Have you ever considered what it means to be famous? I have just updated my details on Facebook, and was reminded of my history. Who would have expected a mediocre student from Narwee Boys High, in a working class suburb of Sydney to make it big? Yes, that was a long time ago, 40 years in fact and that school doesn’t even exist anymore! But what I learnt there was the foundation of who I am today. One of my teachers told me that I would either end up a member of parliament or a minister of religion, and I laughed at her! Although I performed well “up front” I did not particularly enjoy those roles, and so I chose to enter the field of science, studying at University of Technology, Sydney and working in a pathology lab. Yes, my job was to do all those blood tests and analysing all those other body fluids you don’t want to know about, as the invisible part of holistic health care.
After a dozen or so successful years in that field, I resigned from my job in the Wollongong Hospital (NSW Australia) to train for the ordained ministry. After 4 years and a B. Theology I became an accredited Baptist Minister, pastoring a church in Helensburgh (southern edge of Sydney) and then at Wellington, in the Central West of NSW. It was a great time, struggling with the full spectrum of church experiences, the best and the worst, the young and the old, the joyful and the painful. Yet when I started to think that I would spend the rest of my working life in the church, God started to show me that he had other ideas – military chaplaincy within the Royal Australian Air Force!
It was an inauspicious beginning, 17 weeks of pure hell at the Officer’s Training School, but with God’s help, I survived, and learnt what I needed to. That was followed by a posting to RAAF Base Richmond (NSW), then RAAF Base Darwin (NT), RAAF Williams (VIC), RAAF Wagga (NSW), RAAF Richmond (again) and then back to RAAF Wagga. Along the way I was promoted from Flight Lieutenant to Squadron Leader, and then to Wing Commander, with increasing responsibility.
The Australian Defence Force today is operationally focussed and so I experienced four overseas deployments. The first was after the Bali bombing in 2002, then the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) in 2003, 2007 and 2009, each for about 6 months. Each of those had different challenges, and it is impossible to compare the horror of Bali to the devastation of Baghdad, the heat of United Arab Emerates (UAE) to the cold of Afghanistan. Suffice it to say each story is unique but some things are never easy like presiding over a ramp ceremony and recognising the loss of another young Australian life.
Yes, the work of the Chaplain is sometimes up front, but most of the time it is quiet and behind the scenes, helping people to cope with the ups and downs of life, whether here in Australia or deployed on the other side of the world. It is about trying to help people grasp some sense of meaning and purpose in a world gone mad. So that is the background to my being named in the Queen’s birthday Honors list and named as Member of the Order of Australia. Famous? Maybe not, but I seem to have come a long way! I would like to think that I am just one of many Chaplains who are getting on with the job, without a fuss and behind the scenes, just doing what God has called them to do.
Chaplain Ian S Whitley