Category Archives: shipmates and veterans

Rest In Peace Captain Tom Sitsch USN

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Captain Tom Sitsch died by his own hand on January 6th outside a hospital Emergency Room in Littleton New Hampshire. Captain Sitsch was loved and respected by his sailors. As an Explosive Ordnance Demolition officer and expert he was deployed into harms way many times. As the commanding officer of Task Force Troy, a Joint Task Force in Iraq his expertise and leadership helped save countless lives from Improvised Explosive Devices or as they are more familiarly known “IEDs.”

He was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two in Norfolk. He took command from Captain, now Admiral Frank Morneau. Both men mean a lot to me. They were leaders of men and care for those who they commanded. When I collapsed from the effects of PTSD in June 2008 then Commodore Morneau made sure that I got the help I needed and worked with our Medical Officer to make it happen. Commodore Sitsch was one of the first men, maybe the first to ask me the hard question: “where does a chaplain go for help?”

Both were men of compassion, and Captain Sitsch’s suicide has stunned me. I learned of his death tonight on Facebook as I had lost track of him after he was retired from the Navy in 2009.

Evidently his demons were too much for him. He suffered from PTSD, which considering his vocation is not surprising. In 2009 he was relieved of his command and forced to retire after he was caught shoplifting a pair of shoes from a local Navy Exchange. Following his retirement he struggled and was in and out of trouble. He was estranged from his wife, and he was forbidden to enter the state she lived by a court order. Four weeks before he took his life he was arrested for shoplifting at a Fredericksburg Virginia Wal-Mart. When arrested he told the police that he was a kleptomaniac.

Some who do not understand will condemn him even as he lies in his grave. I cannot. I didn’t know Captain Sitsch well, but no matter what his flaws may have been, he showed me compassion when I needed it most. For that I am grateful. Many of his EOD officers and sailors, as well as the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force EOD technicians Who served alongside him will say the same thing.

The one question all of us are probably asking is “what could any of us done to prevent this?”

Truthfully I don’t know. Captain Sitsch is not the first and will not be the last legitimate American hero to fall victim to his own demons, or end his life by his own hand. The physical wounds of war, PTSD, traumatic Brian Injury as well as what is called “moral injury” not to mention the months and years away from hearth and home take a tremendous toll on our veterans and their families.

From my perspective it seems that rank, age and experience are not necessarily safeguards against any of these conditions. It is my opinion after over 30 years of service that our military bureaucracy and promotion systems contribute to tragedies like that of Captain Sitsch. As they are set up they ensure that those who admit to struggles are shunted aside even as equally damaged individuals who “suck it up” and say nothing move up.

I was able to chat with some EOD friends this evening. That was helpful. I pray for the soul of Captain Sitsch, as well as his family, friends, and shipmates during this time of inexpressible loss.

I pray that the soul of Captain Tom Sitsch and all the departed will rest in peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under PTSD, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

My Melancholy Memorial Day Thoughts

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“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.” Flying Officer David Campbell played by Richard Burton in “The Longest Day” 

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I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war that war is at best a spectator sport. It is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.

To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all, just that no one has really called the nation to war, as such we have been at war but only a small amount of the population is called on to serve. The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely.  That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.

What I do find offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their willing lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war.

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I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them.  I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering.

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So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle. I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born.

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, shipmates and veterans

Remembering Why We Keep Memorial Day

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“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…”

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. then serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court spoke on Memorial Day 1884 in Keene New Hampshire at a gathering of veterans. He recalled an incident not long before where he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day. The question was one that he pondered before his speech and that he attempted to find an answer, not to his fellow veterans who certainly understood their shared memories of war “but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories.”

I think that having an answer for the question is as timely now as when Holmes first pondered it. Though his war was twenty years past and had torn the nation apart, there were still many men on both sides who had served in that terrible time and but even so many people were not only forgetting the war and the sacrifices made by so many but intent on becoming rich. Something that he would directly state in a Memorial Day address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1895:

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in the Civil War

“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife’s tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.”

However his message to his fellow veterans, mostly men from his own former regiment, the 20th Massachusetts was quite personal and something that they could find meaning in. Holmes understood war, he had seen much action and had been wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville. He talked of the shared experience of war, something that those who have fought in our nation’s wars, as well as combat veteran soldiers in other countries can understand far more than people that have only known peace, even while their countrymen are at war.

