The first time Chaplain (Colonel) Richard “Dick” Stenbakken, United States Army, retired, visited the National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States, was while stationed in Vietnam in November 1970.
“I was struck by the serene beauty and profoundly majestic silence of the grounds. It was a breath of fresh air for the soul,” he recalled. The neat rows of markers well reflected the crisp orderliness of the military members commemorated on these grounds.
Now, after a 47-year-old wait, Stenbakken’s dream of placing a memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to honor past and present Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines chaplains became a reality in a special dedication ceremony on Dec. 13.
Thinking back to the 1970 stroll in the Punchbowl Cemetery, Stenbakken described how “seeing those very fresh graves caused me to ponder how many of ‘my troops’ were here, or might yet be here. Not as visitors, like myself, but as names etched in snow-white marble, watered by the tears of family and friends. Those thoughts uniquely encouraged and deepened my commitment to minister as an Army Chaplain.
“And, yes - there was the thought that my name could be on one of those white marble markers too. The thought was both chilling and energizing. Chilling because I still had 100 days to go in Vietnam, and life is never sure in a combat zone. Energizing, because I still had time to provide meaningful ministry to my troops.
“I cherish the reflections of that day and my experiences in Vietnam. They helped me focus on both the unspeakable beauty and the utter fragility of life. They helped me look eye to eye at my own mortality more deeply than ever before,” he said.
The Dedication Ceremony
What began as a dream became a journey full of miracles. On a sunny Hawaiian day, he saw the conclusion of two years of phone calls and piles of paperwork, making this memorial a reality. Stenbakken donned a WWII chaplain’s uniform for the dedication events.
Speaking at the dedication service, Stenbakken said that the placement of this memorial “honors every chaplain across the Pacific from all branches of the military and multiple faiths.” The ceremony was attended by a roster of chaplains from various faiths, including a Roman Catholic, a Methodist, an Anglican, a Unitarian, a Jewish rabbi, and Stenbakken, a Seventh-day Adventist.
“You would be hard pressed to have a more diversified group involved in the process,” said Stenbakken, who himself served 23 years on active duty as an Army chaplain before becoming director of Chaplaincy Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Chaplain Paul Anderson, current director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) for the North American Division church region was present at the event. ACM was also involved in the funding of the marker, along with others.
A Set of Miracles
Stenbakken noted that “the requirements for placing memorials at cemeteries are very stringent, so by the time the application and all supporting documents were gathered, the packet was 88 pages long. It took several months just to get the paperwork in place.”
The Punchbowl stone marker itself came to California by cargo ship from India. It was a special jet-black, sloped surface, stone weighing 1,600 pounds on which three bronze 3-D plaques representing the Navy, Army, and Air Force chaplaincy offices were placed.
The miracles of the initiative included “nail-biting” moments as the stone came in by boat late, and there were problems getting the shipment through Customs. After many hours of phone calls, air shipment through Los Angeles was secured 15 minutes before the air freight office closed. The stone flew overnight from Los Angeles to Honolulu; the engraving company picked it up and worked over the weekend to do the engraving and put the bronze seals in place. They then delivered it to the Punchbowl on Monday morning, and it was set in place in preparation for the ceremony.
“Getting the stone through Customs, through the California fires, to Hawaii, and having it done in time for the ceremony was nothing short of a series of miracles,” said Stenbakken. “It would have been very easy to give up, but after nearly 100 phone calls, and tons of coordination – and by the grace of God and answered prayer – it happened.”