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Interview with Ray F. Rivers, September 17, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Ray F. Rivers, September 17, 2007
September 17, 2007
Interview with Navy Lieutenant Ray F. Rivers, Chaplain in the 2nd LAR (Light Armored Reconnaissance) Battalion.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Rivers, Ray F. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  9/17/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  80 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock, I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Randall Library. Today is the 17th of September in the year 2007, and I'm at Camp Lejeune. This video is part of the military chaplain's interview grouping, and this afternoon I am speaking with Navy Lieutenant Ray F. Rivers. Good afternoon, Lieutenant, how are you?

Rivers: Good afternoon, sir I'm doing great, thanks.

Zarbock: Lieutenant, as I've asked everybody else, what event or series of events or individual or series of individuals led you into selecting the ministry as a profession?

Rivers: Well, sir, I have to tell you, I feel like the very first thing that happened in my life was that the Lord touched my life early as a five-year-old child and I desired to want to know him as Savior and Lord and be with him, and that's something only God can put in your heart. And so as a young child I can remember standing in a window ceiling and looking at the stars and wanting to be with God, so I asked my mother early on how I could do that, and she told me about God's plan of salvation and Jesus Christ his son, so I came to know Christ as Savior and Lord. At that time it was savior, that time I was raised in a good church family and a good Christian family, I was blessed.

Zarbock: Where were you living at the time?

Rivers: South Carolina.

Zarbock: Where?

Rivers: My father is a farmer in Suffolk County, South Carolina. He's been that way for over 50 years now. I have a brother who farms as well. My parents were a great blessing to me, a great influence right off the bat for the Lord in my life. So I have to say that that's kind of where I got my initial direction, I wanted to know God, my mother led me to know Christ as Savior and then they nurtured that to an extent growing up in that area. My mother used to tell me that when I was little, and I can remember some of this, I used to put stuffed animals at the end of the hall and preach to them. Now, I had no burning desire to be a preacher or having my life planned out to be a pastor, but as I grew up, and as I moved forward in life, I wanted to be a marine. When I was a teenager I went to the Citael summer camp for boys, I had a desire to be a Marine Corps officer. I saw one one time. I was in the seventh grade, I went to the Sentinel to school, and then I did become a Marine officer; I was commissioned in 1986 as a Marine officer, and I was a Marine for seven years active duty.

Zarbock: Where were you stationed during those years?

Rivers: Well, one of the places was right here at Camp Lejeune. I was here at Camp Lejeune from 1987 to 1991. I was in Bravo Company First Battalion 8th Marines, I was one of the Platoon Commanders, 3rd Platoon Commander, United States Marine Detachment Unit, went to the 2nd Marine Division Headquarters for a little while, then to the School of Infantry, and finished my tour at Parris Island, and it was at that time that I knew that my career in the Marine Corps was coming to a close. I was a Reserve Active Duty Officer. Back then augmentation was a very tight situation, late 1980s, early 1990s, it was hard to be augmented and I got extended but subsequently I did not get augmented so I knew I was going to get out of the Marine Corps.

Zarbock: What do you mean by augmented?

Rivers: Augment is when you come in as a Reserve Active Duty Officer, and in order to stay past your contract you've got to augment over to the regular Marine Corps and I wasn't able to successfully do that. But God had a plan, doors were shut. Let me back up for a second. In 1988, as a young Second Lieutenant Platoon Commander, I was going through some trials in my life, and we were doing a workup to go to the Mediterranean. I was part of the MEU preparing to go to the Mediterranean, and at that time--

Zarbock: I'm sorry, you were part of?

Rivers: Of a MEU, Marine Expeditionary Unit, 26 MEU at the time, we had them leaving periodically now doing our nation's work across the world, across the globe. But at that time, back in 1987, '88, I was part of the 26 MEU and first battalion 8th Marines, and I was going through these trials and God put in my path a Navy chaplain, and this chaplain held Bible studies as often as he could for about a ten-day period when we were on the ship. It was at that time that I, during that Bible study, that I really went up to my state room and I truly committed my life to Jesus Christ. I had been for 18 years living for myself, and not for God. I wanted to know Christ the savior, but I wasn't making him my Lord, and he requires that we do both. So I really committed my life to Christ.

Zarbock: How old were you at that time?

Rivers: 23 years old.

Zarbock: And the year was what?

Rivers: 1988. I'm 43 today.

Zarbock: Today?

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: Well, the happiest of birthdays to you.

Rivers: Oh, I'm sorry, not today is my birthday, but now I'm 43 years old. But, anyway, I committed my life to Christ back in 1988, and, you know, still desiring to stay in the Corps as a career, but as I told you, the door shut. About the last year I was in, 1992, 1993 timeframe, I felt God was calling me in the vocational ministry, it was a call which I did not want to do because of the responsibility that goes with it. However, when I was on terminal leave, my wife and I then at that time had one one-year-old child. We were going to a revival down in Buford, South Carolina. We attended the Baptist Church of Buford, and we had a revival there and during that time, I knew God was calling me to make that commitment, so I stepped out in faith and my wife followed me and we committed to vocational ministry. The person who was leading the revival was the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Dilday (ph?), at the time. So within a month, I found myself out of the Marine Corps and in this full-time student of Southwestern Seminary, and God worked very fast at that once I made that commitment, and he was very faithful at bringing me to that commitment and I found myself in Ft. Worth. We were in Ft. Worth, Texas, what we thought would be three to three-and-a-half years, but we ended up staying 12 years in Texas. I had my heart planted at that time, since 1988, the time I told you about in January of '88, it was almost a seed was planted in my heart to become a Navy chaplain, because that chaplain had been instrumental God used him in my life.

Zarbock: What were you doing during those 12 years?

Rivers: Well, I'll tell you, I began at the Seminary, and about halfway through the seminary process, it was three-and-a-half years.

Zarbock: How did you earn your bread and butter?

