5 Questions for U.S. Navy Chaplain Irving: “There is a very special place in my heart and in my soul for the Semper Fi Fund”

How did you become a Navy Chaplain?

My father, a Korean War Marine, went to Mexico on vacation after he left the Marine Corps, met my mom and I stayed there. I was born and raised in Mexico City. I came to the States in 1978 to go to college at an orthodox Jewish university called Yeshiva University. I graduated in 1982 and went right to seminary to become a rabbi. I joined the Navy Reserves while I was in seminary. I always knew I wanted to be a rabbi, and I knew that as soon as I got ordained, I wanted to be a Navy Chaplain. Weeks before ordination, I committed to three years active duty to serve my country and get a little experience and do a little travel — and here we are, retired after 35 years.

What’s the job of a Navy Chaplain’s like?

2002-2003 (Iraq)
2004 (Iraq)
2008 (Afghanistan)
2010 (Afghanistan)
Retired from Navy:
September 2016
Family Members:
Married 31 years, and three children

Navy Chaplains have four essential tasks — in no particular order, each as important as the other: (1) I provide for the people of my own faith. As a rabbi, my job is to be a rabbi to Jewish Sailors and Marines — conduct worship services, rituals, lifecycle events. (2) I also facilitate for those who are not of my faith. When I was in Iraq, there were only two other Jews in the battalion, but it didn’t matter. I would bring in a Protestant Chaplain to do services. Part of my job is make sure that the religious needs of everybody are met. (3) We care for all. We provide pastoral care to everybody, regardless of faith, also for those of no faith at all. (4) We serve as advisors to the Commander on issues of morale and welfare and spiritual development — and even issues of the role that religion plays in combat operations.

What can you tell us about your PTSD?

It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can talk about it. I got back from Iraq and one of the things that happens with helping professionals — doctors, chaplains and so on — is that we think we’re fine. You learn to put all the bad stuff in that quiet little corner of your mind and you kind of forget about it. I went to Afghanistan a third time, and it wasn’t even for a deployment — they sent me there to do Jewish worship services for one of the holy days. I was only gone for a month, and I came back to the States and it all kind of came back — nightmares, nervousness, I couldn’t sleep. There is nothing harder for somebody who is a caregiver to go get help. It’s hard to get yourself to admit that you need help. Eventually one of the things that I needed was a medical device — an alpha stimulator, which reduces anxiety and helps me sleep without nightmares — and the Semper Fi Fund, without blinking an eye, said, “We’ll provide one for you.” And they did.

How did you first learn about the Semper Fi Fund?

My first encounter with the Fund was as partners in caring for our Sailors and Marines. I was so impressed that their mission was so pure: to take care of Marines and eventually wounded warriors in general. Nothing was too big or too little to ask of the people at the Fund. It was even more special when it came time for me to look for help and be the recipient of help.

Can you tell us a little more about your relationship with the Fund?

My connection to the Semper Fi Fund is twofold: Once I started to see the tremendous work that the Fund does, I started to do some volunteering and fundraising for them. Once a year, on Veterans Day, I’d do a bike ride for Chaplains and Chaplain Assistants. I did it for four years in a row. Around that time, I was also diagnosed with PTSD, and the Fund was incredibly helpful by providing me with a device that the military was unable to provide. There are lots of organizations out there that provide care for wounded warriors, but the Semper Fi Fund, because of its origins, because of the people who make up the organization, they are so embedded into the fabric of the Marine Corps and the Navy that they get it, they understand exactly what the need is, and they understand exactly how to provide for those needs. There is a very special place in my heart and in my soul for the Semper Fi Fund.