Army Chaplains' Blog

Archive for June 2010

Building-up for an operational tour can be tough. There’s a lot to do, as some of my earlier posts have talked about. However, there is nothing tougher than being sat with your wife as the news comes on with the headlines of yet more deaths in Afghanistan. It makes me think of the tough times when I have been there, and it makes my wife think of what may happen to me. I normally change the channel to something else; the moment passes, the thoughts remain unshared and we pretend that nothing has happened.

Sometime soon after my Iraq tour in 2007 my wife and I were watching a programme about the conflict and suddenly they played the mortar alarm that was used when I was there. I desperately wanted to change the channel but I couldn’t, for I’d had to sit on my hands. I didn’t want my wife to see that they were shaking.

Last Autumn, just  after returning from Afghanistan I was once again with my wife (I kinda like her – that ‘s whay we seem to spend so much time together!) visiting Edinburgh Castle. We went to watch them fire the ‘minute gun’. However, it was the same sort of gun that we had used at the repatriation services in Afghanistan. As soon as I saw it I had to leave. I couldn’t bear to hear it fire.

I wonder what I will carry with me this time? One thing I know I will be carrying throughout my time away is a small credit-card sized piece of plastic. It has on it the words of the 23rd Psalm, that most wonderful and loved piece of scripture. Even though I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death I know that God will go with me every step of the way. What’s more I know he will be on hand to carry those things that I am not able to. Thanks for your prayers. Antony FW

I have just spent 5 hours looking for my work mobile phone. I had it at 0815 when I answered a call but by 0930 it had gone Awol. The problem was, that I had lost it while cycling. Initially I re-traced my steps on the bike looking along the road. But I had not joy, and needed help, so borrowed a friends mobile to ring it whilst I re-traced my steps again!!! Just as I was composing an apology to whoever I needed to apologise to, for losing the phone, I decided one last look outside my office! Hurrah, it was there lying on the grass! Only 25 missed calls – Ok most of them were from me trying to find it!! I didn’t know whether to cry with relief or whoop with joy.

I just knew that I wanted to share the good news. Typically, no-one was around as everyone was getting ready to go to a Cocktail Party at the Tower of London! I eventually found a couple of soldiers, and although I could tell they thought I was mad at being so happy at finding my lost mobile, they did at least pretend to be pleased for me! The problem with Mobiles nowadays is that so much information is on them!

I guess I don’t have to expand on this much to say if I am this happy at finding a Mobile Phone, then just how happy is God when someone who was lost is then found. Hopefully it goes without saying. I was also left thinking, you can only find something, where you lost it. No matter how searching in the hedgerow, all I found were Ciggie Packets and bits of tyre and road kill – nice! Likewise, I believe with God, Contentment, Peace, Eternal Life, Heaven can only be reached through God’s Son Jesus. With this in mind, I do have some low days in the Army because while there are opportunities to speak of the Christian faith, and I do seize them, it is wrong to ‘bible-bash’ as a soldiers own choices and decisions with regards to faith needs to be respected.

And yet, often I just want to shout out how much God can help. When I feel it is appropriate I do offer praying for them and it is amazing how often this is taken up and of course I do pray for our soldiers in private. Apart from this morning that is, when I have spent the whole time praying to find my Mobile and Thank you Padre Smith who gave me the title of this blog, after chatting with him! Padre Tracey Bateson

I spent most of last week under a basher (waterproof material stretched out to look vaguely like a tent) with a bunch of Padres. The aim was to refresh skills needed to survive the great outdoors. To the amusement of one of the Padre’s wives however, the location was just a few yards from their home. Hence her visiting in stitches of laughter with some cookies half way through. She thought we were like something out of Last of the Summer Wine. I’m just hoping she wasn’t calling me Nora Batty, but the cookies were great!

