Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another Take on Video Shooter Games

Character from US Army recruiting video game, America's Army

My last post reminded me that I've beaked off on the subject of video games and ethics myself. Here's a link to an article of mine that appeared in the online journal of chaplaincy, Curtana: Sword of Mercy (Spring/Summer 2010). The link takes you to one big .PDF file but scroll down to find my article. Curtana is edited by former chaplain Robert Stroud and is an interesting venture - long may it prosper.

Should Shooter Games Be Ethical?

Time to revisit a subject discussed here on MP before. Freelance journalist Matthew Shaer has published an interesting piece on Foreign Policy on the latest crop of Iraq/Afghanistan-themed first person shooter games. Three of his points worth noting:

1) Now that contemporary wars are lasting long enough to spawn their own video games, game designers are deciding whether or not to cross an ethical line when they allow players to take control of the enemy and kill depicted US/NATO soldiers.

2) Point one assumes that one can speak of the ethics of these games, though that is a point contested by some. Here's Shaer: "There is no moral nuance at play in any of the first-person military shooters on the market today, no greater cultural lesson to be learned -- there is only the opportunity to use a cool-looking machine gun to take the head off a bad-looking dude, in a beautiful-looking environment."

3) By taking this "no moral nuance" line, game designers are missing an opportunity to take players deeper and maybe teach them something. Here's Shaer talking with communications professor Ian Bogost: "Games are great at depicting systems instead of telling stories. ... And then there's role-playing: What is it like to be someone else?" he said. "That's the missed opportunity in Medal of Honor -- what does it really mean to be the Taliban? Where are they coming from? What does that feel like? Now that doesn't mean you have to endorse the opinion, but [in a video game] you can explore something from someone else's side."

Bogost paused. Medal of Honor, he added, "was never on that track, but if it had, it would have been interesting and powerful."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Military Picture of the Week

I have no idea who this guy is but there's a good story behind the picture (which I love, by the way - it captures the ordinary British squaddie brilliantly, there's something quite eternal about this face). The photo is one of a series of British troops currently training here at Suffield, as taken by Steve Woods, a British army photographer who I met on the training area yesterday. "Woody" is a former British army infanteer and has an incredible eye for photography. There's a link to his blog and more of his images here.

Woody was kind enough to take four shots of myself and a British chaplain colleague, Padre Alex Bennett, and I'll post them here soon. Thanks, Woody.

Another military athlete of note

Last week MadPadre featured a US Air Force officer who won her category at the Hawaii Iron Man event. This post features an inspirational Canadian forces athlete, Capt. Kim Fawcett, as written up in the CF newspaper, The Maple Leaf.

You can do anything you want if you put you mind into it.”

Captain Kimberly Fawcett, a triathlete champion with a disability, speaks these words and puts them into action in both her personal and professional lives.

Capt Fawcett, an officer with Canadian Material Support Group HQ, placed third at the world’s largest paratriathlon held September 11 in Budapest. Her time was 2:11:9. Battling pounding rain and frigid, murky waters while exercising meticulously rehearsed discipline techniques, Capt Fawcett completed a 750-m swim in open water, a 20-km bike ride and a 5-km run to earn bronze.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) Triathlon World Championship incorporates six categories in which physically challenged athletes compete at championships each year. Capt Fawcett competed against eight others in her category; 85 paratriathletes from 15 countries competed in total.

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Language Play of the Week

Every now and then I read something - a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, "wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that". OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn't exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I'm talking about, but you get my point. Here's the second in what is thus far an intermittent feature in Mad Padre.

This week's pick is more serious, from a novel I've just finished by Canadian author Sharon Butala. Didn't know about her until I discovered this book in the excellent Med Hat library. Butala is a western Canadian writer of some fame, and lives just down the Trans Canada Highway in Eastend, SK. I chose this excerpt, from her novel The Garden of Eden, for its descriptive quality. You might argue with the adjective `precious` but if you`ve ever been mesmerized by the clarity of light in a prairie sunrise, you`ll see how truthful this passage is. MP+

Àt the coulee`s lip every little knob and rock, every dip and badger bush stands out sharply. It`s the light the Great Plains is famous for and she`s grateful for it, too, on this brisk morning of her husband`s funeral. Even the drugged sluggishness is leaving her in the morning light and the cool spring air. In another fifteen minutes that precious light will have spread itself out more evenly and with less extreme attention; the high spots will flatten a little, the low spots will rise to meet them, and the promise of heaven will be gone until, as the sun lowers itself gently down the sky, its rays will once again make every stone and bladè of grace ring with golden light.``

