Former Navy chaplain recounts sharing word of God

Holding up a pair of boots which served him well during his time as a Navy chaplain aboard an aircraft carrier, the Rev. James West, told members of the community at the Ecumenical luncheon recently that, to him, the shoes highlight that verse of scripture, “How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the bearer of good news.”

“And that’s really what my life’s work has been about. Be it before the Navy, during the Navy and after the Navy,” he said, “to be a bearer of good news.”

“I remember when I was being recruited to be a Navy chaplain, I was coming up with, ‘Why would I be doing such a thing?’ And it’s just the irony, I think, of how different the non-military mind is from the military mind and after the military, because I came up with this very noble, good-hearted reason.

“The real reason was I wanted to get out of Toledo,” he said, drawing a laugh from his audience.

He continued that he had reached a point where he was tired of doing the same thing and ministering to what he felt were the same people.

“I was saying to myself, my ordination is to the public ministry, to word and sacrament. This is as private a group as I’ve ever seen. But I couldn’t admit to myself that was what was going on, so I gave myself a noble mission, and that is even warriors need to hear the Gospel of peace,” he said.

“Much to my surprise, when I got to work among war fighters, they want peace more than civilians do, because they’re the ones who have to have the things coming at them. Basically to protect their shipmate or their Marine on the right or the left, they fire back,” he shared. “Not so much in anger, but rather in defense.”

West, who is serving as the interim pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, told the group that one of the opportunities the Navy offered him was the opportunity to study long distance with the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. It was there, West said, the he was taught that when it comes to state craft, it’s as simple as the acronym, DIME.

“The D is for diplomacy, and I hope that you are praying as fervently as I am that we will settle things diplomatically rather than militarily. The I is for information, and that encompasses culture, you name it. The idea of understanding what’s going on, because I assure you we don’t understand one another very well. Without good information, diplomacy generally doesn’t work. The M is for military. We’re really good at breaking things and blowing people up and that’s really all the military is meant to do. That is why relying on the military alone is foolish. The E is for economy, the economics. You can’t do any of this stuff without some means of, ‘I’ll do this for you if you do this for me,’ “ he said.

West also shared his experience in the Navy during and following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

“While all of you were responding to that tragedy, I was in Darwin, Australia, with the United States Navy, specifically. Not only with the Navy, but with the Marine Corps too,” he said.

He said that the Marines had just ended a training exercise with the Australian Armed Forces. The group he was with got the news 12 hours after the attack occurred because of the difference in time zones. All they were told at first was that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

“We were just wondering, wow, that’s weird. People who owned a Cessna would know not to plow into a building. That’s the only thing we had in our mind. Then a little later, not only did we hear more of what had happened, but rather than have a grand parade of ships out of the Darwin harbor, there were no crowds, nothing. We were getting underway as fast as we could,” he said.

As the ships got underway, crew members knew they were not headed to Singapore, but that was all they knew. West said the amphibious-ready group consisted of the USS Peleliu, which carried harriers and helicopters, the USS Dubuque and the USS Comstock. He noted that he was on the Comstock at the time. The only thing they did know was that they were headed to the Indian Ocean.

“Our next stop was just off the coast of Pakistan,” he said.

The ships had arrived at a small coastal town, Pasni, and from there the crew disembarked and headed to the beach, not knowing what was to come next. He noted that he had a small radio with him which kept him informed of what was happening around the world.

“I’m so happy that I had that little radio with me because not even the commanders knew what was going on, but we could hear radio reports about what was going on in the world,” he said.

From Pasni, the crew were sent to Jacobabad, Pakistan, to an abandoned air strip where they set up shop and trained with the Pakistani army and air force.

“For the most part we were the guards to protect what would become an air base with the Air Force coming in and that would be a logistics base,” he said.

After a month there, the crew sent back to the ship to secure supplies before going to Afghanistan, in a place they called Camp Rhino.

“Think of a beautiful beach without an ocean,” West said, describing the effect the sand dunes created.

“It was at that point that I really began to understand the Old Testament and the allure of the desert, and why our ancestors in the Faith could have so many encounters with the Divine, because it was quiet,” he said.

West noted that his job at that point was what he was doing all the years prior to that time.

“Wherever a group of Marines or sailors happened to be, (I’d) visit with them and share stories with them, preach the Gospel, serve Communion, and that was the routine,” he added.

Throughout this time, as the troops went into Kabul, Afghanistan, and claimed the area, which had been occupied by the Taliban, for the coalition partners, West said that he really did not feel at any time that he was in danger.

“As I tell this story and all those images come to mind, I don’t know what comes to mind for you. It’s just one of those examples of being able to look back and being able to realize that everything that was necessary to get through that had been in place. Probably the strangest thing for me is that I never really felt I was ever in danger or that this was a combat operation. The reason for that is all the training is so realistic leading up to that point that there really isn’t any sense of it being any different than the way we train. One of the ideas in the Navy and the Marine Corps is that we fight as we train and we train as we fight,” he said.

“When I took the oath of office and raised my right hand and stated my name and swore to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that to me was a prayer. At the end of it, it says ‘with no purpose of evasion.’ That was a call. All that training from before I was born up until I took that oath in 1992, all those things came together,” he shared.


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