DEACON Graeme Ramsden is a straight-talking man of faith who understands a life of discipline and sacrifice.
Aged 70, Deacon Ramsden retired recently after distinguished careers as a soldier and a chaplain to the military and the police.
He has an easy-going manner, enjoys a joke and is a good listener – just the attributes of a chaplain who has stood beside Australia’s service men and women as a rock in times of suffering as well as joys.
“Their pain becomes your pain,” Deacon Ramsden said.
During the past 10 years, as chaplain to the Queensland Police Service, he has witnessed some tough times.
“Police are in the public eye every day, and there are incidents that don’t always go well,” Deacon Ramsden said.
He recalled incidents when police officers had to make quick decisions. “For instance, when someone comes at an officer with a knife from close range, it’s a difficult decision to have to shoot,” he said.
“If you take another human life you have to deal with that for the rest of your life.
“And if a copper is lost in the line of duty, it’s bad for the entire force. It affects every member. They are forced to think about their own mortality.”
In 2011 Deacon Ramsden was amongst those who supported the family and colleagues of Detective Senior Constable Damian Leeding, a 35-year-old, married, father of two who died after injuries sustained from a shotgun blast.
The policeman was shot when he and another officer responded to a call about an armed robbery at a Gold Coast tavern.
“Police chaplains are the great unsung heroes of the police service,” Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers said.
“They are highly respected. During dark times there is a lot to be dealt with, and in their work there are the many small things that give comfort and make a difference.
“I wish Graeme a long and healthy retirement.”
Deacon Ramsden was born and educated in Kingaroy, north-west of Brisbane, and left school after junior school (Year 10) to work with an uncle “as a milkman”.
As a young man he thought seriously about the priesthood, but said he “definitely wanted to be married and have a family”.
Deacon Ramsden made a life-defining decision to join the army in 1966, starting as a vehicle mechanic and rising to the rank of major.
He married Dianne and they had four children.
Their eldest son Christopher has served in Afghanistan and now works in Laos.
Second son Michael is a policeman and their only daughter Megan is a teacher in the Catholic system.
Patrick, the couple’s youngest, is a human resource manager, and Dianne has a Bachelor of Theology and a Masters in Pastoral Counselling.
Deacon Ramsden’s military “roots” stretch back to his father who served as a recovery mechanic in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands during the Second World War, and his grandfather who served in France during the First World War.
Deacon Ramsden recalled two tours of duty in Vietnam as part of his “growing up”.
“I think we were there for the right reasons. We were trying to help,” he said.
“I realised I’m here on the ground, we are part of something bigger than any of us.
“As a 20-year-old, I realised the importance of life and death.
“I think it sharpened my faith.”
After 24 years’ army service, at the age of 44, Deacon Ramsden started studying at the Brisbane College of Theology.
Three years later, on completion of a Bachelors degree, he celebrated his ordination as a deacon for military chaplaincy.
“I was told during the ordination that I had become the first married deacon chaplain in any army in the world,” he said.
Fr Paul Kelly met Deacon Ramsden while they studied together at Banyo, and remembered Ramsden as a “no-nonsense” army officer.
“He’s a straight talker, and never seemed to get fazed – very friendly and matter of fact,” Fr Kelly said.
“He was the one who encouraged me into the police chaplaincy and opened up a wonderful life for me.”
It was not difficult for Deacon Ramsden to make the transition to his new role as chaplain.
He had the trust of servicemen and women.
“I always considered myself a soldier, it was always in my blood,” he said.
“But from the day I was ordained I didn’t fire a weapon.”
Deacon Ramsden maintained his military routine and discipline, including a love of long-distance running, and a keen physical fitness, which he maintains even today.
“Running is as much about mind as fitness,” he said. “You have to come up with strategies to get through.”
“No question, you get a feeling of peace and oneness with God and nature.”
Serving alongside young soldiers in East Timor was one of Deacon Ramsden’s outstanding memories of his chaplaincy.
He was so moved by his chaplaincy experiences in East Timor that he wrote a book Letters From Timor (Big Sky Publishing, 2011), based on his handwritten letters sent home to wife Dianne.
The personal account offers a riveting, often amusing and incredibly detailed insight of life, death, survival – and above all else, faith in God.
“It’s the story of what one guy did,” he said.
It was also a chance of “letting go” of many challenging experiences.
Deacon Ramsden said he understands the issues facing veterans when they returned from campaigns overseas.
“It’s the danger and the unknown that has to be dealt with,” he said.
“These days we are dealing very much with a ‘now’ generation of soldiers.
“They are very confident. They think things come to them, and when they don’t happen the way they expect, or when things go badly, then often they can’t cope.”
Deacon Ramsden said dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or moral injury required dealing with the fact that soldiers had been involved in something wrong, or things that went wrong.
“So forgiveness is needed and the scriptures are full of that,” he said.
“The overarching care and compassion of God is there for us.”
By Mark Bowling