Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Today's article in the "11 Days of Veterans" series celebrates Sunday with stories from a Veteran Navy Chaplain, Paul Soderquist.
Our nation’s sea services (Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) consists of over 770,000 active duty and reserve service men and women, with an average age under 25. Our sea service men and women place their lives on the line daily in response to our country’s needs. Imagine the challenges they face and the sacrifices they make. The challenges and sacrifices also extend to the home, where the military spouse and children must continue to function with their loved one away from home. Our service men and women and their families greatly require the support guidance of a special group of leaders – our Navy’s Chaplain Corps.
Paul Soderquist is the Chaplain for Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 8 in Mesa, Arizona. Paul is both a Vietnam Era and Cold War Veteran, serving in the Navy twice--once in 1969-1973 and again in 1982-1988--spending 10 1/2 years on active duty and additional years in the Reserves. These stories recount some of his experiences as a Chaplain in the United States Navy...
Beirut, Lebanon & Camp Lejeune, NC
On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber affiliated with Hezbollah drove an explosives-laden truck into the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 U.S. military personnel, and injuring scores of others. The majority of the casualties came out of Camp Lejeune, where I was stationed.
Word of the explosion came early that morning. All designated Casualty Assistance Calls Officers and available chaplains were ordered to muster by 1600 (4 pm) at a Camp Lejeune barracks. I made sure my wife Gail and our two small children had what they needed to stay safely at home for a while. I packed a bag along with my service dress uniform, kissed my family goodbye, and left for the base.
We waited for the list of killed, missing and injured to come in. We waited and waited. I thought the list would come in all at once right away, but no, the names came in one and three and ten at a time, over several days. As the casualty messages trickled in, CACO officers and chaplains put on service dress uniforms and paired up to deploy out into the housing areas in official cars.
In the middle of all this, people noticed that the lights were on all over the base throughout the whole night. Apparently, no one was getting any sleep, thinking that a CACO officer and chaplain could be ringing the doorbell at any time. So, the base commander, a Marine General, wisely ordered that notifications would no longer be made in the night time hours, something like 2000 (10 pm) to 0800 (8 am). At least some people could try to sleep.
I think I made four CACO calls that week. In each case, utmost care, respect, and compassion were shown to the concerned and grieving families.
My training in Newport the year before proved to be most helpful. But something was occurring not covered in my training. While being driven in the official vehicle, I would invariably hear the CACO officer say to me, “Chaplain, will you tell them?” And every time I would answer that while it was true I could do that, making the actual notification was the responsibility of the CACO officer, not the chaplain. I was there in spiritual support.
Sensing the officer’s anxiety to be rising as we rode closer and closer to the stated house, I said, “Well Lieutenant, let’s role play just a little. Right now, before we arrive at the house, can you come up with the words you will actually say once we are inside the house and everyone sits down?”
The officer would look at the casualty message print-out once again, and think for a moment, and then say something like this: “Mrs. Rodriguez, I’m so sorry to report your husband, Staff Sergeant Lance D. Rodriguez, died Sunday, October 23rd in Beirut, Lebanon. Here is the written confirmation and notification, and I’m giving it to you to keep. The chaplain and I are here, first of all, to express our sincere condolences to you and your family. We stand ready to support you now in every way we can.”
Riding in the car, the words of the role play sometimes were stumbled and mumbled a bit. But I believe the role play helped by shoring up the confidence of the Lieutenant, who probably had never done anything like that before.
When a casualty occurs, someone has to bring a personally-delivered notification to the family with respect, dignity, and compassion. To do otherwise, to make notification by telegram, or in the mail, or over the telephone, would be cold and heartless. The CACO program is a real service to families, but it isn’t easy for the CACO officers making the notifications. In my role as chaplain, I would tell the CACO officers, “I know you can do this,” wondering if he heard me, and hoping it helped.
The American Red Cross: There Wherever You Go
From time to time, we would get emergency or crisis messages to deliver to service members. We called them AMCROSS messages. American Red Cross.
One of the times I truly feared for the life and safety of a ship’s crew member occurred one night when I was delivering an AMCROSS message to an E-6 First Class Petty Officer.
After confirming the correct identity of the sailor, I sat the man down in my office and told him I was in receipt of an American Red Cross message with disturbing news from home. His wife had just been involved in a motor vehicle accident, and she had unfortunately died. I hadn’t yet told him arrangements were being made to get him off the ship to return back to the U.S., when he bolted straight up out of his chair, and ran out of the chaplain’s offices.
I didn’t know what his intentions were. He could have run directly to the port side of the ship, just a few steps away from my office, and jumped off the ship in despair. I didn’t know.
