Military chaplain speaks of the chaos and heartache of war

Photo: Courtesy of Captain Charles Deogratias

Captain Charles Deogratias at the Forward Operations Base in Masum Ghar, Afghanistan, during his tour in 2007-2008.

Captain Charles Deogratias seeks to make sense out of the senseless.

He knows the heartache and chaos of war through direct life experience in his native Rwanda and his tour in Afganistan as a military chaplain for Valcartier forces last year and the year before.

"Making sense of senselessness has been an integral part of my life," Deogratias said in an interview from the Saint-Jean Garrison in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu where he is currently stationed.

Deogratias, who will speak on the theme at the Canadian Bible Society's annual general meeting in Quebec City next Tuesday, decided to become a military chaplain after seeing Lieutenant -General Roméo Dallaire speak several times about his experience as the UN commander of a peacekeeping mission during the Rwanda Genocide in 1994.

Dallaire, best-selling author of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, is now settled with his wife in Quebec City and works as a Canadian senator and international speaker and advisor on leadership and conflict resolution.

"His suffering led me to the chaplaincy," said Deogratias, referring to the post traumatic stress disorder that inflicted Dallaire in 1998 -- before he recovered and wrote his acclaimed book.

Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1996, Deogratias decided to leave his two congregations in Elmvale, Ont. in 2001 to serve as a military chaplain.

"I wanted to go in the name of goodness and help those who need spiritual and emotional guidance on UN missions," he added. "Soldiers do good things and we as chaplains need to help them to do those good things."

Deogratias and his wife, Hyasinter Rugoro, themselves narrowly avoided the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of some 800,000 Rwandans when they were granted refugee status in Canada in 1993.

He received an opportunity to give back to his new adoptive country, he said, when he acted as a padre to the 3rd Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment, based in Valcartier, on tour in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.

"Padres are the only caregivers who follow the soldiers everywhere they go -- inside or outside the wire," he said.

As caregivers, padres attend to the spiritual and emotional needs of the soldiers, holding non-denominational masses every Sunday or by providing a listening ear..

In the theatre of war, Deogratias said that means offering a shoulder to cry on for soldiers grieving for fallen comrades -- even when there is little time to grieve.

"The circumstances of war provide no time to properly grieve," Deogratias said, "but the pain is no less, so we help them as much as we can."

Deogratias himself attended 12 ramp ceremonies, a ceremony held on the airstrip on the Kandahar Air Field just prior to the departure of the bodies of fallen United Nations soldiers home to their native countries.
"It's a privilege and an honour for me to help the Canadian soldiers."

"The only reason I survived in the refugee camp," Deogratias explained of his upbringing in a refugee camp in Western Tanzania following the outbreak of the Rwandan Civil War in 1959, "was because of the mercy of people who fed, clothed and immunized me.

"So I always wanted to give back."

Capt. Charles Deogratias will speak in English at the Canadian Bible Society's annual general meeting on May 12 at 7:30 p.m. at L'Église Évangélique Baptiste de Limoilou, 4855 2e Avenue Ouest. The society's business meeting begins at 5 p.m. For more information, call 418-692-2698.