Imagine walking 160 kilometres in combat boots while carrying 10 kilograms of sand in a backpack. With every step, more muscles join the protest chorus. Agonizing shin splints and blisters forming underneath calluses bring constant pain to a whole new level. Through it all, your focus remains not on your private agony but on helping comrades survive this journey.
Meet Lieutenant (Navy) Bev Kean-Newhook, who as Canadian contingent chaplain of the 2011 Nijmegen Marches, completed a series of four 40-kilometre marches in the central Netherlands.
“It was the mental and physical challenge that this could be for me-and the spiritual challenge,” explains Kean-Newhook, a chaplain at the Military Family Resource Centre in Halifax. She had long been intrigued by Nijmegen and when she finally volunteered, she was chosen to oversee spiritual support for the 200-strong Canadian contingent.
Each year, more than 40,000 soldiers and civilians from around the world join this famous long-distance walk, established in 1909 to improve the fitness of Dutch infantrymen. Since 1952, the Canadian Forces have sent a contingent. The event has become a way to remember soldiers who died in WW II.
The three-month training regimen is no walk in the park. Kean-Newhook, 37, first laced up her sneakers for 10-kilometre marches. Then she graduated to combat boots and the walks stretched to 20, then 30 kilometres. She would be out for up to six hours at a time, marching around the roads and lakes of her suburban home in Fall River.
But on July 19, when the first march began, Kean-Newhook felt ready. She rose with the others at 0300 hours, dressed in full combat gear and threw on her rucksack, loaded with sandbags.
For four days, she and soldiers walked through small towns and on country roads, over cobblestone and pavement. More than a million spectators lined the streets, swapping souvenirs for candy. The marchers sang to boost morale-and keep their minds off their feet.
Feet suffer the worst in Nijmegen. A Forces guide (Care of Body and Sole) suggests ways to avoid pain, even down to the toenails: they are to be cut in a straight line one week before the walk so rough edges can settle.
Toenails weren’t Kean-Newhook’s problem. She suffered shin splints and tight muscles, as well as “blistering, calluses, and blistering under calluses.” At night she soaked her swollen feet in cold water.
Yet despite discomfort, Kean-Newhook focused on caring for others, just as she does in her work among military families. In Halifax she runs the Deployment Cafe for military spouses and helps people nurture their spiritual lives.
In Nijmegen her ministry was one of encouragement. If a team suffered a setback owing to heat stroke or fatigue, she knew what to do:
“That’s when I come in and say, ‘OK, yup, we had a little blip. We gotta keep going, keep on pouring that water over your head so you can get that five kilometres that you need to get in for your day. Don’t give up now, right?’ ”
As contingent chaplain, Kean-Newhook also led worship. She first presided at the Vimy Ridge opening service, where, standing beneath the enormous monument, she preached on God’s ultimate triumph. She also led a service at the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. Finally, on July 22, Kean-Newhook and her contingent marched the final leg. Spectators handed them gladioli to stick in their rucksacks-a Nijmegen tradition.
Through all the taped heels and emotional highs and lows, Kean-Newhook says she was often inspired by chaplains who had served in past wars.
“They had to walk every day and they had to make sure their troops were healthy and their morale was good,” she says. “I was just thinking, ‘If they can do it, by God’s grace I can do it.’ So that’s what I did.”
Ali Symons is senior editor, General Synod.