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Holmes remembrances of the war and the comrades that he and those present had served with, those living and those dead is powerful. Many of us who have served in the wars that began on September 11th 2001 have lost friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many more who are wounded or maimed in body, mind and spirit. Many survivors of wounds today would have died in previous wars.

Likewise his descriptions of the memories of war, triggered by “accidents” are real to those that have experienced war and combat.

“Accidents may call up the events of the war. You see a battery of guns go by at a trot, and for a moment you are back at White Oak Swamp, or Antietam, or on the Jerusalem Road. You hear a few shots fired in the distance, and for an instant your heart stops as you say to yourself, The skirmishers are at it, and listen for the long roll of fire from the main line. You meet an old comrade after many years of absence; he recalls the moment that you were nearly surrounded by the enemy, and again there comes up to you that swift and cunning thinking on which once hung life and freedom–Shall I stand the best chance if I try the pistol or the sabre on that man who means to stop me? Will he get his carbine free before I reach him, or can I kill him first?These and the thousand other events we have known are called up, I say, by accident, and, apart from accident, they lie forgotten.”

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We all have our memories of our wars, those of us who remain, be we veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea or World War II. It is hard to believe that so few remain from World War II and Korea, and that even the Vietnam veterans are aging rapidly, most now in their 60s or 70s. In as much as the wars of the past decade have been fought by a tiny minority of American citizens fewer and fewer will understand the bond that we share through our memories of the living and the dead. We have been set apart by our experiences, even though the wars that we have fought differ in many ways.

As such we should whenever possible take the time to meet and remember. That might be as groups of friends, unit associations or perhaps local chapters of Veterans organizations. We do this to remember but also to remind ourselves that we cannot live in the past alone, for the present likewise calls us to action, even after our service is complete.

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Holmes put it well: “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”

We remember the past, we remember our fallen and we remember the families who have lost loved ones in these wars as well as those whose lives have been changed and maybe even torn apart by the changes that war has wrought in their loved ones who returned different from war. In our service we have been set apart and as such as Holmes so well states we have the duty to “bear the report to those who will come after us.” His words carry forth to us today, we few we happy few as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

“nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.” 

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I will remember my time in Iraq and those that I served alongside. I will also remember friends who served in other units who did not return as well as those Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that I see every day in our Naval Hospital suffering from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

This weekend I will remember and on Monday, that sacred day that we set aside to remember the fallen I take some time at noon to join in that time of remembrance and pray that maybe someday war will be no more.

That is why I think that we should remember Memorial Day even if others forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

Happy 105th Birthday to the United States Navy Nurse Corps

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Last week was National Nurses Week. Today was the 105th Anniversary of the Navy Nurse Corps. Nurses are the lynchpin of medicine. Physicians are incredibly important and as a society we usually ascribe more value to them. However in many case, if not most it is a nurse who is the person that does the heavy lifting in the care of the sick. Before the modern era of nursing was often done by Nuns or by women that volunteered to assist military physicians.

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The First 20 Navy Nurses “the Sacred 20″ 1908

It was in the quagmire of the Crimean War that Florence Nightingale brought about the modern era of nursing, even though physicians and hospitals often saw the women who served as nurses as inexpensive help to care for the sick. Despite this nursing became more and more professional and technical over the years without ever losing that particular calling of ministering to the afflicted that is the essence of their history. In the later 1800s the first nursing schools were established and in 1901 New Zealand was the first country to have Registered Nurses. In 1903 North Carolina became the first US State to require the licensure of nurses.

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Chief Nurse Lena Higbee, Second Superintendent of the Nurse Corps, and first woman awarded the Navy Cross (above) and the ship named after her the USS Higbee DD 806 (below)

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The US Navy Nurse Corps was established n 1908 with nurses being commissioned as officers and assigned to Naval Hospitals. However it was the needs of war that brought nursing into the modern age where it is formally recognized as a key component of Health Care. In the World Wars nursing came into its own as a profession. Nurses were among the US personnel that endured the initial onslaught of the war in the Pacific. The Army and Navy Nurses that served and cared for the wounded, starving and emaciated Soldiers, Marines and Sailors on Bataan and Corregidor were heroes in their own right.

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Navy Nurses released from Japanese Captivity (above) and a Nurse aboard USS Benevolence with a POW released from Japanese Captivity in 1945

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The profession of nursing continues to grow and the women and men who serve as nurses at various levels, from the most highly trained Clinical Nurse Specialists and Nurse Practitioners, or other highly specialized Registered Nurses many of whom have advanced degrees including doctorates down to the most humble Licensed Vocational (or Practical) Nurse and even Certified Nursing Aides. These women and men are the backbone of medicine and despite the long hours, the years of training and certification required of them, many people don’t fully appreciate them until they become sick and are cared for by these wonderful people.

