DJIBOUTI, Djibouti – Chaplains and religious program specialists assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), went on a tour led by French exchange officer, Lt. Col. Renee Debuire, to learn about the customs and traditions of French chaplains, as well as seeing local churches in the community, in Djibouti, Africa, Sept. 27, 2013.
“We went with Lt. Col. Debuire, our French liaison officer, and he scheduled a meeting between us and the chaplains on the French base,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Hall, 26th MEU Command Element chaplain from Oklahoma City, Okla. “After meeting them and getting a chance to look around their base, they had arranged for us to meet some of the locals. We visited the local Catholic cathedral and Ethiopian Coptic Church.”
The 26th MEU represents the Marine Corps, as well as the United States as a whole when it visits foreign nations. Because of this, foreign diplomacy is an important task to keep in mind.
“As the 26th MEU, one of the colonel’s desires is working to enhance our already good relationship with the French forces out here,” said Hall. “Building that relationship is extremely important to him and we were looking for any way to enhance or facilitate that.”
Navy Lt. Scott Shively, Battalion Landing Team 3/2, 26th MEU chaplain added, “If religious folk can’t build bridges together, then who can? I think it is an important piece of what we do.”
Shively said during the visit they saw a lot of similarities, but they also noticed some key differences.
“One of the main differences are the French chaplains don’t wear rank, so they just assume the rank of the person they are with,” said the Charlotte, N.C. native. “I think the advantage of this is it makes the chaplain more accessible to anybody so they don’t have that stigma of ‘he is an officer and I am enlisted.’ Most of our chaplains handle that pretty well, and I think we are very approachable so I don’t see that as necessarily being a problem, but that is their structure and they just have a different way to do it.”
After meeting with the French chaplains, they got a brief history lesson on France’s 5th Marine Regiment, which shares some history with the U.S. Marine Corps’ 5th Marine Regiment and had a special tie to Hall.
“It was interesting to me because I used to be with the Marine Corps’ 5th Marine Regiment,” he said. “They had served together in [World War I] which is why they wear the fourragère. It was kind of like an old home week for me.”
To finish the day, members of a Coptic Church graciously served a traditional meal as a sign of good faith.
“A family from the church had a wonderful Ethiopian dinner for us,” said Hall. “The dinner was fantastic. It was very different. I have never had a meal where you have one centrally located plate and everyone uses a form of a crepe as a spoon or eating utensil. It consisted of various meats to include chicken and beef, as well as some lentils and cabbage.”
Walking away with from the experience with lessons learned, one stood out to Hall above the rest.
“People of faith have an impact on their military wherever they go and we have similarities,” he said. “Even though we spoke different languages, we all had the same foundational faith background. Something that is so foundational to who we are as people transcends language.”