This is the story of three Royal Air Force Padres called Phil. The three Phil's or the three Amigos were all based in Cyprus and the Middle East this year and they have been reflecting on how they have overcome the challenging times they have faced due to COVID-19, as they supported their service personnel and wider family congregations. This is their story.
RAF Akrotiri, the permanent RAF base in Cyprus, is at the centre of UK air operations in the ongoing campaign against Daesh. The RAF also has personnel deployed on the ground, throughout the Middle East. The three Padres therefore play an important role supporting these service personnel and their families while deployed. This would be challenging enough, however the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic increased these challenges even further.
The role of an RAF Chaplain has been described by the Chaplain In Chief And Archdeacon For The Royal Air Force.
The Venerable (Air Vice-Marshall) John R Ellis QHC RAF when he said:
“Chaplaincy within the armed forces has always sought to minister to human need without discrimination and continues to do so. The chaplains of the Royal Air Force are committed to an all souls ministry, which makes no distinction on the grounds of race, religion, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The first of our stories is that of Padre Philip Wilson, a Presbyterian Minister, or Padre Phil I. He has just finished his tour of duty with 83 Expeditionary Air Group, the RAF unit that is overseeing the UK air contribution to the US led coalition in the fight against Daesh. As their Chaplain, he travelled to support all the elements that make up the EAG. He said: “On arrival I was thinking about the Operations but that changed utterly!”
By mid-March the COVID-19 restrictions meant like all personnel were confined to base. As in the UK all the amenities such as the bars, pools, coffee shops, cinemas, shops were all closed and rumours and speculation spread, as the world entered a situation beyond anyone’s real understanding.
Padre Phillip said;
“The News from the UK was totally dismal, which was depressing to watch. It was unprecedented in military history; the domestic situation was worse than ours on deployment. All our traditional welfare models were being turned up-side down: now family and friends at home needed our support.
“My response was to help set up a “Wall of Heroes” for photos of loved ones. Concerned service men and women sent comfort parcels back to the UK. We joked that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs now included toilet paper as a basic physiological necessity! Humour saw us through some dark days.”
Recognising that morale needed to be bolstered as never before Padre Phillip began to send “Thoughts for the Day” messages and took on the editing of newsletter as well as providing the tradition pastoral care. He makes the point: “Thankfully, I could still offer spiritual resilience, with church via the internet at first, and, later, a socially-distanced congregation was allowed. As facilities have begun to re-open, nothing is yet as it once was some things will probably never be the same.”
Reflecting on his tour with 83 EAG Padre Philip said; “it has been a unique deployment. It’s been particularly challenging at times, but more than anything it’s been an immense privilege to serve alongside some of the most dedicated professionals and now friends from all ranks, that one could ever meet.
The second Padre is a Methodist Minister, Phil Corrigan or Phil II. He is second for no other reason than his story is told next, is currently serving in Cyprus but in a very different situation, as he is the Station Chaplain at RAF Akrotiri. Looking back on his tour so far, he said: “RAF Akrotiri has been my busiest tour to date, that said, it is a privilege to be given the opportunity to provide pastoral care to our personnel and their families.
“As well as helping to deliver welfare support across station, I am also responsible for St Andrew’s station church. During COVID 19, I uploaded a sermon every Sunday from St Andrew’s, this proved to be a real source of comfort to our congregation. We also created a church WhatsApp group, which had the effect of bringing us all much closer together.
“St Andrew’s has provided a ‘home from home’ for so many. The congregation take an interest in who you are, offering support, care and a real sense of family. Often there are tears from those who are leaving us, as they thank the congregation for the love and support that they have been shown, especially through the more difficult times of their tour.
“It is a blessing to know that chaplaincy provision has such a positive impact on our personnel and their families, especially when COVID 19 made the distance from home seem much further.
The last of the three RAF Padres or Three Amigos is a Baptist Minister Padre Phil Craven, so Padre Phil III. He again is Padre Phil III for no other reason than his story is told last. This Padre Phil is currently serving with 903 Expeditionary Air Wing on Op Shader.
Padre Phil III has been a RAF Padre for 2 years, previously he was a hospital chaplain in Glasgow. Describing his work in the hospital he said: “It was difficult, dealing with the traumas of life, the inevitability of death, and everything in between. Now I have found that I have been able to use my experiences in the hospital to benefit and bless those that I meet.
“Each service person is more than a name, rank and number. They have families, lives, and rich stories of laughter and pain. And it is my supreme privilege to share in the stories and the struggles that our folk and their families go through.
“Many people often ask me, what does a padre do? For some people the work of a padre is to drink gallons of tea, consume vast quantities of cake, and hand out some well needed Haribo. For others, the work of a padre is to do the RAF ‘religious stuff’ that no one else wants to do, such as saying grace at a dining in night."
“The work of a padre is not to command and shout and point authoritatively. Anyone that has seen a padre march would quickly realise how un-military we are compared to everyone else. The work of a padre is to be available whenever you need us, 24/7; the work of a padre is to be approachable, to be someone you can chat with about Love Island or your own love struggles; and to be authentic, to be someone that genuinely cares for you, and who will do their absolute best for you, regardless of who you are and where you have wandered in life.”
Padre Phil also explained his views on the role of the Padre during operation when he said: “The work of a padre is particularly important on Ops. People are far from home, far from their families, and far from their normal networks of support. They may be missing their families and kids, or worried about the work that they will be doing and whether they will fit in; they may be anxious about how they will return home to a COVID UK.
“As a Padre I have been able to speak words of comfort, reassurance and hope into the uncertainty of these transitions. Sometimes through sitting with someone over lunch, or by chatting to someone in a quiet office away from colleagues. I listen to folks’ stories as they transition through the paths of wilderness that they often find themselves in.
“It can be very powerful to know that you are not alone, and that someone will walk that path with you, no matter where it leads, and no matter the stresses on the journey. This is about community building, and for me, this is what chaplains do well, we can help create and foster a community in which you belong."
As part of his efforts to create that community on Op Shader, Padre Phil has been producing an inspirational thought for the week for all in the Shader area of operations across the Middle East. Many of these thoughts come from less traditional sources such as Harry Potter and Star Trek. He also recently set up a mentoring program for those in the early stages of their Air Force careers so that they can grow into the best service person that they can be. Another initiative he has set up is an event for all on their first operational deployment with the aim of creating a new community of people experiencing the same thing for the first time.
To finish this look at the three Amigos Padre Phil III said: “The work of a padre is something unique and it is something that I thoroughly enjoy. If you are struggling, or if one of your people are struggling, then please get in touch with a padre. It’s in our DNA to help, and we won’t expect anything from you, well, maybe some tea and cake! So, if you come across any of our three Amigos be it Padre Phil I, II or III or any other RAF Padre, it is clear what to do have a chat, share a pot of tea and maybe some cake it will be worth it."