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"At first, the tension was palpable"

The corona pandemic also changes the operating conditions and the service in the German Armed Forces – in some cases considerably. The editors of “Ethics and Armed Forces” wanted to know how soldiers deal with the developments and the resulting difficulties. Among others, we had the ­opportunity to ask the Catholic military chaplain Torsten Stemmer. He accompanied the crew of the frigate “Hamburg” which patrolles the Mediterrean as part of the EU Mission IRINI to control the arms embargo in the Libyan civil war.

Mr. Stemmer, your deployment on the Hamburg as part of the EU IRINI mission was not your first deployment on a ship. How was it for you? Did you and the crew feel it was a “special situation”?

It was certainly a special situation. We weren’t able to take normal shore leave during port calls. And it was much more difficult to exchange personnel during the mission. But still, a lot of things were the same as usual. Seafaring itself has not changed because of Covid-19 – the pandemic makes no difference to the wind and the waves. From that point of view, the time at sea was much the same as before Covid.

Were you and the crew specially prepared for this mission?

There is always preparation before any deployment. What was special about this mission was the isolation. Embarking extra personnel (military police, shipboard helicopters, boarding teams, medical specialists, staff etc.) also brings its own unique challenges. Special preparation relating to Covid-19 mainly concerned hygiene and distancing rules.

What protective measures were put in place? Did they increase the sense of confinement, of being locked up on the ship?

The crew as a whole forms a cohort on the ship. As soon as we set sail, everyone aboard was tested, and then again after 14 days. Fortunately, none of these tests indicated an infection. After these two rounds of tests at the start of the voyage, of course you then have to avoid all outside contact to prevent any possibility of infecting the crew. The usual distancing rules cannot be observed on board so the virus would be able to spread fast and wide.
From the outset, it was clear there would be no “normal” shore leave during the entire voyage. This caused some uncertainty, simply because it was a completely new and unfamiliar situation for all crew members. But in the course of time, we found that it was still possible to relax and switch off while in port.

What mood(s) did you notice among the crew: tension, composure, “we’ll get through this”...?

Especially at first, the tension was palpable: “What will it be like to be at sea for four months without going ashore?” – “How will the pandemic develop? Globally, but especially at home?”
All in all, however, there was also a sense of relief once the second test was “out of the way” without any positives. Knowing that we were corona-free on board meant we could behave fairly normally.
But of course the restrictions during port calls and the question of what was happening back home were always on our mind.

Do you talk about the pandemic in the discussions you lead? If so, what aspects were service members particularly preoccupied with, and how can you support them?

In some ways, Covid-19 has increased the need to talk. Perhaps also because there are no opportunities for conversations and meetings with friends right now. At the same time, many people are worried about family back home.
And the lack of opportunities to literally get away from the ship and each other somehow creates a feeling of confinement. That leads to conflicts between people from time to time. A conversation where you can just “get it off your chest” is sometimes all it takes to start feeling a bit better. Sorting through and organizing feelings and thoughts together can be very helpful too.

Did you have any special tasks for this mission, because of the corona pandemic?

As military chaplains, it is always our task to be there for the members of the armed forces, both at home and on deployment, and they can talk to us about whatever is troubling them. Of course that includes everything to do with Covid-19. So in that respect the task of the military chaplaincy has not essentially changed. However, awareness of the need for “support” has noticeably increased among officers and at senior levels. For this reason, great importance is attached to the continuous presence of the military chaplains on the seagoing units on deployment.

What are your main activities on the ship? Do you conduct religious services? Do you give ethics classes as part of character guidance training?

As a military chaplain, in addition to holding religious services on board, I am there for the spiritual and mental well-being of the crew. I am available for talks, for example. Crew members can simply speak to me when I am walking around the ship, in my stateroom (that is the room where I live on the ship), or when I visit the sea watch stations. So sometimes I am a sympathetic ear, or a mediator, or an advisor.
Character guidance training is provided if service personnel request it, including on deployment. But there was no time for it during IRINI because the schedule was full and there were often rapid changes due to the changing external situation.

If you had to sum up this mission, what would you say? Are there any special moments or insights that will stay with you? Do you view your work differently after this mission and your experiences?

Of course, I cannot draw an overall conclusion about the mission of the frigate Hamburg because the ship will remain at sea until December 20. For the time I spent on board, however, I can say the following: It was a challenge for the crew to start into the uncertainty of the mission. In addition to the restrictions already mentioned, there was also uncertainty about the course of the mission. There were big question marks over the actual operation and its benefit.
After the crew had quickly found good possibilities to keep themselves busy and also to relax while in port, the initial tension could be slowly released. Fortunately, it was also possible to establish facts quite quickly with regard to the course of the operation. The fear that it was “only” a political mission without operational deployment was quickly refuted. These experiences have also had a decisive influence on my work as a military chaplain on board.
Especially during the time on board it became clear that crew members repeatedly approached me as military chaplain. From my experience, I would say that there was a greater need for conversation during this mission as usual. For me that means that we have to be present where people are, especially in difficult situations. These can be, for example, foreign assignments, stressful situations at home, trainings that involve a great deal of privation, activities at the domestic base or even a pandemic situation. Wherever we can be contacted (i.e. not just anonymously via telephone or e-mail, but as a concrete, familiar person, our service is noticed and requested, and further demand arises, for example for additional workshops and care services.