Australian Army Chaplain Major Joel Vergara is fostering relationships with multinational servicemen and women on Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018, in Hawaii.
The Filipino-born Catholic priest travelled to Pearl Harbor with his unit, the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, on board HMAS Adelaide.
Chaplain Vergara said the exercise is focussed on building relationships and integrating personnel from 25 participating nations – similar to his role.
“I am here to provide religious and welfare support to the Regiment but I also provide chaplaincy for the other nations, which is a great opportunity for integration,” Chaplain Vergara said.
Chaplain Vergara sailed to the island of Hawaii with the Australian and multinational troops to conduct live-fire range practises at US military base, Pohakuloa Training Area.
Located on a high plateau between two volcanic mountains, the training area is sparse and offers minimal comforts for soldiers living in the field.
He said that he makes an effort to visit and speak with the troops, to learn and hear about their day.
“On my return trip from one of the range practices with the Regimental Sergeant Major, the Filipino soldiers waved and called out ‘Father, Father,’- I think the RSM was surprised that they knew the Padre,” Chaplain Vergara commented with a smile.
Proficient in three languages, Chaplain Vergara provides Catholic mass to the Filipino and Spanish communities at home in Townsville and has found his language skills to be useful on RIMPAC.
“There are many soldiers from Chile and the Philippines here who are Catholic and appreciate the opportunity to attend mass in their language while away from their families,” he said.
With so many different nationalities at the training area, Chaplain Vergara said some do not follow a particular faith and providing support to non-religious personnel is equally important.
“We are chaplains for everyone. We’re not here to convert our soldiers, we’re here to serve where they are and to support them,” he said.
“The Sri Lankans here do not have chaplains and the Japanese do not have chaplains but when I explain what I do, they really appreciate it.”
Chaplain Vergara commenced studying at a seminary in the Philippines before moving to Australia where he completed his studies and became ordained as a Catholic priest in Melbourne.
He joined the Australian Army in 2011 to fulfil his childhood dream of wanting to follow his father into military service and has so far enjoyed the challenge.
“In 2012 I deployed to Afghanistan and last year I had the opportunity to return to the Philippines on Exercise Balikatan,” he said.
While being a priest may come with sacrifice, Chaplain Vergara said that being a military chaplain has its benefits.
“In the Philippines, the US Army was very happy to have a Chaplain and offered me an Osprey flight through Mount Pinatubo, an active volcanic mountain,” he said.
From volcanos in the Philippines to volcanos in Hawaii, Chaplain Vergara has had some memorable experiences during his chaplaincy, but what he has enjoyed most is witnessing the soldiers grow.
“I was previously posted to the Army Recruit School and here on RIMPAC I have had the privilege of seeing how far some of those recruits, who are now posted to the Regiment, have come,” he said.
“They are overseas representing their country alongside other militaries as professional and confident soldiers,” he said.