Living as an Orthodox Christian in the Armed Forces - Part 1

July 8, 2010 Length: 22:34

Fr. Jerome Cwiklinski, a chaplain with the Marines at Camp Pendleton, explains how to live out your Orthodox faith while serving in the United States military.





Vladimir Laven: Glory to Jesus Christ. This is sub-deacon Vladimir Laven with another episode of Orthodox Christians on the Frontlines. In this episode, we are joined by our guest host Father Jerome Cwiklinski, Captain, United States Navy and Orthodox chaplain, currently assigned to the US Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, California. In this episode, Father Jerome starts his two-part series on living as an Orthodox Christian in the Armed Forces. Here is Father Jerome.

Father Jerome Cwiklinski: Christ is in our midst. I’m Father Jerome, an Orthodox chaplain in the Navy, and this podcast is part of a series on living as an Orthodox Christian in the Armed Forces. I think we live in the best country under the best form of government: a democracy. Sure, there have been empires, kingdoms, and countries with Orthodox Christianity as their state religion. As nostalgic, romantic, or triumphalistic as that may seem, it has its limitations. If you study the history of any of those cozy arrangements, the pitfalls are obvious because the Church rises and falls with the dominant power. The mature state of our Church is when she remains accountable only to herself and accomplishes the redemption of souls despite what is happening politically.

In America, we have never had a state church or religion. For a time, however, religious majorities became de-facto state religions, a status that was true for a time within the Armed Forces. For instance, until 1973, there was compulsory chapel attendance at the service academies and basic training centers. If you were Orthodox, you had to go to a service even if there wasn’t any Orthodox service. A lot of changes since then, and we have gone from being a highly religious culture that didn’t include the Orthodox to an almost secular one that doesn’t include the Orthodox.

In former days, the Orthodox were sometimes viewed as not Christian enough because of the use of icons that some thought bordered on idol worship. And now, we are too Christian, because well, there’s that icon of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Orthodox are often the brunt of subjective and ignorant statements that if are uttered in a racial or sexual context would actually get someone fired or in the headlines. One prominent politician I met told me he met my “grand mufti” in Jerusalem. When I said, “patriarch?”, he said “that’s the word.” We shouldn’t dwell on people’s awkward statements. I’m sure they embarrass themselves on other topics besides the Orthodox Church. On the other hand, our military does make an effort to learn about minority religions for situational awareness. We must make ourselves a part of that process even before they really want the information. It should be our goal to impress upon them that the Orthodox Christian faith is not something necessarily foreign, but one that is embraced by many Americans and practiced by members of our own Armed Forces.

So here’s what to do. Don’t be bitter, don’t suggest that there’s some kind of conspiracy against us. And certainly don’t rely on a status like “we’re the second largest Christian faith in the world” or “we’re the fourth major faith in America.” The truth be told, the US government either recognizes all religions or recognizes no religion. Of course, the equal and fair treatment of all religions does include heterodox groups, but we are not obliged to engage in their heresy. What should be most important to us as Americans is our absolute religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

Be bold. If you are upset by all the attention and accommodation received by other faiths, ask yourselves how they got that way. They didn’t begin in a favored status. Quite the contrary. Just about every religious entity that came to America’s shores was escaping some kind of persecution or inferior status. So how did they do it? By claiming their constitutional rights, by witnessing their society through the practice of their own beliefs, by being willing to sacrifice worldly success in order to remain faithful, and by working hard and sticking to their principles despite road blocks placed in their path. We can play the victim or we can get over it and epitomize our rightful place in American and military society.

Be resourceful and creative. Living your Orthodox faith should not begin with the visit of a priest. Hopefully you’re already praying, reading Scripture, observing fasts, and practicing our morals. Once you have that foundation, you will have preserved that which is most needful that will not be taken away even if you never connect with an Orthodox chaplain. In the absence of a priest, you can attend lay services: Orthodox fellowship, a bible study based on Orthodox tradition, or even a reading club using books from one of our many excellent Orthodox publishing houses, or a church party excursion organized by your unit chaplain. An excellent excuse to explain your faith to non-Orthodox who might tag along. Your non-Orthodox chaplain who has a responsibility to supervise religious activities in your command, but also to accommodate your beliefs may actually have funds to support these activities and will also take great pride in your accomplishments.

Keep your antenna up. Turn on your priest-seeking radar. It is so much easier for a priest to find the faithful when they are looking for us. The best way to find an Orthodox chaplain is by official request. This is not the preferred way, but when you take the extra trouble to go through official channels, it helps us get to you. As chaplains, we have responsibilities to our units. We minister to them institutionally and commanding officers get jealous of their chaplain constantly going beyond the confines of that unit and serving personnel who are not members of their command, especially when we, as Orthodox priests, cannot provide a sacramental ministry within our command. We, therefore, we have to justify going elsewhere based on need. A FRAGO as an extension of an existing order is seldom disputed by a subordinate commander.

