I’m Colonel Barbara Putnam. I’m a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces. And currently, I’m the director of strategic support in the office of the chapel general.
I never once considered joining the military. I didn’t even know that the Canadian military chaplaincy even existed. But after the crash of Swissair 111, I saw the soldiers in our community, and they were doing an impossible gruesome task. And I wondered about their spiritual resilience. Well, who was looking after them? And it was then I found out about Canadian military chaplaincy.
When you are a military chaplain and when you are wearing the same uniform as everyone else, you live the same lifestyle. You understand the complexities of military life, its stresses, its challenges. And you yourself need to learn how to walk through those. And so you are authentic when you are trying to help.
Growing up, my dad had a military history that I was unaware of. Same with my grandparents and my uncle. And my great uncle. We didn’t plan to go to a remembrance ceremony, my father and I. And I encouraged them to go. Because he had not been for many, many years. And we stood back from the cenotaph. And of course, I was in my uniform. We were both wearing our poppies. And I just got goosebumps to stand there, knowing that he had also served. And how proud he was of me to stand there in uniform with him.
In 2003, when I deployed with my unit to Afghanistan, it was the first combat mission that we had done in many, many years. When the troops leave the relative safety of a camp to go off and participate in a particular mission, we are praying that they come home safely. Obviously, we pray with them as we see vehicles roll out of the camp. But when something tragic happens and you are waiting for that group of people to come back, you are hoping that you will have the right words to say. Something meaningful, something that will be helpful. And sometimes, it is not even words. Sometimes, it is just a touch on the shoulder, a touch on the hand, or a nod. And you have to really know what is going to make a difference in that moment.
In the Canadian Armed Forces, we are somewhat reflective of Canadian society. And so, we have Christians, and Muslims, and Jewish, and Buddhists, and people of many other faiths, and people have absolutely no faith. Our motto in the chaplaincy is that we care for all, regardless of their faith. And the more we get to know them, and their families, more often then not, we will get that famous question that we love to ear: “Hey, padre, do you have a minute?” And of course, we always have a minute. And those are the times we cherish.