MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Those who serve their country and their God have come to be known by some as “Men of Faith” and “Defenders of the Holy.” But these men are better known by Marines, sailors and family members as Navy chaplains.
Chaplains carry two symbols on their collars. One is a symbol of religion and the other is rank, representing their responsibilities in the United States military.
“We are here to ensure the Marines and sailors have their first amendment right – freedom of religion,” said Navy Lt. David Nelson, the chaplain for Headquarters Battalion.
Chaplains are a whole different breed of officer, Nelson said. Typical military officers deal with their units and unit responsibilities, but chaplains deal directly with Marines, sailors and their spiritual needs.
Nelson, a native of Piedmont, S.C., said he spends a lot of time out of the office interacting with members of his unit.
Chaplains are there for the Marines and sailors as a support element, as well as a spiritual counselor element.
“Sometimes there are no words to say, but the best thing to do is be with them,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Hester, the chaplain with the protestant chapel. “Just being there with my guys and giving them a shoulder to cry on makes a difference.”
Chaplains care for everybody, even those who don’t have religious beliefs or are strong atheists, said Nelson. “We will still counsel you if you desire, without the worry of judgment,” he said.
Chaplains deploy with troops but do not carry weapons, Hester said.
When a chaplain goes to the battlefield, their job is to not fight the Marines’ physical enemies in Afghanistan, but fight their spiritual enemy, Hester said. “The [chaplains] have to go out and fight the spiritual part of warfare,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Earl Eggers, the religious program specialist for Headquarters Battalion “Many Marines come back broken; it’s their job to patch them back up.”
When it comes to spiritual needs, a chaplain can not be everywhere at once. The chaplains have religious program specialists who not only act as their security element but as their eyes, ears, and assistants. “My job is not to go out there and counsel but to be there for the Marines and make sure they get the counseling that they need,” Eggers said.
Eggers said serving as a religious program specialist has helped develop his spirituality and ethics. “It puts us in a spot where you serve righteous men - not self-righteous but selfless,” Eggers said, who is originally from Philadelphia. “My life has grown stronger by working with and serving with men who have good tendencies and go out and do good things, not just Godly things but humanly good nature.”
One of the best things about being a counselor and mentor to the troops is seeing how God works in the lives of the Marines and sailors, Nelson said.
“Sometimes you just stand in awe and think ‘Wow look what God did and I just happened to be out here,’” Nelson said. “It’s a neat thing that God had a plan to put you in a place and use you.”