Monthly Archives: September 2010

Suicide isn’t Painless: The Epidemic of Suicide in the Military

I leave the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia tomorrow and toward the end of October report as the Command Chaplain for Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune North Carolina. My last time at Camp LeJeune was as part of the Portsmouth SPRINT (Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team) mission to care for Emergency Department personnel at the Naval Hospital and Base Fire/EMS responders to a particularly gruesome suicide of a young Marine who had recently served in Iraq and was preparing for another tour.

As a Chaplain and in my previous life as a Medical Service Corps officer commanding a Medical Company in Germany and Brigade Adjutant in Texas I have dealt with a lot of suicides, attempted suicides and the lives left shattered by suicide.  Likewise I have seen the results of suicide attempts as a trauma, emergency and critical care chaplain in major medical centers. I have attended the DOD Suicide Prevention Conference on a number of occasions and gotten to know many of the experts working in the field.

As I said I began my career as an officer in the Army Medical Service Corps. We had a close connection to the movie and television series M*A*S*H and the theme music to that movie is emblematic of the feelings of many combat vets who continue to deploy even after making many combat deployments. http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3444418/suicide_is_painless_johnny_mandel/

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
[chorus]:

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it’s too late, and…
[Chorus]

The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I’ll someday lay
so this is all I have to say.
[Chorus]

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I’m beat
and to another give my seat
for that’s the only painless feat.
[Chorus]

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn’t hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger…watch it grin, but…
[Chorus]

A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
‘is it to be or not to be’
and I replied ‘oh why ask me?’

‘Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
…and you can do the same thing if you choose.

Last week four soldiers, one a highly decorated senior NCO and all combat veterans are believed to have committed suicide at Fort Hood Texas.  The base which has already seen more than its fair share of tragedy with 14 confirmed suicides this year is stunned that these occurred in one weekend.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates commented about the stress on the all-volunteer force: “No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time — roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than 1 percent,” as a result the wars have been fought by a small proportion of the country, for many they are “a distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.” While the distance grows between those that serve and the general population military families are under even more stress, with anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a growing number of suicides. Divorce rates in the Army have doubled since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.

In the years prior to about 2004-2005 the military suicide rate was almost always below civilian rates in all demographics.  This is something that we took legitimate pride in.  That began to change as the war in Iraq shifted from a “Shock and Awe” campaign to a rather nasty and intractable insurgency this began to change as the deployment tempo increased and the Army increased its “boots on ground” time from a year to 15 months with a one year dwell time between deployments. Even as Iraq calmed down and the US role shifted many troops remain and Afghanistan has become a much more difficult war than it was even a few years ago. The Marines retained a 6-7 month deployment schedule but as the war went on and personnel requirements increased many Marine units were doing 6 months in country and 6 months home.  The difficult of what was described as “dwell time” for the Army and Marines was that for all intents and purposes it wasn’t. The units would get a few weeks leave and stand down time on their return home and then begin preparing for their next deployment. These preparations out of necessity entailed much time in the field training including trips to the Fort Irwin National Training Center (NTC) or the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center at 29 Palms.  Speaking from experience before 9-11 I can say that a Marine battalion going to 29 Palms in reality makes a short but intense deployment which is taxing on the organization even as it sharpens combat skills.  The same can be said for Army units going to NTC.  Thus the time that is nominally considered time at home to recuperate is not that and instead serves to keep the pressure on already stressed units, leaders and soldiers/Marines.  In the intervening time those that present to mental health providers or chaplains are provided with care to get them back in shape for the next deployment but never really get to deal with the deeper psychological and spiritual wounds. These include “moral injury”  which often involves unresolved grief for the loss of comrades and real or imagined guilt for their own actions in war.  Such wounds ultimately create despair, loss of faith and eventually cause some service members to make attempts on their life with varying degrees of “success” in “completing” the suicide.

The result is that those who have experienced the moral injuries that come as a result of combat, seeing comrades killed and wounded, participating in actions where they are directly or indirectly involved in killing the enemy, see the “collateral damage” of civilians, including children killed and maimed go right back into to fight.  Since this war has now gone on longer than any war in US history and we are fighting it with an all volunteer force of limited numbers with many making multiple deployments, some as many as 5 or more these wounds are pushed aside.  The effect of this is a cumulative grinding down of those that serve in harm’s way. Many suffer from some form of psychological, neurological or even spiritual injury that in combination with other life stressors make them particularly vulnerable to taking their lives.  In regard to moral injury “Many of the troops kill themselves because they feel that those kinds of experiences have made them unforgivable,” said Dr. William Nash, a top PTSD researcher. “It’s a lot harder for most people to forgive themselves than to forgive others.”

Unfortunately there is a stigma attached to seeking treatment or admitting that one is suffering from depression, anxiety or any other condition associated with either seeking help on their own or being “command referred” for psychological/psychiatric help.  Since that stigma is real many war fighters don’t seek help and take “refuge” in destructive behaviors such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse (to include prescription drugs) and risky behaviors.  One wonders how many of the single vehicle accident fatalities that occur late at night to combat vets are not accidental at all but are suicides by another more “socially acceptable” means.  If a forensic psychological profile was done on every service member that dies in such events I would guess that the finding would be a lot more suicides not an accidental deaths as we would like to believe. Yes all of these deaths are tragic but it is far easier to rationalize death in an auto accident than death by gunshot, knife wounds, overdose or hanging.

I am not proposing any solutions for this problem.  I do believe that somehow the deployment tempo needs to be slowed down to allow troops to actually recover and get help.  This is one of the suggestions of the DOD Suicide Prevention Task Force.  Their report is linked here: http://www.health.mil/dhb/downloads/Suicide%20Prevention%20Task%20Force%20report%2008-21-10_V4_RLN.pdf

When I go to LeJeune I know that as a Chaplain at the Naval Hospital I will be collaborating with our mental health professionals to provide care to Marines, Sailors and their families that are living this daily.  The Marine situation is poignantly show in this article: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/article_3dc03ec3-6a37-5608-8563-aca88f635271.html

I have served with the Marines almost 6 years and from what I see the Corps has changed.  It is battle hardened but less resilient than it used to be.  The Marine Corps’ suicide rate has reached 24 per 100,000, a rate that surpasses all the other services. The rate was 13 per 100,000 in 2006 when I finished my tour at Marine Security Forces. The latest available figures put the civilian suicide rate at 20 per 100,000.  The problem extends past active duty as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, said the suicide rate for men aged 18-29 who have been discharged had gone up by 26% from 2005-07. Likewise, “of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20% of them are acts by veterans.” This means as Shinseki said “on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA. So losing five veterans who are in treatment every month, and then not having a shot at the other 13 who for some reason haven’t come under our care, means that we have a lot of work to do.”

There is also an effect on military health care providers of all kinds and chaplains. These individuals not only have to deal with their trauma but the trauma and hopelessness that they see in many of their patients or parishioners. These caregivers have no respite between deployments because their reason for being is to care for the Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors that present to them be they deployed or back in a military hospital or clinic.

The work will be hard and long after the last Marine, Sailor, Soldier or Airman leaves Iraq and Afghanistan we will be dealing with this for years to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Fighting a World Wide Insurgency: The Problem Fighting Revolutionary Terrorists and Insurgents- Part One

Taliban Insurgents

“Warfare is now an interlocking system of actions political, economic, psychological; military that aims at the overthrow of the established authority in a country and its replacement by another regime.  To achieve this end, the aggressor tries to exploit the internal tensions of the country attacked ideological, social, religious, economic, any conflict liable to have a profound influence on the population to be conquered.” Roger Trinquier Modern Warfare

The United State and our allies have been at war with Islamic terrorists as well as nationally based insurgencies for over nine years.  The war that we are fighting is not like the Second World War where we fought a conventional war against enemies that were defined by national, political and geographic boundaries.  That war as well as the First World War and most recently the 1991 Gulf War but rather is a global insurgency in which we are pitted against a number of sometimes disparate groups One of the things that seems to be misunderstood by much of the media as well as the public

Muslim terrorist groups they use some tenants of Islam, mostly from the Wahabi school that emerged on the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1700s to justify what they do. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard use the Islam taught by the school of the Ayatollah to do the same.

However that being said there are a sizable number of Muslims worldwide that oppose the terrorists and their brands of Islam but still can be offended and driven to the other side by Americans doing just what pastor Jones got started. The radicals take this and use it as propaganda against us.

The fact is that it is all about using propaganda effectively and not giving the terrorists the grist they need to use against us. The terrorist or the insurgent has no need to tell the truth and usually will not and will twist any “truth” to his own end. This is true in every revolutionary war, which is what all of these groups are waging. They are fighting to turn all of Islam and anyone else they can against us. This is the case since the beginning of time and not limited to Muslims.

