From the archives: MCF Annual Dinner 2000
East Timor Reflections
This article found on an old version of the MCF website was written by then Captain (now LTCOL) Phil McMaster who now heads up the Australian Navigators Military Ministry.
At 3am on 20 Sept 99 a Jumbo aircraft took off from Townsville airport to fly to a Darwin staging area. Over the next few days elements of the ADF were inserted into East Timor. The one and a half hour C130 flight seemed to take forever. I remember flying over the middle of East Timor then out to sea, taking a sharp bank and then we thudded down onto DILI airport. Waiting for a vehicle also in the cargo bay to back down onto the tarmac seemed like an eternity. Finally out on ground with helmet, marching order, combat body armour and rifle. It seemed like an effort to move a 100 m but at the same time the adrenalin was pumping hard. All I could see was TNI soldiers all around, where were the Australians, at last some British gurkhas. It was a difficult night’s sleep, uneasy, the most pumped up I had ever been. The air was thick with smoke, and there was a burnt smell. Looking into to the hills with night vision all you could see were the small fires of those that had fled following the independence vote. The following day driving through the streets it felt empty, few buildings were left standing, the only people on the streets looked sinister and distrustful. One thing was certain: we needed to be in this country. This was the beginning of a four and a half month tour.
I was just one of many peacekeepers who went into EM in on day 2 of OP Warden. I stayed for 4 and a half months and then left. There have been lots of people go into EM since I came out, many of them faced different experiences, the place has changed a lot, and many of them have stayed a lot longer than I have.
Making mistakes (All have sinned)
I have got to be up front with you about my time in EM. It was the busiest and most under pressure that I have been so far in my military career. I reckon that 4 and a half months over there on operations was worth a great deal of experience in the ADF. Being under pressure and stressed probably does cause you to make mistakes that may be out of character. Those of you who have done some sort of leadership challenge, survival course or the like can attest to this. I would like to take you through one of the professional mistakes that I made while on operations.
The unit I was part of conducted regular resupplies to Dili and other towns west (toward the border) and east. The road between Dili and Baucau (about 150 km to the east) was quite treacherous at times, even before the wet season. There were frequent landslides and other very obvious damage had been caused. There were a number of accidents and near misses and unless something were done to provide a form of command and control with the increased military traffic there would be a serious accident. I remember during the first week that I was there being part of a large resupply convoy going to the border. The vehicle in front of me was a Mack recovery vehicle with a huge turning circle. Going down a steep and sloping hill the driver took the turn a little tight. He was fortunate that although the momentum took his back two wheels over a 50 m drop he enough forward momentum to keep going. Many of the local Timorese driving along in their overloaded vehicles did in fact have accidents. The military police were asked to instigate Battlefield Circulation Control (BCC). This meant sending out escort vehicles on all convoys that had vehicles as large as or larger than a Unimog. The best example was the weekly ration run that had refrigerated ISO containers on Mack trucks. The escort vehicles used to go ahead of the convoy to stop oncoming traffic and allow your convoy through. It was interesting getting BCC going. Local East Timorese were not used to being held up for any reason and the various nations with which INTERFET worked spoke varying degrees of English. For an Italian “slow up and stop” meant a totally different thing to an Australian. If you ever have been to parts of Italy like Rome and Sorento you will understand this when you see five lane roads hit a roundabout and only two lanes come out. On one particular morning I sent a convoy out of Dili as the duty officer and did not ensure that BCC was with the convoy. The task commander of the convoy wanted to get the it going, so he took it out. You can imagine my horror when we heard over the communication’s network an hour or two later that an Australian convoy had had an accident on a section of road that was supposed to have BCC and that there were some serious injuries.
I was at least partially responsible for the mistake that had been made. By not being as professional as I should have been, I had caused a big problem. You can then imagine my relief, half an hour later, when it was discovered that no Australian elements had been involved in the accident. I was off the hook.
We are people who make daily mistakes. This is particularly true when placed under a large amount of pressure with little sleep. But in our lives we make mistakes. Sometimes these are accidental, sometimes they are negligent and sometimes they are purposeful.
But as I have illustrated, we make mistakes. In God’s eyes, as the Bible illustrates, we also make mistakes. We fail to live up to the high standard that is set for us, the standard of perfection. Like it or not, we are what the Bible calls sinners.