Sharon Butala, The Garden of Eden, HarperCollins Canada, 1998, p. 72.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Suffield Grace

This Friday night past the Canadian military garrison at CFB Suffield had a mixed mess dinner (mixed = wives and spouses to keep the boys on their best behaviour). It was an excellent time, and I felt inspired to pen this rhyming grace in honour of the occasion, trying to capture a sense of what we do at Suffield. Apologies to poets everywhere. It was well received, except from folks who served at Shilo. MP+

Gracious God, our thanks we yield,
This night at CFB Suffield.
Here amidst your vast creation,
Of endless plain, we play host nation
And call this place our happy home,
Where antelope and BATUS roam.

To a career manager, this place may be
The next best thing to Purgatory,
But we will gladly do our part,
Though it seems at times the juggler’s art,
To balance Brits, oil, gas, DRDC,
And range sustainability.

We’re proud Canucks, of Keller’s band,
Who with firehose in hand,
From Range Control do sally forth,
To battle fires and scorched earth.
Get ‘er done, we cry, and, of course, chimo!
For it could be worse, it could be Shilo.

So, good Lord, we pray you bless,
Your servants gathered in this mess.
Be with us as we take our ease,
And guard our comrades overseas.


BATUS = British Army Training Unit Suffield
DRDC = Defence Research and Development Canada
Keller = LCol Rod Keller, the Base Commander
chimo = the Canadian military engineers' greeting and battle cry
Shilo - CFB Shilo, near Brandon, MB

Good to Go? A Sermon for the Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost

Preached Sunday, October 24, 2010 at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Propers 30, Year C, Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

`God, be merciful to me, a sinner.`` Luke 18:13

“Good to go” is a military phrase with several layers of meaning. When a soldier is “good to go”, it can mean that the soldier is prepared with all the gear and kit necessary to do a specific task. More frequently, “good to go” means that a soldier is ready for whatever challenges may come her way. Being “good to go” to Afghanistan, for example, means that a soldier has the gear, the training, a care plan for loved one and dependents, and most importantly, the courage and the resolution to meet the expectations of their comrades and of their chain of command. It’s not a phrase that soldiers take lightly. I remember the moment just before my unit left on a winter exercise when the company commander passed me and asked “good to go, Padre?”. He wasn’t just asking me if I had remembered to pack my toque and mittens. Really he was asking me, “Are you sure you’re up for this? Have you got what it takes to be part of the team rather than a burden? Can we count on you?” After that experience I learned that being “good to go” is a source of pride for a soldier. Pride in the military is highly encouraged, if you have what it takes and if you can do your job. Pride makes good soldiers.

Pride however doesn`t make for good Christians. If we translate the phrase “good to go” into Christian terms, we could say means “righteousness”, or being right with God. Take today’s gospel lesson from Luke 18. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is telling God that he is spiritually “good to go”. Because he is a Pharisee, meaning a person who is very intentional about following the rules and requirements of the Torah so that he can be considered a faithful, orthodox Jew. In other words and in Christian terms, he is a regular churchgoer (rather than a Christmas and Easter visitor), never misses a service, leaves a good sum in the collection plate, and does more than his share of church and committee work. He’s the type who assumes that he is “good to go” to heaven because he takes his faith so seriously that God is bound to love him.

The Tax Collector in Jesus parable doesn’t believe that he’s “good to go” to heaven. In fact, he doesn’t think he’s good enough even to look up at heaven. Jesus probably put a Tax Collector into his story because there could be few worse people to faithful Jews of Jesus’ day. This person was theological pond scum because he was a collaborator, collecting revenue for the pagan Romans who who oppressed God’s chosen people of Israel. In Christian terms, he is the sort of person who has done something that causes him great spiritual guilt and distress, so that he might go into a church door but he won’t go anywhere near the altar (Jesus says that the TC was “standing far off” 8:13).

Now the parable is obvious enough that we all get the point fairly quickly. Luke even tells us Jesus’ point before it begins: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (8:9). If we have some experience of churches, we probably have encountered at least one congregation where the membership bar was set so high (a 10% tithe enforced by disclosure of member’s tax returns, high expectations for attendance, some sort of righteous remnant theology) that a certain spiritual pride set in. These kind of churches can be attractive if you want to be sure that you’re “good to go” to heaven. But if you’re like the Tax Collector, troubled by some sin or sense of unworthiness, a “good to go to heaven” church isn’t likely to be attractive or even welcoming. The pastor Mike Erre, in his book The Jesus of Suburbia, tells this story of such a person. “A man recently approached me with an all-too-familiar story. He believed in Jesus but as a young man had wandered away for many years. He stood at the door of our church and asked if God was OK with his coming back. I was dumbfounded. God is more than OK with it! I pointed him to Luke 15 and the story of the Prodigal Son, but I grieved that he even felt he had to ask me.” (71-72).

Stories like this one raise a question, which we could put as a variant of our good to go phrase , which is, do I have to be “good to go” to church? Like Mike Erre, I’ve met people who have believe that they had to be good in order to earn God’s love. Sometimes these people say things like “Padre, you won’t see me on Sunday, because I’d burst into flame if I ever went inside your church”. Often this kind of remark is just an excuse, a cute way of saying that the person can’t be bothered , but if anyone said this to me seriously, I’d point them to the Tax Collector in today’s parable and say “Do you see him in flames?” No, he`s not on fire because there important truths that the Tax Collector understands. One is the reality of his own imperfection. I daresay that all of us in this room have some awareness of where we fall short in God’s eyes. Second, the Tax Collector understands the character of God, which is why he asks God to be “merciful”. In his simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”, there is the hope that God’s character of love and mercy has the power to close with and destroy whatever there is in our character that keeps us from being the wonderful creation that God intended us to be. In theological terms, we call this reconciliation, the closing of the distance, the reconciling that brings us back to God and overcomes whatever we have done that has offended against God`s law. So, do we have to be good to go to God? No, we don’t. But, we do have to go to God to be good, because reconciliation only comes from God.

In today’s parable, we don’t hear how the story ends. We don’t know how the Tax Collector’s prayer is answered, or how he is changed. The point of the parable is that God will hear a prayer which comes from the honesty of self-knowledge and the trust that God in his love will not abandon or condemn those who turn to him. We know and believe as Christians that God’s son died on the cross for sinners, for all of us. Nowhere in scripture does is say that Christ died for a small spiritual elite who were made perfect by their own efforts. But scripture is pretty clear that Christ died for sinners, for people like the Tax Collector and you and me. The challenge of Christ for those who believe in him is to resist the temptation to declare ourselves a spiritual elite, the saved. If we can resist that temptation, then we can see our fellow men and women to be people like us, sinners who need God’s love and mercy as much as we do. Once we start seeing the world this way, then we escape the trap of the Pharisee, who is alone in his little spiritual corner, congratulating himself that he deserved God’s love but others didn’t make the grade.

Let me finish with an attempt to show how today’s gospel might apply to a recent event and a spiritual trap that might lie within it. If you are a Canadian, you will know that Russell Williams, a former Canadian Forces Colonel and Base Commander, was sentenced last week to life imprisonment for two murders and numerous other convictions involving crimes against women. If you are a Canadian Forces member, you may have read Friday’s message from the Chief of Defence Staff, saying how we are all “shocked and repulsed`` by this man`s ``heinous crimes`. As soldiers, we looked to commanders like Williams to embody and affirm our values. When such men said that we were good to go, we took pride in their approval because we felt that they were good. The CDS calls on us to repudiate Williams but to keep our faith in the system. Fair enough. As a soldier, I believe in the values of the CF and I accept the CDS`s statement that Williams has `lost the privilege of calling himself a member of the CF community``. As Christians, however, we need to recognize an important truth about God`s love, which is that if Russell Williams, in his prison cell, should one day sincerely echo the prayer of the Tax Collector, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner`, then we cannot tell God how to answer it. If we were to say that some people, like Williams, are beyond the love and mercy of God, then we fall into the false piety of the Pharisee in the parable, who presumed to judge others on God`s behalf. What will transpire between God and Russell Williams is a mystery that you and I will only learn on the day of judgement As for ourselves, we can take comfort in knowing, like the Tax Collector, that we do not have to be good to go to Go, for only God can make us good to go.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Military Picture of the Week

Didn't surprise me to see a pilot featured in this image. It's been my experience that air force personnel can set be driven and excellent athletes, despite the bad rap they get from army types. MP+