We as Americans have been pretty lousy at this except when we were the revolutionaries. It is a fact, not just with the Muslims but all revolutionaries that since they are on the weak side of the military equation that they use propaganda, especially what any of our people do to radicalize people on the fence against us. Jones and others played into their hands and by doing so jeopardize the mission and endanger our troops. The fact is that we neither have the resources or people to allow this to become a war against all of Islam. Thus we have to exploit natural divisions and cultural divides in the Moslem world to isolate and neutralize the radicals of Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

It may seem on the surface to be politically correct appeasement but a true strategic purpose is served. The counter-insurgent cannot do what the insurgent can as they will lose the propaganda war and with it the broader war. We are fighting a world-wide revolutionary war against Moslem fundamentalist extremists that want us to make it a war against all of Islam. If that were to be the case we would have to go to a total war footing, ignore our own economy renew the draft and prepare for a war that in the long run we cannot win and will leave us as broken as Germany after WWII.

The problem with Islam as that for the most part much of Islam especially in the Middle East still lives in the 14th century with fancy technology. They did not have the Renaissance, Reformation or the enlightenment thus the appeal of the fundamentalist sects and radical Islam. That makes our job hard and that of Bin Laden easy as their world-view  promotes a black and white understanding of the world which makes recruitment of youthful idealists easy especially when the conflict is framed as against “Crusaders” or “Imperialists” opposed to Islam.

The war that we are engaged in is not conventional and we do not have a good record in recent times of fighting this kind of war. We lost in Vietnam because we ignored this. We won all the battles and lost the war. Despite what some pundits believe this is not like WWII and no new incarnation of George Patton will win it.

As I said we are engaged in a revolutionary war which is different than other types of war. In revolutionary wars the revolutionary no matter what his cause is able to use propaganda to influence opinion, usually of people that they are trying to bring to their side. Our founders were very good in portraying the British as violent and brutal occupiers. We used British excess especially in Boston and in the South against them very well. The Jihadists are promoting a revolutionary cause, that cause being the overthrow of established governments in the Middle East and bringing about a radical and fundamental brand of Islamic rule. This happened in Iran and after 30 years the young people are beginning to revolt against the Ayatollahs. It is also revolutionary because they are actively promoting the overthrow of established states and have a goal of establishing their brand of Islam over the entire world. The use revolutionary techniques and strategies used successfully by other revolutionaries attempting to control the populations where they operate through both terror and by discrediting unpopular or corrupt governments.

One of the problems that we in the United States have in understanding Al Qaida and other Islamic groups that rely on terrorism as their primary means of conducting warfare is the nature of the terrorist himself.  Roger Trinquier who observed and fought against such groups in the 1940s and 1950s wrote one of the fundamental books on this type of warfare.  Trinquier said something that will undoubtedly be taken wrong by some readers of this essay but if one understands the nature of Revolutionary war has been true going back for centuries and is not confined to militant Islamic Fundamentalism.   Trinquier observed that “the terrorist should not be considered an ordinary criminal.  Actually he fights within the framework of his organization, without personal interest, for a cause he considers noble and for a respectable ideal, the same as soldiers in the armies confronting him.”

One can see how this is demonstrated in history in such disparate groups as the Israeli Irgun fighters who used terrorist tactics from 1931 until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 against the British occupiers, the Irish Republican Army.  This is even part of the American experience in the post Civil War South of the Reconstruction era.  Then many Southern whites organized into guerrilla terrorist units such as the Klan in Tennessee, the Red Shirts in South Carolina, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Young Men’s Democratic Club in Florida in order to attack anyone associated with Reconstruction. Their targets included newly free blacks, carpetbaggers, Scalawags, teachers from the North, Freedmen Bureau officials, northern troops, and Republicans.  If you read their writings or even query their current day descendants you will find that none believed that they were criminals and their actions, while unacceptable to many were justified.  One does not have to agree that the terrorists cause is right to acknowledge that terrorists believe this to be true.  Thus in fighting the terrorist organizations one has to employ a wide variety of tactics to protect the populations targeted by terrorists to include police, limited military involvement, the use of propaganda, and “soft” methods to provide aid to these populations and isolate the terrorists from them.

The current batch of Jihadists are actually fairly disparate and not necessarily allies as we found out in Iraq where Al Qaeda and the foreign fighters turned the population of Al Anbar Province against them and brought that Sunni population to our side. They also have sometimes conflicting goals or limit their cause to local areas. The Sunni and the Shi’a have a hard time working together so while this is a global revolution it is not monolithic. Thus if we are smart we can exploit natural divisions in these groups. To do so we have to play smart in how we fight them recognizing that the “soft” approach often is better as the French found out too late in Vietnam but did well with in Algeria. See books by David Galula “Counterinsurgency in Algeria 1956-1954″ “Counterinsurgency Warfare”, Roger Trinquier’s “Modern Warfare” as well as the book by Alister Horne “A Savage War of Peace” all are excellent reads. Bernard Fall’s book “Street Without Joy” is a good study of how this happened in French Indochina. The US Counterinsurgency Manual is available online or in bookstores as is “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” by John Nagl, a major writer of US Counterinsurgency doctrine.

US Advisors with Afghan Army Officers

In a world-wide insurgency even actions which seem logical to Americans at home can be detrimental to US Forces and political goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq and throughout the Muslim world. I’m not a fan of the Mosque near the World Trade Center even though it is the equivalent of 6 normal city blocks away and not visible from the site. Many Americans if not an outright majority oppose this building project yet the builders don’t seem to understand the raw wounds that the project has opened for many Americans. I’m sure for them that much of it is a business, they are developers in New York City and the land was available. Yet the project can quite rightly be seen as insensitive because of what it means to the victims.

At the same time politicians and protesters by naming it the “Ground Zero Mosque” has raised its propaganda value exponentially, that is why Hamas and Hezbollah have also raised the ante in their talk about it. Thus what was an annoyance and hurtful to the victims has become a propaganda victory for the terrorists. In a sense we have let our collective outrage play into the terrorist’s hands. When he pastor of a small church in Florida threatened to burn a large number of copies of the Koran he helped ignite a firestorm of protest in many parts of the Islamic world especially in the epicenter of our current struggle in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

We are at war with the warlike highly militant strains of Islam and trying to keep the more Western leaning peaceful variants on the sidelines or enlist them to our side. This is a hard path for our leaders to walk as President Bush found out and President Obama is finding out is that most Americans don’t see it that way.  To many Americans all of Islam is the enemy and nothing can change that and the heated passion of our population often plays into the hands of our enemies.  Thus both Presidents’ comments about Islam have usually fallen on deaf ears and both have been excoriated for straddling this fence.

Anyway as you gather I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this type of warfare. I admit that this is pretty unusual for a chaplain, but I also have a Masters degree in Military History as well as the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. When I was in Iraq I knew more than many Marine and Army officers about fighting this type of war. Kind of weird I know but what can I say?

One of the most famous and successful practitioners of Counterinsurgency Warfare was French Colonel David Galula.  Galula in a sense is the “voice crying in the wilderness” of counterinsurgency doctrine and his methods have been used with some measure of success during the “Surge” in Iraq and the “Anbar Awakening” which turned the tide of the Iraqi insurgency.  Galula commented about terrorist tactics, tactics that have not changed in either Iraq or Afghanistan:

“The rebels realized that they could achieve the greatest psychological effect on the French and on world opinion at the cheapest price by stepping up terrorism in the main cities, notably in Algiers, which served as headquarters to most French and foreign correspondents and thus acted as a natural amplifier. A grenade or a bomb in a café there would produce far more noise than an obscure ambush against French soldiers in the Ouarsenis Mountains.” Galula “Counterinsurgency in Algeria”

One of the most frustrating aspects for military and police personnel fighting insurgencies that employ terrorist tactics is that quite often superior forces cannot finish off the insurgents. Galula provides an answer to this question.

“Our forces were vastly superior to the rebels. Then why couldn’t we finish with them quickly? Because they managed to mobilize the population through terror and persuasion . . . It was therefore imperative that we isolate the rebels from the population and that we gain the support of the population.  This implied that under no circumstances could we afford to antagonize the population even if we had to take risks for ourselves in sparing it.”

This is a lesson that we have not always learned as incidents such as the Abu Ghraib torture and most recently a series of targeted killings of Afghan civilians by a squad of Army Soldiers in Afghanistan in which they allegedly planned the killings in advance and kept body parts of their victims.  Unfortunately atrocities like this as was demonstrated at Mei Lai in Vietnam do little to the enemy and everything to turn the populations that we are trying to protect and world opinion against us. It also provides grist for the terrorist propaganda purposes and aids him in recruiting more insurgents to his cause.

Galula recognized the quandary that commanders of police and military units involved in counterinsurgency operations face when dealing with populations where terrorists operate. Galula was a realist about this and noted “If we distinguish between people and rebels, then we have a chance. One cannot catch a fly with vinegar. My rules are this: outwardly treat every civilian as a friend; inwardly you must consider him as a rebel ally until you have positive proof to the contrary.” This may seem contradictory but the concept was used by Ronald Reagan during the Cold War using the term “trust but verify” in relationship to the Soviet Union and arms control.

