A Padre’s Presence: CAF padres and their role during the holidays

A military padre wears a purple sash with a green dress uniform. Flags are visible in the background. He speaks to an audience into a microphone.
Captain David Gallas, Canadian Padre with the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia reads “In Flanders Fields” during a commemorative ceremony at the Riga Brethren Cemetery, Latvia, on 11 November 2018. Photo: eFP BG ROTO 3 LATVIA Imagery ©2018 DND-MDN Canada RP18-2018-0108-014

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  • A military padre wears a purple sash with a green dress uniform. Flags are visible in the background. He speaks to an audience into a microphone.
  • A Royal Canadian Air Force padre currently deployed on a ship wears a Royal Canadian Navy uniform donned with his air force rank and name patch. He chats with a sailor to provide guidance and support.
  • Military chaplains from Germany, the Netherlands and Canada pose for a photo.

By Dawnieca Palma, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

To Canadians, this time of year marks the beginning of family dinners and holiday traditions. However, for many deployed Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) soldiers, this reality is out of reach.

The geographical challenges are vast and varied, ranging from scorching sands of Mali, to course waters of the Atlantic Ocean, to snow-covered roofs in Latvia. Wherever deployed CAF soldiers find themselves this holiday season, there is a lingering feeling of missing home. The next few weeks can be especially tough. Nevertheless, there are support systems for CAF soldiers, like their deployed padre or chaplain.

Born in Middleton, Nova Scotia, Captain Michel Gagné grew up in an Air Force family. After a spiritual calling led him to become an ordained priest in the Anglican Church, Capt Gagné combined this calling with his prior military experience serving with three different armoured regiments in the Regular Force to become a military chaplain.

Now serving as the CAF chaplain on Operation PRESENCE in Mali, Captain Gagné finds himself reflecting on his role. “The military chaplains have, at the tactical level, the primary responsibilities to advise the commanding officers of ethics and morale while, at the same time, providing a pastoral presence in the CAF,” he says. “By that I mean, seeing the troops in their workplace, being there to support them during their difficulties, being there to celebrate with them and to provide a safe, confidential, outlet for expressing themselves and in some cases to act on their behalf.”

For the first time unaccompanied by his family, he finds himself in the same position as the soldiers with whom he serves. On the other hand, his deployment has allowed him the opportunity to interact with international soldiers also braving the extreme heat of the UN mission. “In our role here, conducting medical evacuations, we do transport other partner nations. I try to get up in the morning and interact with the troops; Germans, Dutch, Bangladeshis, for example. I’ll meet with them and encourage them just to let them know, in addition to normal command, there are also chaplains to support them.”

With the upcoming holiday season, the soldiers deployed on Operation PRESENCE will not have a typical experience. “They don’t have their families surrounding them; they don’t have the time off to enjoy their family. There’s a little bit higher sense of isolation, loneliness, homesickness. I’d just like to underscore the importance for deployed units to make sure they have their chaplain and social workers to ensure the spiritual and mental health of the troops.”

Further, Captain Gagné assures that CAF soldiers are adapting their holidays to the smouldering sun. “We’re doing a lot of planning for Christmas holidays, both within the Canadian contingent and also within the CAF, there are also a lot of activities planned: a Christmas market, a Santa Claus parade and of course Christmas eve services and stuff like that. We organize a lot of activities to make sure that Christmas is still enjoyable, despite not being home. The second thing is to make sure the troops have connections to their families. They can phone home and maintain that connection through the holidays.”

Meanwhile, crewmembers of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ville de Quebec find themselves in an opposite environment. Not a spec of dessert sand in sight. Instead, they are sea bound for sometimes 15 to 20 days at a time.

“Being on a warship is not like anything I’ve ever experienced in my career,” describes Major Derrick Marshall, the chaplain on Operation REASSURANCE – Maritime Task Force. “There’s an intensity to it, an excitement, but also stress. The time away from home, working, eating, socialising, sleeping, you can imagine, it builds an intensity. I call it an ‘intense incubator’ in the sense that it can cause friendships to grow quickly. But sometimes it can also cause stresses.”

To Major Marshall, the experience is truly like no other. After almost 21 years in the CAF, he has served in all three environments of the Regular Force. Similar to his experiences in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army, he understands the importance of having a chaplain on this Royal Canadian Navy deployment. “Having a chaplain on board the ship allows people to have a safe space and a safe person to talk to because confidentiality is important in our context. It gives them a chance to gather perspective, to blow off steam if they just want to vent.”

One of the ways he takes advantage of the proximity of the crew is by being involved. Conducting regular walkabouts, weekly bible studies, participating in casual conversation, and serving meals in the gallery at noontime to junior ranks. His presence enhances his role in such a unique environment.

When asked about his holiday plans, Major Marshall is just as involved. “I’m looking forward to focusing on the spiritual meaning of Christmas, to having a Christmas service, carols, and festivities. I’m planning some special music. I’m putting together a choir and some musicians for some Christmas carols, special songs. I’m quite excited about that, music is a way of bolstering morale.”

December is an important time for several religions. “We do have a Jewish member on board the ship and he wants to celebrate lighting the Menorah and Hanukkah so he, myself and the Commanding Officer of the ship will light the Menorah in early December. I’ll be supporting a member with a religion different than my own as an act of solidarity to that member.”

Major Marshall extends himself with a note of gratitude to the families of deployed CAF soldiers. “I’d just like to say how proud I am of the Royal Canadian Navy and being on Operation REASSURANCE, and how hard they work. Their families back home are a hugely important part of that because without that support back home we couldn’t focus on the mission.”

For Captain David Gallas, the padre on Operation REASSURANCE – enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia, proximity is a prominent challenge in his environment. He notes, “The big difference is that you sort of balance your time to do the best you can and try to be there for all the troops. It’s basically myself and the Polish chaplain. There are about a thousand troops here in the battle group. Primarily, I serve Canadian members, but I’m happy to serve members from different nations and help them in any way I can.”

Yet, this challenge turns itself into a strength. With all the exercises and activities taking place, transportation from one site to the other leads him to be creative. It forces him to communicate with the soldiers from the seven NATO nations to find a way around. “It can be challenging at times, but on the other hand, it turns out to be good because I have to be able to find out what everyone’s doing.”

Once a full-time pastor, Captain Gallas became interested in joining the CAF through clergy who were in the Reserves and the Regular Forces. His goal as padre is to support CAF soldiers and their families while helping them become more resilient in both their own lives and the context of the mission.

“There are challenges at work, challenges in the mission. My purpose is to help them be more resilient and that’s also a goal for myself as well. I also need to practice what I preach. When morale is good, it’s great on a personal level and for operational effectiveness. If morale is good, it’ll help, contribute to having a good, strong, healthy resiliency to overcome those challenges,” he says.

Being on his first international deployment, Captain Gallas is excited to see what this holiday season will bring. “I think the biggest thing would be with some of the soldiers missing home. What I’m looking forward to is all of us coming together because we’re all away from our families. The only other option is for us to come together.”

Although not a complete cure, Captain Gallas emphasizes the importance of communication. “I definitely am trying to encourage them to communicate well and have good quality communication. I want them to know that they matter and they’re important. It’s definitely hard for us and it’s definitely hard for the families. It’s hard for everybody. My job as a padre is to encourage people to talk a lot to their loved ones, and have good quality conversations. I think that’s going to be a change during the holiday season, putting an emphasis on that.”

No doubt, deployed CAF soldiers are facing a difficult time. As unique as each deployment is, there is a common struggle this holiday season. It is important, however, to remember that deployed padres are there for support.

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