Army chaplain jumps in feet first after his flock

By on January 27, 2006

Military chaplain Captain Fraser Harvey shares a laugh as he dry suit is zipped up prior to jumping into the frozen waters of the Madawaska River.

The duties of Canadian Forces chaplains can be very different to their civilian counterparts.

Take Capt. Fraser Harvey, the Anglican chaplain at Canadian Forces Base Borden, near Barrie, Ont. In recent years, he has followed members of his flock by parachuting out of planes, entering burning buildings in full firefighting gear, handling some of the most dangerous gases and nerve agents in the world and, most recently, jumping through a hole in the ice into the frigid waters of a fast flowing river.

“I go wherever my flock is,” he said, while bundled up in a dry suit moments before going into the freezing water during a military ice rescue course. “I figure if they’re crazy enough to do it so am I.”

The biggest difference for a priest in the Canadian Forces, he said, is that military chaplains tend to spend more of their time ministering in the workplace than their civilian counterparts.

“Our ministry is sort of more in the workplace, a place where few parish priests go,” he said. “Our primary contact with our men and women is as they are doing their jobs, whether it be in garrison, in the field, overseas, on ships or in aircraft. We are involved with our peoples’ lives 24 hours a day. “

In Bosnia and Haiti, for example, he often spent time talking with lonely sentries in the small hours of the night. He has gone into burning buildings with trainees at the Canadian Forces Fire Academy at Borden. Last September, he took chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training at the Counter-Terrorism Technology Centre at CFB Suffield, Alta. He has parachuted out of aircraft with search and rescue technicians.

And this month, he found himself with a small group of soldiers and airmen taking an ice rescue course that ended with each trainee plunging through a hole in the ice into the freezing waters of the Madawaska River, south of Ontario’s Algonquin Park.

The course was run by 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which has 450 Canadian Rangers, who are part-time army reservists, in 15 remote First Nations in Ontario’s Far North.

“By taking this course I don’t have to be a liability when I go North with the Rangers,” Capt. Harvey said. “They don’t have to worry about me because after this the padre (as military chaplains are known) can look after himself, instead of having someone always follow me along. This helps to give me the confidence and the ability to work and minister in a northern environment.”

Capt. Harvey is also unusual for a Canadian Forces chaplain because he began his 30-year military career as a teen-aged army private. He served as a radio technician and spent time as a member of the now-disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment. When he discerned a call to the priesthood, the Canadian Forces helped him to get his degree and serve in a civilian parish before commissioning him into the chaplains branch.

“One of the advantages that I have is having come up through the ranks,” he said. “It helps with establishing some credibility. They know that I’m not some green person just in off the street. I’ve been through the practical applications of service life. I’ve shared their hardship. I’ve done mountain (warfare) operations. I’ve done survival training at Suffield. I’ve done about 60 parachute jumps, including jumps from 800 feet with full equipment at night when I was with the Airborne.”

He said he was scared last September when he went through decontamination at Suffield, after handling deadly gases and chemical agents while wearing cumbersome protective equipment. “I was able to counter my own fear and now I can show the troops that, hey, if the padre isn’t scared, you don’t have to be, because you can have faith in your equipment, your training and in the procedures you have been taught.”

The ability to have so many military experiences not only helps him relate to his flock, he said, but allows him to continue to grow as a person. “I guess, in some ways, I’m still a young soldier at heart and I still enjoy doing all those things that my body could do so well 25 years ago and are a little harder to do now.”

Sgt. Peter Moon is the public affairs ranger for 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group at CFB Borden.

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