Serving the Armed Forces in Afghanistan

Rev Colin Macleod of 2Scots recently shared some of his experiences of operational tour in Afghanistan with the Free Church of Scotland monthly magazine "The Record".

In August 2015 The Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland left Glencorse barracks in Edinburgh to begin an eight month deployment to Kabul. For many of us, it was a familiar journey back to Afghanistan where the British army has been operating since 2004. As an army chaplain this is my fourth deployment to the country having served here previously in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Many of our Armed Forces personnel have a similar story, as the UK has taken a leading part in the NATO led mission here in response to the government of Afghanistan requesting military assistance in the face of an aggressive and determined Taliban insurgency. The country has been riven by conflict for generations and it still continues today. Currently there are some 13,000 NATO troops still deployed here as part of the same mission now termed 'Resolute Support.'

 

Our base of operations has switched from Helmand province in the south to the country's capital city. Whereas my previous deployments were each within the framework of a Brigade of 4000, our battalion now forms part of a British contingent that has reduced to 500, working alongside our NATO partners. As well as thousands of civilian contractors and Embassy staff, nations that are represented include the UK, USA, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Georgia, Norway, Poland, Estonia, Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Spain, Czech Republic, Australia, and Mongolia.

 

Thus far, it has proved to be a challenging and rewarding five months. As the only British chaplain I have a remit to cover five locations where our troops are operating. This has resulted in a weekly routine of travelling round the city by helicopter and holding three services every week. There is always a 'mixed bag' at these services but what a privilege and opportunity to put God's Word at the centre of things for a few moments. 

 

My visits to our bases are sometimes routine and sometimes anything but! Army chaplains have a clear focus – to provide spiritual, moral and pastoral support to all our soldiers. By spending time with them, living the same routine and sharing the same experiences, bonds are formed and friendships established. There are many discussions and at times help and advice is shared. A typical deployment puts demands on everyone and many different circumstances can emerge that cause all kinds of emotions and, at times, stress and anxiety. We have soldiers who have lost parents and grandparents, while at the other end of the scale we have soldiers who have become fathers and only seen their new babies via Skype. When our troops experience these things it is good to be here for them to offer support and talk things through. Sometimes this means being able to pray with them but not always.

 

Of course, life goes on at home during a deployment. Work, school, clubs, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, exams, elections - family life goes on! This deployment has taken us over Christmas as well which everyone felt. It was a time to be embraced which we all did, and there were some memorable carol services from my point of view. We may not have been tuneful, and maybe it would be pushing it to say we were joyful, but we certainly did our best to keep spirits high. There has been an enormous amount of parcels sent out from UK as well – not just families but friends and charities as well. All of which has been a huge boost to morale and deeply appreciated.   

 

Chaplaincy in any area is simply ministry in the work place. It is getting alongside people and sharing their space. In the ten years I have been in the army I have found senior officers to be hugely supportive of our role and a genuine welcome from troops in being around the place with them – wherever they happen to be. It is a ministry of variety and mobility. It is also a ministry amongst people who are tremendously capable, courageous and gifted, the majority of whom have little experience of church. Spending months in Kabul far from home has brought many discussions, questions and challenges about faith, the bible, church and ultimately God Himself. We may be in Kabul where security remains a major issue, but I am sure many chaplains and ministers will relate to this reality!

 

There has been tragedy as well on this deployment. The Taliban continue to inflict death and injury across the country on those opposed to their ideology. It is a reality that all NATO troops have to contend with and in the week before Christmas six US soldiers and four Georgian troops lost their lives when an improvised explosive device was detonated. As a British contingent we suffered the heartache of one of our RAF Puma helicopters crashing in October. Five were killed, two RAF flight crew, two US Air Force and one civilian contractor. The repatriation service that follows such events are deeply moving, dignified moments as full military honours are paid to our fallen. Always however, our personnel need to come to terms with the loss of friends and continue with the task at hand. At such times our hearts go out to families and loved ones at home.

 

With 2016 just beginning please pray for the safety of our troops serving here in Kabul, our families at home and peace for a country that has seen so much war. Please also pray that God's Word would be blessed amongst our soldiers and that all the chaplains ministering to their troops from many different countries would be encouraged in their work for the Gospel. 

 

The last word goes to the Rev Dr David Coulter, Church of Scotland minister and Chaplain General to Her Majesty's Land Forces. After a visit to Kabul early in January he shared his thoughts on the work of chaplaincy here:

 

“There are many different nations worshipping God in different styles and different traditions and I think about the Scottish Paraphrase that says:

 'I'm not ashamed to own my Lord  

Or to defend his cause

Maintain the glory of his cross

And honour all his laws.'

While we have soldiers, sailors and air force personnel deployed in dangerous places around the world, and we continue to have chaplains serving alongside them every step of the way, I feel sure God is there with them.”

 

For an insight to the daily routine of our troops and a taste of life in the bases in Kabul have a look at the 2 SCOTS Face book page. 

Information on army chaplaincy can be found on our website www.army.mod.uk/chaplains

 

 

Thanks to the Free Church of Scotland "The Record" magazine for allowing us to share their article.

V