In all seriousness though, the Exercise was fantastic. We spent three days under the stars, eating from Ration Packs, revising our knowledge on Packing Bergens, First Aid, Battle Procedures, Driver Training, Navigation and even some Survival training was thrown in. None of us got lost, although during one of our Night Navigation Exercises, it did look like Blackpool illuminations as we roamed around looking for a Marker. I am hoping never to need the skill of lighting a fire with wire wool and a mobile phone battery, but you never know! I hope too that we will always find water, rather than depending on tying a plastic bag around a branch – it does work, honest!

It was great to be outdoors and away from the office for a few days. God was very generous and the sun shone warmly. Our Instructor was a model of patience as he helped us through all that was required. After a service one evening, we were left reflecting how some Corporations pay for such an experience and yet here we were for free! It was strange in between lessons and exercises as we could just sit and chill out rather than be looking to see who we could next be talking to! Padres on exercises with their units rarely get any down time, as we are always talking to soldiers and helping others out, so it was such a treat to be able to be quiet for a few minutes. To just be and to be with God!

Just as well, as the weekend was manic, going on a Parish Weekend Away in the Wallops, with services on Sunday and then a Youth Group in the evening, exploring Vocation and whether any of them felt called to becoming an Army Chaplain. And today back to the day job in the Battalion. I was asked by one young person whether I ever miss being a Minister in Civvie Street – I didn’t even have to think, as I believe I get the best of both worlds – the weekend was all Civvie church stuff, while during the week I had been camping outside learning Survival skills and this week I get to be with soldiers, including trips to Prison and The Tower of London for a Cocktail Party! Thank You God! Revd Tracey Bateson

Back from the retreat and I didn’t manage to catch any fish, not even a tiddler. However, we had an enjoyable time exploring various sites of interest and reflecting a little on the life of CS Lewis. Our group of Chaplains will come to depend upon one another during our time in Afghanistan and these sort of events help us come together as a team. We reside all over the country so we don’t often see each other.

One site we visited was the home to a particularly early Christian community. In the centre was where the well would have been and the sound of running water was still audible. It was nearly dark as we explored the area and the air was heavy with the smells of a summer evening. I reflected that not much can have changed there for over a thousand years, and that many Christians would have stood where I was, taking in the peace and the calm of the place.

On returning home, the well in the centre of the community has become somewhat of a theme for me; praise God, I am filled with the living water! However, as I face a deployment to Afghanistan I am not sure how full my well is. I need it to be deep and brimming. It’s made me realise that there is still much work to do in ensuring that I am filled with a full measure otherwise I may not last the distance and leave those around me thirsty.

As part of all that training to get me ready I need to make sure that I don’t neglect the single most important part of my kit – my relationship with Jesus, author and perfector, bread of life and living water. Please pray for the team of Chaplains currently in Afghanistan and for us, the team that will take over from them later this year. Pray that our well never runs dry and that all who come thirsty are filled. Thank you. Antony FW

Not only is it important for our soldiers to prepare themselves for going to Afghanistan, it is also important for the team of Chaplains that will accompany them to prepare themselves too. Our Brigade is taking about a dozen Chaplains with them to Helmand (of which I am one). The preparations our little team of Chaplains make is key to our being able to do our job in ministering to our soldiers during six hard months.

Perhaps you have noticed when you fly on a plane that the safety brief stresses the point that if travelling with a child or elderly person you must put on your own oxygen mask first before helping anybody else. There is an important lesson there in that we need to manage and look after our own capacity to care if we are going to be able to reach out to those around us.

So with this in mind our little team is about to spend a few days on retreat. The aim of this is in two parts: Firstly to promote spiritual reflection through daily worship in a variety of churches and significant sites around our retreat centre. Particularly looking at Celtic Christianity and highlighting their contributions to early forms of military chaplaincy. Secondly we aim to promote team cohesion through shared meals and outdoor activits sch as fishing, walking and swimming. It should be an enjoyable few days. Although I suspect the backdrop of the continuing loss of life in Afghanistan will give the time together a serious note and a sense of purpose.

The Army expects its Chaplains to take a retreat each year, its desire is that we use these times to make sure we always have the capacity to be reaching out to those around us. Our little team will get together again next summer, a few months after we come back from Afghanistan. The aim then will be to unpack and unload in order than we can continue to be effective in our ministries.

