Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Note from a Canadian army padre in Afghanistan

This note was forwarded to me from my brother Al. It well describes a padre's sense of call and responsibility to the people he or she serves. I don't know Jim Short myself, wish I did.

Major Jim Short, a Padre with 39CBG, is on the current rotation to Afghanistan. He sends a report on what is happening there now.

Jim Short’s Update – Mid April 2008

I am taking a few minutes while visiting “out beyond the wire” to use a computer at one of our many Forward Operating Base to start this update. I have for the last number of days been visiting by air and convoy the various locations where our Canadian soldiers are stationed, primarily the ones from the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams who work teaching the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Our soldiers doing this work are scattered about in small groups and my aim before the tour is over to have spent a few days in each location.

It’s a privilege to do this and share some of the life that our soldiers share. I am considered depending on which soldiers you speak with to be either stupid or brave because I do not carry a weapon. Chaplains are considered to be non-armed combatants under the rules of the Geneva Convention.

It takes a bit of planning and preparation for this visiting. I prefer to travel by convoy, than air, so as to share some of the risk our people do and to not be seen as someone with special privilege. I have to figure out what to bring – and then carry it – how many uniforms, toiletries, religious items etc – plus I am carrying a bottle of port for communion purposes and trying very hard for it not to break. I eat mostly boxed rations supplemented by that ever favourite Canadian Afghan ration – pop tarts – the thing my parents would not let me have when I was a child. Here I can eat them all I want – yippee!

I also have to carry water between points and ensure that I keep re-hydrated at all times. There are no guarantees of showers so I take lots of wipes and hand sanitizer. I cram in as many pens and pads of paper as I can for the Afghan children. My current stock I left with a small group of our soldiers who are quite out on the frontier and often visit an Imam and his wife who run a school in their mosque – she teaches the girls and he the boys. Both risk their lives attempting to educate the young of their community for a better future. Insurgents like to kill teachers and burn schools as a message to the local population to not have any dealings with ISAF. As the soldiers said, to the Imam and his wife, a box of pens and a few pads of paper are like gold. What respect and admiration I feel for such people willing to risk their lives – sure gives me pause to think.

I am often reminded during these days of the work of our war time chaplains and in particular a very good friend of mine and Cathy’s, long since deceased – the Reverend Doctor Russell Ross who carried his portable communion kit all across England to visit isolated groups of Canadian soldiers during World War 2. Before Russell died, he and his dear wife Jean gave me that communion set. Here I am, so many years’ later, following in the footsteps of such chaplains and ministers.

I know that the soldiers are always glad to see the Padre – religious or not – and there are many opportunities for conversation, reflection, venting and getting to know people. I am also learning what our people mean when they talk about being anxious, wanting to stay alive and longing more than anything else to get home safely in one piece. I feel all of those things as well especially when I am visiting in isolated places or traveling along roads that could have IED’s.

When we wait for a convoy to roll or are sitting under the beautiful Afghan sky on a night filled with stars and the crescent moon – there is often time and God’s space for conversations of meaning and purpose to take place – even if it is as simple as talking about our families – feeling those pains of homesickness covered by the joy of sharing and remembering.

I have been reflecting on some words from a devotional book I carry in my day pack (along with a few novels, a journal and a bible) from a favourite author Frederick Buechner:

”If I had to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and a preacher it would be something like: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it not less that the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell our way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

Such moments come often – arriving in my present writing location yesterday, I came across our Psy Ops Team – 5 reservists – two of whom, a Sgt and a Captain are old friends from my days with the Canadian Scottish Regiment on Vancouver Island. They invited me for supper so we gathered around an old table in green modular tent with American Individual Meal packets, a gift from the Yanks next door and had both a holy meal and a good re-union. And as we said – who would have thought years ago that one day we would be in Afghanistan eating supper like this together. It was indeed a holy moment. I felt treated like an honored guest and that simple meal was better than all the really good meals I have at the cafeteria in KAF.

On my first trip out six weeks ago, this country was hot, barren and dusty. It’s still hot and dusty but now with great swaths of green. Ancient narled grape roots laying over curb like irrigation ditches, fruit trees, wheat and of course marijuana and opium. The harvesting season comes in Mid May. In the distance beyond the green belt are the mountains and the desert – where Bedouin tribesman still live in tents and travel as if time for them stands still.

From the many places I have visited, I see large flocks of mangy multi colored sheep grazing, led often by a Shepherd with a stick and his family. Out in fields, despite the odd tractor, the average Afghan farmer still does his work with a shovel and works from dawn, taking a high noon siesta and then working until early evening. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened. These people work very hard and they age fast. The other day a group of Afghan National Police officers and their interpreter could not believe I was 50 years old and as we shared a glass of chi tea, they kept saying that I was so old but yet looked so young and strong.

One great source of blessing to me has been our Coalition Chaplains. There are here Chaplains from the US (Navy, Air force and Marine), the UK, Australia, Romania and Poland. I’ve attached our group photo from our every Thursday meeting (some health professionals join us as well) Mainly, we gather for support – a time for devotion and prayer and to get to know each other. We had fun the day that I asked everyone to introduce themselves by telling us what they wanted us to know about them, what story or scripture verse inspired them and what animal in the zoo they were. We occasionally meet at meals and for coffee.

One particularly difficult night while I was hastily downing down my supper to go meet a helicopter bringing in one of our soldiers who eventually died (our 4th Ramp Ceremony) I ended up sitting with two American chaplains and when I stood up to leave, Chaplain Curry stood up, grabbed by hand, put his other hand on my shoulder and shared God’s blessing with me for the night to come. I was deeply touched. Such seemingly small gestures mean a lot here.

Speaking of gestures – let me end by saying thank you for the cards and emails that have come my way. They are deeply appreciated and they keep me grounded and connected to home. My family sends me some awesome care packages and the folks in the building around me really like that because as they say – I share it with them. I have a table at my office door where I put candy and treats for people to grab as they go by – it creates a reason for them to stop and have a few words. The Postal Sgt says I am by far winning the race for most mail. Thanks also to those of you who have sent school supplies – I have distributed them and sent back to one of the groups some pictures of their distribution – I hope you have been able to see them. For now – God Bless and Take Care,

Love from JIM – somewhere in the Zhari Pangaway Area of Afghanistan, Kandahar Province

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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