Rivers: Well, the Marine Corps gave me a severance pay when I left and the GI Bill. My wife worked for two years as a nurse, she's a registered nurse, and for the last year-and-a-half I pastured a church. So about halfway through the Seminary I began to pastor a church and a lot of times it's not uncommon with a large Seminary to have student pastors that would leave the Seminary on the weekends and go to a small church on the outskirts, an hour or two away, and pastor for the weekend and come back. That's what I was doing, the church I belonged to was a big part of that, so we went there, and we began to do that. It's a little place called Paluxy, Texas, about 50 miles southwest of Ft. Worth.

Zarbock: What was the name of the town?

Rivers: Paluxy, P-A-L-U-X-Y, Paluxy. They say that the name came from when mules used to pull the grichmill [ph?], cornmeal up the hill and they would say "pull tight," and it somehow over the years got changed from "pull tight," to Paluxy, but it's about 50 miles southwest of Ft. Worth, a wonderful place, and I began to pastor there and it was a wonderful congregation there, but to my knowledge the congregation never had a full-time pastor, he was always bi-vocational or a student pastor. Well, we had a very interesting thing happen in 1996 as I pastured, we had a weekend called Experiencing God. A man named Henry Blackaby wrote a book in the early '90s called Experiencing God, knowing and doing the will of God, tremendous book, and I know the Lord orchestrated it and uses it in a tremendous way, people talk about it even today. We had this weekend that we focused on this workbook In the Truths of God, and I believe it sprung board our church to become full-time, because in October of that year, about six months there, I had resumes out to go to other churches and had three churches talking to me, but the congregation, our small congregation asked my wife and I to be excused from a business meeting; we had a monthly business meeting, and that's either a real good thing or real bad thing. So they call us back in and they ask us if we would be willing to stay and go full-time. And they offered us a salary, what we could do, and we knew we they were stepping out in faith, and it would cause us to step out in faith. And I remember, I'm being honest with you, I remember at the time, that I asked God, I said, "Lord, I don't want to do this, I have other churches that are bigger and I have plans perhaps to go back as a chaplain, I prefer not to stay." But I knew that God had spoken through the congregation that I needed to stay at that church. So my wife and I, at that time we had two kids, and she was very pregnant with number three, we stayed. But I want to tell you, sir, it was a struggle; it was a struggle, and for three years we lived in a house, the only place that the church could provide, that was ten-and-a-half miles away. They did the best they could, we lived at a house that we weren't used to standards-wise, as far as our living standards. And I really struggled with where God had me, but I came to realize in that trial the faithfulness of God. I was depressed; I was angry; I was angry at God. I think everybody gets to that point at sometime or another in their life, but God was very faithful and carried me from one day to the other. And, you know, he's so big, he's big enough for us to be angry at. He'll get us past that. So I continued to walk by faith just one day at a time, there were days that my mind would be so upset and frustrated and I would go down and, we had Texans call ponds tanks, that's how they call it, that's the term that they used. And we had tank on the land that the parsonage is on, and I would go down there and renew my mind in the word of God and almost like a different person would come back out because God will renew my mind. But every day, even though I struggled, he carries through, and He was faithful even despite me. And the church group, they were obviously very faithful; they built us a parsonage. And, so, in 1999, December of 1999, we moved into our parsonage, my wife had a fourth child, and we ended up staying at that church for another five-and-a-half years and we saw the faithfulness of God through good and bad times. You know, we can say God is always faithful through good times but God is very faithful also through the hard times. And I can tell you it was his grace and mercy that got me through that.

Well, let me complete the story here for becoming a minister. Numerous people had a huge part in my life, my parents did; my wife has been my number one support in all my time as a minister. Growing up the pastors in my life, I had some pastors as a child, but 20 years ago, here, this very same city, Jacksonville, North Carolina, a guy by the name of Jim Kelly from the United Chapel Baptist Church baptized me after I committed my life to the Lord, and he helped disciple me. Then I went to the Baptist Church of Buford, Bob Cutno, [ph?] Dr. Cutno discipled me there, and I went up and found some great churches there in Texas that we attended, and then of course I was mentored and discipled and interestingly enough, I will lead into the next question of being a chaplain. But when I was in Texas, the way that the Baptist churches are established and organized, is it's kind of like a loose confederation of churches, no church can tell the other church what to do, no how, but there is an agreeing cooperative effort, churches team up in small associations of 50, 60, 100 churches, and we had this association and our director of missions of this association, because we cooperated for missions purposes, was a guy by the name of Chaplain Brad Riza, retired Air Force chaplain.

Zarbock: How do you spell the name?

Rivers: R-I-Z-A. He's a retired air force chaplain, got out of the Air Force about the time I got out of the Marine Corp, and he was our Director of Missions, was a great influence in my life as a chaplain, and he always encouraged me about the military chaplaincy. But I knew that during those ten years I was at Paluxy, my time hadn't come yet to be a military chaplain. I felt like God had released me from where I was pastoring. You have a call to a place and then you have a release from a place, and I don't feel like I had that release just yet. But he was very influential, Brad Riza, Colonel Riza, was extremely influential as well as a gentleman by the name of Dr. Jim Spivy, who was a Brigadier General in the army reserve. He was one of my first professors at Southwestern so he helped me make that transition from being a military officer into being a seminary student, and he was very influential as well. Both of them were influential, hope to see them soon and let them know that, but both of them had an influential part in my life as chaplains and as ministers. So my heart had a desire to be a chaplain and we went through a difficult time in 2003 in our church. We subsequently went through a church split, but God was faithful again and through time, our church regrouped and grew in some things, I learned things, people learned things, we moved forward. And the latter part '04, early part of '05, I began to have that desire to be a Navy chaplain. And, interestingly enough, I don't think anything has happened by coincidence, I think God's hand is in everything. But interestingly enough, the Baptist General Convention of Texas began to endorse our own chaplains as Texas Baptists, and that door opened up for me and Bragg was very influential in this, to be endorsed by the BGCT.

Zarbock: Take a moment again for the record, what do you mean by endorsement?

Rivers: Oh, okay. Chaplains have dual-track. The military has to pick you up, but there has to be a faith group or denomination that endorses you as well. You can't just walk to the recruiter's office and say, "Hey, I want to be a chaplain." You've got to have some denominational faith group or church that says, "Hey, he is a legitimate clergy, he is a man of God, we support his decision to become a chaplain."

Zarbock: So they really are the quality control.

