and Pentecostal churches rose, some doubling. For example, chaplains from the Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministries International increased to 10 from none. The Church of the Nazarene rose to 12 from 6.
"At the same time, the number of chaplains from the Roman Catholic Church declined to 94 from 167, and there were declines in more liberal, mainline Protestant churches: the United Church of Christ to 3 from 11, the United Methodist Church to 50 from 64.
"Other branches of the military did not make available similar statistics, but officials say they are seeing the same trend."
But in its final section, the article mentions a group of 50 evangelical chaplains that has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Navy for dismissing some of them and denying the promotions of others. One plaintiff in the suit, Lieutenant Commander David S. Wilder, "a 20-year Navy chaplain...said that his troubles began on Okinawa after the more senior Episcopal chaplain stepped in and interrupted his worship service. He says that that chaplain has blocked his promotion.
" 'There's a pecking order in the Navy chaplain corps,' Commander Wilder said, 'and at the very top is the Roman Catholics and just below them are the Episcopals and Lutherans. And if you're an evangelical nonliturgical Christian of some type, you're down on the bottom."
Father David Mitchell is a Catholic Navy chaplain working in Southern California. To allow him to speak freely about the alleged Navy discrimination against evangelical chaplains, he requests that his real name not be used in this story. Mitchell says he has spoken with several of the current evangelical litigants and has the impression that "their lawsuit is not really about discrimination so much as it is about the nature of the chaplain corps." A Catholic layman told Mitchell he got the same impression after attending a meeting on the East Coast for officials of various churches, where the litigants explained their lawsuit.
"Will the Chaplain Corps and chaplains," Mitchell writes to me by e-mail, "continue to respond to the expressed religious preferences of service members, or will they become actively evangelical? Will we take the religious affiliation of service members as a given and seek to provide for the free exercise of those religions, or will we see the military primarily as an opportunity for evangelization? The litigants deeply resent the policies of pluralism and inclusion that govern operation of the chaplain corps and by which they are evaluated as chaplains and officers. To them, evangelical Christianity is the normative American religion, and they see no reason why this should not be reflected in their functioning as chaplains, even at official command functions.
"To this," Mitchell writes, "I would add that there is certainly room for evangelization in the military, especially among the unchurched. It's a matter of style and timing. I have had many conversions to the Catholic faith. But this always has been as a result of the converts' initiatives."
The New York Times story describes the following approach to the issue by the current Air Force deputy chief of chaplains: "[Brigadier General Cecil Richardson]...said in an interview, 'We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.' The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel."
In fairness, the article also reports Richardson saying "that although his faith required him to evangelize, he would help accommodate the faiths of others. 'I am an Assemblies of God, pound-the-pulpit preacher, but I'll go to the ropes for the Wiccan,' he said, if that group wanted permission to celebrate a religious ritual."
Chaplain Marks says his duties never require him to preach to mixed groups anyway. "We have Jewish chaplains and lay leaders," he says. "We have Muslim chaplains. If a faith group out there is different than ours, we try to help them find a place to worship for themselves.
"Sometimes we do have ecumenical services and present a service we all participate in. But at that time, we're not trying to proselytize our different faiths. We're coming together to show a united chaplain force, and I think that speaks volumes to the type of ministry that's unique to an active-duty chaplain's work.
"When people ask us questions," Marks continues, "it sometimes opens up an opportunity to say, 'Have you given this some thought, have you given it a try?' But if a person comes into my office for counseling, I would never say, 'You wouldn't have these financial problems if you believe, like I do, in Jesus Christ.' " Instead, Marks says he would send the person to Fleet Family Services, where they can receive professional training in financial matters.
"But if they say something like, 'You know, chaplain, I don't know about this God thing, tell me your thoughts,' then I have an opportunity to tell them this is what I believe and why I believe it. Whether they choose to believe it or not, that's still on them. But the person has opened up the doors for that to happen."
