Written by Lt. Jonathan Alexander
Chaplain, Base National Capital Region
It was 10 p.m. as they descended exhausted and bleary-eyed with children, luggage, and even dogs in tow from the bowels of a HC-130 Hercules airplane. They had just been evacuated from Coast Guard Sector San Juan and Air Station Borinquen before Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico. Their lives and homes were upended, and Coast Guard chaplains were there to walk with them through the storm — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This scene of evacuated and displaced Coast Guard families was played out numerous times during the 2017 hurricane season with the ravaging effects of Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
From the first warnings of Harvey to present day, chaplains from the 7th District, 8th District, and across the Coast Guard have been ministering to personnel and their families as they pick up the pieces. Coast Guard chaplains live by the saying, “Where it matters, when it matters, with what matters.” Sometimes it’s holding a sleeping child because a mom or dad is utterly exhausted. Sometimes it’s sitting with a family that lost everything in the storm. Sometimes it’s performing divine services for Coast Guard and Department of Defense personnel who are working around the clock to get their areas operational again.
During this year’s hurricane operations, numerous lessons were learned and reinforced.
“Do the hard work beforehand,” said Chaplain Mark Miller, chaplain of the Western Rivers Division. “Train like you fight. Work hard at being in good physical shape to ensure effective and focused ministry during long days of deployment. Likewise, intentionally devote yourself to your faith. You can’t minister in a vacuum, so fill up before you go.”
Chaplain Derek Henson of Sector Key West was deployed for Harvey and then returned right before Irma struck Florida. Henson appreciated the collegiality and mutual support of other chaplains in the area of operations.
“I was proud to be working alongside the team of chaplains,” said Henson. “Having a team that works as a team during this time is what kept us calm and helped build lasting relationships.”
Another key learning for chaplains during hurricane operations came in the partnership with the gold and silver badge networks as well as the ombudsmen.
“Our partnership with our ombudsman is critical during this time,” said Chaplain Ken Espinosa, Sector Houston/Galveston and Sector Corpus Christi. “We are currently working together and planning how to best support our families who suffered catastrophic losses during the holidays.
When I deployed to the [7th District] for Irma and Maria, the partnership and constant communication with gold and silver badges was indispensable for taking care of families in a timely and compassionate manner.
Coast Guard chaplains are Semper Paratus.
“I’ve come to a point in my chaplain career where I don’t live in the ‘if’ but I anticipate the ‘when,’” stated Chaplain Barrett Craig of Sector San Juan.
Day in and day out, rain or shine, Coast Guard chaplains are ready and there to walk through the physical, emotional, and spiritual storms people face with a ministry of presence. Ministry because we live to serve others, and presence because we are called to be where it matters, when it matters, with what matters.