10/09/2010 - U.S. Air Force Capt. Jamie Turner, a reservist and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft pilot, waves an Air Force flag as she crosses the finish line during the Ford Iron Man World Championship in Kona-Kailua, Hawaii, on Oct. 9, 2010. The championship triathlon consisted of a consecutive 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26-mile marathon. Turner finished first in the military female division with a time of 10:48:31. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cohen A. Young, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Taking Responsibility Breaks the Cycle of Domestic Abuse

Good piece from the AFPS stresses the role that men can take in taking responsibility for their role in domestic abuse and acting to end it. The US Defence Department marks October as Domestive Violence Awareness Month. Here in Canada various jurisdictions, including Alberta, spotlight the issue during November. AS I write this, plans are in progress here at CFB Suffield to tie into local civic programs and events. FYI, a link to the Canadian Forces Take a Stand Against Family Violence program is here. MP+

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2010 – Several years ago, I interviewed a noncommissioned officer for the base paper where I was stationed. He very bravely had agreed to talk about his experiences with domestic abuse in hopes of raising awareness of the problem.

He told me how his temper would flare up at his wife and how he would get physically aggressive with her. His anger would rage out of control, he told me, and it was difficult to suppress.

But rather than continue down a destructive path, this servicemember opted to get help. He sought assistance through the base family advocacy program and, through counseling, found the help he needed to deal with his anger and the underlying causes for his abuse. He accepted responsibility, found help early on and continued on to have a successful career and a healthy marriage.

I thought that took a lot of guts. He conveyed a strong message that it's never too late to seek help, whether you're the perpetrator or the victim.

The Defense Department is observing Domestic Violence Awareness Month this month by stepping up efforts to bring awareness to this pervasive issue and the resources available to prevent it.

Read the whole story here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Language Play of the Week

Every now and then I read something - a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, "wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that". OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn't exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I'm talking about, but you get my point. Here's the second in what is thus far an intermittent feature in Mad Padre.

This week's language play has been around for a while now. It's from a David Sedaris piece in the August 9th issue of The New Yorker magazine, which I'm still nibbling at, entitled "Standing By: Fear, Loathing, Flying". An abstract of the piece is here (go ahead, treat yourself to a digital subscription while you're there).

Here's the sentence, a gorgeously over the top simile to defend the argument that the author's fellow Americans can be slovenly and unpleasant people to spend time on an airplane with.

"I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It's as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, "F**k this, I'm going to Los Angeles".

If you google the phrase you'll find other fans of it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Verdict in the Semrau Trial

Former Canadian army Captain Robert Semrau is now Second Lieutenant Semrau, thanks to the demotion which was part of his Oct 5 sentencing following the first trial of a Canadian soldier for murder on the battlefield in history. As a serving member of the CF, it's not my place to editorialize on the trial or its verdict. The October 6th coverage of the verdict from the Globe and Mail is here. I also note that well-known Canadian military historian David Bercuson has criticised the Semrau verdict as being too ambiguous, saying that a tougher sentence was needed "to 'draw firm lines' between right and wrong."

Time for a New Geneva Convention for the War on Terror?

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, whatever that is. His piece below, which is brief and thus repeated in full, was part of a fourteen suggestions from Foreign Policy for US President Obama to get things back on track. His claim that it's time for a fifth Geneva Convention is brilliant and timely. MP+

Will Marshall

George W. Bush, in the absence of broadly agreed-upon guidelines for fighting and meting out justice to terrorists, stumbled badly in attempting to write his own rules for the "war on terror." Barack Obama has done better, but his administration is just as bollixed up over the right way to detain and try suspected terrorists.

Nine years after 9/11, let's get it right once and for all. Obama should lead an international effort to clear up confusion and ambiguities surrounding terrorism, war, and the "right" to resistance invoked by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to justify attacking civilians and using them as human shields.

Specifically, Obama should call for a new Geneva Convention -- the fifth -- to provide a common legal framework for combating terrorism. This would help the world resolve the "neither soldier nor criminal" quandary that has bedeviled two successive U.S. administrations. More importantly, it would stigmatize the routine use of violence against civilians in fragile or disordered countries around the world.

A tough new anti-terrorism convention would give the international community new weapons in the struggle to discredit violent extremism. By designating mass casualty and suicide terrorism as crimes against humanity, it would take some of the glamour out of violence. It would also provide the legal basis for international tribunals to indict those who recruit the killers and plan the attacks. Finally, leading the charge for a new Geneva Convention would reinforce a core theme of Obama's foreign policy: restoring U.S. moral leadership within a framework of international cooperation for mutual security.