Father Mitchell had no military experience before requesting the church to allow him to enter the chaplaincy in his early 40s. "In this," he writes, "I was greatly influenced by the military chaplains I had come to know over the years. To a man, they were positive and enthusiastic about their work. This was in marked contrast to the general run of priests I had encountered while giving retreats and hearing confessions. At the time of the 1991 Gulf War, there was a general call for volunteers, and several priest chaplains I knew contacted me. I asked permission but was sure my superiors would say no. Much to my surprise, they said yes."
Later by phone, Mitchell tells me that, in relations with all his Protestant colleagues, he emphasizes their common faith in Christ and takes them with total seriousness as ministers of the gospel. He admits that Catholic chaplains have fared better in the Navy than their evangelical counterparts. But, thinks Mitchell, Navy discrimination is not the reason.
"The slots in the chaplain corps for different faith groups are, to a large extent," he says, "assigned not on the basis of how many people write their name down in the dog-tag information as Catholic or Presbyterian or Jewish or Muslim but on the attendance records of chapels. It's like medical clinics. You have certain numbers of patients who come in for gynecological conditions, a certain number with heart problems, so the medical corps recruits and retains doctors in specialties based on those statistics. Now, we've got so many people showing up on weekends for church in this group or that, and we need to recruit and retain chaplains to take care of them.
"And the litigants in the lawsuit against the Navy are forever quoting the numbers from the dog tags," Mitchell continues. "What they don't give are numbers indicating what happens at our chapels on a Sunday morning."
In numbers originating from the dog tags, thinks Mitchell, "If you lump all the Baptists together, they would equal roughly the number of Catholics. The military's religious population is approximately 30 percent Baptist and 30 percent Catholic. The final 40 percent breaks down into all the other different groups. There are a lot of churches that are moving toward nondenominationalism, but in theology and practice they are Baptists."
But despite the roughly equal size of the Catholic and Baptist contingents in the Navy, Catholics participate in religious services at the base chapels far more than Baptists. Mitchell finds a major reason for that in the fundamental difference between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. And "soul competency" is a crucial notion in this difference.
Mitchell says that soul competency came to his attention after reading Yale University professor Harold Bloom's 1993 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. "The Chaplain Corps -- we had more money in the early '90s -- bought it for all of us to read," he says. "The book takes several typically American religions -- the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Baptists, among others -- and looks at them in the context of Christian history. And this was very interesting for me to read, because I was encountering evangelical Protestantism for the first time then. The kind of Protestants I had grown up with were mostly Episcopalians and Methodists and Presbyterians, what we call 'mainline churches' where I come from."
Mitchell continues: "Among the Baptists, especially, Bloom points out a crucial role for the concept -- they probably wouldn't call it a doctrine -- of soul competency, namely, that the scriptures mean what they mean for me and that I am capable of interpreting them without any outside help. So the Bible, or something in the Bible, can legitimately mean one thing for you and another thing for me."
The Catholic Church traditionally has considered this tendency to be far too relativistic. But due to soul competency's emphasis on a direct relation of Christians to God and the Bible, without intermediaries, Baptist theologians see it as firmly rooted in the trajectory of Martin Luther's "priesthood of all believers." As such, the concept deemphasizes the regulatory role of ecclesiastical bodies and officials in Christian thought and elevates unique, individual faith.
Father Mitchell sees soul competency's influence in the recent proliferation of independent churches. "It's not fashionable in certain quarters to have a denominational label nowadays," he says. "Evangelicals, especially, are very focused on the local church, thinking of themselves as belonging to that Valley Stream Baptist in Kentucky, or wherever they're from. And if they move someplace else, they may or may not find another church like it to attend. It depends on whether or not they're comfortable at the churches they try. That's the exact opposite of Catholics, who will go to the nearest Mass, generally, wherever it is."
