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Interview with Peter W. Dietz, September 18, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Peter W. Dietz, September 18, 2007
September 18, 2007
Interview with chaplain Peter W. Dietz.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Dietz, Peter W. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  9/18/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 18th of September in the year 2007 and we're at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This videotape is part of the Military Chaplains Oral History Project. And today we're interviewing Peter Dietz. Good morning, sir.


Dietz: Good morning.

Zarbock: How are you this morning?

Dietz: I'm great.

Zarbock: Chaplain Dietz, what individual or event or series of events led you into the ministry?

Dietz: Well, as a child I grew up pretty active in the church. My parents both participated in the choir. My mom was the children's choir director. And, I don't know, I was always very-- I've always felt very at home in the church.

Zarbock: Now where is this? Where were you living?

Dietz: This was in New Jersey, North Central New Jersey. The church was in New Vernon and a Presbyterian Church. It was kind of interesting because in Sunday School I really didn't care for Sunday School at all and every Sunday instead of going to Sunday School class when I was dropped off, I went down into the boiler room and I would hang out with the church custodian, Mr. Lindell [ph?] and we would spend that time and he would tell me some of his own stories, his life stories and things like that. Then he would take me up to the church and I'd ring the bell. I was always sort of behind the curtain so to speak in the inner workings of the church going on. I thought I should probably go to Sunday School class and I walked into Sunday School class and all the students were reciting the books of the Bible and I turned around and walked back out and I said, "No, I don't think so."

Zarbock: Now how old were you at that time roughly?

Dietz: Maybe eight or nine, ten. It's kind of interesting though being at that point and now here I am the one who is ordained and a minister of _____ church. But I think Mr. Lindell taught me a lot of-- he was my Sunday School teacher and really gave me a different perspective of life and the importance of church in people's lives and that was very valuable to me. When I was in the middle of sixth grade we moved to Houston, Texas and became part of a new church. And while I was there when it was time for my class to go through the confirmation classes the minister was in the middle of doing his doctorate in ministry and his focus was on confirmation classes. And his experience looking back at his life he didn't really remember Sunday School classes. He couldn't really tell you, "Oh in this Sunday School class we learned about X, Y, Z." Sermons maybe one or two sermons he could remember but for the most part he really couldn't remember what a particular Sunday sermon was. But one thing that he did remember very clearly were experiences that he had. He remembered certain events, mission trips, and things like that so he decided that he would restructure the confirmation class and make it experiential. It was six overnight retreats and we would meet in the church Friday after school. We'd have dinner and we'd go over some lessons and then late that night we would go out, this was in Houston, Texas and have some experiences. One Sunday about 2:00 in the morning, so Friday night/Saturday morning, he took us down to Ben Taub Hospital to their trauma unit and Friday night in Houston public hospital you had the gunshot victims coming in and stabbing victims and overdose victims. Here we were 14, 15 years old having this experience.

Zarbock: What did the parents think about this?

Dietz: They were really supportive of it actually. I don't know how much information was given, but he was a pretty transparent person and very trusted by the families. We had amazing experiences. While we were there in the emergency room he asked us, he said, "What is the church and where is the church? Is the church just some building well for us on the corner of two streets or is it something more?" Another weekend we went to the bus station, again 2:00 in the morning, runaways, drug dealers, prostitutes, homeless people and he would ask the same question.

Zarbock: The sleepy and the frightened.

Dietz: Yeah, what is the church and where is the church? We also visited other churches and read the Gospel of Mark. We were able to do it in one sitting. We were there overnight. There are a lot of wonderful experiences there and it was very thought provoking and being very experiential I think really caused us to think deeper about what does it mean to be Christian and what is the church in the world, the greater world? And as a result of that experience I said, 'I'm definitely going to seminary. This is what I am called to do. I am called to be part of this engaging the world in a greater sense." And my experiences with the church youth groups, things like that, it was again I mentioned earlier the church I always felt at home there and it was sort of a sanctuary for me. The church is a place where I felt that I was truly myself. But it's interesting in my family I come from a family of engineers and despite that I was going to college to be an engineer. I didn't graduate as an engineer. I did a change in my major, actually officially declared it five times, ended up with a dual major and a minor.

Zarbock: The major in what?

Dietz: Economics and international business, minor in Spanish so, yeah, when civil engineering fell through I didn't know what I was going to do.

Zarbock: And where did you go to school?

Dietz: Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was a wonderful experience. So anyway I was kind of lost actually at that point because all my life I had known that I was going to be a civil engineer and now I wasn't.

Zarbock: Were your parents disappointed?

Dietz: No, I don't think so. My father might have been a little bit, another one of our engineers in the family, but I think all in all my dad has been very supportive of me in my journey trying to understand what my calling was and is so, yeah, I'm very fortunate to have had a very supportive family.

Zarbock: Do you have brothers and sisters?

Dietz: I have a younger sister, yeah, she's great.

Zarbock: Please don't tell me she's an engineer?

