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Warrior chaplain leads from the front

By Lance Cpl. Zachary Dyer | | June 8, 2006

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Saint Catherine of Siena once said, “The more I seek, the more I find; and the more I find, the more I seek.”  

One Figtertown chaplain has used these holy words to guide his life and his career in the Navy.

Cmdr. Conrad Targonski, a Chicago native, and the Air Station command chaplain, has spent 18 years as a Catholic chaplain, bringing hope and comfort to the Marines and sailors under his care.

“Chaplains are there to provide assurance to the Marines and sailors that they are being taken care of,” Targonski said.

Targonski credits his strong Polish background for his choice to begin a life of ministry.

“Ever since I was a kid I was interested in the ministry,” Targonski said. “We had priests and nuns in my family so it was very influential. It was almost a natural for me.” 

Targonski, known as “Chaplain ‘Ski,” to those around him, joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1987, after 12 years as a Catholic pastor of an inner-city parish in Milwaukee, and was recently selected for promotion to captain.

“I liked the whole idea of adventure, of travel,” Targonski said of joining the military.

Since being commissioned, Targonski has been everywhere from Okinawa to Australia. The highlight of his career was the 14 months he spent in Iraq, during which he participated in the Fallujah offensive with the 7th Marine Regiment as the only Catholic chaplain on the front lines.

“The whole experience was life changing, life enhancing,” Targonski said. “I saw uncommon valor in everyday situations. We became a band of brothers. I know what it means now. I never knew what a tracer was before, and here they were flying over my head. I’ll never forget it.”

While in Fallujah, Chaplain ‘Ski did everything with his Marines, from going out on convoys to meeting with the locals.

“The role of the chaplain and the (religious programs specialist) is to be forward with the Marines and sailors,” Targonski said. “You just can’t sit in the back.”

“He is one of their own,” said Petty Officer Second Class Frank Cecil, a religious program specialist here. “He is very approachable and down to earth. He really relates to you on your level.”

Targonski credits his RPs with his success and safety in Fallujah.

“RPs are essential because chaplains are non-combatants,” Targonski said. “The RP was my protection. If I went somewhere without an RP then I had a rifleman with me.”

To be able to keep up with the Marines in Iraq, Targonski relied on his physical fitness regimen at home. Targonski believes in a holistic spirituality, made up of both a strong mind and a strong body.

“I’m a gym rat,” admitted Targonski, who is signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon this year. “It’s all about diet and cardio.”

“That man PTs more then anyone else I know,” Cecil said. “He is always running or lifting or something.”

Targonski has also spent time at the Naval Chaplain School in Rhode Island, training new chaplains in the art of being a warrior priest.

The 58-year-old Targonski hopes that the young chaplains he has mentored will come to adopt the same philosophy as him.

“That’s kind of like my legacy,” Targonski said.

As he approaches the end of his career, Targonski says he has enjoyed his time and has no plans of slowing down.

“What guy in his fifties is still doing the things that I’m doing here? Not very many,” Targonski said. “And I’m still having fun. I want to go back to Iraq, for me that’s where it’s at.”
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