Thus, when Catholics come from other parts of the country to serve the Navy and Marine Corps in California, they are much likelier to be satisfied with the Catholic service offered on base than a Baptist is with the Protestant service commonly offered in the same chapel. "If they go to church, and I assume they do," says Mitchell, "the evangelicals go to town, because they're looking for what they consider to be a real church. They don't want to go to a general Protestant service on base, whose nature depends on the chaplain's denomination. In fact, many Protestant chaplains have a weekend job where they help out at a church in town."
Chaplain Marks speaks of the phenomenon in a similar way, but, as expected, he is more appreciative. "Sure, that happens all the time," he says. "We have Southern Baptist, American Baptist churches, and other denominations off base, and people go where they feel most comfortable. So if you know there's a church out there that has a style of worship similar to what you've been to, yes, we encourage you to go there. Then again, some people like the chapels on base better than the outside churches."
When it comes to independent churches, "We say that God occasionally will inspire somebody without any special background to plant a church," says Marks. "They just decide to open up the doors in their homes or in a storefront, and they attract more and more members due to the approach and the gifts and talents they bring to the ministry. So it grows and grows, and then you've got an independent church out there. A more direct relationship to God might inspire someone to start a church in that way. That's how Martin Luther started."
Chaplain Mitchell thinks that "a vast majority of the Protestants go to these neighborhood churches, unless you're in Japan or Iceland or someplace like that. Even in Japan, you go outside the base gate, and there are all of these storefront American Protestant churches, some of them founded by retired chaplains who marry local girls. In Seoul there are several large American churches, and they cater to the military population. They deliver what the sailors and Marines want."
These considerations, thinks Mitchell, and not the numbers of sailors identifying themselves as having this religious affiliation or that, explain why "inside the military setting, Catholics are the overwhelming majority of those participating in religious services. I can give you an example to illustrate this," he tells me. "I have been stationed at Camp Lejuene twice in my career. And there are 40,000 Marines stationed in Camp Lejeune, with wives and kids. So a total military population of about 100,000. I would say half of them live on the base and the other half live in town. I'm just estimating.
"And at Camp Lejeune, when it was built in 1945," Mitchell goes on, "they decided to give each faith group its own chapel, so there's a Catholic chapel, a Protestant chapel, a synagogue, a Russian Orthodox church, and we even now have a little building set aside as a fledgling mosque. On a typical Sunday, we would have three Masses, and we had at least 250 people at every Mass. But depending on the time of year, that could go up to 500, and at Christmas and Easter, 700 at the main Mass. We also had 550 children in Sunday school, whereas down the road at the Protestant chapel, which is bigger than the Catholics', they typically would have 35 or 40 people at their one service, and they had about 12 kids in their Sunday school.
"But, of course, the Catholic Church has never been able to produce enough priests to fill its quotas," Mitchell says. "So, ironically, when John O'Connor, who later became Cardinal, Archbishop of New York, was the chief of chaplains, he decided to open up the slots that the Catholics couldn't fill to the nonmainline churches, primarily the evangelicals. This was a means of bringing smaller groups into the chaplain corps."
"We have two functions in the chaplain corps," says Mitchell. "Primarily, we are commissioned as officers to act as ministers of our faith group." But second, he says, chaplains must serve all military personnel, whether Buddhist, Jewish, Wiccan, or whatever. So chaplains often must pray in such a way that everyone hearing it "can say amen to the prayer." At a Memorial Day service or retirement ceremony, he says, the Navy expects the prayers to be broad and inclusive. "This is all explained. You get it in chaplain's school day in and day out. So it's not like this is some kind of surprise.
"And specifically," Mitchell continues, "you can't be praying to our Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Now, it's not difficult to write a prayer -- I do it all the time -- that is obviously Christian in every respect except that you don't mention the name of Christ."
But here, the chaplains' primary function -- to represent their own faith group -- can move some of them in the opposite direction. "Some of these guys," says Mitchell, "can't bring themselves to offer the inclusive prayer. It's very difficult for them, because in their churches, they have to pray in Jesus' name. No other prayer is heard by the Father. They take a very literalist approach."