Dietz: She is not, no. She's a schoolteacher. My father's side of the family they're all engineers. My mother's side of the family they're all educators for the most part, so my sister went into education and I ended up going into education as well. After graduating from seminary I worked in college admissions for a number of years and decided to go to the other side of the desk and work with students. I taught sixth and eighth grade and was the director of college placement at a K-12 private school in Illinois.

Zarbock: Where in Illinois?

Dietz: Rockford, Illinois, ever been up there?

Zarbock: I'm from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

Dietz: All right, well Wisconsin is just a few miles away. That was a good experience. It was a hard experience. But while I was there the summer camp that I went to as a boy up in New Hampshire, my family had always vacationed up there, they needed a new director and they asked me and I said, "No, I'm teaching here and doing fine but let me know if there's anything you need help with." They called me back later and they said, "We can't find anybody. We really need you to apply for the job." I said, "Okay."

Zarbock: How old were you chaplain?

Dietz: Twenty-eight I think at that time. As it turns out I got the job and I became the director. It's a non-profit organization and well at 29, I guess, I was the director of this organization running a summer camp. At the time, it was financially struggling _______ and my winters were spent recruiting and fundraising and the summer was running the camp. I absolutely loved it. The camp had a huge impact on me as a child and my family has been vacationing on this lake for many generations and it was perfect. It was perfect. I was working with youth. It was very fulfilling. It was a very diverse job, all kinds of things to do there and it came with a lot of responsibility. It was incredibly fulfilling and it was the job that I wanted to do. I could see myself doing it for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, obviously I didn't do it for the rest of my life and I had a very hard experience there. There was another guy on the staff older than I and he had his own personal issues and problems which escalated and became very severe and as a result he was fired and I kind of went down with him, was brought down with him, which is very unfortunate and it was a very painful experience for me. And at this point, I just wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing and remembering back when I was in that confirmation class I knew I wanted to go to seminary, started reflecting on why I never did. The reasons I think had been as a 20-year-old, who was I to have the life experiences to lead a congregation? And I think really it was a lack of life experiences that I just didn't think I was worthy of it being an executive director, being responsible for all of these children, being responsible for the staff, being responsible for running an organization and in leadership positions it's very interesting. I had parents they would call me and talk to me about marital problems and alcohol abuse and all kinds of stuff and I was really shocked by that because who am I to help you with these things? But they trusted me and I shared my insight and I realized I had no more excuses not to go to seminary. Again, being a little hesitant about it I spent a year working at an organization that served the homeless in Philadelphia. I was their director of operations and it was incredibly affirming to my call to ministry. One of my responsibilities was working with all the organizations in Philadelphia that wanted to help the homeless so I was working with the Jewish synagogues and with a slew of different denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and seeing everybody come together wanting to help others.

Zarbock: You're approximately 30 years of age now.

Dietz: No, I'm 41.

Zarbock: And what year was that when you were in Philadelphia?

Dietz: Ninety-eight to '99, yeah. So I ended up going to seminary the following year.

Zarbock: Where?

Dietz: Princeton Theological Seminary.

Zarbock: I've heard of it.

Dietz: Yes. It was not my first choice school actually. My first choice school was Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. Both of them are wonderful schools but for some reason I just couldn't say no to Princeton and did end up going there and later found out there were good reasons for me to be there. You're giving me a quizzical look.

Zarbock: What were the good reasons?

Dietz: Well it was interesting. When I first got to Princeton I was there for summer school and I was speaking with my grandmother and she said, "Well where are you living?" I told her and she said, "Oh," she goes, "Your grandfather and I lived in that dormitory." I said, "What are you talking about?" She goes, "Oh, yeah, your grandfather he went to Princeton Seminary for his Master's degree." I had no idea. I said, "You could have told me this before I applied being a legacy and all." I just thought that was kind of funny so all kinds of family stories that came up and that was very interesting. Well my grandfather actually was living not too far away from Princeton in a retirement home and we had really grown apart over time and actually really have never been that close. And being there he called me up and we had lunch and we ended up meeting for lunch regularly and I learned a lot more about his experiences.

Zarbock: He was a minister?

Dietz: He was. He was. In fact, he was an army chaplain from '42 to '69 I think, something close to that. We didn't really talk about chaplaincy too much. His personality and mine were radically different but talked about faith, spirituality, and it was a good time because I think there was a lot of healing that took place. My mom would come down to visit and there was an estranged relationship. Yeah there was wonderful healing. I had told grandpa that we're going to have lunch together and we did and it was wonderful and he got to see his great grandchildren and things like that which he hadn't seen before.

Zarbock: By the way are you married at this time?

Dietz: I am not. But anyway so I think there was a very important purpose for me to be there, a lot of healing that took place so there I am and I got ordained, my path to becoming an ordained minister, a long road. So a lot of lessons learned was I believe when God calls us to do something, yes, we have free will to choose to do other things but I think ultimately God's will is always fulfilled and you can struggle against it as much as you can but ultimately it happens so that was my experience. I remember when I went before Presbytery and inquired they asked me questions about faith.

