Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, Mar 2001

Ministering to Marines

By Chaplain (Captain) Eli Takesian, U.S. Navy (Retired)

From Marine Corps Gazette, 85:2 (February 2001), 52-57. Copyright © Marine Corps Association 2001, All reprint rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.


In 1986, the Chief of Navy Chaplains asked me to provide guidelines, which were published in the Navy Chaplain, for ministering to Marines in a sustained combat environment. This is an expansion of those guidelines.

I do not pretend to have the definitive word for chaplains serving with Marines. Time change. Wars change. Different conditions prompt different responses. Nevertheless, good sense, innovation, and flexibility are keys to ministry in combat but, in every instance, regardless of battle conditions, the basic spiritual requirements of a chaplainís holy ordination remain constant, in war as in peace.


I served in Vietnam twice, with infantry units. My first tour (5th Marines, 1967-68) was a succession of fire-to-frying-pan-to-fire operations, the hottest of which were UNION II, SWIFT, and HUE CITY. [EN1] An early lesson was to determine whether participating in certain field engagements would make me an asset or a liability. It would have been foolish to go on company search-and-destroy missions or platoon patrols. Such small components have enough concerns without taking a chaplain along. A rule of thumb was to go into combat on battalion-size operations only, with the Alpha [battalion] command group. On such operations I spent much time with rifle companies, when appropriate, but at night I stayed with the Alpha command group, usually in or around the battalion aid station. I always kept the battalion commander and executive officer informed of my whereabouts.

My second tour (1st Marines, 1969-1970) was different. The war was slowing down. Conditions were safer. The mode of operations in our sector was such that I moved about with more independence, but cautiously, staying 2 days with this rifle company, or overnight at that outpost, etc. When venturing beyond the unit base camp by jeep, I often took an armed passenger ("shotgun"), whereas on my first tour I always took a shotgun.

Rules of Engagement: (1) The Chaplainís Calling

Someone has said that chaplains "bring men to God, and God to men." However one says it, chaplains are, or should be, the spiritual bearers of faith, hope, compassion, and healing.

If not careful, chaplains can turn into combat zone cheerleaders, "praising the Lord and passing the ammunition," or "passing the Lord and praising the ammunition." As an American citizen, I "render Ö to Caesar the things that are Caesarís, and to God the things that are Godís." Like others, I grapple with values and priorities; that is, I walk a spiritual tightrope. So it was in Vietnam. Subjectively, I favored my own unit on the battlefield, which is most appropriate. Nevertheless, I knew that, transcending loyalty even to Nation, my Christian calling was to provide spiritual ministry to all people, be they friend or foe. We are all made in the image of God.

Regrettably, I knew one chaplain in Vietnam who refused to minister to wounded North Vietnamese soldiers, as if they were garbage. Some chaplains became combat zone cheerleaders to the extent that their spiritual leadership and prophetic voice were wanting.

Rules of Engagement: (2) The Chaplain as Noncombatant

Classified as noncombatants, chaplains are prohibited from bearing arms, a stipulation of the Geneva Convention. But more so, a chaplainís hands using deadly weapons are not free to render sacramental ministry. Since all members of a Marine battalion are armed, except the chaplain, one less combatant makes little difference in firepower, but makes a world of difference, symbolically and actually, in spiritual ministry. The chaplainís weapon is the Word of God. Troops prefer it that way.

A chaplainís physical vulnerability is its own statement. On Operation SWIFT, a Marine lieutenant expressed both concern and appreciation by saying:

Chaplain, I fear for your life because you donít carry a sidearm, but Iím glad you donít. I see peace in a chaplainís unarmed presence. When youíre around, I feel more complete. Out here in this madness, you represent a side of me that cries for peace! The chaplain is different. Marines want him to be one of them, but also to remain uniquely their chaplain.

My suggestion to the chaplain who desires to brandish military hardware, or to emulate General George Patton, is to become a line officer. Soldiering is an honorable profession. There is no disgrace in bearing arms. My point is that chaplains function differently. Unfortunately, in my career I have known more than one "Chaplain George Patton."