In her New York Times article from this summer, Laurie Goodstein writes that Evangelical Episcopal Church chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt complained that "he was warned by commanders that his approach to the ministry was not inclusive enough. When a Catholic sailor on his ship died, Lieutenant Klingenschmitt said he preached at a memorial service and emphasized that for those who did not accept Jesus, 'God's wrath remains upon him.'
"After that and several other incidents, Lieutenant Klingenschmitt's commanding officer recommended that the Navy not renew his chaplain contract.
"The lieutenant is fighting to remain in the military. 'The Navy wants to impose its religion on me,' he said. 'Religious pluralism is a religion. It's a theology all by itself.' "
Father Mitchell maintains that the smaller, evangelical groups don't always have the highest educational standards. "Proper academic credentials," he says, "are a master's degree or the equivalent. But any group claiming to be religious can get recognized as an endorsing agent if they have a small number of people in the service to minister to." Mitchell thinks that among some of the smaller groups the versions of "the equivalent" often are subpar. And that, rather than discrimination by the Navy, is another reason the evangelicals are experiencing delays in their promotions.
Of course, every minister working in the Navy receives specialized training. But Mitchell points out that chaplain school is "built on the assumption that you are already competent as a counselor and a public speaker, that you're schooled in the liberal arts, and that you can write standard English. A lot of those are issues that come up later," says Mitchell with a laugh, "when chaplains get out to the fleet. The idea is that we're not training these men and women as ministers or priests or rabbis; we're giving them the Navy's and the Marine Corps's side of the picture, so that the chaplains can function in their context.
"Chaplain school is a little over a two-month course," Mitchell continues. "It's very similar to Officer Indoctrination School that doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses, and people like that go through when they come in with a direct commission. These people have a prior professional competency, as opposed to people who go through Officer Candidate School. That's for line officers.
"Our school is mostly classroom work, but they show you how to wear the uniform properly, how to march, how to salute, whom to salute, what to salute, and how to write naval correspondence. And I'm sure you've seen this in movies. Marine gunnery sergeants or drill instructors traditionally train Navy officers, because Navy enlisted people aren't into marching and all that stuff. They're so laid back it just doesn't work. But in our case, it's important, because most of us go in our first tour to be a battalion chaplain with the Marines, and we really need to have a sense of how to behave with them.
"And you learn about writing a budget and the administrative side of the Navy, how that works. Then, of course, you need to find out all about the Navy's health-care system because you're constantly going to advise people and their families who are having health problems. They teach you the code of conduct for prisoners of war and all about the military criminal justice system. Chaplains' school is situated at the Naval War College in Newport. They bring in people from all these different kinds of expertise to teach us. It's the Navy's graduate school, so it's a very interesting place to be," says Mitchell.
I ask Chaplain Marks whether, during his tours in Iraq, soldiers ever came to him with misgivings about the war or about their role as combatants. "It happens occasionally," he says. "There are the conscientious objectors. We question their beliefs and try to help them through the military's process for dealing with that. Sometimes it's in the best interest of the military that these persons are released from active duty. Other times they may need to be taken away from a combat environment, where they actually have to take up arms. We make recommendations to commanders. An advisory role is one thing we do, but that's all.
"The conscientious objectors may have been through a traumatic event out in the field. Sometimes people find themselves in harm's way and get in a position where they have to kill somebody. And they really didn't want to kill anybody. They do want to protect and fight for their country. But you never know how you're going to feel when you actually know you pulled the trigger and killed somebody. You had seen that person in your sight alignment. That affects different people different ways. Not only that, but they may have seen their best buddy, their bunkmate, somebody they slept with in the fighting position, get blown up. Then they don't want to continue on.
