Two years ago, Jamie Stall-Ryan was serving at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., and poised to call it a career after 25 years in the military. But the Navy, facing a shortage of experienced clergy, made a request: Postpone retirement and fill in as command chaplain at the Coast Guard Academy.
Suffice it to say that Cmdr. Stall-Ryan, a pastor in the New England Synod, did more than just mind the store at his final billet before stepping down this spring.
In January, Stall-Ryan became the first chaplain honored with the academy’s Spirit of the Bear award, presented annually over the last 15 years to faculty or staff in recognition of extraordinary effort toward the well-being of cadets and officer candidates.
“There are lots of great chaplains out there worthy of that type of award for the work they do, often when no one is looking,” said Stall-Ryan, one of five honorees chosen by a committee of cadets from the 83 nominations submitted by the academy community. “Chaplains are out there taking care of sons and daughters and grandchildren, keeping them excited about their oath of office and helping them on their faith journey wherever they are.”
When the Spirit of the Bear awards (the academy’s athletic teams are known as the Bears) were announced and presented during a campus pep rally, the crowd heard how Stall-Ryan “fully invested himself in the personal and spiritual development of cadets,” said Jon Heller, director of the academy’s Loy Institute for Leadership, which oversees the award’s nomination and selection process.
“His humble and authentic leadership revitalized the chapel ministry, as evidenced by an eightfold increase in attendance for the Protestant Sunday services,” Heller said. “He poured himself into encouraging cadets through our Men’s Accountability Group and various Bible studies, encouraged different faith groups to come together for activities and strengthened the overall unity of the Corps of Cadets.”
“They called my name for having this impact,” said Stall-Ryan, who had no idea he would be honored but was thrilled that his wife, Sara, had been notified ahead of time so she could attend the ceremony with their 15-year-old son Adam (their other son, 19-year-old Jonathan, was away at college). “I’m kind of a grumpy soul, but the cadets thought it was a good idea.”
“The impact of his ministry will bear fruit in the work and integrity of the countless cadets who were influenced by his integrity, heart for ministry and dedicated work.”
Self-effacing assessments aside, Stall-Ryan combines the warmth and charm of an everyman with the courage and selflessness that reflect what tending to the spiritual needs of service members is all about, say those who know him best.
“Jamie is gregarious, and he has great emotional intelligence,” said Capt. Ryan Rupe, the chaplain who preceded Stall-Ryan at the academy. “The most important person in his life is the one he’s talking to, and that’s a great gift; it’s natural to certain people, and for chaplains it’s like a double gift. He’s just a great chaplain.”
As command chaplain, Stall-Ryan was responsible for the needs of every faith tradition represented by the 1,200 cadets at the academy. “We have a saying in the chaplain corps: We provide for our own, we facilitate for others and we care for all,” he said. “We keep track of every cadet when they come in and what their faith journey is through their time at the academy—70% have some kind of faith practice. If a Jewish Hillel group wants resources for a retreat or a seder, my job is to make sure it happens and has success.”
The Navy journey
Stall-Ryan, 56, charted a circuitous route from his childhood in Northampton, Mass., to New London, Conn., home of the Coast Guard Academy. But in one way, the journey started where it would end, with the Navy.
Stall-Ryan enlisted as a teenager in 1985 and served as a radarman but left the service after seven years to pursue becoming a chaplain. “The Navy was perfect fit for me, but the Navy didn’t have a lot of therapists or social workers, so if people were wrestling with their identity or foundation or moral compass, they would turn to a chaplain and they found a lot of help and peace,” he said. “Chaplains were playing such a big role; I wanted to come back and return what was given to me.”
He did his undergraduate work at St. Hyacinth College and Seminary in Granby, Mass. “It was very Catholic, and I decided I really wanted to be a Lutheran, so I went to seminary at Gettysburg (now United Lutheran Seminary),” he said.
For three years Stall-Ryan served as a pastor of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., and then went back on active duty in the Navy in November 2003 as a chaplain. His first assignment was aboard the USS Cleveland, an amphibious transport dock that first saw action during the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Then in 2006, he deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, with the legendary 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, first activated in World War I and known as the 1/6.
“Everybody loves Jamie, and everybody in the chaplain corps knows that if you give Jamie a job, he’ll do it well,” Rupe said. “I’m better for knowing him. He’s made me a better guy and a better chaplain, and he was forged in war. He went in with the 1/6 and fought it out, and that ain’t easy.”
In the years following the Battle of Ramadi, Stall-Ryan was assigned to the Naval Academy; served the Coast Guard as chaplain of its First District (“From the tip of Maine all the way to New Jersey,” he said); and was handpicked to be command chaplain for the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its crew of 6,000.
“His love for his kids and his wife is so palpable—she is his better half for sure, and it was so amazing hearing him talk about her, always lifting her up,” said Tracy Evans, a dentist in Encinitas, Calif., who served with Stall-Ryan on the Carl Vinson. “He was so vocal and open about how he felt about his spouse, and that always stuck with me.”
When Evans and her husband, Brian, an oral surgeon who also served on the Carl Vinson, were married in September 2018, they chose Stall-Ryan to officiate.
“We became good friends,” Tracy Evans said. “On the carrier he was our third wheel—he was always up for a good time. And he loves fishing almost as much as he loves God. He can fly fish all day long—it’s very sacred to him.”
“To Jamie, there’s the time you spend fly fishing, and the time you’ve spent fly fishing,” Rupe said. “He’s one with nature, aware of what’s around him, seeing the beauty in things. In a polarizing environment, that is very refreshing.”
Christopher Otten, senior director of federal chaplaincy for the ELCA, said “a debt of gratitude” is owed to the entire Stall-Ryan family for the commitment they made that allowed the chaplain to take the ministry of the church wherever the Navy asked him to go.
Otten also noted that Stall-Ryan’s assignment to two service academies speaks to his top-tier status in the chaplain corps. “Only the finest chaplains are assigned there,” he said. “The impact of his ministry will bear fruit in the work and integrity of the countless cadets who were influenced by his integrity, heart for ministry and dedicated work. To Chaplain Stall-Ryan, we pray for fair winds and following seas.”