Because of my inability to protect myself in combat, I was in grave danger several times, which leads to a question. In an emergency, should a chaplain grab a weapon and use it for self-protection? Once, when Viet Cong were overrunning the mortar platoon of 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. I hit the deck, next to a dead Marine. His pistol lay in front of my nose. In a split second I resolved not to use it. Pretending to be dead, I felt the presence of a Viet Cong soldier. He kicked me a couple of times, perhaps to see if I were alive, and then ran off. I was terrified; I suspect he was, too! I could have used weapons on other occasions, but refrained. How would I respond in another situation? Honestly, I do not know. Be that as it may, chaplains are noncombatants.

Rules of Engagement: (3) Command and the Chaplain

The commanding officer is responsible for the command religious program. Most commanders stress the importance of spiritual and moral health. Some do not. I am convinced that 90 percent of a chaplainís success in providing an effective command religious program is conditioned by command attitude. This is no exaggeration.

When then-Colonel P.X. Kelley took command of 1st Marines in Vietnam in 1970, I became his regimental chaplain. He gave me these specific instructions:

Chaplain, since you have ecclesiastical training and experience, I need not pretend to tell you how to do your job. But I have an absolute imperative. Every Marine in this regiment will have access to spiritual ministry; therefore, I expect our chaplains to be with the troops, in the field, where they are most needed. Whether a Marine attends religious services is his choice; but he will be given the opportunity. Should human obstacles get in the way of this mandate, tell me. I will address the matter personally. During my first year as a chaplain I stood in awe of command. Perhaps because of my enlisted background, I tended to shy away from providing ministry to the commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, Lt. Colonel Bill Joslyn. One day he applauded me for being a good shepherd to the troops, and then kindly informed me that a commanding officer needs a chaplain, too. His counsel affected my ministry from that day forward.

Rules of Engagement: (4) The Religious Program Specialist

In both Vietnam tours I chose not to have a chaplainís assistant, since most of my time was spent in the field. The troops assisted me, and I assisted them. It proved to be an effective partnership.

In those days there was no Navy Religious Program Specialist (RP) rating, which was sorely needed. Otherwise, I would have been assigned an RP. Concerning this matter, I share three points: First a good RP is worth his/her weight in gold; second, a chaplain can count on the RP for support and protection, but not unrealistically; finally, a chaplain should not commit foolish acts on the battlefield at the undue expense of an RP.

Preparing for Combat: (1) Family Needs

Before departing for Vietnam, I should have done a better job of squaring away personal effects, buying sufficient life insurance, and composing a satisfactory will. Being single, I paid scant attention to such matters. Shame, shame, shame. An alarming number of Marines in Vietnam, many with large families, made poorer arrangements than I. It goes without saying that wages and assets dictate how much life insurance and other family benefits one can afford. But my emphasis here is on effort more than economic status. What arrangements have you made for your familyís future security? Combat can be as close as oneís next deployment. The best time to have planned for long-term family needs was yesterday, but today remains an excellent alternative.

Oneís reluctance to prepare a will might have something to do with a subconscious avoidance and denial of the inevitable, death itself.

Preparing for Combat: (2) Logistical Needs

In 1961, I was assigned to 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, headquartered at Camp Lejeune, NC. Facing a 3-month Caribbean deployment, I thought I was logistically prepared for any contingency.

We sailed to Vieques, Puerto Rico, made an amphibious landing, ran around the boondocks for 3 days, and then moved into Camp Garcia. One morning the base commander called me and expressed an urgent need for 4 cases of sacramental wine, 20,000 communion hosts, 1,500 scapular medals, a Holy week Mass Book, etc. After informing him that my stock was insufficient, I asked why he wanted so much. It was a secret, he said, and told me to get the supplies, pronto. Through official Navy channels at Roosevelt Roads, and by good old-fashioned scrounging from Redemptorist priests on Vieques, I filled the order in 2 days.

Three weeks later our battalion pulled liberty in Jamaica. While in port we received an emergency message to steam to Cuba. Cuban rebels had just invaded the Bay of Pigs. Even though the bulk of my mount-out gear was stashed in the shipís hold, and unavailable, I was prepared. In my possession were a complete chaplain combat kit, Bible, prayer book, two bottles of sacramental wine, and two cans of communion hosts. As we made our way to the Bay of Pigs it was natural to conclude that, weeks earlier, I had supplied chaplains of the Cuban rebel force.

