When duty calls, the military has always responded.
That includes chaplains, too.
The mission can be peace-keeping, an international crisis, a military conflict, all-out war or in current times, a pandemic.
Navy commander David Shirk of New Bern was supposed to retire in an April 20 ceremony aboard the USS Constitution docked in Boston Harbor.
Among other things, COVID-19 canceled that ceremony and Boston Celtics games.
With his office closed, he instead returned to his family – wife Bonny and three teenage children - shortly before Easter. It was the first time they had shared the same roof since his duty assignment took him from Cherry Point air station to Boston three years ago.
It's been a good time – 37 days of quality family time, making music and holding Sunday morning services for neighbors on the back lawn of their rural lakeside home outside New Bern.
But, duty called and Shirk answered.
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He is command chaplain for the eight-state Coast Guard District 1 – Maine to New Jersey.
So, early on May 17, he'll drive north to Boston and resume his duties, extending the retirement date on his 35-year military career until Nov. 1.
He is headed to the country’s epicenter for COVID-19 - an area of high positive tests, deaths and associated problems such as job loss, suicides and domestic violence.
Navy permanent changes of station orders are under a freeze, but because Shirk was separating/retiring, he was an exception.
With no relief person in his job, he felt compelled to return, doing so voluntarily.
He did it because there is a need for the spiritual and emotional guidance he can provide.
“There definitely is and I have been doing the best I can from down here at home, but it is different when you are able to be there,” he said earlier this week. “Everyone is suffering, not exclusive to the military. Within the Coast Guard, there has been an uptick, a concern of suicide and domestic violence and things like that.”
Shirk’s administrative job includes overseeing four other chaplains and staff within the district, as well as counseling, suicide prevention and marriage education.
“Typically, the people in the military who get married are younger than the average in the population and fairly immature about relationships and such,” he said.
As a counselor, he listens to sweeping range of issues and has a unique role of confidentiality with those who seek help.
“When you talk to a chaplain, what you say to them – even if it is illegal or something like that – it stays right there,” he said. “That is why most people I talk to are not necessarily church people. They know they have that level of confidentiality and can voice their thoughts and get honest feedback, the help they need, an outlet that is safe and secure.”
There are also the array of formal religious duties - invocations, benedictions, retirement ceremonies, changes of command and ship commission ceremonies.
The critical stress level is high for the Coast Guard, which is under Homeland Security.
They are the maritime law enforcement. In the winter months, they are concentrated on ice-breaking and keeping commercial shipping lanes open.
In any season, there are boating safety education responsibilities and the inevitable mishaps and rescues.
“They are the ones pulling bodies out of the water. It is pretty traumatic,” Shirk said. “So, part of my responsibility is to make sure they have the emotional and spiritual care to help them through traumatic events like that.”
Another of Shirk’s duties is notifications to families when a serviceman dies or a search is called off. He said the notification scenes on TV and films are truthful.
“If you see a sedan pull up with two people in dress blues, you know, you know exactly what it is,” he said. “That is the reason, when so many people see us, they react so harshly. They know that means their family member is dead. You never know what to expect.”
He said the reaction varied extremely, from disbelief, anger and emotional breakdowns to an isolated case in which a wife said “Ok, when do I get my check?”
While the initial notification is ablaze with emotion, his work continues on aspects ranging from benefits to a shoulder to lean on.
“You get real close real fast with these families,” he said. “And there are a lot of families, when you are done with the process; they treat you more like family.”
Shirk said a chaplain has four roles in the military.
One is to advise the command on issues such as morale or whenever guidance is needed.
Another is to provide services for like-faith members. These are conducted by chaplains of the various faiths. For instance, Shirk, a Protestant, would not conduct a Catholic Mass.
The third thing is to facilitate to all faiths, an example being a request for a Muslim prayer book.
“It is just as important for me to make sure that their spiritual needs are taken care of, which need to be treated just as important as mine,” he said.
The other role is care for all.
“Regardless whether a person is spiritual or not, my job is to make sure that I provide any kind of care that I can for them,” he said.
Just this week, he had a phone call from a service member with a special needs child, having difficulty talking with their supervisor.
“So, he talked to me to get some advice and input,” Shirk said. “A lot of times if you are really emotional about something, it is hard to think it through. It’s nice to have someone to go to who is no treat whatsoever.”
In the back of his mind, he has concerns about going back to such a hot spot area.
Boston will be lifting its stay home orders on May 18.
“The greatest concern I have is that the way to get around Boston is the T (mass transit subway),” he said. “That is concerning to me to have everybody come together, so I am going to do everything I can not to take the T around.”
Shirk, 56, would have completed nearly 35 years in which he has served as a chaplain in all five branches. All chaplains are sourced from the Navy.
It goes back to World War II, when the president had a yacht, manned by the Navy. Because of fear of German U-boats, Camp David was built.
In 35 years, his duty stations have included Hong Kong, Japan, Afghanistan, and National Security Agency in Washington, California, Florida, Texas and Maryland. New Bern artist Katie Wiggs depicts all his stations in a retirement painting.
He is a native of South Dakota, but grew up in the Kansas City area, where he and his two brothers were all Eagle Scouts.
“For me, being an Eagle Scout was like graduating from high school,” he said. “I didn’t know you had a choice.”
Shirk enlisted in 1982 and was a Naval Intelligence cytologist who copied and analyzed code for six years. He left to attend seminary and returned to the Navy.
The career path that eventually brought him to Cherry Point also led him to his family.
He and Bonny have been married three years, first meeting at Croatan Presbyterian Church, where she is music director, along with the Cherry Point chapel.
Before he came home because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the couple has lived apart – as geographic bachelors in military terms.
Because of her religious jobs and private teaching, along with the children being at New Bern High School, they chose not to uproot the family and move to Boston for his final three years.
The children are twin ninth-graders Audrey and Clare, along with 16-year-old sophomore Evan.
Shirk is looking forward to retirement and family reunion No. 2 in November.
But, he and Bonny have learned to temper their expectations.
The past month provided a lesson.
Charlie Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.