Deacon Gary Stone spent decades being a warrior for his country, Australia, and is now a warrior for God.
That’s how he was introduced at the Max18NZ event for men titled “Unless” held at King’s College in Auckland in late September.
Deacon Stone, who has been deployed overseas 23 times in his life, shared his experience of being a disciple of Jesus with more than 100 men at the King’s event.
“I’ve experienced that discipleship in the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Police and in doing humanitarian work — I’ve been doing humanitarian work in East Timor for the last 18 years, actually, and most recently in leading our ministry to veterans and their
families and those who care for them.”
A deacon for 24 years, who admits that he has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (although he prefers the term “post-traumatic growth”), he prefaced his story by saying that the stories of many of those present, while “coated in camouflage”, are essentially the same — “our journeys from darkness to light, from sadness to joy and to rejoicing”.
Deacon Stone told of how he was accepted at the Royal Military College in Duntroon in 1969, and he graduated four years later. Making a “Christian commitment” while a cadet, at that time “I saw my mission to be a ‘Christian soldier’ and I tried to live that out in
that particular context”.
At Duntroon, he learned a lot about values.
“The one thing that we were taught that was uppermost was ‘integrity’. The simplest interpretation of integrity is that we don’t lie, cheat or steal and absolutely we don’t do that. But integrity is all about being integrated, being a whole person, we are encouraged
that whatever situation you face, do the right thing, work it out, take the initiative, see a situation and do something about it. That is what integrity has meant for me — and it has underpinned my work as a soldier and also my work as a missionary.”
In 1987 he was in command of an infantry contingent that was on board an Australian naval vessel which sailed near the coast of Fiji in the days after the coup in that year.
“I met with the captain and we prayed that peace would be restored in Fiji and if the Fijian military weren’t prepared to stop beating up the Fijian Indian population, then we would have to use force to make that happen. We sailed up and down the coast for a week or so, and fortunately, thanks be to God, a sort of a peace settlement was reached without us having to fire a shot.”
But another deployment was far more harrowing, and was a turning point for the soldier.
Commanding an Australian peacekeeping contingent to the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s, at one point he was taken captive by Hezbollah guerillas.
There were “people with guns trained on me as close as I am to you and they took me away and interrogated me and accused me of spying and I thought I was going to die. I can hardly describe to you what it is like when you think you are going to die. These guys
with their guns on me, and I am there, what do I do? I had had some training to do this — they said if you are ever get taken captive, try to play the ‘grey man’, the problem was I was the only man.”
So he remembered the advice given by an Anglican military chaplain — “Gary, if you ever get into a dangerous situation, just make the sign of the cross and pray that the Blood of Jesus will protect you”.
“So after several hours of interrogation, and these guerillas who were yelling and screaming and threatening, I did that — I made the sign of the cross, I just prayed that Jesus would protect me.
“One of the gunman came over, grabbed me by the arm, threw me out of the door and said ‘go, go, go’. I raced out the door, my vehicle was outside the door, I jumped in my vehicle and drove off as fast as I could.
“I said thanks be to God, thanks be to God.”
After that experience, he decided to take up an offer from a Catholic military chaplain and train to become a permanent deacon. The Australian military funded his training at Banyo seminary, and he became a military chaplain himself after being ordained in 1994.
He is married to Lynne and they have four adult children and three grandchildren.
He also told the King’s audience of his involvement as an Australian Federal Police chaplain in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
“We had 10,000 bodies, 50,000 people looking for their loved ones. It was the most unimaginable, horrific challenge that I faced. But again in the midst of all that, God was present. About a week into the mission, we actually had an interreligious service. It is amazing how God works in mysterious ways, we had a joint service of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, so many . . . bodies we could not identify, who they were
or where they were from. I don’t know if anybody has seen decomposed bodies, but it was pretty awful. But God was at work in that.”
Deacon Stone spoke about accompanying Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta as he hovered between life and death after being shot twice in an assassination attempt. The president eventually survived.
Timor Leste is a nation close to Deacon Stone’s heart. He has been doing humanitarian work there for the last 18 years.
“In 1999, the Indonesian military ‘totally destroyed’ Timor Leste,” he told the King’s event.
“They stole everything they could, they burned down everything they couldn’t steal, and forcibly displaced displaced most of the population into West Timor. They had nothing.”
He shared this story with his parish in Brisbane and started fundraising, and over the course of 15 years some A$1.5 million was raised to help one area in that nation.
But after suffering cancer and post-operative peritonitis, from which he nearly died, and which caused him excruciating pain, Deacon Stone faced another turning point.
“I had been doing funerals every week for veterans who were dying — suicide, cancer — dying in their 40s and 50s. I researched all about health and came across the concept of holistic health. Our bodies, minds and souls and relationships are all interconnected. I had
lots of faith, but I was deficient in [many] minerals that my body needed. I was still dealing with enormous amounts of stress, I had been traumatised by so many of these other experiences and that was releasing cortisol into my system, shutting down my immune system.
“Somehow it came to me that instead of doing funerals for veterans, somehow I should be trying to help them get healthier.”
He got some men together in his parish in Brisbane and from small beginnings came the Veterans’ Care Association for which he now works, having been given permission to do this by his archbishop.
The VCA developed from working with veterans individually to taking them to Timor Leste. So far, eight groups of veterans have gone there for a couple of weeks each, so they can in some way experience a “Timor awakening”.
“We expose them to a range of experiences especially with East Timorese people, and hear their stories of how they survived torture and starvation and a gruelling 24-year war with the Indonesian military and still have life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
“We promote post-traumatic growth, healing, nurturing the body, mind and soul.” The goal is to help people to develop a well-being plan.”
Deacon Stone also made an appeal at King’s for more missionaries.
“I’m hoping all of us here want to be missionaries — I know some of you are already fully involved, pastorally involved in missionary work. The work of God requires people on a mission and the focus outwards. Sometimes I feel as if we are trying to build a church,
but God really wants us to get out for mission. We need a church to operate as what I would call a forward operating base, but the real work of God is the mission, going out to the places where people are, where people are struggling with life’s issues and where they are not hearing the Word of God.”