Category Archives: iraq,afghanistan

Moral Injury: The Silent Killer of Veterans

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_n

This morning I woke up and got ready to go to work. My wife was up. She had been up most of the night because unbeknownst to me I had been fighting something in my sleep. Judy tried to wake me up, but I didn’t wake up, and evidently the episode lasted much of the night. I do remember some dreams, or rather nightmares last night dealing with a particular situation that I experienced in Iraq, but such nightmares are so common that unless there is something really unusual about them I really don’t think much about them.

I first heard of Moral Injury in 2009 about a year after I was diagnosed with severe and chronic PTSD. However, that being said as a military historian I have to admit that I have read about it time and time again in less clinical language. What I had more experience with were the memoirs of common soldiers and officers, as well as the experiences of Sailors, Marines and Soldiers who had confided in me at various times as their chaplain.

Marine Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. They were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think of nothing but killing and being killed.

The suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjusting, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them anymore. So we scattered them about without any “three minute” or “Liberty Loan” speeches or parades.”

Last year I was interviewed by David Wood of the Huffington Post for a series of three articles that he just published on moral injury.* If PTSD and TBI are considered “invisible wounds” then moral injury must be included. It is a condition as old as war itself and can be seen even in the most ancient of writings about war, Homer’s Iliad, King David’s grief over the loss of his friend Jonathan and many others.

I came home from Iraq forever changed. I served with Marine and Army advisers to Iraqi Army, Border Troops, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police in Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008. That assignment, which took me throughout the province brought me into contact with a part of the war that many Americans, even those serving in Iraq were shielded from, a part of the war that was never shown in the media that exposed me to realities that before serving there I was unaware.

They were uncomfortable truths. The tensions between the various Iraqi factions, the real hopes for a better Iraq held by many Iraqis and the absolute devastation that the American invasion of Iraq had brought to that unfortunate country. I saw some of the disrespectful and insulting things done by American troops that had to be dealt with by the advisors, men who were as much diplomats as they were Soldiers and Marines. I saw the damage inflicted by bombing campaigns that had little to do with winning a war, but more with destroying infrastructure that even our own war plans had determined was vital to Iraq’s recovery after the success of our campaign. I saw children wounded in fire fights, as well as ministered to the wounded coming through the Fleet Surgical Facility at Ta’Qaddum on their way elsewhere.

I have spent time with Marines and Soldiers who feel real guilt from the actions that they saw or participated in both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise I have dealt with the grief of men and women, Corpsmen, Doctors and Nurses who wish that they could have done more to save the lives of others or done more to prevent suffering. I have also dealt with those who have attempted suicide after taking part in actions that they could not live with or due to what they saw or experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately Moral Injury is not taken seriously by the military. This despite the fact many military physicians, mental health providers and chaplains are on the cutting edge of dealing with it. We are doing research, writing and treating those afflicted the services themselves do not even acknowledge it. Even as we do this some in the military, including Chaplains want to call it something more ambiguous using the Orwellian term “inner conflict” to describe something that is far more damaging and insidious.

I suppose that a big part of the reason is that all of the services do an amazing amount of work to built a set of moral values in those that serve. In the Navy we talk about courage, honor and commitment. We talk about being men and women of principle, doing what is right. Such ideas are a part of who we are, Douglas MacArthur spoke of “Duty, Honor Country” and our military academies have long taught the principle that “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those that do.”

We teach our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen values that are often more rigorous than what they grew up with at home or in school. Then we send them to war and they see and sometimes do things that are at odds with those values as well as the values that we as Americans cherish. We place them in situations where the moral values we teach them contradicted by what we teach and train them to do, and the real unvarnished truth about war, it is hell. Smedley Butler wrote:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.
If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

How we expect anyone to retain their soul and their sanity when we teach them a set of values that we as a nation fail to uphold is beyond me. The fact that the politicians, pundits and preachers who constantly insist on using the under one percent of the population that serves in the military to bear such burdens to satiate their bloodlust and then refuse to recognize their injuries and then deny them care or benefits is abhorrent.

One of the survivors of the famed World War One “Lost Battalion” wrote:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

While I was impacted very much by what happened to me and what I saw. The sad thing is that I was far better prepared and seasoned to survive what I experienced than most of my younger counterparts. After years of training and experience I felt that I was immune to PTSD or Moral Injury. Sadly, I was wrong and today, more than six years after I returned from Iraq I deal with the consequences of war, in my life and those of those that I serve.

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do expect that our country takes responsibility for the injuries and suffering that its policies have created. Specifically I am speaking to that Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who constantly lobby for war and refuse to take personal responsibility for it when it comes, and who then for matters of political expediency throw aside the volunteers who went to war for far higher ideals and motives than those that sent them.

Okay, it is time for me to take a deep breath. But I do get really spun up about this, because I have lived this reality and I get angry when I see look around and realize that for most people in this country, the plight of veterans doesn’t matter. We are just another “special interest group” to use the words of a member of a committee appointed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that wants to decimate military benefits. But even now people like Bill Kristol who have never served a day in the military and never seen a war that they didn’t like, urge that we send more men and women to war over Crimea. But I digress…

Moral injury is a silent killer of the soul and it is high time that we recognize just how deadly it is.

Guy Sager, author of the classic The Forgotten Soldier wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

I don’t know what nightmares I will have tonight, hopefully at least for Judy’s sake I won’t have any.

With that, I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Wood’s Articles can be found here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-grunts
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-recruits
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/healing

About these ads

2 Comments

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Sweet Dreams: The Desire of Those that Return Traumatized by War

947188_10151670056587059_1172426886_n

Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree?

I travel the world and the seven seas

Everybody’s looking for something… (Sweet Dreams- Eurythmics) 

The night before last Judy woke me up as I was screaming. For her it was very real, her husband was screaming in his sleep. For me, I do remember her waking me, and I remember parts of the ream. I was being attacked in a small space and somehow it related to my time in Iraq. Unfortunately it was not an isolated occurrence. It is

My dreams are strange, parts are logical, other parts disjointed and disturbing, while other parts are frightening. My dreams and nightmares, the two are frequently indistinguishable have increased in intensity since I returned from Iraq in 2008. Sleep at best is fitful. Some nights I get a few hours of decent sleep, but most nights that is not the case.

The night before last the dreams, or as they might better be described as nightmares dealt with Iraq. They were not logical, parts of my tour blended into others but in my dreams, in my subconscious I was back in Iraq, with people familiar and unfamiliar. When Judy woke me I was screaming a a woman dressed in a hajib. The last place I encountered women dressed in such apparel I was at the border crossing between Iraq and Syria at Al Waleed.

Actually I don’t know why that incident and memory triggered my nightmare. At Waleed the scariest thing occurred when I was in a meeting where the senior Iraqi Officer and senior American officer. They had to confront and relieve of his duties the Iraqi senior logistics officer who had been selling coalition and Iraqi military fuel to the insurgents who were killing Americans and Iraqis in great numbers. No women were at that meeting, but many were at the crossing point. However, I was at the meeting and was the only unarmed man in a room which resembled a Mafia meeting more than anything I hand been trained to do or experienced before that time.

It was an interesting experience. I was one of three Americans in the room along with an interpreter. There were Iraqi officers and soldiers, most believed to be allies, but also the man who was playing both sides of the street and others that might or might have not been his confederates. The really scary thing that I remember to this day was the accused officer’s appeal to me as the Chaplain, Priest and Imam. It was the first time in my life where someone who was doing something so wrong appealed to me as a representative of God to defend him. I felt soiled, dirty and dishonored. How could a man involved in criminal activity appeal to an representative of God to defend his actions?

I did my best to to deflect the conversation back to the Iraqi Commander and his American, but to this day the incident haunts me. I am disturbed by how the man appealed to me as a representative of God to vouch for his malfeasance. That still frightens me because of how often I see religious people from every tradition and faith appeal to any representative of God to justify their misdeeds. It almost felt like I was a new Priest stuck in the middle of a meeting of Mafia types, each appealing to me as the representative of God. It makes me distrust all who would do the same to this day.

Sweet dreams would be so nice. A full night sleep without being woken up screaming would be incredible. Unfortunately it seems that my brain has been re-wired by PTSD. I know that there are studies that suggest that PTSD is both a psychological as well as physical condition, the physical being the changes wrought in the brain of the afflicted.

How often I long for a good night sleep. Unfortunately no matter what I do I do not think that I will ever enjoy sweet dreams again. That is something that I wold never want to contemplate, but six years after returning from Iraq I see little reason to thing that things will change. Nonetheless I will do my best.

Maybe the upcoming baseball season will help soothe my demons and allow me to sleep again.

At least I can hope…can’t I?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

2 Comments

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The Continuing Journey: Reflections of 6 Years Dealing with PTSD Faith and Life

tom-clancy-look-2

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” T. E. Lawrence, Letter 1935

It has been six full years since I descended into the hell of the abyss that is PTSD. Back in the late spring and early summer of 2008 just a few months after my return from what I still consider my best tour of duty in over 30 years of military service with US advisors and Iraq Army and Security forces in Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008 I was in a state of emotional and spiritual collapse.

I really couldn’t believe then what was happening to me or they way that it would end up shaping my life to the present day. In retrospect my return from Iraq marked a beginning of a personal hell that for a number of years seemed like that it would never end. It was painful, it was isolating and it marked a profound change in the way that I saw God, faith, politics and social justice. It changed me in ways that I never could have imagined when I got on a bus heading for Fort Jackson South Carolina following the July 4th holiday of 2007.

Those brave souls that have followed me on this website as well as those that are still my friends despite occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, those that may not understand me but still are my friends have seen this.

So six years later what is it like?

I still have trouble sleeping, not as much as I used to but enough to impact my life. I don’t take heavy doses of sleep meds anymore, just some Melatonin as well as a mild dosage of an anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressant. A far better combination than medications that made me feel like I was hung over without that benefit of sharing too many drinks with friends at the local watering hole.

As opposed to the years immediately following my time in Iraq I have to say that I am no longer self medicating with alcohol. I remember in 2009 going out for dinner, having a few beers, then going to a ball game and drinking a few more and coming home with Krispy Kreme donuts and drinking more beer on a regular basis and usually taking a couple of shots or Jaegermeister or glasses of Spanish Brandy just to get to sleep so I could go back to facing life and death situations the next day in our ICUs. I don’t need that anymore, even though sleep can be problematic and dreams and nightmares rivaling anything I can watch on my HD TV…

I still love to pony up to the bar and share a couple of pints with friends but I don’t need it to numb myself into feeling no pain. Talking with many other vets who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or even Vietnam I know that I wasn’t alone in those dark days.

I have become a bit less hyper-vigilant though when I come home to Virginia Beach than I was just three years ago and most certainly five years ago in May of 2008. However, that being said I do notice that I am more on guard on the roads and that little things, sirens, emergency vehicles, loud noises and traffic still set me off more than when I lived in rural North Carolina while stationed at Camp LeJeune from 2010 until August of 2013.

I absolutely hate air travel. I don’t like the crowds, the stress of security or the constant delays, changes and overcrowding. Truthfully I felt more comfortable flying the skies of Iraq on Marine, Army and Air Force fixed and rotor wing aircraft and on occasion being shot at in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province than I do on any airline today in this country.

I have become exceptionally sensitive to tragedy, death and suffering. The loss of friends or major incidents where military personnel are killed in combat, training missions or just doing their job hits me hard. The worst times are when friends, or others that I know die by their own hand. When they are veterans who suffer from PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury it is like a dagger plunging into me.

Physical fitness matters more than it did before, even though I was in very good shape before and during my time in Iraq. But when I came home from that I was not only wounded in mind and spirit, but my body was beaten up. Chronic nagging injuries and chronic pain kept me from doing what I liked doing and what helped me keep my physical-spiritual and emotional balance. Those nagging injuries took a long time to heal, and they took some adjustments on my part which took me several years to adapt to and compensate in my physical regimen.  I can say now that I am in as good or better shape than I was before I left for Iraq in 2007. Maybe I’ll write a best selling book and do an exercise video like Jane Fonda…

Whereas in 2008 through 2010 and even until 2011 I was exceptionally sensitive to criticism to the changes that were occurring in my life including my move to the “left” both theologically and politically I have gotten to the point that I realize that it is more important to be honest and authentic as to who I am and what I believe. I have found that those that really matter to me don’t care so much about those things and that relationships maintained with people who don’t always agree with each other where all remain their personal integrity are far more rewarding than relationships that are first and foremost decided by allegiance to political or religious orthodoxy no matter what side of the spectrum it is from. I hate group think. Thus though I have to now consider me to be on the “liberal” side of the political and theological divide I still have to be considered a moderate simply because I refuse to make people my enemy simply because I disagree with them or they with me.

When I began this site in the spring of 2009 I named it Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate. I think I did that because it actually described me then, and now, even though I am pretty passionately liberal about some things and that doesn’t bother me in any way because it comes from my wrestling with God and faith and realizing that integrity matters more than about anything else. I have toyed with changing the title of the site but have decided against that because I am a moderate liberal committed to a Christian faith that speaks for the oppressed and is willing to confront those that would use faith, political or economic power to oppress the weak or those different from us.

Since I returned from Iraq in 2008 I discovered what it was to really question faith and God. To become for a couple of years a man who was for all practical purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed and cared. I discovered that in doing so that faith returned, different but more real than I had ever experienced in a life spent in the Christian faith and ministry.

My agnostic period gave me an immense empathy and appreciation for those who have lost faith, struggle with faith or reject any concept of God. I value reason as much, maybe if not more than faith now, not that reason is infallible or perfect, but it does allow me to evaluate my faith, and appreciate the amazing mysteries of the universe that our science and technology continue to reveal in ever more complex detail.

That brought change because my rediscovered faith brought me into conflict with people in the church denomination and faith community where I had been ordained as a priest. I was asked to leave and found a new home church and denomination that fit my life, faith experience and where I could live and minister in complete integrity. In the church that took me in during the fall of 2010 I can be faithful to the Gospel and care for the lost, the least and the lonely, especially those who have been abused by churches and ministries that have sold their soul to right wing political ideologues whose only concern is their political power and influence and would use churches and Christians to do their evil bidding. I guess that I learned that just because someone wraps the Bible in an American Flag, believes that Jesus brought us the Constitution and says that they “support the troops” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they care a whit about the Bible, the Flag, the Constitution or the Troops. I hope that isn’t too harsh….

Oh well, I feel that I am beginning to ramble so I will say good night and “God Bless,” no matter what God that you profess or for that matter don’t profess.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

313_34838767058_2205_n

Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

533506_10151366982462059_34997654_n

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

295_26912092058_3949_n

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

dien-bien-phu6

When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

262_29132262058_8844_n-2

God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

french-chaplain-and-soldiers-2

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

377

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

legion-algeria1

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

frenchforeignlegionairevtnamdod-2

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

legion-indo-china

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

french-at-dien-bien-phu

The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

943043_10151694525692059_632653331_n

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

madonna-of-stalingrad-2

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, ministry, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

295_26912117058_5652_n

It is hard to believe because it seems like it was yesterday, but six Years ago tonight I got off a plane, home from Iraq. The final flight on a commercial aircraft going from Philadelphia to Norfolk was crowded, but the people on board were polite to us, both the flight crew and the passengers, but it was like I had returned to a different world. What I entered was the same as it always had been, but I was different.

Guy Sager, an Alsatian who served in the German Army in World War Two wrote at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier:  

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

About a year after my return, actually on February 16th 2009 I began writing on this site. I began it in large part to express my inner angst and as a means to my own healing as well as to help others. The beginnings came out of my initial therapy with Dr Elmer Maggard, who I sometimes refer as “Elmer the Shrink.” Elmer asked me if I was willing to open up and share my story even though I was still very broken and vulnerable, feeling abandoned by God, the church and most clergy.

At the time I was a practical agnostic. My collapse from PTSD and the moral injuries that I had sustained in Iraq were severe, it was if God had abandoned me, and try as I might nothing worked. In the months before I began writing I had hit bottom. That was then.

The last five years of writing my journey home has been illuminating. As I look back at things that I wrote, surveyed my moods, emotions, intellectual and spiritual development since the beginning of Padre Steve’s World I am reminded of the words to the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ because my life, especially since Iraq has been “a long strange trip.” 

That may seem kind of flippant, but it is true. My journey has been strange and I could not have predicted it back when I got my orders to go to Iraq in May of 2007. I was a volunteer for the mission and what I experienced changed me forever.

I don’t know what the future holds. I was shaken when my Captain Tom Sitsch, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two committed suicide a month ago. I know far too many men and women who have died by their own hand due to the after effects of the trauma they sustained in Iraq Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. What I experience is not unique to me, and that comforts me.

I have been busy this week, between storm recovery, home restoration and catch up at work I have had little time to muse about what the years have been like. I still feel a sense of melancholy as I do every time this year. My difficulty sleeping, nightmares and night terrors still plague me, some nights are better than others but the insomnia that has plagued me since my time in country is still all too real. My anxiety and panic attacks, though diminished still remain.

Faith, which had disappeared has returned, but even that has changed. What I knew to be sure in 2007 is often at best doubt plagued in 2014. For me faith is still often a struggle. Thus I have great empathy for those who do not believe, those who have lost their faith or struggle with doubt, and I cannot condemn them. Sometimes this puts me at odds with other Christians who strongly believe, but who have no tolerance for differences of opinion regarding things which cannot be proven without reference to faith in things that we cannot see. I am okay with that. What I believe about God is more open and less doctrinaire than it was before I left for Iraq. I agree with the late Father Andrew Greeley who wrote:

“I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.”

I am thankful that I have had the chance in a number of venues to share my story. That is a gift that has been given to me and I am thankful for those who at various times have reached out to me, encouraged me and shared their stories of service, faith, struggle, doubt and loss.

In the past five years I walked with and have heard the stories of many people, veterans and their families, both in person and comments made on this site who like me still struggle, with PTSD and moral injury, as well as others who suffer from TBI and other physical injuries. They are comrades. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his book  All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”

In the next week or so I will share some more including my first article, written for my former church while I was still in Iraq around Christmas of 2007.

295_26912012058_78_n

Faith, doubt. War, peace. Madness, sanity. Isolation, community, loss and gain. So much still to learn, explore and experience despite everything that has happened. It has been a long strange trip and I expect that the long strange trip will continue. T. E. Lawrence wrote to a friend years after his war in the desert:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That is all for tonight as I have much to ponder as I sit with Judy. Our dogs Molly and Minnie passed out beside us, and I hope that tonight I will sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

A Night of Memories: Syria, Iraq and The Middle East in 2014, Echoes of T. E. Lawrence

410w-1-2

Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing…

It is now 2014, almost eleven years since the Bush administration launched its ill advised, preemptive and probably war illegal under international law, against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Tonight instead of watching the State of the Union Address, and the four separate Republican responses, or a sporting event, or some thing more frivolous I am watching Lawrence of Arabia.  

award-ceremony-dundas-31

It is fitting that I do so. I left Iraq just six years ago. In fact six years ago tonight I was in Baghdad at the Headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group, on my way out of country, being awarded a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my work with our advisors and the Iraqis in Al Anbar. It was a melancholy night. That night I was wearing my last serviceable uniform, which I had preserved for the trip home by wearing flight suits and baseball caps with no badges of rank, throughout most of the deployment. Like Lawrence’s donning of the Bedouin robes, my uniform choice, done purely by necessity made me stand out conspicuously among other Americans in country.

399202_10151366970802059_725286976_n-2

I was heading home but didn’t really want to leave, but in the process I left part of me in that long suffering country.  I have written much about my experience there and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

vault-von-saddam-statue-fall-itn-640x360

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

rumsfeld-bremer-2

In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

baghdad1917-2

T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

mosul-41

The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

26iraq_image1-articleLarge

Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount.

Syria

To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for three years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

lawrenceguerrillas1

His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

295_26912097058_4309_n-4

That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the war:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago.

As my Iraqi friends say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under ethics, Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Tour in Iraq

“A Foreign World”: The High Cost of Coming Home from War

295_26912117058_5652_n

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war. In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front

Likewise, Guy Sager a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” Guy Sager in The Forgotten Soldier

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

Bradley-12-2

Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

Lt.ColonelCharlesWhiteWhittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Congressional Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the eulogy Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because their experience is not shared by the population at large. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature.  Their camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside is broken by distance and the frenetic pace of our society. Remarque wrote “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Ending the Stigma: PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury in Senior Leaders

295_26911892058_4301_n

Yesterday I wrote about the death of my former Commodore at EOD Group Two, Captain Thomas Sitsch who committed suicide on Monday outside a New Hampshire Hospital. Captain Sitsch was another casualty of the longest wars this nation has engaged.

Many senior leaders in the military, officers and senior enlisted of every service have frequently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan as well as other locations in the war on terror. Since the war has been going over 12 years many have spent over half of their careers preparing for, engaging in, or recovering from wartime deployments. Many have suffered physical injuries as well as the unseen injuries of war, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and Moral Injury. Unfortunately they are often the last people to seek help.

In the past few years I have personally known or know of a number of senior officers and senior enlisted personnel who have committed or attempted suicide or had their careers destroyed because of their actions. Some like Captain Sitsch were diagnosed with PTSD, others displayed some or all of the indicators but either refused help or put getting help aside in order to “stay in the fight.”

In the past couple of years the Commanding Officer of a deployed SEAL Team committed suicide in Afghanistan, two Marine Expeditionary Unit commanding officers were relieved after incidents that probably have their genus in PTSD, or Moral Injury. I would almost bet that some of the issues that some of our senior leaders have been relieved of their duties for are also the result of untreated PTSD, TBI, Combat Stress Injury or Moral Injury.

dallaire-rwanda

Retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire still suffers from PTSD following his command of the UN Rwanda force in the middle of that country’s genocide. He attempted suicide in 2000 and still suffers. Last month he was involved in a car accident on his way to work in the Canadian Senate when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car. He had not slept the previous night due to reliving the horrors of that experience. As someone who still suffers chronic insomnia related to my PTSD I understand how this can happen.

The PTSD of T. E. Lawrence’s experience of war in the Middle East in the First World War shows in the pages of his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom and various letters. Lawrence, who could have risen to high rank in the military or the foreign service basically went underground under an assumed name to serve in the ranks of the Royal Air Force in the 1920s. He wrote to Eric Kennington in 1935 not long before his death in a motorcycle accident:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”  

That is a part of our military culture. Leaders are under a great deal of pressure to accomplish often impossible missions and to take care of their troops. Many have been exposed to repeated combat trauma and had to bury more than one of their troops, often after the person commits suicide. Many anguish over the deaths, blame themselves and heap guilt on top of grief on top of traumatic or moral injury.

As I said many do not seek help due to an overwhelming cultural stigma against getting help, or “going to the wizard.” Likewise they know that that the reality is that if they seek help them may never command or be assigned to sensitive career enhancing billets again. As one senior leader told me “its hard when they say if you have issues and they are known that you can still have a successful career, but you will never be promoted or selected to a critical position, again.” 

1517080376

A few senior leaders have admitted to suffering from the symptoms of Combat Stress Injury and sought treatment. The most senior was General Carter Ham who began to suffer symptoms following his deployment to Mosul Iraq in 2004. Major General Gary Patton has also sought help for PTSD. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, now retired has taken up the cause to reduce the stigma seeking to have PTSD renamed Post Traumatic Stress Injury instead of “disorder” because it is an injury.

110119-D-9880W-005.JPG

I wish I had an answer. For me it took a complete crash to get help as well as the assistance of two fine EOD officers, Admiral Frank Morneau and Captain Sitsch. Even with that initial assistance I still feel a certain stigma. My experience is that senior leaders who admit to this and seek treatment often become radioactive. I feel this most often around other chaplains. I am sure that senior leaders probably feel the same way when they are around others who either do not have the experience or who are trying to bury theirs.

One thing that I do think would be helpful is that instead of promoting stigma would be to stand alongside each other. Relationships are key to this and while professional help is good the only thing that can take away the stigma is to get back to standing beside each other in crisis rather than abandoning those who struggle. We are the willing participants in a zero defect culture which sees struggle as weakness and a mark of failure. The sad thing is that under our current system many of the greatest military leaders in history would not be promoted. It is no wonder the leaders who we have invested so much in developing and have sacrificed so much of themselves do not seek help.

grant-and-sherman-122304

I like the example of Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Both had significant problems after they left the Army after the Mexican War and in the early days of the Civil War. Grant struggled with drinking and Sherman suffered terrible depression. Sherman said of their relationship: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

The reality is that in today’s more corporate military culture that neither of these men would have ever been promoted to high command. They would have been shunted aside.

Something has to change if we are to end this terrible scourge. I hope that General Ham and General Chiarelli are working with mental health professionals are able to help change the culture, but then by themselves they cannot. That has to start as we say in the Navy “at the deck plates.” It is up to us to change our culture, to be warriors who look after our fellow warriors in their time of need and who by our actions take away the stigma that keeps our brothers and sisters from getting help.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, PTSD

My Heart Remains in Al Anbar

262_29132382058_5961_n-2

I keep a close watch at what happens in Iraq, especially Al Anbar Province.  I was there in 2007-2008 in the midst of the Anbar Awakening.  I had the honor of working with our advisors and the Iraqis of the 1st and 7th Divisions, 2nd Border Brigade and local police and Iraqi Highway Patrol. In my time there, traveling the entirety of the province, getting to work with and know Iraqi military officers and tribal leaders I gained a great appreciation for them as people and sympathy for the people there who in the course of over 30 years of war have suffered so much.

295_26912097058_4309_n-3

To do so I have to use the English language services of various Arab and Iraqi news sources as well as some German and French services to get decent information. American media tends to ignore Iraq until it cannot be ignored because to be truthful most Americans don’t give a damn about Iraq or its long suffering people. Come to think of it, as I look at the voting records and actions of those that they elect to Congress of both parties, they don’t seem to give a damn about the Americans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan either. But then it is easy to buy a “I support the Troops” bumper sticker and then elect Congressmen who instead of cutting unnecessary and wasteful defense spending in their districts, cut the benefits to the troops.

n671902058_1153829_4642-2

The situation in Al Anbar now with Al Qaida ISIL militants gaining strength and attempting to seize both Fallujah and Ramadi has brought back many memories. It has also given me great concern for the Iraqi people who I served among and Iraqi military personnel who not only risk their lives in combat but whose families are often targeted by terrorists. They are true patriots because deciding to serve not only endangers them but their families.