Zarbock: What does that mean?

Dietz: The first stage in the process of being ordained in the Presbyterian Church you inquire and you become a candidate and then finally ordained. It's a chance to understand your calling to affirm your calling.

Zarbock: Essentially quality control?

Dietz: I guess in a sense, yeah. There are a lot of expectations that are to be met during that time both academically, well I guess mainly academically in knowledge and in faith and really exploring that and having the church work with the candidate in understanding their calling and if it is truly their calling by God and by the church. One of the questions that was asked to me was "Why do you want to become an ordained minister?" My response was "Well who wants to become an ordained minister? It just seems like a life dealing with other people's pain and problems and sure elements of joy too and baptisms and weddings but I would never choose this. I think I was chosen." So I think that might have taken some people by surprise but that's what I believe.

Zarbock: Did you pastor a church?

Dietz: No, actually I have not been the pastor of a church per se. I worked in churches quite a bit beginning when I was at Lehigh involved with the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem which was a wonderful experience. My particular focus was youth ministry. Again as I mentioned before that was important to me in my childhood. And all of my professional career, really most all of it has been geared towards youth and young adults, teaching summer camps and the like and college admissions. So really when I went to seminary my passion was youth and young adults and the schools that I looked at primarily had dual degree programs where you earned the Master of Divinity which is required for ordination and also a Master of Arts in ministry to youth and Christian education so that's what I did. That was my focus.

Zarbock: Well did you come directly into the navy?

Dietz: No. I did not. When I first graduated from seminary the first position I took was as a school minister at an independent boarding school in Pennsylvania and a wonderful, wonderful job, wonderful school. At the time I was a chaplain candidate with the navy and the two I thought went together hand-in-hand very well. They informed each other in ministry and caring for religiously diverse populations in helping people grow in their faith and understanding of God so I enjoyed the job very much. My involvement with the chaplain candidate program was ongoing doing on-the-job training during my summer breaks and things like that. It came to a point where the Chaplain Candidate Program said, "All right, Pete, it's either sign up or get out." Being the state of things right now, my recruiter said, "Well if you go to reserve, which was my original intent, you're probably just going to get activated anyway" and I thought it was fair both to the school and myself to sign up for active duty and so here I am.

Zarbock: How long have you been a navy chaplain?

Dietz: Well when I was in seminary I joined the Chaplain Candidate Program in January. I guess I was commissioned in January, 2001 and went through the basic course the summer of 2001 and have been doing on-the-job training since then. And then just last summer I went through all of that training again and came on active duty, well to my first active duty station here in December.

Zarbock: What are your assigned duties here?

Dietz: I am primarily the chaplain to 3rd Battalion 10th Marines, an artillery unit, and I am also joined in as the chaplain at 2nd Combat Engineering Battalion, pretty busy.

Zarbock: And what do you do as the chaplain to the artillery outfit?

Dietz: You know I ask myself that question a lot too. My job is, well I mean there's the technical answer of my job really to provide for all, to facilitate and to provide for my own, to facilitate and to care for all. But really the chaplain's role it's very significant. It's very important. One of the things when I was at the boarding school I asked, "Why do you have a chaplain here" really understanding really why am I here and what is my purpose? And I wasn't always sure there was a clear understanding of that. Here there is. Here there is. Sometimes I may not be able to verbally express it or articulate it clearly but it's so evident. We would not want to be without a chaplain. One of my most important roles is being present for the marines to be the person who cares for them outside of the command. Their chain of command cares deeply about them making sure that their finances are okay and that their life is going okay, if they have any problems pointing them in the direction to get help because in a way they're employees and they're working together and there are also life and death issues and they want to be able to rely on each other. But the chaplain his interests in the marines and sailors is different. The chaplain doesn't necessarily have any, I don't know, I kind of want to say any vested interest in terms of subordinate type issues or relationship, but the chaplain cares about the marines because he cares about them and it's a completely different type of relationship. It's a very unique relationship.

Zarbock: I'm sorry different from what?

Dietz: Different from their chain of command or with each other. Sure the chaplain is a military officer here specifically naval officers but at the same time we're not really. I mean they don't interact with us necessarily as naval officers outside of military etiquette but rather we're seen sometimes almost as a more in a father role caring for them, guiding them, sort of reminding them or instilling or bringing out issues of morals and ethics, what's important in their lives, the value of their home life. It goes beyond more than their job and their expectations of them but really looking at who they are. It's fulfilling the rest of self worth. I love my job in that respect. It's really wonderful. My other roles obviously are religious ones to facilitate the religious needs of the folks that I work with to make sure that they're able to practice their religion as their religion deems them because it can happen within the military setting. I really try and encourage people in their faith development, no matter what their faith is, I really push them, "Well do you believe in that? Why aren't you going to mass or church or synagogue? Why aren't you leaning more on this philosophical idea or whatever?" I really try and challenge people a lot to grow. PTSD, combat stress, are big issues in the military, particularly the Marine Corps right now and one of the issues surrounding that is people that have a lot of past trauma in their lives, abuse or whatever it may be, lack of strong family structure and support, often are more susceptible for emotional distress after combat having that extra level. So one of the things that I'm very committed to working within my units is really trying to help bring out some of those issues.

Zarbock: How do you do that?

Dietz: A lot of different ways, one being about as much as possible where the marines and sailors get to know me. They can trust me a little bit and start sharing some of their own life stories, engaging them in conversations much like we are. And when these issues come up it gives me an opportunity. "Well how do you deal with that? How have you coped with that type of pain in your life?" And from that point, we sort of put together strategies for understanding healthy ways of dealing with emotional pain in one's life.

Zarbock: Could you give me an illustration of a marine who came to you in the course of a conversation?

Dietz: Well speaking with a marine who at this point I don't really ask about parents as much anymore as I do who is the adult role model in your life? And he had gone through a list of various relatives and aunts and uncles and grandparents and foster parents and prisons. It was quite a huge list for somebody who was still 19, 20 years old. How do you deal with that? What is there to deal with? So really trying to-- I don't want to open any wounds for marines and sailors because I'm not a clinical psychologist, but to help marines look a little bit more within themselves and in more extreme cases like that link them up with professional help and the military has lots of wonderful resources for marines and their families and that's what I'll do with extreme cases, pair them up with one-on-one counseling, whatever the resource that's best for them. If it's at a level that I can work with them then that's fine but a lot of times my working with them will be coupled with a higher level of care or maybe a more specialized level of care when it comes to mental health issues. So one example of sort of strengthening marines spiritually and emotionally and giving them tools to cope with those issues in healthy ways. So as the stresses of combat lay on top of the stresses they already have in their life they have tools to deal with it.

Zarbock: Other chaplains, navy chaplains who I'm interviewed have served with the marines, now that I reflect upon it, were primarily involved with marines in the infantry so if Battalion A went on a 20-mile hike, the chaplain went on a 20-mile hike.

Dietz: Uh huh.

Zarbock: Universally in the interviews I've held with navy chaplains serving in the marines they said, "If they're doing it, I did it and if I did it and I was seen by the marines doing it, there was an approval and there was a rapport that took place." But you're in the artillery.

Dietz: I am.

Zarbock: What does that mean so if they're doing artillery?

Dietz: _________ so it's kind of nice.

Zarbock: What do you do?

Dietz: Well artillery also goes to the field and whether it's a week or less or longer being in the field is just like doing it on a hump. It's not fun necessarily.

Zarbock: Going on a hump, a hump meaning?

Dietz: Or a hike, these 20-mile hikes, but being in the field it's uncomfortable. It's miserable. You're away from your families, no showers, no running water, eating MREs and stuff like that. But I think seeing a chaplain out there when maybe the chaplain doesn't have to be out there it shows, hey, "He's in it with us" as you were mentioning earlier ad I have no problem being out there.

Zarbock: What do you do out there while they're firing their artillery?

Dietz: Well, as I mentioned, I've been with the unit now for about eight months and, yeah, a lot of it has been sort of figuring that out for myself. What is my role here with the battalion? What is my role in the field? And how I have come to see myself is sort of twofold. One, I go around and I visit with the marines. "What are you doing? What are you learning?" There are a lot of classes that take place while the marines are in the field. It's a training exercise. I remember once I was out there and the marines were doing the land nav class where they give a map and compass and you'd have to go out and follow certain points or you'd have to find certain points I guess and I did the class with them so it was kind of fun. Other classes they would learn about their weapon systems and things like that and I would sit there with them. One I guess it's being visible and being accessible. I've also found that marines their attitudes change when the chaplain's around. A lot of times when they're really stressed out or miserable the chaplain comes by. My role is different. "How are you doing? What's going on?" Maybe a chance for them to vent a little bit and usually get them talking about some other things. It often gets to be a little bit more lively.

Zarbock: Lively being operationalized as what?

Dietz: No, just spirits. You know spirits often their ____ change from being miserable "Why do I have to be out here" to-- they forget about that and we go on to different topics and that lasts. That lasts a while. I was speaking with our XO just the other day and he said, "When you go out in the field when the chaplain gives someone just a smile or a quick hello it can change the affect of a marine or a sailor to know that someone else is out there just because they care about the marines and sailors." So it seems too easy in a way. A lot of times it's like "I got to be doing something" and a lot of times just being present has one of the largest impacts. But I do have to be doing things too so when I'm in the field I often try and make opportunities to teach classes myself. I'll get a group of marines and we'll circle up and we'll talk about ethics in the field or spiritual health those types of things.

Zarbock: How do you get together this interest group?

Dietz: Oh to teach a class in the field?

Zarbock: Yes.

