Meet your new Chaplain

9 Mar 2010 | Sgt. Jacob H. Harrer

A new chaplain has arrived at Marine Barracks Washington. You can’t miss Lt. Philip N. Park as he strolls through the hallways and visits with Marines. The 5 ft. 7 in. Korean pastor is easy to recognize and even easier to start a conversation with. Recently selected for promotion to lieutenant commander, Park brings to the table a wealth of experience with both Marines and sailors, as well as a profound respect for the Marines of the “Oldest Post.”

Park stands out as a Korean chaplain, which are few in the Navy Chaplain Corps, he said. In 1979, he immigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. Carrying two suitcases in hand and basic knowledge of the alphabet, he adjusted to life in the U.S. He learned English and attended church with fellow Koreans, where he eventually committed to Jesus Christ while a teen at a church youth camp.

While attending college at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., Park started out as an architectural engineering major when he felt the calling to join the ministry. He struggled with the decision, weighing out all of the options until prompted by a pastor visiting the school during the summer for a doctoral program.

“I think you have prayed long enough,” the pastor said. “I think you just need to go and do it.”

The encouragement gave Park a sense of relief, and he changed his major to biblical studies. After graduating, he attended a rigorous, 120-hour master of theology program at the Dallas Theological Seminary. The intense schedule consisted mainly of studying, eating, and sleeping, Park said.

After four years, Park graduated with his master’s degree and began work in the church planting field, helping organize the ministry. After a few years, Park desired to step into a more pastoral role. Following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, he sensed a need to minister to the men and women going into harm’s way, Park entered the Navy as a chaplain.

“During a time of war, unfortunately, men and women will die in combat, and they need pastoral care during that very difficult time,” Park said.

Not long after becoming a Navy chaplain, Park found himself aboard the amphibious transport dock, USS Ponce, participating in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. All of the sailors and Marines on board experienced fear at one point as they wondered if they were going to make it back, Park said. He witnessed Iraqi scud missiles in flight, hoping they weren’t fitted with nuclear or chemical warheads. During this trying time, Park relied on prayer to remain peaceful and calm throughout the deployment.

“If I panic, it’s gonna show among the sailors, and it’s not gonna help the sailors if the chaplain is panicking,” Park said. “Through God’s grace, I think I was relatively calm throughout the whole scene.”

Because Park served as the ship chaplain, he was not able to land with the battalion landing team.

“I felt that call that I gotta be with the Marines because when I saw the Marines leaving for shore I was kicking myself because I was the ship chaplain,” Park added.

Park received his wish when he was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in Camp Pendleton, Calif. They deployed to Al Anbar, Iraq in September 2005, four days after his first daughter was born, missing the first seven months of her life. Park also experienced Marine Corps austerity: weeks without showers, salt-encrusted cammies, and lots of baby wipes. The Marines were also taking serious casualties.

“The most difficult part is handling the fallen Marines and how it impacts a unit,” Park said.

The first death in the battalion was an eye-opening experience for him. An IED explosion struck a convoy, and one of the injured Marines died shortly after being evacuated from the site. Before the convoy arrived back to base, Park and the command had to break the bad news to the returning Marines.

“To tell the truth and see the reaction was difficult,” Park said. “At the same time, there was healing. Men huddled up and supported each other. They were very strong. It’s hard to describe that dynamic in words.”

Park strived to be accessible to many of the Marines, who were spread out over various forward operating bases. During his deployment, Park moved 84 different times, spending a few days on post before hopping onto another convoy. He desired to be present for Marines because a crisis moment can happen at any time, he said.

“Things happen in the field and on the homefront,” Park said. “Tragedy takes place. Death takes place. All the things that life gives happens while the men are deployed and I’m there, handling it together.”

Park’s dedication to the Marines continued after he left the division to serve as a staff chaplain at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. In January 2009, he was approached by the widow of a Marine captain whom Park had wedded her to while he served at 3/1. She personally requested that he come to Arlington National Cemetery to bury her husband. Park paid for all of the expenses to fly his family to Virginia and participate in the ceremony.

“To come out on his own initiative to bury one of his Marines when he really didn’t have to…that to me said a lot about him, so I think he really cares for our Marines, he’ll go the extra mile for them,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Logan, outgoing MBW chaplain.

The full honors funeral was the first time Park had seen Barracks Marines.

“It was very, very impressive what the Marines did for the family and for me and for the guests who came who have known this captain in a personal way,” Park said. “Every single step is done in perfection, and I see that face.”

After coming to the Barracks, Park witnessed the tremendous effort it took for the Marines to perform seemingly flawlessly.

“What I didn’t see back then is a different kind of face. It’s the sweat and tears that will fall behind the presentation in order to do one task, one ceremony. Now I see how much effort and energy and time and commitment that is required to do that face. Behind the scene in the garage, sweating during the hot summer or freezing in winter under the snow. The men are practicing and practicing.”

The busy schedule at MBW presents a special challenge for Park, as he is the only chaplain for an entire Barracks of around 1,200 Marines and Sailors. He must plan his day in order to be available to Marines while attending meetings and visiting Marines on post, the Washington Navy Yard and Anacostia.

“I like to schedule life and squeeze every hour and every minute as I can to maximize effectiveness for overall mission,” Park said.

In recent weeks, Park has had an average of four counseling sessions per day. Lasting 30 to 90 minutes each, counseling can easily take up half a day. Managing the hours can seem overwhelming, but no matter how busy he is, he always begins each day with a prayer and scripture study, Park said.

“Some may think that I’m losing time by doing that, but I think I gain time because it helps me to focus on things that are important,” Park added. “Things that are not temporary, but hopefully more eternal.”

Along with his organizational skills, Park’s love and dedication for the Marines will make him a successful chaplain at the Barracks, said Logan.

“I prayed to the Lord to send a good relief for me,” Logan added. “I felt God answered that prayer when I met Chaplain Park. I can go to sleep at night knowing the Marines of ‘eighth and I’ are in good hands.”