This is clearly illustrated in the Bible which tells us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Bible also tells us that we are like sheep who have gone astray, and most would agree that each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).
The consequence of actions (Sin’s penalty)
I said above that there is consequence of any mistake. Sometimes you can alter the consequences and other times you cannot.
Let me give you an EM example. For the first few days that I was in EM I was very afraid. Several things happened to make me think about how mortal we are. We had someone UD in the middle of a CO’s OGP, we had militia or TNI light fires around the airfield within 200m of the largest fuel farm since Vietnam we had dead locals that had been hacked to death by militia deposited 50m from our position and there was an airfield defence guard run over by a forklift one evening. Probably the event that spoke the most to me was a fuel contamination problem at the BFI. A UN Russian helicopter (gee they can swallow some fuel) had just taken on several thousand litres of fuel. A Black Hawk helicopter went through its refuelling process shortly afterward, conducted some checks before taking off and promptly had a double engine failure. Had the pilots not conducted thorough checks they could have been several hundred meters in the air when they experienced the failure. Sobering, is it not? There are consequences of the actions that we do or do not do. This is also the case in a spiritual sense. The things that we do that separate us from God’s perfect standard have a consequence too. The Bible talks clearly about these consequences, the consequence of sin.
Sin’s consequence is the death penalty. If there is one thing that EM gave you the chance to have a serious look at what you were doing and had done in your life.
The Bible tells us clearly about the consequences of sin. One day we will all have to face our maker and the consequences of our actions. The Bible is clear about the fact that we only die once (Heb 9:27) and face judgement. The consequence of the way we live our lives is spelled out in Romans 6:23 which states the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Dying for what you believe in
Let me talk about some of the less savory things that I saw in EM. You take off in a Black Hawk and you fly around just Dili and all you see are burnt dwellings, hundreds of them.
What’s the cost of keeping someone alive? Let me tell you about a story from EM that I have heard from a few sources now and believe to true.
Shortly after the Independence vote the militia went on a rampage. Seeking people they wished to kill led them sometime to churches. In one instance a member of the clergy went out of the church to beg the militia to stop and was killed. Another clergyman went out to help him and also got killed. The final member was dragged outside of the church and killed. It is quite possible that the actions of these brave people saved more lives. As you drove from one part of the city of Dilil where I was located you crossed a bridge. In the dry season there were rocks in there piled up as makeshift graves. This was a daily reminder that people had died for the their cause.
Remember a few minutes ago how I spoke of the error that may have potentially seriously injured people? What I did not tell you was that my boss for whom I was working at the time was prepared to take the heat for me. When people found out about the accident he called me into his office and grilled me with a few questions. It was not an enjoyable experience, but at the end of it he said, in a nutshell, “I will take the wrap for you.”
Having a personal relationship with God is letting Jesus take the wrap for anything you have ever done.
The Bible talks clearly about how Jesus Christ took “the bumpf”(military term/wrap) for everything that we have done. Have you ever taken the bumpf for someone else? Chances are you have, although we probably do not do this enough. Christ demands that we would do this for an enemy and not just for a friend which some would do. Jesus Christ is the sort of person who would take it for us.
Rom 5:8 talks about how God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 1 Pet 3:18 tells us that it’s all done. Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.
Success in the eyes of God (Grace not Works)
I don’t want to all take away from the great work that INTERFET and UNTAET have done and are doing in EM. I want to highlight something about achievement. It’s very easy to be achievement orientated at work and even while on operations. The unit that I was part of in EM received a high powered commendation for its work. There is no problem being professional and hardworking, it’s what God expects so long as it is not at the cost of others. But God does not look for the success of the outside i.e. how many medals or commendations you may have. He looks for the medals and commitment of the heart. In God’s eyes we are not a success. We need to recognize that we are not able to do things that can raise us in His esteem. The Bible talks about how it is by this word grace we have been saved, through faith and this, clearly not from ourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast. Another verse talks about be saved by God not because of things we had done but because of His mercy. Look at the verses Eph 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5.
Being ready to deploy on the battlefield (Must receive Christ)
I want to talk for a few moments about being ready.
