The Rev David Wylie, of the Royal Navy, is the Task Force's Senior Chaplain in Helmand Province.

Today, he delivers an uplifting Christmas message....

From Helmand province, a truly uplifting Christmas message in the midst of mourning

By The Rev David Wylie, Royal Navy, the Task Force Senior Chaplain in Helmand
21st December 2008
Daily Mail

Midnight in the middle of enemy territory in Afghanistan. Today we have repatriated four Royal Marines and one commando-trained Royal Artillery officer – all killed in action – to their loved ones.

The best eulogies always come from the lads themselves and they are not always repeatable in polite conversation. But today’s were awesome. Some had known the dead men since they were boys, and the humour was rich and the respect profound.

Sadly, while we were praying for their souls, another of our task force, a rifleman, was killed.

As I write, we are sitting in the back of a truck, just waiting for mortars or rockets to start landing. It’s a strange feeling. There is nothing you can do in such circumstances except exchange the dark humour that only those who share such fears can truly understand. Random thoughts abound. A voice in the blackness asks: ‘So would you rather lose a leg or an arm?’

The Rev David Wylie in Afghanistan, where he and thousands of British troops will spend Christmas this year

Another replies: ‘I dunno – a leg I guess. At least I’d still look essence [fit and attractive to women] from the waist up and those bouncy leg things seem to work quite well. Anyway, I know I’m not gonna die out here.’

‘How’s that?’

‘I just do. My fiancee said she’d kill me if I did.’

‘Eyebrows it!’ Out here ‘Eyebrows’ is the ultimate wager. Should you lose the bet, off come your eyebrows. Your misplaced confidence, arrogance or ineptitude will be plain for all to see for many days to come.

‘OK. If I die, the padre can shave my eyebrows off,’ comes the answer.

Listening to this bizarre conversation between a matelot (sailor) and a bootneck (Royal Marine), the padre (me) hopes he doesn’t have to shave anyone’s eyebrows off. I’m aware this is a dark and, to some, a tasteless conversation. But such thoughts reveal much about who we are – and what we value.

It is a gift of sorts to those in danger. For some it is a gift that helps them discover in weeks what others spend a lifetime seeking: truths about themselves and what they hold dear.

But there is a cost too. We don’t need to say that some of our friends have already died and lost limbs in the beautiful, hateful, charming, dangerous, engaging, harsh and challenging place that is our Christmas setting.

But sitting here, in an environment utterly stripped of the tinsel and baubles of home, it is hard not to be moved by the deep camaraderie and compassion of these men. It is the spirit of Christmas distilled to its very essence.

The body of Sergeant John Manuel of 45 Commando Royal Marines is repatriated at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire. He was killed by a child suicide bomber in Afghanistan

Eventually the improvised explosive device (IED) that blocks our truck’s progress along the desert track is safely disposed of. We drive on. These guys do not generally seek an easy life. They are mostly keen to ‘get out on the ground’ and do the job they have trained hard to do.

My Bethlehem for the second time in three years is Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province. Tonight some of our troops continue arduous patrols and carefully planned operations in the rain, while others ‘enjoy’ a respite on guard duty or even a quiz night. A few turn up for night prayer – compline – that is short and to the point.

‘Preserve us O Lord while waking and guard us while sleeping that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.’ Ancient prayers touch today’s spot.

Last time I spent Christmas here, the staff of the military HQ sang The Twelve Days Of Christmas across the telephone links to other command posts. No doubt some similar ruse will bubble up this time. The Panto Dame and hairy French maid will surely make an appearance and seasonal fun will be squidged in between operations and duties.

But the staff here have a weighty burden. They run a task force that must run hand-in-glove with the local political process and the rule of law. They need somehow to hold the life of the Afghan child and steely marine with equal measure as they deploy both the force of the sword and protection of the shield.

The marines and soldiers on the front line need, metaphorically, to be ‘as gentle as doves and cunning as serpents’. Helmand is a place where we need to win friends.

My day includes time with colonels and brigadiers, riflemen and stokers, Sri Lankans and Afghans, Danes and Estonians, Gurkha Hindus and Christians, policemen and medics, Whitehall atheists and civil servants who really do ‘do God’, and others.

