Leadership: April 30, 2004

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The U.S. Navy is facing another potential public relations mess. It all has to do with symbols. In this case, the symbol that the Moslem chaplains wear on their uniforms. The U.S. military, noting a growing number of Moslem personnel in uniform, began recruiting Muslim chaplains in 1993. Before that, chaplains of other faiths cared for Moslem troops. This is an old tradition in the military. All chaplains are trained, for example, to deliver appropriate prayers, for many different faiths, for troops who are dying, or just in need of hearing a familiar prayer. But when there is a large number of troops of a particular religion, clergy from that faith are recruited to attend to the unique needs of that religion. There are now about 4,200 Moslem personnel in the armed forces. In 1996 the navy commissioned its first Moslem chaplain. Now there are 18 Moslem navy and marine chaplains, in addition to 2,800 of other faiths. Each chaplain wears an insignia on their uniform to represent their religion. All Christian chaplains wear a cross, Jewish chaplains the Star of David. Moslem chaplains, quite naturally, adopted the crescent moon. 

However, the crescent moon symbol that had been used earlier by the navy, to designate, until the 1950s, messmen (waiters for the officers mess; where the officers ate). The practice of using African-American sailors as messmen (Steward's Mates), had long been common the U.S. Navy.  The Stewards Mate rating (job assignment), was what 45 percent of black sailors did during World War II.

The navy had had been integrated, from the American Revolution until the end of World War I, when Jim Crow caught up with it, and blacks were no longer allowed to enlist. Those in the navy were allowed to serve out their enlistments, and the navy lost thousands of experienced sailors and petty officers. However, replacements for the messman job were hard to find, so in 1932 African-Americans were allowed to enlist once more, but only to serve as messmen, a job considered menial enough to conform with segregationists idea of what was proper. It wasn't until the early 1970s that the navy quietly eliminated the messman rate.

No one has publicly brought up the messman angle, with regard to the resurrection of the crescent moon symbol for Moslem chaplains, and the navy hopes that no one does. The segregation era in the navy is one the admirals would rather forget. Even though it was forced on them by politicians, it was not pleasant experience for a service that always honored seagoing skill above all else. 

 


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