Because terrorism is a global scourge, it makes no sense for every country to write its own rules for combating and punishing terrorists. It's time to arm the civilized world with the legal tools it needs to fight and defeat terrorists -- in a civilized way. and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Difficult Art of Gratitude

The Difficult Art of Gratitude: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 10 October, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9. John 6:25-35

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house. (Deuteronomy 26:11)

Gratitude is a difficult art to practice. Take the thank you card, for example. My father always preached the value of the thank you note or, if I had been a guest somewhere, then he called it the “bread and butter letter” . Dad believed that a thank you note was an appropriate response to an act of kindness or hospitality. As he liked to say, gratitude was a sign of civilization, and being civilized was always better than being a savage. Last week Kay and I had a houseguest over for a very pleasant evening, and the next day we received a warm and thoughtful handwritten thank you card. It wasn’t strictly necessary of him to write and send the card, because we’d shaken hands and as he said goodbye he had thanked us warmly. The card said more than thank you. It was, I suppose, a way of saying “I’m glad we spent time together, let’s continue this relationship and let’s grow this friendship.” The card was especially meaningful because even though our friend was getting ready to fly home, he had taken time out of a busy day to buy a card, write some thoughtful words, and get it to us. I know there have been times were I’ve received kindness and hospitality, and yet have found the art of gratitude too difficult to practice. I got busy, I was lazy, I forgot, and the opportunity was lost. Gratitude is a difficult art to practice. Like anything else of value, it takes intentionality and effort.

If gratitude is social art, gratitude can also be a spiritual art, and like the social art of gratitude, spiritual gratitude can also be difficult art to practice. Sure, we know how to be spiritually grateful. As someone once said, all prayers can be boiled down to two types. The first type of prayer is “please, please, please”, and the second type is “thank you, thank you, thank you”. We’re quite good at saying these kind of things when adrenaline is involved. It might be a few seconds of bad driving in winter, or some very long hours waiting for the doctor to return with the test results. When we need something badly, or when we feel that we’ve received some incredible moment of grace, prayers of please, please, please or thank you, thank you, thank you come easily enough, even to people who aren’t really sure who they’re praying to. As my father also liked to say, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. It’s the moments when the adrenaline fades away and life goes back to normal that many people lose the need to pray. It’s not that they’re bad people, but rather that the need to pray recedes into the background, and so the idea of prayer as a practice or a discipline, as something that we have to persist at to get good, becomes so difficult for most people, even for most Christians.

Thanksgiving Sunday reminds us of the importance of gratitude as a spiritual art. Also known as Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday, it is a holdover of a time when most people’s lives were closely tied to the earth. In Christian history, the Sixth Sunday after Easter was known as Rogation Sunday, the time of planting. That was the “please, please, please” prayer, when churches would ask God to bless the crops and the weather so that people would not go hungry. Harvest Thanksgiving was the “thank you, thank you, thank you” time, when as the old hymn puts it, “all is safely gathered in, ‘ere the winter storms begin”. Because prayers of please and thank you can be selfish because they tend to be about us and about our needs, the church chooses scripture readings for Thanksgiving that remind us to think about others and about our relationship to them. In our first lesson, from Deuteronomy, God’s chosen people are reminded that they have more to be thankful for than just a good harvest. Israel is reminded that it is a chosen people, a nation created by God out of the family of Abraham, “a wandering Aramean”, protected by God when slaves in Egypt and “few in number”, and then brought out of slavery into a promised land. As it does over and over again, the Old Testament reminds God’s people that God has been faithful to them step by step, generation by generation, and this year’s harvest is just another sign of that faithfulness. To remind them of that faithfulness, the people are to give some of that harvest back to God through the priests (the “Levites”) and they are to share it with the non-Jews (the”resident aliens”) living with them. The “resident aliens” are important because God intended his chosen people to be a blessing to the world and not just a tiny, holier than thou, minority. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans and elsewhere, we are all God’s chosen people by adoption through God’s son Jesus Christ. Just as Israel was meant to share God’s blessing with the people around it, so are we called to be God’s partners in sharing the grace given to us.