However, when we celebrate our Midnight Masses and services over the Christmas period, nationality, language, rank, distance, time and space all join together.

Sometimes my work is serious stuff and requires careful judgment and response.

Often it is not. But that resonance between the ordinary and the holy is always in the mix – especially at Christmas, when the response to chaplains, particularly in the forward operating bases, is always gratifying.

British soldiers celebrating Christmas in Afghanistan in 2004

To some, our surroundings may seem crude and harsh, but God doesn’t think so.

Out here, what is ordinary is made holy; the weak, poor, sick, blind, the nobodies of this world are everything to God.

Here, the world often seems to work to different standards. The weak and vulnerable are exploited rather than being helped and lifted up. The life of a child can seem cheap – three of the marines we repatriated today were killed by a young boy carrying a bomb. Surely this is the worst form of child abuse. All the more because it was done openly in the name of religion.

The men who died were all guys who inspired and lifted others up, and I am sure, still will.

Out here, close living lays all bare and our foibles and weaknesses become the foundations of deep friendship. In the world in which we live, we see wretched intent and carnage.

But Christmas reminds us that God does not distance himself from it. When the world does its worst, God brings hope and life.

We have few luxuries, though we are, of course, especially grateful for the home comforts and illicit miniatures you have sent. But as we celebrate our Christmas, all the important things will be in place.

Our families and those we miss so much, the injured, the families and those who grieve, and those who have died will be there at our Bethlehem. It will not be a time for tinsel smiles, but it will be a time of joy.

We will sing Once In Royal David’s City with its line ‘and he shareth in our gladness and he feeleth in our sadness’. And as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who said ‘I come that you may have life in all its abundance’, we will think of our dead friends – men who had an incredible zest for life that they passed on to others.

In this, our stripped-down Afghan Christmas, it is humbling to see how our guys draw strength and determination from their fallen comrades.

Earlier today, I watched informally after the memorial service and saw the numbness of life and death become warmed by deep thought, jokes, respect and smiles.

For us, this year will bring a thoughtful Christmas celebration, full of quiet compassion, respect for others and a deep understanding of the power of life and death.

From Helmand, Merry Christmas. And may your eyebrows stay with you.
  • The Rev David Wylie, Royal Navy, is Task Force Senior Chaplain in Helmand.

The wider view: British soldiers and their Jackals in the Afghan desert

20th December 2008
By Mail On Sunday Reporter

Soldiers using the Army’s new Jackal patrol vehicles meet for a briefing in the Eastern Desert of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The men from 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards know the £600,000 Jackal, based on a 17ft 8in truck chassis, is better than its predecessor, the Snatch Land Rover, in terms of firepower, agility and its range of 500 miles.

Snatch Land Rovers were labelled ‘mobile coffins’ because of their vulnerability to roadside bombs.

British soldiers receive a briefing in Helmand province, flanked by their new Jackal patrol vehicles (click picture to enlarge)

But three Jackals have been blown up in Afghanistan since October, killing three Marines and a Household Cavalry trooper.

The Jackal, with a three-man crew, has reinforced armour plating but an open top. In October, the Government said it was buying 100 of the vehicles, developed by Supacat in Devon, as part of a £700million investment.

The Jackal’s 5.9-litre engine gives it a top speed of 80mph – and 50mph off-road.

A unique air-suspension system can raise the seven-ton vehicle by 3ft, allowing it to clear obstacles. Other features shown are:

1. A 12.7mm Browning M2 heavy machine gun, firing 600 rounds a minute, with a range of a mile.
2. Radio mast with a light on top, to communicate at night if all else fails.
3. A 40mm Heckler & Koch grenade machine gun which fires high-velocity conventional ammunition and grenades.
4. Ammunition box stowed at rear.
5. Diesel canisters on the right of the Jackal – water canisters are on the left.
6. Paint brush to get sand out of weapons’ sights.
7. Smoke canister to facilitate escape under fire.
8. A 7.62mm belt-fed general purpose machine gun.
9. Smoke grenade strapped to the Jackal’s frame.
10. Cover containing yellow hand-held GPS device that will pinpoint the Jackal’s location in a sandstorm, enabling ground support to be summoned.
11. Picture of this Jackal driver’s pin-up.
12. Bowman tactical communications radio system.