2nd Marine Division
FORWARD OPERATING BASE GERONIMO, Afghanistan – A food service specialist by trade, Marine Corps Cpl. Alexander McDonald normally can be found behind the scenes in the chow hall, whipping together pastries at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. But during his current deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, he has taken on an entirely different role.
Far from the comfort of the kitchen, McDonald serves as a chaplain’s assistant for the 2nd Marine Division’s 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, a role normally designated for a Navy religious programs specialist.
Just a couple months before the battalion was slated to deploy, Chaplain (Lt.) Bryan Davenport, the chaplain for 3rd CEB, had his religious programs specialist cross-train to become a hospital corpsman, leaving him to deploy without security and assistance.
A religious programs specialist is responsible for providing security for the chaplain, assisting and facilitating all religious ministries and being an administrative expert, especially with travel for the chaplain.
McDonald, 21, and a native of Sacramento, Calif., knew he would not deploy within his military occupational specialty, considering that during his previous deployment to Helmand province he worked in the combat operations center. So when the chaplain’s assistant position became available, he seized the opportunity to learn something new.
McDonald explained that before the chaplain’s religious programs specialist left, he had the opportunity to learn his new job.
During the turnover, McDonald trained in personal security, learned the administrative aspects of the job and about different faiths, in addition to his overall responsibilities as the chaplain’s assistant.
He admitted it was a challenge, and that he was not exactly sure what to expect, because things were constantly changing.
“I was going outside of my [military occupational specialty],” said McDonald, who received his Pro Chef Level 1 certification in the Marine Corps from the Culinary Institute of America. “I was no longer able to use the skills I have been trained with, and was going into something totally unfamiliar.”
Only a month into his deployment, McDonald has had the opportunity to visit multiple forward operating and patrol bases throughout the province to help Davenport perform his ministry functions. He said it’s been a welcome change from his previous deployment.
During his trips outside Camp Leatherneck, McDonald often is heard joking around with the Marines about his job, ensuring they know where he came from and that his desserts are better than any that they or their wives make.
Getting to come out and see something totally new and interact with the Marines while getting to know them on a more personal level has been “awesome,” he said.
“I really enjoy being a cook,” McDonald said. “I like being creative and getting to teach other Marines. The main thing you take away from being a cook is teamwork, because that is what you need to get the job done. I’m always making sure Marines are fed, and now it is my job to make sure the chaplain is safe.”
The working relationship between the chaplain and his assistant is imperative to the overall mission of the Chaplain’s Corps, he noted. The two work together day and night to ensure the emotional, spiritual and mental needs of the Marines and sailors are met.
“Corporal McDonald is proactive -- mentally proactive. He’s engaged,” Davenport said. “I’m thinking of something, and he is already up to speed with me. It’s almost like I don’t even need to ask him.”