Dietz: Well, two ways, one before we go out into the field when the command sits down and puts together the plan for the field operations there's the S3 who puts together the schedule. I get myself scheduled in. I'm going to teach this brief at this time to this unit. Other times I will be walking around and I'll see a bunch of marines who have down time and I'll just strike up a conversation with them and we'll talk about a particular issue and basically I'm giving them a class on something but they don't even know it and that's often how I like to do it. Who wants to sit through a class. But when you're just engaged in a conversation and often it can be a lot more effective so sneaky chaplains I tell you but it's good.

Zarbock: The role of the chaplain strikes me as a phrase that once read about people going to restaurants that they want to be in society but not of it so you are in the society, in the culture of a marine. By the way, a battalion is how many people roughly?

Dietz: You know it keeps fluctuating. It can be anywhere from 300 people to many hundred people. I don't want to say 1,000. Our battalion has been changing in its size constantly. We have been the battalion in the rear on 10th Infantry, 10th Marines, and as the different batteries within the battalions deploy when they come back they join us and I have seen more than half, maybe three-quarters of all the batteries within 10th Marines have passed through our battalion at one point within the past eight months and so the size of our battalion is constantly fluctuating.

Zarbock: But the boundaries of the battalion are the boundaries of your obligations?

Dietz: Yes.

Zarbock: So you've got people shifting in. You've got people shifting out. Well isn't that a comforting thing for a chaplain?

Dietz: It's hard. It's hard.

Zarbock: You may have won a prize for master of understatement right there.

Dietz: Yeah. For me personally, my view of being a chaplain, a big part of it is building relationships and it gets really hard when people are constantly coming and going. Yeah, sometimes it can get really frustrating but you stick with it and I have come to know an enormous amount of people in a very short period of time and that has been very rewarding for me.

Zarbock: That's a special skill that you have isn't it? I mean your social boundaries are pretty porous. I don't mean that as a pejorative. I mean it as a laudatory thing. You're a person of ease and a sense of humor and you're an approachable person.

Dietz: I think that is one of my gifts. Every person has their own gifts. Every chaplain has their own gifts and there are some chaplains that are great at certain things that I'm just horrible at and so I don't engage in those types of activities or designing certain programs and activities. It's really not my forte. But I do think that I do pretty well with the one-on-one interaction with marines and sailors and gapping relationships and overcoming differences and helping marines become more aware of who they are and who they can be type of things so I focus on the things that I have gifts for.

Zarbock: Back to the restaurant comparison, you are in a battalion and in a command structure but you're really not of it.

Dietz: Definitely, definitely.

Zarbock: Again for the purpose of history and the camera would you indicate to me you have on your lapels two different emblems and I think there's a classic statement that chaplains make about that.

Dietz: Right, yeah. We have ____ on one side and religious device on the other and in the navy all staff corps officers will have ___ on one side and a symbol of their staff corps on the other. But for the most part most staff corps insignias are military related often some form of an oak leaf for example. We do wear something that's very distinctively different, a cross or the tablets of the Ten Commandments or the crescent and people identify that with something clearly outside of the military. Yes, we do have one foot in one institution and one foot in the other institution, the church and the military.

Zarbock: Which then brings me to a question I've asked all other chaplains. We're going to have to pause here in just a minute and change tapes but we've got enough time for this. At any time during your military career have you ever been ordered, has it ever been suggested, has the situation as informal as a wink and a nudge required or suggested of you that you do something in which you did not feel comfortable as a result of your religion, your spirituality, and your personal ethic?

Dietz: Yes. Yes. It was a huge turning point for me in being where I am today. When I was a chaplain candidate, it was my second OJT, on-the-job training, and I was with the Coast Guard Air Station at Cape Cod.

Zarbock: I'm sorry what was the name or the air station?

