My idea of military life prior to joining the Navy was a superior officer gave an order and junior officers and enlisted people obeyed. While it works this way sometimes, for even the most junior Sailors and Marines, teamwork and collaboration are the norm. As a chaplain, I can count on one hand the number of times I someone ordered me to do something counter to my recommendations. And I'd have two fingers left over! One taught me . . .
The Navy and Marine Corps refer to a jail as the brig. I had been the Brig Chaplain on Okinawa, Japan for about a year when a new commanding officer took over the battalion that ran base facilities. Although outmoded today, my father, who was a Navy officer in the 1950s, taught me to make a duty call on my commanding officer. I presented myself at the appointed time and the colonel invited me to sit down for a short chat.
Explaining my major responsibility to him was looking after the staff and prisoners at the brig, I outlined a program to allow personnel to take classes that earned them college credit. To my surprise, the colonel was dead set against the prisoners participating, even though staving off their boredom would make discipline easier for the guards. Despite all of my justifications, he would not change his mind. Resigned to the demise of my program, our meeting ended.
As a sidelight, in the sometimes labyrinthian ways of the military, it turns out the colonel did not have authority over such a program. Staff and prisoners alike got to take college credit classes, albeit through others’ efforts.
For the next few months, I saw the colonel once a week at his staff meeting. Never one for idle talk or praise, cordiality marked our relationship. I always gave him my candid assessment of the matters in my purview but never had to make another recommendation. When another chaplain took over day-to-day battalion matters, my contact with the colonel ceased. But my inability to convince him of the obvious benefit of educating incarcerated young men continued to bother me.
A couple of years later it was time to move on to my next billet. Customarily, you get what is known as an “end of tour” award, meaning a medal based on your rank and how well you did your job. The award I received did not surprise me. The presenter did.
At the ceremony, the battalion colonel gave me the most treasured compliment of my Navy career. In front of all of my colleagues, he commended my work as a chaplain and as a staff officer, unafraid of giving frank recommendations.
Talking about the experience later with my mentor, I learned that the colonel, who was one of the people who had to approve the award, asked to be the presenter.
Often we do not realize the influence we have on our family and closest friends. I would never have guessed about the impact I had on the colonel. His example of integrity continues to serve me well to this day. Most importantly, I endeavor to positively touch people’s lives every day while accepting that rarely if ever will I know the fruits of my labor.
When have you had an impact that you did not find out about until long after?
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