Camp Pendleton’s Asif Balbale is one of only four Muslum chaplains in the U.S. Navy. He says part of his job is to instruct troops in Islamic traditions. (Photo by Bill Wechter – Staff photographer)
The newest pastor at Camp Pendleton drives a small sedan with a piece of scripture emblazoned on the rear window: “If you see something good, may God bless it and keep it from evil eyes.”
The words are written in Arabic, a clue that Asif Balbale is no ordinary chaplain.
The slight-framed Murrieta resident is the only Muslim chaplain among 60 members of the clergy at the sprawling Marine Corps base and one of only four Muslims in the U.S. Navy chaplain corps, which numbers more than 680.
As the only imam on the West Coast, Balbale’s role goes beyond typical pastoral care.
“Part of my job is to educate people on what it means to be a Muslim,” the 30-year-old said during an interview at his office at the base’s Amphibious Assault Schools Battalion.
“There have been a lot of stereotypes and negativity, and it is essential to build bridges. Part of that is teaching my faith,” he said.
The instruction includes teaching Marines some of the religion’s basics. That includes the five pillars of Islam —- declaration of faith, prayer, charity, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site in Islamic life.
“These are among the kinds of things I tell people when they are going to Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “Part of how we are fighting these wars is an effort to win hearts and minds, and that is where I play a role in teaching what the culture is like and how to respect the people.”
He tells the troops that Islam does not condone suicide bombing, putting women and children at risk or forbidding girls from attending school —- all acts carried out by the Taliban and its supporters.
“None of that is in line with Islam,” said Balbale, a father of one child with another on the way.
The troops he’s encountered since arriving at Camp Pendleton in April have been a little curious about his faith, but very welcoming, he said.
“It’s a new experience for them, but all most Marines care about is whether I am going to help them,” Balbale said.
9/11 a defining moment
An Indian by birth, Balbale grew up in southern Kuwait, where his parents moved for jobs and where they still live.
The family was forced to flee that country during the first Gulf War, eventually arriving at a refugee camp in Jordan before going to India.
They stayed there until returning to Kuwait in 1993, two years after the war ended.
Devout while growing up, Balbale was nonetheless on course to become a petroleum engineer, leaving Kuwait in 2000 for the University of Idaho.
He later transferred to Montana Tech, and was in Butte when al-Qaida terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
He and his Muslim friends were “shellshocked,” Balbale said.
“We were worried about what it was going to look like for us, what was it going to mean to be a Muslim in this country?” he said. “For me, it was like, ‘OK, what can I do to help this nation?'”
He ultimately decided to join the military as a demonstration of his commitment to his adopted homeland, and his first stop was an Army recruiting office in September 2004.
“But I was underweight —- I was 96 pounds soaking wet,” he said.
That was more than 10 pounds under the Army’s minimum weight standard. “So I went to see a Navy recruiter, and he said, ‘We only need 94 pounds.'”
Through his military service, Balbale was able to expedite the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, gaining that status in 1995.
He would go on to spend three years as a machinist’s mate, and during a deployment aboard the San Diego-based USS Boxer he began his turn toward the chaplaincy.
Balbale, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and has filled out to about 124 pounds, was intending to apply for officer candidate school when he mistakenly sent an e-mail to a chaplain recruiter.
That led to an extended conversation with the recruiter, and a subsequent meeting in Okinawa with a Muslim chaplain.
He came to believe that heart-to-heart talks with shipmates were readying him for the ministry.
“I was just being a friend, but I later realized it was God preparing me,” Balbale said.
In 2007, he entered the chaplain candidate program and eventually became a lieutenant.
He completed his religious training by earning a master’s degree in spiritual care and pastoral counseling at the Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles County.
Balbale isn’t the only unique religious leader at the base.
Camp Pendleton also is home to the Navy’s only Buddhist chaplain, Jeanette Shin, who is in Afghanistan with the 1st Marine Logistics Group.
Country, God and religion
Much like Shin, Balbale adds a more worldly view to the base ministry, said Navy Capt. Ollis Mozon, commanding base chaplain.
“Instead of us Protestant or Catholic chaplains telling people what we think we know about Islam, he gives us the true perspective,” Mozon said.
Aside from a gold crescent attached to his lapel, Balbale’s religion is identifiable by his cap —- a white knitted kufi worn by many Muslims.
Balbale will spend the next three years at Camp Pendleton. Although he’s assigned to a training battalion that does not deploy, he eventually could be part of a combat unit and sent overseas.
In the meantime, he’s reaching out to the estimated 200 Muslim troops at Camp Pendleton to let them know he is there and will soon launch a weekly service at a base chapel.
He turns aside teasing by friends who remind him he could have left the Navy and earned a healthy income as a petroleum engineer.
“God has put me in the place where he wants me to be,” he said. “I can’t think of any job like this one where I can serve my country, my God and my religion all at once.”
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.