Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
Operational Tempo, Dehumanization, and Alienation
If it is true that military duties that place people in mortal danger and cause them to experience personal hardship inspire religious responses, current CF operational tempo that subsumes human needs and relationships to military objectives amplifies a desire for the community and comforts that religious resources can provide. Not only are members required to ignore their personal experiences of discomfort, loneliness, and fear in order to complete their military responsibilities, but they are now expected to do so more frequently and for longer periods. The stresses of interrupted personal life and strained relationships are another reason that many people who are not religious at home turn to religion and religious resources during deployments.
Over and above the mortal and psychological risks of a dangerous mission, military personnel give up significant amounts of their personal time to training and deployment. The policy on deployment tells personnel that if they serve on a military operation, 'for 180 days or more, you should not be posted outside Canada again (or to an isolated post to which your family cannot travel at public expense) for one year. Exceptions to the one year limit may be approved... if you volunteer or if service requirements dictate . . . When you return home from a[n] operation lasting six months or longer, you should have a 60-day respite' (Assistant Deputy Minister Human Resources 2005).
Canada's relatively small total force (regular and reserve forces combined) consists of approximately 100,000 personnel. Present involvement in Afghanistan as well as ongoing commitments to other operations mean that capable people are deployed repeatedly and frequently for terms as long as six to nine months (English 2000; Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence 2003). When the need arises, personnel do not receive the one-year exemption stated in the policy above. As a result, personnel experience significant disruptions to their personal life and have little time or energy to process and overcome the accumulated stress of the mission environment. A counsellor at an operational stress centre added, 'You do the first mission and it's not so bad. But [after] another mission it's getting worse because you have an accumulation of stress. When you have stress for a week it's not so bad, but when you have stress for six months you're developing pathological stress.' As one commanding officer told me, 'The real problem comes from the fact that we're such a small force! There's a small base of people with the necessary skill sets that are actually deployable and we use them over and over again. The medical people are exhausted, the engineers are stretched beyond beyond - you could continue through all the trades. People are tired! And that's where the stress comes in. It's hard to package stress when it comes over a two- year period! It's not just an isolated event, it's an accumulation of things.' Accumulated stress, as we saw earlier, can present itself in a number of ways. Time away due to training and deployment can take a heavy toll on personal relationships.
While some CF members suggested that military personnel and their partners are in fact more committed to their marriage relationships because they recognize the difficulties they will face going in (a possibility supported by the lower statistics on divorce and separation),9 Canadian Forces members continue to struggle to balance their military and family obligations. The Department of National Defence recognizes that the personal lives of military members suffer as the result of the 'cumulative and combined impact of all sources of time away including courses, training, attached postings... as well as deployments' (Directorate Quality of Life 2007). What this means for personnel is that, as one member put it, 'When you're overseas on a mission, you check out of your marriage. There's a lot of glory that goes with being on a mission but there's no glory for the person stuck at home making life continue - there's no glory in doing the laundry!' Another person commented that marriages in the CF are either 'rock solid or totally broken.'
A Francophone member of the air force who had served in Kosovo explained, 'You don't know how long six months is until you've done one of those tours. I know of at least one guy who intentionally broke his arm so he could go home. It was just such a long time to be away and it's hard on your family and your relationships. Sometimes you go and it's not the same girlfriend when you get back because they can't handle it. Some guys get the call that their partner is leaving and they do everything to get back and when they get there, their bags are all waiting on the front step for them - it's too late. It's a hard life. But I'm not going to do that to myself. If it gets crazy, I'm going to get out. I've seen too many people's lives fall apart from what they're expected to do. When they start asking me to be away all the time, that's when I'll be asking for my discharge.'
Another Francophone serving in the army commented, 'I have a little baby at home - 18 months. When I went to Afghanistan she was just two months old and I couldn't believe how she changed when I came back. Now I go away to a conference or training for a week or two and she won't talk to me for a day or two when I get back! We are being deployed in a few months; we don't know where or for how long yet. I will do that deployment but after that, I'm not going to do it again. I've seen too many families destroyed by the military experience and I'm not going to do that to my family. It's not worth it to me.'
