Navy Lt. Nigel Tully pushes his nerves aside and calms his mind as he walks toward the young lieutenant waiting for him outside the morgue at a covert Canadian military camp in the Middle East.
Over the course of the long, hot day and into the next, Tully offers his support and a listening ear to Lt. Mike Yung, who is escorting the casket of his close friend, Saanich resident Lt. Andrew Nuttall, home to Canada. The 30-year-old platoon commander was killed by a homemade bomb while out on a foot patrol in southwest Afghanistan, on Dec. 23, 2009.
“(Yung) was exhausted, he was tired, he had just flown in from Kandahar,” recalls Tully, a CFB Esquimalt chaplain who was deployed for six months in support of the Afghanistan mission, in 2009 and 2010.
“I told him I would be there to support him,” he says
The Anglican priest is one of 10 Protestant and Roman Catholic padres at the base, and about 180 regular force chaplains in the Canadian Forces.
They provide crisis intervention, referrals, confidential support and spiritual counselling to military members at home and abroad, and their families.
They also preside over church services, baptisms, weddings and funerals of military personnel, and are usually present when families are told a loved one has been killed.
“The privilege is that you are there to walk with them through an absolutely life-changing (event),” says Maj. Doug Friesen, a Victoria resident who heads the chaplain team at CFB Esquimalt. “That’s a sacred moment.”
The Anglican priest’s career highlight was the 10 months he spent in Kandahar as the senior task force chaplain, from 2008 to 2009.
“You can’t move anywhere in Kandahar without facing the possibility of death,” Friesen says. “You’re dealing with (members’) anxiety about taking life, or the possibility of taking life.”
Nuttall’s death was Tully’s first experience with a member killed in action. During his deployment, the padre presided over 14 more repatriation ceremonies honouring the fallen.
“You pray that nothing would happen and then it happened,” he says, recalling the days before Nuttall’s death. The loss of the young man still brings tears to his eyes.
“I think for me it was just the realization that war is real … that everybody is susceptible to the realities of war, not only the serving members but the families and the communities that support them.”
Many times, Tully sat and talked with Yung on a bench outside the camp morgue, helping the soldier prepare for the next leg of his emotional mission.
“He really wanted to make sure (the Nuttalls) were comforted in the midst of the loss,” Tully says.
Some chaplains were regularly flown to remote outposts to support battle-weary troops, even going with them on patrols. Padres going to the front lines is a tradition that dates back to the 14th century, when armies took monks to war.
“It’s tradition, it’s integral to military history that a padre deploys with the troops as close to the front as possible,” Friesen says.
“That means that when you walk that walk, you’re walking in a soldier’s boots, or sailing with a sailor. You’re sharing the risks, you’re sharing the hardships, you’re sharing the lifestyle – then they talk to you.”
Padres often must dig deep spiritually within themselves to remain strong so they, in turn, can provide strength to others in need.
“Those moments when you talk with a soldier, where they begin to disclose what they experience, we define it as a sacred space or a sacred time,” Tully says. “Being a priest, I couldn’t imagine being anything else.”
Remembering the fallen
There are days when Jane Nuttall just has to hear the voice of her son, Lt. Andrew Nuttall.
The Saanich resident will listen to two voicemail messages her 30 year old left before he was killed by a bomb during a foot patrol in Afghanistan, on Dec. 23, 2009.
“A couple of days ago I got up and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve just got to hear his voice,’ and put it on,” Jane says. “But I can’t do it lots of days because it’s too hard.”
With her husband Richard by her side, Jane will once again attend Saanich Remembrance Day ceremonies today (Nov. 11) as a Silver Cross mother. She will lay a wreath for all Canadian mothers whose sons or daughters died serving their country.
Despite their extraordinary loss, Richard’s Remembrance Day message is simple.
“These men and women did us proud,” he says of the 158 Canadian military members killed in Afghanistan. “They made a huge sacrifice and we should remember them for what they did.”
Such events prove difficult for the couple, but they enjoy meeting people who share their stories about Andrew.
“There’s a lot of comfort in it all,” Jane says. “Just another little puzzle piece of his life.”
The Canadian military took the Nuttalls, and other families of the fallen, to Kandahar in March, as part its next-of-kin program. It was a moving experience for the couple, reminding them of their son’s phone calls and messages from the war-torn nation.
“Just breathing the air and the dust all over us and realizing we were looking out on the same hills that Andrew would tell us about in his phone call … it was very powerful,” Jane says.