185615_1857288397412_3950321_n

When I came home from Iraq I was a changed man. My life, faith, politics and values were  challenged by what I experienced. I came home afflicted with chronic and serve PTSD, something that while I do better in managing the symptoms now still affects me in many ways.

295_26912117058_5652_n

Nearly six years after I left Iraq it is amazing to me how much it still permeates my soul, my thoughts and life. I can close my eyes and I can be back there, on the Syrian border, in Ramadi, and in dozens of different camps and settlements. The kindness and hospitality of the Iraqis I met is something that I shall not forget.

399202_10151366970802059_725286976_n

I do pray that the Tribal leaders in Al Anbar can take the fight to the militants and defeat them with the help of the Iraqi Army, perhaps the most trusted institution in the country. I hope and pray that the Shia leaders of the Maliki government stop the heavy handed and undemocratic tactics they have been using against the Sunni in Al Anbar. It looks that after his last meeting with President Obama that Maliki might be getting the hint.

295_26912057058_2651_n-2

Too many people, Iraqis as well as Americans have shed their blood in a war of choice launched by the Bush Administration where Bush appointees squandered any good will after the invasion through sheer hubris and incompetence. Iraq will take years to recover even if a full fledged civil war does not erupt.

533506_10151366982462059_34997654_n

The costs have been so great and I do pray that the Iraqis will find a way to unite and defeat both Sunni and Shia extremists so that they may one day again live in peace with themselves and their neighbors.

481801_10151367001287059_1003164983_n-2

I would go back again, because I did leave a big part of me in Iraq. I left my heart in Al Anbar. I can echo the words of T. E. Lawrence in his opening sentences of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 

“I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom” 

Peace

Padre Ste

2 Comments

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Tour in Iraq

Christmas at the Front 2013: A Look at Christmas Now and in Military History

German Bundeswehr army soldiers decorate a fir tree imported from Germany for Christmas eve in the army camp in Kunduz

German Bundeswehr Soldiers decorating for Christmas in Afghanistan 

Today as on so many Christmas Days in days gone by military personnel serve on the front lines in wars far away from home. Today American and NATO troops engage a resourceful and determined enemy in Afghanistan. American Marines are working to safeguard the lives of Americans in South Sudan while French troops are intervening in Mali and the Central African Republic to attempt to prevent genocide. In many corners of the globe others stand watch on land, at sea and in the air. Unfortunately on this Christmas wars continue and most likely will until the end of time as we know it.

adopt_a_platoon

It is easy to understand the verse penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after the death of his wife and wounding of his son in the US Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I have done my time in Iraq at Christmas on the Syrian-Iraqi Border in 2007 with our Marine advisors and their Iraqis.  That was the most memorable Christmas and the most important Christmas Masses that I ever celebrated. Since returning home have thought often of those that remain in harm’s way as well as those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, American and from other nations that have spent Christmas on the front lines. Some of these events are absolutely serious while others display some of the “light” moments that occur even in the most terrible of manmade tragedies.

streets-trenton

Christmas 1776 at Trenton

In American history we can look back to 1776, of course we could go back further but 1776 just sounds better. On Christmas of 1776 George Washington took his Continental Army across the Delaware to attack the British garrison at Trenton. Actually it was a bunch of hung over Hessians who after Christmas dinner on the 24th failed to post a guard which enabled them to be surprised,  but it was an American victory.

washington2

In 1777 Washington and his Army had a rather miserable Christmas at Valley Forge where they spent the winter freezing their asses off and getting drilled into a proper military force by Baron Von Steuben.

The-Eggnog-Riot

The Eggnog Riot

While not a battle in the true sense of the word the Cadets at West Point wrote their own Christmas legend in the Eggnog Riot of 1826 when the Cadets in a bit of holiday revelry had a bit too much Eggnog and a fair amount of Whiskey and behaved in a manner frowned upon by the Academy administration. Needless to say that many of the Cadets spent the Christmas chapel services in a hung over state with a fair number eventually being tossed from the Academy for their trouble.

battlezz

The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

In 1837 the U.S. Army was defeated at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee by the Seminole Nation, not a Merry Christmas at all.  In 1862 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg while to the south in Hilton Head South Carolina 40,000 people watched Union troops play baseball some uttering the cry of many later baseball fans “Damn Yankees.”

civil_war_baseball

Blue and Grey Christmas Baseball

In 1864 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other again in the miserable trenches of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed Christmas in Savannah Georgia after cutting a swath of destruction from Atlanta to the sea. He presented the city to Lincoln who simply said “nice, but I really wanted Richmond.”

general-sherman-at-savannah-war-is-hell-store

Napoleon had something to celebrate on December 25th 1801 after surviving an assassination attempt on Christmas Eve and 1809 he was celebrating his divorce from Empress Josephine which had occurred on the 21st of December.

football-truce

The Christmas Truce 

In 1914 “Christmas Truce” began between British and German troops and threatened to undo all the hard work of those that made the First World War possible.  Thereafter the High Commands of both sides ensured that such frivolity never happened again. The movie Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) does a wonderful job in bringing home the miraculous truce.

article-2106230-0003FB2000000258-130_634x578

General and Montgomery and his Staff, winter 1942

World War II brought much suffering. In 1941 after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the surrender of Hong Kong and its British garrison while two days later the Soviets launched their counterattack at Moscow against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In Libya the British were retaking Benghazi from the Afrika Corps after a brutal series of tank battles in Operation Crusader.  A year later the Americans were clearing Guadalcanal of the Japanese. General Montgomery’s 8th Army was pursuing Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Tunisia as American and British forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were slogging their way into Tunisia against tough German resistant.  In Russia the Red Army was engaged in a climactic battle against the encircled German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At Stalingrad a German Physician named Kurt Reuber painted the famed Madonna of Stalingrad.

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Kurt Reuber’s Madona of Stalingrad

The drawing which was taken out of Stalingrad by one of the last German officers to be evacuated now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Reuber drew another in 1943 while in a Soviet POW campbefore his death from Typhus in early 1944. Reuber wrote to his wife of painting in Stalingrad:

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

34_116111820

Christmas Concert at Guadalcanal 

In 1943 the Marines were battling the Japanese at New Britain while the Red Army was involved in another major winter offensive against the Wehrmacht. In 1944 Christmas found the Russians advancing in Hungary.

christmas-celebration-before-battle-of-the-bulge

 

Bastogne Christmas 

In December 1944 the Americans were engaged in a desperate battle with the Germans in the Ardennes now known as The Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas day the leading German unit, the 2nd Panzer Division ran out of gas 4 miles from the Meuse River and was destroyed by the American 2nd Armored Division.

0001photo

As that was occurring the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne was relieved by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton had his Chaplain pen this Christmas prayer:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.”

In the Philippines Douglas MacArthur’s forces were fighting hard to liberate Leyte, Samar and Luzon from the Japanese. At sea US and Allied naval forces fought off determined attacks by Kamikazes.

USO2

USO Christmas Show in WWII

During the war the USO sponsored many entertainers who went to combat zones to perform Christmas shows, among them was Bob Hope.

onship

Bob Hope Christmas Show on USS Ticonderoga CVA-14 off Vietnam 

In the years following the Second World War Christmas was celebrated while armies continued to engage in combat to the death. Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Korea as the last American forces were withdrawn from the North following the Chinese intervention which the 1st Marine Division chewed up numerous Red Chinese divisions while fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir.

size0-army.mil-28691-2009-02-09-110252

Bob Hope with 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam

In 1953 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu celebrated Christmas in primitive fashion unaware that Vietnamese General Giap was already marshaling his forces to cut them off and then destroy them shortly after Easter of 1954.   In 1964 the U.S. committed itself to the war in Vietnam and for the next 9 years American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen battled the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with Marines fighting the North at Khe Sanh during Christmas of 1967. A hallmark of that war would be Bob Hope whose televised Christmas specials from that country helped bring the emotion of Christmas at the front back to those at home.

DSChristmasmenu

In the years after Vietnam American troops would spend Christmas in the Desert of Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, in Somalia the following year and in the Balkans. After September 11th 2001 U.S. Forces spent their first of at least 12 Christmas’s in Afghanistan. From 2003 thru 2011 US and coalition partner troops spent 8 years in Iraq, that was my war.

295_26912097058_4309_n-2

Christmas with Bedouin on Christmas Eve (above) and Christmas games at COP North Al Anbar Province Iraq 2007 (Below)

483430_10151366974467059_2085986953_n

533506_10151366982452059_1397805608_n

Christmas Services at COP South Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007

Today Americans and our Allies serve around the world far away from home fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its confederates and some may die on this most Holy of Days while for others it will be their last Christmas.

Please keep them and all who serve now as well as those that served in the past, those that remain and those that have died in your prayers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, Religion, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific