Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben, the chaplain of the Marine Corps, talks with a colleague downrange. Kibben will become the Navy's first chief of chaplains later this year. (Marine Corps)
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Rear Adm. (lower half) Margaret Kibben made history in 2010 when she became the first woman to be named the chaplain of the Marine Corps. Later this year, she will do it again when she becomes the Navy’s first female chief of chaplains. She spoke to Military Times Wednesday about her time with Marines and preparing for her new role.
Q: You are the first female chaplain of the Marine Corps, the most male-dominated of the military services. How do you connect with that population, particularly infantry Marines downrange?
A: I was called to ministry very young, I was in junior high. Nobody ever said I shouldn’t, or I couldn’t, so this idea of being the first is really kind of foreign to me. As a chaplain, I think there was less issue about me being a woman than people really believe — as long as I PT’d with Marines, as long as I was out there and with them, as long as I spent time with them, everything a chaplain is supposed to do. And actually the reason I felt called to be a chaplain was so I could eat, sleep, breathe and endure the same things my parishioners, if you will, experienced, that was what called me to ministry.
I think there was some thought that women would want to connect with other women. But it’s also been helpful to men who wanted to talk to someone and maybe are less apt to talk to another man and might approach a female chaplain just because it’s a little bit safer. And we’ve seen that throughout the time. But that’s not to say that men aren’t doing their ministry and that women aren’t approaching them because they’re men and they’d feel more comfortable talking to a man than they would to a woman for whatever reason.
Q: What have emerged as the several top pressing spiritual issues for Marines in the last four years?
A: The most pressing spiritual issue is how do I face mortality. Nobody comes back from combat unaffected, nobody. And yet you have not the words to communicate the impact it’s had on you. Your spouse, your family, your children think you’re the same person you were when you left, but you’re not.
The other issues obviously are things like the awareness of sexual assault, suicide prevention, let’s call it destructive behavior. For me, as the chaplain of the Marine Corps, we have a role to play in each one of those elements. My concern is we need to step back and not take the issue du jour, but rather say there’s something else going on here. There’s a moral erosion going on, and it is emerging in these areas. How do we play a role in that to help people find that moral ethical grounding that they need so they can make better decisions?
Q: Debate over integrating women in ground combat and even the issue of sex assault have revealed a strain of disrepect and prejudice against woman among some Marines. Is this a spiritual issue, and as a woman in your field, have you addressed it on any level?
A: We are a reflection of society. And people are coming into these institutions with less sense of respect for one another, with less sense of good decision-making processes. When faced with the crucible of life and death situations or the intensity of this kind of training and the intensity of these kind of environments in which we find ourselves, that’s gonna reveal itself. And oh, by the way, people who join the Marine Corps tend to be rather opinionated people. They’re strong willed. And that’s what we want. Within this culture, we should be acknowledging the fact that we’re on the same team. That our focus is the same. When individuals lose that focus, the institution suffers.
Q: Is the way the Chaplain Corps ministers to the troops different now than it was 20 years ago?
A: Society 28 years ago when I came in was more inclined to very specific faith group expressions. So from a religious perspective, there were sort of clear lines, and you were an adherent to one of those faith group traditions and that’s what you brought in with you to the service. Today’s society does not have those same lines. Those lines are blurry now.What hasn’t changed is they still need people to talk to. They still need to have somebody that they can go to who has the privilege to hold their confidence.Everybody needs a sanctuary.
Q: The Navy recently denied the application of Jason Heap to be the first humanist chaplain. Those kind of decisions will soon come to you. Are you pondering these issues and how will you approach them?
A: There are a number of deciding factors where a person may not demonstrate what it takes to do this very unusual ministry in a pluralistic environment. Now, that being said, one of the arguments that has been raised is that humanists need a chaplain, too. And feeling that they cannot come to a chaplain, that breaks my heart. Because the point is that we as chaplains are here for everybody. What I ponder is, what are we doing as a Chaplain Corps to ensure that everyone, to include humanists, has a safe place to go. What are we doing as a Chaplain Corps that is keeping people from believing that this is a safe place to be. That’s what concerns me.
Q: Could we see a humanist chaplain in the next four years?
A: I don’t know. You tell me.
Q: You came in 2010 just as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. How has the Chaplain Corps weathered the transition with the repeal.
A: You know what’s been really revealing about this particular issue, is that it’s no different from any other issue we’ve faced as a Chaplain Corps. For almost 239 years we’ve been in business and the landscape has changed significantly. But what hasn’t changed is our responsibility to provide for our own, facilitate for others, and care for all. And the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is just one more example of how we’re here to ensure that people are provided for, facilitated where I can’t provide, but cared for regardless of where they come from theologically, socially. Period.
Q: As you approach your new role as chief of chaplains, what are some priorities and goals that you have?
A: I want to be sure my successor has a great turnover. [Incoming Chaplain of the Marine Corps] Brent Scott brings with him a wealth of experience. he is just as passionate and concerned for the welfare of our people, and his love for Marines is no less than mine. One of my big concerns is that though the war will end, the issues related to combat will never end. So sailors and Marines and Coast Guardsman are still going to be wrestling with the leftovers of having been in combat. They’re still going to be wrestling with the destructive behavior element of who they are as young people. If we draw down the Chaplain Corps too far, we will miss that opportunity to stay embedded with our people — to sleep, eat, breathe, live with them, and to be present for them when they need it. ■