David Kilcullen an Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel and counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General David Petreus noted

Colonel Dennis Drew writing in 1988 understood the linkage of all parts of insurgency and how well an insurgency represents the essence of the thought of Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “Although theorists consider insurgent warfare to be anti-Clausewitzian, such warfare is the very embodiment of the Prussian master’s most famous dictum. Insurgency represents the total integration of political and military factors, but with political factors always in complete domination.” (INSURGENCY AND COUNTERINSURGENCY American Military Dilemmas and Doctrinal Proposals- Air University Press Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 1988)

Thus attempting to fight an insurgency and terrorist groups thinking that one can defeat them in the style of world War Two, as is so often espoused by pundits and amateur military theorists that crowd the airwaves and cyber space is foolish and only leads to the defeat of the counter-insurgent and the loss of the population targeted by the insurgent. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not conventional wars and the political outweighs the military in every respect.  As Drew noted:

“Although the military aspect of the struggle may ebb and flow, the source of insurgent strength–a covert political infrastructure–remains constant. This infrastructure, the bitter fruit resulting from the perceived political and economic inequities sown much earlier, is the most important ingredient in the insurgent recipe for success. The political infrastructure performs at least six major functions vital to the survival, growth, and eventual success of the insurgency: (1) intelligence gathering and transmission; (2) provision of supplies and financial resources; (13) recruitment; (4) political expansion and penetration; (5) sabotage, terrorism, and intimidation; and (6) establishment of a shadow government.”

This is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan and why we have such difficulty in fighting the insurgency.

One of the most common tactics that the United States has attempted in attacking the insurgents is the strategy of decapitation. In this the U.S. has attempted to kill the leaders at the top echelons of the insurgency with limited success. Even when we kill off a senior Al Qaida or Taliban leader others rapidly take their place with little affect in their operations against us. Galula recognized the fallacy of this approach in Algeria when the French government succeeded in capturing five top leaders of the Algerian rebellion. “Then, five top leaders of the rebellion, including Ben Bella, had been neatly caught during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Their capture, I admit, had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.” The lesson here is that should we ever succeed in capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar that this will not lead to victory unless we are able to protect the population of Afghanistan.

Protecting the population Iraqi Police and Civilians in Ramadi

To do this the population must come to our side because they know that we will stay the course and that we can be counted on to help them.  This cannot just be the military aspect of protecting them against the terrorists as well as economic and political reforms that is consistent with their traditional way of life which is not necessarily consistent with Western political and social traditions or practices. In fact the difficulty for the United States and NATO in Afghanistan is the political struggle on the home front where as Drew states:

“American military dilemma concerns time, public support, and image. Time is the ally of the insurgent; the longer an insurgent survives, the stronger its chances of growing. Meanwhile, as time drags on, the American military position is weakened by declining support, impatience, and war weariness at home, particularly if there is no perceived progress in the struggle. Maintaining public support is clearly a responsibility of the political side of the equation and involves factors far beyond the battlefield–although military progress is a key ingredient. The connection between the duration of the struggle and public support is the image of the insurgency presented to the American body politic.”

To be continued….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Passages: Thoughts on My Last Week at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth

“Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day. Aren’t we all?” Vin Scully

“It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between an All-Star Game and an Old-timers’ Game.” Vin Scully

“The oldest pitcher acquires confidence in his ball club – he doesn’t try to do it all himself.” Burleigh Grimes

Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”  -Bob Feller

As any of my regular readers know I relate most of life to baseball. For me it resonates more than more than almost any other part of my life.  I think by now with over 29 years in the military that I count as a seasoned veteran who has been dinged up some and had to try to recover from injuries to his body but also to his self confidence and ability to stay in the game. My assignment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth has been one of those assignments that was a lot like a rehab assignment to get me back in form for an assignment on a new team where I will be the number one starter in the rotation instead of a rehabbing pitcher making spot starts and relief appearances.

Today I finish up most of my administrative out processing from NMCP as I prepare to transfer to Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune. I have been at the command two years and it has been an eventful tour.  During the assignment I was forced to deal with the effects of my tour in Iraq, notably my PTSD and its related physical, psychological and spiritual impacts which included a loss of faith and absence of God that left me for a year and a half a practical agnostic. I also had to deal with the end stages of my father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease which culminated in his death in June of this year.  While this was going on I also dealt with a nasty Kidney stone that sidelined me from almost all human activity for over a month, a tooth that had abscessed and had to be replaced by an implant after a root canal failed and various nagging injuries to my shoulders, elbows, a knee and ankle from Iraq.  Most recently I have had to struggle with my hearing, I have something called Auditory Processing Disorder as well as some really annoying Tinnitus, I can hear lots of noise but somehow my brain is not processing it correctly. With all of this in the background and sometimes the foreground I worked and often struggled through the assignment which despite my skills as a critical care chaplain was more difficult than I could imagine.

I compare my time at Portsmouth to a baseball pitcher that goes to a new team but has injuries that he thought were manageable but which were severe enough to take him out of the game and into a rehab mode.  Of course not all teams give older pitchers that chance and that is true more often than not in the military when injuries to an officer are severe enough, especially emotional ones to keep him from functioning at top form.  I was fortunate as Chaplain Tate gave me the chance to heal and looked at my potential rather than my weaknesses when writing up my evaluation reports.  I can say that that is not the norm in much of the military where I probably would have been given reports that would have kept me from being promoted and resulted in me being placed in second tier jobs until I was able to retire.

I was fortunate however because during the assignment I was given time to recuperate and begin to heal.  That has not been easy by far but I am doing well enough now to handle things that would have sent me down the toilet of tears a few months ago. I give a lot of credit to Chaplain Jesse Tate and my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard, better known as “Elmer the Shrink.”  I couple of retired Navy Chaplains on our staff also were men that helped me through the very rough times; Monsignor Fred Elkin and Reverend Jerry Shields gave me much spiritual support and provided me the opportunity to vent as I needed to during really difficult times.   As I got better and able to handle more responsibility Chaplain Tate started putting more responsibility on me, especially after I was selected for promotion to Commander.  It was like I was done with the rehab work and being put back into the game.  He held me accountable and was like a pitching coach or manager working with me, pushing my limits and making corrections even while encouraging me.  He did this with the purpose of getting me ready for my next assignment where I will be in charge of a staff of 6 personnel.  The past couple of months were high pressure due to all the activities the department was engaged in. These including a retirement, two major conferences and the transition of our Pastoral Care Resident Chaplains as one group finished their residency and a new group went through orientation.  In that time I had to deal with a lot more pressure than I had been exposed to most of my tour. After the last conference ended I realized that I could now function at a high level again and not just in my clinical areas.  I am now sure that I can do well in my new assignment and I am looking forward to the opportunity.

As I leave NMCP I will be leaving a lot of friends in my department as well as the rest of the hospital, especially the staff of our adult, pediatric and neonatal ICUs.  Some of these staff members will continue to serve at NMCP, others are now either deployed in harm’s way, have transferred to other commands or have left the service or retired.  I have to thank them as well because each in their own way has been a part of my recovery.

Most people do not get this kind of opportunity to serve and to heal at my age, rank or time in service. Most are put out to pasture until they can retire.  To quote baseball immortal Lou Gehrig “today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” As I re-read his farewell speech a lot of it resonated with me even though I’m not to my knowledge dying and he was.  I’m blessed and somewhat lucky and I am grateful for all that I have experienced at NMCP.  I will leave many friends and if I am lucky enough hope to continue my career as a chaplain in Navy Medicine and return to Portsmouth, perhaps to finish my Navy career.  When I depart on Thursday it will be with a grateful heart and I will miss those that I worked with at NMCP. I am fortunate in one respect that my next assignment is a Naval Hospital and that I will know a good number of the staff at it from my time at NMCP or other duty stations.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Flashback to Early Contemporary Christian Music

Me, top row 3rd from right with Continental Singers Tour G 1979 at Mount Rushmore

I became an active Christian a few years after what is now called ContemporaryChristian Music came on the scene.  Back then it was simple called “Jesus Music.”  Over the last 35 years or so I have seen this genre of Christian music morph from a small segment of the music scene to a rather large and profitable industry. I really don’t listen to too much of the new stuff in fact unless the artist was around in the late 1970s or early 1980s I probably wouldn’t know anything about them or their music.

In those days it was still possible to hang out with groups when they came into town. In 1979 the group The Sweet Comfort Band came to my hometown, Stockton California for a series of concerts in local high schools (God forbid this happen today) culminating with a Friday night concert at one of the larger churches in town.  The guys were down to earth and real and talked about real life, even movies not just church.  That was eye opening because it kind of blew away my idea that “Christian” artist were somehow a step above the rest of us.  These guys showed me that Christians could be down to earth and able to relate to people.  I was able to meet others at the 1979 Continental Singers rehearsal camp as I prepared to go as a Spotlight Technician with the Continental Singers Tour G.