Another member who had done several six-to-nine-month tours over the last three years told me, 'My little daughter tore a big chunk of her hair out while I was away. She stopped as soon as I came home. That's tough ...' His voice broke. 'In a way, I think she believed that I was choosing the mission over her. We romanticize these missions - there's the adrenaline rush. I put my death file on my desk before I left - you know, in case anything happened - and [my wife and I would] make jokes about it, "You'll make a lot of money if I die!" I know it sounds pretty morbid, but we all do it. All soldiers do that. You have to. But the reality is, these kids are seeing you leaving and they're not sure you'll come home.'
A reservist soldier said, 'When I was deployed there were a number of stressors and disagreements with my family. These were the hardest things for me to cope with while I was away. I'd call because I wanted to touch base or connect and then we'd get off on some other issue and end up discussing that and there was nothing I could do about it right then so that made it really hard. I just wanted to talk to them and we'd end up in some discussion about something else. Then, when I got home it was really stressful because all those issues were outstanding and we had to work through all of them - that was the real readjustment phase for me.'
A naval officer described the loneliness of a shipboard mission saying, 'Being stuck out there . . . you're always thinking . . . that there's no way to go home. [On our longest mission] we missed every holiday. We missed Hallowe'en - you don't really think of that as a holiday but a lot of the guys were thinking that they were missing their kids and they couldn't take them out and that - Christmas, New Year, Valentine's Day, Easter! It was hard. People don't realize how hard it is to be on a ship because you're away a lot and you are really limited in your contact to the rest of the world. You can't call and you only get a few emails and only once a day. If someone at home forgets to email you and that's all you're depending on, that can be just awful for a crewmember!'
Chaplains note that members on deployment frequently seek them out for advice about personal relationships. One Francophone padre remarked that, during his tour in the Balkans, most people came to him about 'stresses about being away from home. Some of the guys had been on tour in the region four times already and they were pretty tired out. Chaplains can recommend an extra leave of absence if someone needs it - for example, because of a death at home. We can allow extra phone time - the soldiers are usually only allowed two 15-minute calls a day. We can contact the chaplains at home to contact the family and help out on that side.'
A Protestant chaplain who had served in Afghanistan said, 'We usually have several cases where a guy is [on a mission and] he's just trying to make sense of what is going on and he receives a phone call from his wife to announce that she is leaving him. So they come to the office right away and try to find a solution. We try to process the crises and see if we are going to repatriate this person or keep him there. We have to figure out how we can help the spouse or the girlfriend to go through this crisis herself.'
A woman chaplain who had served in Afghanistan told me that the first and last months of her tour were the busiest times for her. She explained that in the early part of the tour people came for comfort and encouragement because 'they were afraid,' while later in the tour they came because their families were going through turmoil owing to their absence. She explained that 'when you're on tour it puts a lot of stress on relationships and a lot of people break up. There might be problems at home but when you go away for a long time those problems are magnified.'
Another female chaplain said, 'On tour, relationships breaking up become a big, big deal! Being conservative, I would say there's about a 40% break-up rate during tours.' While people in these situations rely on chaplains for their help, it is not necessarily because the member is religious or even has a religious interest. Instead, it is because, as we saw in the previous chapter, the chaplain's role as an intermediary gives her a privileged place in the otherwise dehumanizing, bureaucratic hierarchy of military society. As a result of their ability to bridge the two worlds of military society and family life, chaplains are able to minimize some of the alienating and dehumanizing experiences that military personnel encounter.
At the same time that chaplains are interceding to minimize the dehumanizing aspects of military life for members, they must subsume their own experiences of hardship and the stresses of being separated from their home community to their military obligation. Ironically, this means that even as chaplains 'put a human face' on military operations, they themselves may be dehumanized and objectified by the role. As a result, not all chaplains are successful at meeting the needs of military personnel. Personnel explained that the 'good padres' were personable, approachable, and showed genuine interest in them; that is, they were able to bridge the gap between the military 'machine' and the member's personal needs. The 'bad padres' who acted more like social workers by keeping their distance and remaining aloof from personnel left people feeling misunderstood and alienated.
