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Navy Chaplains

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Updated November 28, 2005
by Lance Cpl. Roger L. Nelson

For 230 years, the Navy Chaplain Corps has served America by helping service members and their family members during times of need. They often have provided counseling and someone to confide in when on deployment to combat zones and numerous other places around the world.

Nov. 28, 1775, the Navy Chaplain Corps was established to govern the new Continental Navy for the United States militaries and their service members — a job that they have been doing ever since.

The first chaplain is believed to be Reverend Benjamin Balch, a Harvard graduate, who, on Oct. 30, 1799, was commissioned as the first Navy chaplain under the new Department of the Navy.

In 1841, general regulations mandated ordination and good moral character be the characteristics of Navy chaplains, a regulation that stands today.

“I think the greatest thing is the fact that we’ve been a part of the United States military since its inception,” said Lt. Cmdr. Diane M. Wilson, commanding chaplain, Combat Service Support Group 3, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. “It’s always good to remember those who came before us, members who are putting themselves in harm’s way today and to look forward to where we’re going to be in the future.”

Wilson said the Navy Chaplains Corps is 230 years old and is going strong, and chaplains will always be there to support military members and their families.

“For the anniversary, we do a similar ceremony to what Marines do at their ball,” said Wilson. “We have the oldest and newest member to the Chaplains Corps cut the cake, and then have a guest speaker.”

Navy Chaplains have proved themselves in many ways, some even being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan, Navy chaplain, was awarded the Medal of Honor for putting his life on the line when he comforted and encouraged injured crewmen during an attack on the USS Franklin by Japanese enemy aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on March 19, 1945.

Navy chaplains do not work alone; enlisted religious program specialists are their assistants and help out in many ways, supporting clergy of all faiths. These Navy RPs set up religious activities and maintain and operate religious facilities on ships and on shore.

“While deployed, we have a lot of different tasks,” said Chief Fermin T. Ancho, religious program coordinator, MCB Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. “My main job is to protect the chaplain, and provide him with transportation. So in a way, I’m like a bodyguard for the chaplain during deployments.”

Ancho said he thinks that the Navy Chaplain Corps was established at a perfect time.

“The military was in desperate need for spiritual relief at that time,” said the Waipahu, Hawaii native. “Military personnel are people and have emotions and the chaplains were there for them to confide in and to see to their spiritual needs. Chaplains were very much needed.”

Ancho said he is unsure of the exact reason why the Navy Chaplain Corps was created, but, in his opinion, he thinks it was because the Marine Corps was created 18 days earlier. Perhaps it was because there was a need for spiritual help more frequently, but it is likely that it was just a coincidence that they were established around the same timeframe.

As the 230th anniversary of the Navy Chaplain Corps rolls around, we’re reminded of the importance of Navy chaplains, said Wilson a Tracy, Calif. native.

“We’re 230 and going strong, and I don’t see anything changing anytime soon.”

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