NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY INDIAN HEAD, Md. -- They say Marines are made of mud, but what about a sailor with the heart of a Marine?
Petty Officer 1st Class Larry Pieper, a religious program specialist with II Marine Expeditionary Force, has that heart.
Pieper is responsible for providing religious care to the Marines at the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, II MEF, in Indian Head, Md.
“You are a bodyguard for the chaplain and that includes combat and non-combat situations,” Pieper said. “Along with that, you also help your chaplain to develop the religious ministries program for your unit. It has to be very open-ended. It can’t be one-denomination specific, because every command has a different variety and flavor of every type of faith-based belief there is out there.”
The religious ministries team Pieper and CBIRF chaplain Cmdr. Kelvin James helped to build contributes to physical, mental and emotional well being.
“The team will bring an ethical and moral conscience to your command. They bring a spiritual awareness to your unit,” said Pieper. “Obviously, being with the Marines, we’re very combat-driven. CBIRF being a little different, we’re a response unit. Our job is to save lives before taking lives.”
Pieper is an integral part of the religious ministries team at CBIRF. Marines say he’s simply approachable.
“A lot of people prefer to talk with him,” said Sgt. James Watson of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconstitution. “He’s big on family, and he’s out to help Marines any way he can.”
While the religious ministries mission is critical to CBIRF, Pieper said he’s a part of CBIRF history.
“I’m the first RP to be assigned to CBIRF to help develop what the chaplain and I call the Spiritual Action Response; how a chaplain and RP respond to a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear high-yield explosive environment,” Pieper said.
While CBIRF Marines are tasked with responding to a CBRNE catastrophe, they will come into contact with victims of an incident. CBIRF’s religious ministries team is developing a plan which calls for making religious ministries an integral part of responding to a CBRNE catastrophe.
“Our first mission is to our unit, to our Marines and to our sailors. Our secondary mission is to the victims that we will encounter,” said Pieper. “We’re currently in the preliminarily stages of this development, trying to see how we fit in to CBIRF.”
Planning spiritual care involves many different aspects, but Pieper says the bottom line is taking care of the Marines and sailors.
“When you’re in the chemical biological world, it’s different than being shot or seeing dead bodies in a combat environment. In planning spiritual care; you have to look at when the unit comes back. What did those young men and women see during this event, and how is that going to affect them and their families?”
In the end, a ministry is made of three different parts at CBIRF.
“We try to provide a holistic ministry where the ministry is mind, body and soul,” said Pieper. “We take care of the Marines, the Marines’ families, the sailors and sailors’ families. We prepare them for what they have to do. Then, when they are in the hazardous environment, we will be with them.”
Pieper found himself in that environment in St. Louis, Mo., where CBIRF conducted an exercise.
“When I was in (Force Protection Element), he hung out with us and a lot of the Marines were stressed out,” Watson said. “He would talk with them and calm them down. He’s always available.”
But, when it comes to rest and relaxation, Pieper says he likes to be with his Marines.
“I go out with my Marines, if my Marines are out training or doing something. For me that’s relaxation,” Pieper said.
But, when it comes to Pieper and office work, he’d rather be out in the field with the men and women he supports.
“The fight is not sitting behind your desk,” said Pieper. “The fight is being out there with your other sailors and Marines and battling with them.”
According to Pieper, everyone has their place, no matter what.
“Sailors belong on ships, ships belong at sea, and if you’re an RP or corpsman, you belong at sea or you belong with the Marines. We’re an operational force. That’s what we do,” Pieper said.
One thing Pieper likes to do is motivate his Marines, and that means inside and outside the office.
“I was actually at a dentist appointment. It was our (Headquarters and Service) Company run, and I told the Company Gunny I would be late, and he said ‘ok, that’s no problem RP.’ I really don’t think he expected to see me, but I’m a man of my word. I said I’m going to be there, so I’m going to be there,” said Pieper. “So, I got back from dental, I stretched, and I asked a group of Marines where the company went, and they said they were about a mile up the road. I actually ended up catching them, which was really surprising, but motivating, too. I think maybe it was motivating to other Marines too, that the old man can actually catch them.”
Lance Cpl. Josh Harris, a radio operator for Bravo Company, said Pieper brings a lot to CBIRF.
“He could turn a bad day good,” Harris said. “He always seems to have high morale, a positive attitude toward being at work and helping out with the other Marines.”
Being an RP, Pieper said, “is having a spiritual care mind set and understanding there is more than one way to practice your faith, and part of it is being of a pluralistic mind-set of respecting others first. It’s critical. You have to respect others first. In order to get respect, you must show respect.”
In a combat zone, being an RP takes on a totally different meaning.
“Myself, being a combatant, I’m a weapons handler, whereas the chaplain is not. The Geneva Convention bars him from carrying a weapon in combat,” Pieper said. “So, that’s why when chaplains and RPs deploy to Iraq or wherever the fight may be, the enlisted person is in the lead in the field determining what’s going to be a safe environment for that chaplain to work in.”
“You’re a combatant. Your job is to protect the chaplain inside and outside the wire, and you’ve got be willing to put yourself in harms way to do that,” Pieper said.
He has been with the Navy for 13 years, and this is his second tour of duty with the Marine Corps. Pieper says modesty is a good service member’s best friend.
“If you’re shooting to put stuff on your evaluation, you’ve failed your job,” said Pieper. “Be a walking example of your profession.”
For this motivated sailor, at the end of the work day he feels he has accomplished a lot.
“My reward is when I know I’ve given my Marines sound advice on making a life decision. I’m not a subject matter expert on anything, but I am a jack of all trades.”