August 2018 and the Northern Territory experiences Exercise Pitch Black. Chaplain Tom Killingbeck, usually based at RAAF Base Tindal was part of that Air Force exercise. A Chaplains ministry takes them to many different places – little did Tom expect that he would be sun-, wind- and even dust-burnt in the course of his ministry!

Attached to No. 382 Contingency Response Squadron (382CRS), CHAP Killingbeck was tasked with providing pastoral care and spiritual support to members in an austere location, in this case an airfield in the small town of Batchelor, an hour south of Darwin, NT. 382CRS takes an out-of-the-way location and turns it into an airfield, and as part of the exercise, brought power, communications, refuelling and a large hospital to the location. This would be their home for nearly two weeks, living in tents, eating from ration packs, and supporting air operations for Pitch Black.

The ministry of the chaplain looks a lot different in such a location – where normally there would be buildings and air-conditioning – often seen as a perk of serving with the Air Force! – there were tents, dust, armoured vehicles and body armour. In reality, though, the job of caring for the members of the Australian Defence Force remains the same. People are still working through issues in their personal lives, still struggling with having to leave their families again, and they need support.

To provide a different perspective, Tom ‘walked the hangar floor’ through the various sections of the airfield, from security, to the Air Movements Section, to the main operations tents, to Logistics section, and more. Every interaction was an opportunity to add hope into the mix, or joy (Minties are a sure-fire winner!), or to speak life into someone’s situation. It’s a ministry of presence and participation, being there with the troops in the field.

Chaplaincy has the advantage of being more than just a Bringer of Mint and Sugar, though. Tom was very glad to have the opportunity to run two services in the ‘chapel’, which in this location was simple a camouflage net tied to the edge of the welfare tent. The welfare tent became a social hub of sorts, with power to recharge phones and tablets, hot water for coffee, tea and for reheating the ration pack meals. Commandeering the camo-net as the chapel meant that the chaplain was central to all that, and, in running the service there, brought a visible sign of something greater into the very heart of the camp.

The chapel was dubbed ‘St Sebastian’s’ by one of the Ground Defence Officers in the camp. St Sebastian is one of the patron saints of service personnel, and was embraced as a good choice for the exercise. The two multi-denominational sensitive Church services were conducted. After that, as an Anglican minister, Tom specifically ran an Anglican communion service for those who wanted to stay, and indeed most did.

Through the running of services on the base, and by saying the Anglican Daily Office each morning at St Sebastian’s, Chaplain Killingbeck was recognisably the ‘God-person’ in the tent, speaking not just his own wisdom, but bringing a deeper level to interactions and conversations. This visibility remains key to what chaplains do – they’re not simply there as care-givers, but can provide a spiritual perspective to what members of the Australian Defence Force are going through.

It’s a privileged position to be in, to share in this way in the struggles and experiences of our service personnel, not only in the joys but the challenges as well – that’s the power of being an ADF chaplain. In the end, then, the wind, dust and heat were well worth it, and Tom would be happy to do it all again whenever and wherever chaplaincy is needed.

You can hear and see Tom talk about his ministry on this video clip.