Strength, discipline and faith

by
07 November 2014

With the departure of British forces from Afghanistan, Georgie Knaggs talks to the Revd Alan Steele about his time as a chaplain to the Parachute Regiment

Front-line faith: Padre Steele ready for patrol in Helmand

Front-line faith: Padre Steele ready for patrol in Helmand

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 way away.

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 more demanding.

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 situations."

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 - resilience."

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 IED".

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 tour."

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 way."

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."

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