"And psychological trauma happens, something like post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm not a medical doctor, but we do have people who have various degrees of that, so we try to make sure they get the best medical care the Navy has to offer. Things are in place now to allow the Navy to do more follow-ups in the medical profession, conducting interviews 90 days out, 6 months, a year out, to help our military members handle what they're dealing with. We've learned a lot of lessons from Vietnam."
How much can chaplains go to bat for rank-and-file individuals? "You can be an advocate for enlisted personnel," says Chaplain Mitchell, "but you can't do it in an adversarial way. And many folks in ministry come into the Navy with that 'fighting-city-hall mentality,' especially if they come from a church tradition that is socially active. So that's often a sticking point, and some chaplains don't quite get it. I had a confrontational Catholic chaplain with me once, and he would never go to staff meetings because he didn't want to be identified with the higher-ups. But what happened, then, was that he couldn't use his rank as an officer to help the enlisted. He had no access to the commanding officer because he didn't make himself available to him. In other words, he didn't know how to work within the system."
Yet a chaplain who constantly brings problems to commanders' attention, says Mitchell, would be like a supply officer who is so meticulous in doing his job that "he makes life difficult and is no longer an asset. The brass frowns on any kind of disturbance. And military ethos is very traditional. They see religion as a foundation of society and a support to the command. Part of our job is to pour oil on the water.
"And that may be why the mainline churches that have gone to the far left don't have as many ministers in the chaplain corps as they used to. You know, the Navy chaplain corps was basically Episcopalian and Catholic until the 1950s, and if you go to those older Navy chapels at Norfolk and Camp Lejeune -- not so much out here -- they are Episcopal churches, somewhat Low Church, but nonetheless, they definitely have that Episcopal look. And for worship, they had this thing called 'Protestant divine service,' which was a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer. And if you weren't a Catholic, that's where you went on Sunday."
Chaplains spend some of their time in "deck plate" ministries, Robert Marks tells me. Those amount to going "into enlisted people's workspaces. We walk the floor, the decks, to see how they're doing and to keep morale up, because anytime you're deployed, especially if you haven't seen land or just stay away from home for a long time, morale goes down."
Father Mitchell says he goes to lots of "boring" meetings. So he prints material from the Web to take along for reading. "But it's important for the chaplain to be seen at the table with the commanding officer as part of the command, to be seen as a player," he says. For instance, take "navigation briefs," which Mitchell says everyone on a ship, "from the captain to the youngest seaman, uses to review the procedures for getting underway or returning to port." The briefs give young officers an opportunity to practice making presentations. "So not to go to them," Mitchell says, "would be an insult."
Depression must strike some sailors on long deployments, I say. "They don't even have to be gone a long period of time before they get depressed," says Marks. "They can be depressed the very first day they get on the ship. Some sailors are very dependent on their families. If you take people from Smallville, USA, who have never been away from home, they are likely not to adapt well. They're used to being with their cousins and brothers and the rest of their immediate family. They usually just need growth and maturity. We try to help them go through the rough periods and keep out of trouble with their commands. Because the commands know about these things. Everybody's been young once, and sometimes it takes a deployment or two before people understand how to cope. We try to get them to say to themselves, 'Just get through the first day, give it the first week, now I'm gone for the first month, and now it's been two or three months.' "
And then there are the Dear John letters. Marks remembers devastating discoveries by soldiers in Iraq. "You were trusting in your spouse back home, male or female, and you had been deployed four or five months with a month left before going home and you checked your bank account and realized you didn't have any money. Your spouse has taken all of it. Then you start checking around and find that your spouse has been doing things, and finally, your spouse tells you, 'Hey, when you come back, I'm not going to be here.' That's a horrible thing to tell somebody, especially when they're in a combat situation. Unfortunately, it's going to continue to happen.
"We try to encourage personnel to take care of things ahead of time," Marks continues. "Young people often believe that when they're deployed, they leave problems behind and don't have to worry about them until they get back. But they often find that the problems grow bigger, and not being there to do something about them makes them worse. We try to emphasize that having a good power of attorney when you're gone often keeps a check on the things that are occurring back home.
