Author:
CHAP (FLTLT) Emma Street

At the heart of the chaplain’s ‘spiritual’ role is assisting members to find congruence in their sense of self and the intersecting storylines of their lives, including their military story. I often invite those who are fatigued by change and challenge to reconnect with the adventure, and mishaps, of initial training. Looking back, yesterday’s challenge is often today’s amusing story. It is also the story of a challenge which has been overcome. These memories of past resilience can provide a source of new energy, the fuel of resilience, to face the challenges of tomorrow. By example, I share a story of my own first year in Defence.

On a chilly morning at RAAF Base Wagga, I stand shakily holding an F88. To my relief, the instructor calls, ‘strip the weapon’ and I can finally put the heavy rifle down. I wrestle it apart with numb and grazed fingers, carefully laying out the pieces on the ground in front of me in the required order. Like the person to the left of me, I recite the name of each part … firing pin, bolt spring, bolt … under the watchful eyes of our instructors. It reminds me of my early days in the church, attending Goulburn Anglican Cathedral for lessons in the liturgical art of Holy Communion. There also laying out the pieces in required order and reciting the names ... corporal, chalice, purificator … under the watchful eye of the Dean.

The experience should, and does, confront the beliefs of my faith. Yet stripping and building and stripping a weapon is an oddly pleasant practice in mindfulness after a long and full year of training and service, fire, and pandemic. This experience – repetitive, rhythmic, and physical – is restorative. I later described the experience to my church flock as like a sewing class where one has to pull the sewing machine apart and reassemble it before making the first stitch. I related to them my sheer amazement when – after someone like me had pulled it apart and reassembled it – the rifle still worked!

Journeying to Kapooka for the live shoot, I ponder the absurdity that this former public servant, accountant turned chaplain, could ever find myself on an Army rifle range. My family are highly amused -- not everyone gets to tick that off their bucket list. However, this is not a lighthearted moment. The deadly purpose of this training is never hidden, and my heart skips a beat as I receive the live ammunition.

We had talked about my attitude to weapons at the Officer Selection Board. I had said I thought I should  feel the weight of it in my hands, and contemplate its purpose as I fire at the human shaped target, if I might seek to offer comfort to those who find themselves at either end of the barrel.

This day on the range marks 12 months of service in the ADF as a chaplain. In this role, it has been a privilege to assist members of Navy, Army and Air Force, along with their families, journeying through the highs and lows of family, service, and spiritual life.

I was surprised by one member calling me ‘brave’. Their reasoning was that many would think less of a person of faith becoming part of the machinery of war. To the extent I have experienced such negative sentiments, it has brought me closer to those with whom I now serve. As the instructor describes the destructive power of our ammunition in graphic detail, I feel an overwhelming sense of honour to be able to serve the truly brave. Anticipating my first Anzac Day in uniform, I wondered if I deserved to march in such esteemed company.

The arrival of COVID 19 settled any Anzac Day anxiety. It was marked with a solitary letterbox vigil, candles shining in the darkness along my street and the last post playing from afar. Instead of a march, a day of contacting unaccompanied members to check in and thank them for their service. In this I found solidarity with strangers who sent back pictures of themselves standing in the dawn, medals resplendent.

Out on the range, aching arms try to hold the rifle steady. As a new recruit, it had not occurred to me that a rifle would be so heavy. I smile at my naivety and the strangeness of this experience, stretching me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t think the very serious Corporal looking down on me would quite understand. Perhaps he is equally amused at teaching a chaplain to shoot. One can only wonder. He is focused, calm and reassuring, offering me what I strive to offer others. I ponder that he is teaching me more about chaplaincy than marksmanship.

Not just my arms, but my heart also aches, weary from a year of physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding service in both military and civilian roles. My heart is heavy with the fragments of other people’s stories, like the carbon residue in a rifle. Stories of grief and separation, joy and hope, and also that wonderful ADF pragmatism, “could be worse Ma’am, could be stuck in … (insert name of least favourite posting)”.

The adventures of this new life make some aspects of my civilian life now seem dull in comparison. Some, like surveying the scattered parts which used to be an aircraft, or sunset on the vast Woomera range, are difficult to explain. In this I glimpse the challenges for members returning from deployment, finding the mundane aspects of life confronting, and carrying stories unable to be shared. I see and hear the challenge for those heading out into the world after a lifetime in service. This life is immersive and perhaps a little addictive.

If only I could have had a photograph! Laying in prone position, with a dash of rain for good effect. It has been a long 12 months since my first day in uniform; preparing for a dawn departure from RAAF Base Edinburgh to Woomera, I googled ‘RAAF Chaplain’ in a crisis of confidence. A new colleague helpfully offered some adjustments in the hallway, and the transformation had begun. Recently seeing a class of new recruits marching away from the clothing store showed me just how far I had come. I hoped they would enjoy the transformative journey ahead of them.

None of these thoughts belong to the present moment. Not even pre-course worries about recoil. I focus on the target and keeping as still as possible, digging into my religious contemplative techniques to slow my breathing and keep the sight steady. I don’t know the passing score. I figure this knowledge will not help my aim. The plan is to focus on what I have been taught, follow instructions, and all will be well.

Perhaps that ADF pragmatism is working its way into me. Each new challenge not to be feared but embraced, and even sought. Each stretching me in ways that transform, from military ethics to the first-hand perils of sleep deprivation. Also the wonderful mindfulness of marching which strangely restores the soul. There is plenty of this in Wagga, and I march out with a new spring in my step.

Chaplain (FLTLT) Emma Street is an ordained Anglican Minister who joined Air Force in 2019 and provides support to the Canberra Area. Prior experience includes business, prison and disaster chaplaincy, including both civilian and ADF deployments in the 2019-20 NSW bushfires. Emma moved into chaplaincy after an APS and Private Sector career in leadership, Human Resource Management and Finance. She holds theological qualifications, a Bachelor of Commerce and is a Certified Practising Accountant.

Notes:

  1. Spiritual Narrative, which is exclusive of religious practice, holds that our lives are held together and shaped by multiple storylines. We thus suffer spiritual and/or moral injury when a change in circumstances creates a new reality which is incongruent with a long-held vision of ourselves. In this area of spiritual care, the chaplain equally serves both the religious and the non-religious. For further exploration see Carey, L. B., & Mathisen, B. A. (2018). Spiritual care for allied health practice: a person-centered approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.