Caring for Canada’s troops ‘an honour’ for military chaplains

Published November 1, 2007

On Sept. 24, 2007, Cpl. Nathan Hornburg was killed in Afghanistan by mortar fire as he was repairing a tank track. He was 24 and a reservist in the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, based in Calgary.

According to a story in the Toronto Star, Rev. Major Pierre Bergeron, a military chaplain, eulogized Cpl. Hornburg at Kandahar Air Field before his final journey home as one who “chose to serve and do something to make this world a better place.”

At the same time, across the world in Canada, nine male and four female priests were training to be able to do Maj. Bergeron’s job.

“When you are overseas, you drive fast and never be predictable in your routes,” said Petty Officer Christopher Perry, sitting in the passenger seat of a Jeep SUV, instructing two chaplains in a navigation exercise through the wooded roads of Canadian Forces Base Borden, about 115 km north of Toronto.

“Don’t be a target, in other words,” said Rev. Capt. Shaun Turner, an Anglican chaplain. “Right,” answered PO2 Perry.

With Canadian troops facing mortal danger in Afghanistan (as of presstime, 71 troops and one diplomat had been killed), the students at the chaplains’ school at CFB Borden know there is a good chance they will be ministering in combat situations.

“If you are in the forces today, you are going to be deployed,” said Rev. Lt. (Navy) Carol Bateman, who is Anglican and an instructor in the course. In addition to training to minister to the wounded and dying on the battlefield, chaplains also help families at home. “We work with mental health professionals,” she said. “We see drug addictions, gambling, sex addictions.”

The 14-week course is offered once per year in the fall and was inaugurated in 1994. All regular (that is, non-reserve) military chaplains – and some from other nations – are trained at the school, although about three-quarters of this year’s class already had some training through experience with the reserves.

The first seven weeks of the course are devoted to field training, the rest to classroom work, such as how to advise a commanding officer about different faith situations. Living in large green tents amid several hectares of tall pines, chaplains learn military basics such as how to follow and give orders.

“The mindset is really different (from civilian life). The hardest thing for the chaplain is to learn not to say ‘please’ (when giving an order)” said Capt. Turner, who was most recently rector of Good Shepherd parish in Emsdale, Ont, about 60 km south of North Bay. Similarly, chaplains have to remember the “please” and not start issuing orders when back at a civilian church, he said.

On one typical day, the chaplains learned vehicle navigation using a topographical map and compass, demonstrated the construction of a small personal sleeping shelter (nicknamed a “hootchie”), learned how to apply camouflage face paint, attended a pyrotechnics recognition demonstration and participated in worship in a field chapel.

Chaplains are not allowed to carry arms, but must familiarize themselves with weapons in the event that they need to make them safe. PO2 Perry conducted a demonstration of the safety catch on a C7 service rifle, tossed a couple of smoke canisters to demonstrate marker or camouflage smoke and threw canisters that simulated the whistle and boom of artillery fire.

Although they are not armed, chaplains cannot be helpless in the field, noted Rev. Lt. (Navy) Martin Keatings, formerly of the Orillia South parish in the diocese of Toronto. “Soldiers are a very tight community. You have to earn their respect and trust. When you are there when they are cleaning rifles, they see you are helpful, willing to listen, and it builds trust,” he said.

Notifying families of a death and training to do a burial in the field are part of the job, he said. “There is a lot of comfort in prayer. Without Christ behind it, it would be a stressful job,” said Lt. Keatings.

A chaplain who sits in an office and waits for the troops to come to him or her will not be very effective, said Lt. Bateman. “It is a ministry of presence. You have to be with your people. You do PT (physical training) with the troops; you’re there at coffee time,” she said.

Four weeks into the course, the trainees were adjusting to military life, although some moved a little too slowly in response to an order to suit Lt. Bateman. In military style, the instructions contained in the course paperwork involved very precise tasks, such as “Inspire Your Team: This is an opportunity for the chaplain to profess his calling, stand tall and proclaim Good News to the oppressed … Prepare and deliver a homily containing 3-5 minutes of inspiration.”

Rev. Lt. (Navy) Jennifer Gosse, formerly from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador and now based in Halifax, said she “wasn’t even in cadets” as a kid. “I was scared about what I was going to be put through here,” she said, adding she was relieved to discover there was no drill sergeant yelling at the trainees.

After 10 years in parish ministry, she was seeking a challenge, she said. “It is an opportunity to work with younger people, who are not the majority in many churches. I was interested in a physical challenge and the possibility of travel. When you listen to the news, you hear of the stress of people in the service and their families,” she said. Concerning Afghanistan, she added, “Our government has said this is where we are right now and they (the troops) need care. It’s an honour.”

Remembrance Day is hardly an abstract concept in such a setting. Lt. Gosse recalled that at her former church in Goose Bay, the home of a Canadian Forces base, the Royal Canadian Legion would come to a special service, bearing flags, and play The Last Post. Looking around the woods at CFB Borden, she said, “Thinking of Remembrance Day … When I got out my hootchie, I thought, ‘We are training for the same thing (service in wartime), following in people’s footsteps.'”


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