Chaplain in Combat by Revd Simon Rowlands

I was over 30 when I gave up being a Highways Engineer and took Holy Orders. I have now been a vicar for 14 years currently serving the ministry in Faversham, Kent. However, to be far more accurate I’m not actually in Faversham. I am presently in Camp Bastion, Helmand, Afghanistan.

The reason for this current location is that I am a Reservist Army Chaplain. Prior to deploying to Afghanistan I completed all the required training but the greatest amount of time I had ever spent away from my wonderful family was two weeks. However, these short stints away did include trips to Cyprus and the USA. It wasn’t all bad!

When in the UK I am chaplain to 3 PWRR (Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment). The regiment has deployed a great deal previously and now with my own tour to Afghanistan I am in a stronger position to provide pastoral support to soldiers back home. Back home I am on call to provide counsel and guidance to any of the soldiers in the South East of England in need. There is a regular chaplain but the footprint they have to cover is so large that it can only be achieved by the integrated support that comes from the Army Reserve Chaplaincy.

I am now in Afghanistan. It is a different world, with a different community and different responsibilities although the job that I do is essentially the same. I am chaplain at the Hospital in Bastion. I minister directly to that community; not only the patients, but also the staff of this first class establishment.

On a day to day basis I am always on call but with a pager rather than a mobile phone. I am used much more than a normal hospital chaplain would be in the UK. I get paged for all serious medical emergencies and I then have about the same time to get there as it will take a helicopter to arrive with the casualty or casualties. I then have a special place to stand within the Emergency Department.

It is the Afghan Armed Forces that do the majority of fighting against the insurgency now and as a result the people coming through with the most serious injuries are now overwhelmingly Afghan. They are all Muslim. What can I do as a Christian minister for them? I support and I listen. If an Afghan is dying an interpreter will be called for but I will be there holding the dying man’s hand. No-one should die alone.

My duty is caring for the spiritual and moral well-being of the staff and patients. I do this by being alongside them or, if you will, the ministry of loitering with intent! Others have described it as the ministry of quiet conversation.

I have found the work much like I expected it to be but it has been also more intense. I have seen the full range of the hospital’s work from someone dropping a spanner on their foot to the individuals that the medics cannot save. Much of my duty of care is for the staff who deal with all of this yet a lot of the time all I can feel is humility as I witness these miracles of modern medicine. However, it creates a different perspective when someone is described as being lucky to have lost an eye rather than far worse.

There are still some things that hurt more than others. The clearest example of this is the cry of a child. We almost acknowledge here the risks that adults take and the consequences of the activities that go on but with a child it is a different degree. You see everyone step up even more on such an occasion. The medics think of home and ask the question, “Why?”

Although my mind quizzes these things I don’t get challenged in any kind of role as God’s representative instead they thank me for being here even though my actions seem inadequate alongside their efforts.

The staff community that I serve is incredibly varied. It starts with personnel from all three of Britain’s armed forces. It then expands to Danish and American physicians. On the clerical front I deal with Georgians, Danes, Estonians and Americans. Within the American community there are the nuances between US Army, USMC, US Navy and USAF. However, the variation does not end there with the different Catholic and Protestant denominations joined by the Orthodox Church, the Church of Latter Day Saints and Rabbis. However, all the interpreters and locally employed Afghan staff are Muslims which provides yet a further dimension!

Obviously there is an irony that I am employed as a Christian minister within the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. I was here during the heat of summer that coincided with Ramadan. The prayerfulness and commitment to faith shown by the fasting individuals has left a clear impression on me. I have had the chance to meet the Jordanian Forces Imam and my knowledge of Islam has been unquestionably increased. Faith is to the fore here. It offers the chance to explore.

I also have the regular day to day duties and they are little different to Faversham. The church is here but it is a tent rather than a listed building. There is music but not from an organ; CDs are used instead. In case that might be thought to be inferior it is enhanced by the differently accented voices whether they be American soprano or the deep bass rhythms provided by Fijian soldiers. I also find that my mind is focussed. If you are preaching to an armed congregation then you need to make sure the sermon has been well written!

I return in November to my Faversham parish that is being cared for by a band of hardworking retired clergy. I will return to my family that I miss on a daily basis. I will be able to walk my dogs and have a reliably decent cup of tea.

The only advice I would give to my successor here in Camp Bastion would be to listen carefully, walk quietly and do not be afraid to go anywhere in the hospital because this is a place where you and your calling are always welcome.”

Chaplain Simon Rowlands

Role 3 Hospital Camp Bastion