In the military most of us, wherever we are, are on some sort of notice to move (NTM). Some units/elements have months to prepare if they are called upon for active service, others have days and still others have hours. Certainly within the unit that I am currently posted to in Townsville there are elements on a very short notice to move. Readiness is taken seriously and the leave areas are restricted. Trust me, there is not too much to do between Cairns and Bowen and there are regular checks of your equipment and yourself (medical, administrative) Now, more than ever is the time that you are likely to get a “guernsey” overseas.
The question is, if I can draw a parallel between military service and being in God’s service, are you ready to deploy? Can I suggest that like the military the more prepared you are spiritually the better you are to face the world as a military Christian? The preparation and relationship that you have with the Lord helps you in whatever you face within the military. If you are prepared and disciplined then it will be so much easier to deploy or be posted when the time comes.
The type of preparation we are talking about is daily time with Him, time in prayer, time in reading the Word and time in fellowship and witnessing. More sweat in peacetime is less blood in war, although can I suggest that as a Christian you are already in a spiritual battlefield if you have a young or mature relationship with the Lord. What I am saying is that in a spiritual sense you can’t just get ready quickly. You find out pretty quickly when deployed how well prepared you are or not.
I want to ask you what your charter is? What are the things in life that you do not compromise in? In the military there are documents that list critical tasks the military needs to do to accomplish it goal. These are known as preparedness directives and they translate into a series of Mission Essential Tasks Lists . As a Christian what should these be? I was having a look at the MCF web pages the other day and they clearly lay out some of the objectives of organizations such as MCF. It’s good to continually remind yourself of these objectives and requirements.
Another one espoused by the Navigators is To know Christ and make Him known.
The Bible talks about our charter and certain things that we cannot compromise in. What is mission essential as a Christian? Yes you need to share the faith that you have but first you must receive Christ. John 1:12 illustrates this where it says “Yet to those who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” and Rev 3:20 “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him and he with Me.”
This is what you need to have right before anything else.
Faith must be portable (assurance of salvation)
Being in Christian in the military you have got to be able to plug into any support or fellowship that is in your location, be this here in Canberra, on a posting or on deployment. The Bible talks about the importance of fellowship and implores people not to give up meeting together. Some of you have probably heard the verse Heb 10:24-25 which says “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds, let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Encouragement from others is a great thing while on operations. It’s something that MCF through prayer, resource sharing and letter writing takes great pride in. This needs to keep happening and there is a real joy when you are on the receiving end. I received over 120 letters in EM, 10 parcels and at least 50 e-mails. Let me as an aside give you an indication of my wife’s letter writing. My wife sent a letter every day or every second day for several weeks. It was great to get these and to understand the support behind INTERFET. This was particularly evident around Christmas where every person in EM got 2 kg of Christmas pudding per man perhaps.
Some time in your career you will either be posted to a unit that will deploy, go on a major exercise that takes you out of your comfort zone, be on a ship that does a tour, or be on a remote air force base. Your personal relationship with God is critical. You must then be able to tap into any existing support structure, if any, that there is. And you need to encourage others.
A friend of mine once asked when I was at a family BBQ, “If you went over to that tree over there, sat down and could never move, what would God mean to you?” This core of “Christ the centre” needs to remain with you always.
Keep in your mind the assurances that God give you from His word. The Bible tells us that if we are square with outr relationship with God then we can be assured of salvation.
1 John 5:13 – I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
John 5:24- I tell you the truth whoever hears my word and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned, he has crossed over from death to life.”
No second chances
You may find it very difficult being a Christian like I did in EM. But there ain’t any dress rehearsals. For example, you may be working in a remote area with other nations that do not have the same beliefs as you. I was working in an operations cell that did shift work. As well as not getting out of the office much you might find that you are sleeping during the day (unless woken up by rack drool) and are not able to see many people at set times. You need to be flexible as how much you can do on operations as there will be time and space limitations. Do not give up you time with God but adjust it.
It all comes down to your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Where are you at with him. Do you acknowledge what he did for you and what he now wants you to do?
Are you prepared as it says in Luke 9:27 to deny yourself daily and take up your cross and follow Jesus? If not, make the commitment to find out. The Bible is great place to start, maybe the gospel of John. It’s important because right now, before you may even deploy, you are on a battlefield. It may not look like EM but it is a battlefield.
This article must not be reproduced for profit without written permission from the Military Christian Fellowship of Australia.