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Ensign Jane “Candy” Kendeigh, the First flight nurse to serve in Iwo Jima and Okinawa Campaigns

Today US Navy Nurses serve in every place one can find a Sailor or Marine. They serve in Hospitals, Medical Centers and other Medical Facilities in the United States and overseas. They serve aboard surface ships, combatants as well as Hospital Ships, with the Fleet Marine Force, in Joint and Multi-National Medical activities deployed in combat zones and in humanitarian operations.

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I have been blessed to have known and worked with many amazing nurses in the course of my career as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and as a Chaplain in the military and civilian settings. Today I was present and offered a prayer at the cutting of the Navy Nurse Corps Birthday Cake at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune. It was my 5th year serving in Navy Medicine and offering this prayer and blessing was an honor that I will always remember. Since I will be transferring out of Navy Medicine in the August-September time frame to assume new duties at the Joint Forces Staff College this will be the last one of these events that I get to officiate at for a few years.

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LCDR Eric Gryn in Afghanistan tending a wounded Afghan Soldier on a Medivac flight in 2011, he serves at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune

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As such I just want to thank all of my friends that serve as Navy Nurses with whom I have shared joys and sorrows the past several years. Blessings on all of you!

God Bless all Nurses tonight, especially those tending the sick, ill and injured and those in harm’s way.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

War is a Racket: Remembering Major General Smedley Butler USMC and Why He Matters

What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

With all the domestic political news and the apocalyptic talk and actions surrounding John Roberts the Supreme Court and Obamacare it is hard to believe that we are at war for over 10 years and are at war or now preparing for war all over the Middle East. Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, you name the place there is a real a present danger of US forces becoming involved in even more war.

Maybe it is just me but it doesn’t seem that anybody in Washington has a damned bit of sense. I saw the “tweet” of a Michigan Republican party leader asking if “armed revolt was now justified” because of the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare. That makes my blood boil, we are at war and this idiot wants to have a real live civil war and he is not alone. The process is to win elections if you want to change laws not to threaten civil war or revolution when the cause that you are against and take to the Supreme Court gets upheld for whatever reason. Anyone with a half a grain of sense knows that if you take something to the Supreme Court that you need to ask yourself the “Dirty Harry” question: “Do you feel lucky? Well do you punk?” When you go to the Supreme Court you put your case in front of nine Justices and not the electorate. That goes for Liberals as well as Conservatives.

The simple act of working together in the legislative process has been sabotaged by both parties over the years.  This finally hit the culminating point when GOP pushed through the self inflicted wound of the Budget Control Act of 2012. It is this act which now threatens the military which is at war with “sequestration.”  This threatens deep cuts in the military beyond those already anticipated and planned for by DOD. The Republicans are now trying to change it and the Administration is refusing to budge on the issue. Again this didn’t need to happen but brinksmanship is the order of the day.

There are no statesmen left in Washington DC only shills of the Right and Left and their masters from Wall Street to K Street. The only people profiting from this are the war profiteers who even if the budget gets cut and they fail to deliver usable weapon systems on time or in budget will still get paid. The losers will be the military personnel who must fight the wars who will get tossed onto the street by those that claim that personnel costs are the problem. Of course those that make this point are almost always the same lobbyists that shill for the defense industries and the banks. But enough about them.

Right now over 100,000 American military personnel and tens of thousands of other Department of Defense, Federal law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic, humanitarian workers as well as contractors are fighting a war in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more (mostly contractors)  are helping to shore up the Iraqi government or are fighting wars by other names in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa or are deployed to counter Iran or standing by to assist Turkey if it comes into conflict with Syria. Of course this does not take into account the instability in Egypt, Libya, Eastern and Central Africa that threatens even more war or the potential of turmoil in Europe should the Euro Crisis bring about more financial disaster or even revolution in countries that are our allies. By the way let’s not forget about the nutcase leaders of North Korea who could provoke war on that side of the world in a heartbeat.

But never mind this, let’s fight each other instead threaten insurrection when we don’t get our way. But wait, I digress…

Did you know that while Americans stand in harms way almost every real or potential enemy has been armed, subsidized or assisted by American corporations and paid for by American tax dollars.  We have armed much of the world with weapons that have already in Iraq and Afghanistan killed thousands of American military personnel. But those were small time weapons compared to what we have provided to Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and yes even Israel. F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighter planes, Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles, M-1 Tanks, M113 Fighting vehicles, Patriot Air Defense systems, you name the weapons system the war profiteers will sell it and US taxpayers will pay for it. These are weapons that very easily could be used with great effect to attack American interests should leaders in any of those countries decide to use them against us. I only include Israel because in 1967 its forces viciously attacked the USS Liberty which was operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as Israel launched its pre-emptive war against Egypt. Although all of these countries are “allies” we must remember that alliances are only as good as the interests and values that unite nations.

Our defense industries with the support of the government sell advanced weapons to nations that often are less than trustworthy allies, allies of convenience that have little love for the United States but welcome the weapons and training that we provide.  They often use them to suppress the aspirations of their own people and plant the cultivate the seeds of radicalism and revolution.  It is hard not to cringe when pro-democracy protestors are killed by totalitarian regimes whose police and military are armed to the teeth with American made weapons. When those totalitarian regimes fall as did that of the Shah of Iran in 1979 those weapons fall into the hands of people radicalized against us by our support of their former oppressors.

Certainly nobody seriously believes that the angry masses in the countries that we have armed to the teeth with the latest in American weaponry would not use that weaponry against us should they desire.  But wait…. our politicians, arms dealers, bankers and their political, religious and financial backers certainly wouldn’t put Americans in harms way? Perish the thought, but not so quickly. They have done so before and will do it again.

Smedley Butler is one of under two dozen American military personnel to win the Congressional Medal of Honor twice. He saw the dangers of Fascism as well as the danger of unlimited corporate and business power to profit by war. Butler was not only a  valiant Marine he was also a commander that in war and peace cared about those who served. He saw how American finance and banking interests helped drag us into the Fist World War, the promises broken by the government and the lives destroyed by war.

In his book War is a Racket Butler wrote eloquently about how the heads of corporations and their political supporters in both parties were the only benefactors of war. He wrote of the plight of the soldiers that served and returned wounded and often changed by war and he did not mince words in what he saw. He became an anti-war activist. He was a supporter of the Bonus Army, the veterans that “occupied” Washington DC during the last year of the Hoover Administration to get the bonuses promised for their service and were violently evicted by troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. If he was alive today I have no doubt that he would be an active supporter of the current “Occupy” movement and opponent of politicians, political activists, lobbyists and even preachers that advocate even more war.

Butler’s War is a Racket as well as other published works are a worthwhile read and should make the most rabid fan of war think twice. Butler’s patriotism and devotion to the United States and the Constitution is unquestioned. His warnings are strong, he was a prophet in regard to the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex well before President Eisenhower coined the term as he left office. He detailed how corporations made obscene profits often by selling the US Military vast amounts of materials that it could not possibly use and which taxpayers bought while business leaders and bankers made their fortunes that they never had realized when the nation was at peace. He reminds us of the dangers that our founders recognized about entwining ourselves in other people’s wars. While his answers on how to end war are now utopian dreams because of advances in technology and the wars which now rage without end in sight they are nonetheless not a bad place to start a debate.

Butler writes movingly about the price paid by veterans years after the war, men broken in body, mind and spirit from their war service.

“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.” 

One would think that things would be better now but our veterans’ health care system is a train wreck and there is an epidemic of suicide among active duty troops and veterans. In 2005 after years of hand wringing the Bush administration grudgingly increased the number of Soldiers and Marines even while cutting Navy personnel and ships to the  minimum that they could despite ever increasing operational tempos. The Navy was reduced by over 50,000 sailors during the Bush years and now when the Navy is needed more it has been reduced to the point that 8-10 month deployments with short turn arounds will be normal.

Now the Obama administration is cutting back partly due to the withdraw from Iraq but mostly because of the economic crisis. However the bulk of these cuts are falling on the military personnel and not the war profiteers. The Army will be cut by nearly 80,000 in the coming years the Marines by 20,000 and that may increase if the budget takes the sequestration hit without any reduction in operational tempo. These Soldiers and Marines will enter a bleak job market where many employers give little value to military experience or training, which has resulted in a vastly higher unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than the general population.

It wasn’t much different in Butler’s day. He writes:

“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.”

Butler recounted another visit to a different veterans’ hospital:

“In the government hospital at Marion, Indiana 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around the outside of the buildings and on the porches. These have already been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically they are in good shape but mentally they are gone.” 

