U.S. Navy Chaplain Clifford Stuart's introduction to the Church was absent of much fanfare.

It was 1985 and recruit Stuart was enduring basic training at the U.S. Marine Corps Training Depot in San Diego, Calif. A fellow recruit handed him a Book of Mormon, inviting him to read.

"Then the Marine who gave it to me was injured and I didn't see him anymore," remembered Brother Stuart.

Still, he read the Book of Mormon, set it down and didn't give it much thought for several years. Then in 1990, the young Marine began dating a woman in the U.S. Navy named Carrie Parks. Early in their courtship, he learned the sailor was a Church member. Soon he was asking Carrie questions about her religion. Missionary discussions would follow.

"She was well-versed in the faith."

The couple married in 1991, but Brother Stuart would not join the Church for another three years.

"I went through several groups of missionaries," he said with a laugh. "Finally, one missionary simply asked me 'What are you doing this Saturday?"' Short on answers, Brother Stuart accepted that bold baptismal invitation.

Once converted, Brother Stuart became fully involved in the Church. He and Sister Stuart were sealed in the temple and later welcomed four children into their family. Meanwhile, Brother Stuart's military career followed an unexpected path when he became a Navy chaplain a few years ago.

Now 41, Brother Stuart was recently named the Navy's top chaplain of the year. It's the first time a Church member has received such an honor from any branch of the U.S. military.

"I didn't expect to win," said Brother Stuart, who serves as command chaplain at Naval Air Facility El Centro. "We're serving in a very, very small base."

Brother Stuart's humility belies several years of faithful shepherding. Prior to his El Centro assignment, he served two deployments. The first on naval ships participating in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). The second in Iraq.

Brother Stuart called chaplain service in a combat zone "the ultimate form of ministry" that took his duties "to another level."

During his tour in Iraq, Brother Stuart organized and presided over sacrament meetings, organized home teaching and facilitated religious worship for all who requested, regardless of their faith. He also acted as a counselor, friend and listening ear to sailors and Marines anxious for spiritual support and direction. His door was always open.

"People would come because they had lost someone dear to them, or perhaps their marriage was in trouble or they were having workplace issues."

When asked what sort of counsel he would share with LDS military families dealing with a deployment, Brother Stuart said it's critical that service men and women hold tight to their standards. He has witnessed the grief of those who have wavered.

He also encouraged deployed personnel to stay close to their families, friends and ward leaders. Utilize e-mail to keep loved ones informed. Meanwhile, he added, family members on the homefront should gently insist that home and visiting teachers fulfill their duties and bring much needed monthly fellowship and support.

E-mail to: jswensen@desnews.com