Dietz: Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, wonderful experience, I enjoyed it a lot. The air station, the Coast Guard was on that base. The Air Force, the Mass Air Guard was on that base and the Massachusetts National Guard was on that base so there was a lot of activity. One Sunday we got a phone call from it was a Mass National Guard unit that was going to be in the field over the weekend and they wanted a chaplain to come up. They were at a different location in northern Massachusetts, a chaplain to come up and lead a service in the field. This was on a Friday afternoon. I said I would be happy to do it. I was looking forward to that opportunity. So I drove the two hours up to this base and had a Humvee ride out to the field where the soldiers were. It was an artillery unit and a wonderful experience. It was my first field service. The soldiers had cleared out pine needles, a little clearing in the forest there and they had made a cross and there was some big trunks that were set up as an altar type thing and it was a very diverse group of people, black, white, some with high school degrees, some with Ph.D.s. I was blown away by the diversity of this group, a lot of Roman Catholics, but people of different Christian faiths and we had a wonderful service together. It was a very memorable experience for myself. Anyway after this was done, the non-commissioned officer who was in charge said to me, "All right, Chaplain, now it's time for you to bless the weapons." Oh my heart sank into my stomach and there was the oddest expression on my face, I didn't realize it, it was unintentional but he looked at me and said, "Chaps, this is very important for the morale of our troops. You have to do this." And I said, "Okay." There are a couple things that I was struggling with in those moments, one blessing a weapon. Theologically that's not part of my theology. And secondly as I was walking up to these cannons and rifles it hit me the reality of what this was all about. The military one of the tasks that they do is destroy things and that's what artillery is for and I'm thinking to myself whether it's theologically right or not these people will see me as speaking God's word and can God really condone this kind of violence and destruction? Yeah so I went up to this task really terrified and hesitant and I had no idea what to do. The spirit intercedes. We don't have words to say and sure enough the spirit did. And for each gun section I prayed over the men. I prayed for their safety. I prayed for with great power comes great responsibility and that they be guided in the will of God and that they understand God's calling for them and went on to each and they loved it. They felt blessed and that the missions were blessed they were very excited and I did not feel like that I had done anything that was inappropriate theologically because I blessed the men, yeah, so I was comforted in that. But on the drive home I said, "I'm out. I cannot do this." The conflict between church and the military was too great. The church believes in peace through disarmament and the military believes in peace through deterrence. I don't think I can reconcile it. Well it was interesting because I got back to the Coast Guard base and my supervising chaplain his endorser as chaplains, our own denomination needs to check up on us regularly and see how things are doing and if we're acting theologically appropriate within our ordination expectations. My supervising chaplain he was Southern Baptist and his endorser was there and I was invited over to dinner with them and I mentioned to him-- he was also a retired navy chaplain. I said, "I can't do this. There's just a huge contradiction here between who we are and our identity." And he said, "Peter, the day you're able to resolve that contradiction is the day you need to leave the chaplain corps" and that kind of took me back. It also happens that during this summer I was doing this OJT experience for 77 days and I had it set up to qualify as a field education requirement for my seminary where you have an experience of being on staff as a minister. In my case here it was a chaplain. One of the things that I had to do was to write a theological reflection on a critical incident, theologically critical incident. Well here it was. So anyway it forced me to really reflect on what just happened and I sat down with the Bible and I started looking at all of the situations with soldiers particularly in the New Testament and every single one of them was lifted up as how people should behave or how one's faith should be. I was really taken aback by that and said, "Wow, soldiers' attitudes are representative of how ____ want us to have our faith where we're not concerned about worldly things but concerned about pleasing our enlisting officer or the chain of command type of thing" and for us that relationship that I have with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to God it was very enlightening to me. And I said, "Okay, this is about having conflict of an issue. It's about living in conflict, living in tension." I said, "I can do this. I can do this." I think that theologically being a military chaplain is going to teach me a lot and so here I am learning every day.

(tape change)

Zarbock: 18 September 2007. Military Chaplains Oral History Project. We're at Camp Lejeune. I'm with Navy Lieutenant Peter Dietz. Lieutenant, take it away.

Dietz: You know, I just thought of a story that was funny to me, but maybe not to other people. I'll share that with you. When I was with the Coast Guard, as a Chaplain candidate, I was there two summers back to back. Which was a great experience for me, because I was actually able to know the community and become part of the community, being there two consecutive summers. I taught Vacation Bible School, which was a blast. I had a lot of fun with all that. But one day, the XO [ph?] of the base bumped into me and said, "Hey, Chaplain, you know, I'd like you to come over. We're having a cookout." And it was all the top people at the base, you know, the XO and the CO and the OPS [ph?]. And I said, "Okay." And so I went over, and I'm at this picnic. And it was great. It was a lot of fun. But I looked around and, basically, it's the top five Officers, their wives and myself. No other Chaplains. I'm a Chaplain candidate. And I was a little uncomfortable with that. And I said, "Where are the other Chaplains?" And they said, "Oh, well, you know, they're going to be here for a while. We'll get to know them. But we wanted a chance to get to know you, because you're not going to be here that much longer." And that really, kind of, surprised me quite a bit. And I guess, part of it was an awareness of, "Wow, you know, what is my role here? What is this? Maybe, I do have some sort of impact going on that's greater than just, you know, being the guy that walks around and sees how people are doing." So anyway, but here I am. And again, you know, we had talked earlier about, sort of, having one foot in the military and one foot out. And I guess, in this more laid back setting, my feet were out. And so I asked him I question. And I said, "Well, how many of you guys went to the Coast Guard academy?" And they all raise their hand, "Oh, yeah, of course, you know, Coast Guard Academy." And I said, "What was the problem, you couldn't get into the Naval Academy?" I thought it was funny. They didn't.

Zarbock: No.

Dietz: So lesson one, don't do that. But they knew where I was coming from, though, so they had a good time with it. But I really loved working with the Coast Guard. They are totally different than anyone else I've ever met in the military side of things. They're, basically, at war every day. I was in Airfield, so search and rescue, a lot of really tough struggles, life and death. You know, I talked to a group, you know, when the helicopters came back. I was living in the BOQ, which was right next...

