The Chaplain’s Call
by Harvey Ranard
It was a beautiful day at sea aboard the USS Caloosahatchee, AO-98. We were in a part of the Caribbean where the water was a mile deep and as crystal clear below us as the endless royal, sun-drenched sky above us. I was just a year or so into my twenty-three-year service as a Navy chaplain, so every experience was crisp and salty. From my view on the bridge, I watched our ship cut gracefully through waters that sparkled with the beauty of a diamond, the sort of moment travel agencies advertise. Maybe more people would join the Navy if they could see what I saw that day.
There were a handful of on-duty crew on the bridge, and the captain as usual. The captain is pretty much always on the bridge unless he’s off duty (sleeping). I was not on duty. As a chaplain I could enter every part of the ship at will. I had free access to all crew to be able to do my duties as needed. We didn’t have a destination as such, we were out on a forty day law enforcement operation, a sort of patrol mission which always included refueling other ships as necessary. An oiler is one of the largest ships in the Navy below aircraft carriers, and we were 933 feet long. Standing on the bridge was a mighty experience—a great gray beast in tame tropical waters.
The captain was pensive as we stared into the vast brightness and blue. After some moments, he turned to me with a half grin. “Do you think the crew would be interested in a swim call?” We had been underway a couple of weeks.
As usual when we left our homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, the crew had been anxious and ready. There were a series of procedures to follow when leaving the dock. Tension was high and so were spirits. But after a couple of weeks underway, enthusiasm begins to die. The crew grows quieter. Duties become robotic. The crescented horizon was now a sleepy eyelid blurring our senses. The same smells, sounds, sights, food, people; steel walls, deck, doors; water in every direction as far as the eye could see. The limited space on the ship started to get to us. You can play cards, chat with crewmates, you can run laps around the deck for exercise, and you can read. But eventually it begins to feel like a floating steel prison.
There in those tropical waters on a fair day, swim call was the captain’s idea of a morale booster. As a chaplain, my opinion of crew morale was respected input, and I said yes enthusiastically. This was a big deal; swim calls were rare. They were an unnecessary risk, a potential relief of duty for the captain if someone was injured.
Preparations were made without most of the crew knowing what was going on. The captain talked to the other officers on duty–we were going to have to steer the Caloos to an area that would not be in a shipping lane to avoid any chance encounters with other ships. The navigator plotted a safe course to do this. Once on the right course, they shut down the propellers and let the ship coast to a stop. It took a while to stop our momentum, well over a mile, but we finally did stop. We were not anchored. You do not anchor in mile deep water.
At this point, the captain got on the 1MC and said he was announcing a swim call and laid out the rules. Those interested could change into their swim gear and get to the starboard weather deck. Those on duty were not eligible to swim. We needed to have a couple small boats lowered over the side with three to four armed men in each for shark watch and, of course, rescue. Sailors were also stationed up on the starboard side to watch for sharks and distressed swimmers. The good thing was, it was mid-afternoon and visibility was high, the water was so clear that spotting sharks was easy enough.
Around fifty of the 231-member crew, including me, gathered up on the fo’c’sle. We were awaiting the go-ahead to swim, our bare feet gripping the rough-textured deck, our hands shielding our eyes from the vibrant sun. It was very warm and characteristically breezy as it always is at sea. I would say we were excited, maybe a little apprehensive. No one thought anything about how we were getting in the water until we were all standing there. In one collective epiphany, we realized we would have to jump.
It was about eighty-five feet from the deck to the bottom of the ship. An oiler can have quite a lot of ship under the water depending on its current state, whether full or empty. If it is completely empty, which is unusual, the ship lists aft with the bow somewhat up in the air, the propellers weighing the back end down. But we were nearly full and at an even keel so the waterline was around thirty-five feet. This meant it was a fifty-foot drop to the water below us from the deck. I wasn’t really a strong swimmer, and this was swim call, not training, so no life vests. I calmly changed my mind, decided I was not going in. I hung back and stayed on deck to see who did go in and just watch.