There are thousands and thousands of these cases and more and more are coming in all the time…

That’s a part of the bill. So much for the dead-they have paid their part of the war profits. So much for the mentally and physically wounded- they are paying now with thier share of the war profits. But others paid with the heartbreaks when they tore themselves away for their firesides and their families to don the uniform of Uncle Sam- on which a profit had been made….”

I could go on but I think that Butler says it quite well and with the passion of a Marine who was wounded on more than one occasion and won the Medal of Honor twice.

The only people that want war are those that profit from it and don’t have to pay the price paid by those that have to fight them and pay for them. When I see pictures of Mitt Romney protesting in support of the Vietnam war while getting deferment after deferment to avoid service it makes my head spin. My head spins even more when I hear him talking brazenly about committing US troops to even more war. For me the pictures of Romney’s pro-war protests as a college student avoiding war on educational and religious service deferments as millions of other Americans went to war are up there with the pictures of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda giving aid and comfort to those that were killing our troops.

Butler’s detractors and they are legion on the political right attempt to paint him as an isolationist or appeaser of Hitler. However they misunderstand him and his work. They don’t understand as Butler understood that there would not have been a Nazi Germany without Versailles and that was not possible without the American intervention on the side of Britain and France in 1917. That involvement was driven by the bankers and industrialists who had supplied raw materials, weapons and technical patents to the British and French, and had done so before with the Germans who believed that they would lose their investments if the Germans won the war. That would have happened in late 1917 or early 1918 had not the Americans declared war and entered the war on the side of the British and French.

Most of Butler’s current critics have never served a day in uniform much less a day in a combat zone. They make their livings and profits by the sacrifice of others and other than a few of his quotes have never read anything about him.

If you sense indignation in my voice it is real. I have lived the nightmare of PTSD for over 4 years. I see and work with the young men and women that have bravely endured the hardship of combat deployments and come home physically, mentally and spiritually wounded. To our credit we are trying to do better but for the war profiteers that will be too much. If military spending is cut you can bet that they will not take the hit that military personnel, their families and our veterans will take. They and their political benefactors will not allow it.

I am a military man through and through. I have spent nearly my whole life associated with the military as a dependent of a Navy Chief who served in Vietnam and a career of over 30 years divided between the Army and Navy. Some of my friends dads did not return from Vietnam, other friends and those who I have served with have paid with their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan while others suffer the continuing wounds of war.

This is personal for me and it is also motivated by my faith as a Christian. Butler chided the pro-war clergy propagandists of the Great War. He wrote:

“So vicious was this war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill. To kill Germans. God is on our side…it is his will that the Germans be killed.”

Such preaching is not much different from the right wing pro-war preachers who advocate killing Moslems simply because they are Moslems and that go out of their way to preach the value of “pre-emptive war” despite such wars being against the Christian understanding of the  “Just War” or international law against such war that we as Americans helped develop after World War Two at Nuremberg and to which we hold the leaders of what we call “rogue nations.”

I only wish that our leaders; political leaders of both parties, religious leaders, and even business leaders would see the folly of this course and their responsibility for the results.

Someone has to say it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: All quotations from “War is a Racket” by Smedley Butler copyright 1935 and 2003 by the Butler family. Amazon Kindle edition. 

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The Fallen: Remembering the Human Cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Today I read through and looked at the pictures of every American service member to die in harm’s way since last Memorial Day in this week’s Navy Times. When I looked at those pictures of men and women, officers and enlisted from every service and state, native born and immigrant alike, representing many races, religions and probably sexual preferences I was again reminded of the human cost. I knew or had served with a number of these people.  The sacrifice of our military is too often unappreciated.

There is a human cost to war. As I wrote yesterday it is a cost mainly borne by those that serve in the military, their families and those close to them. There are also civilian employees, both government and contractors that also share the cost of war. I have written about men that I have known that have died in harm’s way as well as others that have died while on active service, most recently Commander Marsha Hanly.

I think that in this interregnum between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day that we remember the fallen.  They are too often forgotten in the politics and economics of war as are the men women and children non-combatants that die in the crossfire of war either to premeditated action by one or both sides or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Washington Post has a section online called Faces of the Fallen http://apps.washingtonpost.com/national/fallen/ which shows the pictures of the servicemen and women killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn. 

Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman

I simply ask that readers spend some time there before Memorial Day to reacquaint ourselves with this cost, the real human cost of war. Just about a year ago a former Marine that I had served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines in 2000-2001 was killed in Afghanistan with 6 members of his platoon when they were ambushed with an Improvised Explosive Device while pursuing a Taliban leader. His name was Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman. he had left the Marines and then enlisted in the Army and was serving with the 101st Airborne Division when he was killed on May 26th 2011, one of over 2400 American Servicemen and women killed by IEDs.  I have lost other friends and comrades in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association has a pledge to “Go Silent” on Memorial Day at 12:01 Eastern Standard Time to remember the 6433 servicemen and women who have fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan to date. One can pledge to do so in honor of a fallen Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman at their website http://iava.org/

In addition to Americans 593 British and 753 other non-Iraqi or Afghani coalition personnel have died in these wars. A further 468 contractors employed by the US military were killed in Iraq and 763 by Department of Labor count in Afghanistan as of March 31st 2011.  Nearly 50,000 more American military personnel have been wounded and this total does not include those with TBI or PTSD nor do the numbers killed reflect those that died by suicide following their time in Iraq or Afghanistan or those who died after they left the service due to disease, injury or psychological malady following their service in a combat zone. A well sourced listing of casualties can be found on the icasualties.org website http://icasualties.org/Iraq/index.aspx  Over 10,000 Iraqi Army, Police or Security Force personnel were killed fighting alongside US and Coalition forces. Numbers of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated the hundreds of thousands.

Please take some time this week to remember the fallen as well as those wounded in body, mind and spirit during the last 10 years of war. I will be focusing on different aspects of these wars and wars past this week as we prepare to observe Memorial Day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Too Young: In Memory Commander Marsha Hanly, Nurse Corps US Navy

LCDR Marsha Hanly caring for a patient in the ICU of the USNS Comfort 

“Nursing is an art:  and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit?  It is one of the Fine Arts:  I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts.”  Florence Nightingale

This afternoon I was stunned to learn that a very dear co-worker and friend from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth had unexpectedly passed away. Marsha Hanly was a ICU Nurse who arrived at Portsmouth about the same time I did in 2008. She had just completed a Master of Science in Nursing at Duke with a specialization in Adult Critical Care nursing.  Marsha exemplified all that is good in nursing and was as devoted to her calling as Florence Nightingale described.

I remember what seem like countless times where I stood beside Marsha as she cared for critically ill or dying patients, comforted their families and helped the other nurses and physicians in the ICU. I also cannot count the number of times that she stood by me as I prayed for patients as they lay in critical condition. She was an outstanding nurse and Naval Officer as well as one of the most kind and compassionate people that I have ever met. She was devoted to her husband and children and to the welfare of those committed to her care. She was funny and joyful person who was real. She was a committed Christian, wife, mother and fantastic nurse. She could laugh and she could cry, she really loved and cared for those that she served.

Last year Marsha deployed on the Hospital Ship USNS Comfort as part of Operation Continuing Promise, a medical mission to the Caribbean Sea, South and Central America. While deployed she was selected for Commander in the Nurse Corps. She returned late in the Summer and in November was diagnosed with Cancer. She underwent successful surgery which left her cancer free but in need of Chemotherapy to ensure that she remained so. She returned to work in late April and began her Chemo this week. Her last post on her Caring Bridge blog ( http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/mahanly )talked about how she described what she believed would be the course of her Chemotherapy, side effects and how long it would take. She was looking to the future and even to this weekend with her children. I don’t know the circumstances of her death but imagine that it was a sudden and catastrophic event related to the Chemo in some way.

When I read the news on Facebook, where I keep up with my friends from that ICU as well as so many others in my life I was stunned. As I read the comments of her fellow nurses and my former co-workers, nurses and physicians alike I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I couldn’t believe it because I simply expected this otherwise healthy, young and vibrant woman to sail through Chemo and completely recover. I am so stunned that I cannot believe that his has happened.

This is one of those times where I ask God “why?” I have to admit that I cannot understand this and I have a hard time with the whole “God’s will” thing when things like this happen to people like Marsha. People that devote their lives to caring for others and raising their young children.  I grieve for her husband and kids, I remember her bringing them in to work sometimes.  I pray for her husband Scott and their two young

Likewise I grieve for those who knew and loved her in the Portsmouth ICU. For those that have not been closely connected with those that labor in critical care specialties like a busy ICU there are few places where people bond so closely. Critical Care Nurses and Physicians work in a surreal world where life is constantly hanging in the balance and as a result have a camaraderie that is much like combat soldiers, police and firefighters. This is not just a job, it is a calling, in a sense a sacred vocation. Marsha exemplified the best of her profession and what it is to be a friend.

