Padre Robin Richardson, deployed to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA), writes about a week of unexpected events.
It is strange how some days unfold, pan out, change along the way. Last Monday night we heard that one of our soldiers had been badly injured in a blast and, separately, that a close member of another lad’s family had died. The RSM got to work getting helicopter flights booked to get he, the CO and I to the hospital and to the injured soldier’s Check Point (CP). I spoke to the other lad’s mum in England and got my move to his CP in place for early Tuesday. It was a sad evening and we knew that the next 24 hours would be full of challenges.
Tuesday morning arrived and as the CO and RSM jumped onto a helicopter to visit our injured lad in hospital in Camp Bastion before his fight back to the UK, I set out for a little CP just a short distance away from our headquarters in Shazad. When I got there I was greeted by Sam, Ben, Shaun and the other members of the multiple and as I sat down with our youngster who had received the sad news of his relative’s death just the day before, Sam brought us both a brew and we discussed how he was feeling and something of the conversation I had had with his Mum the evening before.
‘The support I’ve been given helps a lot Padre, and thanks for coming out.’
We had been aware that this might have happened and so the Company had been working towards getting this bright young soldier on the first available flight a few days previously, and so as we talked it was good to assure him of the practical steps that were being taken to help too. But mainly we shared his sadness, but sadness that was overridden by happy memories from good times spent, and there were smiles and some questions and not a little quiet. A short while later it was on with body armour once more to get back to Shahzad and onto my flight to catch up with the RSM and CO. And as I left I reflected on how though a very sad start to the day in many ways, there was also much to be thankful for. For a young lad who has a great relationship with a very loving family; for his ability to own his grief but receive the support and friendship of those around him and for a company and a battalion, who were doing all they could within the constraints of our situation to look after one of the boys the best it could.
I had been at Bastion a short while waiting for my flight forward to our injured lad’s CP, finding a quietish spot next to the helicopter flight line to pray and read my Bible for a bit, when the CO and RSM arrived from the hospital.
‘He’s doing amazing well, Padre. Strong as an ox and doing as well as he could be considering. He’s sedated, but he opened his eyes as we helped lift him onto the stretcher for the flight. The nurses said the medics did everything right, absolutely perfect treatment.’ Again, from the midst of sadness, and a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone, hope, and goodness and promise. We boarded our flight and a few minutes later arrived at the company headquarters in a Patrol Base that sat on top of a hill overlooking a village that has changed dramatically for the good over the last six months. We sat for a while and chatted with the OC about how everyone was doing after the incident, and listened as the details of all that had gone on were relayed. The CO and the RSM listened, not asking technical questions about how, why, what, when and where, but listening as those whose primary role just then was to care, to hear what was been said and understand how it was being said.
We climbed into a armoured vehicle to make the short journey to the CP where our injured lad was based, but just before we did the Company OC asked if I would look after the Bible and Daily Reading notes I had given to the injured lad at the start of the tour and that had been next to his bed when they were packing his kit up earlier that morning.
‘His faith is important Padre, he’ll want you to look after these for him until you can get them to him back home.’
‘Of course, it helps doesn’t it?’
‘Too right, and whilst we’re on about that, one of the boys down there wants to be baptised. Wants you to baptise him there today, with his friends around.’
‘Of course, couldn’t imagine anything better.’
We arrived at the CP after the short journey through the village to warm handshakes, smiles and the anticipation of news about their mate. All the lads gathered around and hung on every word that the CO said. The look on their faces as he told them how he and the RSM had lifted him onto the stretcher as he started his journey home was one of relief as it had been them just 18 hours earlier who had lifted him onto quite a different stretcher to get him back to Bastion. The RSM explained how the medical staff wanted to pass on their appreciation of the exceptional medical care the lad had received on the ground, and it was only then, as Walshy the medic tried to downplay what he had done, that one of the others piped up:
‘And it was pitch black, we couldn’t see a thing and we were in a hole in the ground in a wood.’
The staff at the hospital didn’t know that bit, all they knew was that a badly injured young man couldn’t have been given better treatment, the circumstances just made the feat even more impressive, but as Walshy said:
‘it’s what we’re trained for, it’s no big deal, I’m just glad he’s OK. That’s all that matters.’
After a brew I made my way across the compound to chat with Adam before his baptism. As I did so aware of the austerity of the place, the heightened state of everyone’s state of mind and soul after the night before’s incident I was reminded of the words of George Macleod:
‘I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the Church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at the crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek… And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s men ought to be and what Church people ought to be about.’
That we had no kind of font or baptistry was irrelevant. We had a big blue plastic barrel that the lads dunk themselves in after a patrol to cool down, and we had a mug cut from the container that held a mortar round. And we had Adam’s friends, those he lives alongside, and with whom he had discussed his decision, his choice, his desire to be baptised. And so as we stood next to the barrel I read the words my friend Bob had told me would be important during the tour. Words I’ve prayed with lads in CPs during the tour, words I prayed with a young man as he laid critically ill in a hospital bed and now words of promise for Adam at his baptism. Words from the book of Joshua chapter 1 that God had promised a faithful soldier thousands of years earlier;
‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’
There was silence as I baptised Adam, until he stood and his mates, some of toughest most professional soldiers you could find, paratroopers all, clapped and stepped forward wide-armed to congratulate their friend. I needed a few moments to let it all sink in. It was quite simply one of those moments that helps to remind you what its all about. I really wasn’t expecting the day to have unfolded as it had, but so often life is what happens in between the best laid plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. And then someone shoved a cup of tea in my hand and the lads gobbed off for a bit.
The pains of life had tried to define the day just 24 hours earlier. Bereavement, injury and life as austere as it could be. But that was not the only story at work that day because running through it all, and rising triumphant above it was hope, promise and faith. And that for me at least, is the triumph of Easter.