Two paths converge for Lieutenant Colonel
The poet Robert Frost, in his poem “The Road Not Taken”, wrote of two roads diverging in a forest, symbolising the choices we sometimes have to make in life. We do this OR we do that.
For Lieutenant Colonel Gavin Keating, a very different dynamic is at play. For Gavin, his two paths are converging.
The career soldier, who was raised a Catholic and continued to practice his faith throughout his army life, has chosen to take steps towards becoming a Deacon and a Chaplain in the Army.
Neither his faith nor his role in the army were new to him… he just reached a point when he saw the two merging.
“I grew up in a Catholic family,” Gavin explains.
“I maintained my faith when I left home and it remained a source of comfort and strength during my army career.
“And look, the nature of army service, like a lot of other walks of life, you have your ups and downs, you have your tough times, whether it’s on operation or here in Australia, and you have to draw on reserves of strength to get through those tough times and certainly my faith was a big part of that.”
In the Army
Gavin started his army life at Australian Defence Force Academy in 1991 and completed his training at the Royal Military College before graduating as an infantry lieutenant in 1994.
Since then he served in most of the areas in which Australian service men and women have been deployed in recent years. He was deployed to East Timor on two occasions, was in the peace monitoring force at Bougainville for just on six months, went to Afghanistan on two occasions, Iraq once, was a UN observer in the Middle East for twelve months in Israel and Lebanon, and was deployed to Indonesia in 2009 for disaster relief operations.
His service included command of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and promotion to the rank of Colonel. And while many of his peers and fellow soldiers saw horrific things in their respective tours, Gavin says he was relatively lucky in the things he encountered. Some of that he puts down to luck, realising others weren’t so lucky.
“To be honest, I was pretty fortunate,” he recounts.
“I mean, there were some tough times but nothing too horrendous. A lot of these things are very dependent on just time and place, and what your particular role is. A different person could walk past the same place, stand in the same spot I’d been in an hour earlier or a day later and experience something completely different.
“I had operational service commensurate with most of my peers and in that time and I was lucky that I didn’t experience too many traumatic events personally, but I encountered many that had.”
Gavin believes there is a growing realisation in Australia today, and around the world, that returning home safely can be just the beginning of very difficult times on a service man or woman’s life. The grief and trauma they bring back with them can leave deep and long-lasting wounds that don’t simply dissolve upon their return home.
There’s an awareness, Gavin explains, that sending people to war can have a cost, not only in people’s physical health but their mental health as well. And it’s an awareness that become part of contemplation towards his new direction.
Another influence on his decision was his experience with chaplains throughout his army career. Seeing them work, seeing the role they played in assisting and mending soldiers, left a lasting impression on Gavin.
“I had a lot of contact with various military chaplains, padres, along the way, of all different faiths,” Gavin remembers.
“Overwhelmingly my experience as an army officer of military padres was positive across all faiths and I saw on many occasions that they filled a very important role, particularly in those tough times when people are overseas and their struggling for whatever reason.
“I always admired what they brought in terms of that spiritual welfare and support and so it came to a time in my career where I began to think about how I wanted to continue to serve.
“I strongly believe that military chaplaincy is a very important part of the military. I’ve seen that personally on many different occasions and I felt that I could make a contribution in that sense and perhaps answer a call that had been in the back of my mind for many years in terms of serving God in a more direct role.”
“In a way, it was a confluence of joining the two things, my faith and my career, together.”
Military life and a life of faith
The two may seem like strange bedfellows. Most faiths advocate peace and decry killing. Military life on the other hand brings with it the very real possibility of taking lives. But Gavin believes these two threads are not as far apart as they may sound.
“I think it was Saint Aquinas who is credited with developing the theory of the Just War,” he explains.
“In any event, military conflict is an unfortunate reality in society. Obviously from our faith perspective we wish that that were not so, but the kingdom of God hasn’t been fully arrived at… and we’re working towards that but in the interim, military conflict remains a reality.
“Australia’s got a proud tradition of being non-aggressors but we’ve always strived to protect ourselves and protect other people,” Gavin pointed out.
“The Australian Army is very professional in the sense that we spend our careers learning how to apply violence in a controlled fashion in accordance with government policy – which is the doctrinal definition of what we do. But it’s done to limit the number of lives that will be lost. It’s done to save lives.
“If you’d been to places like Timor in 99 and seen burnt out buildings, or Iraq, Afghanistan – you actually realise what war does to the fabric of a country and it makes you appreciate that our country has been blessed by not having major conflict on our soil in our modern history.
“As military professionals we approach violence as the last resort, but like any insurance policy, when you call on the insurance policy it’s got to be functional. There’s no point pulling it out and finding it’s worthless.
“That’s why armies have to train, why they always have to be on the ball and thinking about these issues, not because they want to go to war, but because they realise if they do go to war, it’s not the time to find out they’re not ready.“
Keeping the peace
Military training and the use to which the military is put, Gavin believes, can lead to a misconception that soldiers are war-mongers, but that hasn’t been Gavin’s experience. The more people have exposure to military conflict and its results, he says, the less they want it to be necessary. It’s not, he says, something that’s wished for by any of the colleagues and senior leaders he has worked with.
There’s an old military saying that there are no atheists in a foxhole, or in the trenches… an oldy but a goody Gavin chuckles. But he says there is a truth underlying it. People tend to ask the deeper existential questions when faced with their own mortality.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of battlefield conversions, but many seek someone who offers them a kind ear or a comforting word, someone who is prepared to talk with them, walk on their journey with them, wherever that is, not to convert them but to be there with them,” Gavin said.
“Few are concerned with the specific denomination of the padre, and it’s not necessarily about converting the flock, but being there for them, providing God’s presence to them if you like, and helping them through those tough times.
“Good chaplains of any persuasion can have a big influence by just quietly going about their business and walking with people. And it’s been my experience that there is great ecumenical cooperation between ministers of different faiths in the army.”
The significance of the trauma soldiers experience, and the help chaplaincy provides is not lost on the army. Chaplains form part of a comprehensive approach to the holistic mental and spiritual wellbeing of military personnel that also includes counsellors, therapist and psychologists.
A new path
Armed with that understanding, the Army is supporting the theological studies Gavin is undertaking and all going well he should commence duties as a captain padre in 2023.
It will be a life-changing experience for Gavin but he is is doing it with the enthusiastic support of his family.
“I’m incredibly proud of Gavin,” said his wife, Myra.
“I think Gavin’s favourite part of being in the army has been working with the soldiers. So I’m very proud that he’s made that choice and that the army has supported him in that.
“I think it takes amazing strength of self to take ostensibly several steps back professionally to do what you believe in doing. I have to admit I’m not wild about going back to the posting pool when Gavin is qualified but we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again and in a lot of ways it’s exciting.”
Myra, who is an Anglican, said that Gavin’s decision had also impacted on her and their two sons, aged 14 and 12 and both Catholic, in profound and positive ways.
“I think Gavin’s decision has brought faith front and centre for all of us,” she explained.
“We talked about it for a long time but faith has always been part of our lives.
“When I first met Gavin I think the parish priest was a bit disappointed because he had Gavin earmarked for the Church. But I got him,” Myra laughed.
“But it’s funny, things work out how they’re meant to in the long run.”