When this genre of music first came out the record labels that carried the new contemporary artists were either labels that had previously carried gospel singers such as Word and Light and start ups such as Maranatha! Music, Sparrow/Birdwing Music and Larry Norman’ Solid Rock Records.  When larger secular labels discovered that there was money to be made they acquired most of these labels giving them more visibility but I think less independence than they had previously.

The music was as diverse and the artists performing the songs, everything from rock and country rock, to jazz and middle of the road music.  Some artists had been successful secular recording artists before becoming Christians or rediscovering the faith that they had grown up with.  The music varied in quality, some groups were very good and even pushed the edges of artistic license allowed in Evangelical Christianity while others were not that good and were pushed into the limelight because they had long hair and played guitars.  Some of the bands such as Love Song would achieve a certain status in Contemporary Christian music that long outlived the length of time that they were in existence.  Some bands were one album wonders while some like Daniel Amos remained together for many years.

As the genre grew a sub-genre of contemporary praise and worship music grew out of Calvary Chapel beginning with an album called The Praise Album. These were simple worship songs that small groups especially youth groups and college age groups could easily sing with just a guitar. They fit what John Wesley said about hymns was that they must be easily sung and not complicated.  As such they grew in popularity and many other churches and recording labels got in on the game in opinion saturating the market with music that is only remarkable in its poor quality and insipid theology.  The theology in most of the early songs was simple, based around Jesus and God’s love and not written to advance quasi politic agendas. There was not the warlike quality of many of today’s so called “worship music.”  I know that some will rake me over the coals for this but I have a hard time calling something worship when it is nothing more than a rally or fight song.  Some of these early songs are here: Freely, Freely http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCLconoyX9I As the Deer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvQwvDfY5dk&p=90917541439498D0&playnext=1&index=82 In His Time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pjab00qQG3k&feature=related, Karen Lafferty’s Seek Ye First http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LMQfOp9w8k&feature=related The Servant King http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIukabdw3E and the Spirit Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqkvIhs7Ijg

But in this essay I’m going to go back in time and look at some of the early artists and their music beginning in the early 1970s and ending in the mid-1980s.  This is kind of an arbitrary line because in 1984 I left the United States for a three year tour with the Army in Germany where I lost track of most of what was going on in Christian music and when I returned did not find the newer artists as much to my liking.  For me it was simply a matter of musical preference.  It is hard to find much of this music now. Many songs were only on LPs and produced in limited quantities. Since many were obscure and this was before the digital age very few video recordings exist for many groups.  As such some people have taken audios and mixed them with slide shows or videos or the videos are from “reunion” type concerts 20-30 years after the songs were first introduced.

The revolution in Christian music began in Costa Mesa California at a little country church called Calvary Chapel. The church made the effort to reach the “hippies” that hung around the beach towns including many musicians. The group Love Song was perhaps the first group to reach any form of national prominence and their songs such as Little Country Church http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZkWrn9SXwo&feature=related, and Two Hands http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW12P7upc6o&feature=related became early examples of how the music could be popular and contemporary.  The lead singer of the group Chuck Girard went solo and made a number of albums but Rock and Roll Preacher was one of his signature songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_I3R3tC6Rk&feature=related

Other Calvary Chapel Groups that recorded on the new Maranatha! Music lable included the Children of the Day who released For those Tears I Died http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Np8GJGZ3Vv8 Mustard Seed Faith who released Sail on Sailor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPDAC4-ZkEc&feature=related the country rock band Bethlehem and Desert Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMkpLzomcxM&feature=related as well as Bill Sprouse and The Road Home who had one song that made the group before Sprouse died, the song  Psalm 5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gJ2XPDf_jE and The Way who produced two albums under Marantha one of their songs being Song of Joy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77Le6G63eZY .

Two other groups Daniel Amos and the Sweet Comfort Band also hailed from the early days of Maranatha Music.  Both groups endured and although they had different music styles they could both have fun with their music as well as make provocative statements about the church and how Christians related to society.  Daniel Amos initially was a country rock band with a sound somewhat similar to the Eagles.  They would retain some of this but moved on to some of the more cutting edge New Wave Rock styles of the 1980s.  Their signature album was Shotgun Angel a country rock album with a side two that was a mini concert about the Second Coming of Christ from a Pre-Tribulation Dispensational theology understanding, an understanding that was quite common in the groups of that day. That album included Black Gold Fever,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZkWrn9SXwo&feature=related, Shotgun Angel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFD8_-v4bhw&feature=related, Posse in the Sky http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwa5gep9CBc&feature=related and Fall in Your Father’s Arms http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOTar60srFg&feature=related.  Their First Album include one of my favorite songs of the ear I Ain’t Gonna Fight it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=intea3oCcDk Later releases include the albums Horrendous Disc and Alarma! The song I Believe in You http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMkpLzomcxM&feature=related from Horrendous Disc and Walls of Doubt http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFTcGAAQkk&feature=related from Alarma! Interestingly enough Daniel Amos is considered by some to be one of the best bands from a creativity standpoint in the 1980s Christian or secular.  The group stayed together and after they broke up Terry Taylor the leader of the group formed other bands including The Swirling Eddies and the Lost Dogs. One of the more interesting songs of the Swirling Eddies is Hide the Beer the Pastor’s Herehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b74VWclpH6c which deals with some of the hypocrisy of some Christians who will condemn someone for drinking yet excuse all sorts of other unseemly behaviors.

A second group from the Maranatha label was the Sweet Comfort Band. This band led by Bryan Duncan and Randy Thomas had a light jazz and rock style that featured Randy Thomas Jazz Guitar and brothers Kevin Thompson’s Alembic 5 string bass guitar and Rick Thompson’s drums.  The group produced a number of albums before they broke up in the late 1980s with Bryan Duncan going solo. They have on occasion gotten together in reunion concerts though Kevin Thomas died in May of this year.  Their first album Sweet Comfort which came out on the Maranatha label included Childish Things http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6R8wY0DCI3A&feature=related When I was Alone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFTcGAAQkk&feature=related It’s so Fine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igp9WJ7QLUE&feature=related and Get Ready http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EhcPuwBvZg where Kevin had a great bass solo.  They left Maranatha and signed with Light Music where they made a number of albums including Breakin’ the Ice which featured Breakin’ the Ice http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ4cddT0Eh0&p=20C05334BBE82D2F&playnext=1&index=1, Good Felling http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJWwcRYT1p4 and Got to Believe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3x7Myegr24 Other later albums featured songs like Ride the Tide http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8oSc7jY288&feature=related

The interesting thing was that many Christians had a hard time with both Daniel Amos and the Sweet Comfort Band.  The members of SBC were frequently berated for their jazz, rock, funk style by Christians who felt that the style was “of the Devil” and both groups frequently played for free on places like the Sunset Strip because they felt it was more important to play for non-believers than believers. Wow, imagine that? When one looks at much of what is called “Contemporary Christian Music” now these groups stand in stark contrast. They were not playing for the approval and entertainment of Christians.

Other artists emerged outside of Calvary Chapel, some who had been successful in their own right prior to becoming Christians such as Barry McGuire who had been with Credence Clearwater Revival, had been in the musical Hair and had his own hit Eve of Destruction for which he is best known.  McGuire’s music is harder to find online and much of what is now available comes from a series of concerts with Peter York, Phil Keaggy, Terry Talbot and others on the music of the 1960s.  However Eve of Destruction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntLsElbW9Xo and his post conversion song Calling me Home http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxoRzqZnP98&feature=related make for interesting listening. Barry still tours and is still entertaining. I remember seeing him a number of times in Sacramento in the late 1970s at a church called The Warehouse.


McGuire recorded on the Sparrow label founded by Buck Herring.  The label also featured the long lived Second Chapter of Acts who performed such memorable songs as Mansion Builder http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmxcotW-O0w and the Easter Song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gggPpVtEKQ&feature=related,

and Keith Green the Jewish convert to Christianity who wrote Make my Life a Prayer to You http://vodpod.com/watch/2188390-keith-green-make-my-life-a-prayer-to-you-subtitles He’ll take Care of the Rest http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAe0q21YgTQ&feature=related, The Victor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wil0PBylyW0&feature=related and When I Hear the Praises Start http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIgVU_5FsqA&feature=related. Green would produce many songs that have endured among his fans and those that wound never see him in person.  Green had a hard edge to his message and died in a private plane crash with two of his children in the summer of 1982.  His wife Melody carries on his musical legacy.

Another artist on the label was John Michale Talbot who along with his brother Terry had been founding members of the group Mason Proffit before becoming Christians.  John Michael produced two albums on the label before his conversion to Roman Catholicism where he became a lay Franciscan.  He remained on the label for years producing albums which helped introduce a generation of contemporary Christian listeners to the liturgy and Catholic spirituality.  His album The Lord’s Supper was a breakthrough as he adapted music from the Mass into a beautiful album.  His adaptation of the Apostle’s Creed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxACNt-QRAo was amazing in its musical style and difficulty and his Holy is His Name http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aYecuDlDYM is an enduring classic.  Talbot’s brother Terry also recorded on Sparrow one song which is entitled No Longer Alone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xR0KBRO-e7g

Other artists included Larry Norman who might be considered the first Christian rocker and Randy Stonehill who recorded on Norman’s Solid Rock label. Norman is best known for his songs The Rock that Doesn’t Roll http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzB638GRfJ0&feature=PlayList&p=44A2023098B233CF&index=0&playnext=1 I’d Wish we’d All Been Ready http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1FcTKNXlO0 and Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWh8-FPelHU&feature=related

His friend Randy Stonehill wrote songs like King of Hearts http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1Q0RO3yi8Y&feature=related, First Prayer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmhsY7NeFhM&feature=related Keep me Running http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP2dB208ISI&feature=related and Song for Sarah. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crDIHKaMwyA&feature=related Norman died in 2008 after a long illness and Stonehill has continued to produce often touching on topics that other Christian artists fear to tackle.

Guitarist Phil Keaggy has had a long and illustrious career in both Christian and secular music with his song Your Love Broke Through being among my favorites. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wil0PBylyW0&feature=related

Paul Clark and Liberation Suite brought an English twist to the genre, this song Make a Joyful Noise was taped during their 1976 European tour http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYfa4iQg8e4 while the Pat Terry Group produced You’d be There http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWMBV0WoTeI&feature=related and Don Francisco recorded the classic He’s Alive! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2slLdaK5Wg&feature=related Amy Grant produced many albums beginning in the late 1970s and still remains popular. Song’s like My Father’s Eyes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmOEJXNtF0E and El Shaddai http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYcEHguYwtc&feature=related remain hits to this day.  Likewise Evie Tourquist (Karlsson) was incredibly popular, especially with young Christian guys in the mid to late 1970s and the song Pass it On http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHQLRm_O9mU was a staple of many high school groups.

Other groups have passed into obscurity with their albums nearly impossible to find.  The early “Jesus Music” often produced in primitive studios was certainly sincere it varied in quality as well as theological content. At the same time the early artists pioneered new ways of expressing their faith in music which has influenced the music of churches that in the 1970s considered such music to still be “the Devil’s music.”  I could go on to write about other artists but most of those came later and really don’t fall into the early years that I am trying to limit this musical essay to, but the fact is that these artists as well as others changed Christian music.  The impact has been mixed while there is much positive in the music many Christians and churches threw out their musical and theological heritage in the rush to become more relevant. Likewise the absorption of Christian music labels into secular labels which were later acquired by multinational entertainment groups is not necessarily a good thing because those corporations are totally profit driven and undoubtedly influenced the content, theology and style of the music produced by current artists causing some of the older artists to become independents.

Padre Steve and Judy back in the Day

I guess in the long run we will see the fruit of this movement, the good and the bad and hopefully the good will outweigh the bad and maybe, just maybe the music will again be the music of the church and not merely of publishing houses that sell a product to churches.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, music

“I have not yet begun to Fight!” John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head

Battle off Flamborough Head September 23rd 1779

Two hundred thirty one years ago today a small naval battle occurred off the coast of Yorkshire England. From a purely military perspective the battle was rather insignificant. A squadron of five American and French ships intercepted a convoy guarded by two British ships. However, the battle was one that had immense psychological significance for the Americans as a ramshackle converted French East India ship with an inferior main battery forced a materially superior British warship to strike her colors. In fact the battle is so significant to the United States Navy that the body of the victor, Captain John Paul Jones was returned to the United States in 1905 from an abandoned site in northeastern Paris known as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants to be interred in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy. Jones had an unusual career as a British merchant skipper accused of murdering a mutinous crewman at Tobago and escaped to Fredericksburg Virginia out of fear that he would be tried in a local versus and Admiralty Court.

John Paul Jones

Jones went to the United States and due to his friendship with Henry “Lighthorse” Lee and other friends in the Continental Congress including a man who became a lifelong friend, Benjamin Franklin obtained a commission in the Continental Navy as a First Lieutenant.  At that time the “First Lieutenant” was the senior officer among the Lieutenants on a ship and often served as the First Officer or Executive Officer.  His first assignment was on the fleet flagship Alfred where he hoisted the first US Ensign aboard an American Naval vessel.  He took part in the raid on Nassau and upon his return assumed command of the Sloop of War Providence where he captured 16 prizes of war and escaped capture by the a British Frigate. He then assumed command of Alfred for a brief time capturing a key supply vessel that had winter clothing for British troops commanded by General Burgoyne in New York.  Following this he took command of the 18 gun Sloop of War Ranger in France received the first ever salute to an American man-of-war by a foreign power 8 days after the French had recognized the American Colonies as an independent nation.

Ranger receives the first salute rendered to an American warship by a foreign power

The nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship recognized this and the new Franco-American alliance. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.” After this made an epic raid on the port of Whithaven and captured the British 20 gun Brig HMS Drake in an hour long fight.  Jones’ raid on Whithaven struck fear into the British populace and forced the British to allocate more resources to the defense of British seaports than had previously been the case.  The capture of the Drake was of immense psychological importance and along with Jones’ other victories would ultimately lead to the formation of the United States Navy.

Bonhomme Richard

Jones’ exploits made him a celebrated figure and after giving up command of Ranger took command of the Bonhomme Richard a converted 42 gun former French East India ship named after Benjamin Franklin’s book “Poor Richards’ Almanac” and a mixed squadron of American and French ships including the 36 gun American Frigate Alliance, the 32 gun French Frigate Pallas and two 12 gun warships the Vengeance and Le Cerf. Detailed to provide a diversion for a combined French and Spanish fleet the squadron menaced Ireland and Scotland before moving into the North Sea.  As they came into English waters the Americans intercepted a 50 ship convoy on the 22nd of September. The convoy which was enroute to the Baltic was escorted by the 44 gun two-decker Serapis. Serapis was brand new and powerful in comparison with Bonhomme Richard though a larger ship was not designed as a warship nor had as powerful battery as Serapis. A second ship, the 20 gun Countess of Scarborough accompanied Serapis.

Jones directing the battle from the Bonhomme Richard

The battle was joined about 1800 on the 23rd and the Serapis which was more maneuverable than Jones’ flagship pounded the Bonhomme Richard holing her below the waterline and seriously damaging her with little damage to herself and Jones’ problems were compounded when with the first broadside two of Bonhomme Richard’s elderly 18 pounders burst damaging the ship and killing most of the gun crews on the lower deck.  Jones attempted to close the range in order to grapple the Serapis and make the battle a close aboard action. Eventually the bow of Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of Serapis and the Captain of Serapis Captain Richard Pearson hailed Jones to ask if he had struck his colors (surrendered.) The First Lieutenant of Bonhomme Richard Richard Dale recorded Jones’ response for posterity “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Alliance opens fire on Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

Serapis then collided with Bonhomme Richard and in his attempt to extricate his ship from the American Captain Pearson ended up causing the ships to come side to side and Jones’ crew lashed the ships together.  The fight now became a close quarter fight with the remaining guns on both ships blasting large holes in the other at point blank range while Marines in the rigging poured relentless musket fire and grenade volleys on the exposed crews of their opponents. An American grenade thrower was able to drop a grenade down an open hatch of Serapis where it exploded near a charge of gunpowder placed in readiness setting off a chain reaction of explosions which knocked out five guns and killed or wounded most of the gun crews.

Bonhomme Richard had taken a severe beating with most of her guns knocked out, taking water and burning from fires ignited by the British onslaught. The Bonhomme Richard’s Carpenter and Master of Arms thinking that Jones was dead took it on themselves to hail the British to say that the Americans had struck their colors, which had been shot away in the engagement.  Pearson hailed Jones asking of he had really struck and Jones responded “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” The battle continued and the Alliance under the command of a Frenchman with an American commission Pierre Landais came up and delivered a devastating broadside much of which hit Bonhomme Richard, holing her again below the waterline and causing her to settle rapidly. At the same time she caused additional damage to Serapis. With his ship badly damaged and Alliance threatening Pearson stuck his colors in person at 2230 hours.  Jones would take possession of Serapis and the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard would sink the on the 25th of September despite Jones’ best efforts to save her.  Jones made temporary repairs Serapis and sought refuge in the Netherlands.

The battle was militarily insignificant but again a major psychological victory as Jones had for the second time defeated a British warship in British waters within sight of the local population.  Even though Jones had taken Serapis the British warships completed their mission of protecting the convoy. Jones’s post war career would leave him embittered. His opportunity to command the first US Navy Ship of the Line, the 74 gun America disappeared when that ship was given to France. Made a Chevalier of France by Louis the XVI and awarded a gold medal by Congress Jones found employment in the Imperial Russian Navy of Catherine the Great. Though successful against the Turks  jealous Russian commanders conspired against him and had him removed from his command of the Black Sea Fleet.  He retired to France where he died of a brain tumor on July 18th 1792.

In the years since that victory the United States Navy went from a militarily insignificant force to the most powerful Navy in the world. Jones and the ships that he captained would not be forgotten. Two Aircraft Carriers were named after Jones’ Sloop of war Ranger, while several destroyers have born his name.

The odds against Jones in his battle with Serapis were heavily weighted against him.  His victory over Serapis was another demonstration that the Americans should not be taken lightly and began a tradition of valiant service for the Navy that has endured throughout the centuries.  The victory off Flamborough Head reaches into the present as American sailors and their ships ply the world’s oceans keeping the sea lanes open and protecting American interests abroad.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized. After I came back from Iraq many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the Iraq war. This despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar Province. After I returned no clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith.  Actually, I have to amend that, as my friends Greg and David, both priests of my former denomination afflicted with PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury from their Iraq service were fellow travelers in this journey. What was happening to me as a result of serving didn’t seem to matter to most other clergy, because their political agenda in the midst of a contentious Presidential election was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that this kind of life “sucks like a Hoover” and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.

Let me talk about spiritual despair.

Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may. I have to say now that my faith is much more Anglican because I try to find balance in the Anglican Triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition instead of Scripture and Tradition alone.

My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a year and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  My faith is no longer a slave to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.

I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seemed to befriend and hang around with those that were not connected to the religious, political or economic elites of his time. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people and he reached out to the outcasts.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a true liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Rahab, Diana, Esther, Mary, Martha and Mary, Pricilla and the Woman at the Well. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.

I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers, Priests or Bishops. It is why I can accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians.” That includes the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus, but still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves in this country.

Why have I come to these beliefs, you might ask. The answer is simple.  I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all. Now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is a God of surprises.

I have faith, but I doubt. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God who did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith?

That is more complex. I believe again, and because  of that will not I tow anyone’s party line. I believe in spite of my unbelief. I believe in a fellowship of those whose lives have been changed by war and trauma.  I believe now because many times it was those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives did not and in doing so abandoned me as they abandon so many others.

So, if I am to be a heretic, if I am to be considered less than a believer, I will quote the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther. To my critics and those that refuse to understand, I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Pennant Races: Padre Steve Picks the Winners…Maybe

I love all things baseball as the Deity tends to speak to me through this most spiritual of games.  I can’t get around it I am mesmerized by the diamond and the nuances of the game, the sights, sounds, smells, which make up the experience as well as the games within the game.  I live for opening day and the call of Spring Training is my first indication of life returning after the cold desolation of winter and the All-Star Game triggers memories of the past greats and my interaction with the various legends of Baseball.  Tell me if I’m strange but I even get excited about trading deadlines and call-ups of Minor Leaguers in September.  Speaking of September I love the pennant races and this year there are a couple of note.  These are my predictions regarding the teams that I think that will make the playoffs.  Since I am neither the Prophet nor the Son of the Prophet I could be wrong, but I was pretty accurate last year. So here I go again, at least if I get this wrong I won’t be taken outside the city gate and crushed to death with heavy stones, unless someone is actually wagering on games based on my picks.  If that is the case I don’t even want to think about it.

Starting in the American League we have the New York Yankees and the Durham Bulls South, or as they are better known the Tampa Bay Rays.  These are such contrasting franchises; one built around veterans and several future Hall of Fame members and the other full of young raw talent and experienced young players.  They have been in a fight for the division most of the year but especially over the past month. The Yankees are a half game up on the Rays as of today.  With 13 games left for the Yankees and 14 for the Rays this is a tossup. The Yankees and Rays meet this week in a four game series at Yankee Stadium and followed by three games with the Yankees meeting their hated rival Boston Red Sox for a three game set.  The Yankees then travel to Toronto for three against the Blue Jays and finish the season at Fenway Park against the Red Sox.  This is no easy schedule and I expect all three opponents to challenge the Yankees.  The Rays have the easier schedule and this may prove to be the difference if they avoid a sweep at the “House that George Built.” I expect at least a split against the Yankees but they then go home to play three with the Mariners and three with the Orioles at the Trop. I don’t see much trouble with the Mariners but the Orioles under Buck “play to win every game” Showalter could play the spoiler if the Rays are not careful. They then travel west to Kansas City where they should do well and end the regular season.

AL East Winner

My prediction: Rays win 9 of 14 to finish at 98-64, while the Yankees will win just 7 of 13 to finish at 97-65 to give the Rays the East by a game. The Yankees will be in the playoffs but as the Wild Card. The Orioles extra innings win on Sunday in Baltimore will prove to be more significant than most would expect. The Yankees need to take 3 of 4 from the Rays to give them the edge down the final stretch, if they can do this they have a chance to tie or win the division outright. The Rays have to split in New York and not allow any of the bottom dwellers that they face to surprise them and I think that the O’s just may play spoiler.

AL Central Winner

AL West Winner

In the AL Central the Twins have the division all but won with a magic number of just 4 over the seconds place White Sox who trail them by 10 games. In the West the same is true of the Rangers who have a magic number of 6 over the second place Athletics who sit 9 games behind the Twinkies.

AL East Spoiler?

Going on the senior circuit we begin in the National League East where the Phillies and the Braves have been going at it all year.  In the Phillies lead the East by 3 games over the Braves and have a magic number of 10.  The Phillies are hot and the Braves have struggled the last few weeks. The Phillies have 12 games left of which 6 are against the Braves.  The Braves have to take 4 of those 6 games to stay in the race.  The Phillies face the Braves beginning tonight at home for a three game set and then face the rather pathetic excuse for a team called the New York Minaya’s I mean New York Mets.  However the Mets are blood rivals of the Phillies so I don’t expect them to go down easily nor do I give them much of a chance.  The Phillies then hit the road for 3 games against the rather hapless Nationals in Washington before travelling to Atlanta to face the Braves in the in final three games of the season.

NL East Winner

My prediction: I see Philly winning 8 of 12, splitting with the Braves and taking 5 of 6 from the Minaya’s and the Nats. The Braves as I said need to take at least 4 of six to stay in the race and win out against both Washington and the Florida Marlins and even then they need help in order for the Phillies to lose at least 6 of their last 12 games. I don’t see that happening. In fact if the Phillies dominate the Braves and the Braves split their games with the Nats and the Marlins then they may not even reach the Wild Card. Bobby Cox and crew have their job cut out over the next two weeks.

NL Central Winner

In the National League Central the “who are those guys?” Cincinnati Reds hold a 6 game lead over the perennial NL Central leader St Louis Cardinals and have a magic number of 8 to clinch the Division.  The Cardinals have been unable to buy wins of late and their August collapse totally surprised me as it has everyone else. The Reds have 6 games against the Brewers, 3 against the Astros and 3 against the floundering Padres.  The Cardinals actually have the easier schedule with 6 against the perpetual owners of the MLB Marianas Trench, the Pittsburg Pirates and 3 games against their rival the Chicago “we ain’t ever going to win the World Series” Cubs and 3 against the red hot Colorado Rockies.  They did not help matters losing a make-up game to the Marlins today. This made the Reds magic number 7 and that much harder for the Cardinals to get back in the race.

NL West Winner

We go now to the NL West where the San Francisco Giants lead their rivals the San Diego Padres by a half a game and the red hot Colorado Rockies by a game and a half.  The Giants have a magic number of 13 but in a race this close that will change day to day. The Rockies schedule provides them opportunity should they stay hot and their opponents cooperate.  They play the Arizona Diamondbacks in Arizona for a three game set and go home to play three against San Francisco followed by three against the Evil Dodgers before finishing the season in St. Louis against the Cardinals. My guess is that the should take two of three or sweep the Diamondbacks, split their series against the Giants and probably sweep the Evil Dodgers even though right now I would prefer that the Dodgers sweep them. I guess I am like Winston Churchill in saying that he would become an ally of the Devil if the Devil was against Hitler. The final three games against the Cardinals could spoil the hopes of the Rockies because I think that the Cardinals have far too much organizational pride to go down easy. As a result I think that the Rockies go 7 of 12 to end the season.  The Padres have struggled of late and I think this will continue.  The Friars play the Evil Dodgers and I think that this series is a tossup with the Dodgers possibly taking 2 of 3 games. They then go home to face the Reds and I think that the Big Red Machine will take 2 of 3 at Petco Park. The Padres then play against the Cubs who just might take 1 of 3 from the Padres. The Padres finish their season against the Giants in PacBell Park and I think that the Giants take 2 of 3 at home.  As a result I think that the Padres go 5 of 12 to end the season.  The Giants face the Cubs for a three game set which they should sweep or take 2 of 3. They then go against the Rockies where I think they will go 1 and 2. The then face the Diamondbacks and I believe that they go 2 of 3 against them before ending the season in San Francisco against the Padres where they take 2 of 3. T believe that the Giants go 7 of 12 and take the West by 1 and a half games above the Rockies with the Padres fading to third two and a half games back.

My prediction is that the Giants take the west by a game and a half over the Rockies with the Padres fading back to third.  Despite this the division could go to any of the three teams as none have any margin for error and it is likely that the team that remains hot will win the division. My prediction which is primarily based on how the teams are doing right now coupled with their schedule is that the Giants will win, but I could be wrong on this as a grounder with eyes, a bloop single or a booted ground ball could be the difference in a critical game that could decide the race. Id the Braves falter I believe that whatever team finished second in the NL West will be the Wild Card in the NL. I do not think this will happen based on the schedules but stranger things have happened.

Now here are my predictions:

AL Wild Card

American League: AL West- Rangers, AL Central- Twins, AL East Rays, Wild Card- Yankees.

NL Wild Card

National League: NL West Giants, NL Central- Reds, NL East- Phillies, Wild Card- Braves

We’ll see if I am as good as I was last year, but wait I didn’t start making predictions until the playoffs last year. Even if I’m wrong about these I can redeem myself by doing what I did last year in the playoffs and World Series.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Iconic and Heroic: The Fletcher Class Destroyers

The USS Fletcher DD-445

If ever a class of warships can define a ship type the destroyers of the Fletcher Class were that. The most numerous of all United States Navy destroyer classes the Navy commissioned 175 of these ships between June 1942 and February 1945.  There were two groupings of ships the 58 round or “high bridge” ships and the 117 square or “low bridged” ships. It was a sound design that would be modified for use in the later Allen M. Sumner and Gearing Class destroyers.  Eleven shipyards produced the ships fast, heavily armed and tough the ships would serve in every theater of the war at sea but would find their greatest fame in the Pacific where many became synonymous with the courage and devotion of their officers and crews.

USS Stevens one of the 6 Fletchers equipped with an aircraft catapult

The ships were a major improvement on previous classes of destroyers and were equal or superior to the destroyers of our allies and our enemies in the war.  At 2050 tons displacement and 2900 tons full load the ships were significantly larger than preceding classes and were designed to mount a superior anti-aircraft armament to compliment their main battery of five 5” 38 caliber dual purpose guns and ten 21” torpedo tubes. 376 feet long and flush decked they were an exceptionally tough class of ships which was demonstrated often in the brutal surface battles in the South Pacific, Leyte Gulf and in the battles with Kamikazes off the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.  They were the first destroyers of the US Navy which were built with radar as part of the initial design.

USS O’Bannon DD-450 in 1961

The anti aircraft armament was increased throughout the war. Initially this was composed of: 4 x 40mm Bofors in two twin-mounts and 6 to 13 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. By June of 1943 new ships of the class mounted 10 x 40mm Bofors in five twin-mounts 7 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. As the Kamikaze threat became dire ships returning to the United States for refit lost one of their torpedo tube mounts and had their AA armament increased to 14 x 40mm Bofors in three twin and two quad mounts and 12 x 20mm Oerlikon in six twin mounts.  One of the more unusual experiments was to equip six ships with a catapult for a float plane. This eliminated some of their AA guns and one torpedo tube mounting. It was not successful and the mounts were removed before the end of the war.

USS Nicholas in action at Kula Gulf

The first ships of the class saw action in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign.  Fletcher and O’Bannon took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where O’Bannon was one of several destroyers that ganged up on the Japanese Battleship Hiei at ranges as low as 500 yards causing heavy damage to the Battleship which was sunk by naval aircraft the following day.  The O’Bannon would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her actions around Guadalcanal which read:

O’Bannon

“For outstanding performance in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the South Pacific from October 7, 1942, to October 7, 1943. An aggressive veteran after a year of continuous and intensive operations in this area, the U.S.S. O’BANNON has taken a tremendous toll of vital Japanese warships, surface vessels and aircraft. Launching a close range attack on hostile combatant ships off Guadalcanal on the night of November 13, 1942, the O’BANNON scored three torpedo hits on a Japanese battleship, boldly engaged two other men o’ war with gunfire and retired safely in spite of damage sustained. During three days of incessant hostilities in July 1943, she gallantly stood down Kula Gulf to bombard enemy shore positions in coverage of our assault groups, later taking a valiant part in the rescue of survivors from the torpedoed U.S.S STRONG while under fierce coastal battery fire and aerial bombing attack and adding her fire power toward the destruction of a large Japanese naval force. In company with two destroyers, the O’BANNON boldly intercepted and repulsed nine hostile warships off Vella Lavella on October 7, 1943, destroying two enemy ships and damaging others. Although severely damaged, she stood by to take aboard and care for survivors of a friendly torpedoed destroyer and retired to base under her own power. The O’BANNON’s splendid acheivements and the gallant fighting spirit of her officers and men reflect great credit upon the United States Naval Service.

DESRON 23

Fletcher’s composed DESON 23 the Little Beavers” commanded by Commodore Arleigh “31 knot” Burke. The squadron which covered the initial landings at Bougainville in November 1943 fought in 22 separate engagements during the next four months. During this time the squadron was credited with destroying one Japanese cruiser, nine destroyers, one submarine, several smaller ships, and approximately 30 aircraft.  Under Burke the squadron was composed of USS Foote (DD-511), USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570), USS Spence (DD-512), USS Claxton (DD-571), USS Dyson (DD-572), USS Converse (DD-509) and USS Thatcher (DD-514).  At the Battle of Cape St. George the squadron intercepted a Japanese force of 5 destroyers sinking 3.  At the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay the ships were in action as part of Task Force 39 based around Cruiser Division 12 comprised of the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, Columbia and Denver the took part in the sinking of the Japanese Light Cruiser Sendai and a destroyer.  For their efforts DESRON 23 would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which stated:

“For extrordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Solomon Islands Campaign, from November 1, 1943, to February 23, 1944. Boldly penetrating submarine-infested waters during a period when Japanese naval and air power was at its height, Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE operated in daring defiance of repeated attacks by hostile air groups, closing the enemy’s strongly fortified shores to carry out sustained bombardments against Japanese coastal defenses and render effective cover and fire support for the major invasion operations in this area. Commanded by forceful leaders and manned by aggressive, fearless crews the ships of Squadron TWENTY THREE coordinated as a superb fighting team; they countered the enemy’s fierce aerial bombing attacks and destroyed or routed his planes; they intercepted his surface task forces, sank or damaged his warships by torpedo fire and prevented interference with our transports. The brilliant and heroic record achieved by Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE is a distinctive tribute to the valiant fighting spirit of the individual units in this indomitable combat group and of each skilled and courageous ship’s company.”

USS Johnston DD-557

Fletcher’s served heroically with “Taffy-3” in the Battle of Samar at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  Taffy-3 which was composed of 6 escort carriers, the Fletcher Class destroyers Hoel, Johnston and Heermann and 4 destroyer escorts was assigned the task of providing close air support for troops ashore and anti-submarine protection for transports.  On the morning of October 25th Admiral Halsey took Third Fleet north to engage a Japanese carrier force believing a Japanese surface force of battleships and cruisers to have withdrawn after being heavily hurt by submarine and air attacks.  The carrier force had few aircraft and was considered a decoy by the Japanese. This left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and the Japanese surface force which by now was comprised of 4 battleships including the Yamato as well as 6 heavy and 2 light cruisers and 11 destroyers doubled back going through the strait during the early morning hours of the 25th.  Just before dawn a patrol aircraft spotted the Japanese force and at 0659 Yamato opened fire on the task group.

USS Hoel DD-533

The three Fletcher’s and the Destroyer escort Samuel B Roberts were launched into a suicidal counter-attack against the Japanese force. Led by Johnston under the command of Ernest E. Evans the little ships engaged their vastly superior foe as the escort carriers edged away as they launched and recovered their aircraft to keep a continuous air assault on the Japanese force.  Johnston scored numerous hits with her 5” guns on the Heavy Cruiser Kumano and when she reached torpedo range launched her 10 “fish” one of which blew off Kumano’s bow and another of which crippled Kumano’s sister Suzuya before she was hit in quick succession by a 14” shell from the Battleship Kongo which hit her engine room and three 6” shells from Yamato which struck her bridge.  Evans kept the crippled ship in the fight drawing fire away from other attacking destroyers and fending off a Japanese destroyer squadron that was trying to flank the carriers. Johnston continued to be hit and was abandon at 0945 sinking 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew.  Evans did not survive and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

USS Heermann DD-532 in action at Samar

Hoel under the command of Commander Leon S. Kintberger took on the Battleship Kongo and a column of cruisers lead by the Heavy Cruiser HaguroHoel’s torpedo attack on Kongo forced that ship to turn away and torpedo hits were claimed on the Haguro, although that ship remained in action and the Japanese denied any torpedo damage from the attack. The Japanese concentrated on Hoel sinking her at 0855 taking all but 86 of her crew to a watery grave.

