MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan --
Friday nights at the barracks are a buzz with the chatter of Marines and Sailors excited to have finally made it to the weekend. Through the hallways floats the warm, buttery smell of freshly made pancakes. The scent entices the residents wandering the hallways, leading them by their noses to the kitchen where they find a group of service members laughing and talking while whipping up a feast of breakfast for dinner. The last Friday of each month, the chaplains head over to the barracks and spend the night talking with, and making pancakes for, single service members in an activity fondly referred to as “stacks with chaps!”
Adding another pancake to the ever-growing stack of flap jacks, one of the chaplains, Lieutenant Commander Junsub Um, introduces himself to the new faces around the barracks.
“My name is Chaplain Junsub Um,” he says. “It's very easy to remember, because if you ever forget, you just have to think, ‘what is it? Umm...’ and it's already come to you!”
With a constant smile on his face and such a positive outlook, there would never be any doubt in someone’s mind that he is exactly where he wants to be. However, he did not always want to be in the military, and he also didn’t always have the choice.
“I was born and raised in South Korea. As a young male, there is an obligation as a citizen that you need to serve in the military,” he explained. “So, I had to join; I was forced to join.”
Um joined the Korean Army and served for two and a half years, which he found to be a very eye-opening experience. The transition from being at home and with family to living the military lifestyle was jarring.
One of the most difficult parts of early military life for him was that the busyness kept him from going to church.
“Our seniors gave us a lot of chores on Sundays, so I was not able to go to church. It was difficult to go through.”
Eventually, he met a Korean Army chaplain. Um explained to the chaplain that he hadn't been able to attend any religious services. After Um expressed how missing opportunities to go to the chapel affected him, the chaplain notified Um’s chain of command. This intervention allowed Um to go to chapel on Sundays, where he was then able to find a support system.
“I felt much better,” Um said. “I was still isolated from family members, but I was able to go to church and I was connected with a community.”
In the following years, through the religious services and support of the community he had gained, he felt himself becoming more resilient. He grew to understand how to handle the stressors in his life.
After his obligatory service in the Korean Army, Um moved to the United States and attended seminary, the college one goes to when training to be a minister. His time in seminary was incredibly stressful for him. He was a fulltime student, a youth pastor, and a custodial worker at the seminary he was attending. On top of learning English, he was studying Hebrew and Greek.
“It was a lot of stress,” He explained. “But military experience helped me to keep moving forward.”
After graduation from seminary, Um accepted a job in Jacksonville, Florida as an education pastor, where he primarily worked with the local youth. Working with them was something important for Um because he knew how much of a difference that having religious and spiritual support can have on someone during their formative years, as it did on himself.
After his four-year contract with the church, Um began to look towards the future of his career and where he wanted to go.
“I thought about the military because of my background,” he said. “I knew that to young service members it is so important to have that support.” What he had endured early in his career motivated him to help other young service members learn to cope with stress and gain resiliency, by becoming a chaplain.
Um said he felt a calling to become a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Today, he prides himself on serving as a chaplain at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. His time as a chaplain brought him to various duty stations around the world where he served with Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, to include Marine Corps Base Hawaii and U.S Fleet Activities Sasebo, Japan.
At MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, where Um is stationed now, he continually offers support of all kinds. Um supports the station itself with community relations events to foster positive relationships with the local community. One such event, supported by the chapel, gave Marines the opportunity to go off base to a Japanese preschool and share Christmas presents.
He also supports the Marines and Sailors as a collective. At any squadron PT event, he is sure to be there punching and jabbing a long with the rest.
There are classes that every Marine new to the station is required to take and other classes that are simply offered to support service members that Um will be present at and teach, like “One Love” a class that informs young service members about healthy relationships.
Chaplain Um also supports the individuals on base with one-on-one counseling, and he is always open and available to just sit with and talk to those who need a helping hand.
The military background helps him to empathize and understand young service members who talk to him, whether it’s a casual conversation at a squadron event or a personal conversation at the chapel. Having been through the same things, Um knows what it is like to feel isolated, lonely, and homesick, which are common feelings of new service members.
Because of his experiences as a young man in the military, he knew the importance of the spiritual support that chaplains can provide. Um is now offering the same support he was given when that ROK Army chaplain took the time to intervene and create opportunities for Um to find the support he needed. He helps support Marines and Sailors spiritually, and he offers hospitality and community. From counseling service members, to flipping pancakes on a Friday night in the barracks, Chaplain Um is always around and bringing a little bit of positivity to the Iwakuni Community.