Rivers: They are the quality control, absolutely. Because when the Navy takes you, they assume you have been theologically trained already. So, your denomination is the ones that put the stamp of approval and say yeah, this guy is worthy to be a minister in the military.

Zarbock: And he holds those values and truths and beliefs.

Rivers: That we hold. He holds the same ones that we hold, whether we are Catholic or Jewish or Protestant, whatever, he holds our ideas and beliefs and we endorse him. The BGCT was endorsing their chaplains and the opportunity came up and I began to pray about it and seek the Lord and initially, I thought that God was saying lay it down. See, I had had a problem earlier in my life with having the Marine Corps in Iowa and I want to take this opportunity to say this because I think it's important. I believe the doors closing was part of God's plan earlier in my life, but I also believe God was teaching me that you're not have any idols before me; I am to be the only God in your life. So, in essence, the Marine Corps was taken away from me, but yet God was so faithful that as he worked in my heart, he returned that back to me. But I was making sure going back into the military it was God's call and not mine. And I began to wonder about that, I initially began to think the Lord, initially I thought the Lord was calling me to lay this opportunity down, but it's interestingly enough that as I was struggling with whether to pick it up or lay it down, literally I thought the Lord was telling me lay it down, and again I kinda came close, and I say this because God is sufficient, He is great. I just said, "Lord, if you want me to lay this opportunity to go in as a Navy chaplain down, you've got to enable me, because I can't do it. I want to do this, and it's a very dear thing to me." So within a minute, and that's no exaggeration, although preachers can do that, we can exaggerate, this is not it. Within in a minute my wife walked through the door of the building I was in and brought a card from the Marine who had been instrumental in my life earlier when I first came to the Marine Corps. He is a retired Major now working for the Navigators Christian organization, and he sent a postcard. Basically this is what he said, "Greetings from Our Lord, Jesus Christ, pray to God, 2nd Timothy 22 Men to Camp Pendleton, California." Now I looked up what 2nd Timothy 22 was and Paul was exhorting young pastor Timothy things he had heard from him, and had been taught with him, teach those things to other reliable men who was able to teach others. So I concluded from that that God was calling me back into chaplaincy to teach others about Christ so they can teach others. That's one of the more rewarding things I do now is I work with younger officers and work with a enlisted and staff NCOs, people who want to know the Lord, help them to know the Lord, help them grow in the Lord. So I concluded that God wanted me to do this, so I stepped in, and my recruiter got me in and went to Chaplain School in '05, served a great tour aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, last chaplain on this great aircraft carrier. They decommissioned her in March of this year. The minute I received my orders, a little earlier than March, really last year, I got _______ to go to the 2nd Marine Division and was wondering if that's really what God wanted me to go do, and it worked out and that's where I was going to go and I am very glad. Twenty years later, I'm back in the same division I started as a second lieutenant. I'm blessed to be with the 2nd LAR Battalion.

Zarbock: Second?

Rivers: Second Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. We got a great battalion, we're getting prepared to go to Iraq here in March, and we've got good officers, good staff and good troops in the battalion, so I'm blessed. The Colonel gives me leeway to do what he wants me do, and to minister to the troops, and that's a great thing. So I just see in this God's faithfulness that God is truly faithful in everything. I mean, sometimes we don't understand, clouds of dark around us and we're wondering what, but I see God's faithful, so let me give you a case in point. Ten years ago when I went through that dark time in that church and I was in that house, had I not gone through that, I would not have known the sufficiency of God, and I would not have been able to sit down with a young E3 or E4 who only makes a minimal amount of money with the family to tell them I know God can provide for you because he has done it for me. So I see how faithful our Lord is. And the greatest privilege of my life is to know a Christ, to be able to serve, and it's the greatest. Now that was a preacher's long answer to a short question.

Zarbock: How many years of military service are you credited with now?

Rivers: I'm credited now with 29 and ten years now. I got out after 7 years active and spent some time in the reserves, a year in the reserves and then some time in individual ready reserve, and then I was turned around and I came back and I've got two more years active now, so I'm credited 29 and ten years active as far as my time there. The blessing is that I was also, that time I was inactive ready reserve, I was credited active pay, so I have more years for pay than I do for active service, which is nice when the paycheck comes out, but that's a blessing.

Zarbock: How many years do you have from pay?

Rivers: Over 17.

Zarbock: 17?

Rivers: Over 17. So that's a blessing that they would work back and counted my OCS time and counted my, I did what's called a-- my pay entry base date, I did an early pay today, I've signed my PLC contract, and that's where my pay entry base date started. So all the time I was commissioned counted towards pay, so the Marine Corps graciously gave me that time, the Navy graciously gave me that time, so I got it rectified once I got back in, so that's nice.

Zarbock: What an amazing story.

Rivers: Sir.

Zarbock: Truly. What an amazing story. So how long have you been in the Chaplain Corps?

Rivers: In the Chaplain Corps for about two years and three or four months.

Zarbock: Well you entered the Chaplain Corps through really two doors, number one you were an experienced pastor.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: You had that experience with the congregation and the seminary experience. In addition to that, of course, you had your boots on the ground experience as a second lieutenant in the Marines.

Rivers: Yes sir.

Zarbock: Given those two learning experiences, what did you find difficult, if any, when you entered the Chaplain Corps?

Rivers: Well, you're right, I was blessed. God's hand prepared in numerous areas of being an officer in the Marines, I was a grunt, I was an infantry officer and also being a pastor and that was a great blessing. And before I get into difficulties, being a pastor helped. I think I had to be a pastor for ten years to help change me from being a line officer to being a minister, and that's the big thing I wanted to bring out. That was very important, in that pastoral time, you know, I wonder, why was I a pastor so long, and that helped to change me, because I tell you, a pastor is like a general practitioner in the medical field. After awhile, you'll see about everything, and you experience a lot, and so it was a great training tool, I would encourage anybody who has been former military that wants to go back into the military as a chaplain. The denomination, in the military, normally requires two years active service as a pastor or a minister vocation. I recommend you looking to maybe doing more because it takes a while to make that change, that transition, and that experience is very critical. I think one of the big difficulties was, as a line officer, I was in charge of troops; and as a pastor, I was kind of in charge, the Lord's in charge, but I ran a church. Now, I come back in as a spiritual advisor. I'm not really in charge of anybody, and that's been a transfer, and that's okay, that's all right, that's the way God intended it because spiritual advisor is just that, and God has to change your heart.

