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The real God Squad

Meet Rev (Squadron Leader) Martin Sheldon, an RAF Chaplain and committed Mothers’ Union member, who is proud to serve God’s purposes in circumstances that can often be very challenging

01 Jul 2015

I was about eight years old when our local vicar came into the classroom and started to talk about Jesus and God. I felt such a sense of peace that I was compelled to take myself off to church. In your teenage years youcome and go a bit but when I was 15 I had an operation on my back and I was out of school for a year, so I didn’t do my exams. I felt God saying that I must work hard at school. I wasn’t very academic, but I got myself back on track and did my O and A levels. When I went to talk to the local vicar about the sense of call God had put on my heart, he said, ‘You need to get some experience first.’ But that sense of calling never left me. I worked as a tax collector, I cleaned carpets, I made blinds, I was a prison officer, but the call never left. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s, married with two young kids and living in Surrey, that I started my training.

I became a part of Mothers’ Union in 2006 when I was vicar at the parish of Lightwater in the diocese of Guildford. The group there was doing an awful lot of good work locally and in the church. I was asked whether we could hold an enrolment service for new members as part of the main service, which gave me the chance to look at what Mothers’ Union was doing. And it made me ask myself the question, ‘If this is something I’m encouraging, why not support it by becoming a member myself?’ Part of being a member for me was opening possibilities for getting involved with the Loving For Life programme. My  wife and I went and did training so we could facilitate marriage preparation in the local parish and wider area. Preparing for marriage is very important. The more you can do to help people strengthen their relationships and to prepare for the stresses and strains of marriage, the better.

When I was at St Johns in Nottingham, I went on what can best be described as a “toys for boys” course with the army in Salisbury Plains, to look at chaplaincy. From that I felt a call to go into chaplaincy work, but I promised my children I wouldn’t explore it any further until they finished their education. When my youngest left home to go to university in 2011, I finally had my chance and was selected to train at RAF Cranwell (in Lincolnshire).


Chaplains train in exactly the same way as anyone in a specialist branch in the RAF does, including all the physical stuff - the running, the drills, up at 5am to get your room ready, exercise, common core skills. We don’t handle weapons, but we are trained to make weapons safe. Chaplains within the RAF are stationed at different air bases. My first station was Brize Norton (in Oxfordshire), where I would take the repatriations when they happened - in other words, organising the return of those killed in action - as well as going out with the air crew and supporting the ground crew as well. Here at Marham (in Norfolk), home of Tornado Force (the frontline squadrons of the RAF’s Tornado GR4 Force) we support the personnel working on operations too. I was deployed to operation Op Herrick, Afghanistan, where my role was United Kingdom Joint Force Medical Group Chaplain - essentially chaplain to the Royal Free Hospital.

You come off the Hercules (a military transport aircraft) in the middle of the night and walk into a wall of heat. It’s very draining; you need to be physically fit. It takes a few days just to orientate into that role. Then you have a brief from the chaplain you’re taking over from and then work as part of the team. In some ways it was very challenging, but it was also an incredibly rewarding ministry, helping people who were sick or injured, enabling them to talk to their families back in the UK, working with the doctors and nurses, looking after everyone - the UK, coalition and local personnel. Within the chaplaincy back home, a day is very varied. It could be going to visit someone at hospital, going to see a family at home, calling in around the station where people are working, going to meetings with the welfare team or leading services.

I particularly enjoy going out with service personnel on exercise. At Brize Norton I was able to go out to Gibraltar with the air delivery wing, and do some parachute jumps out of the back of a Hercules plane into the water, which was quite a challenge! I suppose the hardest thing is the repatriations, where someone has been killed in action; helping to organise bringing their bodies back and supporting staff and colleagues associated with the tragedy. But then that’s what I’m there for. Chaplains help to bring a sense of morale across the station. On operations it’s so important to be able to do that, and to gauge where people are at and tell people in the chain of command what’s happening on the ground. It’s a very fulfilling and rewarding ministry. Being able to meet with people of all faiths and none, to share with them and journey with them is a real privilege.


Loving for Life is a Mothers’ Union’s training programme, designed to equip facilitators with the skills they need to provide sessions for couples preparing for marriage in conjunction with their local clergy.