Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Mariana O’leary, public affairs specialist.
One has to spend only the briefest amount of time with Lt. Jerry Durham to understand why the simple title of ‘chaplain’ seems too small a word, too simple an explanation to encompass his true responsibilities.
Now as his three year tour as a Coast Guard chaplain came to a close, Durham reflects, calling it one of the most challenging and rewarding periods of his life.
An example he recalled was when he deployed into the Caribbean four days after an immense earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. Bouncing between Coast Guard Cutters Oak, Legare and Mohawk, and the Killick Haitian coast guard base, Durham worked feverishly to provide care for the large number of personnel who found themselves thrust into a tragic situation.
“I spent two weeks there with 400 to 500 Guardians,” said Durham. “My initial role was working in the triage and trauma center set up at Killick, acting in the capacity of first aid.”
“People were hungry, they wanted food that we could not provide at that time,” added Durham. “I saw [machinery technicians] splint legs, I watched deck seamen sewing people up, and I was constantly amazed at these young Guardians.”
Durham describes his response to Haiti as the most intense experience of his chaplain career.
“I enlisted in the Marines in 1992,” said Durham. “It was then when I saw my first Navy chaplain and I thought, ‘I think I could do that.’ I saw him praying with recruits and knew that’s what I wanted to be.”
After graduating seminary in 2003, Durham came on active duty as a chaplain in 2004.
Regardless of the religious symbols worn on the uniform of the military chaplain, the religious training, the divinity degrees, and the hold-fast faith carried by chaplains such as Durham, the care of a chaplain goes far beyond matters of faith.
“We advise the command on moral and ethical issues,” he said. “We can act almost as a bridge between a command and an individual.”
Durham, along with the approximately 40 other Coast Guard chaplains are actually naval officers, serving as chaplains to the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
On a daily basis, Durham’s job has a simple premise – be there.
“I walk the decks and see everyone, more importantly, to have them see me,” said Durham, “I’ve put 37,000 miles on that [government vehicle] out there in the last two and a half years and I’m going to miss it.”
Durham departed his Coast Guard family last Friday, on to care for Marines in a far-away combat zone. And as all chaplains are non-combatants, he’ll go unarmed to provide care for warriors in need.
“We don’t carry weapons or sidearms,” said Durham. “From a care perspective, it’s important for combatants to look at us and know there’s something different. We try to provide the humanity in sometimes inhumane feeling situations.”
Ironically, Durham’s own words, which he used to describe his immense respect for the Coast Guard members he served with in Haiti, seem to aptly describe himself.
“There is a level of courage, to overcome your personal fears, your personal bias, and recognize that a person needs you.”