THE Revd (Lt.-Col.) Alan Steele CF is the Senior Chaplain of 16
Air Assault Brigade, based in Colchester, and has accompanied
soldiers on two full operational tours to Afghanistan, as well as
tours to Macedonia and Northern Ireland.
We talk in his book-lined army quarter, where his two teenage
children serve us tea and ginger biscuits. Afghanistan seems a long
His first tour of duty to Afghanistan was with the 2nd
Battalion, Parachute Regiment (2 Para), in 2001-02. "That was about
four or five months, and it was in Kabul," he says. "There was a
little bit of fighting that went on, but it was very benign
compared with the Helmand experience."
His second full tour was from April to October in Helmand, in
2008, known as Herrick 8 (the umbrella term for UK military
involvement in Afghanistan is Operation Herrick). This was much
The risk on the ground was such that, initially, chaplains were
told that it was too dangerous to go on patrol with the soldiers.
Later, this instruction was revised to allow chaplains and their
commanders to assess the dangers for themselves, and to then decide
how best to operate.
Padre Steele was pleased with the revision, because he has firm
opinions about where a padre should be: "The chaplain should share
in the everyday, ordinary activity of the blokes, and represent
Christ in those situations. If the every day activities . . .
involve being on an operation, where they are exposed to combat,
then the chaplain should not be afraid of being present in those
In Helmand, Padre Steele visited the troops at their
forward-operating bases, and in their outposts, and, if invited,
would accompany them on patrol. He, like all padres, was unarmed.
All he carried was an old ebony Malawian walking stick. His own
safety was not his main concern, but he did not want to be in a
position where he exposed the soldiers to further danger.
"On that particular tour, Herrick 8, the chances of having a
contact if you went out on patrol were very, very high; so it was a
judgement call that I had to make."
PADRE STEELE, who has a degree in classics and archaeology,
appears to be at least as much a soldier as a padre, if not more
so. And it comes as no surprise to find that there are strong
military influences in his family background.
His great-grandfather served with the British Army in the Boer
War; his grandfather served as a military doctor in the First World
War; in the Second World War his father was with the British
Special Forces and the Parachute Regiment. Padre Steele himself
grew up in Rhodesia. It was not a churchgoing family, although his
mother was descended from Scottish missionaries.
Being a chaplain under fire requires a certain frame of mind, he
believes. In a "contact", when the bullets are "zinging around,
hitting tree trunks and leaves and so on, everyone else there can
deal with their emotional response by purposeful activity". Not the
padre. "The soldiers are there, manoeuvring - they're returning
fire, or whatever they do; the only person not able to do that in
that situation is the chaplain.
"As a non-combatant, you're sitting there, and you can't be
engaged in purposeful activity precisely because you are a
non-combatant. So it requires a deal of - I would argue -
This is particularly the case when things go awry. "If you're in
a situation where you're taking casualties, and dealing with the
wounded - some of them grievously injured - you also need to be
strong," he says.
But perhaps the most personally challenging task for a chaplain
is having to identify the men who have died, especially "when
somebody has been shot in the head, or been blown up by an
In previous conflicts, chaplains used to undertake field
burials. This is no longer the case, since most bodies are
repatriated; but it is still usually the chaplain's task to
identify the dead.
Padre Steele says that, early on during Herrick 8, he witnessed
a young corporal break down when asked to identify a soldier who
had been caught in a blast. He and the Regimental Sergeant Major
then agreed that, "as far as was humanly possible", they would do
the identifications themselves.
HE HAS faced the tragedy of losing soldiers he has come to know
well, particularly on his last tour: "Because I had been with 2
Para. previously, I knew loads of the blokes already, and a number
of them I was very, very fond of, and when you see people you know
getting killed it's quite . . . " his voice tails off.
He begins again. "So you're going through a process of grieving
yourself, but you're providing a vehicle for soldiers to
appropriately grieve, and appropriately commemorate their comrade
or friend. I think that's really important."
This is not always straightfoward, given that not all soldiers
would describe themselves as Christian. "I know that a number of
them are agnostic at best - atheist at the most extreme. I had lots
of conversations with atheists who would say to me: 'Padre, if I
die, I don't want you doing any of that religious stuff.' So I
would say to them, 'Do you want the Regimental Collect?' 'Of course
I want that.'"
When there were fatalities, for the sake of the deceased's
comrades, he would try to hold a commemoration service within a
week, and as close as possible to where the incident took place.
The service would consist of a Bible reading, and some prayers,
including the Regimental Collect, but he would always leave the
bulk of the time as silence.
"I would say to them: 'We're going to have a time of silence.
For those of you who would like to, you can pray. For those of you
who don't want to pray, or don't believe in God, then this is time
for you to remember Jim, or whoever, and to think about him, and to
think about his family, and so on.'
"Almost invariably, I would have soldiers coming up to me
afterwards saying: 'Thank you so much for that silence. It was
really helpful.'" No wonder, perhaps, that the two minutes' silence
of Remembrance Day is so much valued in the armed forces.
BUT the job is not over once the unit is back at base: "You're
dealing with all the normal pastoral things that soldiers bring,
plus their shock, and grief, and anger, and so on, when they
sustain casualties. That whole complex of emotions that people
feel, you are absorbing and dealing with over the length of a
In order to survive, he believes, a chaplain needs to be
spiritually strong, and disciplined, despite the lack of privacy or
personal space for Bible-reading and prayer. "I know that when I
was in Sangin [a town in Helmand] it was incredibly austere. My
living area was my camp cot, and my mosquito net against a wall,
and it wasn't even an enclosed wall."
At base, chaplains also find themselves acting as advocates for
soldiers. This could include requesting some leniency over a minor
disciplinary issue or tackling bigger and more difficult questions,
such as leadership on front-line operations. "The padre is almost
the only person in a battle group who can counsel, confront, and
challenge the chain of command," he says.
And a padre's responsibility continues when soldiers go on
leave. "On Herrick 8 . . . I stayed in Cyprus to see all of the
units through from the battle group, and I helped deliver some of
the decompression briefs," he says. "I was there sitting chatting
to the blokes when they got drunk and did all the silly things that
they do on decompression. I did that with each of the companies. .
. . I think that is really important."
In total, he spent about ten days in Cyprus. "I had been in some
hairy situations with each of those companies, and there was a
chance for each of those blokes to talk about things, to catch up,
to settle scores that couldn't be settled during the tour."
But, thereafter, he needed his own decompression. Returning to
Colchester, things were not easy: "For a period of a month or so, I
was having nightmares. I know when I came back from the tour I was
extremely stressed. I was very, very wound up, and still wound up
probably a couple of years later."
ONCE home, the chaplain is expected to lead a church service for
the whole community. He says that nothing about the service is
easy: "You've got the thanksgiving on the one hand, and then you've
got the commemorating the dead on the other hand, and you've got
the interceding for the wounded and the bereaved; and so you are
trying to encapsulate all of this in one service in an appropriate
He goes on: "I suppose, on a tour, what you're doing is
absorbing all of the hurts, the anguish, the anger, and everything,
and then you're trying to articulate it in a way that will bring
healing and restoration."