Capt. Russell Graef received calls for pastoral work across Wisconsin and Minnesota but has finally ended his longest call that took him around the world.
After 24 years of serving in the Navy Chaplain Corps, Graef officially retired on July 9. The 62-year-old Poynette native completed five tours with the navy and five tours with the Marine Corps. Throughout his career, Chaplain Graef deployed to the Middle East, Europe and the Far East.
Graef graduated from Poynette High School in 1975, Saint Olaf College in 1979 and Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1983. He received the call to serve as a pastor for Lutheran congregations in Racine and Frederic, Wisconsin, as well as Albert Lea, Minnesota before joining the Ministry of Navy Chaplains.
Graef said he had a couple of friends encouraging him to join, and he also has a family tradition of serving in the military. His father served with the Coast Guard in World War II and his brother served in the Air Force.
“This would be a great chance to do something for my country and the flag and all that it stands for,” he said.
In 1995, Graef joined the Navy Chaplain Corps and went through his own type of boot camp at a chaplain school in Newport, Rhode Island. Once there, he went through a seven-week training course on chaplaincy. Navy chaplains deploy with Marines and sailors during exercises and operations, leading worship, counseling and supporting personnel with religious ministry.
As a Lutheran, Graef served people of Protestant faith. However, he also helped people from other faith groups find access to worship.
“I would work to find that person a chaplain of that faith and accommodate that religious request,” Graef said. “We care for all people. Even if there’s someone who’s not religious at all and they don’t ever go to church, they have no interest in church, we still would provide pastoral care for them.”
Graef got his first deployment to a duty station in Yokosuka, Japan. He took his wife, Dennice, and two kids, Erik and Britta, with him. He said his wish came true of being able to go to far away places and experience different cultures.
The change from the rural corn fields of Minnesota to being in a foreign country was a bit of culture shock, though. He said they lived off base and him and his family got to experience a full immersion of Japanese culture.
“They [Graef’s children] still say some of their best memories were in Japan,” Graef said.
While on duty, Graef would be underway from a few days to a few months, traveling to places around the Sea of Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and more for exercises.
Graef spent his days holding counseling sessions with sailors and Marines, meeting with commanders and executive officers and holding meetings. Although, he said his favorite tradition was evening prayer, which was said every night right before Taps.
Later on in his career, he would deploy on a large deck amphibious ship with the Fifth and Sixth Fleet. The Fifth Fleet controls forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean. The Sixth Fleet is in the Mediterrean area.
Graef spent a portion of his career in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina working with the Marines Corps Security Force Regiment—an anti-terrorism unit. He has also deployed to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. Graef remained uninjured for the entirety of his career.
Graef said he would go on patrols with the Marines in Afghanistan and had a chance to meet with many people in the rural areas. He said they had good translators with them and it was almost like they were able to have conversations with the locals.
“What a fine bunch of people they were,” Graef said. “They faced hardships because it’s not a developed area. I gained a lot of respect for the people that we met.”
Graef recalled one instance while out on patrol where he had the chance to talk with the local religious leader in the community. He said they were able to talk about different stories they both knew from the Bible.
“It was fun that we all knew the same stories,” he said. “That was very rewarding to visit with him.”
When he was on deployments, Graef said he had the chance to work closely with many of the sailors and Marines he was with. He said he still keeps in touch with people he met on deployments in foreign countries.
Graef had his most recent assignment back in Camp Lejeune with the 2d Marine Logistics Group, where he officially retired. While there, he supervised 27 chaplains and religious program specialists while also coordinating and leading working groups to introduce resiliency workshops and single parent retreats.
He had a retirement ceremony held for him at the Main Protestant Chapel in Camp Lejeune. During the ceremony, he received the Legion of Merit, which Graef said was a great honor to be recognized for, along with receiving letters of appreciation from President Trump and Rear Adm. Gregory Todd, Chaplain of the Marine Corps.
The Navy also has a tradition for retirees to be “piped ashore”. This is a gesture meant to symbolize a Navy officer is requesting to come ashore one last time. The Boatswain’s Mate piped Graef ashore during his ceremony.
Graef brought some of his own family tradition to the ceremony as his dad used to be a Boatswain’s Mate in World War II and had the chance to use his own pipe.
“That meant a lot,” he said. “It was a fitting way to honor my father.”
With an active military career behind him, Graef’s new goal is moving into his new home in Chesapeake, Virginia. He has plans for joining a veteran organization and serving in the church again but is working to get his feet on the ground first.
“I was a great honor to be able to serve in the Navy and to serve the Navy and the Marine Corps,” Graef said. “I tended duty stations, five with the Navy and five with the Marine Corps and it’s just a great honor to serve the sailors and Marines and officers of our military.”