The time came and the captain gave the go on the 1MC for the crew to jump in at will, but everyone just stood and looked at each other. I quietly began to back away toward the superstructure to officers’ quarters.
By now the captain was out on the weather deck with us. He was really surprised that everyone balked at jumping in. Not being able to go in himself (the captain could never leave the ship), he began to holler at the crew something like– You lily-livered peabodies! –only it wasn’t near as nice. Suddenly I heard, “Fine! Just to show what wimps you all are, the chaplain will go first!”
I froze, and thought, Oh, no. No no.
I did not want to jump the fifty feet down, yet I was honor bound to do this. I mean, morale is one of my main areas. I only hesitated a second, but it was sheer duty that forced my steps toward the rail as I began to tremble.
Chaplains are called to do many things, things people usually never consider. Duties on ships are only a fraction of where we serve. Most of our duties are on terra firma at a Navy or Marine base. There we are placed over more than one ship’s-worth of men and often serve an entire base of thousands. We can sometimes be like the principals of the military and are almost always involved in the discipline process. We counsel. Military life is a fertile breeding ground for mental health and marriage problems. We advocate. Every sailor is a person with a family and private problems that conflict with work. We also organize and coordinate. Sometimes this means taking inventory and ordering supplies, or conceiving and implementing new programs for our ship or duty base. We run AA meetings, morale programs, and have a special knack for making things happen, having some influence in areas where others don’t. All this I knew when I came into the Navy. What I didn’t know were the unconventional duties allocated to chaplains.
Chaplains are first responders, technically always on duty. If any crisis or tragedy befalls a sailor, we show up. This could be arriving at the scene of a suicide before any clean-up in a San Diego apartment complex, and trying to find words to comfort the husband who was in the shower when his wife aimed the gun…the husband who came crawling to me and fell at my feet, weeping “Why, Chappie, why?” And seeing their five year-old child, who had watched her mother pull the trigger, huddled in the arms of the apartment manager who had heard the shot and come running. There are some things I can never un-see, tragedies I can never un-remember.
Chaplains are the shepherds of their Navy flock. Sometimes this is showing up in the pouring rain on a Sunday morning to be with the men as they muster and begin their preparation for whatever enemy waits. It is having a devotional in the downpour before they leave the security of the unit, and praying with and for them when they ask for reassurance of survival as they face this world where life is taken for freedom. And it is listening as they whisper words to pass to loved ones in case their duty asks for the ultimate sacrifice that day. Chaplains are the firm anchor to which many others tie their sanity and hope until the danger is past.
Chaplains are also role models. We learn every weapon these men and women use. Though we are not permitted to carry a weapon other than a personal knife, we can use them. We are educated across every cog of the machine that is the Navy so we know what the sailors go through. How else can we aid them? We must show emotional integrity at times when everyone else is falling apart, being braver than the men (or at least seemingly so), always available, always strong, and never tired. We do not back down; we do not balk at danger; we do not hide or run away. We face every challenge, great or small, with the same boldness and fervor to exemplify what it means to be a sailor in all situations. I am the resource called on to support and guide. I am the example.
So even though this was not a direct order, I could never walk away from this challenge. Never. I had to be the unwavering example, even in this fun swim call. I took a deep breath and inched my way to the edge of the deck.
The fo’c’sle was the ideal place to be able to jump from the ship. Railing runs around its edge and our ship was old enough to have, as the top rail, a solid, polished wooden beam around eight inches wide, wide enough to stand on and jump off.
I climbed up there and stood and, seeking to delay my doom or allow time for some divine intervention, grinned sheepishly and said, “Maybe we ought to pray.” Everyone chuckled.
I was serious.
Let me tell you, when I looked down to the water, I saw my life as a small speck.
