Whether on the front line with Australian troops or working with military personnel and their families, Defence Force chaplains like Uniting Church minister Rev Charles Vesely are a potent reminder that the end state of conflict is always peace. Dianne Jensen reports.
In the deep night silence of a forward operating base in Afghanistan, Australian Defence Force (ADF) members cluster around Uniting Church minister and senior Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Charles Vesely for evening prayer. It is quarter to nine, and the only light to read the scripture is a tiny green LED that won’t interfere with night vision equipment or attract enemy fire.
“We had been through a tough section of the field that day,” recalls Charles. “You couldn’t move without finding another IED (improvised explosive device) and so engineers were out the front—courageous people who remove these things and disarm them—but you are cognisant that every time a wheel turns, every time someone takes a step, there could be a very loud bang. And we knew that when we had to go back the next day, all the IEDs would have been replaced.
“The psalm for the day was ‘Lord spare me from the traps that are placed in wait for me’. I stopped after I read it, and I looked around and saw this dim green glow of faces. It was almost like God was sitting there with us, saying, ‘You know what? I know you’ve had a really tough day at the office and you are going to have another one tomorrow, but I am there with you. You are not alone’.
“That’s the sort of God I believe in.”
Seasons of change
The 53-year-old chaplain, based at the Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane, is no stranger to the maelstrom of conflict and calamity. Charles Vesely served as a police officer and a volunteer rural fire fighter before his ordination in 2002, working as a congregational minister and a SES chaplain before commencing his military career in 2006.
He has deployed to Timor-Leste (2007) and Afghanistan (2009) as a front line chaplain and is currently on overseas deployment.
Dig deeper into the life of this articulate and compassionate advocate for the men and women of the ADF and another layer emerges. This Minister of the Word, married with four adult children and passionate about his family history, wears his uniform with an understanding of the true cost of conflict and exile.
As a young child Charles Vesely stood at the window of his family apartment in Prague, Czechoslovakia and watched the Soviet-led tanks roll down the street on the morning of 21 August 1968. The short-lived Prague Spring, four months when freedom began to blossom in the communist country, was over.
A short time later, his parents joined the liberals and professionals who left for the border, fleeing the wrath of the Soviets. Both would later be sentenced in absentia by the new regime.
“The border by that stage had been closed but my parents had selected a crossing point which was a little less guarded and we crossed over the mountains and down into Salzburg. The Russians didn’t want to let us go—they shot at us and my father rammed the gate. I remember running my fingers along the back of the car where some of the bullets had hit,” he recalls.
Exile and belonging
The family were part of the Czechoslovakian diaspora who found refuge in Australia in the late 1960s.
“Sydney was an emerging city of the time, very different culturally, climatically,” says Charles. “When I started school I didn’t speak English; that was no problem in the sense that most Europeans are multilingual. So when the teacher didn’t respond to my Czech I reverted to German, and when she didn’t understand German I mustered some Russian, but I still got a vacant look. That young teacher was married to a German and her husband gave her some basic vocabulary so we started to communicate, and that’s how I started to learn English.”
The new migrants were supported by a Czech Trappist monk and later a Moravian priest, both of whom Charles sees as role models of compassionate ministry during these difficult years. He rediscovered his own faith as a teenager after being invited to church.
“That became part of my life and gave me great comfort and hope and strength,” he says. “As a migrant child growing up in the west of Sydney, you were different—didn’t quite fit with all the other migrants, the Italians and Maltese around us, or into the Australian group—but the church gave a great sense of belonging.”
Ministry on the front line
Charles joined the police force and forged a successful career. He and his family became drawn into the ministry of Wesley Mission in Sydney and he began to sense a calling to minister at a deeper level—especially to those at the front-line of trauma and conflict.
“Even in my police career I was interested in critical incident stress. You realise the pressure that those men and women are under every day—you see acute experiences and want to reach out to your colleagues. My departure from the police was probably shaped by the fact that there was an element of frustration that as a police officer you can only do so much,” he says.
“As part of the church you can actually be involved not only with the problem but with the solution and the prevention; some of the things we do might stop that young person ending up in the cell down at the local watch house. The hope and the grace that underpin ministry have always been a strong point for me.”
Providing a safe place
The move into defence chaplaincy in 2006 was another unexpected change in direction, and it is a role that Charles cherishes.
“You’re the sounding board, the spiritual person there to provide religious, pastoral, spiritual support to the men and women of the ADF,” he says. “According to the last ADF census, 39 per cent have no religion—that doesn’t mean they have no faith, they just don’t identify with a brand—so they are people who are exploring faith. They want to know, particularly if you go and serve on deployment in a war zone, they definitely want to talk to you about faith.”
Home in Australia, chaplains are often the first point of contact for a raft of personal issues affecting ADF personnel and their families. Charles has used his critical incident experience to help equip chaplains to provide support.
“These days we train our chaplains in first response mental health, because often the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women are comfortable to come to a chaplain because I’m not there to start writing clinical notes on them. I’m there as a safe person, a safe space for them to unload, who cares for them genuinely enough to say—you know what, I’m really worried about you. How about we get you some help?”
Bringing light into dark places
Charles’ role as pastor extends to those in senior positions.
“To be in command in a military conflict is a very lonely place. Particularly so in a war zone; when you’re the commanding officer and one of your people is killed or injured, deep down in your heart you know that that operation, that activity—you organised it, you sent them there.
“You can mitigate that all sorts of ways, but deep down you’re the one who has to write a letter to that person’s next of kin. I have sat with a commander when that’s occurred, and he wrote the letter and gave it to me to read and said ‘Do you think that’s okay?’ We had that discussion and really I was there to care for him, to look after him in that particular moment of a terrible time.”
Healing the wounded spirit
The concept of “moral injury”, the anguish and alienation experienced by those exposed to traumatic events which transgress their moral framework, underpins Charles’ understanding of the role that chaplains can play.
“I hope that we bring human dignity, compassion, grace, forgiveness and hope—those sorts of qualities which we understand quite intimately and can share with others who are in a space that have lost that.”
He recalls one young soldier who came to his office.
“He said to me, ‘Padre, you were there in Afghanistan and you understand—you’ve seen some of the things that I’ve had to do, that I’ve had to see.’
“That’s where chaplains can talk about hope; that reconciliation and that restoration. We had a series of conversations about his faith, and I took a phone call some months later from his wife and she asked what had happened to her husband—‘He was really, really broken and now he’s so devout, he’s off to church every day!’.
“This man had embraced faith, because he actually found hope there. He went back to his spiritual roots which gave him that strength that he needed to climb out of the very black hole he was in.”
Towards a time of peace
Charles uses cameos of the iconic Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) from the M*A*S*H television series in his training, especially those moments when the seemingly innocuous padre rediscovers just how important he is to the volatile community.
“Chaplains need to be the people who remind our sailors, soldiers, airmen and women and commanders of what we in the military call the ‘end state’,” says Charles. “They might be fighting the war out there, pushing back on the enemy, but as chaplains we are reminding them that there is an end state of peace. Keeping that in their eye, in their mind, that’s one of our key roles.
“Even if we say nothing, our presence in that morning battle update brief or whatever it is the commander is holding, reminds them all of that hope—that after this, there is a time for peace.”