Often in Anglican churches you will find a poster or a bulletin insert which says something like “Giving begets Grace begets Gratitude begets Giving begets ...”. Sometimes the words are arranged in a circle which suggests the idea of a cycle that feeds and grows off of itself. I’m not sure where this slogan comes from (it may be an echo of a saying by St. Basil --“gratitude begets reward” ) but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the idea that the “thank yous”, the moments of gratitude which follow our “please please please” requests for grace, should not be selfish. Instead, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude and sharing it with others, we can create a climate which promotes favourable conditions for more grace. The Christian writer Nancy Leigh Moss calls this “going gratitudinal”, which means finding ways to express our gratitude in ways which grace those around us and, in doing so, give witness to God as the author of all grace.

What might “going gratitudinal” mean for you this Thanksgiving? If you’ve been graced with a talent, will your gratitude help nurture talents in others? If you’ve been blessed with an act of kindness, will your gratitude express itself in kindness to others? Here’s a hard one. If it doesn’t seem to you that your “please please please” moment has yet been answered, can you still find gratitude for the faithfulness and promise of God’s son? In our Gospel reading from St. John today, we heard Jesus challenge his followers to believe even in those times when they do not see miracles like gifts of bread. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This Sunday isn’t just about giving thanks for tables covered with good things like turkey and stuffing. This Sunday, like every Sunday and every day of our baptized lives, is about our giving thanks for the good news that God has chosen us, has called us, has loved us, loves us, and will love us, has forgiven us, forgives us, and will forgive us, and will receive us as his own. That is a gift worthy of our “thank yous”, and a grace worth sharing with others.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Life in Suffield 2: With the British on the Prairie

Two months into my posting at CFB Suffield, I'm convinced that I have the coolest job in the Canadian Forces Chaplaincy. One of the reasons for that conviction is that last month I had the opportunity to visit the training area as the guest of Padre Stewart Young, the British Battlegroup (BG) Chaplain for EX PRAIRIE THUNDER 5.

As I write this on a sunny October morning, fall has come gloriously to Alberta, but this September just past was horrible, rainy, overcast, and cold. In mid September I caught a ride out to the BG's location with two British soldiers from BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield), one of whom, a signaller Warrant Officer, rejoiced in the title of Yeoman of Signals. Our truck struggled along the slimy mud roads, up and down hills, at one point watching a heavy lorry (truck) fishtailing alarmingly ahead of us. "He's got those naff sand tires on" said the driver. Asking what a naff tire was, it was kindly explained to me that "naff" was slang for rubbish, no good, useless. It can also be used to describe someone you don't like or who is rather pathetic.

The drive took about an hour. The training area is that big and the roads were that bad. Under the grey sky and rain the prairie looked especially dispiriting, an endless expanse of rolling, grassy hills as far as the eye could see. During the hour trip I saw exactly one tree. The BATUS staff speak of "prairie sickness", a reaction to the monotony and isolation of this vast area.

I was delivered in the position, or "leaguer", of the BG, which comprised roughly a thousand troops drawn from the British Army's 20th Brigade, an armoured force whose home station is Paderborn, Germany. Warrior armoured personnel carriers, mighty Challenger tanks, agile looking Scorpion recce tanks, recovery vehicles, trucks, and Land Rovers were laid out in long rows. Today was a Maintenance Day, a chance for troops to service their vehicles, resupply, and perhaps catch some rest before the next day's exercise. Tent flies were attached to the sides of vehicles, sheltering sleeping forms next to another vehicles were troops hammered track back into place or shaved in the side mirrors.

I managed to take some rather naff photos with my iphone before the battery failed me.

Warrior APCs on the barren prairie. These vehicles are roughly equivalent to Canada's LAVs.

Maintenance on some Challenger tanks (left). On the right is a massive Challenger recovery vehicle. In the center troops rest under flies attached to their Warriors.

When I arrived Padre Young was busy assisting a soldier with an issue back home, so I stowed my gear with his driver, a likable Yorkshireman with a thick and at times incomprehensible accent. As his mates wandered by they kept saying "Hiya John Boy" and on asking why he was called John Boy, he told me his last name was Walton. Of course.

I then wandered among the lines, a happy military tourist, and when troops had time to notice me, they were unfailingly polite. A short, sturdy and bearded tank sergeant, who looked remarkably like one of one of Tolkien's dwarves, connected me with one of his men, a Cpl Perkins, who allowed me to sit in the turret of his massive Challenger tank. Cpl Perkins kindly explained the layout and function of the various crew stations, a marvel of engineering and compactness, until his duties called him away.

A proud heritage. A Challenger tank commander under the pennant of his regiment, the Queen's Own Hussars.

