Pandemic Highlights Role of Chaplains at Coast Guard Academy

United State Coast Guard Academy
The United State Coast Guard Academy, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in New London, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

This is often how Chaplain Ryan Rupe starts his mornings.

Macchiato in hand, he sits at the entrance of the newly renovated student lounge at the Coast Guard Academy as cadets whiz past.

Rupe, the command chaplain at the academy and a Navy captain, calls it "nodal ministry" -- finding nodes of activity, flows of human traffic and just sitting or standing there so that people see you.

"They don't have a lot of free time," Rupe said, referring to the cadets. "So, you have to find them."

A self-proclaimed extrovert, Rupe, whom the cadets know as "Chaps," isn't the serious or buttoned-up type. He cracks jokes, frequently drops a movie quote in the middle of a conversation and can often be found inviting cadets and faculty into his office to chat over a doughnut.

"A lot of my job is making sure they're OK, and part of how I do that is by knowing them and being the same every day," he said. "The only way they can trust me is if I'm the same every day."

A few months ago, Rupe could hardly find time to just sit and chat like this.

The new cadets at the academy, called swabs, had just started their summer training and military initiation following an abrupt and unusual end to their high school careers due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it's usually a busy time for Rupe and the other two chaplains at the academy, the swabs were coming to them at much higher rates than in summers past.

"They didn't get the normal rites of passage. They didn't have their high school prom or play in that championship game," said Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Cain, a chaplain at the academy. "They didn't have those closing rituals and then went right into another big life event."

Cain said it was normal for her, Rupe and Cmdr. Keith J. Shuley, another chaplain, not to leave campus until 8 or 9 at night over the summer. They weren't just listening to swabs. The upperclassmen who oversee the swabs' summer training also sought them out.

Those visits have since slowed as cadets have adjusted to their new normal and become busy again with their classes and day-to-day duties. But the summer served as a reminder of how the chaplains, in addition to their religious duties, help address the mental health needs of the cadets, who go on to become officers and decision-makers in the Coast Guard.

The chaplains are bound by confidentiality, a rarity on a campus of about 1,000 students where news spreads quickly. They aren't required to report what they hear to the chain of command, so cadets know they can confide in them with no repercussions.

Rupe said he's served as a character reference for cadets facing disciplinary action and offered guidance as they go through those proceedings. He's been asked by academy graduates to speak at weddings and funerals. He and the other chaplains often stay in touch with graduates long after they leave the academy.

Chaplain Shuley recalled an encounter a few years back with a Coast Guard ensign and an academy graduate in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The ensign, halfway through her time at the academy, had come to him and told him she was thinking of resigning. She didn't feel like she was living up to her responsibilities. The two talked and Shuley convinced her to hang in there a few more months and that if she still felt like leaving at that point, she could do so.

"Well, who shows up in my office in Guantanamo," Shuley said. "... She spent like 20 minutes just telling me how grateful and how thankful (she was) ... I said, 'This was all you. I did nothing. I just said give this a chance.'"

This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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