David Arnott: Chaplains take horrors of war at faith value
IN the event of casualties the chaplain is often among the first to be flown in to support the troops
The silent darkness was full of tension. As the RAF plane rapidly descended on its appointed flight path into Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the young men and women, representing every branch of the services, remained focused, intense and silent. They knew what they were returning to. They understood the risks involved.
I was paying a brief visit to Camp Bastion together with Rev Neil Gardner, the convener of the Kirk’s Chaplains’ Committee, and four representatives from other UK churches to see the work of the forces’ chaplains. It was both an inspiring and a humbling experience.
I was left in no doubt, as we boarded the plane, as to what this trip involved. The business-class section of the plane had been re-configured. Instead of comfortable seats throughout, a large central area had been set out with stretchers. One resembled a four-poster bed with poles and an overhead rail. This was so that the curtains could be drawn to shield a critically injured patient. There was no escaping the reality of where we were heading.
Much of our time was naturally spent with the serving chaplains. These are men and women from all the major denominations in the UK and they practise what I call the theology of being. They stand beside their units wherever they are. That means they regularly go to forward-operating bases from where the troops encounter the insurgents. There they share life with their people as they experience the full rigours of war.
In the event of a unit suffering casualties, the chaplain is among the first to be flown to the location to be with the remainder so that they have someone to talk to. “The service I held that day was packed,” said one chaplain as he helped the young people cope with the setback of injured colleagues. This is incarnational theology at its best. This is what the Bible says God does with us. He comes and stands beside us in Jesus. So the chaplain, often to the astonishment of his troops, will go and stand beside his people in an expression of solidarity and encouragement. “What are you doing here, padre, when you don’t have to be here?”, was a question often asked of the chaplains. The answer is the response faith brings to such encounters.
Having had no experience of military life before my appointment as moderator I was impressed by the work of the chaplains as I was by the troops we met.
Chaplains perform an invaluable role in a theatre of war. They offer support and encouragement from the unique perspective of faith. In a task-driven environment, they help to keep the young men and women human as they listen to their concerns about what they are asked to do.
They also give troops an opportunity to talk confidentially about worries they might have regarding those left at home. “Those people were more interested in me than in what I do,” said one young man after our visit to his unit. That is chaplaincy. The Church of Scotland, together with other denominations, provides such pastoral care and support to those serving overseas and at home.
The work of the chaplains was not the only thing I found impressive. I was also very impressed by the troops we met. Professional, well trained and focused they were all a credit to their uniform. Some had a history, as they said, but the army had helped them turn their lives around. You can’t help but be impressed at the multi-tasking of the helicopter pilots as they seek to protect those who are bringing out the casualties, all the while putting their own lives at risk. The raw courage of those who discover and then defuse improvised explosive devices was an eye-opener: with painstaking care they use just a single finger to scrape soil away to reveal the device that could kill or maim at the slightest wrong movement. They well know the risks involved. They are people to be proud of.
Focus and teamwork were the words used most often when we visited the base hospital. Everybody there is totally dedicated to helping the patients. Sadly, they have had to develop a level of trauma care far beyond what is required in an NHS hospital and in doing so they have saved countless lives. The helicopter rescue units have reduced the time to get casualties to hospital in order to give the medical teams the best chance to help the patient. The team hospital we met were reservists, taken from their day jobs in UK hospitals to serve in Camp Bastion. It takes a certain kind of person to do all that we saw and heard of that day.
As we know, however, the government has set the date of 2014 for pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. Much time and effort, therefore, is now directed towards that end. This is not just a war to defeat the insurgents. It is also about trying to help a country re-build itself. Our military is working closely with its Afghan counterparts to produce a seamless transition.
Encouragingly, we were told the main concern of the locals in one area now cleared of insurgents was healthcare, schools, roads and commerce. The things that make for peace in a stable society are becoming the dominant hopes of the people. It would be the hope of us all that this might continue.
I have returned from Camp Bastion with memories of people; chaplains, officers, troops. They are ordinary people, in many instances doing quite extraordinary things. The cost to them and their families is immense and we must never forget it. It belongs to all of us to offer what support we can to them and to their families, and pray that their return home may be speedy and safe.
• The Right Reverend David Arnott is moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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