Another armoured heritage, the naming of vehicles.

Standing in the mess line with John Boy, I was struck by the remarkable ethnic diversity of the British army. Fijians and Africans from Ghana and Kenya mixed with lads from all over the UK. Until quite recently the Army has recruited FOC (Foreign of Commonwealth) troops from across the former British Empire, but I gather has ceased this practice since the Army is now considered fully manned. By and large they seemed to get along with one another.

My host, Padre Young, showed up towards dinner, or "scoff" as they call it. Stewart is a British Army chaplain, which means that unlike my Branch, which is triservice (my next posting could be to a ship), Stewart and his colleagues only serve with army units. He is currently padre to 5 RIFLES, an infantry regiment of ancient lineage (their cap badge would be familiar to fans of the TV series Sharpe's Rifles) based in Paderborn. Stewart is the embodiment of the army chaplain, an energetic, cheerful man, unafraid of the discomforts of the field (he served briefly as a Royal Marine in his youth), with a huge heart for his troops and for God. Despite our denominational differences (he's a Methodist, I'm Anglican) I felt in the company of a kindred spirit.

Just before sunset, the BG turned to the coming day. The BATUS staff had called for the BG to attempt an unopposed river crossing, meaning that the various components would have to move towards a large terrain obstacle, do their nightime reconnaisance, organize a scheme of maneuvre for all the various BG components, make a difficult crossing on muddy and narrow roads, and be prepared for action afterwards. Despite the absence of the enemy, it was a complex process for units that were not always accustomed to workingn with one another. Stewart led me over to a model of the terrain, laid out with tarps, rocks and bits of mine tape by a likable sergeant major whose foxy face made me think of a poacher from a Thomas Hardy novel. The BG commander, a charismatic and expressive Lt Col with a double barrelled name and the quality of someone from a long line of soldiers, led a long and to my mind surprisingly informal briefing in the last moments of daylight. His officers were an interesting bunch. Scruffy, long haired (compared to the shaved or short high and tight styles favoured by Americans and some Canadians), dressed in a variety of military and some civilian kit, they were nevertheless professional and intelligent.

BG CO briefs his officers before the river crossing to come in the morning.

The night to come was busy, and I doubt that the BG got much sleep. I managed four hours in a small tent kindly lent to me by Stewart, and woke shivering in the dark at reveille, 04:00hrs. the British followed their "Morning Routine", which consisted of stowing kit, checking that vehicles were functioning, and then having "a brew" (tea) and a shave if time permitted. A gorgeous sunrise promised a warmer day.

Sunrise on the prairie, illuminating a row of transport and supply vehicles.

Watching the obstacle crossing would be a problem, because Stewart's Land Rover could only seat two and it would be restricted to the logistical tail of vehicles that would be kept in the rear echelon. Stewart solved that problem by finding us seats in two of the BATUS vehicles that would be observing and critiquing the day's exercise. I spend the morning with a young captain, Will Locke, who had seconded to BATUS from his unit, the 9/12th Lancers, an armoured recce unit driving fast tanks and with all of the dash and elan of their heritage, as can be seen in this video they made. Will had a tour in Iraq under his belt, and knew his trade. He would be observing the reconnaisance work of the BG and indeed had been out most of the night watching the recce elements surveying the river for the required crossing points. When his duties permitted, he was a charming and informative host. He endeared himself to me by smoking a pipe, something rare in young men and something I used to do.

Seen from Will's truck, elements of the BG move towards the river crossing,

Riding in Will's truck, I was able to hear the BG communicating amongst itself on one radio net, while on another I could hear the BATUS staff observing and talking amongst themselves, noting both good and bad points for the debrief afterwards. It was a fascinating experience, rather like listening to the play by play of a sporting event while listening at the same time to the athletes themselves. It all underscored the point that training is meant to save lives by giving troops the chance to test themselves and work out the bugs before they go into combat, which the BG will be doing sometime in the future.

Heavy metal. Once the river was crossed and secure, the BG could bring up its bridgelaying equipment to make a more permanent crossing. This gear, seen about 1 k away, was huge.

