Navy Capt. Tremblay's Prodigal Son Route To Chaplain
by U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Francesca Landis
June 16, 2020
“In the Bible there is a story called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, a fall from grace only to be welcomed back into your father’s arms, no questions asked, this is what becoming a chaplain was like for me,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Tremblay, the III Marine Expeditionary Force Chaplain.
U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Tremblay, III Marine Expeditionary Force Chaplain at the III MEF Chaplain office, Camp Courtney, Japan on May 5, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Francesca Landis)
In 1978, Tremblay’s third oldest sibling out of 15, John, came back home from four years in the Coast Guard with a newly developed faith in Pentecostal Christianity.
Eager to share the impact his new beliefs had on him, John soon inspired 12 out of his 15 siblings to join him in the faith, including Capt. Tremblay.
Tremblay flourished in his new found beliefs until his freshmen year of high school, when he fell in love with the rush and excitement he found in long distance running.
For the next three years of high school, running became his life; and faith faded out of it.
“I took a hiatus from God, and from the church for about five years,” said Tremblay. “I ended up dropping out of high school my senior year. I just wanted to do my own thing.”
By dropping out, he also turned down an opportunity to go to college with a full ride track scholarship. He chose instead to start working construction, building houses with his brother-in-law until one hot, sunny day in June when he stumbled upon a Navy recruiter’s office.
Between dropping out of high school, fighting with his father at home and just feeling like he needed to get away, the military suddenly seemed like an excellent idea.
“June 5 of 1986 I walked in the recruiter’s office,” explained Tremblay. “Didn’t know anything about the Navy, didn’t know anything about the military and by June 8, I was in boot camp.”
A few short months later, Tremblay was officially a Stinger Missile Operator in the Navy and left for an overseas deployment.
Over the next few years Tremblay became engulfed in military life. He described himself as living the epitome of the single enlisted guy life, enjoying whatever the world had to offer.
“Ya know, I tell this story,” said Tremblay. “And all the stuff that I counsel Marines and Sailors on now, I lived it out for years. Kind of like the prodigal son story.”
But even then, he felt a higher calling. An opportunity opened for Tremblay to go into a new specialty, which led him to work at Naval Air Station Brunswick, two hours from the small town of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, where he grew up.
Being stationed so close to home, Trembley would make regular weekend trips to see his family, which he had grown to miss terribly over the years of being away.
One Sunday night, after a long day of playing basketball, Tremblay, very sweaty and in desperate need of a shower, was packing up to head back to base when his sister, Susan, rolled by with her two little twin daughters on their way to church, explained Tremblay.
Jessie, one of the twins, excited to see her uncle asked loudly from the back seat of the car, “Uncle Paul, you wanna go to church with us?”
Tremblay declined and got in his car, fully believing he was heading back to base, when suddenly he found himself driving in the opposite direction – towards the church.
“I look back in retrospect,” said Tremblay. “God had other plans for me.”
“I ended up going into church,” said Tremblay. “I sat in the backrow, don’t remember what was preached, but I remember my sister.”
He explained that hearing Susan’s testimony about God’s goodness in her life was a turning point for his own faith and led him to become a Navy Chaplain.
The process of earning the title of Navy chaplain wasn’t as simple as just walking into the career counselor’s office.
First, Tremblay would need a master’s degree in divinity, then the endorsement of a specific religious organization for military chaplaincy. Finally, he would need to spend two years working in civilian ministry to have the required experience.
After years of hard work, Tremblay was able to complete all the prerequisite requirements, and was accepted into the Navy Chaplain Candidate Program. A year later he began his work as an active duty chaplain, counseling Marines and sailors and ensuring the spiritual health and wellbeing of the service members and families in his command.
After serving as a chaplain for 10 years, Tremblay found himself working in Washington D.C., where one of the senior chaplains he worked with, advised him to google his name every now and then and see what came up.
“So I did and I came across a blog written by a Sailor that I served with on my first ship as a chaplain, the USS Constellation” explained Tremblay. “10 years later he’s writing this blog and he said I want to tell you about a chaplain I served with, you can take a man out of the Navy but you can never take the Navy out of a man. This is Chaplain Tremblay, I understand that you’ve been selected for Lieutenant Commander, congratulations, you were always everywhere, you were always available and you were always a light.”
Those words sunk deep into Tremblay’s heart, realizing that he had the opportunity to impact a Sailors’ life in that way.
“I think of it from that perspective, the moments we have to be present with people,” said Tremblay. “How can I as a representative of the Almighty, help whomever that is be more firm with who they are as a human being, in their faith and just a hope and inspiration for living.”
One of Tremblay’s first assignments was with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines. During which they made two deployments to Iraq.
After his first tour to Iraq in 2006, Tremblay remembers stepping off the plane with the commanding officer. During their time in Iraq the convoy they were on had sustained small arms fire, mortar fire and IED strikes, killing 18 and wounding 110.
“The CO and I were the last two off the aircraft,” said Tremblay. “He said to me, ‘Chaps we didn’t bring them all home’ and I said, ‘I know Sir.’”
Tremblay’s time in Iraq earned him a combat action ribbon and helped him grow an understanding of what it really meant to be a chaplain, being that presence of peace when everything around you is chaotic.
“I made probably 100 convoys with Marines,” said Tremblay. “I’d make my way to the vehicle and the gunner would be like ‘hey Chaps we’re glad you’re with us!’ and I used to say ‘well I’m prayed up how are you doing?”
Over the years Tremblay has been stationed in 10 different locations around the world on various bases and ships. He has impacted hundreds if not thousands of lives.
“I remember walking through the hospital checking in, just beep bopping down the passage way doing my own thing, when some old gentleman says ‘Good morning Chaplain’”, said Tremblay. “It was like instantly God said he didn’t say hello to Paul, he said hello to this (points to cross on collar) the sanctity and sacredness of this. I grew up on Podunk road. Who am I that you would bestow this kind of blessing on and opportunity to do this day in and day out for 20 years.”
As head of all III MEF Chaplains, aide to the commanding general and a great mentor to the Marines and Sailors of III MEF, Capt. Paul Trembley makes a tremendous impact on the spiritual health and wellbeing of III MEF personnel and families daily.
“I could retire today with 28 years of service and be perfectly fine financially, it’s not about the money, not about the rank,” said Tremblay. “It’s about doing the work of the one who has called me into this at this level for his glory.”
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