The role of a padre serving with the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department (RAChD) is to minister to soldiers and their families, to give them pastoral, spiritual and moral support. The padres are commissioned as chaplains but wear officers’ rank, leaders but without command. They are sent wherever soldiers are sent, and are moved individually between units every two to three years.
The Reverend Alan Steele MBE is in his early fifties and is the senior padre of 16 Air Assault Brigade based in Colchester. The interview is in his book-lined Army quarter where his two teenage children serve us tea and ginger biscuits.
Steele had his first tour of duty to Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (2 Para) in 2001/2002.
“That was about four or five months and it was in Kabul. There was a little bit of fighting that went on but it was very benign compared to the Helmand experience.”
Since his first tour to Kabul Steele has returned to Afghanistan twice. In all he has done two full tours and one other shorter visit to assess how Apache aircrew were coping with the demands of their operation.
He says Herrick 8 was the most demanding of his full tours and its risks well known, so much so that initially chaplains were told that it was too dangerous to allow them to go out on the ground with the soldiers. Later this instruction was revised to enable chaplains and their commanders to assess the dangers for themselves, and to then decide how best to operate.
The dangers only escalated on that particular tour but Steele’s opinion at the time, and still today, remains unchanged.
“The chaplain should share in the every day, ordinary activity of the blokes and represent Christ in those situations. If the every day activities of the blokes involve being on an operation where they are exposed to combat and so on then the chaplain should not be afraid of being present in those situations.”
He’s equally certain that the chaplain should not expose the men to further danger but explains why he feels the chaplain should be there when the fighting is at its most intense.
“The operational tour, particularly the kinetic operational tour, is an abnormal situation and we represent something that reminds the blokes that this is an abnormal situation.”
On Herrick 8 Steele visited the troops at their forwarding operating bases (FOBs), in their outposts, and, if invited, would accompany them on patrol. He, like all padres, was unarmed. All he carried was an old ebony Malawian walking stick.
He says: “On that particular tour, Herrick 8, the chance of having a contact if you went out on patrol were very, very high – so it was a judgement call that I had to make.”
Steele acknowledges that to many he may seem more soldier than padre. Certainly both influences are in his background.
Military influences have been present throughout his life. He grew up during a war in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; his father was with the British Special Forces and the Parachute Regiment in the Second World War; his grandfather served as a doctor in the First World War; and his great-grandfather served with the British Army in the Boer War.
As far as religion goes he says his family was not a church-going one although his mother was descended from Scottish missionaries.
Steele knows that being a padre attached to an infantry battalion in a very kinetic environment is not for everyone. He knows the stresses. In a contact, when the bullets are flying, “zinging around hitting tree trunks and leaves and so on,” he says “everyone else there can deal with their emotional response by purposeful activity.”
It’s different for the padres. Steele paints a vivid picture.
“So the soldiers are there manoeuvring, they’re returning fire or whatever they do, the only person not able to do that in that situation is the chaplain. As a non-combatant you’re sitting there and you can’t be engaged in purposeful activity precisely because you are a non-combatant so it requires a deal of, I would argue, resilience.”
As soon as there are injuries or deaths the strain goes up.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re taking casualties and dealing with the wounded, and some of them grievously injured, you also need to be strong.”
Then once the initial storm of contact has calmed still more is expected of the padre.
“You’re dealing with all the normal pastoral things that soldiers bring plus their shock, and grief, and anger and so on when they sustain casualties. That whole complex of emotions that people feel, you are absorbing and dealing with over the length of a tour.”
How do the padres survive all this? Steele says they have to be spiritually strong and disciplined, and this despite little privacy or private space for Bible reading and daily prayer.
“I know that when I was in Sangin it was incredibly austere. My living area was my camp cot and my mosquito net against a wall and it wasn’t even an enclosed wall.”
I ask if he has managed to recover from his tours of Afghanistan.
“Let’s put it this way – coming back to Colchester last September and being surrounded by Paras (for whom I have the fondest regard) and maroon berets again – for a period of a month or so, I was having nightmares.”
“I know when I came back from the tour I was extremely stressed. I was very, very wound up and still wound up probably a couple of years later.”
I ask if the padre can be part of the soldiers’ process of going out together to get some of the trauma off their chests following difficult tours.
“On Herrick 8, the most recent time I’ve been in theatre, I stayed in Cyprus to see all of the units through from the battle group and I helped deliver some of the decompression briefs. I was there sitting chatting to the blokes when they got drunk and did all the silly things that they do on decompression. I did that with each of the companies and some of the attached arms when they came through. I think that is really important.”
In total Steele spent about ten days in Cyprus.
“I had been in some hairy situations with each of those companies and there was a chance for each of those blokes to talk about things, to catch up, to settle scores that couldn’t be settled during the tour.”
Once home the chaplain is then asked to lead a church service for the whole community. He says that nothing about the service is easy.
“You’ve got the thanksgiving on the one hand, and then you’ve got the commemorating the dead on the other hand, and you’ve got the interceding for the wounded and the bereaved, and so you are trying to encapsulate all of this in one service in an appropriate way.”
“I suppose on a tour what you’re doing is absorbing all of the hurts, the anguish, the anger and everything and then you’re trying to articulate it in a way that will bring healing and restoration. That in itself is a demanding thing.”
Finally, it’s the padre’s turn to visit his own family.
“Then you have your post tour leave and you can go and fight your own domestic battles – ‘That’s not how it was when I left! Why are you doing it this way now?’”
Steele laughs. He looks comfortable and relaxed in his home.
My thanks to Reverend Alan Steele MBE for being so generous with his time and to the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department for helping to arrange this and other interviews.