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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 12:49 GMT
Divine intervention
For over 200 years, chaplains have served alongside soldiers in the British Army, living and working with them but standing outside the normal chain of command. Andrew Martlew, one of these "padres", is on his third tour of duty in Iraq since 2003. Here, he talks about his duties.

Every Operational Tour is different. This is my first winter in Iraq - occasional days of spectacular rain and flooded camps. Two years ago I was here in the summer - just hot!

It was on that Tour that I went out with a convoy of water tankers two nights after they'd been very carefully ambushed in Basra city.

The battle had been quite dramatic, so much so that one of our soldiers was awarded the Military Cross. I'm still not sure why I decided to go out with them - and I can still remember the sensation of real, proper, grown-up fear as we watched shadows flitting across the rooftops in front of us.

I also observed that it is possible successfully to drive a 40-tonne articulated tanker at speed through dark streets and still chew your nails. But when we got back, in every phone call that came in to the troop sergeant, he mentioned that "the padre was with us last night."

As I write, my fellow chaplains based in Basra city are doing the same thing - because that's what chaplains do.

Andrew Martlew: "We wear the same uniform..."
We wear the same uniform as our soldiers, eat the same food, sleep in the same accommodation and throw ourselves onto the same ground when the mortars come in.

The only real difference is that the soldiers carry weapons and we don't, so we entrust our lives to them. We share everything else, including their fears and hopes and unhappiness at being separated from our families for six or seven months.

There are 11 army chaplains in Iraq at the moment and we're all very different, but we share the same calling to minister to soldiers. This deployment is unusual in having 10 Anglicans and one Roman Catholic - normally we are a complete mixture of Christian denominations and traditions. Military chaplaincy now includes representatives from all the major world faiths, but our Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and Jewish colleagues don't deploy on operations. And female chaplains, who do.

I've been a full-time chaplain for five years and hope to go on until I retire, like most of my colleagues. Some of us have been here at least once before - seven are "first timers" in Iraq and some quite new to Army Chaplaincy. But wherever chaplains serve, the moment that their role becomes most publicly crucial is when someone dies or is critically injured.

Mickey was 18 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra. His team were taken to hospital but the rest of his Company were in Baghdad.

Wearing his vestments, such as they are
I went up from Shaibah logistic base in southern Iraq to help them mourn Mickey and sat on the aeroplane with a lad who'd been to school with him.

We held the service in the general's garden and they put Mickey's picture on a stand at the front, next to the big wooden cross. There were many young men doing a lot of thinking in that service.

Afterwards I had a number of quiet chats. I spent time in a watchtower overlooking the Tigris with one of Mickey's mates. They had been planning a holiday together at the end of the tour. These are ordinary men and women who are doing extraordinary things. They are not some breed of insensitive super-hero. And they come and talk to their padre about things they won't tell anyone else.

The soldier who's just packed up his mate's possessions after he's been injured. The officer who feels responsible - even though he knows he's done all the training and preparation possible. Sometimes, the soldier who just doesn't want to be in the army any more.

On the way back from Mickey's service I travelled with the four lads who were going to replace those involved in that Basra bomb. They had all volunteered.

But it's not just military problems that come our way.

A soldier came to me because his grandfather had just died. He came in with all his defences raised - "I'm somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic. Will you still see me?" was his opening gambit.

A chaplin gives a service to the First Queen Dragoon Guards in 2004
I assured him that it wasn't a problem whilst wondering to myself about a private who knew the difference between atheism and agnosticism. He talked and I listened, and, at the end, I asked him if he would mind if I prayed. As we parted it was the prayer he specifically thanked me for.

One real challenge on tour is trying to help someone hold together a relationship when you can only talk to one of the partners. We have phone and internet contact with home, but it's not the same as sitting together and talking a problem through. And it always amazes me how often "a chat with the padre" seems to help.

We share the high-spots, too - before we deployed I led the marriage service for one of our young captains and after we get home I'm anticipating doing so for another. There are two marriage blessings on the stocks for the autumn, one confirmation and, who knows, there might even be some baptisms in a year or so.

Always, whatever we do, it's a family matter. Each time a chaplain is posted into a new unit they are adopted by that regimental family and become "their padre". That degree of involvement is great when it's a family wedding, but more challenging when it's a family funeral. But it's always a privilege to be part of the family.

Reverend Andrew Martlew features in a short Radio 4 series on army padres, God and the Gun at 1100GMT on Monday 12 & 19 March.

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