Petty Officer 1st Class Rita Hurts, shown here in Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan’s Chapel of Hope, recently was named Religious Program Specialist of the Year for 2004.

Petty Officer 1st Class Rita Hurts, shown here in Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan’s Chapel of Hope, recently was named Religious Program Specialist of the Year for 2004. (Patrick Dille / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

A Destroyer Squadron 15 sailor at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, recently was recognized by the Navy Chaplain’s Corps as the Religious Program Specialist, or RP, of the year.

Petty Officer 1st Class Rita Hurts from Houston was selected for the honor on Dec. 27 and will receive her award, along with a Navy Achievement Medal, at a Navy Chaplain Corps symposium in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday.

Hurts, 39, the only religious program specialist for the seven ships assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, said she was grateful for the award.

“I am truly honored,” she said. “This is the second time I’ve been nominated. Last year, I made Pacific Fleet RP of the year, and this year I made Pacific RP … [and] Navy RP of the year.”

Hurts’ path to the award has been anything but typical. Joining the Navy in 1997 at 32, Hurts was a little bit older than the typical recruit. She had quit school, she said, when she ran out of money and then worked at a bakery for seven years before getting “burned out” and looking for something different to do.

At the mall one day, she bumped into a cousin who was a master chief, and he talked her into looking at enlisting in the Navy. Her first Navy assignment was as an undesignated airman on the USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck. During that stint, she said, she would visit the religious program office a lot to research jobs other than aviation.

“I used to go down to the religious program office, where they would have the computers, telephones and everything. It was basically a crew lounge and I would see the RPs there all of the time,” she said. “I would ask the RPs a lot of questions because they were really there to help.”

But she credits the influence of a chief petty officer for leading her to become an RP herself.

“His name was Chief Terry. He finally gave me an opportunity, said ‘I’m going to help this young lady’ and talked to the RPs and they took it from there,” Hurts said. “That chief is now a Master Chief Terry and … the senior RP for the chief of chaplains. Who would have ever guessed that? And the bad part is,” Hurts said, laughing, “I don’t even think this guy remembers me.”

She said the chief arranged for her to work temporarily in the RP office, and when the ship returned to port from deployment she applied and was selected to become a full-time RP.

She attended RP training school in Meridian, Miss., and then was assigned to Yokosuka Naval Base’s Chapel of Hope. Next she took a one-year assignment to Commander Naval Forces Korea in Chinhae, South Korea, and she arrived at the destroyer squadron in 2002.

Hurts says her job is to be the “eyes and ears” for the chaplain. “You represent the chaplain,” said Hurts. “The first person they see when they go through the door is a religious program specialist, and you need to be squared away, be approachable, be alert and really be concerned and try to handle the sailor or the spouse’s problem at the lowest level possible.”

Lt. Robert Jones, staff chaplain for Destroyer Squadron 15, applauded Hurts’ professionalism and work ethic.

“There are some outstanding sailors who are RPs throughout the Navy and serving with the Marine Corps. For her to be chosen among her peers is a very, very serious statement on the kind of professional she is, because the competition was very stiff,” he said.

In March, Hurts transfers to the Training Support Center in Great Lakes, Ill., much to her boss’ regret. “That is going to be a sad day for us,” Jones said. ‘We’ve been a team, we’ve been under way on ships and done many port visits and [community relations] projects together. …

“We have a really great working relationship and that doesn’t always happen. When she leaves there will be some sadness — I call it my ‘tight face,’ — maybe even a few tears.” Hurts, who reenlisted for another four years on Thursday, says she never expected to be in the Navy this long.

“I am enjoying being in the Navy,” she said. “I’ve accelerated very quickly and I’ve been blessed to have made it this far. I can remember coming in and saying ‘this is not for me, I am on my way out,’ and here I am on my second enlistment now. It has been truly rewarding.”

She said she is looking forward to her new command because it will allow her another opportunity to be a part of something she feels is most important for sailors in today’s Navy: mentorship.

“It is so important that we really take the time to mentor to junior personnel because they are the future of the Navy. Had it not been for Chief — now Master Chief — Terry giving me the opportunity, not knowing me from anyone else on the ship and giving me the chance,” she probably wouldn’t be here today, she said.

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