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19 December 2012

A channel of peace in Helmand

A channel of peace in Helmand

Army chaplains follow soldiers into the fray, seeing conflict and witnessing tragedy and death. Army chaplain Simon Farmer talks to Chine Mbubaegbu about bringing a sense of Christ’s peace in the midst of conflict…

In the midst of gunfire, death, violence and conflict in northern Helmand, Afghanistan, Simon Farmer ministered from a place of refuge - a shed.

As an army chaplain – affectionately known as a ‘padre’ – he plays a crucial part in the moral guidance of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh. 

Simon, who has been an army padre since 1992, says: “I believe that chaplains are here to offer spiritual leadership and pastoral care, and moral guidance. We’re also a soul-friend and a confidante to the commanding officer, his advisor on all things spiritual and pastoral.” 

The nature of war and conflict is such that the padres often play a vital role in providing comfort to the troops, in answering life’s big questions about suffering and death and life and friendship.

Having recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, where the 1 Royal Welsh Battlegroup lost seven soldiers, Simon says: “There were also a lot more catastrophic, life-changing injuries. We often have to break the news to the soldiers about who has been killed. And that’s frankly something which is never easy. Some of the hardest parts of the job are in the aftermath of that. 

“I knew all the guys that had died and that made Remembrance Day hugely moving this year. When a soldier dies on operations it affects the whole Battlegroup, our morale, our sense of purpose and we have few moments to grieve as we have to move on and at a fast pace. We have no choice but to dust ourselves down and then move on. The padre does what he or she can to ensure that the soldiers have some space to grieve in an environment that is so busy and fast-moving. So we make sure we’re available 24-7.” 

Tensions can easily flare in the aftermath of loss, while soldiers are also dealing with grieving their friends and still being in conflict – guns firing, the sounds of violence. 

Simon says: “The padre is available to help soak up some of that tension and anxiety.” To be alongside the soldiers after a fire-fight, all covered in desert dust and blood, was a place that Simon always clearly gravitated to. “Many a tough soldier having heard his mate had been injured or killed wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears and the padre is there again to bring comfort and even join them in a smoke and lead them in a prayer or two when appropriate.” 

It’s in the midst of this that Simon would minister and work out of a shed – a shed of refuge – a small chapel dedicated to the patron saint of soldiers, St Martin.  

“The shed for me was a place where soldiers could come and be quiet and reflect and grieve, often with a cigarette or two and copious amounts of fresh coffee or ice-cold water.” 

But with the vast majority of soldiers un-churched and operating within a macho climate, it is often hard for them to be seen to be seeking help from the padre. 

Simon made the shed as non-threatening as possible to encourage soldiers along; a place where soldiers could also find fresh coffee and cold drinks from the fridge that he bought.

“Where we were in Helmand wasn’t peaceful at all,” Simon says. “But when people walked into that shed, they entered a place of peace. That became a very special place for soldiers. People would light candles in there and ask God to come into their situation, whatever it was. A number of soldiers found faith or their faith was re-ignited after visiting the shed. 

“They were remarkable times,” he recalls. “The shed could only hold around 15 people and we were often sitting in around 23kg of full body armour with no air conditioning as the threat of rockets and mortars coming into camp remained high for most of the tour. But there was a sense of peace in that place. At Easter, we even had a foot-washing ceremony. There was a real sense of peace and reconciliation with God in it. One of the soldiers said that this was where earth meets heaven. 

“For me it’s been a real sense of peace even when the guns are going off, although to be honest we would still jump out of our skin when it was all happening.” 

In today’s Afghanistan with the increase of ‘green on blue’ incidents [Afghan counterparts attacking Nato troops] the padres are in a vulnerable place. Because, unlike the soldiers, they do not carry weapons. It’s reported that 179 army chaplains died in World War I and a further 96 were killed in World War II.

Many of the padres in past wars have been awarded for their bravery in accompanying soldiers into conflict. 

While faith might be perceived as less popular in wider society, the army chaplains are clearly valued - especially on operations, with around 150 regular army chaplains currently in the British Army. 

“The great thing about being in the army is that you can be called to any area in the world where there is conflict. The army chaplain goes wherever the soldier goes and that is the unique role that an army padre has. So you’re living the life of a soldier, and you are trained to live and survive in the field but as a padre.” 

Simon adds: “It’s been a fantastic opportunity just to get alongside people where they are. I love my job and the ministry. This is where the rubber hits the road and for the soldier it’s not an easy place as young soldiers face their own mortality at such a young age. But every day, I get up loving being at work. Even when I’m in the thick of it in Afghanistan, I couldn’t think of a better place to be as a Christian minister.” 

There are of course times when Simon helps soldiers or their families when they wonder whether it’s all worth it, whether war is the answer, and whether the deaths and the extended periods of time away from family are necessary. Simon himself left his wife Rachel and their three children behind for seven months. 

“In times of war and conflict, I hold on to the idea that it’s always wrong to use force, unless it’s more wrong not to,” he says. “And as far as our families are concerned, saying goodbye to them when we go on tour, is probably the hardest thing we have to do. It never gets easier to say goodbye to those people that you love the most.” 

But Simon feels a deep sense of calling to be a presence among the soldiers; to shine something of Christ’s light amid the darkness of war as he chats and walks and prays with them. 

“My hope and prayer is to lead a soldier to something beyond themselves and ultimately to Christ,” he says. “A well-known quote from Padre Studdert Kennedy that we aspire to is that ‘we pray with the soldiers some of the time, but we pray for them all of the time’. Ultimately we are praying towards the vision of justice and peace in the world and that underpins everything we do.”

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