This story has guidelines. (1) Be proactive. Prepare well before a deployment. Know the supply system, and work it. (2) Once in the field, continue using the system, but also find unorthodox supply sources. Remain proactive, and be successfully reactive. (3) Know the location of your mount-out gear and how to get to it. As policy, keep your combat kit and essential ecclesiastical consumables within reach, always. Stuff your pack and pockets with items that will not fit in the kit. (4) Do not depend entirely on your mount-out gear. What if it is lost or destroyed? In Korea (1951), when I was an enlisted Marine, one particular dictum stuck like glue: "When in the field, improvise!" You donít have an altar cross? Find two sticks and some wire. No altar? Find a stump, or stack some boxes. Lost your chalice? Try a ration can. Use your imagination. Chaplain Al Kirk, who served in Vietnam with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, tells of running out of wine and hosts, and serving Holy Communion with brandy and C-ration crackers. During a rocket attack in Phu Bai, I found myself scrunched in a hole with three Marines, one of whom requested baptism on the spot. None of us had water, so I used saliva. Improvise, improvise, improvise!

I do not know whether the type of chaplain combat kit used in Vietnam is still in stock. Although fine for certain field conditions, I found it bulky and awkward to carry in combat, so I scrounged an empty corpsman kit and filled it with ecclesiastical necessities. It was compact, roomy, and tough, with several watertight, zippered compartments. Nowadays, a chaplain combat assault kit that can fit in one hand and attach to a cartridge belt is issued to chaplains assigned to the Operating Forces.

Logistically, chaplains serving with infantry units should travel light. Whether living a bare field existence or ensconced in a comfortable base camp, maintain a lean inventory, relative to conditions, keeping always in mind the possibility of moving out. Be aware of logistical realities when determining supply needs, and do not be selfish at the expense of others. For example, during my first tour in Vietnam, my unit (3d Battalion, 5th Marines) built a primitive base camp on Hill 63. There were not enough tents to go around. Consequently, troops were stacked like cordwood. When the battalion commander offered a large tent to serve as our chapel, I refused it, placing higher priority on habitability. We worshipped in the mess tent or under a particular tree, which we affectionately called The Chapel Tree. During my second tour (3d Battalion, 1st Marines), on Hill 37, I inherited a well-constructed chapel in a nicely developed base camp. Whenever other units were passing through the area, and space was tight, I opened the chapel for temporary lodging.

From 1982-84, U.S. Marines in Beirut were quartered in concrete buildings, bunkers, and in underground containers. I recall the chaplains of one Marine amphibious unit having substantial amounts of equipment. In addition, they ran a huge library, most of which was donated by people back in the States. I do not know whether they discarded any gear when ordered to back load to ships offshore.

Preparing for Combat: (3) Troop Needs

Chaplains who faithfully serve troops now are developing vital relationships. As good shepherds they know their people, and their people know them by name. Identification is important. Sincerity is crucial. Marines have a way of chewing up and spitting out phony-baloney chaplains. Conversely, they cling to chaplains they deem authentic and who openly care.

When I first reported to 3d Battalion, 5th Marines in 1967, troops talked incessantly about their chaplain, Vic Krulak. They idolized him. Why? Because, they said, Chaplain Krulak was always with them in the field as trusted priest and friend. He gained their confidence the old-fashioned way: he earned it. Although Vic Krulak had transferred from the battalion before my arrival, his spiritual presence remained.

"Walk your talk" and "practice what you preach" are apt cliches. Combat offers chaplains ample opportunity to live out their sermons about faith, hope, courage, charity, and sacrifice. Most chaplains I knew in Vietnam walked the second mile, faithfully. However, in my opinion, some failed to walk the first. They did their utmost to keep from going to the field. Actions speaking louder than words, their sermons were hollow and their talk cheap. The troops knew it and responded with cold silence and, in private, with verbal scorn.

