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Faith takes flight in the Air Force

Defence Forces Chaplain Tom Killingbeck reveals what it’s like to support those who serve

“If push came to shove, would you be willing to take someone’s life?” asks Chaplain Tom Killingbeck, who serves at RAAF Base Tindal, just outside Katherine in the Northern Territory.

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“That’s part of your training, even if you’re someone who repairs the tiniest part on an aircraft that is used to deliver aid supplies, you are still trained in how to use weapons, and you’re still expected – if the Air Base came under attack – that you would defend it.”

This is one of the challenges that faces Christians in the Australian Defence Forces, according to Tom who has been working as a chaplain in Defence for nearly four years.

“I get to see the results. I get to see people’s lives changed.” – Tom Killingbeck

While this difficulty is particularly unique to those serving in Defence, they mostly tend to struggle with the same things as other everyday Aussies: moving; family relationships; and mental health.

“Mental health is a big issue for humans, and because Defence is made up of humans and because our tempo is so much faster, that means that we see more of those issues,” explains Tom to Eternity. “But I also think that Defence has some of the most robust responses for mental health of any organisation that I’ve heard of. There’s lots of support available.

“Sometimes, stigma is a big thing and gets in the way, especially if you’re worried about your career. But on the whole, Defence has some really good systems in place to help people who are struggling with mental health. It’s fantastic.

“I get to see and talk to and interact with people who are going through a great deal of struggle and that can be hard and emotionally draining. But, on the other side, I get to see the results. I get to see people’s lives changed and made better through either the ministry of the chaplain or being able to point someone in the right direction to get the help they need,” says Tom.

“We look after our own, facilitate for others, care for all.” – Tom Killingbeck

The chapel at RAAF Base Tindal is “outside the wire,” which means it is located near the mess (dining hall) and the accommodation for those who live on base. All the serious Air Force business takes place on the other side of the base.

“It’s neutral ground for people to actually be able to move away from their workplace and come and have a chat. I might see a number of people around lunchtime, [because] they can come a little bit early to lunch, sit down with the chaplain, have a chat, all without there being any kind of stigma associated with it, which is good.”

Even though Tom is an Anglican Priest, he says that the remit of the chaplain is to be “available for anyone regardless of whether they have faith or not, whether they have a set belief, whether they consider themselves a religious person or not. We look after our own, facilitate for others, care for all.”

With more than 500 Air Force members serving at RAAF Base Tindal, the chaplains are kept busy meeting people and walking with them through different parts of their lives. The role of a chaplain in Defence is to pastorally and spiritually care for the needs of people, something that has changed in the 76 years that Defence has employed chaplains. Originally, the role of a chaplain was primarily to deliver “religious ministry,” such as leading services and prayer.

These days chaplains are not permitted to evangelise or proselytise explicitly. They are only allowed to share their faith in response to a direct question from a Defence member.

“I don’t want people to have an excuse not to engage with being part of Christ’s body.” – Tom Killingbeck

“It doesn’t seem to be a problem,” says Tom. “Chaplaincy is more of an incarnational ministry. People see us operating as we do and come to us for advice, and it could be weeks, months or years later that someone says, ‘so you’ve been helping me out through all of this stuff, how does your faith make a difference?’”

Where previous chaplains held weekly services at the chapel, Tom and fellow chaplain Kevin O’Sullivan encourage the Christians serving at RAAF Base Tindal to connect directly with the established church communities in Katherine. They also run services at the Base chapel for Catholics and other Christians on a monthly basis.

“I don’t want people to have an excuse not to engage with being part of Christ’s body,” says Tom. “He leaves his body to be his hands and feet and go around and feed people and look after people. If Christians aren’t getting that food, if they’re not actually rejuvenating themselves, and finding out where the church is headed – and that collective sense of belief and faith – then I think we’re missing the point as Christians. We are supposed to be a united front, serving God and serving people.

“The engagement with the Christian community in town is significant and ongoing,” says Tom. Members of Defence attend the whole gamut of churches in Katherine, including Anglican, ACC, Baptist and Catholic.

While Tom believes that the Air Force generally attracts people who are less religious, he says, “the Christians who are here are really strong. It’s phenomenal to see them connect into local church, or attend the Bible study run on base for the ladies.”

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