Army chaplain speaks of life on the front line

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Army chaplain Stephen Hancock describes how life for a padre on operations can be tough but very rewarding.

From carrying a 35-kilo Bergen in sweltering temperatures in Afghanistan to baptising an infant in a UK village church, Padre Hancock has done it all.

Dressed in green like the regular soldiers, military padres blend in with the crowd, but it is being able to develop a particular ‘visibility’ that Padre Hancock believes is the secret to success:

I really believe in visibility, that a chaplain should be seen walking around talking to anybody and everybody,” he said. “By doing that you build relationships and soldiers and officers will trust you. If you’re invisible you have no chance of achieving a great deal with them.

Armed with a bible and a cross, life for a padre on operations can be tough. They go out on patrols and live in forward operating bases, on hand for when they might be needed.

Despite the harshness and the challenges, nothing is more rewarding said Padre Hancock:

Sitting in a vehicle watching these guys, in body armour and helmet in 56 degrees [Celsius] heat, 122 [degrees Fahrenheit] in English money, you’ve got to be robust, but that’s how you earn their respect.

Even if you fainted, they’d probably love you more - you’ve just got to join in.

You’ve got to do what they’re doing, be with them, share with them, and then it’s incredible how, when you least expect it, they will come to you with their intimate pain and intimate secret.

And that is a real privileged position and you start to think ‘my presence is not wasted’.

Currently based with the Army Air Corps in Hampshire, Padre Hancock has served as a chaplain in every arm of the British Army.

His job is to provide spiritual, moral and pastoral support to all soldiers and their families irrespective of religion and belief.

He joined the military as a soldier in 1989 and worked as a policeman before he had his ‘calling’ from God. He was serving in Berlin, just as the wall was coming down, when he took the decision:

An Army chaplain asked if God was calling me. I was very active in the church as a Christian, I’d led worship from the piano and sung a few things and I’d preached at an English church in Berlin.

I didn’t realise it at the time but three or four ministers were testing me and they told me to go for the ordained ministry.

Posted to Northern Ireland during the troubles, he left the Army in 1994 and began a local preacher’s course for the Methodist Church.

He went to Queen’s University in Belfast and took a degree in theology, graduating three years later, and was then sent to serve in a Methodist Church in the Republic of Ireland.

Four years after being ordained, and married with three children, he joined the Army for the second time.

Despite the training, deploying for the first time was a bit of a shock to the system:

When I went to Iraq it really was seat-of-the-pants stuff. As a friend says about parenthood, ‘give me a break, I’m making this up as I go along’. There’s no manual.

I was chaplain in the medical aid post and casualties and fatalities were coming in from both sides and I was able to do some incredible things. I was asked to pray for a dead Iraqi boy by his father.

The Army chaplain’s office had prepared prayers for us and his dad asked me to help carry his son home. I managed to get a Warrior and we drove into part of Basra and delivered this boy to his family and then we got out of there quick. That will live with me.

When I went back out there with the Royal Dragoon Guards, 18 months later on TELIC 5, I knew what to expect, but Iraq had changed and I was pretty much confined to camp for six months - the threat had gone through the roof.

You do share the pain of the loss. You cannot be insensitive to it.

With two tours of Iraq and a tour of Afghanistan behind him, Padre Hancock has experienced life-changing moments and he said he is better at spotting ‘problems in a person’s face’.

Despite the huge variety, he believes his role in the Army is no different to being a civilian clergyman - the essentials are the same.

As for his next exciting adventure, he said:

Tomorrow will be my highlight.