KAILUA, Hawaii -- Nestled high on a Hawai'ian mountainside, between heaven and heavenly beaches, sits St. Stephen's Monastery. The monastery is home to a group of Catholic nuns of the Carmelite order, many of whom came to Hawai'i from Southeast Asia decades ago following their calling to serve. Friday, they got a visit from another group that ended up in Hawai'i as part of its own calling.
More than a dozen Marines and Sailors from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) visited the monastery Aug. 29 as part of a MEU-sponsored community relations project. The MEU, part of Expeditionary Strike Group-One, was in port for liberty and training through Sept. 3.
The trip was organized by Lt. Karl Nielson, 13th MEU chaplain, who said the Marines and Sailors received a rare opportunity.
"Very few people ever get to see the inside of a cloistered monastery," said Fr. Nielson, a Benedictine monk as well as an ordained priest. "So I think it was interesting as well as rewarding for them."
The volunteer working party was led by one of the nuns, Sr. Teresita, down a path through stepped terraces and man-made ponds teeming with koi. At one point, the trees in the several-acre yard cleared and the crew had a postcard view of Kaneohe Bay below, while behind them, foliage-clad mountains provided an abrupt contrast.
"We are very glad you're here, thank you for coming," said Sr. Teresita, pointing toward the end of the path, with a warning. "Down there are honeybees. Don't go!"
The Marines ranged in rank from lance corporal to lieutenant colonel and represented Battalion Landing Team 1/1, MEU Service Support Group-13 and the MEU Command Element, all of them chopping, pulling, raking and hauling bags to clear the thick undergrowth that was choking the hillside.
Lance Cpl. Erick James, a communications Marine, broadened his horizons that day.
"It was a pretty nice experience, I never met a nun before," said the Houston native. "I was on my best behavior."
The crew sweated under the tropical sun for two hours before taking a break for lunch. Then, they returned to the task for another hour before cleaning up, returning their tools to the shed and returning to USS PELELIU, docked in Pearl Harbor.
MEU NBC Chief SSgt. Monica Brooks, who worked with foster children while stationed in Okinawa, said the spirit of service never gets old.
"It's always cool to be out there and involved," said Brooks, an eight-year veteran. "Plus, it's good for the Marines to be out in the community instead of on working parties back on ship."
The Navy made a good showing, with Nielson, RP2(FMF) Bien Duong, HM1(FMF) Dominique Reboya, and HM1(FMF) Keith Newsome joining the Devil Dogs. Duong said the entire experience was worth the effort and was a good way to get out without spending hard-earned money.
"It was for a good cause, and besides, your sweat is free."