Man – and soldier – of the cloth

Published on February 6, 2014

WESTVILLE – The young Syrian private had never seen the white vehicles of the United Nations and the blue berets of its peacekeepers. At the volatile border with Israel, Padre Gary Tonks knew that it might be problematic.

“Before I knew it, I was looking down the barrel of an AK-47,” he said. “I’m glad the commander told him who we were in Arabic rather than Hebrew. Otherwise, I may not be here.”

If you’re thinking someone was watching over him that day, it’s highly likely.

When one describes retired Major Tonks' military service as answering the call to serve his country, it’s only telling half the story. The Padre also answered a higher call to serve God.

For 22 years, Tonks ministered and counseled Canadian servicemen and women as a navy, army and air force officer. On Wednesday, he donated his entire uniform, complete with stoles, headdress and robes, to the Pictou County Military Heritage Museum.

“It’s very rare to actually have the complete uniform of a Canadian Forces padre,” said Vincent Joyce, president of the museum. “You’d be hard pressed to find one anywhere else.”

Tonks agreed noting that he had been mulling over the possibility of donation his uniform for about a year.

“There likely aren’t many in museums because we padres have to buy some of the accessories ourselves,” he said. “It’s hard to let go sometimes.”

Born and raised in New Glasgow, Tonks hoped from a young age that his passion for the military and the Baptist faith could be joined together.

He enrolled in the New Glasgow army cadets as a teen and later joined the Nova Scotia Highlanders as an artillery officer in 1958. At Acadia University, he continued to cultivate his dual pursuits of military and religion. While enrolled, he joined the Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC) a served as an infantry officer.  

“After graduating, the military wasn’t front and centre for me so I just stayed a civilian for a while,” he said. “I worked with churches in the Valley.”

Eventually, the desire for a military lifestyle returned and Tonks reenlisted in 1974, this time in the navy. Posted to Halifax, he was chaplain of the 1st Destroyer Squadron. Some of his more personal work came when he was appointed commanding officer of the Drugs and Alcohol Rehab Clinic.

“I was responsible for all aspects of treatment and that involved a lot of counseling,” he said. ”This was when stress reduction really started to come into play for the Forces.”

For his work, he received the naval Bravo Zulu for a job well done before heading to CFB Borden in Ontario to work at the chaplain’s school.

“At one point I was acting base chaplain and I suppose I did good enough that they promoted me,” Tonks said. “I was sent to CFB Winnipeg where I was the base chaplain.”

He was posted to the Middle East in 1986, after the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979. He returned to Canada and took up a position in Ottawa. But it wasn’t to be his last posting abroad.

He returned to the Middle East in 1991 as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force to keep the peace on the Israel-Syrian border.

Tonks retired in 1996 with the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Canadian Peacekeeping Medal, UN Defence Observer Force Medal and Canadian Forces Decoration for 22 years of service.

Tonks has several stories that make you think someone has been watching over him.

He remembered a mayday call when he was flying with a few pilots in the Arctic. The airports had closed due to bad weather but the plane didn’t have enough fuel to turn around and land south.

“The crew told me the situation and being the padre, they asked me where we should land,” he said. “We landed safely in Greenland, though we couldn’t see the runway and it was -53º C.”

In another instance aboard the fickle Sea King helicopter, the pilots had been discussing religion and their stanch atheism.

“We got into some trouble and me and another crewmember were trying to keep a key part from falling off,” Tonk recalled. “Those pilots never missed a church service after that.”

Looking back on his career, he has no regrets though he admits military life was hard on his wife and two children.

“I believe we’re called to the right place at the right time. I’d do it all over again.”

Padre Tonks uniforms are available for viewing at the Pictou County Military Heritage Museum.

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn