Hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, a 150-man crew works in 8-hour shifts. As a Nuclear Propulsion Plant Operator, the first shift consists of a watch rotation while operating the propulsion plant of the submarine. The next shift consists of submarine operating and maintenance, followed by eight hours of sleep. This eight-hour sleep shift includes changing sheets and moving belongings, since the submarine requires three seamen to rotate and share two beds due to limited space. The crew continues this 24-hour rotation schedule until the completion of the underway, when the submarine returns to port. For Zebullon Pappenfus, home port is Honolulu, Hawaii at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.
Zeb is a WELS member at St. Paul’s in Stevensville, MI, hailing from St. Joseph, MI, and currently serves in the U.S. Navy. Growing up as the youngest of three siblings, Zeb always enjoyed making things with his hands. He worked on cars throughout his childhood and enjoyed motorsports, as well as completing welding projects in his spare time. With a Coast Guard station located in his hometown of St. Joseph, Zeb thought about serving in the armed forces from a young age and saw the possibility of serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. As he grew older, the military became increasingly attractive as an alternative option to accruing student loans in college. Zeb went on to speak with recruiters about joining the military in the welding field but wound up in the nuclear program in the Navy after speaking with veterans in his community. “I talked to some other people who had done the nuclear program, and it set them up really well for life. I knew I wanted to do something that would give me skills and eventually help me succeed in the civilian world.”
In 2019, Zeb joined the Navy and started with boot camp in Chicago, IL, before attending training school in Charleston, SC. After completing the necessary schooling, Zeb was stationed in Honolulu where he completed one Western Pacific Deployment and currently serves on a submarine as a Machinist Mate Nuclear Engineering Laboratory Technician, specializing in chemistry and radiological controls. “It’s pretty much been a road of accomplishment from the beginning,” Zeb stated in regards to completing boot camp and three stages of schooling in order to qualify for his position. “It’s so rapid how you get to that point in life. Where the boat and the captain certify you to be a qualified individual, to save lives, and fulfill the mission of the boat as a 22-year-old, and most of my friends hadn’t started a career yet.” To Zeb, one of the best parts of serving in the Navy has been realizing his potential and what he can accomplish with hard work and commitment.
While serving in the military can be rewarding, all service members endure hardships and difficulties. Among some of the most difficult aspects of serving in the military are the relentless day-to-day schedules and long hours. “I’ve done more 24-hour days in the Navy than I did overnights in high school as just part of my scheduled hours. It’s hard sometimes, and you just can’t do everything.” Some of the most difficult time conflicts have involved family events. “You understand what you’re signing up for, and you accept that you’re going to make sacrifices, but you don’t understand what that all means right away. You sometimes feel selfish, but you miss out on things that you feel like you should be or want to be around for, and I think that’s what a lot of people struggle with. When you’re back at home, you can’t see everyone, but you don’t want to make people feel skipped out on. That’s hard to deal with.”
In addition to struggling with personal conflicts, military service can bring up spiritual conflict as well. While attending Michigan Lutheran High School, Zeb was surrounded by a community of believers and made close friendships through school, as well as events like choral festivals or summer camps. That community changed when he joined the military. “It’s tough, it’s a sinful world. People that you work with don’t necessarily have the best, faith-anchored life goals in mind.” For Zeb, it was sometimes difficult to find the motivation to feed his faith. “It’s easy not to go when you slip into not putting in that effort. Then one Sunday goes by and the next, and then you haven’t been to church in a month, because you didn’t want to wake up or whatever it is.” After attending church at Beautiful Savior in Summerville, South Carolina and later at Community Lutheran Church in Honolulu, Hawaii, Zeb found the support he was looking for. “You walk in and are immediately welcomed, and people are offering to help you out, and that’s fantastic to have. Having people share their experiences is fantastic. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to be alone. That’s a really comforting thing in general.” When attending church near a military base, Zeb states that encountering other military members who can understand his struggle is especially helpful.
One benefit of working on a submarine is a small crew, where daily interactions between fellow members build close friendships and camaraderie. This closeness helps open the door to deeper conversations. “Seeing other people’s world views and lack of hope can be so saddening, so it’s good to be able to see what people feel about those issues and pick their brains a bit. Then I get to share the hope that I have and the security that comes from that..” Even without a conversation, Zeb is able to share his faith through his actions. “Just like anybody Christian who works with other people, you just need to let your light shine and let faith show through action, and you pray that you are given the words to say when the time comes to hopefully influence them in that aspect.”
While a physical congregation and formal worship services are a blessing to grow and strengthen faith, these resources are not always accessible. While commenting on what worship looks like from a submarine, Zeb stated, “It can be tricky, because the WELS is not a recognized church in the military. We don’t have WELS chaplains, so it makes things a bit harder. Especially with communion, you kind of have to wait it out until you get back, so that was something I really looked forward to.” While other denominations of Lutheran chaplains are available for support, Zeb states he relied mostly on Bibles, hymnals, or devotionals from his home church or from other congregations he has attended throughout his service. Downloadable Bibles and devotionals can be especially helpful, since they save space in a tight environment. E-mail encouragements from pastors or other supporters have been helpful as well.
Zeb has been blessed through his military experience and speaks highly of the opportunities he has been given. “I get to learn things about myself and live in a lot of awesome places, and I might not have left the midwest and experienced those things otherwise. Now I know I’m capable of acquiring those skills and can go attack my dreams. All of those things are awesome opportunities.” Several factors keep Zeb motivated for service. “Love for country. What keeps me motivated and going is that I’d rather be away somewhere so that the people I love can have freedom, rather than not.” Support from his family, especially his parents, is a welcome encouragement which helps him to remain motivated as well. Zeb says that the best thing WELS members can do to support service members is to pray for their country, leaders, and service members, and to utilize the benefits of being in a free country. “Be patriotic. Go to church. Enjoy the freedom.”