CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq --
Lt. Cmdr. Kobena Arthur’s odyssey has taken him across America and around the world to minister to the young men and women who serve on the front lines of the Global War on Terror.
A resident of South Orange, N.J., Arthur is currently serving as the battalion chaplain for the reserve Marines and sailors of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 in Iraq’s western al-Anbar province.
The battalion is comprised of reserve and active-duty Marines and sailors from 16 companies and detachments in 12 states.
Regardless of where the service members are from or their religious background, Arthur’s job is to reach out to them all, both as warriors and as human beings.
“Chaplains are a force multiplier, as they provide spiritual care and support to all members of the command, helping ensure that Marines are able to perform their military duties,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Jim Hightower, the deputy chaplain of the Marine Corps. “The unique role of the chaplain in the command allows them to observe and monitor personal and family readiness. Chaplains are able to provide their commanders with advice and insight on critical morale and readiness issues, helping ensure that the unit is fully capable of fulfilling any mission.
“In addition to accommodating for the religious needs of personnel in the unit, chaplains provide spiritual support, confidential counseling and ethical and moral instruction,” added Hightower. “Chaplains are present to assist Marines with issues of faith and conscience, care for their spiritual health and morale and address issues related to combat stress and resiliency – maintaining combat readiness.”
Arthur, a four-year veteran of the battalion, understands his role. And more importantly, he understands his Marines.
Born in Potsin, Ghana, in 1955, Arthur moved to the U.S. at the age of 24 to attend an undergraduate program at Patten University in Oakland, Calif.
“More than anything, I wanted to be a minister,” said Arthur. “I could do that in Ghana, but there were so many more educational opportunities in America.”
He explained that because of nepotism and “the good old boys’ network” in his native country, he was limited in where he could study and what professional opportunities were open to him.
Arthur embraced the world of American academia. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1985 and shortly after earned a master’s degree in divinity from Southern Methodist University.
“That was my number one dream, to be a minister,” said Arthur. “Ever since I was young, I felt it was my calling.”
He served as a pastor in Methodist churches in Texas for several years. With a Socratic love for learning, Arthur returned to school in 1987 to pursue a doctorate degree.
“Knowledge is power,” said Arthur. “Knowledge helps you to be able to communicate with everybody, regardless of their educational, economic or social background.”
Arthur’s perseverance paid off. Over a six-year period, he earned a doctorate in higher education administration and counseling from the University of North Texas while concurrently working as a parole officer for the state and raising three children with his wife, Mary, who came to the States from Ghana with him.
“Trying to help individuals change their lives, motivating them to get a higher education and open opportunities, that was my goal,” said Arthur.
He returned to California in 1992 to pursue his second doctorate in psychology at the Center for Psychological Studies. He also worked as an outreach consultant for the Oakland City School Districts, helping to develop a program to keep at-risk adolescents in school.
“I tried to keep them away from drugs and gangs and get their parents more involved in their lives,” said Arthur, who did his doctorate dissertation on the subject of retention of at-risk students. “It really opened my eyes to the social influences on adolescents in America.”
One night in 1995, Arthur had a dream that he was a U.S. Navy chaplain. He couldn’t get back to sleep, and in the morning he called the local U.S. Navy Officer Recruiting Office.
He was pleased to find that he met all the requirements to enter the chaplain training program. This included holding a master’s degree in divinity, serving at least two years as a pastor in a church and being formally endorsed by his denomination.
“I saw myself as a good candidate for providing service to the men and woman of the Navy and their families based on my academic and professional skills,” explained Arthur.
After completing all the coursework for his second doctorate degree in psychology, Arthur set off for the U.S. Navy Chaplain Course in Newport, R.I., in the winter of 1996.
He spent nine weeks with a diverse group of about 50 chaplain candidates from nearly as many religious faith groups. Together, they studied U.S. Naval history, culture and the role of the military chaplain. Following graduation, Lt. j.g. Arthur, then 41, headed to the Fleet.
“That’s the uniqueness about the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps,” said Arthur. “I’m a people’s chaplain in the Navy,” he insisted. “I am not a Methodist chaplain. I serve everyone.”
Arthur explained that regardless of service members’ religious backgrounds, he must find a way to reach out to them spiritually and intellectually in order to help them find answers to existential questions which young people are confronted with for the first time. He guides them in resolving personal issues with relationships, finances and difficulty with adjustment to military lifestyle.
His four-year active duty tour was at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., where he ministered to the new recruits at the Navy’s only Recruit Training Center and fledgling sailors at the advanced service schools.
