CIU graduate ministers to soldiers in Afghanistan
Chaplain Navy Lt. Stephen DiCenso, featured in the following story, says, “My connection to Columbia is Columbia International University (CIU) and Park Street Baptist Church. We lived there five years while attending seminary. My wife and I consider Columbia, S. C. home because in the five years we were there during my seminary we really enjoyed it. One day after retirement or my separation from the Navy we would like to move back to that area. It was nice being two hours from the coast and two hours from the mountains. Columbia allowed for that, and it was really enjoyable experience. There was also a lot to do within the city itself. My family always made good use of the parks and recreational facilities especially the Riverbanks Zoo and the annual state fair. We also enjoyed attending University of South Carolina football games. I didn't attend any schools besides CIU, but my children attended Logan Elementary & Hand Middle School. My wife was also an employee of Richland One School District. I always liked the people of the city and how Columbia has the feel of a large city, but is still small enough to get to know people.”
It’s 2:53 p.m. at Forward Operating Base Delaram, Afghanistan, and religious programs specialist Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Gallagher is looking quite nervous. Pacing in the blazing Afghanistan sun, Gallagher knows that he and the Navy chaplain he is sworn to protect have a convoy to catch in seven minutes, one that very well may leave them stranded if they are late.
Gallagher has already given the chaplain several notifications that they are running short on time, but the Navy lieutenant is so engaged in his conversation with a young corporal that his priorities have shifted. This may be the only chance that the lieutenant, based miles away at Camp Leatherneck, will have to visit the Marines from his squadron for some time.
Suddenly, with one minute to spare, Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 chaplain Navy Lt. Stephen DiCenso emerges. Luckily the convoy’s departure was delayed. It is clear DiCenso makes his duties as MWSS- 272’s chaplain his first mission, no matter the circumstance.
“That’s what you call ministry on the fly,” shrugged DiCenso with a smile to a nervous Gallagher. “That is what I love about this job!”
The 42- year- old Columbia, S.C., native and father of three arrived at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N. C., in April 2010, a newly minted, but eager Navy chaplain. However, unlike many new chaplains, he was no stranger to the Marine Corps.
“I served as a weather observer with MWSS- 273, out of MCAS Beaufort, S. C., from 1987 through 1991 during the Persian Gulf War,” said DiCenso. “I only stayed in for a single enlistment and then used my Montgomery G.I. Bill to go back and finish college to pursue other opportunities. It just turned out that all those other opportunities came together, and I came back in the military as a chaplain 20 years later.”
In between his time in the Marine Corps and becoming a chaplain, DiCenso tried a few career options, becoming a New Jersey state probation officer and disabled veterans representative. But, it was his involvement with the church during that time that would steer his life in a completely new direction.
“ I began attending church 10 years ago as a result of having some of the same issues I minister to young Marines about come up in my own life,” said DiCenso. “My wife and I were married while I was in the Marine Corps, and we struggled with learning how to be married and how a good marriage works. We struggled until we started finding solutions from our church pastor.”
“ The things he taught us are principles that brought my wife and I closer together, healed our wounds, and made my family a stronger unit,” he said. “ These are some of the same tools I share with the Marines and sailors of my unit.”
During that time while he was heavily involved in the church, DiCenso started ministering to youth groups and said that was when he felt a calling to become a pastor.
“When I first went to seminary in August 2005, my intent wasn’t to become a Navy chaplain,” said DiCenso. “ That was probably the furthest thing from my mind. There was a chaplain recruiter who spoke to us there and I was like, ‘Yeah right, I’m too old and too out of shape for the military now.’ I went through my time at seminary intending to become a pastor at a local church somewhere.”
It was a friend of DiCenso’s who had gone to seminary and actually became a chaplain that made the former Marine, then in his late thirties, begin to reconsider his intention to stay a civilian.
“A friend became a chaplain in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division, and I remember him telling me about the ministry he was doing and the interactions he was having with all the young enlisted guys,” said DiCenso. “It just really got me to think about it even though he was a lot younger than I was.”
Originally leaning toward serving in the Army, it was DiCenso’s wife Evelyn who persuaded him to serve young Marines and sailors.
By January 2010, DiCenso was in training to become a Navy chaplain. DiCenso had little time after arriving at his new duty station at MCAS New River before he was confronted with the harsh reality of the duties the chaplaincy entails.
“I arrived at MCAS New River in April 2010,” DiCenso recalled. “I received a phone call on my duty phone at around 10 or 11 p.m. with a Marine saying, ‘Hey Chaps, I got a shotgun to my head.’ As I talked to him over the phone, I asked him to get his neighbor who got the gun away from him. At that point I drove down to Wilmington, picked him up, and with the direction of his sergeant major, I brought him to the Naval hospital.”
DiCenso said by starting a counseling relationship beforehand with the Marine and letting him know that he could call him anytime he had a problem, he felt he was able to diffuse a situation which could have ended far differently.
“I like being a Navy chaplain because here it’s about more than pulpits, pews, and congregations— it’s more about personal interactions with people,” said DiCenso. “I love learning about the lives of each and every Marine and sailor and understanding who they are.”
Since arriving in Afghanistan in March, DiCenso has been busy fulfilling the spiritual needs of Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 personnel based at Camp Leatherneck and other forward operating bases in the surrounding area. Recently, he traveled by convoy to Forward Operation Base Delaram to visit the Marines stationed there.
“He’s been down a few times in the three months that we’ve been here,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Zaffino, the detachment officer in charge of the MWSS-272 Marines at Forward Operating Base Delaram. “He’s dealt with the personal problems of Marines here on many occasions and was heavily instrumental in addressing one Marine’s issues and getting him back to Camp Leatherneck where he could receive the appropriate help he needed.”
Gallagher, the religious programs specialist who works closest with DiCenso, said this is where the chaplain’s former Marine enlisted experience comes in handy.
“I think the chaplain’s greatest quality is his ability to relate to the Marines regardless of rank,” said Gallagher. “I think this is partially because he was a Marine. He’s been there and gone through most of the problems young Marines face.”
One particular Marine, Cpl. William Reid, an aircraft rescue firefighter and Prattville, Ala., native with MWSS-272 stationed at Forward Operating Base Delaram, received an unexpected visit from the chaplain on his June 4 visit.
Reid’s wife Amy had given birth to his third child, Gunner Mason Reid the day before, and DiCenso had heard about the event and came to congratulate the young Marine.
“I think it’s really cool that he comes out to visit us like this,” said Reid. “He seems like a genuinely nice guy. I have no idea how he knew that we had a baby. It’s crazy how he just seems to know things like this.”
Zaffino said that DiCenso’s visits are something he greatly appreciates and looks forward to. His Marines have a chance to vent their frustrations and concerns to someone outside of their chain of command and receive the guidance they need without any inhibitions.
“It’s pretty impressive that he’s been able to get here the times he has considering he has over 20 locations in the area of operations that he’s responsible for,” said Zaffino. “The first question he has when he gets here is always what he can do for the Marines. It lifts morale when he’s here and I can definitely tell the Marines trust him.”
DiCenso said his goal is to remain in the Navy and stay a chaplain for as long as possible. However, he said for the time that he’s in he wants to stay motivated and continue to do quality work.
“I think my main motivation is probably my family,” he said. “They know that even though I’m away from them, sometimes for months at a time, I am committed to something greater than myself. I’ve not chosen to work in a comfy church; I’ve been called to work in this ministry, and if the calling is to be here, I can’t deny it.”