As a 19-year-old enlisted man in 1951, I was shipped to Korea with the 14th Replacement Draft. Beset by spiritual and philosophical conflicts, I went to the battalion chaplain and opened my gut, innocently, sincerely, asking questions about God, justice, war, killing, etc. The chaplainís bland response was a litany of pat answers and, finally, an invitation to join his denomination. He seemed safely insulated by religious dogma, catechisms, and systems. Whatever the case, I left his presence empty, and dejected, feeling that he had neither heard nor understood. This negative experience manifested positive results years later, especially in Vietnam, where troops posed the same kinds of gut-wrenching questions I had asked in Korea. What I knew, I shared. When uncertain, I would say something like, "I donít know the answer, but letís talk about the question." It helped them. It helped me. To be receptive to, and honest with, the young Marine who shares from the depths is basic ministry.

Combat: (1) Field Services

In combat it is difficult to distinguish one day from another. Time is blurred. Schedules fall apart. It is not always convenient to worship on Sunday. Accepting such realities, I ministered on the premise that "every day is Sunday, and Sunday is every day." I did what I could when I could.

On field operations, when selecting a worship site, I avoided exposed areas. In dangerous situations, crowds were kept small, deliberately, and services brief. Within 10 minutes I could give an invocation, read a lesson, preach a sermon, pray, celebrate Holy Communion (by intinction), and give a benediction. Some worship services were longer Ė and some shorter.

In my field ministry, no greater impact was made on troops than the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It was not uncommon to serve Communion on the road, anywhere, spontaneously, day or night. Every sermon contained imagery about its meaning. Troops understood. I once wrote this:

In combat, a confrontation between life and death, a moment of truth, a Marine presents no facades when he worships. He offers God no argument, no defense, only himself, as he is, humbly. He is acquainted with death: Christís, his buddyís, that of the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] heís killed, even the possibility of his own. Pontius Pilate, Roman soldier, penitent thief, Jesusí disciples, Christ himself: he identifies with them all. When receiving bread and wine, he knows precisely what he tastes: death and life, judgement and hope, bitterness and salvation. The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote about the 1968 Tet Offensive: In the Citadel of Hue, all the men of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines were participants in a special act of Ďcommunion.í We were tight, man! We shared a common lot, a common adversity, a common union (communion). The wounds of many were the wounds of all. The elements were not bread and wine but, rather, broken bodies and shed blood. Many who survived the inferno will never again be the same. They have come to know the bitterness of mankindís alienation, the enormous cost of sacrifice, the futility of war, and the absolute need for reconciliation.
Combat: (2) Ministry to the Wounded

The most primary of primary duties of a chaplain in combat is ministry to casualties, especially the dying.

I recall one Marine who suffered superficial wounds. Shaking and sweating profusely, he kept his eyes tightly closed. Gently, I whispered that he was all right, and asked if he wanted a prayer. He recognized my voice, opened his eyes, and smiled from ear to ear. Needless to say, he stabilized in short order.

A grimmer account is that of a 20-year-old Marine I knew well. He had just returned from rest and relaxation in Hawaii where, days earlier, he had married his hometown sweetheart. Now he was lying on the deck, dying of a sucking chest wound. His face close to mine, he spoke of his joy and fulfillment in marriage. Finally, in a barely audible voice, he whispered, "Please tell Jane that by becoming my wife, she gave me everything." He stopped breathing in my arms. I was the last person with whom he shared his most personal thoughts.

I ministered to a wounded North Vietnamese soldier in the Citadel of Hue. He could not have been more than 16 years old. Terrified, he trembled like a leaf. I knelt beside him. Our eyes met and locked. Wiping his brow and speaking softly, I assured him that there was nothing to fear. Although a nonsmoker, I always kept a pack of cigarettes in my breast pocket for the wounded. Lighting a cigarette, I placed it between his lips. He inhaled deeply. And with each release of smoke came a phenomenal release of tension. He understood no English; I understood no Vietnamese. But my voice, touch, and facial expressions calmed him down.

After a Combat Operation: Renewal

Renewal begins when a combat operation ends. Focus is on the dead, the wounded, the grieving. Memorial services are held back at the base camp. Following an operation, my highest priority was to visit casualties in hospitals, whenever possible, before they were flown home. Since the unit commander had access to a helicopter, I often accompanied him to distant hospitals. I delivered mail to the wounded, and greetings from guys in the outfit. After I returned from making such calls, troops would gather round and ask questions.

