Joyful and Heartbreaking

Forces

It is early evening. Canadian military members stand on the tarmac of Kandahar Air Field to give one more solemn salute to their fallen comrades, Master Corporal Pat Audet and Corporal Martin Joannette. Military pall bearers carry their caskets to the transport plane bound for home.

The pressing heat of July has lifted for the day, and as a slight wind tugs on the chaplain scarf of Padre Major Martine Belanger, her words of comfort and understanding come through clearly: “It’s painful to realize how precious and fragile human life is. We are dismayed; we cry for our loss. With courage, we say goodbye.”

This was the third time in four days that Canadian troops had gathered to say goodbye to friends in arms. This piece of tarmac in Kandahar is holy ground, as chaplains from Canada and allied countries have said many prayers, and comforted many more soldiers who have stood at attention in sacred respect as the solo bagpipe lamented the final farewell of their deceased companions.

Padre Belanger is one of many female chaplains who had served in Afghanistan during the 13-year war that formally ended in 2014.

Women have been involved in Canada’s military service and have been contributing to Canada’s rich military history and heritage for more than 100 years; serving first as civilian nurses and then in 1906 they were admitted to the Regular Force.

It wasn’t until July 1981 that the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service enrolled the first female chaplain, Georgina Kling. Padre Kling was a United Church minister and served for 25-plus years before retiring as a captain.

The RCCS has modeled for other countries the integration of women in key leadership roles within the chaplain service. It is the only chaplaincy, other than Australia, that has Roman Catholic women serving as chaplains. With the exception of consecrating the Eucharist elements and hearing confession, the Catholic chaplains fully officiate over the other five sacraments of the Catholic Church. In 2008, the chaplaincy enrolled a female Jewish chaplain who served in the reserve force before taking her retirement.

Female chaplains serve in all capacities of the CAF, deploying with the army, air force and navy on exercises and operations to such places as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Italy and the Persian Gulf.

Women have a profound and sometimes unique role to play in the military setting. In Afghanistan I was called upon by our American chaplain colleagues to help them with some very sensitive and delicate issues that called for female support when they themselves did not have a female chaplain on the ground.

The role of a chaplain can be heartbreaking; you set off on a convoy in Afghanistan with young men and women who are excited and proud to be serving their country only to have them return, following an assault, having aged so many years in just a couple of hours or days.

There are also many joyful moments in this ministry. One of my fondest memories was when I was deployed at sea to the Persian Gulf and I had the pleasure, as the chaplain, of telling one of the sailors that his wife had given birth to their first child, a healthy baby boy.

As chaplains, we are often one of the first people our men and women in uniform will contact about an issue which could range from financial or relationship concerns to fears or apprehensions about their careers. We counsel on health issues such as addictions, depression and anxiety and link them with the proper health care facility so that they are able to get the help they need.

It is an honour and a privilege to be invited into the most precious spaces of people’s lives. They trust you with their thoughts, their fears, their hopes and their dreams. It is not something to be taken lightly for it is truly a sacred trust.

Chaplains, both male and female, have a very powerful leadership role to play in the CAF; the military chaplaincy has spearheaded some very important initiatives and has implemented very essential policies which have ensured that all CAF personnel, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or religious affiliation, will be treated with dignity and respect.

The military chaplaincy is supported and guided by the Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy—the body through which the faith communities of Canada exercise their support to the CAF. This is done through the provision of chaplains to the CAF, while representing the work of the Chaplain Branch to those faith communities. Members of the committee represent the faith groups of serving chaplains. Currently, the chair of the ICCMC is Rev. Dr. Jean Morris, minister at Grace Presbyterian, Calgary, and the first female to serve as the chair.

Her leadership includes meeting with the most senior military officers and the Minister of National Defense to ensure that our military personnel are receiving the best spiritual support possible. She provides advice to the Chaplain General and the Ministry of National Defence.

I have been serving as a chaplain in the CAF since August 2001. I have been deployed with our navy and army and have had the opportunity of being posted two years outside of Canada with the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

At my present rank of Commander, I am responsible for providing leadership to more junior chaplains, making sure they get the courses and experiences they need to continue to develop in their roles, and I ensure they are providing the best religious and spiritual support to our military personnel. It is an awesome calling, and I have the opportunity to work with some amazing chaplains.

This is a very important time for the CAF and for the military chaplaincy. Our leadership will be called upon more than ever in educating and influencing change, not only within the CAF, but as a model for the civilian institutes, such as in universities and in the corporate world.

As a woman, this is an excellent and exciting time to join the CAF. The military is on the cusp of yet another evolutionary process where women and female leaders will be engaged more than ever to participate in key conversations, be promoted into key positions of command, and participate in the movement of a healthier, more holistic military.

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About Bonnie Mason

Padre Bonnie Mason is serving as the senior chaplain in the 2nd Division of Canada located in Montréal, Que. To learn more visit: forces.gc.ca/en/caf-community-support-services/chaplaincy.page.