As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the military, and especially the army. Both my grandfathers fought in the Second World War (WW2). My nan watched the Battle of Britain from Wimbledon, and my father served in the Parachute Regiment.
I was always fascinated by their stories and, even from a young age, knew the importance of remembrance for all those remotely connected with the military.
I enlisted into the army in 1991, not just because I needed a job, but because it’s all I had ever wanted to do — to serve Queen and country and be part of an organisation I had always admired.
For me, joining the army was like putting cream with strawberries — the perfect match — and I was extremely proud to call myself a British soldier. I knew it also made my grandfather, Albert Victor Cocup, former ‘Desert Rat’ and war hero, extremely proud. I still have in my office his medals and photos, from his time of service in WW2.
I wasn’t a Christian when I was a soldier and, if I’m honest, I was a bit of a rogue (that’s putting it mildly!). I was in trouble more than I was out of it, but I was so proud to wear the uniform and proud to serve my country at home and away.
I know the challenges of being a soldier, to be far away from home, missing family and hoping to see them again when your deployment comes to an end. Any soldier will tell you that, sooner or later, you have to deal with the subject of loss, whether it is preparing yourself for your own possible death, or that of your comrades’. Death and remembrance are a large part of a soldiers make up.
For military personnel, even when deployed, remembrance is vital. It allows time to mourn but also prepares for re-engagement. Serving soldiers don’t always have the privilege of ‘time out’, especially in battle, so small acts of remembrance help them to deal with the immediate aftermath of tragedy.
For veterans, it is a time to remember, reflect and be part of something that will always be with them. It’s an old cliché, but, while you can take the man/woman out of the military, it is very difficult to take the military out of the man/woman. When I left the army, I think remembrance became more important to me than at any other time.
After I became a Christian in 1999, I immediately felt a sense of urgency to share the gospel with anyone I met. But I knew that, in one way or another, this urgency would take me back to my roots, back to the military.
This is exactly what happened in 2008, when I joined SASRA as an Army Scripture Reader. My first SASRA posting was to Germany, at a time of fierce fighting in Afghanistan, and once again the subject of loss and remembrance was prominent, as we were losing soldiers on a weekly basis.
As a Christian, I was now able to add hope to the equation, not just any old hope, but the hope that Christ brings. This was something that I did not have as a soldier. After attending so many remembrance parades and memorial services over the last eight years, I find that the subject of Christian hope is crucial to remembrance.
I work at the ITC (Infantry Training Centre) at Catterick, where the army takes civilian young men and turns them into fighting soldiers. As part of its chaplaincy team, I have the privilege of assisting with some of the ‘character development’ lessons. One of these lessons is called ‘realities of war’. This is a service designed to help the recruit understand the importance of remembrance.
Here we take our men through a brief service, with an act of remembrance, including a message which commences with this Scripture, from John 15: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’. Soldiers understand these words of Jesus.The lesson also allows me and the chaplain the opportunity to share the hope that Jesus Christ brings. The service is held in the Garrison Memorial Church, which is a place dedicated to remembrance.
We then move on to talk about a man who received a George Cross and a man who received a Victoria Cross. Both were willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends. We then tell about a Man who died on a cross for those he loved, and rose again three days later.
We focus on the resurrection, giving these young men the gospel message and telling them of a hope like none other. The service ends with me reading Jesus’ words: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and everyone who lives and believes in me, shall never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25).
As a Christian, remembrance has so much more significance than ever before, because not only does it remind me of my own military service, it also gives me a chance to focus on the One who defeated death and offers the greatest hope of all.
It has been an honour not only to have been a soldier, but also to be able to get alongside others — to mourn, remember and give a message of hope to those who may be called upon to pay the ultimate price for our freedom.
Since the start of the First World War in 1914, up to the war in Afghanistan, the British soldier has been constantly involved in some form of conflict (the only exception being 1968). Please pray for our armed forces, especially for those who still live with the trauma of war on a daily basis, whether still serving or as a veteran.
Army Scripture Reader Lee McDade serves with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA), a Christian mission to the military, proclaiming the gospel since 1838. If you would like to know more about this ministry, visit www.sasra.org.uk/remembrance