Heermann under Commander Amos Hathaway threw herself into the fight engaging Japanese battleships and cruisers. Heermann engaged Heavy Cruiser Chikuma with her guns while mounting a torpedo attack on Haguro. She then attacked the Japanese battleships directly engaging Haruna and forcing Yamato to head away from the action for 10 minutes as she was bracketed by two of Heermann’s torpedoes running on a parallel course.  She engaged the other battleships at such close range that they could not hit her and broke off to intercept a column of cruisers.  Once again she engaged Chikuma in a bloody duel with both ships taking heavy damage. Crippled by a series of 8” shell hits from the heavy cruisers Heermann was down heavily at the bow, so much so that her anchors dragged the water. Carrier aircraft joined the battle and Chikuma withdrew from the fight and sank during her withdraw. Heermann then engaged Heavy Cruiser Tone before that ship, also damaged by air attack withdrew from the fight.  Though she was heavily damaged the Heermann was the only destroyer to survive the action.  Despite their terrible losses the ships and aircraft of Taffy-3 sank 3 heavy cruisers and a destroyer and heavily damaged 3 battleships and 3 heavy cruisers.

Just a bit wet, USS Halsey Powell unrep with USS Wisconsin

For their heroic actions which kept the Japanese from getting to the vulnerable transports Taffy-3 including the valiant destroyers Johnston, Hoel, Heerman and Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which read:

“For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait towards Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear. Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor-piercing shells, anti-personnel projectiles and suicide bombers. With one carrier of the group sunk, others badly damaged and squadron aircraft courageously coordinating in the attacks by making dry runs over the enemy Fleet as the Japanese relentlessly closed in for the kill, two of the Unit’s valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy’s heavy shells as a climax to two and one half hours of sustained and furious combat. The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

USS Isherwood (DD-520) underway in heavy weather as she comes alongside the heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) in August 1943. National Archives and Records Administration. Photo # 80-G-79429. [Navsource]

During the war 19 of the class were lost and 6 damaged so badly that they were not repaired. 44 of the ships were awarded 10 battle stars or more while 19 were awarded Naval Unit Commendations and 16 Presidential Unit Citations.  Following the war all were decommissioned and placed in reserve. Many were re-commissioned during the Korean War and served through Vietnam. Some of these ships were modernized with newer ASW weapons and re-designated Escort Destroyers (DDE) while others had their air search radar modernized and were re-classified as Radar Picket Destroyers or (DDR). The last Fletcher in US Service decommissioned in 1971.  52 were sold or transferred under military assistance programs to other navies in the 1950s.  The ships served well and the last one in active service the Mexican Navy Destroyer Cuitlahuac the former USS John C Rodgers DD-874 was decommissioned in 2001.

Ex USS Twinning in Republic of China Navy Service, note weapon modifcations

Zerstörer Z-1 Rommel

USS Kidd as Museum and Memorial

Four are currently open as memorial ships the USS Cassin Young DD-793 at Buffalo NY, the USS The Sullivans DD-537 at Boston MA and USS Kidd DD-661 at Baton Rouge LA can be seen in the United States. The Cassin Young is berthed at the old Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston across the pier from the Frigate USS Constitution.  The former the Greek destroyer Velos the ex-USS Charette DD-581 is located in Athens.  The John Rodgers has been purchased by a group in the US but is currently laid up in Mexico and her fate is undecided. I hope that she too will be saved for future generations.

The Fletcher Class really symbolizes more than any class of destroyer the classic look of what a destroyer should be. Their clean lines and classic design are iconic not just in this country but in the 15 other countries that they would serve in during the following years.  Their amazing record and service in World War Two and in the following years in both the US Navy and the navies of our Allies is one that will probably never be surpassed.

I have visited the Cassin Young in Boston; it is well worth the time to see. I hope that I might see The Sullivans and Kidd in the coming years.

The Zerstörer Z-4 ex USS Dyson in heavy seas

I salute the ships of the class and the officers and sailors that served on them in peace and war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Save the USS Olympia!

I am a historian and for that matter to be more specific a military historian.  I have had a very busy week in “real life” but I saw a couple of articles last week about the cruiser USS Olympia.  It seems that this warship, a symbol of American industry and power at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th Century is in danger of being scrapped or disposed of as an artificial reef of Cape May New Jersey if a benefactor is not found to help pay the more than 5 million dollars needed to keep this national and international maritime treasure afloat.  The 5 million is just the immediate cost, it is estimated that it may take up to 19.5 million dollars to dry-dock her and make the extensive repairs to her hull.  Olympia is not the first historic US Navy ship to be threatened by the ravages of time, the Frigate USS Constitution,

http://sundaygazettemail.com/Life/Travel/201005270677

The Olympia was one of the first steel and steam warships of the United States Navy and is the oldest steel warship in the United States Navy still afloat.  She was a transitional ship as the Navy entered the modern age and her design was revolutionary for her time.  Displacing 5870 tons and with a length of 344 feet she was She was powered by reciprocating steam engines and capable of 20 knots. She had twin revolving turrets which housed her main battery of four 8 inch guns and mounted a secondary battery of ten 5 inch guns which protruded from her superstructure on the main deck.  She also retained sails as part of her design and was the first US Navy ship with a refrigeration plant and ice making machines.

She was the Flagship of Admiral Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War and her last mission was to bring the body of the “Unknown Soldier” back from France following the First World War.  The launched on November 5th 1892 and commissioned on 5 February 1895 Olympia was decommissioned for the final time in on December 9th 1922.  She would continue her US Navy career in an inactive status after being reclassified as a miscellaneous auxiliary.  She remained as a Navy asset until she was acquired by the Cruiser Olympia Association on 11 SEP 1957 and was classified as a National Historic Landmark on 29 January 1964 and transferred to the Independence Seaport Museum in January 1995.

The ex-Olympia is a national and maritime history treasure. There are but a handful of ships for that era that still remain.  The Imperial Japanese Battleship Mikasa, Admiral Togo’s flagship at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 is outside the Naval Base of Yokosuka Japan http://www.japan-i.jp/explorejapan/kanto/kanagawa/miurapeninsula/d8jk7l000002rn1h.html. The Russian Cruiser Aurora is moored in Petersburg http://www.aurora.org.ru/eng/ and the Greek Armored Cruiser Georgios Averof http://www.hnsa.org/ships/averof.htm are the only ships of that era remaining.

Olympia is in dire need of dry-docking and major repairs to her hull. Despite Federal Government regulations and sound maritime practices which stipulate that museum ships should be dry-docked and repaired at the minimum of every 20 years the Olympia has not been dry-docked or repaired since 1957.  She has numerous patches and her caretakers keep constant watch on her to ensure that no leak develops that could sink her. Additionally water now leaks through her decks into her hull causing further problems with rust and hull deterioration.

The Olympia is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1964), a National Historic Engineering Landmark (1977), and National Historic Maritime Landmark (1988) and was awarded “Official Project” status of Save America’s Treasures program (1999).

She will be closed as an attraction on the Philadelphia waterfront on November 22nd as the caretakers and the Navy determines her fate. Ultimately the Navy will have the final say in Olympia’s fate; even so efforts need to be made to enlist private and corporate sponsors to help save this treasure. As of the present time these efforts have been unsuccessful.

Naval Historian and author of a book on Olympia Lawrence Burr commented: “It’s an absolute national disgrace. It’s an appalling situation. She is a national symbol, and she marks critical points in time both in America’s development as a country and the Navy’s emergence as a global power.”

The “Friends of the Cruiser Olympia” http://www.cruiserolympia.org/ as well as former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and former US Representative Curt Weldon  are leading the charge to see Olympia restored and reopened.

Olympia is not the first US Navy historic ship to be in such dire need. The first was the USS Constitution which was going to be broken up in 1830 until the public inspired by Oliver Wendell Homes’ poem elicited the money needed to repair that ship which was again threatened in the 1920s and was saved by a private-public endeavor urged by the Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur which included a drive where children contributed thousands of dollars of pennies to the restoration effort and where prints of “Old Ironsides” were sold for .50 each.  Certainly it will take a creative effort to save Olympia and preserve her for history and those Americans that come after us.

I go to Baltimore to see an Orioles game on October 1st and may take a short trip to Philadelphia to visit the Olympia and if I do I will do an update with my own photos.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy