Late 2013. As the aircraft prepares to land at a military base in Afghanistan the team onboard is notified that a suicide bomber had, the day before, attempted to breach the compound, detonating his vehicle after coalition forces had opened fire. The news brings a heightened sense of awareness and the mood is tense as the plane lands. Mark Kleemann, RAAF Chaplain, numbers among the arrivals. This is his first overseas deployment. Alongside the other military personnel, he steps off the aircraft in full body armour. The weapons he undertook hours of intensive training to handle are ready at his side. ‘What are you doing, Lord?’ is the phrase that runs through his head.
As a former parish pastor who had previously served for over 12 years across multiple Lutheran congregations in South Australia, this scenario is not one Mark ever expected to find himself in.
“If you’d said to me when I did my theological training and completed it and was ordained that God was going to take me down the path of military training and military chaplaincy, I would have laughed,” he says. “I never thought that was possible – there was no way in the world I had even contemplated it.”
Mark was working in parish ministry when his son entered military recruit training and shared with the family some of the challenges he could see his mates facing – loneliness, separation from loved ones and the demands of military life, among others. As Mark started thinking about what life in the military must be like, he felt an urging from God, a call that became stronger and stronger.
“I tried to push that sense of call away because I was thinking ‘at my age? What are you doing, God?’”, says Mark. “While the call itself was strong, I couldn’t see myself fitting in there, in that space.”
Eventually, though, Mark did decide to test the call, and in 2010, at the ‘mature’ age of fifty, entered 17 weeks of Officer Training School in Victoria, leaving his wife, Karen, and family in SA.
“My prayer to God was ‘if this is the pathway you want me to take, open the doors and affirm it’”.
Thrust completely out of his comfort zone, the rigours of military training meant Mark’s physical fitness was tested against other recruits who were half his age or younger, most being aged between 19-25. Leadership exercises, classroom assignments, weapons handling and various tests to assess physical and mental competence under pressure were also part of the course. The training was gruelling, designed to ‘deconstruct then reconstruct’ recruits in the image of the ideal officer. Throughout the process, Mark questioned whether he would pass.
“I kept thinking there would be a door that would close, that I wouldn’t pass some military aspect and that would be the end of that,” says Mark.
“I remember saying once ‘if you want me to do this, Lord, you’d better get me through the first time, because I ‘aint coming back for a second bite at this cherry! And surprise, surprise, every door that I thought might shut and I thought might be an out for me, just stayed open.”
Recognising him as a non-judgemental listening ear, other recruits would often come to Mark throughout the course to debrief or for support and guidance, forging comradeship despite the generation gap.
The day he discovered he’d passed officer training was an emotional one. Mark had suffered an injury, a torn hamstring, in the weeks leading up to the end of course field exercise that threatened to derail his final training. After undertaking a medical, he was deemed fit to participate in the last assigned field work and was determined to push through any lingering pain, but wondered if this might result in his effort not being at required the level.
“On the final day of field exercise, after having completed my “officer” lead component, one of the senior instructors came up and he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear ‘you’ve passed’. I put my head into my hat and the other young fellows around me – we were all good mates by then – had seen this instructor talk to me, and they thought something had happened and were all asking me ‘Padre, Padre, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?’ And I just looked up and I had tears in my eyes and I said ‘I passed, I will graduate, I can go home for now, to my family!’”.
Being privy to the highs and lows of people’s lives – the excitement of a wedding day, the anguish of losing a loved one, the gamut of emotions that comes with either joy or challenge – are part and parcel of being a chaplain. These elements of the RAAF chaplaincy role were ones that Mark both expected and understood from his years in parish ministry. But the notion of ‘military’ was something brand new, and Mark admits that neither he, nor his family, quite knew what to expect.
Mark’s first military post was at RAAF Base Edinburgh in Adelaide which meant he could commute from the family’s Barossa Valley home. But getting used to life as a military family had its moments – particularly in the early days. During his second year of military service Mark was deployed overseas for the first time, to the Middle East. With a lot of information classified, there were limits to what Mark could reveal about on-base life, even to his wife, Karen.
“We weren’t able to tell our families exactly where we might be going while we were over there, so I would say things to Karen like ‘don’t worry if I don’t call you for the next three days’, which was code for ‘I’m going somewhere but I can’t tell you the details’,” he says.
“The family adjusted pretty well, but they weren’t necessarily exposed to the day-to-day things that were happening, they’d only hear what I’d be saying. Generally the families of military personnel have a sense of anxiety when their people are deployed. For the most part our deployed bases are pretty safe, it’s just when you have to go into the battle zones.”
Deployment in Afghanistan was an eye opening experience. The beautiful, rugged scenery was in stark contrast to the dangers that were often faced and the ‘very ugly side of war’ that was all around. Adjusting to the rigors of life on-base also took some time.
“You’d walk around and have a semi-automatic at your side when you went to eat in the cafeteria and even when you went to the bathroom or took a shower,” says Mark.
“Overnight we’d be locked in a vault – a bit like a bank vault – to sleep, to protect against any incoming rockets, but we’d share that room with seven or eight people, each with a semi-automatic weapon alongside of them. So there were guns pointed at us while we were sleeping – you’d just hope they had the safety catch on. You didn’t sleep too well, I can tell you!”
Mark feels that God’s hand was very evident throughout his time in Afghanistan and beyond. Three days into his deployment he felt a sense of urgency to prepare for a Ramp Ceremony, the formal process and protocols afforded military personnel killed in action.
“I just had a sense, and I think it was the sense of God, that we needed to do this,” says Mark.
At his insistence the team ran through the procedure on day four of deployment. On day six the news came in – a member been killed in action. When the details of the person who died came across his desk, Mark was shocked to realise he had a previous connection to them.
“I was reading about this person and I couldn’t believe it – I realised I had been a pastor in his school at the time that he graduated from year 12. It came flooding back to me. I remembered him walking across the stage on his graduation night and hearing he was going off to join the army. Since then he had joined the army’s special ops and led countless missions against the Taliban.
“To have been a pastor in the school at the time of his graduation and then to be on the ground when he dies in action, the one watching over him, making sure he comes home with respect and honour, how is the preparation of God in that?”
Throughout the eleven years Mark spent as an RAAF Chaplain he felt the impact of countless moments that will stay with him forever. After his initial post at RAAF Edinburgh he served at numerous bases across Australia – at RAAF Tindal in Katherine NT, RAAF Pearce in WA, and RAAF East Sale in Victoria’s Gippsland region – as well as further overseas deployments.
He’s enjoyed the thrill of officiating sunset weddings on rock ledges overlooking Katherine Gorge while crocodiles sunned themselves on river banks below; been flown out to visit with chaplains and crew on board the USS George Washington aircraft carrier (a 24-storey high American ship that could accommodate 90 aircraft, stay out at sea for 50 years at a time, had its own fast food outlets on board and served around 18,000 meals a day), and is one of the few people who can say they’ve flown in every aircraft in the air-force (“bar one training aircraft,” he clarifies). He’s also stood with people while they go through the hardest moments of their lives – he’s attended countless suicide interventions, counselled parents who have lost children, sat with people through relationship breakdowns, advocated for military members to be granted better outcomes for their end of year postings, and walked beside those who lost their homes in bushfires.
“The major role of a chaplain is to be a listening ear and a hearing heart, to meet people in the story of their life when they walk in, to stay with them in their story and to help them unpack the clutter of what stresses them. In identifying those issues they’re then empowered to choose how they’ll move forward, towards positive outcomes,” says Mark.
“It never ceases to amaze me that when you don’t feel that you’ve got words to say, or know what to do to make it better for someone, in these times of challenge it’s the grace of God that gives you everything you need, in the moment that you’re in.”
While Mark’s experiences could fill a book, it’s the knowledge of the grace of God that has most influenced the way he lives today, and it’s what he says he will take with him as he moves out of the RAAF Chaplaincy role.
“Live today with God and you will live it well,” is Mark’s simple mantra.
“If you’re angry and frustrated about things in life, you’re bringing yesterday into today – it doesn’t work. If you’re anxious about the life you’ll live tomorrow, stressing because you can’t see how things will work out, it doesn’t work. We are called to live today, live today with God, and that’s enough.”
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