CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina — Jerry D. Durham loved teaching young people about the Lord and he loved his country. He served for a decade in high school and college campus ministry after leaving the U.S. Marines Corps Reserves.
“I felt called to ministry, but I also felt called to the Navy,” remembers Durham, who grew up in an Assemblies of God home. One day when he saw a military chaplain in action, it dawned on Durham that he could fulfill his vocational and ministry desires in the same role.
But his plan almost derailed in 1996. Just after marrying Kim Goodger, Durham underwent radial keratotomy eye surgery, then a common practice to correct nearsightedness before the advent of correction via lasers.
The Navy subsequently notified Durham that because a scalpel had been used in the operation, he would be disqualified permanently from full-time military service. The revelation floored the upbeat and affable Durham.
“I cried about being disqualified,” recalls Durham, who grew up in Mansfield, Missouri. “I felt the calling of God so strongly.”
Soon after, though, the Army National Guard conducted a pilot program that granted a waiver to prospective troops who had undergone the eye surgery. The Navy followed suit, and Durham entered the Navy’s chaplaincy candidate program in 2002, going on active duty in 2004 as an endorsed AG chaplain. Since then, he and Kim — who have four grown children — have lived at seven duty stations.
Durham, 53, is a rarity in having served with all four sea services: the Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Merchant Marines. He has been deployed to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, helped in the wake of a devastating earthquake in Haiti, and served as command chaplain for the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.
In his largely administrative assignment, Durham has a direct role in supervising and training 19 religious ministry teams at the division, including three regimental chaplains and 16 battalion chaplains. There also are 39 religious program specialists with whom he deals, including those from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. Overall, there are 12,000 personnel in the 2nd Marine Division, which is the ground combat element of the II Marine Expeditionary Force — responsible for amphibious assaults and sustained operations.
“My role is about helping chaplains to do great religious ministry out in the field and in combat,” says Durham, who holds a Master of Divinity degree from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. “The big focus is how spiritual readiness feeds into the overall toughness of a Marine or sailor.”
The past couple of years, Durham has tried to help others cope with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 had an impact on the overall wellness of our Marines and sailors,” says Durham, an ordained AG minister since 2003. “Many struggle with the isolation COVID brought.”
Durham’s supervisor, Division Chaplain David M. Todd, 58, is supportive of Durham’s ministry.
“Jerry is just a delightful human being who brings an appreciating smile when he walks into a room,” says Todd, endorsed by the Presbyterian Church in America. “There can be a lot of frustrations and challenges caused by unplanned events, but he brings a human element into the situation. He is very much a follow-me chaplain.”