As was my duty, I next called his Division Officer to report delivery of this AMCROSS message, and of my deep concern for his well-being. Has it turned out, he didn’t jump off the ship. He was flown off the next day to go home and be with his family.
Jail Time for the Chaplain
In the fall of 1982, I was beginning service as a Navy chaplain at a marine training command of about 2,000. Just 90 days previous, I had been a Presbyterian pastor in a small town in Iowa, where everything was calm and relaxed.
Word reached me that a marine from my training command got into some trouble and ended up in the Camp Lejeune brig. I went over to see him.
After signing in at the desk, someone pointed to a sequence of doors. When a buzzer sounded, I was instructed to open and then close each door on my way to see the prisoner.
I found myself about to enter a long passageway with a half dozen marine inmates waiting in line along a bulkhead (wall). As I came around a corner, all of a sudden, I heard someone shout, “Ahh-Ten-Hut!” I stopped in my tracks and looked around to see who the important person was in the area. After a pause, it dawned on me. “Ahh-Ten-Hut” had been called out, with everyone in line snapping to attention, because an officer was in the immediate vicinity, and that officer was me.
It took a little time, but soon I was leaving behind my civilian pastor ways in order to be more attentive to my surroundings and better fit in with military life.
An Army-Navy "Game"
One day in 1986, the ship I was on, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of our nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, was underway somewhere off the coast of Central America. I say somewhere off the coast of Central America because I asked where somewhere was, and they wouldn’t tell me. Even though I held a secret security clearance at the time, I guess that information didn’t fit into the “need-to-know” category.
Some Army helicopters came aboard. Their unit chaplain was with them, and he found his way to our Religious Ministries spaces. After introductions with us three Navy chaplains, he got a cup of coffee, sat down, and started telling stories. He talked about staying in the jungle, which he thought was a lot of fun. I wasn’t too keen on that idea. And he even talked about cutting the heads off snakes before roasting them for lunch. Yuck.
I could tell he was sort-of nervous about being on the water. In the afternoon, he got tired and was wanting to catch some shut-eye, so the senior chaplain let him nap in his stateroom. But he was dead serious about wanting to be woken up in time to fly back before night-fall. He just preferred land.
More power to him. I’m not particularly attracted to snakes.
The Chief and the Piano
I was in the fo’c’sle of the ship one day looking around, in preparation for the divine services which were to be conducted the next day. I noticed the piano nearby, as usual. But it had some damage, and the accompanying piano bench was smashed into pieces. The legs were just gone.
When I asked Religious Program Specialist Chief Gonzalez about it, he said that’s what happened during the last port visit. Some sailors had returned to the ship from liberty in an intoxicated state, and they had partially destroyed the piano and completely destroyed the bench. Investigators were looking into the matter.
A couple months later, I saw a handsome new piano and bench had been delivered to the fo’c’sle. But you couldn’t just walk up to the piano and play it. The keyboard cover on this handsome wooden piano was secured with an ugly hasp and lock.
I talked with the Chief again. “Chief, what’s this ugly hasp and lock doing on this beautiful new piano?” He said something about having to place it on the piano as a security device to prevent damage to government property by intoxicated sailors.
Then I wondered which was worse. The damage from intoxicated sailors? Or the damage from having to install an ugly security device on that beautiful new piano?
Trust But Verify...
Rumors are a favorite in military life. The senior chaplain on the ship decided to find out how fast rumors spread.
So he went down to the mess decks. He sat down with some sailors eating their meals. He leaned in to them, and whispered, “I think heard someone say the ship will enter port in Naples --- on Thursday.” As a rule, the official comings and goings of Navy ships are generally not widely broadcast, so this new information must have been received with great interest.
And the senior chaplain found out it took only twenty minutes for the rumor to get back to the chaplain’s office on that ship.
Chaplains are the spiritual backbone of our armed forces. As one reads the history of the Chaplain Corps, there are stories of great human interest as well as those of Chaplains putting their lives on the line to minister to the spiritual and psychological crises of their flock much like Corpsmen/Medics administer aid to their physical needs. In some cases, during times of active conflict, Chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions in the face of death in order to care for the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen for whose welfare they have been entrusted.
Would you like to know more about how Chaplains serve our men and women in uniform and their families, or what kind of work a Chaplain can do to continue serving their Veteran flock after leaving the military? You can contact Paul Soderquist at our local DAV Chapter:
Disabled American Veterans
East Valley Chapter 8
Mesa, AZ 85203
Contact online here
Hours of Operation:
One Saturday/Month (check calendar here)
Services are open to all Veterans and their families (Bring DD-214 and VA/DoD card)
 NRD Dallas. (2016). US Navy Chaplain Corps. Website. Available at http://chaplain-nrddallas.blogspot.com/