It’s nice to get away from the military environment for a few days and spend time at the foot of the cross, reminding ourselves in whose shadow we walk and whose strength it is that upholds us every day. I’ll write and and let you know whether I caught any fish! Antony FW

One of the privileges I have had since becoming a Padre are the various Battlefield Studies I have been able to go on. My husband always calls them ‘jolly’s’ and while it is time out of the office, actually they are very thought provoking and very informative. On each trip (Ypres, Berlin and last week Dunkirk) I have learnt more than if I had read several books!

So last week I went with a number of other Chaplains to Dunkirk, via the Dover Tunnels, where we learnt more of Operation Dynamo. It was an incredible 36 hours as we spent time on the Beaches at Dunkirk, at Cemeteries, Museums and finally at a Massacre sight at Wormhout. Not only did we have time to see, reflect and consider on the events of over 70 years ago we heard of many stories of exceptional bravery and sacrifice.

Our time at the Beach at Dunkirk actually struck me as quite surreal. Books I had read spoke of carnage, bombing, noise, death, courage and sacrifice, and yet 70 years on it was like any other beach front. There was an early morning mist as the sea was lapping gently, dog walkers were catching the start of the day and cafes were opening up. This led me to reflect however in a curious way that this was a good symbol of new life and a reminder of how the earth restores itself after such events. To me it also spoke of the new life we have with Jesus, of his offer of forgiveness, but it also spoke of hope for areas of conflict now. I was reminded of my visit to Rwanda a few years after the Genocide and the hope and new growth I saw there. This all said while at Dunkirk, like the Psalmist I did have bouts of disbelief, lack of faith, anger and pure wonderment at how it could have been allowed to happen!

The true horror and ‘how can human beings do this?’ was brought home as we visited a massacre site and cemeteries with too many graves to count! We heard stories of bravery and courage of Chaplains and we visited and paid respects to the graves of padres. One was killed whilst taking a communion service. Another had refused to be allowed to be repatriated, wanting to stay with the soldiers and the POW’s, he died in a POW Camp! Many stayed behind rather than be repatriated to be with the soldiers.

A lighter story that struck me however was one of a padre who had swam out to a platoon to catch a Destroyer. As he boarded, the destroyer started to move off. He leapt up shouting; ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ He was wobbling so badly that the platoon nearly sank. Everyone on it, shouted at him to sit down – so loud were they, that those on the destroyer heard and turned around to rescue them…nice to know God has always worked through Padres in mysterious ways! (Story taken from Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory. Maj Gen Julian Thompson)

The following day to this trip, I was giving a lecture on ‘Values and Standards’. Having heard of so many examples of self-less commitment, courage, loyalty, integrity, respect of others and discipline, I will admit the lecture was a little longer than normal! Revd Tracey Bateson

Just back from a wet week in the Brecon Beacons. Not only does working for the Army take me to some hot and sandy places it also takes me to some of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Most of the trips I have made to Brecon have been wet, but actually that doesn’t matter it is so lovely to be up on the hills rather than stuck in an office (and the Army issue me with gortex coat, trousers and waterproof boots!). We’ve been continuing our training in preparation for deploying to Afghanistan later in the year. As the date gets closer the training gets that much more serious and a more determined atmosphere sets in.

Into all of this serious stuff I try to bring a touch of humanity and a dollop of humour. I drank a lot of tea in Brecon and had many conversations. One young lad told me that he has started dreaming about the soldiers our unit lost last time we were in Afghanistan. He was a brand new eighteen year old soldier then. Now he’s twenty and a much more mature young man. He was worried about what it meant to be having these dreams. We talked and I prayed and so far the dreams have not come back. He has enough to think about in his own preparations.

Our training will contine to take me to some lovely places as we prepare for Afghanistan. I’ll see bits of Kent, Wiltshire, Northumberland, Wales and Oxfordshire. I am sure that the memory of these lovely places will help sustain me in Helmand. Antony FW