Q Jim, when you returned from your recent posting in Afghanistan, you received a commendation from the chief of Defence staff for being “a calm presence under fire.” What’s that about?
A I worked with the Operational Mentoring and Liaison team — our soldiers teach Afghan military and police officers how to do their jobs. They work with the Afghan national army, out in operation with them under attack; they drive the roads, and we lose a lot of soldiers this way to explosive devices. A big part of my job was to go where they went, and so if people were shooting at them, they were also shooting at me. I would jump on a convoy, get dropped off — and I might be there for days. I would do my chaplain’s thing; it’s a ministry of presence. So the command structure nominated me for a Chief of Defence Staff Commendation for this ministry out where the soldiers are.
Q Tell me, what does the commendation say?
A It says that Jim Short is “a soldier’s padre.” The cutting edge of being a chaplain is you go where the soldiers go, share their lives, minister to them where they do their work. So when the commendation calls me “a soldier’s padre,” it doesn’t get any better than that.
Q Was the award tied to a particular incident or more to your presence throughout your time there?
A I think both. There were a couple of times I came under fire with the troops; combat is organized chaos, and I would simply go around seeing how people were: “Are you doing okay? Take a deep breath. We are going to be all right here.” One of the young officers who received a decoration for bravery said after the tour, “Padre, one day we had been under fire, we were hot and tired and we looked up and saw you standing there — and I knew everything was going to be okay.” I don’t know what that means except . . . a soldier’s padre. There were so many moments of grace for me in this deployment; I don’t understand what I feel.
Q Where do you get the resources to be that calm presence under fire?
A I have a very strong sense of God’s presence through Christ in all kinds of difficult situations. I try to be out in the community. I did some training in a prison, I did a couple of clinical units; I like adventure, I like challenge. And I have an amazing family: my wife, Cathy, and my children have been very supportive.
Plus, I work for an amazing church. [Ladner United] is a very small congregation. I am the only person on staff, and they called me knowing that I had an interest in the military; that didn’t scare them away. When I came with this harebrained idea that I wanted to deploy to Afghanistan and would be gone for 15 months, it took Council 15 minutes to make the decision. They said, “Of course you are going, and you are coming back to us when you are done; this is our ministry, too.”
Q I know you’ve felt very supported by the whole church. Tell me more about that.
A There have always been a large number of United Church of Canada chaplains in the military, and they have not always felt supported by the denomination. In the early 1990s, when I was in Victoria, Presbytery had its meetings the same night I went down to the armoury to work with the soldiers. So quite often I would wear my uniform to Presbytery. Someone stood up and told me I should not come to Presbytery in my uniform; I should take that uniform off.
But all that has changed. Three or four years ago, several chaplains went to the B.C. Conference and wore our uniforms; we had a table and showed people what was happening in Afghanistan. We got a standing ovation! An old retired chaplain actually wept as he said, “I have never had this kind of affirmation of my ministry before.”
Q Were there particular moments when your church connection seemed very important in Afghanistan?
A I was the hospital chaplain, and every time there was a mass of casualties, a suicide bombing or whatever, my job was to be there.
One day, I got a call to come down because a number of soldiers were killed or injured. I was drawn to this injured young man; we talked about his wife and family; we had a delightful talk. I gave him a blessing.
I got back to my office and there was an e-mail for me from a United Church minister who said to me, “Half an hour ago I got a phone call from a woman from my congregation telling me that her son had been injured in Afghanistan. It’s a long shot, but could you go and see him?” It was the young man I had just been talking to.
I got back to him on e-mail and said, “I’ve just spoken to him, and he is okay.” Five minutes later, the mother is on e-mail saying, “Oh my God! I would have never believed that a United Church minister was there to talk to my son.”
When I came home there was a party, and that family showed up. As soon as I figured out who they were, we all started crying.
Q What about the traditional resources of the faith? Scripture? Prayer?
A Let me talk about prayer. Near the end of the tour, we had seen so much blood, so much death, I wasn’t sure if I could do another ramp ceremony. Just then, I got a call that said, “Padre, we need you at the hospital.” I started for the hospital but my legs wouldn’t move; a voice inside me said, “I don’t think I can do this again.” I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked around and there was nobody there, just a little voice that said, “You can do this.” I attribute that to the people back home who prayed for us. It doesn’t make much sense in my head, but my heart says, “Thank you, God.”
Q The Afghans that we see on TV tend to be angry and violent. What’s your take on the Afghan people?
A When you go into the hospital, it’s an amazing experience. These lovely people from Afghanistan! Our medical people are caring for their children, their husbands, their wives, and as soon as they find out that I’m the “holy man,” they literally take my hands and kiss them and say, “Please tell the people of Canada how thankful we are that you are caring for my son.” That makes all the geopolitics pretty personal.
Of course, they have different understandings than we do. They have a high illiteracy rate because their schools are getting blown up all the time. Think about what that means. If nobody has an education, how do you discern what is true? What does a village — without schools, no education — do when somebody comes along with a gun and says, “This is how it is”? Not once, but a hundred times.
And what do we all want in life? The majority of people in Afghanistan are hanging on by the fingernails. They have families, children, grandchildren, they have a job, and they want to live in peace. They are like us, in the heart.
You know, I love talking and thinking about them again. It warms my heart.
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