How do you reconcile God and guns? Serving Australian Defence Force reservists Steven Bernaudo, 33, and Rev Ron Rosinsky, 52, talk about being Christians in the military.
Interviews by David Southwell
I am a soldier in the Air Force. Previously I was full-time, now I am a high- readiness reservist. My rank is an LAC, which means a leading aircraftsman. Rather than aggressively taking land and holding it, as is the doctrine of the army, ours is to protect the air force, the people and the planes.
I am also studying a Bachelor of Theology and candidating to be a deacon in the UCA.
I think it was about 10pm on New Year’s Day I got the confirmation I had to be at my Point Cook base the following morning and my unit travelled down to East Sale. We took trucks, buses, anything that could potentially help because we didn’t fully know what we would be doing.
My role was security for the planes that were going down to Mallacoota to rescue people. The smoke was just ridiculous. If I wiped the sweat off my brow my arm would be black. At midday, you could look at the sun and it was a little orange circle, it was like dusk all the time.
At one point, visibility got to about 800m at best. Normally you can see a couple of kilometres so it was causing problems with taking off and landing of the planes.
The firefighting was left to firefighters but, because we’re highly trained and because of our high work drive, we went down there to assist by being dogs’ bodies and doing basically everything else. Each day I had to be flexible, it could be anything. The work would just keep piling up. I would be receiving 10 phone calls – “you’ve got to do this”, “you’ve got to do that” – but I would have five things to do before then.
I would drop off water and food around the base. Evacuees, no matter where they were, had access to food and water. If you could get lunch you would, but a lot of the time people were coming in about lunchtime, so you couldn’t.
Then, all of a sudden, there is someone’s wife or husband at the front gate, so we have find that person and take them to the gate. One day I got a call that we needed to set up 150 beds, so myself and another guy set up 150 beds.
I also dropped off the specialist medical people who couldn’t fly into Mallacoota because of the smoke. One of them was from Darwin because there were no other medical staff available on the entire eastern coast!
The first week, my days went from 5am until midnight. By the third week, we started to go into shifts and I was on an eight-hour duty roster, but on call for another eight hours.
When the flights came in I’d welcome the people off. They’ve just been in a natural disaster, so your pastoral care starts right there.
The firefighters on the ground don’t have the chance to speak to the evacuees, they are just trying to get them out of the emergency zone.
Once the evacuees come on base and know they are safe that’s the critical moment because then everything stops.
They start to realise and think about everything that has happened and that’s when they most need some emotional support. They might be scared, they might be disorientated or vulnerable, so it was just to reassure them that everything was OK. That’s your chance to help the person and you can really make a big difference for them.
Even though there were identified chaplains, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone wants to speak to a chaplain. So, we found they were either speaking to the paramedics or the people in the military. What you found is the older generation spoke to the chaplains.
With the children you’d have confusion and, believe it or not, excitement. They were really happy and fascinated to be on the military base.
Just hearing children laugh made it a little bit more OK. It was a very strange effect. It was so poignant, it changed the atmosphere, the energy. It just uplifted you, gave you that little bit of hope. That little smile, that little laugh made all the hard work and effort worth it.
I want the church to have a little more appreciation of what the military does. I want to show just because someone’s in the military, it doesn’t mean they
are not Christian or applying Christian principles. We live the Gospel through love and service to all.
There’s a lot of Christians in the military, not just the emergency services, who are actually out there in difficult situations. They are the true ambassadors of the church because they are doing the hard work that not everyone can do. Firefighters and paramedics did more for the church than the church putting out statements or saying prayers. People want action, they want Christian principles and beliefs applied. That goes for any religion or organisation that espouses care and service for others.
I wanted to join the military since I was a little kid. I joined the Air Force full-time in 2009 at age 22. I became a reservist in 2013. It’s good to have one foot in both civilian and military worlds.
In 2014, I got a phone call and 48 hours later I was in the Middle East.
The whole point of that mission was to disrupt IS. It was effectively a civil war based on culture and religion achieved through intimidation. Every day, IS would go into a town, kill, steal, torture, rape and conscript child soldiers. This awakened in me a deep desire to assist these innocent people in any way I could.
I didn’t go to the Middle East to kill Muslims and Arabs. I went to protect women and children and grandparents who were being killed by people from their own country and religion or, even worse, they were being raped and forced to send child soldiers or being tortured and forced to do other things. It could be likened to hell on earth, but for every evil act there was a corresponding act of good.
It’s a completely different environment on deployment, it’s not the church and I am not around Christians, but that doesn’t mean I can’t apply my Christian principles and beliefs, putting them into practice and contributing to a positive environment for all.
Yes, there are chaplains, but that doesn’t mean all the security personnel want to go and speak to chaplains. Most are repulsed by religion. I was the first port of call because I would hear people’s problems as I was working in their vicinity. Then just very slowly, I would move them on to the professionals, such as the chaplains. So I sort of bridged the gap and said there is nothing wrong with getting a bit of help.
Eventually, once you get past the ego, the bravado and the arrogance and all that, then you get to what is really happening with someone.
