In 2004, Aaron Carlton was a 29-year-old pastor and new father when four American military contractors were killed and their bodies burned, prompting an American response. During the first round of fighting against Al Qaeda-backed insurgents in April and May, 27 Americans died in Fallujah.
Aaron was watching the war closely from his home in southern California. He felt a call to serve the soldiers: “I said, well, I can’t really fight in this war, but I can do something for them and for their families.”
He joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain that fall and went through boot camp in Newport, R.I. for three months, launching a military career that would lead him to pray with wounded veterans and discouraged recruiters, and counsel soldiers serving in Iraq, Okinawa, and aboard an amphibious assault ship in the Middle East. He supported Marines during "some of their worst moments,” he says, like having their wives leave them or missing the deaths of loved ones, but also during “some of their best moments, too,” like getting to go home for a new baby.
Aaron, the first of two children born to John and Rosalinda in 1975, comes from a long tradition of military service. There has been a Carlton in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, he says. His father was drafted into the Army and served during Vietnam; his paternal grandfather was a pilot in World War II.
Aaron particularly looked up to his maternal grandfather, Bruno Caporino, who was born in the Philippines and served in the Filipino Army in World War II, fighting in the Battle of Bataan and escaping from the death march that followed.
Later, Bruno enlisted in the U.S. Army from the Philippines and fought in Korea. He brought his wife and kids over to the states after the war. He supported his family as a postal worker, though his grandson saw he had the countenance and the heart of a pastor. “When you look at him, you really think, if God had a face, that would be what it looks like.”
Aaron was in fifth grade when his grandfather died in 1987. He remembers a moment of “peaceful recognition.”
“What he really wanted to pass down to us is that God is real and that He loves us and that’s really the most important thing,” he says.
After a sometimes difficult adolescence — his parents divorced, and he struggled to feel comfortable with his biracial identity in predominantly-white Orange County — Aaron came to fully embrace his faith when he was 21. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Talbot Divinity School at Biola University in Los Angeles, and then worked as a youth group leader and pastor for several years, including a stint at his uncle’s church, which he'd grown up attending.
In 2000, he married Lily Garcia, whom he met in college at a Filipino culture club event in 1993. Lily was a gymnast and the daughter of a Navy Chief Petty Officer.
Their first daughter, Mayah, was born a few years later. He still remembers the wonder he felt when holding his daughter for the first time: “I have never felt this vulnerable and this much love.”
He joined the Navy the year after she was born. After boot camp and chaplain training, Aaron returned to southern California, serving first at Camp Pendleton for the Marines school of infantry and then in San Diego, where he was a chaplain for wounded sailors recovering from their injuries. He and Lily had two more daughters, Noelle and Sophia.
In 2008, Aaron deployed to Iraq, where he served as a chaplain for ten squadrons in the 3rd Marine Air Wing, supporting Marines who were struggling with the challenges of being away from family.
When Aaron got back from Iraq, he went off of active duty and got a civilian job as a prison guard. “It paid the bills,” he says, but transitioning directly to becoming a prison guard right after his tour in Iraq “was probably not the best thing for me, mentally or spiritually or emotionally,” at a time when he already felt burned out.
Aaron questioned whether he would be able to continue working in ministry. He had counseled others while overseas, and now that he was home, it was time for the chaplain to take care of his own emotional health: “Luckily, I went to the V.A. and talked with some people there.”
While still in the reserves, Aaron worked for several months at the Navy chief chaplain’s office in Washington, D.C. Rejuvenated by his time there, Aaron went back on active duty and was stationed for the next three years in Okinawa, Japan — a base created after the Allied victory that both of his grandfathers had fought for.
After Okinawa, the family moved to San Diego. From there, Aaron deployed to the Pacific and Middle East for seven months aboard the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, where he was one of four chaplains on board serving more than 3,000 soldiers. Aaron led Baptist services on the ship and supported lay leaders for other faith groups, such as Mormonism and Islam, that did not have a designated chaplain: “That way, everybody has the freedom to practice.”
Aaron’s current position takes him all over the 12th district of the Marine Corps — much of the western continental U.S. and Alaska — to serve as a chaplain for recruiters, the “guys that are out there on the streets trying to get people to join the military” at a time when less than 0.5 percent of the country currently serves in uniform. “As you can imagine, that takes a lot of stress and strain and a lot of rejection, a lot of frustration.” Chaplains aim to alleviate some of that strain, and to sustain recruiters in their mission through prayer and counseling.
Aaron is grateful to the military not only for the chances to forge friendships—“We have ‘family’ all over the world now, in Guam and Okinawa, and Seattle and Florida, and the East Coast” — but also for chance to do fulfilling ministry that serves both the country and the people who sacrifice so much to defend it: “I have the best job in the world.”