There were rules to jumping. We had been briefly educated on the right and wrong way. At fifty feet up you could not dive in, too much chance of breaking your neck. You must go feet first with all your limbs glued to your side. A wayward leg could break if it hit the water wrong. The correct action was to just step off the deck and fall like a plumb. I positioned my body as we were instructed.
“Lord, here I come,” I said almost silently. And I believed it. I honestly didn’t think I would survive this.
As I stepped off, my heart, which had been pounding near out of my chest, cleanly left my body and floated somewhere above my head. I think I was already holding my breath. It takes a long time to fall fifty feet. Long enough that I became preoccupied with the time it took. Here’s the thing, when you hit the water from fifty feet like a dart, you go in deep. If it hurt, I was too scared to notice. As I plunged into the water and kept sinking, I wondered how far down I would go. I opened my eyes at the nadir of my descent and saw I was below the bottom of the ship, below it! In the crystalline water, I could see past the keel to the other side. This was a brief second, both the moment and I suspended, and I was strangely cognizant as I calculated my depth to be about thirty-five feet, marveling at my liquid moment of victory. I immediately rose, but not fast, and now I was out of air. Swim, Ed! I began desperately to swim up. Distance in clear water is not obvious, and I could have been ten or twenty feet below. When I finally did break the surface of the water, I gasped deeply like Westley on The Princess Bride when he emerged from the lightning sand.
The thrill and fear of what I just did was abated by a new fear. I had already drifted impossibly far from my ship, maybe 150 feet. The great Caloos looked small now to me out here. As I tread water and watched other sailors finally falling like raindrops into the ocean, I just knew I’d never be able to swim that far. The thought hit me that I’d have to call for help. I’d be so embarrassed…I just couldn’t…So I began to swim, but it wasn’t long before I was exhausted.
The ship kept getting further away, but I kept on. When I took my survival course in chaplain’s school, I knew I could turn over, float, and do a back stroke for longer than freestyle swimming, so I did. But the ship was still moving. I swam fifteen or twenty minutes trying steadily to get closer to a moving target. No one seemed to notice I was struggling, and I never called for help. When I was close enough, maybe twenty feet, I turned over and swam as fast I could to the ladder. Why couldn’t we have gone down the ladder? I was too exhausted to climb right away and clung onto it for dear life hoping no one would notice I was distressed. I just hung on and if someone wanted to climb up, I’d say, You go on up, I’ll keep it steady!
I finally did climb it. I had to climb back up the same fifty feet I jumped down.
Now, there’s a right and a wrong way to climb a jacob’s ladder. If you try to go up like a regular ladder, the weight of your lower body pushes the end out and you end up parallel to the water looking straight up into the sky and basically climbing upside-down and horizontal. So what you do is go to the side and put one foot in the rung on one side, and one on the other, so the side rope is between your feet. This keeps the ladder straight. It was slow going, but I did make it all the way up. Exhausted as I was, there was no one up there to help haul my butt over the edge when I got there. Back on deck, my body felt like it weighed a ton. I got my towel, wrapped it around me, and walked slowly to the superstructure. The thrill and terror was over. My legs felt like jelly when I climbed the steps to go up to my quarters, and I remember saying to myself, “Ed, that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.” But today, that was the chaplain’s call.
Harvey E. Ranard was called to ministry as a young man in 1967, pastoring at several churches for over fifteen years before joining the Navy in 1985 to continue his ministry as a chaplain. He has a BA in Philosophy and Masters in Divinity and Theology and has served at several foreign and domestic Navy and Marine installations, including two terms in the Gulf War (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom) as the only chaplain to serve in the Gulf War under both the Navy and Marines. He retired in 2008 to his home state of Indiana after twenty-three years of military service with four presidential meritorious medals, among many other commendations and awards.
Ranard recounted the events in “Chaplain’s Call” to his daughter, Lori Haggard, who prepared and submitted the story for publication.