Even though I left Portsmouth in October 2010 to come to Camp LeJeune I still count the staff there as my friends. We went through a lot together. Many of them were there for me when I was going through difficult times as their Chaplain. Marsha was one of those people. I cannot imagine her not being there when I go back at some point or not seeing her serving and caring for Sailors, Marines and their families somewhere else.

Last week we honored Nurses during National Nursing Week and the anniversary of the founding of the Navy Nurse Corps. Marsha was the best of both. The Nurse Corps has suffered a terrible loss.

Marsha touched so many lives. I know that my former co-workers and friends at Portsmouth are taking this hard. It doesn’t seem right and it doesn’t seem fair. I have a hard time theologizing deaths of people like Marsha. While I am sure that the Lord has her with him I don’t understand her loss here.  While I fail to understand I do still pray that God must have a purpose and I do give thanks for the honor and privilege of knowing Marsha and working with her. In times like this I find some comfort in the prayers of the liturgy and find this one from the Book of Common Prayer to be one that I can pray in good conscience even when I struggle.

“O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister Marsha. We thank you for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Rest in Peace Marsha. Rest in peace.

Padre Steve+

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A Memorial Service for HM1 David Graney and the End of a Long Week

This has been a busy week. It began with an unexpected emergency to baptize the grandchild of a dear friend injured in a terrible household accident.  I drove from North Carolina on Sunday to Virginia Beach and returned Monday evening. When I returned I was getting ready and preparing for the memorial service for a shipmate who died just two months from retirement, a service that we conducted today. After the service I was able to drive back to see my wife Judy and our nephew Adam, an Army Sergeant who is taking a course at Fort Lee and who is visiting for the weekend.

I am tired but blessed. Despite the hectic schedule I do love what I do and the people that I have the honor of serving.  Today was no exception as I had the honor of conducting the memorial service for Hospital Corpsman First Class David Graney, a Cardiovascular Technician at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune.

David was preparing for retirement and was just two months away from when he would retire when he passed away. He was beloved among his fellow sailors, a mentor, friend, shipmate and leader. He was so knowledgable about his work that many people that he met in professional settings assumed that he was a fellow Cardiologist and not a technician who was attending conferences with the Cardiologists that he worked for and with. He was a leader who took care of his sailors teaching, caring and helping. He was a model Corpsmen. He was honest, forthright and did not hesitate to give his professional opinion and had a devastating sense of humor. I did not know him well, I had only met him a few times but from what his friends, shipmates and co-workers said I realized that David was a gem of a human being ad wonderful sailor.

His memorial service was attended by his family as well as former shipmates who travelled from across the country to attend. With our sailors drawn up in ranks in their dress blues David’s friends and shipmates recounted his impact on their lives.  I had the honor of conducting the service as well as preaching the homily.  I was really touched by the words of a young Corpsman who David led, as well as the words of our staff Cardiologist and a Petty Officer who had attended the Cardiovascular Technician course with David. What was consistent was that David was honest, forthright, knew his job, cared about those that were in his charge and was incredibly funny.  His death, sudden and unexpected reminded us all of our own mortality.

David will be missed by all those whose lives he touched. His death tore a hole in the fabric of the community that he served and in his family. I know that I wonder and ask the “why” question when someone like David dies seemingly before he should. Of course the “why” question cannot be answered except that for all of us death is a certainty, but not necessarily the end. Likewise that God will not fill the hole that is left in our lives when we lose someone dear to us. We can try to do it but that is ultimately self defeating because as long as that hole remains we remain connected to the one that we have lost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” 

I am tired right now, but have been privileged to be a part lives of the people that I have be able to serve this week. The are friends, they are shipmates, they are family.  They are part of the tapestry of my life.

Tonight I was able to celebrate the birthday of a friend at Gordon Biersch and I will check in on my friend whose grandson was injured while I am home. It should be a nice and hopefully relaxing weekend wit Judy, Molly and our nephew Adam before I return to North Carolina on Monday.

Have a blessed weekend.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts after a Walk on the Beach: The Tapestry of Navy Life and Relationships

I walked Molly down to the beach tonight as she insists on every night that it is not raining.  In the dark sky the stars twinkled and I pondered the events of the past few days.  The roar of the surf and the phosphorescent waves breaking on the white sands of the beach are comforting and the fact that the dog likes the walk and is funny to watch makes it most enjoyable and relaxing experiences outside of baseball that I know. I am able to do a lot of thinking, and even some praying in the stillness of these night walks. Last night was all about the tapestry of military life and relationships.

Despite its size the US Military is quite small in relationship to the rest of the population. Military life is unpredictable and the relationships that we have with each other are very interconnected in ways that are seldom duplicated in the civilian world. That is especially true of those that serve together overseas, in combat zones or deployed on ships for long periods of time.

Our lives become bound together and even though our service together may be measured in but a few years or in some cases months, the ongoing friendship and relationships go on the rest of our lives. I have seen that growing up as my parents Navy friends and the tapestry is quite amazing.

Gerry and I at his Retirement 

Gerry and I go a ways back and have been together through good times and bad, promotions and success, deployments but also difficult times. During those times we have been able to be there for each other, from the unexpected death of his wife from a heart attack to him being there for me after my return from Iraq.  He attended my promotion to Lieutenant Commander and I had the honor of officiating at his retirement ceremony.

Gerry and his family experienced another hard blow when his four year old grandson was critically injured last week. We talked about it but decided to wait for me to travel to Virginia. However late on Saturday night I received a call from the duty chaplain for the Norfolk area asking if I would come to baptize my friend’s grandson. The duty chaplain is another long time friend who responded to the situation and helped support Gerry and his family during the crisis on Saturday.

My command gave me the permission to make the trip which involved me having to pass the on call chaplain duty to one of my subordinate chaplains.  It is amazing how in the Navy more often than not commands will do whatever they can to care for their sailors and families. We tend to look out for each other. Some commands are better than others but I really don’t know any other organization that works as hard to make sure that their people and families get support in crisis situations as the Navy does. It is not perfect and sometimes thing don’t work out but more often than not the people that run the organization know the importance of taking care of the Navy family.

Gerry’s grandson appears to be making his way out of danger and the baptism service at the bedside in the Pediatric ICU was very special.  Please pray for little Evan as he continues to recover and his family as they navigate the difficult times ahead.

Before I drove back to North Carolina Monday morning I had coffee with my friend after doing some more ministry with the family.  We talked of the specialness of the Navy family and the friends that we know that will be there for us.  Having been on the both sides of this equation I can say that it is something special.

Of course I will continue to be in contact with my friend and his family and see them on the times that I visit my own dear wife Judy, who as some many other Navy wives do is spent another Valentine’s day without me.  At least the gift that I ordered got to her on time and she is happy with it even though I could not be there.  I have lost count of the number of special days that we have been apart during my career in both the Army and the Navy. But that is another subject for another time.

The subject is the relationships that our lives our part of an indelible tapestry woven together with the lives of others. The tapestry is not simply composed of the most beautiful or pleasant events, often it is woven out of the tragedy and suffering that brings us together.

On Friday I will be conducting a memorial service for one of our sailors that died just two months before he was to retire. I did not know him well, but he touched many lives and in addition to his family many sailors will be coming in for this memorial service at their own expense from all parts of the country.

With members of my boarding team on the USS Hue City in the Arabian Gulf 2002

In the Navy and for that matter in the rest of the military we share the dangers and hardships of defending our country, deploying away from our families, and going to war.  Our families share in that as well. Our lives and experiences be they be joyful, triumphal or painful are shared.  It is in reality so much like the words of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name; “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Brotherhood: Veterans Day 2013

I am always a bit on the melancholy side on Veterans Day.  This year is no different but is a bit different because for the United States the war in Iraq is over, at least for now while the war in Afghanistan grinds on as we prepare to transition.

For me our wars are more about the incredibly small number of Americans who for the past 12 years have borne the burden of these wars.  They are my brothers and sisters, the 0.45% of Americans that serve in the military.  While this is a terribly low number it is only marginally lower than most of our previous wars.

In fact for most of our history it has always been a small minority of Americans that have fought our wars.  Kind of funny when you think about how much our culture worships militarism. World War II was an anomaly as just over 16.1 million people or 9% of the population served in the military then.  That number while large pales in comparison with percentages of those that served in other nations involved in the Second World War. The reason that I point this out is just to say that as a nation it has always been the few that have borne the cost of war. We are “the few.”

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. The real fact of the matter is that these ill advised wars have harmed us as a military and as a nation, our superpower status which was uncontested before 9-11-2001 is challenged because our military is hollowed out, economy weakened and our moral authority questioned by those wars, war crimes and spy scandals.

I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most Americans 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 have become a society apart from the society.

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 many of the 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, most who were drafted, 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  4483       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4801

Afghanistan     KIA  US  2290         UK 446     Other 659        Total  3395

US Wounded   Iraq  32224      Afghanistan   17674

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 six years since I served in Iraq and five 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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