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Navy's chaplains have open door policy

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Whether it’s spiritual guidance, marital counseling or simply a conversation, the Navy’s chaplains and religious program specialists have an open door policy.

Having grown up in a military family with service dating back to the Revolutionary War, the command chaplain at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune wants Marines, sailors and family members of all faiths to know that chaplains have an obligation to provide a safe and secure environment for people to talk and to talk about anything, he said.

“Taking care of people’s spiritual and emotional needs is the most important part of my job,” said Michael Tomlinson, 54, of Jacksonville, N.C. “A person may not always be a person of faith but that doesn’t mean I can’t really listen to their problems, give them direction and help them.”

When Tomlinson was commissioned in the Navy 12 years ago, he had just wrapped up 20 years as a pastor. He said he felt a calling to help those who put their lives in harm’s way. Whether it is marital issues, the holiday blues or suicidal ideations, chaplains are there to help, he said, and will never betray the trust of those who confide in them.

“I hope to make a difference and do something good by helping somebody,” Tomlinson said. “When I get up I want to … positively touch the life of someone. If it’s one person, I’m good to go.”

But the real magic, he said, happens when chaplains deploy to combat zones with Marines or on ship with fellow sailors. It is on deployment that Tomlinson said he forged his most validating experiences.

“If I can take the weight off of someone’s shoulders while they are deployed and help them to come home safely, I’m going to do just that.” Tomlinson said. “I think deployments are where we really do our job. …I don’t like war but the brotherhood is incredible. The bond is stronger down range because you become an integral part of someone’s life.”

For Navy Chief Petty Officer Zachary McDonald, 39, of Camp Lejeune, his job as a religious program specialist is more of a calling he has answered than a job. After 19 years in the Navy, he said he wouldn’t change anything about his career, which has been chock full of good and bad memories, all of which have been fulfilling.

“We really react to everything that is going on in the hospital or in the units,” McDonald said. “We prepare things for religious services and make sure that events for the holidays are taken care of. We’re behind the scenes but I like it that way. I don’t want recognition for doing the things we do.”

Part of what McDonald has done over the years is comforting families within the hospital or Marines and sailors on deployment after a tragedy, offering them spiritual guidance or just comforting them by listening. Making a difference, he said, is a really good feeling and makes the long hours’ worth working.

“I’ve been a religious programs specialist my entire career – it’s what I wanted to do because it’s in my nature,” McDonald said. “It’s helped me develop from who I was into what I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing. I do it for those who need us – for those who are on hard times.”
 

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