The British forces in Iraq, and the Church

by
02 November 2006

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From the Chaplain-in-Chief to the Royal Air Force
Sir, - I have read with considerable disquiet the report "Bishop: 'Escort the dead from Iraq'" ( News, 16 December). I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the concerns of the Bishop of Bath & Wells regarding a perceived "lack of honour and respect given to fallen service personnel".

The chaplaincies of the three armed forces work very closely to uphold the long-held tradition in the Services that those killed in action are given due honour and respect upon their repatriation. I want to assure the Bishop and your readers that chaplains for their part play a pivotal role in this extremely delicate and sensitive process.

The chaplain in an operational theatre will always be heavily involved alongside other welfare agencies after the death or serious injury of serving personnel. This will encompass, among other tasks, the pastoral care of colleagues, and invariably a memorial service will be held in theatre as a fitting tribute to those who have died.

On return to this country, in a designated aircraft, the bodies are repatriated in a moving ceremony attended by family and senior members of the military. As part of the ceremony, the coffin is borne out of the aircraft by a uniformed bearer party drawn from the same Service as the fallen comrade.

A bugler sounds "Last Post", and prayers are offered by military chaplains. This ceremony is first and foremost an important milestone for the families in their own journey of grief.

In the opening paragraph, the Bishop is quoted as expressing a concern regarding a "cloak of secrecy" over these ceremonies, which suggests a lack of public recognition. The Ministry of Defence website www.news.mod.uk/telic carries pictures, eulogies, and details of all fatalities in theatre, and is the first port of call for national and regional media as a source of information when one of our service personnel is killed. It is very well used.

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But our first priority is, and will always be, the family. I would like to assure the Bishop that the intention is for a dignified, appropriate, and essentially a private ceremony that also takes into account the wishes of the family. It is for this reason rather than any desire for secrecy that the event is shielded from the glare of publicity.

I hope that this allays any understandable concerns. In writing, I have taken the lead on behalf of my colleagues in the Royal Navy and the Army, as the Royal Air Force has the primary responsibility for the transportation and reception of those who die or are injured in overseas military operations. The honouring of fallen or injured personnel is a priority, and a duty that we undertake to the very best of our ability.
RON HESKETH
Chaplaincy Services (RAF)
Royal Air Force Innsworth
Gloucester GL3 1EZ

From Mr Christopher Betterton
Sir, - I found Mr P. Arulanantham's letter ( 6 January) rather worrying. Surely the servicemen and women engaged in Iraq (or in any conflict) are entitled to receive a pastoral visit from a member of the clergy - however senior.

It is not the troops' fault that they are embroiled in a war with which they may not (or, indeed, may) agree. They are doing their duty - a long way from home and in very difficult circumstances, and deserve our thoughts and our prayers as much as those affected in other ways by the conflict in Iraq.
CHRISTOPHER BETTERTON
25 Fennel Close
Rochester, Kent ME1 1LW

From Dr N. P. Hudd
Sir, - I was mystified by the letter from Mr P. Arulanantham. No explanation is given why the service personnel in question are not worthy of the Archbishop of Armagh's pastoral attention.

I would agree with the view given about the war in Iraq, but the terrible things done there seem to me an excellent reason for the Archbishop to go. Why does Mr Arulanantham think that Christ should not be preached in places where dreadful things are done?
N. P. HUDD
13 Elmfield, Tenterden
Kent TN30 6RE

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