“They wanted me to be a spy but in the end it was decided that it would be against the Geneva Convention to have a chaplain as a spy.”
Australia’s first female military chaplain Wendy Snook tells ALANA MITCHELSON how her passion for gender issues grew through her time in the Defence Force as she settles in to her new role as the minister of St Andrew’s Uniting Church in Berwick.
Snook’s experience as the nation’s first female military chaplain from 1991 was destined to be a challenging one.
Equal opportunity laws had only just changed in the preceding decade and she had been refused jobs in the past due to her gender.
But that didn’t stop the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from initially trying to take advantage of her personal connections with Indonesian politicians, by attempting to make her a military spy.
“I nearly got ‘shanghaied’ by ASIO,” she laughed.
“I stayed with relatives of President Suharto when I was a Rotary exchange student in Bandung, Indonesia, so I declared that I’d met the Indonesian president when ASIO was finalising my security clearances.
“After they found that out, they wanted me to be a spy but in the end it was decided that it would be against the Geneva Convention to have a chaplain as a spy.”
Snook said that while Australia had been going through a time of change when she applied for the Defence Force position as the sole female applicant, she believed female chaplains were still considered radical by some, even today.
Snook recalled the Defence Force not yet having a female chaplaincy uniform.
So her outfit became a doctors’ uniform with a symbol of the cross replacing the ordinary ‘healing symbol’ to differentiate herself.
Part of Snook’s legacy in the forces was her work in educating members about gender issues, especially sexual harassment and domestic violence.
In line with standard procedure in the forces, all members were required to report only to their immediate superior through the ‘chain of command’.
One of the unique aspects of being a chaplain on the Defence Force meant that Snook could liaise and report to staff of all ranks.
“I once had a female Corporal confide in me that a Sergeant – her boss – had been harassing her and it became my job to investigate this allegation and report back to the Sergeant’s boss,” Snook said.
“Unfortunately I found that the claim was in fact true and made recommendations about how to improve this kind of behaviour in the workplace and provide better education.
“No such education existed so I had to conduct research into sexual harassment and domestic violence to set up a remedial education program to address these issues in the forces.”
But with a shuffling of senior staff in ‘96, her work in this sensitive field was unexpectedly shut down.
“To some extent there is still some denial about those things. Gender issues are still as much of an issue now as they were then,“ Snook said.
“I’m not saying that it was common, but it did happen.”
Another role was to assist those who failed to secure their dream of becoming a pilot by guiding them through alternative career paths within the Defence Force.
She would also hold graduation services when pilots received their Air Force wings.
Chaplains did get to fly on occasion but it was a rare opportunity.
Snook put her name on the list and two years later, it was at last her turn to go up for a 30-minute long-awaited joy ride.
She revealed that had they known she had been pregnant at the time, she could have missed out and have been forced to wait another couple of years.
“I got to wear all of the Top Gun stuff – a flight suit and helmet – and sat in an aircraft with an ejection seat,” Snook explained with excitement.
“The suit that you wear plugs in to the seat like a vacuum hose and puffs up, squeezing the lower part of your body as you go around doing loop-the loop after loop-the-loop.
“It was awesome, definitely one of my highlights.
“The pilot would flip upside down and you’d be looking down at the world. It was a bit of an adventure.”
Her role was emotional at times such as holding a military funeral with the 21-gun salute, and being involved with the Black Hawk tragedy.
A training exercise near Townsville in 1996 led to two helicopters colliding in mid-air, killing 18 men.
The Army did not have enough chaplains, so the Air Force and Navy were called in to assist in delivering the sad news of death to families and help them through the grieving process.
Prior to serving in the forces, Snook had been a qualified exploration geologist and was part of Rio Tinto’s team that discovered one of the world’s biggest diamond mines in Western Australia.
Ordained in 1984, Snook has worked in congregational ministry with nine congregations and two presbyteries across Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and Western Australia.
Snook’s new appointment has come, more recently, after nine years as minister at the Cranbourne Regional Uniting Church (CRUC).
During her time at CRUC Snook worked cross-culturally with a diverse and often disadvantaged community.
“I was proud to have led Cranbourne’s food truck team for the last four years that provides hot and fresh food four nights per week to those in need in Cranbourne,” she said.
“I look forward to developing another wonderful team in Berwick.
“St Andrew’s already has a long and proud history for more than 100 years, and is still an active family church with two playgroups, prayer, fellowship and healing ministries.
“It offers hospitality to many community groups and is known for its book sales events and fetes during the year. We’re in the process of starting up a youth group for 2017.”
Snook was inducted as St Andrew’s new minister on Sunday 18 September.
She remains in contact with the Defence Force and was invited in August to present on gender issues as a guest speaker at a national conference in Brisbane.
Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.