CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan --
As the morning sun rose and reveille sounded, the Marines started their day by getting out of their dirt-floor beds with rifles in hand. Next to them, however, was one person who was not a Marine but was wearing a camouflage uniform and worked, ate and slept just as they did. The sun caught the golden cross on his lapel as the greetings of “good morning Chaps” started.
Similar to medical corpsmen, Navy chaplains accompany Marines in any clime and place. The chaplains of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit do just that - they maintain a constant presence whether the Marines are training, in combat or in garrison.
“A good chaplain inserts himself with the Marines and is not afraid to walk with them,” said Navy LT. Charles S. Mallie, a chaplain with Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st MEU, and a native of Surf City, N.J. “Pain shared is pain divided. Having a chaplain in the field halves the pain shared whether it is mentally, physically or spiritually.”
Since the founding of the Marine Corps in 1775, the United States Navy Chaplain Corps has maintained a thick and rich history alongside Marines during both war and peace. However, it was not until 1862 when Chaplain C. S. Stewart was assigned to Marine Barracks, New York Naval Yard, that chaplains were officially attached to Marine units. Chaplain Stewart set the example for all future chaplains and started a long history of standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with their Marines.
The role of the “green side” chaplain expanded further when Chaplain B. R. Patrick became the first to deploy with a Marine unit when he went to Nicaragua in 1914. From this point on, sharing the burden of a deployment became standard for chaplains alongside Marines.
Depending on the chaplain’s faith background, they are the minister, priest, rabbi, spiritual guide or non-denominational counselor for Marines. Regardless of the official title, they are affectionately called “Chaps” and provide a steadying presence during good times and bad.
“Marines and Sailors have a right to express their religious beliefs,” said Commander Nick Hamilton, the command chaplain for the 31st MEU, and a native of Lakeview, Oreg. “We protect those beliefs by providing religious services from our faith background, facilitating religious practices for people of other religions, extending pastoral care to everyone and advising the command on religious, spiritual and moral issues.”
Because the 31st MEU maintains a busy deployment schedule throughout the Asia-Pacific region, the troops frequently alternate between a field environment, ship life and being back in garrison. Regardless of where the unit is, the chaplain is always right beside them.
While on deployment, the Marines work closely with host nations’ militaries in a number of locations. During Exercise Talisman Saber 2013, the Australian chaplains and 31st MEU chaplains met and discussed the two nations’ military chaplain interoperability and how to provide religious services and spiritual counsel to every unit.
““What I’ve found really great is the encouragement from someone from the other side of the world and how we are able to support each other in the important role of chaplaincy,” said Australian Army Lt. Col. Kyle Rutley, chaplain for the Australian Army’s 3rd Division. “The differences between us are negligible.”
The chaplains conduct worship services in a variety of locations, perform religious rites and ceremonies and counsel individuals who seek guidance. Additionally, they oversee religious education programs, visit hospitalized personnel, train lay leaders, promote attendance at religious services and advise leaders at all levels regarding morale, ethics and spiritual well-being.
While exchange programs and international deployments allow for chaplains to expand their horizons of influence, they will always maintain the one thing that transcends beyond religious preferences: listening. No matter what happens in the constantly changing global environment, Marines can always rely on the trusty “Chaps” to be nearby, willing to shoulder any burden with them.
The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region and is the only continuously forward deployed MEU.