Zarbock: You must be eminently flexible.

Rivers: (laughs) What?

Zarbock: Yeah, I mean, to be a command officer in the Marines, I assume you don't go around and say, "If you please, would you mind," I mean, boom, do it.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: And do it on the double, and then cycling into the ministry.

Rivers: Yes, sir. I had a great church body in Paluxy. We learned together, and I learned a lot about, you know, you might command people, but they're not necessarily going to do it, you know. God's got to change your heart.

Zarbock: What was the congregation like, was it mostly farmers, small town?

Rivers: A wonderful congregation of people, it was a rural area; it wasn't even a town, I think it was four houses together. We had, we pulled from different areas, from different communities around, and then the locals, they would go into Ft. Worth to look for a job or there would be ranchers around there. Good salt of the earth people, predominantly blue collar, although we had a good mixture of ranchers and we also had people going back and forth between Ft. Worth, that's the largest city for a job. We had a power plant not far from there that some folks would work at, but we had people from the metroplex, too, we had some blue collar, white collar ranchers, a good mixture, and it really was a blessing. You know, this study I mentioned earlier Experiencing God, knowing and doing the will of God, this study, I told you, I made mention of it, it was very profound in my life. Well, one of the things that Henry Black, the author of the study, says that when God desires he can take people from anyplace and put them somewhere else, and he adds to the body of Christ locally as he pleases. And so that's something that he did with us, and we saw. I really believe the makeup of my congregation represented the salt of the earth or the salt of this country, and I believe that it prepared me to minister to these men in uniform which is also a small town rural area.

Zarbock: But you could have been on a collision course with the congregation, you know, farmers are not characteristically, are not given to flopping over on their back and saying I surrender. I mean, they face it all, market prices, weather, injury, illness, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Rivers: Well, you remember I grew up on farming, my father's a farmer. Well, as God's grace, I learned things, I made mistakes, at times I could be pretty bullheaded, but God worked in my life and worked in other people's lives and we have a God of grace who helps us overcome mistakes and things. I genuinely wanted the right thing, I want people to know Christ, you see, I believe that's the eternal purpose of God, for us to know Christ, to know the Heavenly Father and live for Him, because I see where things in this life can pass away; things in this life can end. And I become more and more acutely aware of the eternal importance of the Lord's work and knowing Him and living with Him.

Zarbock: Now you say you're scheduled to go to Iraq in the spring of this year.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: Will this be your first deployment there?

Rivers: It will be. I was in the Marine Corps during Desert Storm, but I was stationed at School of Infantry, and I was a trained company commander there, and we were basically kept there to keep the training pipeline open, and fortunately that war wasn't that long that we netted that many casualties, so it didn't last that long.

Zarbock: The School of Infantry is Parris Island?

Rivers: No, sir, that's at Camp Geiger right down the road.

Zarbock: That's right, Parris Island is where the boot camp is, correct?

Rivers: That's correct, yes, sir.

Zarbock: And you transferred out of that, you got shipped out of that to other locales.

Rivers: Yes, sir, once a Marine goes through boot camp he goes generally next to the School of Infantry and they get trained there, and then he'll go to wherever his MOS dictates or he'll go to follow-up training, maybe the infantry unit or he'll go usually to his follow-up school or his infantry unit, wherever he needs to go.

Zarbock: The partnership that you have with your Lord, did he lead you in the right way?

Rivers: Oh, yes, sir, I think so. My God is a God of Solomon and he leads us with his word, he leads us by spirit, through prayer and work, other people, and just circumstances, and I believe I'm where I need to be right now, no doubt.

Zarbock: As a military chaplain whose denomination is Southern Baptist, what was your training and what is your experience with ministering to individuals of other denominations including the family members?

Rivers: Well, where I pastured, we did a good thing, and this really helped me, my family, my background is Presbyterian, yes, sir. When my wife and I married, we were looking for a good Bible preaching, teaching, believing church, and I had made my commitment to Christ and we were open to go to whichever denomination would provide that, but God led us to the United Chapel Baptist Church. So I have a background in Presbyterian, see, I know that there are strong committed Christians in each denomination, people who really know the Lord, and so, I guess from that experience, having kind of a diverse Protestant background, Presbyterian and Baptist, and I have a brother who goes to a Methodist Church and my sister was Lutheran. I realize that no denomination has a corner on Christians. But, also, while I was a pastor, our church would do community functions where we would work with the Methodist church and the Seminar of God church, other Baptist churches, and we really had a good community effort, and so that helped me understand that there is truly one Lord and we truly seek to know him through our penance of faith, that's the key right there. That helps me with the chaplaincy, because some of the side issues that divide the denomination, I really don't try to focus on that. I try to focus on Christ, and I'm very comfortable. And, now, when there are people from other religions, not Christianity, but like Islam or Buddhist, I also have the responsibility to facilitate their religion. And you need to understand this. That doesn't mean I agree with them or lead them in that faith, but I point them to someone who will. And I've already had to do that, I've done it with a sailor who was a Buddhist and a marine who was a Muslim. And that's my responsibility, because I also believe that this country is founded on freedom of religion. That is critical. We fight to keep our country free because a person cannot be coerced into believing a certain thing, it is a heart calling that only God can do. So I have a responsibility in the military as well as in this country, we have a responsibility of freedom of religion, to allow people to worship in the way they feel convicted. That's a beautiful thing that people don't realize this country has until you go to another country where you don't have it, and that's a different thing, but this is one of the tenants of what our country was founded on, you know, so you keep freedom of religion. So in the military, if someone wants to be or is a Muslim or is a Buddhist, and wants to follow up on that, I have an obligation, a responsibility to make sure he has that opportunity to do that. I don't necessarily have to agree with his worship, but I have a responsibility to make sure he is pointed in the right direction and I help facilitate that.

Zarbock: In your professional role here at Camp Lejeune, as chaplain, what sorts of problems have come your way?