Some discriminated against me for having faith, but by the time things started going wrong, they had come to know me and saw how I handled the challenges of war, their perception of me changed. They started to see I was patient with people, even if someone got angry at me or judged me. I forgave and forgot and they had nothing to say to that, some were dumbfounded.
In my conversations with the chaplains I said, “When I am older I want to be a chaplain”. One of them said: “Why do you have to wait? If you look at it you are already doing half the stuff now, I think you would be a great chaplain.”The problem was I had been out of the church a little bit. I had grown up in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, but wasn’t involved as an adult. I started to experience the Uniting Church through my wife and her family.
Everyone laughs at this, but it is actually serious: I read the Basis of Union in a tent in the desert at about 3am. I felt I understood and agreed with every word. I liked how it was very traditional, but also very open. It had a flexibility, a broadness, yet, a profundity that I liked.
I had an interest in military history when I was young growing up in Madison, Wisconisn, the Midwest of America. However, I grew up into what is called by some a “peacenik”. I was very much into Liberation Theology and so very anti- establishment for my first 25-30 years.
I did my masters in theology at Chicago’s Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary run by the United Methodist Church. The seminary president was mates with the then- minister at St Michael’s Uniting Church, Rev Dr Francis Macnab, and from that connection I came to Melbourne to work as an assistant minister to Dr Macnab.
I moved my ordination to the Uniting Church and have done a number of placements. I also married an Australian, Isabella, and have three children.
In 2010, I was minister at Ascot Vale Uniting Church when my friend Rev Mark Dunn, then minister at the neighbouring St John’s Uniting Church in Essendon, said: “Have you thought about going into the Army Reserve as a chaplain?” Mark was a chaplain and we talked about it.
To cut a long story short, I got involved and was commissioned as an officer and a chaplain in 2011.
In the army, all chaplains start off as captains. You go in as a special service officer and have to go do basic training at the Royal Military College in Duntroon.
You learn how to do field craft and all the stuff a soldier would learn, but you have to do it in four weeks.
Learning to fire a weapon was very sobering. I didn’t exactly feel comfortable holding the rifle. The first time you fire a live round into a target you really think about it, it’s a visceral feeling. You’re glad you’re not on the receiving end, it’s a real wake-up call to the reality of soldiering.
In the Australian army, padres can carry a weapon in deployed situations. The rule is that you can only use it to defend yourself or your mates.
You also do chaplains’ courses on providing pastoral care in the military context and advising the chain of command on ethical and moral issues, for example war crimes. There’s a real role for chaplains to advise command on moral accountability issues.
Every year, chaplains do training seminars on moral accountability, what you can and can’t do according to human rights laws in a combat situation. Some of my colleagues who are chaplains have been away for six months on deployment and you don’t get that time back with your family. It’s a big ask.
Generally people in the UCA have been very supportive of my chaplain ministry. There’s an acknowledgement that there is a huge cost to the families of service personnel. Deployment and moving every three years can have a big impact.
People in my churches have been very supportive and see that it is mainly about pastoral care for soldiers and their families, particularly given the instance of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I had one case with a soldier who was having suicidal ideations, and we supported him with mental health first aid and pastoral care. This helped him to regain control of his life.
I am not in the ADF as a warmonger. I am in there to give support to men and women who are in defence. While I do think it is important to have people who hold the pure idea of non-violence, and having peace on Earth and goodwill to all, we also need pragmatists. Someone once said the reason we have armies is because there is evil in the world. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that and is a pure pacifist is naïve.
People since 9/11 have evolved from their views from the 1960s. My view is we have a right to self-defence and that is recognised by the UN. There are such things as just wars.
Lethal violence is a last resort when there is no other way to defend yourself. Sometimes we need to bare our teeth and show our strength to people who are very sanguine about the use of violence and who will act like bullies to people who are defenceless. For instance, the Australian army was building schools for girls in liberated parts of Afghanistan eight years ago. That was forbidden under the Taliban. It’s not a fact often spoken of.
You don’t have to comply with an unlawful order in the Australian military. That can also apply if the Government is giving an immoral order.
When some reserve units were called to do border protection on ships north of Australia to turn away so called boat people, asylum seekers, that is the closest I have to come to resigning my commission. That is where I think the defence force has been used and manipulated. I took the view that I wanted to provide pastoral care for soldiers and to make a difference within the walls of defence, rather than outside.
The mateship in the army is really good. It’s an overused term, mateship, but you almost do have more of a commitment to your mates in your unit than to the army at large. You feel you are representing your country and you want to do it well, but when it comes down to basic truths, you don’t want to let down your mates.
Army culture has changed too, for the better. It used to be a macho contest amongst “alpha males”, now it’s much more inclusive to women particularly in leadership. I really welcome that. And also for people who are of a different sexual orientation – LGBTI.
In some ways the army and defence are way ahead of many churches in terms of equality. That happens in two ways: in terms of supporting women to be chaplains, whereas many churches do not ordain women; and secondly, including members the LGBTI community in a way that many churches, I am sorry to say, do not.
This story originally appeared in April’s Crosslight magazine. You can read the full magazine here.