Pacific edition, Sunday, June 24, 2007


At an age when most servicemembers have already retired, a Navy chaplain based at Camp Foster is just starting his military career.

Lt. j.g. Kevin Bemel, 46, who became a rabbi after 20 years in the real estate and entertainment business in Los Angeles, answered calls to serve both God and country last September.

The desire to serve his country was sparked by what he called “our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was with a Jewish group visiting the Capitol when the Pentagon was struck by a hijacked airplane.

“As we made our way back to the bus, I could see black smoke rising,” Bemel said. “That was the Pentagon. We had been there the day before.”

He decided he had to do something. He just didn’t know what or how. Or when.

After three years, he visited a Navy recruiter’s office.

“I told him that I wanted to join the Navy,” said Bemel, who was 43 at the time, recalling how the petty officer looked at him in disbelief over his age.

He was asked about a few critical professions: nurse, doctor, law enforcement. Bemel responded that he no such experience, but joked that if would help, his wife was a nurse.

“He said the Navy didn’t need me, but they would be interested if my wife wanted to join,” Bemel said.

Bemel left the recruiting office the way he came in: a civilian. But his wife ended up joining the Navy Reserve. And through her, he learned he might have a chance to serve by joining the Chaplain Corps.

It wouldn’t be easy.

“I hadn’t been ordained as a rabbi,” Bemel said, “so I was skeptical, but I had been studying for many years.”

He kept studying. Two years later, the newly ordained rabbi headed back to the recruiter’s office.

Once again, Bemel’s age stood in his way. The age limit for chaplains is 40. But because there is a severe shortage of rabbis in the Navy, he received an age waiver.

Normally, there are about 12 to 20 rabbis in the Chaplain Corps, he said. Currently there are only seven on active duty.

Being a rabbi doesn’t prevent Bemel, the assistant chaplain at the Camp Foster Chapel, from attending to people of other beliefs.

“I had someone call who wanted to practice Shintoism,” he said. “I had to ask around and find out where he could go to practice his faith and found a place.”

Like other chaplains, Bemel also provides counseling.

“Marital problems, personal challenges, alcohol abuse, you name it. I’ve seen most of the problems facing DOD personnel,” he said.

Though some people want counseling from a chaplain of their own faith, he said, many don’t care.

“Overwhelmingly, the majority of the people I have counseled have not been Jewish.”

He has even found that his advice based on Judaistic insights provides people a different way to look at their problems, he said.

“I am not here to convince people that the answer to their problems is faith and religion,” he said. “If they come to me with a challenge in their lives, I’m here to help them overcome those challenges.”

And he’s learned his status as an older junior officer has benefits, too.

“Most of those fighting in this war are young enough to be my children,” he said. “I see myself as their ‘in loco parentis’ parent away from home. That’s my job for the younger servicemembers.”

Bridging cultural divides with God

CAMP KINSER, Okinawa — The Navy Chaplain Corps has a “pluralistic ministry,” with each chaplain serving people of many faiths.

That’s not always an easy task. But one Camp Kinser-based chaplain with Combat Logistics Regiment says he manages through “the common denominator of the universally accepted idea of who God is, the supreme being.”

Lt. Winston Paulk, a Baptist who also presides over Camp Foster’s Gospel Services, serves the more than 1,600 regimental Marines and sailors from Camp Schwab to Camp Kinser.

It’s a diverse group with diverse faiths, something Paulk, 42, considers a benefit.

“It’s been very rewarding to see and meet so many people from all different parts of the world and different cultures,” he said.

That was what drew him to serve God through military service in the first place.

Paulk said that when he was in seminary at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he was inspired when the Navy chief of chaplains spoke about the number of people he was able to reach.

“If someone is open about talking about his religion, we can always find a common denominator within God,” he said.

“We don’t try to convert anyone,” he said. “We only try to meet their needs through the common denominator that we both have a faith.”

At the same time, he also has developed a ministry within his faith. As the Gospel Service chaplain, he ministers to a congregation of 300, about 80 percent Marines and their families and the rest Department of Defense civilians.

Paulk described Gospel service as “a more free-style service — more contemporary with a style of music that drives the service.” That is different from Protestant services, which he said are more structured and scripture based.

Paulk said he looks forward to 20 years serving servicemembers, but he emphasizes that chaplains are “not just there for servicemembers, we’re there for families members and the community as well.”

-Cindy Fisher

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