"And the military doesn't just say, 'Okay, you got this letter, we're going to send you home.' There's a cost in deploying and being operational. So unless it's a great emergency, then you've got to endure being away, and that's the hardest thing for a young sailor or Marine to have to go through when they get those Dear John or Dear Jane letters."
Many kids in the military, says Chaplain Mitchell, come from broken homes and didn't do well in school. "The Navy becomes their home. When they have serious psychological problems, they do seek out the chaplain. I try to take a common-sense approach. I don't play the psychologist. A potential suicide needs a psych ward."
As a priest, Mitchell's counseling runs toward spiritual direction. He says he almost always has a couple of guys who want to become priests. In fact, he claims, "The largest single source of vocations to the priesthood is the military. They aren't the majority in seminaries but are definitely a presence at every seminary. The Navy, especially," he says, "lends itself to reflection on life."
Marks and Mitchell speak differently about women in the Navy, perhaps because of the different lengths of time they have been serving as active-duty chaplains. "Since I've been in the military, women have always been there, so it's not that big of a deal to me," says Marks. He points out that the Uniform Code of Military Justice establishes sexual boundaries. "And when I went through boot camp, a woman held the record on the rifle range at Perris Island."
But Mitchell argues that women often cause problems in the close quarters of a ship. "There's a lot of sex on board," he says, "and people get caught in adultery. Then a young lady goes into business for herself. So there are social complications that go with having women on board." That being said, Mitchell admits that women make it possible for the Navy to fill jobs it might not have enough personnel for otherwise.
Has Mitchell heard of sex crimes by priests in the Navy? "Few priests have misbehaved," he says, "and there has been no pedophilia that I know of." He did hear of a Jesuit priest caught committing sodomy. The Navy sent him to Leavenworth. "His order requested that he be turned over to them for rehabilitation," says Mitchell. "The Navy said, 'We're interested in punishing him. After that, you can rehab him.' "
Marital relationships come to the attention of chaplains during their shore duty as well as on their deployments. "Families are part of the military," says Chaplain Marks. When sailors deploy, the spouses they leave behind sometimes visit the chaplains for their own counseling. And then "privileged communication" comes into play. "If either spouse comes in for counseling, I cannot share that with anyone else, including the partner. I don't keep notes either and lock them up in a file for anybody else to come after me and look at them."
Privileged communication applies to the relationships military personnel have with their commanding officers too. Chaplain Mitchell recalls an emergency appendectomy that took place during a cruise he was on in the Mediterranean. The sailor died on the operating table, and the surgical team became distraught afterwards. "They needed to vent," says Mitchell, "and I talked to them. So the commodore sends over a judge advocate general officer who asked me, 'What do you know?' I told him, 'You can't ask and I can't tell.' "
In another touchy situation, "On a wet wintry day at Camp Lejeune," says Mitchell, "this Marine comes in and wants to speak with the chaplain. He tells me he's going to shoot the gunnery sergeant and as many other Marines as he can. Then he wants to shoot himself. I was just new to being a chaplain but knew I couldn't reveal what he told me to anyone. I tried to get to the bottom of this sad tale, and then I talked him into going to the psychiatrist at our clinic and opening up about his problems on his own."
It is Mitchell whom I ask about fear of death among the military personnel. He tells me of the first time troops he was serving faced combat. "I was with the Marines on a ship off the coast of Yugoslavia near the town of Split," he says. "It was just after the first Bush left office and Clinton came in. Our guys were getting ready to go ashore, open the road to Sarajevo, and do a search-and-rescue mission. There was a total calm among both the sailors and Marines onboard. The Marines don't get fixated on death. Most of them seem to feel they're immortal. Their self-confidence is their best weapon. Some of the men, though, did go to confession before operations began that day."