One Sailor’s Journey From The Flight Deck To Religious Ministries

The road to finding meaning in life is never straightforward. For Justin Alvarado, it took a career switch from the flight deck to Religious Ministries to teach him valuable lessons about diversity and inclusion. In this latest episode of Faces of the Fleet, we tell the story of a young Sailor who, despite apprehensions about becoming a Religious Program Specialist, found purpose embracing others, all while serving his country.

Family Stories

Justin Alvarado spent a significant portion of his childhood with his grandparents who cared for him while his parents worked. He fondly recalled the times he spent listening to his grandfather’s stories, many of which centered around his time as a Culinary Specialist in the U.S. Navy. Justin’s grandfather explained that he enlisted because he felt it was the right thing to do; that he would wake up every day excited to cook for over 5000 Sailors aboard an aircraft carrier. Hearing the stories of how his grandfather took pride in his ability to provide for others inspired Justin to one day serve his country.

During Justin’s teenage years, his grandmother fell ill. He grew attached to the idea of joining the Navy Nurse Corps and felt his true purpose lay in helping others. He promised his grandmother that she’d see him in uniform one day. After taking a leap of faith at just 18 years old, Justin enlisted in the Navy as an Undesignated Sailor. Joining the Navy without a rate meant Justin had an opportunity to explore career options and find a job that best suited him in the fleet. He had his heart set on becoming either a Nurse or a Hospital Corpsman.

Graduation and Life On The Flight Deck

Justin went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois where he got his first taste of Navy life. Upon graduating, Justin was able to visit his grandmother in uniform, a moment that brought tears to her eyes.

“That was probably the most proud she’d ever been in her whole life,” Justin remembered.

After being assigned Undesignated Airman, Justin attended A-School before he was sent to the USS Nimitz in Everett, Washington. He found himself in one of the most high-risk environments in the military, amidst the chaos of 55,000-pound jets and helicopters roaring past him every few minutes.

“I was so scared. They show you flight deck incident videos, and that’s all you know at this point, because you’ve never actually worked on there. I got sent there, and I ended up loving it. I loved working on the flight deck. I would tell everybody, ‘I would never change this for the world,’” Justin remarked.

After two years, Justin chose to be an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Handler. But a few months later, his Chief presented him with an opportunity that would allow Justin to pursue his dream of healing others. Justin was invited to interview for a position in the Religious Ministries Office onboard the Nimitz where he would take his first steps toward becoming a Religious Program Specialist. When Justin got home that evening, he had to research the rate because he didn’t believe it existed. Little did he know, he was about to embark on a new path in life.

The Switch

Throughout the interview, it became clear Justin would be a wonderful asset to the team in Religious Ministries. Though he didn’t grow up religious, his desire to better understand the beliefs and perspectives of others made him a perfect fit.

The next day, he was sent to work in the Chaplain’s office. Justin wasn’t sure what to expect and what was expected of him. He came out to his parents at 18, and they were accepting and loving in their response, as were the people he had met so far in the Navy. Yet he wondered if religious leaders would be as open-minded. Instead, he was happy to find a warm welcome as soon as he stepped into the role.

“They told me straight up, ‘We want you to feel comfortable. We want you to feel you are welcomed. That’s one of the biggest things that people need to understand. You are always welcome in the chapel; never feel that you are an outsider looking in. You are an insider,’” Justin said of his first encounter with the Chaplain.

After four months of temporarily working in the Chaplain’s office and learning about the requirements of the rate, Justin was convinced this job was for him. While it wouldn’t involve the physical healing process of Nurses or Corpsmen, Justin would instead be healing spiritually. He wanted to be a part of making sure his fellow Sailors received the emotional, mental and religious support they needed.

“When you get to know someone and just talk to them, you realize that religion, gender, sexuality—none of it matters. The Navy welcomes people from all walks of life. I think that’s a powerful message to send to the rest of the world, especially when you look at the conflicts that are happening,” Justin adds.

Soon, Justin decided to officially make the switch from an ABH to an RP. After months of waiting, Justin finally received the news he was waiting for; he would begin his new career as RP3 Alvarado. Not only was Justin excited that he would be able to work as a healer, he also felt that becoming a Religious Program Specialist as a non-religious individual showed the Navy was a truly inclusive community.

