An almost universal and defining attitude and motivator of the thousands of men and women who serve in the Australian Defence Forces is summed up in a former Chief of Army’s oft-repeated mantra, “service before self”. From the first ANZACs who answered the call to arms in service of King, Commonwealth and nation in the Great War, to those currently deployed in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and other dangerous places, service before self remains an accurate descriptor of Australian Defence members.
You might remember that in the name of service over self, over five thousand Defence members, mainly reservists, were deployed at short notice over the summer of 2019-20 to assist during and following devastating bushfires in SA, NSW and Victoria. Many of those same members were then immediately deployed to assist the all-of-government response to COVID-19. Over fifty Army Reserve and Regular Chaplains were deployed to support those serving our nation during these two crises.
And there are more significant examples of service over self. Defence personnel serve our nation and its people as well as the people of other countries whose lives have been disrupted by evil, violence, and tyranny. They go where they are sent, prepared to lay down their lives fighting for peace and for the mate who fights beside them. We live in a broken world, and until the return of our Lord Jesus, evil, violence, tyranny and war will continue to be common human experiences. These realities mean our nation’s leaders will continue to send ADF men and women into harm’s way, often as peacemakers and peacekeepers. Sadly, the making and keeping of peace will sometimes necessitate the use of force, even the taking of life. I have ministered to several soldiers who have taken a life during armed conflict. Their actions have left dents in their souls. Many have seen horrible things, and some have been unable to prevent atrocities from occurring. These soldiers have suffered moral injuries, and some struggle with their sense of worth, value, meaning, and morality. This is service before self.
The motto of the Australian Army Chaplaincy Branch is “Positioned to Serve: Serving those who serve our nation”. The soldiers we send to war and conflicts need our empathy, love, care and respect. As a Defence Chaplain, I proudly serve alongside those who serve our nation, bringing, as God allows us, the gospel of God’s grace, forgiveness, healing, meaning-making and restoration.
Being positioned to serve has always been the chaplain’s way. Fighting McKenzie, a former Golden Gloves boxer and Salvation Army Officer, volunteered to serve as a Chaplain in the Great War to care for, alongside other chaplains, the 416,000 Australians who volunteered to fight. At Gallipoli, McKenzie was part of a small band of soldiers at the Battle of Lone Pine. McKenzie’s habit was to sleep in the trenches on the front lines, but being a non-combatant, the senior commanders ordered him to return to the rear before the attempt to take Lone Pine was made. He ignored the order and the pleas of the soldiers who feared for their Padre. He is famously quoted as replying to their protestations, “I’ve slept beside you, I’ve eaten rations with you, don’t think for a moment, I’m not prepared to die alongside you”.
On ANZAC Day, veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places join with today’s soldiers, many of whom have served on foreign soil, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their nation and their mates. Overwhelmingly, the men and women of our Defence Forces don’t glorify war; instead, they long for peace as much as any other member of society.
I have found that there are many points of connection between Christianity and Defence members. Like our ADF members, Christians value other-person-focused sacrificial service that seeks the good of the other, even if it costs us greatly. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, and a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself are other examples of shared values. If you know a veteran or current serving ADF member, an easy conversation starter this ANZAC Day is to say thank you – Thank you for your service!
Lest we forget,