Rivers: Oh, goodness. I've done a lot of marriage counseling. You've got young troops that jump into a marriage a lot of times. Sometimes they don't jump into it and they take their time, but one way or the other, you know, they get out from home, they're in the military, they're serving an adult role and they do a good job, but yet they're ready to get into marriage. And marriage is an interesting thing. I've been blessed to be married to a wonderful wife of 20 years, but we've had our struggles; I think every marriage does. And, so, these folks, these young folks that want to jump in and kind of think "happily ever after," need to realize that's not the case. In fact, if I am going to marry someone, I do this as a pastor too, I will not marry a person unless I have first counseled them seven to eight times, six to eight times, and I give them a few requirements. If they are willing to agree to that, if things work out well, then I'll perform the ceremony. And I think every chaplain should do that because marriage is too important of a sacred covenant to just shoot over like that.

Zarbock: Who is the presenter of marital difficulties to you, is it the marine or is it the wife?

Rivers: So I've had it be the wife before; I've had it be the marine before. Sometimes I've had it be chain of command. They have come up and say this marine is struggling with his marriage counseling, would you be willing to talk to him? I say, yes, sure, I'll be glad to talk to him. Here's the beautiful thing about being a chaplain. When I was a line officer, I could get only so close to my marines. There was that barrier, if you will, as it needed to be. There was a station and rank so that when I gave him a command on the battlefield he would do it, it could not be a fraternization there, but as a chaplain, the beautiful thing is I can talk to a colonel or even a general one day about spiritual and moral issues, turn around and talk to a private the next hour, and that barrier, to an extent, is removed because you have an opportunity now, okay, for a little while I'm gonna be your pastor, let's talk about this situation. And that's a neat thing, that's a real neat thing.

Zarbock: So youthful marriages--

Rivers: Okay, other things, sometimes people just being depressed. Sometimes I have __________ at Camp Lejeune with what's called PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and these young men have seen some difficult things, as all generations have at war, when they've come back and some of them have tried to just repress it or keep it, if they mention it, it will crop up. And what that happens, hopefully I will be able to talk to them. I haven't talked to a lot of PTSD, but I hope to be able to talk to more because it's something that, these are noble men, these are noble warriors, and they need to get help. There's nothing weak about getting help. They're not being a sissy or anything like that. But when you go through horrific events, a combat marine, you need help, and so I talk to them.

Zarbock: And part of the culture is don't show weakness.

Rivers: That's right, that's right, and in fact, that's part of the culture in America but it's also part of how they have to be when they're overseas when we're in combat.

Zarbock: Absolutely.

Rivers: But there is a time when they have to decompress; it's like if you wind a string too tight, after awhile it's gonna pop, so there's got to be a decompressing time at some point in time. Hopefully, I'll be able to help them do that.

Zarbock: Other chaplains have indicated that times of stress just before the deployment, when you know it's going to happen Friday.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: And here it is Monday before the Friday.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: And a number of chaplains have said they have noticed, and including themselves, they began to distance themselves from family members.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: Or maybe even provoke a fight.

Rivers: Yes, sir.

Zarbock: And really just sort of walled yourself off emotionally. Has this been a parallel experience?

Rivers: It is a common thing because, you know, if you wall yourself off, it won't be quite so painful to leave. A lot of times folks, and I've done this before, too, is when, you know, emotion is too hard to deal with, you try just to kind of even close down or toughen your exterior, repress it, so you won't have to deal with it. I kind of look at a marine like if you're doing yard work and you get a sore on your hand, after awhile, when you put the-- for awhile there it's really sore to touch it, but after awhile your body will try to compensate by forming a callus, and that callus is tough and it can't feel what's happening. Well, we emotionally do that sometimes, too, we form an emotional callus.

Zarbock: And, again, others have said that another stress point is when you return and suddenly sergeant first class mom is no longer sergeant first class mom.

Rivers: I can sure see that. When I first came back off my deployment as a Marine, we, at that time we had no kids so it was an adjustment, but not as much as what I envisioned it to be when I came back from this deployment. Because my wife is very competent, we have five children, and so she's got to be Gunny Sergeant mom sometimes and she's, my wife can have a very velvet hand with a very steel grip if she needs to. I'm very proud of her, she is an awesome woman, and that'll probably be a bit of our adjustment, too.

Zarbock: Well, what about drugs and alcohol?

Rivers: There's a policy here that the Marine Corps, nor any branch of service, the Navy was the same way when I was serving with Kennedy, there is no tolerance for drugs. So if a person pops positive on urinalysis, he's gonna get separated from the Marine Corps. Yes, sir, no tolerance whatsoever for drugs.

Zarbock: Is that a dishonorable or general?

Rivers: I know in the Navy it's a general; and I believe in the Marine Corps the same thing, but it would be general under other than honorable. I'm not exactly sure on that, I need to check on that, but I don't think it's gonna be a dishonorable, but it will not be an honorable discharge.

Zarbock: Zero tolerance.

Rivers: Zero tolerance. Yes, sir. We can't have, our Captain of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy stated when he was there, that when he was I think a young lieutenant he was flying planes, and he ended up flying a group of chaplains out to the U.S.S. Nimitz I believe, because they had just had a tragedy happen, because part of their crew men were high and there was a flight accident that happened that took lives, so it has to be a no tolerance, there's too much at risk.

Zarbock: But alcohol is more subtle; maybe not more subtle, but alcohol is in the different form. There's a social acceptance to--

Rivers: There is.

Zarbock: --a certain consumption of alcohol.

Rivers: Right. Well, now, it's legal when you're 21, and they're abiding by the law. We try to encourage our troops that if they are not 21 years old, do not drink at all because you're breaking the law, first and foremost, whether you think it's right or not, or whatever your personal feelings, it's the law of the land and you're breaking the law. And you can fun and enjoy things without having to have alcohol. And we also encourage our troops that are 21 and older to drink responsibly, and if they want to go somewhere and drink they need to have a designated driver. Now, I want to tell you, in my opinion, this has improved greatly in the Marine Corps over the last 20 years. I had the advantage of having been out of the Corps 14 years and coming back, so I've seen a great positive change. I know it's not where we necessarily want it to be, but it's much better than it used to be, much better. Not that everybody was drunks back then, not at all, that's not what I'm saying at all, but what I am saying is we realize the hazards of it now and there's less tolerance for abusing it. I think that has changed to the credit of the military now.

Zarbock: You know, that's a very good point. The percentage of alcohol in any fluid condition has not changed, but the understandings of what ramifications can occur from this. You know, off camera, I asked if you would give me a couple of bookends, funny things, interesting things, warmhearted things that have happened in your chaplaincy, and then oppose it to the darker side, the gloomy, the painful, or mix them up.

Rivers: Yes, sir, I can give you a couple of them. I have to tell a joke on myself, and at the risk of putting this on the internet and everybody will see it, but I think you'll appreciate it because it's humanity, it's true. A long time ago, now, this is not as a chaplain, if I may permit, this is when I was a young line officer, if I can tell that story.

Zarbock: Sure.

Rivers: I was at IOC, Infantry Officer's Training, Infantry Officer's Course at Quantico, Virginia, they still have this; it's a very good course. It was good back then; I think it has been improved on. But we were in a patrol theater exercise, and we had about 50 young second lieutenant infantry officers in our platoon that we were training, and we were doing a big patrol exercise and we were loaded down with gear and it was raining. Back then the equipment wasn't quite as sophisticated as it is today, and we had green rain slippers on. It was kind of like a overall bottom and a top, and then I had my camis and a wool layer under that, and this slicker, and the pack on top of that. And it was cold--

Zarbock: Plus a weapon.

Rivers: Plus my weapon. And it was cold, and I had to use the restroom something bad. I had to urinate something terrible. And so I had a K-bar, and I went to undo the zipper and the zipper was sealed shut. Somebody had glued, it got glued or something, I'm not sure why, but anyway, I had no time to do anything else. I decided not to try to do anything else, so I just let it go. It was a very cold day; it was very warm at first, but I ended up walking in that and sleeping overnight in that, I was so tired I didn't even change my clothes, I should have, but I was so tired during the exercise and I got air lifted out of the L-Z, and by the time I got back to the barracks I was in bad shape; I had some bad case of diaper rash all the way down to my knees. So that was a, wasn't funny then, but looking back it was a very humorous, humorous thing.

Zarbock: But it takes a few years before it gets humorous.

Rivers: Yes, sir, it does. It takes a few years before it gets humorous. I think one of the things that's helped me with time is that I've been able to see the humor in things more often. And I think that's important. I've learned, or I'm learning, not to take myself quite so seriously. So one of the things that is humorous now is that the Marine Corps has just begun a ___________ training, it worked out we're kind of being a guinea pig battalion, it's a new type of-- well, it's not really that new. We used to run what's called PRT years ago, back in the '70s and '80s.

Zarbock: What does that stand for?

Rivers: Physical Readiness Test. And you run in your cami bottoms and your green shirt and you wear an H-harness and you run, sometimes you run with a rifle, and you do an obstacle course and it'd be an excruciating challenge in physical training. And we went to shorts and t-shirt, we'd run with that a lot, you know, most of the time I was in what's called PFT, Physical Fitness Test. But the Marine Corps is looking now to go back to some of those old PRT things with combat conditions, where you run with boots and utes [ph?] and we do a lot of exercises that you don't have to have equipment for; you can do it with a buddy, you know, like sit-ups and different types of exercises, firemen's carries, dragging people, combat drag, things that are related to combat. And it's tough, boy, it is tough, and I'm 43, you see, it's a tough thing, but I have to laugh at myself sometimes coming in and myself and some of the older people kind of laugh, and if I see a senior staff NCO who is in his 40s as well, we just kind of have to chuckle because we're working hard to stay up with the young troops but it's kind of funny when you go and you become exposed to things like that and you're sitting down there doing an exercise, go ohhhh, you know, but you have to share that laugh. And it really is good training. I love it, it's great training, I'm getting in better shape, but there's things you just have to laugh at it.

Zarbock: Am I correct that in any field training with a chaplain being part of the training unit, you don't get excused from specific duties.

Rivers: No, sir.

Zarbock: If the troops are going to do it, guess what the chaplain's going to do.

Rivers: Yes, sir, and that's the way it should be. Now, let me put a caveat on that. Chaplains do not bear arms; in their unit they are non-combatants. So it comes to training, that aspect of it, chaplains aren't required to do that, they don't bear arms. But anything physical or being out in the field or being on forced march, you're expected to be there. And when you are there and you are with those troops, you make inroads into their lives to be influential and be able to share with them, they'll come to see you if they know you care and you show them you care about being there with them. So it's really a minister of presence and being there, I mean, if you're hurting with him during a combat conditioning run or you're on a 20 mile hike and he and you are hurting together, but you're still encouraging him, that makes inroads. That makes a big difference, it's very important. Or maybe it's out in the fields in 33 degree weather and your battalion's having a field exercise and you're there with them. There's an opportunity sometimes, especially in the field of talking. Come up and invariably important issues of ethics and morality and religion come up. Those are the times they usually do that, so here's a rule of thumb. If you gain their trust in the field or during PT, so many times you'll have them in chapel, too. So, that's a good thing.

Zarbock: You work hard at being a chaplain, don't you?

Rivers: Yes, sir. It's a challenging but very rewarding job. Being a pastor was a different set of challenges, and that's a very difficult job, too. But being a chaplain, I thoroughly enjoy it. I really do, because you're entrusted to go where other people can't go. And you have the precious message of the gospel and people opening to receive that. That's very important. And you have the precious opportunity to minister people, regardless of their religions, with compassion and love. And you encourage them. And another very important job of a chaplain is that he is the moral compass for that unit. What that means is when you're in combat, that's a very trying time. It's a very difficult time. And one of the most precious things that God gives us, the most precious thing is life. So in combat when life is taken, that's a very hard thing, and so a chaplain helps people recover, and deal with, cope with doing that, and find healing in the midst of that. But he also helps God, that battalion or that unit to make sure they take the moral high ground during these times. That's very important.

[tape change]

Zarbock: Tape number two, Chaplain Ray Rivers. We're at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and today's the seventeenth of September in the year 2007. Well, Chaplain, tell me a story about events of a sad nature.

Rivers: Well, I remember in particular when I was on the John F. Kennedy, one of the things that would break your heart were to see young men come in, and sometimes young women but mostly young men because we had men and women on the Kennedy, who had been abused or hurt by their fathers. I remember, in particular, one young man had just-- he was torn up about it plus some other events in his life. And I just-- you know, I sat there and we wept together because it was just a hard thing, very hard. And uh.. I really felt his pain. And never having been in that situation of an abusive home, I was blessed, but-- and a lot of our young men and women-- well, not a lot, I have to rephrase that, I'm sorry. [crew talk] A certain percentage, a small percentage, yet a percentage come from those type of relationships and look at the military as being a way out. And sometimes down the road they need to be able to talk about it by healing. Now, one of the more difficult things that I had to deal with-- I remember one time another young man whose wife had attempted to commit suicide. I was talking about that, he was torn up about that. He and I just-- we sat down together and wept. Well, I remember tears coming out my eyes as he explained it because it was such a traumatic thing, you know. It's hard not to be that close to people and not hurt with them. And Jesus, himself, said, "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those with weep." And that's one of the more difficult, but sometimes more honorable part about work.

Zarbock: If I was in your boots I would have this sense of hopelessness. If you're in a ship and you're miles out in the ocean, and something catastrophic is happening on shore to a family member of the ship's crew, what is it you can do?

Rivers: Well, on ship or sometimes in a combat zone if you possibly can get them out, if it's a next of kin like a mother or wife. The Marine Corps and Navy usually do a very good job about getting them out. We have Navy relief funds that help them get out, and we usually, if all possible, get them to the family member during the crisis. If we can, then I'll pray with them or the chaplain can pray with them, just be there for them and put it in the Lord's hands.

Zarbock: But, Chaplain, who measures the degree of difficulty at home?

Rivers: We look at it and the chain of command is involved. The chaplains give the recommendation. One of the big things, it needs to be a next of kin person, instead of [overlap]. It can't be a second cousin or somebody. It's got to be a direct next of kin person, a child or a spouse, and that's very important. And I think operation ___________________ a lot to do with it. I mean if you're in the middle of a huge operation, it's got to be a very compelling reason to send the person home.

Zarbock: And if the person goes home, somebody has to replace that person.

Rivers: That's right; somebody's got to pull that weight, absolutely, while he's gone. And, hopefully, he'll be back soon _________________. Depending on after the funeral or whatever, he'll be back as soon as possible after the crisis has subsided. But it's got to be a compelling reason because in oOperation, unit or in combat, each person's very important, very important. But with that I think the military, the Navy and the Marine Corps, I can speak for them, do a great job getting, if possible, that person out. And I think by and large-- now, sometimes that may not always be the case, but by and large for the large majority they do a great job getting that person home if possible. [overlap] Let me say this too. Another one of the big things is AMCROSS, American Red Cross is a big part of that. And they've got to notify the unit. That's where it becomes official. See, some of the calls say, "Well, your mom died or your wife is ill." But if two of the American Red Cross sends the AMCROSS message, than that's when it becomes official. When you receive that, then you can start taking action.

Zarbock: Well, indeed, that is a sad story. Were you on shipboard at Christmas?

Rivers: No sir, during Christmas I, fortunately, was in port. So...

Zarbock: I've spent a little time in the military. Christmas was always a-- that was a boulder in the road.

Rivers: Yes sir, holiday's a tough time. But I'll tell you what they did in the Navy and I imagine the Marine Corps does this, too, during their times in combat over the holidays. They really go to great lengths to try to prepare a great meal and make the occasion very festive.

Zarbock: What about in your career, both as a line officer and later as a chaplain, what sort of absurdities have you run into? And, again, I'm not looking for some tattling thing, but just funny things do happen in the huge, huge organization such as the U.S. Military.

Rivers: Yes sir... (sigh) That's one I'm a little--I'm not quite-- Very rarely do I grasp for things to say, but I'm grasping at this time. There have been funny things that have happened. I can't call any to mind just right yet, but there's been some funny things. Mmmm, that's good. How about asking another question and see if I can come back to that?

Zarbock: What's your feeling about going to Iraq? You're ordered to Iraq. I mean, that eliminates any discussion about I may or may not go. You're going to go.

Rivers: Right, right.

Zarbock: How do you handle that?

Rivers: Well, I think it's where I need to be. I look forward to going because there's where the troops are, and there's an old saying, "There's no atheists in fighting holes." There's a great need for God there. There's a life and death scenario that's very real, and people need to know who God is.

Zarbock: You will be deployed with your unit, is that correct?

Rivers: Absolutely, sir. That's the beautiful thing about being attached to a unit as an operational chaplain. That is wonderful because you kind of are the pastor of that unit, and so I thoroughly enjoy getting to know the men and you're there for them. And so I'm excited about that aspect of it, and I'll be going in 2nd LAR, 2nd Light armored Recognizance, Battalion.

Zarbock: How many men in your unit?

Rivers: Well, we have right now probably close to eight hundred or so. We'll have more than that when we pick up a reserve. We will actually pick up a reserve company in the fourth L.A.R. Regiment, I'm sorry, 4th L.A.R. Battalion. And one of their companies is going to come over to us, so we'll have them attached and we'll have some more attachments. So, I guess, in house, in country, we'll have close to eleven hundred.

Zarbock: What sort of preparations are required of you before deployment?

Rivers: Well, we're starting to spin up towards those preparations now. It's very important. It's a kind of a bottom up training. We start with individual-- after each deployment, you get some down town and then you start recycling back up, where you start having schools people go to where they go to schools and do their annual requirements, PFT's and rifle ranges. Then they start doing individual level types of training. Then they'll move on from there to squad size or platoon level types of training. Then they'll go up to company level, and then, you know, graduate up to battalion level where everyone's training on a battalion level. We're going to be doing two of those in the upcoming fall. And then we'll be going to Mohave Viper, which is a training there at 29 Palms, California before we actually go to Iraq.

Zarbock: The whole unit?

Rivers: The whole unit, yes sir. We're gradually moving forward to that pinnacle.

Zarbock: This is such a low level question, but to get from here to Twenty Nine Palms, how do you get there? Is it flight or train or?

Rivers: It's by flight, yes sir.

Zarbock: They don't put you on troop trains anymore.

Rivers: No sir, I think we'd get there quicker by flight. That's how we did it twenty years ago when I went to 29 Palms, so flight's the best way to do that.

Zarbock: How long will you be there?

Rivers: We'll be there about a month.

Zarbock: And then you come back to Lejeune? The plans are for you to return here and then you're deployed from Lejeune.

Rivers: Yes sir.

Zarbock: So, this is sort of a practice in saying goodbye to your family.

Rivers: It is a practice in saying goodbye to your family. It's a practice in our tactical prowessness. It's a practice in a lot of things. And you're right; it's a tense time here at those times because everybody's anticipating leaving. And, one of the things that this country needs to understand is that these young troops, these Marines, some of them young, some of them old. But many of them have done three, some even four, deployments. And they are really putting themselves on the line, and not only do they sacrifice but the families are sacrificing. This nation owes a great debt of gratitude to the military man; and, of course, being a Marine I'm partial to the Marines. But they-- they've always seemed to lead the way. So we owe a great deal of gratitude to these hard charging Marines. They're a fine fighting organization. I'm proud to be associated with them.

Zarbock: Putting your whole life together: childhood, coming of age, schooling, training, the interesting life that you've had. When you put your life together, what credo have you developed that I, Chaplain Rivers, am fill in the blank.

Rivers: My life verse, I guess, several of them, but one is out of Acts XIII, verse 22. And God said this about King David-- in David I found a man for my own heart who'll do anything I tell him to do. That's a paraphrase. I hope that when my life ends people can say, "In Ray Rivers, God found a man after his own heart, who'll do everything that he calls him to do." The other thing is out of Romans, Chapter 8, verse 37 through 39 talks about how nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Death won't, life won't, debts won't, heights won't, distance won't, nothing, angels, demons, nothing. And I've come to find that's very true. God is so faithful and his love is prevalent. And I think the greatest call in life, whatever you're doing, whether it's in the vocational ministry position, chaplain, pastor, whatever, or not, is to know Christ and to know the heavenly father in a deep way, and to be used to share his knowledge, share him with other people. That's the greatest call in life.

[tape break]

Zarbock: We're going to return briefly to the interview. Go ahead, Chaplain.

Rivers: Yes sir, you'd asked me earlier about an absurdity or a funny story. I can remember when we were on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, we were out at sea a couple of times and I had the privilege of conducting a baptism in the actual hanger bay of the ship. We had a portable tub-like thing that carried aircraft parts. We filled it up with water and we baptized several sailors there. (laughs) We would joke and kid people and told them we'd tie them to a big line and drop them down in the ocean as we'd travel along. So that was pretty funny and they'd get a kick out of that, but that was a blessing. And there's a lot of other funny stories in the military that kind of elude me now at this time, but there's been some really good ones. The one I had told you earlier about having the mishap, using the restroom in my-- that was not funny at the time but became very funny.

Zarbock: I've got another question that I've asked all of the chaplains. At any time during your career as a chaplain, have you ever been approached by an officer of higher rank and ordered or suggested or with a wink and a nudge, to do something, to do anything, that you felt was in violation of your personal or religious beliefs and values?

Rivers: No sir, I never have. I've had three Commanding Officers I've worked for, two Captains of the John F. Kennedy and, now, a Battalion Commander here in the 2nd L.A.R. Battalion, and they all really respect my position. I've never been asked to do something that's immoral or unethical at all. I never have. In fact, they alert us to tell them if something does head that direction. My Battalion Commander said, "One of the things I want you to do is be the moral compass in this battalion," and I appreciate greatly his desire for that. So, they have appreciated and respected chaplains. Now, I've only had three Commanding Officers I've worked for. I've been able to not only be a moral compass but also be able to maybe give some wisdom, if asked, at times. And I guess my military background has helped with that, too. So, it's been a good relationship thus far.

Zarbock: And as I understand it, you are covered by Navy regulations that would prevent you-- I'm sorry-- that authorizes you not to divulge...

Rivers: That's correct.

Zarbock: Anything that's told to you in privacy.

Rivers: Here's one of the strong tenets of what a chaplain can do for a unit or for people, individuals. A chaplain has the strongest code of confidentiality, stronger than any other member of the armed forces, even a doctor. A chaplain has the strongest code of confidentiality.

Zarbock: More than a physician?

Rivers: More than a physician, yes sir. It is the strongest code of confidentiality. When a person sits down with a chaplain and says, "I'm going to tell you this in confidence." Then that's what it is, it's in confidence. That's a very strong thing. Of course, in American society, clergy and parishioner privilege is a very strong thing, so...

Zarbock: We're kind of on a roll here with other questions. Who chaplains you, Chaplain?

Rivers: Oh goodness, I think it's very important as a chaplain to find a strong church home that my family can worship and receive ministry, especially when I'm gone. I guess, first and foremost, my Lord and Savior chaplains me. He encourages, he leads, he guides, so I have to stay in intimate relationship with him. That's been a challenge because things can get busy, but as a civilian pastor and as a military chaplain, I'm always good as I am close to him. I can't fill myself up the way he can. But God puts some people in my path as well. I have a gentleman who's in the battalion right now that we try to pray together every day. And he's a line officer but he's a strong Christian, so we can encourage each other. A pastor of a good church can do that. I have a kind of a mentor, I haven't talked with him in a while, but it's a pastor of a church in Texas who really was a mentor of mine as a pastor. And I can always call him if I need some encouragement or something and some pastoring if you will. He was a big part, also, of me getting back into the chaplaincy. His name is Mike Fritcher (ph?) and he had a big hand in that. So I have different folks to go to, and it's important to surround yourself with godly people. That's very important. Part of my number one confidant though is my wife. She's been my one confidant.

Zarbock: You're blessed in many ways.

Rivers: Sir, I am very blessed, and it just-- I serve a very faithful and loving God. He loves to bless people who are willing to desire to be blessed in the father.

Zarbock: It's a privilege to meet and to know you sir.

Rivers: Yes sir.

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