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Iraq: Female British Chaplain Hopes New Posting Will Be A Blessing In Disguise

Last year, one of the Church of England's female priests, Juliette Hulme, became the British Army's first woman chaplain. And next month, Hulme will be sent to Iraq -- the first female British chaplain to be posted to a conflict zone. Hulme spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky about being an officer, a priest, and a woman in the British Army.

Prague, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Former teacher Juliette Hulme became one of the still relatively small number of women priests in the Church of England in 1994.

After eight years as a parish priest, however, she decided she needed a bigger challenge. She caused a stir last year when she became the British Army's first female priest -- called chaplains or padres in the military.

Hulme -- who has the rank of captain -- has worked until now at a British Army base in Germany. Next month, she begins a six-month tour of duty in Iraq, where the British Army is the second-largest military contingent among the coalition forces occupying the country. She will be based at a field hospital near the city of Al-Basrah in southern Iraq, the center of the British Army sector.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Hulme said she has just completed special medical training to prepare her for deployment on 17 November.

"We have had some military training. When you are in the army, you have regular training anyway every six months to make sure your skills are up-to-date. I've just recently been on a course at Longmore [a British Army training facility] in England with the medical regiment I will be deploying with," Hulme said.

She explained what kind of training that involved: "We've done things like chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare. We've also done first aid. We've done weapon handling, although from my point of view, I don't carry a weapon, but I still have to [know how] to make one safe. We've looked at things like hygiene and the sort of infections one can get out in Iraq. We've also looked at the culture, and we've had a briefing on terrorism and mine awareness. So those are the sort of things we've been covering."

The 43-year-old Hulme has never been to a war zone and admits that the continuing instability in Iraq has given her a lot to think about: "I would feel I'm looking forward to the challenges of working in a different environment, but obviously -- if I'm honest -- I must say there is some apprehension, because at the moment there does seem to be quite a big terrorist threat in Iraq, although that's more so in northern Iraq. And so, obviously, I have some concerns for the safety of all our soldiers. And because I myself haven't been in a conflict zone before, yes, I suppose there is a little worry there."

Hulme says she has also been doing a lot of spiritual preparation for her new role: "I think that's something that perhaps one has to do to an extent away from the army environment. I've been on leave, and for some of that time I've been to a convent in London that I go to probably every year for a few days, and I've had a spiritual director there. I've had a chance to pray and to reflect and to think through some of the issues that may be facing me ahead and to be spiritually strengthened by God for what I think will be at times quite a taxing role -- being a chaplain in a conflict area."

Apart from holding regular masses at the field hospital and other military camps, Hulme says much of her time will be spent helping soldiers cope with personal problems that arise during their service abroad.

One of the most common problems, Hulme says, is that many of the British soldiers in Iraq are on their second lengthy deployments and miss their families, especially at Christmas.

Although the British Army in Iraq has suffered far fewer casualties than U.S. troops, Hulme knows more British soldiers may die: "If the worst scenario [happened] -- a soldier did die -- then it's very important that there is a chaplain around to be with that person either just before they die and after and also to be there for the comrades of the soldier who has died, because often they are very severely affected if one of their friends or comrades has been killed."

Fifty-one British soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war, either by hostile fire (19) or in accidents (32), compared with 356 U.S. troops.

Hulme does not think her role as a priest preaching peace is compromised by being a captain in an army whose job is sometimes to kill: "I, like any Christian, was very unhappy at the beginning of the [Iraq] conflict that there were so many deaths on all sides. And I don't think any Christian ever advocates war, but there are certain times where the decision is made to go to war, and the British Army has to follow what the government has decided. I know that our British Army did its utmost to avoid killing civilians and only to hit military targets, and I think they did the best they could in a very difficult situation."

Before becoming a priest, Hulme worked for a number of years as a teacher in Muslim countries -- in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- and has a good knowledge of Islam and Muslim culture. She knows a woman cleric is an unthinkable concept among Muslim traditionalists and that the chances of meeting Muslim clerics or thinkers will be limited. She nevertheless hopes she will have the opportunity to do so.

"I am interested in other religions, although I am a committed Christian. I certainly think there's always something to learn from other religions, so I am interested to find out more," Hulme said.

Hulme says she wants to meet with members of Iraq's small Christian community. She also wants to meet her colleagues from other countries:

"I would be absolutely fascinated to meet chaplains from other countries. I know that in the area we're going to, amongst the coalition forces, there will be Italians, Polish, and possibly Ukrainians -- certainly quite a lot of different nationalities. And if I get the opportunity and if, in fact, I can make the opportunity, I will certainly be doing that," Hulme said.

Hulme says it can be difficult at times for a woman in the predominantly male world of the army. But she says the British are strict on applying regulations against sexual harassment or discrimination and that people who do complain are treated seriously.

Hulme says female officers are not a new phenomenon in the British army and that most soldiers have no difficulties working beside them or taking orders from them. In her own 7th Signals Regiment, she says around half the officers are women and one in 10 ordinary soldiers are women.

She believes the vital thing, regardless of a person's sex, is to gain respect by behaving well and leading well. But Hulme admits she still has a bit to learn about giving commands: "I didn't find it very easy because I kept saying 'please' and 'thank you' to people, and I got told off for that because that's not how you give orders."

In the end, Hulme believes her spiritual work will fit in well with the present British role in Iraq: "The British army in Iraq now is actually trying to build peace and reconciliation, and, as a Christian, I believe that is our work -- to build peace and reconciliation between people. And I see my work as a chaplain is to encourage soldiers to do that."