Serving God and country

Saturday, January 12, 2002

Mark Steiner's job as a chaplain with the U.S. Navy has become more crucial as the war on terrorism goes on.

Steiner, a native of Pocahontas, Mo., was at the Pentagon in the minutes prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and immediately began evacuating the building and working with recovery efforts.

"Both the military and civilian government workers are performing remarkably well in view of the aftermath," Steiner said during a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office last week. All had concerns for the safety of family and friends in the weeks following the attacks, but "they are holding up and going forward in hope and in faith."

Steiner is the deputy executive assistant to the chief of chaplains for the U.S. Navy, which staffs chaplains for both the Marines and Coast Guard. They serve as counselors and religious education instructors for troops deployed to active duty.

As military personnel continue to be called to duty, many local churches have developed specific ministries for their families. Some congregations list the names of service men and women each week in bulletins, some plan special prayer emphases or have organized letter-writing campaigns.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Chapel has planned a service that recognizes military personnel past and present and their families during Sunday's worship hours. An avenue of flags, borrowed from the Missouri Veterans Home, also will be on display.

Steiner, who will be promoted in August to commander with the U.S. Navy, will speak at the 8 and 10:30 a.m. worship services Sunday at Good Shepherd. He also will have a question and answer session during the 9:15 a.m. Bible class time.

The idea of such a service, which is typically reserved for Veterans Day or Fourth of July in most congregations, started evolving after Sept. 11, said the Rev. Barry Pfanstiel, pastor.

Members were anticipating major call-ups of military and felt the church should offer support. When most of the local troops weren't deployed overseas, the focus of the service changed, Pfanstiel said.

But people should continue to focus on prayer, Steiner said. "Pray for our safety and pray for those men and women deployed right now who are in harm's way. And pray for the people supplying support to those men and women right now."

Often the support personnel are forgotten and their work is essential to the mission, he said.

Steiner also asked that people continue to pray for wisdom as government officials seek to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan.

Steiner isn't expected to be deployed, but has served aboard ships during the Gulf War. He served on the Destroyer Squadron 21 out of San Diego on two deployments from 1988 to 1991, and was chaplain at the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill., and with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Each deployment is six months at sea. While that takes Steiner away from his wife and two daughters, it also means he has to prepare other soldiers for their time away.

Pre-deployment briefs and seminars help families prepare for the separation. About one month before the troops return, Steiner helps the soldiers prepare for life back home. "We talk about what their spouses have been going through and the kids and get them back in the game of dealing with family issues," Steiner said.

Another part of his job aboard ship is to hold worship services and offer counseling. Often he will be hoisted from a helicopter -- called a "holy helo" among the chaplains -- and transported from ship to ship for worship services.

He said it's exactly like the scene in the movie "Hunt for Red October," when Alec Baldwin is lowered to a submarine during a storm. In the movie, crewmen try to grab Baldwin's rope with a long hook so he can come on board.

Steiner has been dropped onto ships by helicopter 97 times during his deployments.

"It doesn't get any easier," Steiner said. "I've had some close calls but I've always gotten down to the ship."

Once aboard the ship, Steiner leads worship and sometimes holds religious education classes. Often his job is to lead a training workshop on a particular religion, like Islam, so that soldiers stationed in the Middle East might have a better understanding of the culture surrounding them.

"There are a number of things we do behind the scenes to assist the soldiers both spiritually and emotionally," Steiner said.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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