It was a balmy summer evening as the sun was setting in Southern California when U.S. Navy chaplains of the Southwest region gathered to celebrate and reflect on heritage, service to our country and remember chaplains who have come before those currently serving. More than 50 U.S. Navy chaplains from 40 different commands of the region and beyond gathered to celebrate the 248th birthday of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps on Nov. 28, 1775.
This was the first ball in the Southwest region since 2019 due to COVID-19. For U.S. Navy Lt. Nephtali Ortega, chaplain currently assigned to the USS Comstock (LSD 45), this was his first ball.
“It is an honor to attend,” said Ortega, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “I’m the only chaps on my ship at my first assignment; first everything. Gathering together reminds me I’m not alone. It’s wonderful to share this celebration with senior chaplains.”
This year is also the 50th anniversary of women serving as chaplains in the Department of Defense. Rev. Dianna Pholman Bell, now 80 years old, was the first woman commissioned by the U.S. Navy to serve as a chaplain in the Department of Defense. Bell joined the ball from the Midwest with an appearance by video call. She discussed the importance of chaplains serving in ministerial capabilities in the U.S. Navy along with providing spiritual nourishment to service members, as well as chaplains themselves. Bell also highlighted the current diversity of ethnicities, race and gender of chaplains, emphasizing women who are serving – calling them her “shining stars.”
The U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps is the oldest staff corps in the Navy, and chaplains have been present in every conflict since 1775.
“For the most part, we are all called to humility, to remind ourselves we are there to provide presence of ministry wherever conflict may go,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Eliseo Morales Jr., chaplain with 3rd Recruit Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, who presided as master of ceremonies. “It is important to congregate with others who answered the call to leave a parish and continue service to others.”
The ball opened with a welcoming, invocation, and presentation of the colors by Recruit Training Regiment, MCRD San Diego Color Guard and playing of the Star-Spangled Banner by the Marine Band San Diego, then followed by an honoring for prisoners of war and those missing in action. A video anniversary message was then played featuring Rear Adm. Gregory N. Todd, chief of Navy chaplains who discussed the importance of connections through community.
Following dinner and a cake-cutting ceremony, guest of honor, Rear Adm. George Wikoff, Acting Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, shared remarks about the significance and importance of chaplains in the U.S. Navy.
“The vocation that you chose builds spiritual readiness for warfighters and their families throughout the rigors of military service,” said Wikoff, a native of New Brunswick, N.J. “While our team works around the clock to protect our nation in competition, crisis, or conflict…your work is of tremendous significance. Our chaplains give the phrase ‘never off duty’ a new meaning.”
Wikoff continued by quoting a poem from the chaplain manual, written in 1918 by the first chief of the chaplains of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Capt. John B. Frazier.
He concluded, “Our people need and will continue to require individual and spiritual readiness as we navigate the most complex environment our military has faced in many years.”
For this birthday, many in attendance traveled from the greater area, and one chaplain even traveled from Nevada to attend the ball.
“I was in the U.S. Army Reserve and then pastored for 17 years. I felt like God was leading me to something different,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Reiner Harper, command chaplain at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. “I love being a chaplain and showing my support to other chaplains.”
After the ceremony, Ortega shared, “It was very emotional to see where our Corps came from and where we are now. I love it, and I can’t wait for next year.”