A station fast boat approaches a cutter at sea and is met with a Jacob’s ladder — a chaplain climbs aboard. A cutter returns to port after a several-week deployment with exhausted crews who are greeted with open arms by a chaplain. These are the first steps of cutter ministry performed by Auxiliary Chaplain Support (ACS) chaplains supporting the Coast Guard during Operation Vigilant Sentry (OVS).
OVS was first approved in 2004, but the Coast Guard has amplified its focus on illegal maritime migration in the Caribbean Sea in the past few years. At any given time, there are multiple cutters and air assets actively conducting operations to interdict migrants at sea and engage in lifesaving efforts.
The high operation tempo of missions and close contact with migrants can affect the spiritual and mental health of the operational crews and the supporting units ashore. The past year has been particularly dangerous for migrants, making counseling and pastoral support essential for the well-being of personnel experiencing migrant vessel rescues.
The ACS chaplains fill the ministry gap under a supervising active duty chaplain. Key West, Florida, the southernmost point of the United States, is the home or visiting port for many cutters participating in OVS. When a tasked cutter requests ministry support, the Coast Guard Sector Key West chaplain requests additional chaplain support.
If no active duty or Reserve chaplain is available, an ACS chaplain will deploy. In the past two years, 10 ACS chaplains have answered that call.
ACS chaplains share their OVS experiences
Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh served aboard a 210-foot medium endurance cutter off Key West for a long weekend. He helped members of the crew process their experiences and control operational stress from a 50-week deployment that saw the processing of 700 migrants and a rescue of over 300 people. He also prepared the crew to transition back to shore and deal with the stresses of life and family. He conducted counseling sessions and one Sunday service. On his final day of the mission, Shambaugh enjoyed a front-row seat to dolphins playing off the cutter’s bow as well as a SpaceX launch.
Rev. Gary Gray spent two weeks in Sector Key West and visited the crews of three fast response cutters (FRCs) underway. He provided on-demand counseling sessions, divine services and evening prayers when needed. Chaplain demands changed based on the flow of migrants between FRCs and the crew’s engagement with migrants aboard. Gray’s daily outreach and availability quickly endeared himself to the crews. “An interesting event was to find that two crew members graduated from the same high school that I did,” said Gray.
Rev. Anthony Giunta reported to Coast Guard Sector San Juan in January 2023. Over the course of 109 days, he provided 24/7 pastoral care and support to 700 Coast Guard personnel assigned to sector units and the seven FRCs supporting OVS. During his assignment, Giunta conducted weekend and Holy Week services, biblical studies on weekdays, FRC crew visits, voyage blessings, retirement ceremonies, counseling sessions, and several critical incident stress management courses. For his service as sector chaplain from January to April 2023, Giunta received an achievement medal and command plaque from Sector San Juan.
Rabbi Isaac Rosenberg served onboard two 210-foot cutters in the Florida straits for two weeks. Rosenberg was also fundamental in setting up the resilience response team in Key West. He flew the U.S. Navy chaplain pennant while holding divine services. He would often support the watch crew during the night, making 2 a.m. visits to the bridge or the engine room. When the two weeks ended, the cutter’s captain requested that he remain aboard for their voyage back home. In May 2023, Rosenberg deployed for 61 days as Sector and Base San Juan chaplain in support of OVS.
Want to learn more about the ACS program?
As the Coast Guard continues to support Operation Vigilant Sentry through the end of the year and beyond, the need for pastoral care is paramount. If you have clergy credentials and are looking to engage in cutter ministry, click here for more information for the ACS program.
- Welcome to the Auxiliary Chaplain Support Web Site (uscgaux.info)
- AUXILIARY CHAPLAIN SUPPORT PROGRAM, COMDTINST 1730.5B (defense.gov)
In the news:
- Chaplain Tom Walcott joins the Auxiliary chaplain ranks > United States Coast Guard > My Coast Guard News (uscg.mil)
- Auxiliary chaplains prove to be essential to the Coast Guard > United States Coast Guard > My Coast Guard News (uscg.mil)