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U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Christian Vang, a religious program specialist with 3d Marine Division reads the “Building Spiritual Readiness” book during the Professional Development Training Course, at Crow’s Nest, on Camp Shields, Okinawa, Japan, March 14, 2023. PDTC is a 3 day course to train chaplains and religious program specialists by working together in their units to facilitate various faith groups and allowing them to freely practice their religion. The course also taught chaplains and RP’s about how to help Marines with their personal lives such as their finances issues, emotional health and help provide a safe place. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Martha Linares)

Photo by Cpl. Martha Linares

Professional Development Training fosters a space for growing capabilities for Chaplaincy within the military

28 Apr 2023 | Lance Cpl. Thomas Sheng Marine Corps Installations Pacific

U.S. Navy chaplains, along with Navy and Marine religious program specialists stationed throughout Japan attended the FY23 Professional Development Training Course at Camp Shields on March 14.

“Around 80 to 90 percent of the time, Marines are going to RP’s and chaplains for issues of depression, crisis, financial issues, hopelessness, parenting issues, and loneliness,” said Rear Adm. Carey Cash, Chaplain of the Marine Corps. “Depending on the needs of Marines, an RP can determine what is the best possible solution, whether it’s referring them to the chaplain, engaging the chain of command, or calling for assistance outside of the military.”

One Marine who fully utilized a chaplain’s services was Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cassandra Fellenz, originally a heavy equipment mechanic with 9th Engineering Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group.

Following her arrival to her first duty station on Camp Hansen, she attended church services at the Hansen Christian Center.

“As a brand new private first class entering the fleet, I struggled with things that I don’t think I could've handled on my own,” said Fellenz. “Speaking to the chaplain and being part of the church definitely helped me through those times.”

After her continued involvement in the church, she noticed certain tasks began to overwhelm the RP’s and decided to offer her help. Recently, Fellenz spoke to her battalion commander and eventually switched her assignment to a Chaplain’s assistant and is now attending this very Professional Development Training Course.

“PDTC helped me understand spiritual readiness and how to use that for mission accomplishment,” said Fellenz. “I’m not a counselor or a chaplain, but I want to become an RP to provide a safe place like someone did for me.”

Two PDTC instructors travel around the world to teach the course and are accompanied by Cash, whose focus is getting insight from junior RPs about their experience with this specific military occupational specialty.

“We don’t work 9-5, we’re right there and we deploy with you, there’s not going to be anyone who works the same hours, bears the same suffering, and understands the burden,” said Cash. “I wish every Marine would utilize RP’s first, because their sole responsibility is the wellbeing of Marines and Sailors.”

According to Cash, RP’s and chaplains have four basic tasks: facilitating the free exercise of religion, ensuring the equal ability to practice any faith, advising the commander on issues, and caring for personnel within units. According to Cash, he discussed potentially broadening the scope that RP’s can handle, by potentially training them to lead things like suicide awareness, life skills, or stress management classes.

“We see examples where the RP is used even as a teacher, or a trainer on certain life skills classes, or resilience programs, so I wanted feedback to see how we could see their rate grow to do more,” said Cash. “People typically think of chaplains as only providing religious services, but we do a lot more than just that.”

PDTC provides one of many certifications RP’s and chaplains can earn. These specialists are stationed all around the world with the one purpose of supporting units. Service members should feel free to utilize their services whenever necessary.

Marines need someone to confide in that understands their background and current situation. Having someone to go to who wears the same uniform and stays with the unit will better understand whatever situation they are in or might face.

“Religious program specialists are like a chaplain’s right-hand man, and a lot of times they can reach people who chaplains can’t or help bring awareness to certain topics or issues,” said Navy Cmdr. Marc Massie, director of professional development of the Naval Chaplaincy School. “In this training, RPs learn to become program managers and administrative experts who chaplains rely on day to day.”

PTDC is a three-day course, taught annually to prepare RP’s and Chaplains to fulfill their mission statement. This year’s focus for the course is facilitating faith groups and coordinating with partner organizations to continue advancing the free practice of religion for service members.

“Whether they’re a junior chaplain or RP, there’s always a group they’re going to care for,” said Massie. “PDTC gives them the tools to work better with people and cure the spiritual needs of Marines, Sailors, and family members within Navy and Marine Corps policy.”

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