FALLUJAH, Iraq (BP)–A Navy chaplain and his assistant are helping Marines and sailors in Fallujah, Iraq, in the ongoing war against terrorism.
Navy Lt. Matthew S. Weems, flanked by his religious program specialist, Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron G. Neely, are key weapons in the effort to maintain good morale among the 800 troops in the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, Regimental Combat Team-1.
“We’re here to give encouragement to the Marines and sailors,” said Weems, a graduate of the Arizona Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, “and to provide for the free religious expression of all in the command.”
Nicknamed “The God Squad” by the battalion, Weems, 33, and Neely, 21, provide more than weekly religious services; they also perform baptisms; conduct the battalion’s morale, welfare and recreation program; and provide any needed counseling.
“More than anything else, I think our ministry of presence is the most influential thing we do,” Weems said.
Weems and Neely regularly attach themselves to convoys and patrols through the city to establish a rapport with the troops in addition to the time they spend at the battalion’s bases.
Maintaining visibility with the Marines and sailors within the city allows Chaplain Weems to empathize with their situation and makes him more approachable, Neely noted.
“It allows us to trust them more because they’re out here doing what we do,” said Lance Cpl. Daniel E. Pleger, a 22-year-old assaultman. “It shows a lot of courage to come out and do what they do.”
One of the most important roles the chaplain plays is as a counselor and adviser to the battalion.
Weems, a Kingfisher, Okla., native, and Neely, from Jeffersonville, Ind., spend 15 to 20 hours a week providing counseling to the battalion’s Marines and sailors.
Some Marines and sailors may find it difficult to bring their personal problems to their leaders, so Weems provides a more comfortable environment for the troops to share concerns. Whether a soldier needs advice or just someone to talk to, there is complete confidentiality within his office, with no fear of reprisal or judgment.
“They don’t have the Marine mindset,” Pleger said. “They listen without criticism.”
“Marines are expected to be hardcore,” Neely said, “but they can find a sense of security in us.”
Lance Cpl. Paul Robbins Jr. is assigned to the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq.