Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Long and Winding Road: My Journey to Life

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” Henri Nouwen

 In February 2009, about eight months after psychological physical and spiritual collapse due to the effects of PTSD and in the midst of my struggle I began to write about my experiences on this site. My psychologist at the time had suggested that I go public with my struggles using my writing as a means to do so. It was something that I had contemplated for some time. I was a mess and struggling many days to even get to work. I was depressed much of the time, continually on edge, still suffered from nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks and sometimes an angry rage which swept over me when I felt threatened.  I avoided big crowds, was afraid to even go to church and I had a hard time trusting anyone.  In that time I would listen to the Beatle’s song “The Long and Winding Road” which in some ways became a prayer for me.

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

The wild and windy night
That the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears
Crying for the day
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

And still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door


But still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t keep me waiting here
Lead me to your door

The Long And Winding Road lyrics: Songwriters: Mccartney, Paul; Lennon, John. © SONY BEATLES LTD; SONY/ATV TUNES LLC

So I began to write and find some solace even as I struggled with even the existence of God.  One thing that I found was that there were really very few people, especially ministers secure enough to enter into a healing relationship with me. I felt isolated among my peers especially those from my own church.  Since I have detailed that journey to include a restoration of faith in God in December 2009 about two years after my struggle began I won’t go into great detail in this article.  All I knew is that it seemed that most Priests and other ministers either didn’t know how to walk with me, were afraid to walk with me and were most certainly uncomfortable with a colleague, especially one with my experience dealing with the pain psychological and spiritual effects of PTSD including being from all practical purposes an agnostic.  As one psychotherapist labeled it I was “radioactive.”

Eventually some in the leadership of my former denomination which I had served faithfully as a priest for 14 years asked me to leave the church because I had become “I had changed since coming back from Iraq” and “had become too liberal.”I had known this was coming for some time and had been making preparations for it but the timing of the notice from my former Bishop came as a surprise.

I had begun to voice opinions, especially on social and political issues that rankled some, maybe many in my former church. Since only a few friends from that church remain in contact with me I presume that I rankled more than I did not.  There were times during the early part of 2010 that my wife would ask me after reading something that I had published if I was trying to get thrown out. I wasn’t trying to but I was at the point where I knew that I had to be honest and transparent about my struggle as well as how my beliefs had changed a result of war and of PTSD.  I was diplomatic and tried to say what I had to say without getting too controversial. That began to change in the summer of 2010 and reached its head on September 23rd when I published Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian. http://padresteve.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/faith-journey%E2%80%99s-why-i-am-still-a-christian/

I actually did not intend for the article to be too controversial, but looking back I can see how it was interpreted that way. It was for all practical purposes a declaration of independence and a severe criticism of the lack of care that I had felt from the church that I had served for most of my ministerial career. I think that the central part of that article that attracted the attention and wrath of my Bishop was this section”

“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 liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 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 or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.”

I ended the article with this gem: “Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives….So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

My goal since faith began to return was to be available to those that feel cut off from God and the Church, to walk with people in the midst of struggle, pain and despair, especially fellow ministers and chaplains.  I don’t have all the answers, in fact I know very few, except that I know that God can use the pain, alienation, struggle and despair that I went through then, as well as the struggles that I still have in the lives of others like me that are willing to walk that lonely path to reconciliation with God and humanity.

As far as my former church and bishop are concerned I still care about them and hope for the best. There are many there that I still call friends and a very few that I can be completely honest and transparent with for they while remaining in the church think much as I do even if they do not agree with me entirely.  Since my departure a number of others have left that church for other reasons, mostly because they wanted to be in communion with a larger number of Anglican Christians.  Others have stayed in the hopes of working toward renewal.  The Bishop who asked me to leave was himself asked to leave when he attempted to secretly take the priests of the military diocese to another communion barely four months later.

It is a long, winding and often lonely road but I have found solace, community and faith upon it. Those that I have met traveling on it have become my brothers and sisters on the journey. And that my friend makes it all worth it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Darkness into Light: Turning Systematized Hatred in the Name of God into Reconciliation

I was reading news and saw yet another incident of religious hatred and violence this morning.  This time it was a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn who decided to pour beer on the head of a recently married neighbor calling her an “Arab terrorist” and beating her husband. The couple was relatively new immigrants from Turkey that had recently moved into the heavily Jewish neighborhood.  To quote a police spokesman the man identified as Simchon Schwartz attacked the woman screaming  “F—ing Arabs! F—ing terrorists!” as he grabbed his neighbor, 27 year old Selda Turan. He shoved her against her car and poured beer on her head. After the attack Schwartz “keyed” the Turan’s car before fleeing to a nearby synagogue.  When apprehended he fought the police and kicked out a window in a police cruiser. As he was doing this his wife told the Turans that “This is a majority Jewish neighborhood. We’re going to get you back.” 

Now this is just the latest. We can list similar crimes committed by people of many religions against others who they view as enemies of God and true believers those of different religions, competing sects of their own religion different sects of their religion or those fallen away from the faith.  Of course I am leaving out those crimes committed that are more influenced by race than religion or those perpetrated against women or other minorities.

There are radical Moslems who persecute and kill Christians, Jews, Hindus and Moslems of different sects. These tend to get the bulk of the media attention in the West because of the 9-11 attacks even though they are committed by a minority of radicals.  Of course there are Islamic countries where much of the population is becoming radicalized so this could grow.  In the United States we have seen a number of Moslems recently arrested for plotting attacks on U.S. Military installations in the United States, and times where Moslem men have committed “honor killings.” Across the globe there are many Moslem nations who either official sanction or tolerate the persecution and killing people of different beliefs sometimes in pretty gruesome ways, and forget freedom of religion, choice conscience or even basic human rights guaranteed by the United Nations Charter.  Just this week the Taliban gave an unwitting 8 year old girl a sack with a bomb in it which they detonated killing her and those in the target zone.

Of course there are some Jews, admittedly the more hyper-orthodox types who believe that non-Jews, secularized Jews and women are somewhat less than human. Of course this is interesting in light of the Holocaust when the Nazis deemed Jews as sub-human.  There are places in Israel where these hyper-Orthodox faithful even attack and stone other less observant Jews, not to mention wayward Arab Christians or Moslems that are Israeli citizens.

There are fundamentalist Hindus in India who burn down Christian villages and persecute Moslems, Moslems, Christians and Animists in Africa who depending on what trine they are from use their religion to persecute neighbors from different tries and religions.  This happens all the time in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and the Congo but probably the worst of this type of violence was performed by Hutu and Tutsi Christians in Rwanda and Burundi who killed upwards of a million people back in 1994.

Then there are Christians, or those that claim to be of various varieties that see their specific sect as the elect and all others as bound for the Lake of Fire and fully worthy of God’s judgment in this life and the next.  One immediately thinks of the Westboro Baptist Church” and the Fred Phelps clan but there are others even those that have twisted the Christian faith into model of racial purity in particular various White Supremacist groups.  The Westboro bunch does not commit acts of violence but they do attempt to use legal means, the courts and the media to ensure that their message of hate is carried far and wide, using the right of religious expression to impinge on the rights and dignity of others.  Now these groups all don’t amount to a hill of beans but they tend to become the poster children for this type of crime.

However the more subtle and socially acceptable people of this variety are those that use the imagery of war against God’s enemies to promote hate and forge political power. They are those that preach and promote theocracy where their particular understanding of religion will dominate politics and where their religion becomes the law of the land. Somehow people like David Barton, Bryan Fischer, Joseph Farah and a host of others manage to find in the Scriptures and the Constitution new and interesting ways to demonstrate that a Fundamentalist Protestant theocracy is what the founders of the nation intended to establish.  They won’t say it this way; they will say that we were founded as a “Christian” nation. However most of the prominent leaders of the revolution and writers of the Constitution were Deists, Masons and even some non-believers.  Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin all held a cautious view of religion and saw from Europe’s history that the state endorsement of any religion as the law of the land was fraught with danger. Madison said it so well: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

I don’t even want to go into Europe’s religious wars, pogroms and crusades.

So while what happened in New York was an isolated incident it is also indicative of a bigger problem facing the country as an already divided and bitter population starts to use religion as a weapon in their political and moral crusades. Now some of this is “payback” for real or perceived encroachments on religious freedom by some secularists, but I don’t remember Jesus telling us to pay anyone back in kind when they persecute us.  In fact didn’t Jesus tell us to “forgive those that sin against us” and on the cross offer forgiveness to those that crucified him?  Maybe this is not a part of some religions but it is a central part of the practice of authentic Christian faith.

As a Christian I can see faults in other religions but I am most keenly aware of when I see people that call themselves Christians arming themselves for war, sometimes literally against those that they believe are God’s enemies. Madison alluded to this when he said “It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true religion.”

Congressman Todd Akin went so far in his comments to say that “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” Now when anyone says such things it should send up an alarm for Christians because it is the antithesis of the message of reconciliation that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19 NLT)

Andrew Greeley made a comment about Christians and the Catholic Church before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire which bears repeating. “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good. Catholics were so good to one another and they were so good to pagans too.”

While my understanding is a Christian one which recognizes that like the early church we live in world that turning non-Christians into our enemies and thereby God’s enemies that we take a look at how the poor and persecuted church of the first three centuries of the Common Era responded to those that oppressed them or those that they disagreed.  I wonder if Christians decided to approach others in this manner rather than attempting to institute a theocracy in name or practice if maybe the tenor of our national discourse would change.  I also know that there are traditions of tolerance and mercy in every religion, unfortunately they often are persecuted minorities in their own religions.

As for others maybe they like the people in the Roman Empire of other religions would recognize something different, something amazing, refreshing and redeeming in us. However as it stands today I simply expect people of all religions to continue the bloodshed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Unbelievable Implosion of a Storied Baseball Franchise

At one time the Los Angeles Dodgers were one of the most desirable and bulletproof franchises in all of sports. They were one of Major League Baseball’s premier franchises. They had a reputation as pioneers they were the stuff of legends, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snyder, Pee Wee Reese, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Lasorda, Walter Austin, Kirk Gibson, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, and the list can go on ad infinitum especially for a Dodgers hating San Francisco Giants fan like yours truly.

But today something that a couple of years back I could never have imagined. Today Dodgers’ owner and destroyer Frank “I love my MLB ATM” McCourt declared bankruptcy. For me it was like the Soviet Union going tango-uniform to end the Cold War back in 1989. It’s unseemly, it’s unsightly and it’s undignified. My goodness the man and his equally despotic ex-wife Jamie bought the team with none of their own money and took loans totally hundreds of millions of dollars from the team as well as turned the team into their own realm of nepotism. The hired their sons at over half a million dollars a year, they paid the former Mrs. McCourt a million a year, they set up multiple expensive residences and they hired a psychic for a pretty price to guide their decisions, well I guess if Nancy Reagan could why not them. Now that couldn’t have been a good experience after all have you ever heard of a “happy Medium?”

They even signed Manny Ramirez who by the way is now their number one creditor. I mean this is embarrassing; multiple pops for performance enhancing drugs, declining stats, injuries and all the Manny baggage.  The ridded themselves of Dodger Town in Vero Beach that storied spring training facility that had hosted the Dodgers for over half a century. They bankrupted the team and even took a 30 million dollar personal loan from Fox to meet the May payroll.

Why in the hell Major League Baseball gave them, I said gave them a franchise, especially one like the Dodgers I don’t know. After all what connection did McCourt have to baseball? Well none actually. He was a smooth as freshly laid asphalt parking lot mogul with a propensity toward pomposity. He could talk Hannibal Lector out of Lady Gaga’s drumstick, not that there’s much meat on it but still you get my drift.  And to think that baseball rejected Mark Cuban because they didn’t want a new young Steinbrennerish owner to upset the cart. However despite his antics Cuban is a committed owner who would have done baseball and the Dodgers better than the parking lot Putz. Ask the people in Dallas what they think of him, look what he did to revive a franchise. He used his money and put himself on the line to turn the Mavericks into a winner. He hired good basketball people and got out of the way. He was a face, spokesman and cheerleader and he would have been good for the Dodgers. Los Angeles is big and it loves the outlandish he would have been perfect and he would have used his money not others to do it.

Now Bud Selig and the rest of the baseball establishment will have to figure out to do. If they don’t want Cuban they could pick someone like Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates who have oodles of money and love to spend it on charity cases, which by all counts the Dodgers now are.

I see this as a Giants fan would in light of the Cold War. When the Soviets went tits up the world went crazy. They were the Yang to our Yin. I certainly don’t want baseball to experience anything like the world has gone through since the end of the Cold War. Baseball is about stability not chaos and the McCourts have thrown the Dodgers into chaos which is not good for baseball or America.  They should be taken out and banished to outer Mongolia or some other place that is parking lot deprived.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Bond

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large.  You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis.  But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military.  That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war.  At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform.  In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees.  Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone.  The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.  In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience.  All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure.  The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq                   KIA    US  4463       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4781

Afghanistan     KIA  US  1637         UK 374     Other 537        Total  2548

US Wounded   Iraq  32227      Afghanistan   11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies.  I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” Andrew A Greeley 

Three years ago I had an emotional physical and spiritual breakdown as the life and faith that I had known for many years came apart at the seams as I was overcome with the full blown effects of PTSD a bit over four months after my return from Iraq.  I should have seen the collapse coming as a vainly struggled to maintain control of my emotions, thoughts and faith.  Nothing made sense as I drifted in and out of flashbacks, night terrors and sunk into depression isolated from my faith community which by and large did not understand and other clergy who didn’t seem to care enough to listen.

I tried; I maintained the discipline of praying the Daily Office and reading the Scriptures, I tried to attend church but it was too much. Church with all the people and crowded noisy space with lots of light and sound was too much. I was hyper-vigilant and didn’t feel safe in crowds except at the ballpark where somehow the sight of that magical diamond brought me peace.

June 16th 2008 was the day that the wheels came off. The nightmares, night terrors and flashbacks came together with fires in the Great Dismal Swamp which shrouded the Tidewater in a thick brown haze which looked and smelled like Iraq and a seminar on battlefield trauma.  At the end of the day when the seminar was over my unit Medical Officer looked at me and said “Chaplain are you okay?” I replied in a broken voice “no, I’m not.” I briefly explained what I was going through and he asked if I was safe to go home. When I assured him that I thought that I could make it to the next day he agreed to let me leave and saw me the next morning. After his evaluation he set me up to see a Psychologist at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Deployment Health Center.

Looking back he made the right choice. I was very apprehensive as I had never been to a shrink before though I had referred many service members and their families to shrinks when I knew that I was in over my head.  I was lucky because I got Dr. Elmer Maggard from Hazard County Kentucky. I soon developed a rapport with him because I knew that he was real. What convinced me was when he asked me “Well there Padre how are you doing with the Big Guy?” I hadn’t expected that question because no ministers, Priests or chaplains had ever broached the subject.  I was falling apart and when I brought things up to ministerial colleagues about what I was going through including my assessment of my spiritual life I was ignored.  It was like I was radioactive.  I simply told Elmer that “I didn’t even know if the Big Guy even cared about me or existed anymore.”  He didn’t flinch and he walked with me through the darkness until and after what I call my “Christmas Miracle” in December of 2009.

During that painful and lonely time where I was for all intents an agnostic struggling with faith and even the existence of God it seemed that contact with the Divine was sporadic at best and either came through baseball or the Fr. Andrew Greeley Bishop Blackie Ryan murder mysteries. I had started reading them in Iraq because I was somewhat familiar with Greeley’s writing although I had never read any of the Blackie Ryan series. The first book that I read was The Bishop Goes to the University and others rapidly followed as I rummaged through the giveaway paperbacks in the small MWR library at Al Taqaddum in between missions to the hinterland of Al Anbar Province.

It was the grace and love of God in those books that even in the worst of times gave me a fragment of hope as my life collapsed.  I found in Bishop Blackie a kindred though fictional spirit who embodied what I thought the Priesthood should be.  In those books I came to understand that the grace of God along with the practical expressions of compassion, mercy and love were much more compelling than pounding people into submission with my rather rich knowledge of theology, philosophy and Church history. I also found that they were necessary for me to be healed.

My recovery of faith came unexpectedly much like how it happens to the characters in the Bishop Blackie mysteries.  It came in the middle of giving the last rites to a patient in our Emergency Department at Portsmouth.  The man a physician was a veritable saint whose life and faith had touched his community for over 50 years.  As I prayed the commendation prayers at the close of the rite following the anointing he breathed his last and it was almost if the cloud of unbelief melted away and the realization that God indeed was a God of love and that Jesus was actually to quote the Gospel exactly what his opponents called him “a friend of sinners.” In that moment it was if I had been reborn.

Now since then my faith has been evolving, not that I have surrendered the faith proclaimed in the Gospel or the Creeds but in the way that faith works itself out in relationship to others.  I have to say that it hasn’t been easy and I still have times where I doubt but not like when I was falling apart. I think that the doubt is there to remind me not to become arrogant or exude a toxic triumphalism in my faith or proclamation.  I read something that Greeley wrote which perfectly expressed my understanding of Christian witness going back to the persecuted Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.  “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good-Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice” or as Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” It is amazing the diverse people, many hurt and wounded by war, abuse or even the Church and its ministers wander into my life at work and here on Padre Steve’s World. It doesn’t matter if they are conservative or liberal, Christian or not they tell me that “you’re different” and “I know that you will listen to me.” These people have become my parish. Greeley said it well “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.” 

I used this site to work through many of the things that I struggled with during the process and eventually that ran me afoul of my former Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church which through my Bishop asked me to leave in September 2010 because I was “too liberal.”  I knew that it had been coming for some time and had been making preparations and had been working with the local Episcopal diocese but the transition to that church could not be accomplished for at least a year and a half.

I was referred to my present Church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church an Old Catholic denomination by the Episcopal Church which once again seemed to be a miracle. Though small the Church embodies the faithfulness to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith with an inclusiveness and love of God for people that was exactly what I had become during my “dark night of the soul” and rebirth.  There are still things that I am working out both in the personal aspects of my faith and how it works itself out in life.

But I do have faith again; faith in Jesus the Christ and the Triune God reveled in Scripture, Tradition and Reason and in the lives of the faithful.  This belief is that God is love and is present and active in the world.  This love of God is seen in the Sacraments, the Eucharist and in the lives of those dear to us, our families, friends, neighbors and those that we seem to randomly encounter.  It is shown in the care of people who will sit with us in our pain and doubt, listen, care and lovingly put their arms around us or hold our hand.  It is shown in the faith that others show to us when others are willing to cast us aside, those that see the potential of God’s creation in each of us in a rediscovered love that God is there.

Yes my faith is still evolving but I think that is what Paul meant when he said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:10-12)

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Till the Smoke Clears: A Reflection on PTSD and Faith

A morning drive in Iraq, looks like that here too

We are in a drought in Eastern North Carolina and with that drought have come forest and peat fires in the areas surrounding the Crystal Coast. The fires have now shrouded the summer sky with a layer of dense smoke and the National Weather Service is predicting poor air quality and visibilities of a mile or less.

I had been noticing it periodically over the past few weeks and occasionally the stench from the fires would catch me unsuspecting and send me back to Iraq. Anyone that has served in Iraq can testify of the pall of smoke from burn pits and in locations around the cities and countryside of Iraq. Those afflicted with PTSD often have a heightened sense of awareness to things that most people take for granted such as noise, light and smell.  Having experienced this myself and talked to many more men and women that served in Iraq, especially those with PTSD these normal parts of everyday life now seem to be hard wired into our brains along with a need for safety and a certain level of hyper-vigilance.

Sand smoke and clouds

I had to drive to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point for my BLS recertification at the Medical Clinic this morning and the sky was weird hue. It reminded me somewhat of Iraq and the smell of the smoke hit me as did the sound of helicopters and jets taking part in a large exercise.  For a fair amount of the trip I was back in Iraq.  When I returned to LeJeune I had to stop by the UPS Store for a simple transaction and as I was filling out the paperwork someone barged in and slammed the door to the store as the sound of bombs exploding on the bombing ranges of the coast of Camp LeJeune went off. About that time a police car roared by with its siren wailing, just like they did in Iraq. I had to about put myself back into my skin as I remembered a morning doing PT near the perimeter of Taqaddam air base when an explosion rocked the town of Habbinyah less than a mile away with gunfire and sirens following the explosion. That’s some good living.  Hurriedly paying I got out of the store got in my trusty 2001 Honda CR-V and got on the road. As I drove west toward the base the smoke was worse in places as was the stench.

Sunset in the smoke and sand and a smoky day in ENC

I got back to the Hospital and took care of what I needed to do and went home. On the way out the door I could not find my Blackberry. It was nowhere. Not in my uniform, my desk or anywhere. I wracked my brain wondering where it could be.  Then I thought that it had to be at the UPS store, the Cherry Point Clinic or the Cherry Point base gas station.  I was beginning to hit panic mode but was able to calm down and as I drove back home toward the UPS store I just prayed that I had left it there. Thankfully I had and the very kind lady that runs the store had safeguarded it.  Evidently when the other customer had slammed herself through the door I had dropped it out of my hand without even noticing.  That old startle response is still there and thank God for life in small towns.

I finally arrived at home relatively calm and turned on baseball. As I fixed dinner I could hear more bombs exploding on the ocean bombing range which is only about 6 or 7 miles away from my apartment.  Meanwhile the aircraft were much more active even deep into the night. I turned up the television and hunkered down on my big bean bag, finished an article that I began yesterday about the Battle of the Philippine Sea and tried to tune out the aircraft and the occasional explosion.

Hanging on at the end of the Iraq deployment with RP1 Nelson Lebron

A friend of mine recently wrote about the “tentacles of PTSD” which I think is an apt description of the neuro-sensory reactions that are part of life with PTSD.  While I have had a lot fewer reactions over the past few months I have noticed an increase of hyper-arousal and hyper vigilance as these stimuli trigger physical responses to perceived danger.

I remember when I was collapsing in the summer of 2008 there was a rather large and long burning fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. I walked out one morning and the smoke was so thick that the sky looked just like Iraq between the smoke and sandstorms.  That was the day that after a daylong seminar on combat and trauma that my medical officer looked at me and asked if I was okay and I said that I wasn’t. In fact that was around June 16th 2008.  It marked the beginning of me recognizing that I was different and damaged and that nothing was the same including my faith which was shattered to the point that for all practical purposes I was an agnostic. But that day was also my first step to healing.

Now I do not expect a major crash because I am a lot more aware of what is going on and what triggers me. At the same time I do feel less safe in large part due to the sights sounds and smells that are running rampant and reminding me of Iraq. They say that the smoke will be worse tomorrow and the temperatures will also rise into the mid-90s, low by Iraq standards but enough to increase sensitivity to the sights sounds and smells that I and thousands of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the area will experience.

Eventually the smoke from the fires will clear away and with it the neuro-stimuli should decrease and life will return to my “post Iraq normal” where the hyper-vigilance will subside a bit. In the mean time I have the wonderful privilege of caring for and providing ministry to those who like me have returned from war changed.

My faith which was shattered when I returned from Iraq has returned and while I still have days where I have doubts I am no longer an agnostic.  I am able to be with those that doubt and even those that have “broken up with God” to use the term of Sarah Sentilles, especially those who had their faith damaged by war. I see a lot of that here as well as a lot of men and women that have doubts but try to hold onto faith while battling PTSD, TBI, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.  Many like I did probably have to lie to their friends and families about their doubts, fears and struggles because most people don’t want to hear them.  When people do start talking they become “radioactive” to use the term of Dr. Robert Grant.  For me that openness cost me friends in my former denomination and led to me being asked to leave it in September of last year. I am better for the experience but it is still somewhat painful as I see more young men and women coming home from war not only injured or damaged in mind body and spirit but also wondering about the war itself and feeling cut off from their countrymen.  No one likes to talk about that but there are tens of thousands of veterans including many still on active duty that struggle with all of this.

Yes the smoke will clear someday, I am confident that somehow God’s grace mercy and love shown to us in Jesus will get us all through.  Until then we wait for that day when the smoke clears and we can see clearly.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

U.S. Navy personnel observe the Air Battle from a Carrier

The Battle of the Philippine Sea of 19-20 June 1944 was the largest carrier battle in history.  Twenty four aircraft carriers, 15 American and 9 Japanese embarking over 1400 aircraft dueled in the Central Pacific in a battle that so decimated Japanese Naval Aviation that it never recovered. The battle and the subsequent fall of Saipan brought down the government of General Tojo and was the beginning of the collapse of the Japanese Empire and the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”  

http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/destroyed-in-seconds-marianas-turkey-shoot.html

In late 1943 the Japanese realized that they needed to recover the initiative in the Pacific.  Between the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Santa Cruz Japanese Naval aviation suffered crippling losses especially among the elite pilots and aircrews with who they had begun the war.  These losses were compounded when the Navy attempted to support the operations of the Army to defend the Solomons and New Guinea.  Squadrons sent to battle the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps suffered at the hands of the every more skilled and well equipped American fighter squadrons the victims of which included Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto the Commander of the Combined Fleet when the Betty bomber that he was traveling on was ambushed by U.S. Army Air Corps P-38 Lightening fighters.

Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa

By late 1943 the Japanese were attempting to train new pilots and aircrews to man the carriers of the Combined Fleet’s Carrier Striking Forces.  Admiral Soemu Toyoda, the new commander of the Combined Fleet and its third commander in less than a year developed “Plan A-Go” as a means to mass carrier and land based aviation assets to defeat the Fast Carrier Task Forces of the United States Navy.  The rebuilt Carrier Striking Groups built around 9 carriers embarking 473 aircraft was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa who had taken over from Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

D4Y3 “Judy” Dive Bomber

The Japanese discerned the intentions of the Americans when American Carrier aircraft struck Saipan and Guam. The Japanese had expected the Americans to strike further south and the Marianas had few land-based aircraft in the area. Toyoda made the decision to engage the Americans and ordered the fleet to attack. American submarines discovered the gathering Japanese forces. The Japanese forces were assembled by the 17th and by the 18th the 5th Fleet under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance spearheaded by Task Force 58 Commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher had assembled west of Saipan to meet the Japanese.  The Americans fielded 15 carriers including 9 Fleet Carriers of which 6 were the new Essex Class Fleet Carriers which embarked 956 aircraft.

The F6F Hellcat cemented its place as the premier fighter plane of the Pacific war during the “Turkey Shoot”

The Americans held both a quantitative and qualitative advantage against the Japanese. The American fighter squadrons were equipped with the F6F Hellcat which was far superior to the now obsolescent Japanese Zero fighters and their pilots and aircrews were now more experienced and proficient than the newly minted Japanese aviators who by and large had little combat experience and were flying inferior aircraft.  The Japanese had not planned for a long war and had done little to systemically address the heavy losses that their force experienced during 1942 and 1943 at Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz and in the Solomons campaign.

