“Military Matters,” Ensign, Sept. 1996, 48–50
It was a crisp fall Sunday morning. Seaman Marcus Campagna of the USS John C. Stennis left his shipmates early and began walking through the Norfolk Naval Base, located at the south end of Chesapeake Bay where it opens to the Atlantic Ocean. He had seen a notice on base announcing services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was surprised to learn that the Church had a branch nearby.
Another seaman, Mike Puhl, a recent convert, also left his ship early that morning to pick up his visiting fiancée so that he could take her to church and introduce her to his newfound faith. Other servicemen also headed for the Latter-day Saint worship services to be held in the Jewish synagogue located on the Norfolk Naval Base: Von Daimer, the only Latter-day Saint serviceman on his ship; Glenn Dewey, a merchant seaman; Dee Dee Erikson, a navy musician; and others, each with a special story.
This on-base meeting resulted from Virginia Beach stake president David Wright’s concern for the many young single adults serving on nearby military bases. A year and a half earlier Chaplain Ron Ringo, assigned to the USS Arctic and one of only nine Latter-day Saint chaplains in the U.S. Navy, met with President Wright to discuss the possibility of forming a Latter-day Saint servicemen’s group to meet on base each Sunday that would function under the umbrella of the neighboring Norfolk Ward. Under President Wright’s direction, Chaplain Ringo, also a stake high councilor, contacted the base command chaplain, who assisted in scheduling use of base facilities for the weekly Latter-day Saint services.
The servicemen’s group is unusual because it is one of only a few in the country administered by non-military Church leaders living nearby. The meeting is a beacon for Latter-day Saints in the service who want to attend church. Every week meeting times are posted on all 150 or so ships assigned to the naval base that are currently in harbor. According to Chaplain Ringo, “The whole key behind the branch is to provide an opportunity for LDS servicemen in this area to be invited to church, to feel the Spirit, and to feel like they are cared about.”
For the servicemen, the short one-hour meeting on base serves at least three purposes: it gives those who have Sunday duty a chance to meet together and partake of the sacrament; it acts as a magnet for lonely men and women who may not have been active for some time and who may feel unsure of their place in the Church; and it provides a meeting place where anyone can get a ride into town to meet with the Norfolk Ward for the full Church program. Without such support, church attendance is nearly impossible for servicemen, since most young single adults in the military do not have their own transportation and others are stationed on base for Sunday duty.
Supporting the meeting is important to President Wright. “We treat the naval base group like any of our units,” he says, “including assigning high councilors to speak each month.”
Chris Gittens, Norfolk Ward bishopric counselor who works closely with single adults, explains: “Meeting on base gives us the opportunity to meet Latter-day Saint servicemen and invite them to attend a ward off base where they can be welcomed into a familiar setting, a fully functioning ward family. Having people who care about them can make a big difference in their lives.” Because service personnel often become active in the Norfolk Ward, the base branch remains small.
Establishing a link between the military and the nearby stake is important. In the United States alone, there are at least 200 military installations located near existing wards and stakes, with many more worldwide. Military chaplains of other faiths sometimes do not understand the ecclesiastical responsibilities of Church leaders in neighboring wards and stakes or recognize the great resource of help and support these local Church leaders can provide to Latter-day Saints in the military.
To better meet the needs of Latter-day Saints who serve in the armed forces, the Church is encouraging local wards and stakes to consider establishing a Church presence on nearby military installations.
To do this, J. Paul Jensen, manager of military relations for the Church in Salt Lake City, suggests that local Church leaders near military installations consider implementing the following suggestions:
Organize a stake military relations committee. This quarterly meeting, led by the stake president or one of his counselors, is held to identify and track Church members assigned to a nearby military installation. According to Brother Jensen, “The constant turnover in the military creates a problem for local Church units. Meeting regularly helps leaders to keep up with the changes.”
Appoint a military-priesthood liaison. Whenever possible, this calling is given to a Melchizedek Priesthood holder who is a high-ranking member of the military. In the Virginia Beach stake, Chaplain Ron Ringo was both a navy chaplain as well as a stake high councilor and was able to serve as a liaison between local Church leaders and the naval base command officials.
Establish cordial relationships with the installation chaplain. The military-priesthood liaison and the stake president should meet with military command officials, especially the installation chaplain. When introducing local priesthood leadership, the military-priesthood liaison should clarify the role of local leaders in overseeing all Latter-day Saint meetings, including those held on the installation.
Work with the installation chaplain’s office. Chaplains have access to records indicating which personnel assigned to the installation have indicated their religious preference as LDS. Establishing warm and cordial friendships with the post chaplains and their staff will greatly facilitate obtaining this needed information by local leaders. Brother Jensen explains, “Once the chaplain understands the role of local Church leaders, he is more likely to call them when problems arise concerning LDS service members assigned to the installation.”
Establish a visible presence on base. Church units that establish a presence on military installations draw Latter-day Saint military personnel, and often their friends, to church. Priesthood leaders can obtain assistance in developing these programs by contacting Military Relations, 50 E. North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.
In the Virginia Beach stake, establishing a liaison with the military to set up an on-base program and receiving strong support from the nearby Norfolk Ward members make it possible for men and women in the military to attend church. These members, who otherwise might have drifted, being unable to participate in regular Church activity, have found an anchor in the Virginia Beach stake.