It’s not every chaplain who gets to christen a 7,800-ton, 377-foot newborn. But that’s what Lieutenant Commander Daniel Curtis ’87 found himself doing in Newport News, Virginia, on September 6, 2014, for the dedication of the USS John Warner, a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, with hundreds in attendance, including the five-term U.S. senator.
“Open our eyes, we pray, to see Your handiwork in every bolt turned, every plate welded, in every wire spliced, every drop of paint spread over the ship that rises before us, as surely as we see Your handiwork in the seas she sails,” Curtis said in his invocation.
An ordained minister since 1992, Curtis began a second career as an officer in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps in 2007, just under the corps’ cutoff age of 42. He has been deployed with Seabees and Marines in peacetime and combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including seven months onboard a guided-missile cruiser.
These days Curtis presides over a congregation of 1,500 seamen and 10 submarines as chaplain of Submarine Squadron 6 in Norfolk, Virginia. Most of this work is done at surface level. While a full deployment on a submarine might run six months, there simply aren’t enough chaplains to go around—the total number in the corps is less than 850—and when he does take his ministry underwater, Curtis will typically join a vessel at its last port of deployment for the journey home. “The camaraderie and sense of community is far deeper when you’ve been to sea with somebody than when you’re just visiting them,” he says.
As a double major in political science and religion at Middlebury, Curtis was considering going into the ministry as four generations of family before him had—“It was a combination of appreciation for my dad’s legacy [Lawrence Curtis ’57, a retired pastor and political science major] and my grandfather [Commander Ralph Curtis, who served in the Navy for 20 years]”—but he wasn’t convinced that pure parish life was his calling.
After completing seminary school in the Chicago area, Curtis received his first pastoral assignment with a United Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio. That was followed by a five-and-a-half-year stint at Grace United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio, pork-rind capital of the United States and “a small city with all the big-city challenges,” including drug and alcohol addiction and a host of other problems from depression to mental health and family issues.
It was good preparation for the Navy Chaplain Corps. “Probably 80 percent of my counseling isn’t specifically religious,” says Curtis, who teaches a class every Wednesday for new enlistees to address the challenges of submarine life. “There’s a reason why submariners get paid a little extra: the danger, the cramped quarters, the limitations on communications with loved ones ashore. A number of things make it a particularly challenging lifestyle in the submarine world.”
For all the situations he has faced on the job, none was more difficult than the suicide of his son, 20-year-old Jonathan, in Toledo in May 2012. Curtis was stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when word reached him of Jonathan’s death. After coming home for the funeral, he was reassigned to a pool of chaplains for smaller ships in the Norfolk area prior to getting his current assignment in July 2013.
While Curtis and other chaplains are strictly noncombatants and do not carry weapons—“it’s not ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’”—they are serving a military community. And some people, he admits, don’t like that idea. From his perspective, Curtis sees “a profound need and a really exciting mission field” to carry out his military chaplaincy. “I don’t like war, either,” he says, “but I very much like the opportunity to walk with people who are
serving their country.”