MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Navy Capt. Michael A. Mikstay was just a small boy when he first heard the calling to become a priest. He
wanted to have a positive effect on the lives of others.
“I began to be interested in priesthood in second grade,” said Mikstay. “I went to Catholic school, and I saw the priests very involved in the lives of people. At that point, I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do, and I believe as I got older, that calling and attraction got stronger and was affirmed by numerous people.”
Mikstay, 56, from Canton, Ohio, realized his dream of becoming a priest and served for several years out of uniform, until the Gulf War broke out in 1991.
“I had been a priest in the town of Poland, Ohio, and we had a number of parishioners whose family members were being activated in reserve and guard units,” said Mikstay. “It became a very difficult time, so I felt a need to respond to the crisis that the nation and the world was experiencing.”
At 37 years old, Mikstay then answered a different call to serve – by joining the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps.
After joining in 1992, Mikstay was too late for Operation Desert Storm, but he found himself in the middle of a different fight just a few months later.
“My first unit was with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit; we went to Somalia,” said Mikstay. “Six months out of Chaplain school, in downtown Mogadishu, I found myself praying, ‘Oh God, what did I do.’”
In Somalia, Mikstay traveled between ship and forward operating bases in the region to provide religious services, along with religious and spiritual guidance and counseling.
“I had a whole lot of opportunity to get around,” said Mikstay. “I went around with all aspects of the MEU.”
In addition to providing religious services, Mikstay helped distribute food and water to residents of Somalia.
After the 24th MEU and Somalia, Mikstay served with 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point; and I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Serving in the military, especially with the MEU, has helped him grow as a priest, he said.
“[My service in Somalia] set the stage for my life in the military,” said Mikstay. “Being at the MEU level was a great experience, and it allowed me to be involved in many of the operations that the Marine Corps is involved in. Civilian
ministry and military ministry are different in many ways. Civilian ministry is geared toward a denomination, church or parish. Military chaplains serve people of all faiths.”
Mikstay is a Catholic priest, but as a chaplain he facilitates religious services for troops of all beliefs.
“When you get down to it, the primary reason we have military chaplains in any of the services is because our nation is adamant about the fact that we provide for the free exercise of religion,” said Mikstay. “It’s one of our constitutional rights to be able to exercise our religion, and chaplains are here to guarantee that, regardless of what faith you believe in, or even if you have no faith whatsoever.”
Mikstay feels becoming a Navy chaplain is a calling, much like priesthood, and said he enjoys sharing his experiences with younger sailors.
“It’s a response to your faith,” said Mikstay. “At this point, I’ve been promoted to a position that is supervisory, so I now have a opportunity to pass on to younger chaplains and [religious program specialists] my experiences and knowledge.”
As the head chaplain of 1st MLG, Mikstay ensures that all the chaplains within the Group are available to their Marines and families whenever spiritual guidance is needed or requested.
Nearly 20 years after joining the Navy, Mikstay continues to answer the call, in any clime and place.