US Navy Chaplain Ministers Down Under
By Chaplain Ted Shields, US Navy, Australia
“G’day mate!,” was the greeting I received when I walked in the chapel tent at Tiger Hill. Tiger Hill was one of several bases that were established to support Talisman Sabre 2019. Talisman Saber involves joint exercises performed by more than 34,000 personnel participating from 18 counties, including Australia, United States, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Talisman Sabre is Australia’s largest biannual joint military exercise.
Not knowing the extent of this exercise, I was under the impression I would be the only chaplain and my squadron would be the only ones present at Tiger Hill. Yet, when I arrived, I came to a base that had about 1200 military members from several countries. I located the established chapel tent and was greeted by one Australian Army Chaplain and, to my surprise, one Australian Salvation Army Officer in an Australian Army camouflaged uniform. I found out that not only was I not the only chaplain on this base, but I was going to work with three Australian Army Chaplains, one Salvation Army Officer, one US Army Chaplain and a US Army Religious Affairs soldier. This was truly a Joint Operation.
I quickly learned that the Australian Chaplains do not refer to each other by their rank or title, but by each other’s first name. To the rest of the Australian Army, they are simply referred to as “Padre,” even though they are not Catholic. I had several opportunities to provide ministry with these chaplains. We had two Sunday services, two Wednesday Bible studies, daily mass provided by the US Army Catholic Chaplain and a nightly ecumenical evening prayer service.
Several times the senior Australian chaplain would invite me to join him to visit other bases to meet other Australian chaplains and Army Officers. During the exercise, I was honored to represent the US Navy during the annual anniversary memorial ceremony for the Canal Creek plane crash, which is the second worst air disaster in Australia that happened on 19 December 1943 and took the lives of 31 passengers that consisted of Australians and Americans.
One of the most interesting things about this exercise were the people and the environment. It was special to walk to where my Marines were working and see kangaroos hopping around.
One thing I was not prepared for was the cold at night. Our summer months are their winter months. There were several mornings where I woke up to frost on the ground and not being able to feel my fingers and toes because of the cold, not to mention living in tents with dirt floors and not environmental controls.
But the days were pleasant. The Australians were warm and welcoming. They always had a smile on their face and loved to speak to Americans. One thing I found particularly interesting is the fact that the Australian Salvation Army is actually integrated into the Australian Army. They are not chaplains and do not provide direct ministry in the form of services or counseling, but they are there in a philanthropic capacity and provide things like socks, food and drinks to the Australian soldiers.
The focus of ministry for me was primarily my Marines. Ministry consisted of ensuring there was hot coffee provided, making supply runs for them to Rockhampton once a week (a two hour drive away), visiting the spaces where they were working both day shift and night shift and several on the spot counseling. After the exercise was indexed, the Marines and I transitioned from Tiger Hill to a base in Rockhampton. There, I coordinated with another US Army Chaplain to provide a cultural enrichment opportunity for my Marines.
We visited an Aborigine culture center where we learned about the Aborigines, watched an aboriginal dance and had the opportunity to learn how to throw a boomerang. After the cultural center, we went to an animal sanctuary were there was an opportunity to interact with several local animals including feeding kangaroos, emus, lizards, snakes and peacocks. Other ministry provided was taking Marines off base into town to enjoy liberty during the day. I was given my own van and instructed by the Marine Officer In Charge to get the Marines off base to experience the culture. Doing this opened up several opportunities to engage in conversations about Marines’ faith and their spirituality.
Talisman Sabre was a great opportunity to engage with chaplains and people of other cultures and to engage with my own Marines as well.
Join me in praying for military chaplains who serve on every continent, on every ocean and time zone around the world. For more stories by and about CBAmerica chaplains, civilian and military, visit our webpage at http://cbamerica.org/category/chaplaincy/. For information on what it takes to be endorsed for chaplaincy, email Andy Meverden at firstname.lastname@example.org.