Zarbock: Bachelor Officers Quarters?

Dietz: Bachelor Officer Quarters, which was right next to where the helicopters would take off and land. So I knew whenever a helicopter took off and landed. And when they came back, you know, I would see them and let them, sort of, decompress. And yeah, it was tough, you know, when they're doing a search and rescue and they're not able to save a life. Really impressed with those men, I really was. So [inaudible]...

Zarbock: You know, I had never thought of that. The Coast Guard doesn't have any armistice that causes a session of activities. They don't have any Peace Treaties that cause succession of activities. You're right. They are always at war.

Dietz: Yeah, so to speak. [inaudible]...

Zarbock: Yeah, with the elements, accident, injury and that type of-- stupidity.

Dietz: Yeah, and it's an amazing thing, too, because in the Coast Guard, it's small. Don't count on this for accurate statistics. But at the time, I remember hearing that there were more people in the New York City Police Department than there were in the Coast Guard. And that was, you know, 2001, 2002. So yeah, it was a small group. And as a result, they were stretched pretty thin. And at Cape Cod, you know, on the base there were a lot of officers there. But we'd go out, and we'd visit the other Coast Guard stations. And there are no officers. You know, they're led by non-commissioned officers. And the CO of one of those stations might be a Chief. The Skipper of a ship going out or a boat, you know, going out to do a patrol or something, might be a 19-year old. You know, and here you have a 19-year old who has to board a commercial vessel...

Zarbock: A 19-year old armed to the teeth, by the way.

Dietz: Yeah, and, kind of, terrified, I was traveling. Because you have no idea when you're stepping aboard. I mean, it's stepping in someone else's home or business. You don't know what to expect. And yeah, the stresses on them, I thought, were absolutely enormous. Yeah, I was just, overall, very, very impressed with them every bit of the way. And another experience that I had with the Navy, went and had a chance to be out on a ship, which I was very excited about. And I had a blast on the ship. For me, it was an absolutely great experience. But I remember there was one officer, who's the First Lieutenant, who was in charge of really, kind of, the real sailing type of stuff, the seamanship. You know, they handle all the lines and, you know, bring the ship into port and pull it out and take care of the anchors and all those things. And, oh, when they talk about salty sailors, boy, I have never heard such a foul mouth in my life. The Marines here, they think they have bad mouths. I tell them, "You guys don't even compare to the Navy." That's not a compliment, necessarily. But I was...

Zarbock: It's an analytical statement.

Dietz: You know, it was so extreme that it was, actually, impressive, in any way. You know, they would come up, be this creative with such foul language. But, you know, as he was speaking to me, I was, like, you know, he knows I'm a Chaplain. And he's just testing me. So I ignored it all. I said, "Okay. You know, whatever. Uh-huh. Yeah." In events and all kinds of stuff, and, "Okay. You know, sure. That's fine. I don't care." Being very nonjudgmental and waiting, sort of, to see what was going to happen. And that's true. That's all it was, was a testing moment or a phase. And then, one day, we were sitting in the ward [ph?] room having dinner. And he said, "Chaps, you know, I pray before every meal." I said, "Really?" And we started getting in this conversation about how the role of the church in his life. And his own, sort of, faith development and ups and downs and things like that. And from the most profane person that I had encountered, I end up having one of the more sacred conversations. And yeah, I just thought that was wonderful. I really did. You know, just, all right. Time to peel away the outside. It was great. And yeah, being on the ship was interesting. I had lunch with a CO once [inaudible]. And you know, I'd been on the ship just for a few days and it just seemed really-- everything about it was really profane. And I said, "Sir, why do you have a Chaplain on this ship?" And he said, "Well, Chaps, within the military, this is probably one of the most nonreligious places you could be. And we would never think about going to sea without a Chaplain." And part of me was, like, "Okay. You know, they want to have their Chaplain around." But I'm wondering, "Are we just like a lucky rabbit's foot? Why?" I didn't get that answer at the time, but it came to me later. We were out at see. And the ship is all dark. It's night. And I went up and was walking the decks. And there was a young sailor who was standing watch in the dark, pretty much, by himself. And you couldn't see anything. That was one of my first experiences with being in a very, very, very dark environment. So I'm terrified. I didn't want to fall off the ship. So here's this young sailor. And yeah, you know, I don't know, it was, like, 4:00 in the morning or something. And you know, "Mind if I stand here, join you for a little bit?" "Yeah, sure." So we just stood there. And we stood there in the silence for a few minutes. And then, he started talking. He started talking to me about his childhood and a lot of very painful experiences that he had had in his life. And times of, you know, how could he believe in God? You know, where he felt that he'd been abandoned by everyone, you know, family, God. You know, and here we were right in the most nonreligious profane place in the military having one of the most sacred experiences. To me, being on a ship, it was the extremes. There was nothing in the middle. It was the extreme, one side to the other. And I think, why they never went to sea without a Chaplain, or at least, always wanted to have a Chaplain with them when they went to sea. Because there was a lot of renewal that could take place. So those are my stories.

