A moving and very powerful final post from Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) as he concludes his 6-month tour of Afghanistan.
And so I come to my last blog entry. So much has happened over the last six and a half months and as I sit, now at Camp Bastion and try to sum things up it is difficult to know where to start or what to include. As a Chaplain my role is to as best as I can, see, observe, witness, understand, value and retell, story. The story of individual soldiers and officers and what they have achieved, the story of the communities they have sought to serve, the story of a nation in transition, and the story of God and how His presence, sometimes obvious, sometimes clouded, sometimes seemingly absent threads its way through things.
I am trying to piece it together, but at the moment, in the brightness and rawness of events that have yet to settle into a single narrative, I think it is best that I simply state what I have seen, what I have heard, what I have felt, what I have known.
I have seen the effect that security can make to a community, and the tentative steps that people dare take when less threatened. Village elders feeling empowered enough to confront the insurgent leadership, parents wanting to send their children to new schools and farmers pointing out to ISAF troops where IEDs that endanger the whole community are laid. And it is upon these building blocks that I think I have seen a genuine peace starting to establish itself. The security has not been the answer, it has just given the people the chance to ask the question.
I have heard young men in a foreign land speak tenderly of loved ones they miss, and of battles they have won, of people they have helped and of friends they have lost. I shall never forget the sound of rain-sodden sleeves forcing a final salute as the coffin of a friend is carried shoulder high through silent ranks to return home. And I have heard the crash and silence of the closing cargo door of the plane as we hold a solemn moment before returning to duty, to the job we have been tasked to do, to the freedom the fallen sought to gift. It is what they would have wanted. It is what they would have done, and we will never forget Jack and Tom, Lewis and Conrad.
And yet the strange counterpoint to this has been the sound of children’s laughter getting louder and freer and gunfire becoming more distant as those who would intimidate are forced from the centre, to the sidelines of life in Nad Ali North. And I have heard exasperation and hope in equal measure as democracy is learned within the imperfections that freedom demands; but no-one said it would be easy, and the cost has been high, in every sense.
I have felt the ache of missing my family, my friends and the freedoms of life at home; but I’ve known also the warmth of fraternity, of being part a group so close, so committed to one another that the improbable seems all at once, possible; and the lurking fear of being alone that tracks so many lives within western culture is kept far, far away from eight in a tent in Helmand. I’ve felt great pride and optimism when I have seen young people given something to do, a reason to do it, and the sense they are about a higher purpose, shine like the sun and dedicate themselves to the task with enthusiasm, assurance, professionalism and the knowledge that there is hope, even if cynics would rather scoff from afar.
I have known tiredness, and I’ve known good sleep, sadness and hilarity, disappointment and gratefulness but in all and through all I’ve known the presence of God, the hope of faith and the power of prayer. Yes, I have seen man’s inhumanity towards man and I’ve heard it sold in religious, philosophical and intellectual terms; but I know impious hate will use any means to twist the minds of those it seeks to control. For I have known in far greater measure the selfless actions of people of different faiths and of none, I have heard words of understanding and grace when I’ve met and eaten with mullahs and soldiers and farmers and police. And though there have been many things on which there are differences of opinion and ideology, I have felt and I have seen in concrete terms, that away from insipid romanticism and tabloid headlines, the truth that states, the hope that underscores, the trust that believes, and my faith proclaims; that in the end, when all is said and done, and all of history is revealed, selfless love and the giving of ones all for another, wins, full stop.