Story by MC2 Timothy M. Black / CNSWC Public Affairs
With a smile, a friendly hand-shake, and a warm welcome into the Chaplain’s office, I sit down for a two-hour long interview with the new force chaplain of Naval Special Warfare. His approach to the military, as a 6’ 2’’ tall, Navy captain, is that he is a chaplain first and foremost; “the pay grade is just that, a pay grade,” he says as he points to the cross above his “full bird” insignia, “this is who I am.”
Cory Cathcart, was not interested in the ministry growing up in primarily St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was born. It took many life-changing events to eventually get him involved with the ministry.
Living in a small town, Cathcart’s large aspirations were directing him outside St. Joseph’s city limits.
“Most of the people I went to school with didn’t think about going to college back in those days,” Cathcart said. “When people graduated high school from [St. Joseph], they would immediately get a job, get married, and have a family. Nothing wrong with that, but that wasn’t for me, my goal was to make it out and see what was beyond those city limits.”
Cathcart, also lived in Huntington Beach California where he attended Southern California Military Academy. His family had moved back and forth on several occasions finally settling in the mid-west.
Football became the vehicle, passion and source for Cathcart to leave town for good. Being from a small town he walk-on a Division I football team and ended up getting a scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia as a student-athlete, after he became a starter. He graduated college in 1987, with a dual major in general studies and human environmental sciences.
“Growing up and moving back and forth, it forced me to be around a lot of different cultures and expressions of faith,” said Cathcart. “I was exposed early to people from many different countries and backgrounds, to include my family.”
After the college career that had high highs and low lows, Cathcart strived to play for the National Football League, attending the combine and tryouts for several teams to include Dallas, Miami and ended up at the New York Giant’s camp, during which time had a position coa ch by the name of Bill Belichick.
“Being a former walk-on and eventual starter I was no stranger to adversity, naysayers or making it the hard way, so I realized that the NFL would be no different. I made it through the initial cuts, but got cut before the regular season,” said Cathcart. “I was all washed up with a broken body, worn mind, and no direction at about 23 years of age, and then after my short-lived NFL career that ended up taking a toll on my body and passion for playing, I ended up working in my degree field in gerontology.”
While working at the long-term care facilities, Cathcart unwittingly spent a lot of time working with patients battling cancer. It was this period in his life, the drastic change of pace from student-athlete, to NFL tryouts, and everything that goes with it, to people battling for their lives on a constant basis that created many unanswered questions Cathcart sought to answer, first for others but ultimately for himself.
“I was a fish out of water in many ways,” said Cathcart. “I spent much of my early life training for one sole purpose which was going to battle every weekend with my teammates’ and inflicting as much punishment on opponents as possible.”
Then, all of the sudden, it was all over.
“I was a very different person back in those days,” Cathcart said. “In retrospect, getting cut perhaps was a great blessing in disguise; it perhaps saved my life.”
All of those things that Cathcart thought were important at that time were completely stripped away from him, and he began from square one, again.
“My friends and teammates’, the ones that knew me back in those days, thought I had lost my mind because I ended up taking night courses at seminary,” said Cathcart, It was only a year later, he ended up going full-time.
With the growing desire to find answers for him and the many patients that he had deathbed conversations with, Cathcart felt the call toward ministry. This call to the ministry, combined with a family history of military service, made for the making of a Navy chaplain.
“My Grandfather was a warrant officer from Scotland, who was in a group called the “Black Watch,” aka “the Ladies from Hell” due to the fact they wore kilts into battle,” said Cathcart.
His Grandfather served in WWI and was severely injured in several battles during trench warfare, said Cathcart.
Then there was Cathcart’s father who was Australian kid who grew up on Bondi Beach, New South Wales.
“My Father was a wild kid who ran away from home at an early age and went to sea at 12 years of age into the Merchant Marines and then when he was 18, crossed over into the Australian Navy,” said Cathcart. “Ironically, both my grandfather and father ended up in the ministry for a period in their lives.”
There was always both a military influence and a ministry influence. Though it was never encouraged to go in, both backgrounds were always there.
“As a kid, I had zero interest in ministry or the church, I simply had no interest in it,” said Cathcart. “In fact, the ministers in the local churches seemed rather stiff, cold and not much fun to be around, coupled with the fact that I knew they wouldn’t approve of my life and the way I was living it at that time, the whole thing seemed mutually exclusive.”
On a couple of occasions, Cathcart did go to church in college.
“A girlfriend at the time encouraged me to go, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience, and I didn’t go back many years after that,” said Cathcart. “Ironically here I am an ordained minister some thirty years later.”
overly religious and all the trappings that come with it because I feel it makes many feel excluded or judged, but I care greatly about a relationship with Christ and its transformational power,” said Cathcart. “I believe others understand the distinction. I always tell people that God must have a great sense of humor because he called me to ministry, and if you knew me back then you would know just how true that is.”
Cathcart was commissioned on March 13, 1993, and completed Basic Chaplains Course, in Newport, Rhode Island. Before coming to WARCOM, Cathcart worked at NSW Group 2, Group 4 and Development Group, where he completed five combat deployments during 2005 and 2008 with Group 2 and DEVGRU, and an additional four deployments at other commands.
“I am the Force Chaplain for Naval Special Warfare, and to be embedded in the NSW community, whether it is at WARCOM or with the teams, is something I hold near and dear to my heart,” said Cathcart.
Cathcart said he did not know what to expect when he first got to NSW, but his first two days at Group 2, set the pace for his new assignment.
OPERATION RED WINGS
On June 2005, four U.S. Navy SEALs set out on a mission, code-named Operation Red Wings, to scout anti-Coalition militia leader Ahmad Shah, deep behind enemy lines east of Asadabad in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. These men, motivated by their passion of service to country and Team, fast-roped onto a 10,000-foot mountain with the intent of hiking toward their target. Unfortunately, the men were spotted by local nationals who reported them to the Taliban, compromising the mission. Before long, the four men were fighting for their lives against approximately 50 local Taliban and ACM members. In response to the call made by Lt. Michael Murphy, an MH-47 Chinook helicopter loaded with eight SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers, flew into the heat of battle to rescue their wounded and outnumbered brothers in arms. Knowing the risks of daylight rescue operations without the support of attack helicopters, these 16 heroes were only focused on saving their fellow friends and warriors. In a tragic and unfortunate circumstance of war, a rocket-propelled grenade tore into the rescue helicopter.
“There were only myself on the east coast and another chaplain on the west coast at Group1 and Group-2,” said Cathcart. “When I first arrived, two days later, the tragedy of Operation Red Wings happened, and that was my introduction to the SEAL teams.”
“It was a very difficult time, not only for the community but everybody involved, but everybody jumped in, and our singular goal was to honor our fallen and take care of their loved ones and get back in the fight,” said Cathcart. “I see everything through that lens. Every day I think about it, the guys we lost from those days through today which is always in the back of my mind, every single day. ”
Years later, Cathcart was at another NSW command when he received the news that more of his teammates went down on Extortion 17. On August 6, 2011, 31 special operators were lost when their CH-47 Chinook was shot down while on the way to reinforce a group of Army Rangers. This was the largest single incident loss of life for the NSW community.
“That day, a part of me went down as well. Only a short time earlier we had spent our days together discussing, hunting, family, life back in the world and many other things,” said Cathcart. “I got to know these warriors and the exceptional husbands, fathers, and sons that they were. At the end of that deployment, I was redeployed back home several days earlier than the main body due to rotation timeframe but still remember my last conversations with each of them, as I will the rest of my life.”
In many ways, the events of those days set the tone for how we at NSW have come to honor our fallen today and in the years to come.
“Time spent forward with the Teams changed my perspective many ways. Their sacrifices, their families sacrifices, their level of commitment and talent but especially in realizing the life we are afforded back in the U.S.,” said Cathcart. “There have since been many films and books written in recent years, however; a film cannot capture the true essence of what they (SEAL’s) do. When you see it up close in person, it forever changes you. I have been around athletes my entire life and been around academics my entire life, and I’ve never seen anyone blend those two [better].”
The chaplain operates under four pillars of providing, care, facilitate, and advise.
“Being back as the Force Chaplain has been a homecoming for my wife, daughter and me as we have reconnected with many of the guys their wives and families, finally having the opportunity to share some of the conversations and experiences I had with their loved ones,” said Cathcart.
For Cathcart, knowing many of the men who died left a major impact on him, his life and ministry.
“Serving in this community is more than a calling to me; it is something that I hold sacred and believe I was called from an early age to do,” said Cathcart. “I do not know what tomorrow holds, but I know that for today, I am meant to be here.”
It takes a team to run the ministry for NSW and Cathcart believes that it was divine intervention that spared his life from an earlier age to be able to serve within the NSW community.
“As the force chaplain, I do those things, and supervise the 20 chaplains and [religious program specialists] that we have in NSW,” said Cathcart. “My role is not only to function as a chaplain to the staff here at WARCOM but to screen, guide and shape the chaplains and RPs that join the community. I also maintain the relationships and the connections to all of the commanders within NSW to provide ministry.”
Maintaining command and control of 40 NSW chaplain personnel might seem daunting to some, but Cathcart has nothing but good things to say about his team.
“A leader from my vantage point is somebody that you would follow to hell and back without reservation — who bears the known and the unknown, and makes decisions that are the hard rights verses the easy wrongs, for the benefit of those they lead,” said Cathcart. “Someone who doesn’t care who gets the credit as long as those they lead is taking care of, and it’s making yourself accountable and responsible for others, recognizing your obligation to lead, and mentor them.”
Cathcart says that he has had the opportunity to work alongside many examples of these type of leaders in NSW and is always striving to model himself after them.
Cathcart demonstrated his leadership as a survivor and first responder during the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon.
Cathcart reflects on the tragedy and the impact it had on his life.
“In moments such as those it’s funny how your prayers become very short, concise and to the point,” said Cathcart. “That day was a fundamental shift for me internally, not only in ministry and commitment but became the lenses which I see life through ever sense.”
Cathcart says his best preparation for helping soldiers came not from seminary, officer training or football.
“It was working with people in the gerontology field, in a circumstance I didn’t want to be in, talking to people in a circumstance that they certainly didn’t want to be in either, as they were coming to the end of their lives,” Cathcart said. “In many ways, it was a blessing in disguise because it caused me to re-evaluate where my life was going at that time and how I was living it. That’s where I saw death for the first time, an experience that prepared me for death many times after.”
Cathcart reflects on a Bible verse that he quoted during the Red Wings Memorial Service to the operators.
“Isaiah 48:10 says ‘I have refined you, but not as silver, I have tested you in the furnace of affliction,’ however, in this case, to come forth as pure gold, pure gold in the form of a naval trident,” said Cathcart.