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard the USS Lexington

Mitscher desired to move aggressively against the Japanese. However he was overruled by Spruance who acting on the advice of his Battle Line Commander Vice Admiral Willis Lee decided that a possible night surface action with the Japanese was not desirable. Spruance instead directed Mitscher to be ready to defend against Japanese air strikes knowing that his carriers and carrier based air groups was more than a match for the Japanese air groups.   Spruance has been criticized for his decision but the words of Willis Lee, a veteran of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where he defeated a Japanese force sinking the Battleship Kirishima.  He prevailed in his flagship the USS Washington but losing three of four escorting destroyers and seeing his second battle wagon the USS South Dakota heavily damaged. A night surface engagement was not worth the risk as in Lee’s eyes it evened the playing field for the Japanese and took away the American air power advantages.

A Japanese aircraft goes down in flames

The Japanese began the action on the 19th sending successive attack waves against Task Force 58. They were met by massed formations of Hellcats vectored in by air controllers in the Combat Information Centers of the American carriers using their superior air search radar systems.  In less than two hours well over 200 Japanese aircraft were downed by the Hellcats.  Lieutenant Alexander Vraicu shot down 6 “Judy” dive bombers in minutes before low on fuel he returned to the USS Lexington.

Lieutenant Alexander Vraicu holds up six fingers on board the USS Lexington

While the Hellcats were chewing up the Japanese squadrons the American submarines USS Albacore and USS Cavalla each sank a Japanese Fleet Aircraft Carrier.  The Albacore hit the Ozawa’s flagship, the new Tiaho with a torpedo which caused minimal damage, but ruptured fuel lines. The Japanese damage control officer opened vents in the ship which allowed the fumes to spread throughout the carrier. They were ignited by a generator causing massive explosions and forcing Ozawa to abandon his flagship. Tiaho would sink by late afternoon after being ripped apart by a series of massive explosions taking with her 1650 of 1750 officers and crew. Cavalla hit the Pearl Harbor veteran Shokaku with a spread of three torpedoes causing that ship to burst into flames with aircraft and ordnance adding to the conflagration. A massive explosion ripped through the ship causing her to sink with a loss of over 1200 officers and crew.

The Japanese flagship Tiaho and her killer the USS Albacore

Toyoda desired that Ozawa retire from the battle before he suffered more losses but Ozawa wanted to stay around and hit the Americans with everything that he had left. The Americans sailed west during the night to seek out the Japanese Fleet. It took the majority of the day to find the Japanese. With only 75 minutes of daylight remaining Mitscher launched a strike despite the risk to his aircrew the majority whom were not trained in night landings.  The American strike sank the carrier Hiyo and two tankers and damaged the carriers Zuikaku, Chitoyda and Junyo as well as the battleship Haruna.  By the end of the day Ozawa had 35 aircraft in flyable condition.

The Japanese Fleet under attack, carrier Zuikaku and two destroyers on June 20th

The final part of the drama was the return of the American strike group to the carriers. Knowing that if he maintained darken ship he would lose many aircraft and the men that flew them Mitscher ordered that the fleet turn on its lights. This act though incredibly risky helped bring the majority of the aircraft to land or ditch near the task force.  The Americans lost less than 100 aircraft many due to the night landings and many of the aircrew were rescued. The Japanese also lost nearly 200 land based aircraft.

Admiral Raymond Spruance

The battle was the death-kneel of Japanese Naval Aviation. Later in the year the carriers again under Ozawa sailed against the Americans only this time they were a decoy force at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a role that they succeeded in admirably. The American carriers now had free run of the Pacific only opposed by land based aircraft many used in a Kamikaze role until the end of the war. These would cause fearful losses among the American ships heavily damaging a number of carriers.

The battle is often forgotten by due to its proximity to the Normandy landings but was a significant step in the fight against Japan. The islands captured by the Americans, Saipan, Tinian and Guam would provide major sea and air staging areas for the final assault against Japan. Tinian would become the base of many Army Air Corps B-29 “Superfortress” bombers including those that dropped the Atomic bombs less than 14 months later. It was a turning point both militarily and politically. With the fall of the Tojo government the Japanese leaders began to slowly tell the truth about wartime setbacks and losses to a people that it had lied to since their invasion of China and occupation of Mongolia.  It was a setback that even Tojo and the highest leadership of Japan knew that they could not recover.

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