CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- The Navy Religious Program Specialist Program was established in 1979. Twenty-six years later, Petty Officer 2nd Class Colin Gardape is continuing the legacy of defending and serving the military’s ministers in Iraq.
“I always knew I was going to be in the military,” stated the 23-year-old Cranberry Township, Penn. native. “In November of my graduation year (2000), this Navy recruiter kept on bugging me to join.”
Several months later, Gardape graduated Seneca Valley High School and enlisted in the service. He attended basic training aboard Great Lakes Naval Station, Ill., along with subsequent schooling in the religious program specialty to pursue a passion he’d long held - that of becoming a minister in the Pentecostal faith.
“The reason I became an RP was to one day be a pastor,” Gardape explained. “An RP is basically the administrative assistant and bodyguard of the chaplain. In school, we learned a lot about the differences between religions, as well as military administration, supply and logistics.”
Toward the end of his basic RP schooling, Gardape realized he would be wearing more camouflage green than Navy blue throughout his career when he found out that he would be receiving orders to serve alongside the Marines once his schooling was complete.
In October 2000, Gardape attended the Chaplains and RP Expeditionary Skills Training Course at the Field Medical Services School in Camp Johnson, N.C. to continue his education.
“FMSS was where we learned what Marines do,” he explained. “They taught us how to patrol, set up defensive positions, conduct land navigation, and become familiarized with rifle and pistol skills.”
Upon graduation in 2001, Gardape reported to his first command aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. During the subsequent two years of military service, he would undergo a change of heart.
“I originally came in as an RP to ultimately be a pastor,” Gardape stated. “Being an RP, it’s really hard to separate your personal and work life, especially when you’re dealing with faith. At this duty station, I had to set up 13 services in four hours. Once you set up the service and made sure the chaplain was good to go, you were out of there. You didn’t have time to sit down and listen to the Word yourself. It made it hard to maintain my faith.”
After these busy years of helping set up services for Marine recruits, however, Gardape was reassigned to the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, where he would be afforded more opportunities to reacquaint himself with the faith.
“Being in an infantry battalion, you have a few more opportunities to attend services yourself, because you’re not setting them up all the time,” he explained. “I’m slowly coming back into it (the faith).”
Currently, Gardape serves in Fallujah as his battalion chaplain’s right-hand man, setting up weekly Catholic and Protestant worship, memorial services, and helping the chaplain with his day-to-day administrative and logistic affairs.
In addition to helping the battalion’s chaplain set up the worship service, Gardape continues his administrative labors.
“Out here, I do a lot of logistical work, tracking how many people go to services, and transporting the Catholic priest from nearby Camp Fallujah to here once a week to do his service.”
Navy Lt. Richard Ryan, the battalion chaplain, added that this support is invaluable in assisting him minister to the troops’ needs.
“RP is pretty much the workhorse of the religious ministry department,” Ryan stated. “He allows me to focus on the Marines and sailors, because his main missions are to keep me safe and take care of all of the little details. Together, we have the ability to influence the morale and spiritual fitness of the Marines.”
Being able to help the troops in this manner is what gives Gardape satisfaction in his job.
Day by day, Gardape continues helping his chaplain and fellow troops make it through the hardships of Iraq. Gardape said he has learned valuable life-long lessons from his five years of military service and this combat deployment.
“Being in the military was the first time I was really away from home. I’ve learned more about myself during these past five years than ever before; like how hard I can push myself, physically and mentally, and how to deal with different kinds of people. Most of my peers may be graduating college right now, but I have five years of actual life experience on them.”