Of course, there are the persistent old methods like word of mouth. Father Alexander Sinyavsky was the first Orthodox chaplain in the United States Navy, and he was assigned to Great Lakes, Illinois. Father Michael Frimenko who later became a chaplain was then an ordinary seaman in the Navy serving in the Pacific Theater of operations. His mother admonished him, be sure you get the church because Father Alexander is now in the Navy. Directories can be out of date because the services are not obliged to assign our priests where they have established Orthodox programs. Demographics drive needs and when needs dry up, so do those assignments.

Chaplains can no longer work off ethnic names on name tags because names that have been transliterated wrong, deliberately changed, non-ethnic converts in our Church, or the loss of an ethnic maiden name in a mixed marriage. Once I saw a Navy nurse with a last name I assumed was Greek. I asked her if she was Orthodox, and she seemed surprised that I had guessed that. As it turned out, though she was indeed Greek and Orthodox, it was my mistake. The last name on her uniform was her husband’s Latino name that sounded Greek to me, but wasn’t. But who can beat those odds of being wrong and actually being right?

Besides wearing your name above your pocket, wear your faith on your sleeve, also around your neck. Dog tags used to be limited to indicate Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or No Preference. Father Nicholas Kiryluk, our first Orthodox chaplain in the Air Force, elected to be no preference because Orthodox wasn’t among the choices. For service record purposes and all other military documents, we are called Eastern Orthodox, sometimes abbreviated as just Orthodox, ORTH, or EO for dog-tag purposes. If under the pressure of going through the military entrance processing station, you were assigned “no preference”, be sure to have it fixed later on. During boot camp may not be the best time.

Besides your faith being embossed on a piece of aluminum, wear your baptismal cross. You’re correct. It has to be worn tucked inside your t-shirt where no one else will see. That’s your foundation upon which you build the visible evidence of who you are. Wearing your faith means making it visible by your demeanor, how you conduct yourself, what you do, and what you refrain from doing. Because you are an Orthodox Christian, showing forth in yourself the image and likeness of God, it means not being afraid or ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross at appropriate times.

In the dining facility at Camp Doha, Kuwait, I had pushed back from the dining table and silently said the prayer of thanksgiving as I gathered my tray. A soldier across from me observed and asked, excuse me chaplain, but why do you cross yourself that way? He was familiar with the Catholic way of doing it. I explained the difference, also telling him that I was an Orthodox priest. I then excused myself, saying I had to go to Vespers, and the soldier stayed to finish his meal. At Vespers, with my back turned, I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice chanting responses. For me, Vespers was usually a solo act. Later, the chanter, a new soldier, explained the uncanny coincidence that brought him to me. He sat down at the very place I vacated at the table. The same Catholic soldier saw him make the same Sign of the Cross to bless his meal and then told him about me and Vespers. He rushed to the chapel and was from then on a regular participant. God rewarded his faithfulness in a truly serendipitous and providential manner. But neither Orthodox chaplains nor the people they serve should have to rely upon the miraculous. There are easier ways for us to get connected.

Don’t delay. The Chinese say that procrastination is the great thief of time. Being intentional and using force like “on a deployment” or a new assignment will bring you early dividends. It’s always sad to encounter someone in my chapel the month before they’re about to transfer or get out of the military. They say, if only I knew this place existed two years ago, and I agree. I wish they had known. But you can’t tell me that in our computer age, when we can locate anything we want online, we still can’t find church. And parish priests in an area where there’s an Orthodox Church and a chaplain, come on. You met the chaplain at Sunday of Orthodoxy.

When a member of the military starts attending your parish, be honest and inform them of that chapel. Otherwise, I assume you’re ready to go with them into combat. Those intent on living their faith have something inherent like an extension of the nous, that part of the creative intellect that intuits the existence of God. Our Orthodox conscience should say: today is Sunday, I should be in church. I’m about to eat, I should pray. This is my living area, I need an icon. That’s a sin, I shouldn’t do that. And I’m going to war and might not return, I need confession and communion. What should be paramount in every Orthodox Christian’s mind is that this is your professed faith: the faith of the fathers handed down to you and alive by Holy Tradition and no one else can live it for you.

Talk is cheap, so now walk the walk. I’d like to highlight some of the barriers, frustrations, and challenges to Orthodox ministry in the Armed Forces. The first thing you need to know about the ministry of our chaplains is that it’s for you. This isn’t us acting out some militarist fantasy or working toward a better pension. This is where we have been assigned by our bishop who expects us to care for his flock in the Armed Forces to the same degree that a priest would his faithful in his own parish. During World War I, Father John Ofsnitsky(ph), the first Orthodox chaplain on our continent, was privileged to exercise his ministry in a Canadian regiment where Orthodox people were the vast majority. His unit was, in effect, his parish. It was an item of pride and something of a novelty for his commander.

90+ years later, to provide the same ministry, we have many hurdles that were not encountered by Father John. The wide dispersal of Orthodox faithful, the military institutions’ ignorance of Orthodox Christianity, the perception of Orthodox disunity and the apathy of many Orthodox people. And also, unlike Father John, the harvest of our labors as chaplains will not deliver a regiment-sized Orthodox congregation, though we might touch the lives of a regiment full of people. In today’s US Armed Forces, depending on the branch of service, there may be only one chaplain in each unit of 500 people. Unless an Orthodox military member is extremely lucky, their assigned chaplain will be of another faith. An Orthodox chaplain in a battalion or on a ship would also be lucky to find just one or two active Orthodox in order to share a liturgical and sacramental ministry. But this is hardly ever the case. Orthodox chaplains are therefore accustomed to extending their ministry beyond the confines of their own unit and even across service boundaries. In other words, we’re joint. Orthodox personnel may be in the very same location as an Orthodox chaplain, but ironically they may not know the other exists.