Bonds are so tight that whenever buddies are killed troops have a tough time shaking grief. Some swear to never again risk making friends. Yet when replacements report aboard, the brotherhood solidifies immediately. No words can adequately describe the mystical bond of Marines in combat.

Words of Caution

In 1968, I wrote a letter to the Navy Chief of Chaplains about an Army chaplain who hooked up with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines during Operation HUE CITY. Although instructive, its contents are shared with reluctance:

During his brief stay with the battalion, Chaplain ĎJohn Doeí was admired by the troops. He was a terrific guy, but also stubborn and careless, exercising poor judgment at times. I gave Chaplain Doe the following instructions.
    1. Ours is an extraordinary situation, with intense fighting in the streets. Exposure to the enemy is commonplace. So keep loose, but donít go looking for trouble. Donít play John Wayne.
    2. Donít carry a weapon.
    3. Since everythingís in flux, donít leave the battalion CP [command post] without the battalion commanderís permission, or visit a rifle company without the company commanderís permission.
    4. Donít travel alone. Our units are changing positions constantly, and one can get lost easily. Snipers are in holes and in buildings and around blind corners. So under these conditions weíll be escorted to rifle companies by no less than a fire team.
    5. During the heat of battle our place is in the forward BAS [battalion aid station], which is no more than three blocks from any rifle company, and where all casualties are brought.
The next morning Chaplain Doe left the battalion CP without anyoneís knowledge, and against orders. He carried a .45 caliber pistol. He had no escorts. His movements were elusive.

Hours later, on short notice, the battalion CP moved forward. No one knew the whereabouts of Chaplain Doe. Troops went looking for him. That night was especially hairy, as our numbers had dwindled, our left flank was exposed, and NVA troops were climbing over the walls and into the Citadel.

Throughout the hours of darkness, U.S. naval gunfire rained shells along the walls and around our position, almost without ceasing, to protect us.

Chaplain Doe was found dead the next morning, near our old battalion CP. A large hunk of shrapnel had entered the back of his neck and lodged in his head.

The battalion surgeon determined that Chaplain Doe had been killed by our own naval gunfire.

"Greater Love Hath No Man"

Chaplain Vincent Robert Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest, stands as a model of spirituality, courage, and sacrificial love. He relieved me at 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. On Operation SWIFT, Chaplain Capodanno was with Mike Company, on his way by helicopter to the battle area. His intention was to reach a hastily assembled medical aid station and to assist the wounded. However, enemy ground fire forced the choppers to land short of their goal. As troops of Mike Company made their way by foot, a massive North Vietnamese force attacked. Casualties were heavy. Chaplain Capodanno crawled from man to man, praying with the wounded, anointing the dead, comforting the fearful. The hunks of shrapnel that tore into his shoulder and blew away part of his left hand could not deter him. Hours later, as the company was being overrun, Chaplain Capodanno deliberately shielded a wounded corpsman from the sights of a North Vietnamese machinegunner. He was killed, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

I was on the same operation, less than a half-mile away. Word of Chaplain Capodannoís death spread like wildfire. Then everything became still. It was as if a shroud had covered the entire battalion.

One choked-up Marine asked, "If life meant so much to Father Capodanno, then why did he allow his own to be taken?" "The answer is in your question," I replied. "It was precisely because he loved life Ė the lives of others Ė that he so freely gave his own." [EN2]

Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

A Prayer

This article ends with a prayer. It was expressed years ago in a letter I wrote to a young widow whose husband was killed on Operation UNION II:

Perhaps one day all people, in accord, will finally learn that to know peace, one must first love peace; and to love peace, one must first love. About the Author

Chaplain Takesian joined the Marines in 1949 and served with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1960 and served as Chaplain of the Marine Corps from 1982-86. He is currently Pastor Emeritus at the Vienna Presbyterian Church of Vienna, Virginia.

Editorís Notes

EN1. For more about these operations, see

EN2. For more about Lieutenant Capodanno, see and

JNC Mar 2001