Zarbock: In the military, a huge, huge organization, with all sorts of layers of control and command and what have you, goof ups do take place.

Dietz: No.

Zarbock: I've been told.

Dietz: Yes.

Zarbock: Has there been any experience of yours [inaudible]? Again, a Chaplain colleague of yours, and I believe, here at Lejeune, was given orders to get to Newport, Rhode Island. Got to Newport, Rhode Island with the wife and a couple of kids and a pregnant wife, located, and was told, "You have to leave immediately and go to San Diego." He got to San Diego. When he got to San Diego, they said, "Oops, I guess, it was a typographical error or something. But you're not so and so. You're so and so. And it's a different person, so go back." So back he went. Well, has there been any experience of a goof up type experience?

Dietz: With me?

Zarbock: Yes.

Dietz: No. I have heard lots of those stories, too. But I am blessed that it hasn't happened to me...

Zarbock: Yes.

Dietz: ...and I anticipate it. Yes. No. The worst goof up that happened to me, so far, is when-- again, I was a Chaplain candidate for a while. And coming on active duty, went through the Chaplain's basic course. And now, OIS, this past fall. And...

Zarbock: What is OIS?

Dietz: It's the Staff Corp version of Officer Candidate School. It stands for Officer Indoctrination School. Anyway, it usually takes a while for pay to get figured out. And I got my first paycheck and it was huge. And I had known, from my previous experiences, that if the government pays you too much, they're very quick to take it back. And we were told that, you know, if they owe you money, they'll give it back to you, but that might take more time. But anyway, I had this huge paycheck, and I said, "This is not right." I went in, and I said, "I have all this money and there's no way this is right." And they said, "No. You're right. Let's have it back." So I wrote them a check, gave it back. But, you know, that happens frequently. Yes. It's a big organization with a lot of people and a lot of moving parts and things happen. But the thing that's nice is I think there's, also, the network to help people, you know, when that happens. I think, people understand and they support each other when it does. But again, when I was in Cape Cod, there was a Coast Guardsman who was just coming to Massachusetts and was a permanent Change of Station form. And when his household goods were being shipped, the warehouse where they were being stored burned to the ground. He lost everything. And, you know, they tell you, you know, things that are very important, take them with you. Well, he had been told that and he had a few things. But he realized at that point there was more that he wished that he had with him, which is now gone. But I was really amazed at how the entire community came together, you know, with food, with clothing, with furniture, all kinds of things, to help get him through, you know, that initial greening period, really. And the incredible loss of losing all your personal assets [ph?] like that.

Zarbock: Yeah, there's old photo albums and stuff like that. Certificates, Awards...

Dietz: Videotapes or DVD's, now, I guess. Yeah, gone. So that's one thing that is wonderful about the community or the communities within the military. They're very supportive. Yes, goof ups happen. It's incredibly frustrating. But I don't know, people get through it.

Zarbock: By agreement off camera, we understand that you have another very important meeting. So I'm going to ask the last question.

Dietz: Okay.

Zarbock: Looking back at your youth and childhood and development and coming of age and educational experience, not being an engineer, meeting your grandfather and your experience in education management, now, the military. How do you put together a [inaudible] for Peter Dietz? Standing up against a wall, you would say, "I, Peter Dietz," what?

Dietz: Well, the big lesson for me, looking back at my life and where I am, now, and the new attitude that I have. My father always, "You've got to set goals. You've got to set goals. You've got to set goals." And yes, I agree with that. We do have to set goals. We do have to find something and, you know, aim for it and move towards it. But I've learned not to be dependent upon that. You know, I've gone through my life saying, "I'm definitely going to be, you know, a Civil Engineer." Or "I'm definitely going to be the Camp Director." Or "You know, this is what I'm supposed to do." And things happen and the dreams and the goals are taken away. And loss of a dream is a painful thing. You know, we go through a grieving process. But it's interesting that during those times have been some of the low points of my life and points of despair. And "Well, if I can't do this, you know, there's nothing more for me to do." Yet, every step of the way-- actually, it's, kind of, interesting, they have been steps. For me, at the moment, maybe, they feel like steps down, but when I look back on my life, they've all been steps up that have been moving me towards where I am now. My experience working with youth. My experience working in management. My experience with the church. They all, sort of, come together, and here I am, doing one of the greatest forms of youth ministry. I work in an organization where the average age is of the enlisted, I guess, like, 19 and the average age overall is 23. And so yeah, the thing that I've been called to has been, I think, fulfilled. And a lesson that I've learned is even though, now, I feel like I am in the perfect place, doing what God wants me to do, doing what I enjoy doing. It might be taken away. And I'm not worried about that. Because I do trust in God that, you know, God's going to keep me in places where God needs me. And my goal is just to be attentive to where I am and to what I'm supposed to be doing at that time and not worry about the future and just trusting God in that.

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