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Military Chaplains on the front lines

We see headlines, photos and video clips of war. We know that many new refugees are risking their lives to escape it. But Canadian soldiers and peacekeepers see these situations in real-time. They are face-to-face with the tragedies we read about. When they return, some battle scars are easy to see. Some are invisible.

Who stands ready to renew or offer hope to our soldiers?

Military chaplains, or “padres,” in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are available to offer spiritual guidance and counselling to the soldiers and commanding officers they serve with. Chaplains are active members of their unit and train alongside those they serve, including daily personal fitness. Unit padres deploy with their unit but remain unarmed even in combat.

The Christian Reformed Church endorses two Military Chaplains in Canada. Christian Courier spoke with Captain Gerald Van Smeerdyk, stationed at CFB Edmonton (AB), and Captain Kevin Stieva, stationed at CFB Gagetown (NB) to find out more about their ministry.

Why would an ordained minister want to become a military chaplain? Captain Stieva served in regular armed forces for 18 years before going back to school for a degree in theology. He cited the freedom to talk about faith as one of the reasons for joining the chaplaincy.

For Captain Van Smeerdyk, the answer came with a bit of a history lesson.

“If you have the means and the ability to help someone in need, why wouldn’t you? Personally, as a Dutch descendant, I am also paying back to the members of the Canadian Armed Forces what they have done for my family who emigrated from the Netherlands,” Van Smeerdyk said. “I’m serving as a military chaplain because it’s the right thing to do.”

The Unremembered
Last month, new Minister of Defence Harjit Singh Sajjan raised concerns about the increased rate of suicide among members of the military. He ordered the chief of defense staff to make investigating this tragedy a priority. Fifty-nine Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan have committed suicide, the Globe and Mail reports; 158 died in the mission, which ended in 2013. Because those taking their own lives are not honoured in the same way as other fallen soldiers, the Globe dubs the first group “the Unremembered.”

Soldiers returning home from WWII, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and other combat situations were the first to bring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to light. PTSD is caused by traumatic events combined with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. When an individual is subjected to war, combat, physical or sexual abuse, childhood neglect or forced captivity, these situations can (and often do) cause PTSD. This disorder has links to suicide. And according to a recent Statistics Canada report, “Post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder were twice as high among Regular Force members who had been deployed in support of the mission in Afghanistan compared to those who had not.”

Chaplains are among the first-responders for soldiers dealing with personal stress or mental distress. Captain Van Smeerdyk served in Afghanistan, and he says that “the mental trauma many of us experienced there is incalculable.”

Specific prayer needs
For churches who minister to veterans or those currently serving in the CAF, Stieva and Van Smeerdyk offer several suggestions for how to help. Pray for those who are currently deployed and for their families. The military has resources for families, but having a church family come alongside helps those waiting for loved ones to return and gives peace of mind to those who are away for weeks or months at a time.

Pray for those who are overseas. Pray for and support those returning wounded and suffering, but also pray for those who return bearing scars you can’t see. PTSD manifests itself differently from person to person, and can appear immediately after a traumatic event or even years later. The symptoms range in severity and it’s very difficult to admit that you need help. The military has a range of helps available, but having a church family for support is always beneficial.

“If some of our injured members are members of your congregations, learn about PTSD and don’t pass judgment on them for inappropriate behaviour, but embrace them with compassionate support and prayers for healing,” recommends Van Smeerdyk.

Captain Stieva said it’s not hard to remember the chaplains because they’re easy to pick out of a crowd. They might be dressed in white or have a purple scarf on for official duties. Yet in a crowd of soldiers dozens are suffering silently and need prayer and support.

Serving in a pluralistic environment means a chaplain could be ordained from one of 20 Christian denominations, or have a Jewish or Muslim faith tradition. “We are called to speak the truth, even to our military commanders, but we must never forget to do so in love. Pray that chaplains always remember that their Commander in Chief is gracious, compassionate and abounding in love,” says Van Smeerdyk.
Captain Stieva wants to encourage those looking for a mission field to consider serving as a military chaplain. Chaplains in the Army and Air Force are assigned to a specific unit and live and train with the same group of men. In the Navy it works a little differently as a chaplain may not always serve on the same ship.

“The military may cover the cost of an education in order to be ordained, and though chaplains aren’t allowed to proselytize, there are many opportunities to share about my faith,” says Stieva.

“The work we do is your outreach to the members of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces]. You have made us your hands and feet,” writes Van Smeerdyk. “Being a military chaplain offers incredible opportunities for ministry. If civilian ministers were to take a close look at chaplain ministry, or even just talk to a military chaplain, I think that Christian Reformed churches would be expanding their outreach in the CAF.”

‘Operation Provision’
Meanwhile, “staff at Canadian Forces bases across the country are counting beds and making tentative plans to house and feed thousands of Syrian refugees expected to arrive in the coming weeks,” the Huffington Post says. Members of the military currently overseas may be called upon to help transport immigrants to Canada, journalist David Pugliese theorizes, a task for which some soldiers have already volunteered to give up their Christmas leave.
 

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