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Petty Officer 2nd Class James Vanzella, the religious program specialist for Regimental Combat Team 6, talks to a Marine with RCT-6 about receiving care packages. An RP’s duties can consist of protecting chaplains, helping chaplains coordinate religious services and handling administrative issues with running a chapel.

Photo by Cpl. Ed Galo

Jersey kid lives military dream

6 Jan 2012 | Cpl. Ed Galo

The job of a religious program specialist in the Navy is an important role filled with many responsibilities. They must protect chaplains who are noncombatants, they assist the chaplains with their daily duties and they coordinate different religious services.

Petty Officer 2nd Class James Vanzella, native of Lodi, N.J., had no idea just exactly what he was about to do when he first joined the Navy eight years ago. Currently serving in Afghanistan with the Marines of Regimental Combat Team 6, he said the biggest reason he joined was because almost every male in his family served in a branch of the military.

“I came into the Navy as an undesignated seaman at first,” said Vanzella, about his time stationed aboard the USS Detroit. “I loved it. I got to do a little bit of everything at first. I loved being stationed on a ship. I miss it sometimes.”

After becoming an RP, Vanzella spent the next four years at U.S. Naval Support, Gaeta, Italy. He then cut his shore duty two years early at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, N.J. to deploy with the Marines of RCT-6.

“When I was sitting on shore duty, I was going home every day, so I felt like I needed to work for something bigger than myself,” said Vanzella. “I really enjoy working with Marines. I love their pride. You can see they definitely walk a little taller than most services.”

After receiving his orders to a Marine unit, Vanzella had to attend a course at Field Medical Training Battalion in Camp Lejeune, N.C. in order to train on the skills, knowledge and abilities to serve with the Marine Corps.

“When I went through field med I learned a lot about Marines and how to live in the field,” he added. “The knowledge I gained there will help me if things get rough and I have to become a bodyguard for the chaplain.”

The job of an RP is more than just protecting the chaplain. It can also be spiritually demanding for the sailor.

“I have to be sensitive to all religions,” he said. “I love everyone – no matter if you’re Jewish, Baptist or a Jedi – but I have to make sure I’m catering to everyone’s needs.”

With his ‘people personality,’ Vanzella has impressed his chaplain as a great RP.

“He’s my right-hand man,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Tews, the chaplain for RCT-6. “He’s my bodyguard, he’s my admin assistant and he’s well versed with many religious programs and how they’re supposed to run.

“He’s a great guy and I’m very impressed,” continued Tews, a native of Alvin, Texas. “After 15 years in the service, this is the first time I need a bodyguard. He’s definitely got the skills needed. I can trust him and feel safe and confident with him next to me.”

Vanzella comes from a big, Italian family in New Jersey and jokingly calls himself “a classy Italian” when around his peers.

“I’m very close to my family and had a great childhood growing up,” Vanzella added. “One of my best memories growing up is playing round robin or baseball at Hilltop (an elementary school in his hometown). My summers were just like that movie the Sandlot. There was nothing more fun than running around getting into trouble with my friends when I was younger.

“Right now I’m just enjoying serving my country, making my family proud and earning the Vanzella name.”


2nd Marine Division