There are many reasons for this. True, Orthodox is recognized as a title on dog tags and other military records, yet the Privacy Act ironically forbids disclosure of that kind of personal information without the individual’s consent. Also, Orthodox people aren’t necessarily looking for priests since the overwhelming Catholic-Protestant flavor of the military causes them to assume that there is no such thing as an Orthodox chaplain. The Orthodox population of the military has grown due to inductees from former Soviet Bloc countries.

Sadly, many are un-churched, and if inclined to rediscover the Christian faith, they fall prey to heterodox groups, and that’s our fault. We have done a terrible job raising awareness about our chaplains, and maybe even worse at tracking our young people when they leave the parish for college or careers including the military. Sufficed to say that if we don’t take care of our people, some other church will. Marriage outside the Orthodox Church, which many service members do not realize to be a canonical requirement, is perhaps the number one impediment when lost sheep are found. Many are unwilling to have their marriage blessed in the Orthodox Church. Some blame their non-Orthodox spouse, but truthfully, the quality of their Orthodox upbringing is probably to blame.

Like others in a missionary field, Orthodox chaplains are accustomed not only to acquainting those not yet familiar with the truth of the faith, but also recalibrating those who claim to already possess that faith. St. Raphael used to scour the countryside seeking out pockets of Orthodox people and educating them, sometimes helping them catch up on sacraments they were lacking and re-establishing them in the Church. I hope our military chaplains are a lot like him.

When you call for an Orthodox priest, please understand what it takes to get there. An Orthodox chaplain must travel by convoy or aircraft to reach communicants. Such travel risks not only the life of the priest and his chaplain’s assistant, but also the lives of the crews who transport them. That risk is going to be weighed by those who own those airplanes, vehicles, and crews against the results of such visits. If we take hostile fire, or there’s an IED strike en route, and no one shows up for liturgy, it makes for a pretty quiet ride going home. So if an Orthodox priest gets to where you are, please make the time and do not take for granted that there will be other such visits.

Now, I have known instances when, while everyone else in the barracks is making themselves scarce, an Orthodox person may be in the room getting squared away to go to services. But because they’re there, the duty NCO reaches out and touches them and makes them supernumerary relief for someone who is UA or AWOL or got sick on watch. I’m not sure who is more disappointed: the person tapped for duty or the Orthodox chaplain, and I’ve actually seen this happen one time when an individual who was in the barracks on Saturday night before Pascha, eagerly waiting to go to church for Pascha, had had to be going on duty.

For the Feast of Nativity, in Iraq, I was going to make an ambitious circuit beginning with the eve of the feast at my parent command at Al Taqaddum, to Camp Lou Diamond on the day of Nativity, Al Asad for the synaxis of the Theotokos, Korean Village for the Feast of the Holy Righteous Ones, etc. Before I departed, I had to be sure I would leave things in good order for the other faiths observing Christmas. So, I asked the morale officer if he expected any USO shows as I remember Wayne Newton and his troupe descending on us two years before when I was trying to celebrate the liturgy. The morale officer said, emphatically, no. There’s no one coming here on or around Christmas.

After I published the schedule and was committed to my own schedule, David Letterman arrived, and wouldn’t you know it? His show coincided with the Vespers and liturgy for the Eve of Nativity. I had one other Orthodox person besides myself attend, and what I like to call a strap-hanger, that is someone who isn’t Orthodox who just wants to observe. But there should’ve been more. But there we were in solitude that seemed fitting for what the holy family must have endured in that cave in Bethlehem. I had run into one of the regulars earlier that day, who when I said “see you at liturgy” looked like the cat who knew he would eat the canary. He later confided in me that he chose to go see Letterman because “well, father, there will be other Christmases with services, but I only get to see Letterman once.”

Well, following my poorly attended liturgy, I walked somberly back to my office and who do you think I encountered on the way? Well, none other than David Letterman incarnate. How’s that for ironic? And before he flew to his next destination, he left me with something to share.

The 10 worst excuses for not attending the Divine Liturgy while you’re deployed.
10) I saw the priest walking to the chapel and figured it was cancelled.
9) I arrived late, the same time as I always do, but you were already done.
8) I forgot what day it was and ate breakfast.
7) There was a line at the latrine.
6) My laundry didn’t come back in time.
5) There was this DVD I had to watch.
4) Last time I went, it was all in English.
3) But I already went this year.
2) Don’t we have dispensation?
And the number one reason: I went to see David Letterman.

The Lord visits us uniquely each time we encounter him in the sacraments. There will not be the other occasions like the one you have chosen to miss. May God rekindle your yearnings to be with him always and may his presence be felt always in your life. I’m Father Jerome. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you always, now and forever. Amen.