As the only members in military service who are not authorized to carry weapons, chaplains must rely on their religious programs specialists for protection in theaters of operation.
Although, the primary mission of an RP is to provide administrative and technical support for the chaplain, while forward deployed RPs also provide personal protection for the chaplain.
"RPs are the right arm of the chaplains," said Lt. Cmdr. James H. Pittman, station chaplain. "They are able do things that the chaplain may not. They are administrative support and personal security managers."
Chaplains, whether they are members of the United States Army, Navy or Air Force, according to the Geneva Convention and military regulations, are designated noncombatants. While other noncombatants, such as medical personnel, may carry weapons for self-defense, chaplains are not allowed to carry weapons and must rely upon their RPs for protection.
"The RP rating is the only rating in the Navy tasked with protecting a noncombatant," said Senior Chief Dino C. Medler, an RP for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
To become Fleet Marine Force qualified, RPs must attend the Chaplain and Religious Program Specialist Expeditionary Skills Training Course, a sixweek training program, similar to Marine Combat Training and the School of Infantry, which gives the Sailor a rating equivalent to that of a Marine infantryman.
As part of the training, FMF RPs must qualify with the M-16 service rifle and the service pistol. They must also be humvee qualified. They also earn their Marine Corps martial arts tan belt during CREST. Basic Marine Corps history and general knowledge are also required.
"To be FMF qualified, we have to pass an oral board and be able to recite information about any aspect of Marine Corps life from memory," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Dana Saunders, an RP for Marine Aircraft Group 14.
A large part of CREST is conditioning training and instruction from Marines explaining how things work in the Marine Corps, said Medler.
"While assigned to Fleet Marine Forces, we have to be able to do everything that the Marines we serve with can do," said Medler. "We are required to do things like pass a Marine Corps physical fitness test."
"My experience is that, to seniors, RPs are seen as Marines and are expected to perform like them," he said. "One of the ways we are encouraged to interact with the Marines is to PT regularly with them."
Interacting with Marines on a regular basis while in garrison allows the Marines to see that the RPs want to be involved and are genuinely concerned about them. This helps when they all get deployed together. The Marines already know who the RPs are and they are comfortable working with them.
Unlike chaplains, who minister to a particular faith group, RPs must be able to work with every faith group. They are trained to provide for special religious needs such as religious dietary needs or specific religious materials.
Occasionally, Marines will approach an RP with a specific problem or need. RPs maintain the same confidentiality privileges as chaplains.
"Junior Marines, especially, tend to be more comfortable talking to an RP, who is enlisted, rather than a chaplain, who is an officer," said Medler. "Marines can go to an RP who will act as a liaison to a chaplain. RPs cannot act as a counselor, but they can help send them to the right place."
"Being an RP presents more unique opportunities and responsibilities than any other rating in the Navy," said Medler. "But the most important thing is being able to go visit and minister to the troops."