A comical moment: I was outside Will's truck, attending to nature's call, when over the crest of the hill behind me came the vehicle of CO BATUS, a full colonel who was overseeing the exercise as well as the work of his control staff. I hastily zipped up and beat a retreat to the truck, but Will was called over and told by CO BATUS that he didn't want to see visitors in temperate clothing (my green Canadian combats) mixed in with his control staff, who all wear arid (desert pattern) uniforms to distinguish themselves as non-players from the exercising troops. I have yet to have any face time with Col Carver, CO BATUS, and if I do, I wonder if this incident will come out. Technically I am Padre to his organization as well as to the CF staff at Suffield, and hopefully he will at least be pleased that his padre is out on the prairie with his people.

The day's exercise went well. The BATUS staff were impressed overall with the BG's performance and with their planning. For the next two weeks the BG practiced increasingly more difficuly drills and challenges, encountering real opposition from the BATUS troops brought in as the opposing force (OPFOR). These combats are a lot like lasertag on an epic scale, with troops and vehicles wearing electronic vests that determine who is killed or wounded. The EX also includes live fire exercises, though not at other troops of course. The night live fire ranges are apparently quite epic, and I hope to see them in due course. With all the exploding things out their on the ranges, the CF range control and fire suppression teams can be quite busy.

After a few days debauchery in Medicine Hat and Calgary, the BG is on its way home now, and another group will come in from Germany next week to spend its time on the ranges before winter sets in. Kay and I had Padre Young over for a more genteel debauch, complete with home cooking, some Alberta ale (Warthog from Big Rock) and some single malt scotch (Bruichladdich) in honour of Stewart's Scots heritage. He's on his way home tomorrow.

I wish I had a photo of Stewart to share, but I did go online and find this grace which he wrote in Afghanistan when he was the chaplain of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, a reminder that a sense of humour and a way with words are often useful to a padre.

Grace for the QDG 50th
Anniversary Dinner
by Padre Stewart Young
(With apologies to all serious poets!)
We gather here in celebration
of 50 years since amalgamation.
The Queen’s Bays and King’s Dragoon
Guards were joined as one,
1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards to become.
And looking back, since fifty-nine,
with pride in our hearts, we trace our line,
from Wolfenbuttel to Musaymir;
from Sennelager to Garmsir.
First and foremost, we’ve always been,
proud Dragoons who serve our Queen.
And on this day, in this foreign land,
where we’ve been before, we take our stand,
to serve once more, under the eagle,
our badge of honour, which has no equal.
And one more time, we take our pause,
to bring our thanks before our God,
for all he’s done o’er 50 years
to bless our efforts and quell our fears
as we’ve faced great odds and many a
as we’ve fought with stealth and used our
skill, to find and fix,
any who’ve dared to pit their wits
against The First, The QDG
the one, the only, Welsh Cavalry.

RAF Pilots Honoured by Battle of Britain Tea

With Sept 19th's Battle of Britain Sunday service still fresh in my memory, I was pleased to see this story in the UK MOD press service about how a British tea party has released a special blend to remember the 70th anniversary of the BOB. The story of Terry Clark, seen on the label below and today at age 91, is a good read. Wonder if I can get some here in Canada? MP+

A wartime picture of Terry Clark appears on the label inside tins of the tea blended to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain
[Picture: Newsquest/The Press, York, 2010]

Terry Clark drinks a cup of the tea blended to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain
[Picture: Newsquest/The Press, York, 2010]

Battle of Britain veteran inspires special blend of charity tea
A History and Honour news article
1 Oct 10

A Battle of Britain veteran has been the inspiration for a special blend of tea brewed to honour 'The Few', with some of the proceeds going to the RAF Association Wings Appeal.

Terry Clark, aged 91, was an air gunner in a Blenheim light bomber aircraft, used as a night fighter, during the Battle of Britain. His initial job was to defend York and the surrounding airfields from German attacks.

He joined the Auxiliary Air Force at the age of 19, training in Surrey and on the Isle of Man. He said:

"The station commander signed my log book but nobody said whether I'd passed the course. I assume I must have done because they sent me off to join 219 Squadron, a Blenheim fighter unit based at Catterick."

Mr Clark and his squadron mates spent much of the Battle of Britain quietly playing pontoon as they waited for a call to arms. But the silence was shattered when the phone rang - it was the signal to scramble. A couple of flicked switches fired up the Blenheims and within minutes crews were airborne:

"Spitfire pilots couldn't see in the dark, but we could," he said. "Blenheims carried an early form of radar which at the time was unknown to the Germans. We also had ground control radar which was used to get us to the main body of the bombers. But while it could see the big picture, it was down to us to identify the individual aircraft with our radar before opening fire."

Read the whole story here.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive