MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
Among the bars, leaves, eagles and stars the cross still stands as one of the most symbolic insignia an officer can wear. A select few men are deemed able to serve God while also serving their country.
Lt. James Fulton Finley, station Roman Catholic chaplain, has been serving the former for the last 47 years and the latter for the last 20 years.
For Finley, each experience is a wrinkle on his brow, every memory a twinkle in his eye.
As we talked, he approached each question the same way, a reserved insight to what he was saying and a humbleness that made it seem like he was talking about someone else instead of himself.
He began on a somber note, talking about his experiences at Ground Zero when he was on tour with the Coast Guard.
“The Coast Guard asked for chaplains to rotate and help out at Ground Zero,” said Finley. “I was only there for 10 days, but it was the most memorable time of my life.”
While there, Finley spent much of his time helping the families of those killed in the attack, accompanying them to Ground Zero as they paid their respects to their fallen loved ones and gazed upon what were once the Twin Towers.
“It was a powerful experience,” said Finley, a native New Yorker. “The amount of people there, all hoping for the best, praying for even the smallest bit of news about their loved one. It brought me hope and showed me the extent to which people go to help each other.”
During his days at Ground Zero, Finley said it was not the scale of the tragedy that struck him most, but the people.
“The amount of respect and reverence everyone showed really struck me,” said Finley. “While you could tell they were taken aback by the scale of the tragedy, I could see that they were driven to persevere, to continue to try and do what they had to.”
After the site, Finley said it only reinforced his resolve toward helping others in trying times.
“I realized that I need to keep going,” said Finley. “I needed to continue on my path, needed to keep with my faith.”
Finley’s path, one of passing the word of God to others, began 38 years before his experiences at Ground Zero in 1973 after two years of college, he decided to join the priesthood. During his first steps, he realized it was what he had been looking for.
“It was the moment I stepped into the seminary that I knew it was the right place and the right fit for me. I knew I was home,” he recalled.
The church sent him to Austria, so that he could learn German and bring back that knowledge to better serve the German speaking immigrants attending his local church in Brooklyn.
“It really changed me,” said Finley. “It opened my eyes to that of another culture and gave me the experience to better connect with people who have a different view, different values and goals.”
After returning stateside, Finley served as a priest in Boston and Baltimore before teaching at a Catholic girl’s high school for 10 years.
It was then, after a decade of teaching doing the same thing day in and day out, that Finley took a fork in the long road of his life.
“When I saw an ad for the Navy chaplaincy I thought ‘Oh that’s interesting but I’m too old.’ It was after I called that I found out they were waving the age restrictions for chaplains because they had a shortage,” he said.
After signing up and completing training, Finley hit the fleet, touring with the Coast Guard, Navy and finally the Marines in Yuma.
“The culture for each of the services is very different,” said Finley. “The Marines are very straightforward, very direct, mission-oriented, focused and professional, but also very caring of its members.”
Here, Finley preaches to a congregation numbering from seven or eight to 150 depending on the service.
“I normally get a much larger turnout on Sundays,” said Finley.
Finley celebrates Mass Sunday through Friday. However, he doesn’t just stand at the altar performing the Sacraments. His style is more of a friendly conversation; he walks around the congregation reading the faces of the people attending.
He speaks as through he’s talking to everyone in attendance individually, exuding reverence and joy that makes the service fly by and the values behind his works stick. It’s as if you could be at home on the couch and he’s there too, sipping hot chocolate and telling you about the weather that day.
When not celebrating mass donned in traditional roves, he walks among his flock on station, dropping by Marines at work. As he walks, collar displays the golden cross, telling all who see the nature of his visit.
However, his wealth of experience and knowledge will soon leave Yuma, much to the dismay of those who work with him every day.
Finley plans to retire in January 2011, and continue his education using the GI Bill to get a doctorate in theology. He also plans on attending a total immersion course in Italy hoping to gain a better grasp of Italian. Finley knows seven languages all together. Being able speak and read German, English, French, Hebrew, Dutch and Italian, while being able to understand a bit of Greek.
“The chaplain corps is going to be losing one of its most valuable assets,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Eddy, Finley’s religious program specialist. “Chaplain Finley cares so much about the welfare of the military members under his charge. It’s going to be a hard blow to those of us who look to him for inspiration.”
It will also be losing it oldest active duty sailor. At 73 years old Finley is a full six years older than the oldest enlisted sailor who retired in 2007.
After all of his experiences, Finley still says the best part of his life has been the people that he’s met along the way.
“The most special part of all when you go from place to place is the people you meet, the connections that you make and the memories, and shared experiences that you get to take with you wherever you go,” said Finley.