Freedom on the frontlines : Meet the modern day ‘Sallyman’

With dust still on his boots from Afghanistan, Major Nigel Roden tells Warcry what it means to be a modern-day ‘Sallyman’, writes Jessica Morris.

As one of many members of The Salvation Army’s Red Shield Defence Services, ‘Sallyman’ (as RSDS personnel are known by troops) Major Nigel Roden joins Aussie troops on the frontlines whenever they call.

He’s also one of many who live out the legacy of the Salvos by providing philanthropic support to troops both in the barracks at home and on deployment.

Many veterans recall the Sallymen and Sally­women offering them coffee and providing medical aid from their ‘Hop-In’ stations during conflicts in Palestine, Kokoda and East Timor, and while Nigel’s green van looks different to the traditional kangaroo insignia which became famous during World War I, it still bears the same purpose: to bring hope and freedom to the frontlines.

“[Being a Sallyman] is not just the role, but a definite calling of doing whatever it takes to minister to the soldiers and families wherever they’re at,” says Nigel. “Sometimes that means I’ve got to go from Australia to Afghanistan—when you’re doing God’s ministry, sometimes you don’t know where that might lead.”

Nigel and his wife, Major Penni Roden, are ordained Salvation Army officers and have been members of the RSDS for 11 years. They spent the previous five years ministering at corps (churches) in Far North Queensland and Brisbane.

It was only when Nigel felt the call to join the RSDS that they made the life-altering decision to become a part of the defence force community. However, not long after Nigel applied, Penni also found her calling, and her decision to join him was more than just supporting her husband to live out his dream.

“The day that I heard about the Navy Sea King helicopter crash in 2005, my heart was broken for the families of those who were killed and injured and also for their friends,” she says. “My calling became very clear: I was called to a ministry that supported the families and friends and social networks of those people who put their lives on the line for our country.”

While Nigel’s official title is ‘officer in charge and senior representative’ at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, Penni plays equally as vital a role, also a senior representative, and acting musical director of the Australian Military Wives Choir in their town. They live year-round at the barracks with their three boys, but the nature of their work means their lifestyle is far from normal.

Nigel can be called away on deployment at a moment’s notice if conflict arises, and also attends extended field activities. Meanwhile, Penni stays at home and works closely with the partners, family and friends of servicemen and women, linking them with social support services across northern Queensland, partnering with the Defence Community Organisation and connecting people with The Salvation Army.

Nigel and Penni are acutely aware of the realities of war: not only do they experience the separation and risk that comes with deployment, they also feel the weight of losing the people they love to it.

“I lost five guys in Afghanistan that I started working with when I first became a Sallyman. The realness of their sacrifice in their work of hope and freedom for us as Australians really cut to the heart. [I have] a sense of realising that our ministry is for guys who really understand what hope and freedom means and what we do is supporting them through that,” says Nigel.

“The thing that keeps me going is the personal belief that I’m blessed to be a blessing, so when I’m away from Penni and the boys, and sometimes when I’m in a really physically challenging place, it’s the realisation that God can even use those places for something that’s bigger than me.”

Penni has also found that their struggles have enabled her to connect with the defence force community back home.

“Our three children are all on the Autism Spectrum Disorder [scale] and that has challenges of its own,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time running around to different therapy appointments and all of that sort of stuff.”

This gives Penni, she says, an insight not only into the sorts of support services that families such as hers need, but also ways in which she can support others during challenging times.

The message of hope and freedom that is found through Jesus Christ is always at the forefront of the Rodens’ minds. Whether Nigel is pouring a cup of coffee for a soldier who serves on the other side of the world, ordering a bouquet of flowers for their partner back home or comforting someone through grief, his commitment to simply be present has led to extraordinary conversations about faith.

“The profound realisation that God can use anything and that hope and freedom can be found in the most unusual places sometimes, that’s been the story of my deployment,” he says. “God led me to places where I couldn’t believe that conversation would happen.”

Anzac Day is all the more significant for Nigel and Penni as members of the RSDS. Not only is it a time to honour our troops, it’s also time to remember why Jesus died on the cross.

“On Anzac Day you get to share that a little more with [the troops],” says Nigel. “The dual thing I love about Anzac Day is that we remember and we honour [our troops], but we also remember that we have someone who understands soldiers and the sacrifice they make in their fight for freedom as well. [Jesus] paid the ultimate price for hope and freedom.”

Nigel and Penni continue to work diligently behind the scenes, ready with a cup of coffee and a friendly ear whenever our servicemen, women and their loved ones need them. And that’s the way they like it—out of sight, so all the attention can be focused on what truly matters: bringing hope and freedom to the frontlines.

“We’re not special in any way,” says Nigel. “We speak hope and freedom as we go about our job and it’s taken mornings, nights, and a heck of hard work, but we leave it with God and he cleanses it and uses it in ways you can’t imagine.”

About Jessica Morris

Jessica Morris is an internationally published journalist, writer and social media manager.

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