Members provided examples of chaplains who were effective at helping them to overcome the alienating aspects of military society as well as describing some who failed. One naval officer stated, 'With our last chaplain, I would have gone to him for just about anything, but this new one I wouldn't. The last one was very open. He was everywhere! He had been around longer and he knew what people needed. He spent time with people and he engaged you. He often solved problems on the ship before they became big issues. I've never really been comfortable with chaplains but the last guy didn't talk about religion. He talked about what you wanted to talk about. Everyone loved him. He'd be wherever the hardest work was being done - I mean, he wasn't out there in his robes - he was working alongside sweating and grunting with everyone else. He'd often go up to the smoking area and be with the people - someone said he actually started smoking because he spent so much time in the smoking area with people! But that's where the grumbling is and that's where the problems come out and he could often nip the issues in the bud. When someone was complaining about something, he was there to say, "Come on and we'll take a walk and we'll talk about that."'
I asked one person who described himself as a nominal Christian and who had served in Afghanistan if he had found the chaplains helpful to him. He told me that the padres who showed little interest in the personnel were of little help, while another who seemed to genuinely care about the troops had a real impact. He said, 'I found it depended on the padre. I connected more with one particular padre that I would only see from time to time passing through other camps, but our unit padres weren't that helpful. There was a Francophone Roman Catholic and an Anglican out there but I didn't really connect with them. But then there was this other Lutheran padre who was really great. The fact that he really cared about us made a huge difference. He cared and gave us his attention and showed he was concerned and that went miles towards his credibility and our respect for him.'
A naval officer who described herself as non-religious said, 'I have seen chaplains do some really wonderful things over the years. Maybe this comes from their sense of faith and knowing that people want help. But mainly, the most important role of the chaplain is that it's a safe place to talk. With the last chaplain we had, I could go in there any time and say whatever I needed to get off my chest without worrying that it would be repeated - even if it was something like "I hate my boss" or "I hate my husband, he doesn't love me and he doesn't miss me enough when I'm away" or whatever. It's a safe place to rage. There were times I'd go in and the chaplain would say to me, "Do you want me to do anything about this or just listen?" He really understood what people needed from him.' I asked if she could confide in her friends on board and she said, 'No! There's just too great a chance that you might say something in anger about someone and then have it repeated - so much hurt and anger can result from that and that's especially bad on a ship where you work so closely together. The chaplains I know have been incredibly discreet.'
Dallaire argues, 'Soldiers who have been through traumas and difficult times will seek out opportunities to talk about their issues, and padres can be excellent listeners - the more human ones at least. We are finding that when personnel suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, they need professional help, of course, but what they also absolutely - crucially - need is someone who will sit there for four hours and not ask a question but give them that atmosphere of confidence that allows them to let everything and anything out ... ' They are a positive tool, not a throwback to the dark ages - standing there with a cross and threatening people with the damnation of hell!'
Disruptions to personal and family life and the intense and frequent nature of Canadian military deployments are yet another cause for non-religious personnel to turn to spiritual and religious resources. Sometimes both religious and non-religious personnel seek the help of chaplains who can get members extended telephone or email time to work out personal problems, offer advice and consolation, and even have personnel repatriated when necessary. The descriptions that members provide about religious resources in these situations point to a tendency by personnel to apply aspects of modern rationalism under the authority of subjective individual interpretations for getting their needs met. While personnel may not believe in or value the religious traditions at their disposal, they recognize chaplains and other resources as 'tools' for meeting their personal needs. Ironically, this application of rationalism means that, even as chaplains are able to sidestep many of the constrictions of military life for the sake of serving personnel, they too become functionaries within it as they are 'used' by members who require help and by military authorities interested in maintaining operational efficiency.
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