“I worked closely with the Navy psychologists to determine which sailors were truly in need of psychological help and which could resolve their issues through informal counseling,” explained Arthur.
Arthur left active duty in 2000, but served as a drilling reservist with a U.S. Naval Reserve Support Unit at Great Lakes while working as a financial consultant for a non-profit organization in North Chicago, Ill.
Always looking for a new challenge, Arthur moved to the East Coast to attend Seton Hall University and serve as assistant pastor at a church in South Orange, N.J. He also began teaching psychology at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., in the fall of 2002. He drilled with a Navy Reserve unit at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck, N.J., until joining 2nd Bn., 25th Marines in 2004.
While at Seton Hall, Arthur concurrently worked on his second master’s degree in diplomacy and international relations and his third in jurisprudence.
This education, combined with his personal knowledge of the U.S. immigration system, has given Arthur the tools to advise many Marines and sailors in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship and acquiring visas for spouses overseas.
“The chaplain is a force multiplier because he brings peace to our Marines,” said Sgt. Maj. Anthony Allen, the battalion sergeant major.
“He gives the Marines clear ears, a clear mind, and a clear heart,” insisted Allen. “When the chaplain speaks, people listen.”
Over the course of his tenure with 2nd Bn., 25th Marines, Arthur has deployed with the battalion during their annual training exercises in Senegal, Norway, and Quantico, Va. He was eligible to rotate to another Navy or Marine Reserve unit this year, but extended his tour with 2nd Bn., 25th Marines in order to remain with them for their upcoming seven-month deployment to Iraq.
“I have been training with them every step of the way,” asserted Arthur. “They know me, from the commander down to the individual Marines. By deploying to Iraq with them, I can make an impact. One of my senior chaplains told me that I am the flesh and blood of the battalion. I welcome this opportunity to deploy with my Marines.”
Sgt. Julio Barrera-Riveira, a battalion administration chief from Brooklyn, N.Y., has forged a close bond with the chaplain over the past two and a half years.
“He makes a personal connection with the Marines,” said Barrera-Riveira, who narrated a story about the battalion’s three-week annual training in Senegal during the summer of 2007. “Even if you haven’t known him for a long time, he makes an effort to get to know you.
“Things were tough toward the end of the deployment,” said Barrera-Riveira. “But he was always there, whenever the Marines were in the field, he was always there, and his message was the same: ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ And then everyone started saying it— ‘keep on keepin’ on.’”
With only one chaplain for more than 1,100 battalion personnel, Arthur is in high demand. He delivered eight services to Marines and sailors at three ranges scattered across the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms’, Calif., training areas on June 29, undaunted by the temperatures topping 110 degrees.
"Chaplain Arthur brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the battalion,” said Lt. Col. Michael J. Froeder, the Battalion executive officer. “He is a true gentlemen; his sincerity in his dealings with others and his genuine concern for the Marines and sailors of (2nd Bn., 25th Marines) have enhanced the morale and readiness of the battalion. Additionally, his work with the Key Volunteer Network has promoted strength and cohesion among our families. He has been and continues to be a force multiplier for (2nd Bn., 25th Marines). His motto, ‘Keep on keeping on,’ and daily interaction with all personnel have been instrumental to the battalion's success and high level of motivation throughout pre-deployment training."
The battalion was mobilized on May 17 and shipped out from locations throughout the U.S. on May 27 for about four months of intense training in the Mojave Desert.
For many of the reservists, the transition from a sedentary civilian career or university campus life in the Northeast to the brutal summer heat and grueling Marine Corps training here has been a great challenge.
Arthur has sweated alongside them every step of the way, always armed with his spiritual guidance and words of encouragement.
Maj. Danan Campbell, the battalion’s security force executive officer working at Al Asad Air Base, expressed the sense of pride he has in serving with Arthur and his fellow Reserve Marines.
“The chaplain is a perfect example of the people we have,” said Campbell. “The man has five graduate degrees, and he could be doing anything. And what has he chosen to do? He chose to come out here. He wants to serve with us.”
After striving to become personally acquainted with about 1,000 Marines and sailors during the battalion’s three-month pre-deployment training at Twentynine Palms, Arthur arrived in Iraq on Sept. 7 and flew to Camp Korean Village in the western region of Iraq’s al-Anbar province on Sept. 20. The battalion’s expected tour of duty here is seven months.
During a conversation with a civilian-job recruitment agency last year, the interviewer asked Arthur why, with all his education and earning potential, he has elected to serve as a Navy chaplain.
Arthur’s modest response was, “It’s all about service to your country, and service to God. The satisfaction I get from working with these Marines is worth more than a million dollars.”