Saturday, 3 September 2011

Back in the Fold – Rev Mark Chester Returns from Afghanistan

Collage of people in Afghanistan. Thanks to Michael Foley and lafrancevi  for their library shots

“Prayer really does work, it makes a huge amount of difference”

In April, I interviewed the Vicar of St Paul’s, Rev Mark Chester, as he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan to spend 3 months ministering to the troops, as a unit Padre. Whilst there, he reported about Easter in Helmand. He has now returned home, and I spoke with him about his time out there, and the impact it has had on his life.

He found his time in Afghanistan very demanding, but very rewarding. One of the more light-hearted moments was when 500 soldiers dropped to the floor in the cook house at Camp Bastian, after hearing an alarm alerting them of incoming fire, only to find it was the smoke alarm triggered by burning toast!

Most locals in Helmand are simply trying to live out their normal daily lives as best they can. The lack of infrastructure, and poverty out there makes this difficult. Added to that, there is the ongoing fight for control between the insurgent forces and the international security assistance force.

Soldiers work a 7 day week, typically starting about 8am and ending around 10pm. Sunday is a day of rest, so work starts late at 10am. Long days, and a lot to keep up with. However, Mark found morale was good, with a positive upbeat feel. The soldiers feel they are well trained, and getting on with what they joined the army to do.

Recently it was reported the town of Wootton Bassett is to hold a special service marking the end of military repatriations there. The bodies of 345 service personnel have passed through the Wiltshire town in the past four years. As a Padre, Mark was fortunate in only having to deal with one fatality, but several injuries, and soldiers dealing with traumatic experiences. However, in the thick of it all, he found the power of prayer shone through. A lot of people, in Camberley, and elsewhere, have been praying for Mark, and the soldiers. He said “I was amazed how time after time people would escape from difficult situations, where really they should have died”. Examples of such situations include improvised explosive devices that didn’t go off, or grenades bouncing out of vehicles. “That whole environment makes you aware of your mortality. What is normal out there is entirely different than back in the UK”, says Mark.

Rev Mark Chester Marks Message for the Parish

“Prayer really does work. I was aware of being upheld by prayer, and operating in situations where God had gone first. I just want to encourage people to pray about other things. It really does make a huge amount of difference. I am personally grateful for [your prayers] and I know the lads were grateful. God is interested in every detail of our lives”.

 

Coming home to civilian life after three months in Afghanistan must take quite some adjustment. Life is very narrowly focused out in Helmand, concentrating on the job in hand. Mark has been back about a month, and is now thinking about life in the parish.  In Camberley, he can start to think about family, work, catching up with friends and his administration backlog!

Reviewing his time out in Afghanistan, Mark has learned from his experiences. The most important thing was “that we are spiritual people, who want to know the meaning of life, and survive, and make a positive difference in the world, often at great self-sacrifice”. Soldiering, he pointed out,  is selfless, being prepared to pay a high price for people they hardly know.

One soldier that paid the ultimate price, was one of the most difficult situations for Mark. Whilst checking his next of kin details, he discovered the soldier had been killed on the birthday of that soldiers eldest son.

Mark has been well supported by St Paul’s, receiving cards, letters and welfare parcels for the soldiers, which were very much appreciated. However, even with modern day communications, he still felt fairly remote from the UK. In a sense, that is quite helpful, allowing one to focus on the situation out there. He said “You can’t look in two directions at the same time and expect to see clearly. You are totally absorbed in the immediacy of your task. You really don’t know what’s going to be going on in your life in the next couple of hours. Life is very immediate.”

There is no such thing as a typical day in Afghanistan. Mark had two routines, depending on his location. 

Padre Mark Chester on Patrol At a forward operating base, it takes some time to get kit together, before going out on an exhausting 3-4 hour patrol. After that, it takes some time to recover and rehydrate, experiencing 40 degree C temperatures.

Back at Helmand, it’s up at 5.30am and in the gym for an hour, to beat the morning heat. Following breakfast, it’s time for morning prayer, before heading off for the morning conference. Marks responsibilities at the conference were thought for the day, followed by joke of the day. I believe the thought went down much better than the joke! Then he went on to hospital visiting, or visiting troops who had returned to base, or were about to go out on patrol, and completed some of his admin. His day ended around 8 or 9pm. One thing he really missed was a bedside light to help him read in bed, and find his way around in the dark. I guess it’s the simple things in life we all take for granted.

The first interview we did before Mark went out to Afghanistan was featured on AudioBoo and has been heard by over 2900 people. I think this is a tribute to all the Padres that are going out into war situations, and ministering to soldiers. Mark found it encouraging. Knowing that people care means a lot to him. You can listen to this full “back in the fold”  interview on AudioBoo by clicking on the player below.

Return from Afghanistan. Rev Mark Chester back in the fold after 3 months ministering to the troops (mp3)

You can hear more about Marks experience in Afghanistan, and see a slideshow this Sunday 4 Sept, at 6pm at St Paul’s.