RP3 Justin Alvarado

On his first ship assignment Justin hoped to better help his Sailors and to better understand their individual perspectives and faiths. Justin felt it was imperative that he appreciate the constraints, teachings and nuances of the religions he would serve. He attended as many religious services on the ship as possible—from Catholic masses, to Latter Day Saint services, Muslim ceremonies—studying the intricacies of each religion in depth.

In addition to accommodating Sailors of all faiths, part of the job as RP is to listen and identify emotional problems that his brothers and sisters in the Navy experience. Justin knew that building up trust with his was key in order to successful carry out his job. Justin stressed the importance of this aspect of the job.

“It was important they knew RPs were there to lend a sympathetic ear and comforting shoulder, no matter how bad their day was going,” Justin shared.

RPs have a plethora of other jobs aside from being good listeners. Much of their job is clerical; they may manage libraries and computer labs while at sea, participate in ship maintenance, schedule and set up religious services, procure any ecclesiastical items Sailors may need and offer a guiding hand in practicing one’s religion. Due to the Geneva Convention banning religious leaders in the military from carrying weapons, RPs also act as bodyguards for Chaplains, protecting the Navy’s religious leaders in combat situations.
Justin felt his strongest quality was his ability to listen to other people’s problems. He became certified to run Stress Management and Suicide Prevention classes, taking an active approach to ensure his Navy brothers and sisters felt they always had emotional support during high-stress times.

“One of the biggest things that I do for my job is I get to be a listening ear for people. No matter what the instance, if I see someone who looks down, I always like to talk to them and then slowly ease into the conversation. I listen, I step back, and I tell myself, ‘You need to not speak. You need to just listen. What can I do for this person?’” Justin said.

Religion and Rota, Spain

Justin was handed a brand new challenge in 2016 when he was stationed in Rota, Spain, to continue his work as an RP. Naval Station Rota is a U.S. Navy base on the southwestern coast of Spain. It serves as a strategically important port near the Strait of Gibraltar that connects the Atlantic Ocean with Europe and Southwest Asia. Over 4000 American Sailors and their families are stationed in the beachfront town—meaning there is a great need for religious support for those who live there.

Though Justin was initially nervous as to how he’d be welcomed in Rota, his fears were quickly alleviated by a group of Chaplains who took him under their wing as one of their brothers. Despite their warm embrace, Justin had some difficulty adjusting to the Spanish culture. Coming from the fast-paced American lifestyle, the relaxed atmosphere of Spain was slightly disorienting at first. As he began to explore the local culture and see spectacles such as Semana Santa and a plethora of ancient churches, it awoke Justin to the importance of adventure. Rota and nearby Cadiz soon helped Justin soak up the rich cultural experience the Navy had offered him.

“Sometimes you have to travel half way around the world to really understand what your place is in the world. Being in this incredible part of the world full of so much history and culture has been unforgettable,” Justin explained.

Justin soon realized that the slower-paced environment gave him some insight into the man he wanted to become: someone that others will gravitate to in the good times or bad. Spain was the perfect backdrop for Justin to acknowledge his success in just eight short years in the Navy. Remembering the apprehensive 18-year-old sent to the flight deck less than a decade earlier, Justin was the first to admit that he’s found his purpose in the Navy. While he didn’t end up joining the Navy Nurse Corps, he discovered that he’s just as satisfied healing his brothers and sisters on a spiritual level.

In serving Sailors of different faiths, races, genders and sexualities, especially some 3,000 miles from his own home, he saw a world that could live harmoniously together and operate as a stronger team.

“We welcome all religions here. When you don’t see people based on their skin color, religion, gender or sexuality, the world is so much more beautiful. That’s what the Navy is all about,” Justin added.

Justin speaks with fondness about the Navy’s support of diversity, quality and inclusivity, reflecting the makeup of the United States. Justin’s own story is a reminder that with hard work and determination, anyone from any place has the power to be successful in the Navy.

“The Navy has shown me how important it is to listen to other people and embrace their differences. Things function so much better when you focus on an individual’s qualities instead of their differences. The Navy embraced me that way, and it’s so gratifying to do that myself now. It makes us a better Navy,” Justin said.

In May, 2019, Justin left his post in Spain. It was difficult to say goodbye to the people he now considers family. However far apart they may be, their bonds remain and Justin truly appreciates his experiences with the Spanish people and their culture. Justin is now stationed back in the United States at Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois as a Recruit Division Commander, or RDC. His job is to lead the next generation of Navy recruits through Boot Camp and transform them into Sailors. He is the first Religious Program Specialist to be nominated for the role in over five years.

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