Category Archives: to iraq and back

To Iraq and Back: A Bus Ride to Carolina

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series.

My CRV with Judy in it pulled away and Nelson and I went about our business. We staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment.  As we talked other sailors arrived and soon the gear of over 100 sailors was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.

Nelson’s parents, brother and sister had come to see him off.  His brother is a Navy First Class Petty Officer. His dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone.  They were really nice folks. Over the years I had heard much about them. They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.

Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter. He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally.  During his previous deployment to Afghanistan he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. A couple of months before this deployment he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family.  Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other.  For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy.  No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs.

When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal. Many times media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. We are going in as a unit.

In such times families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together.  When you deploy as a unit there is familiar support system for the families we leave behind. This is not so when you deploy individually.  Those leaving on this day were very much strangers. We would train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.

If you are a ship or unit chaplain and deploy with your people there is a relationship. Generally you know each other, in this case we were strangers.  I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors we were with today when we got to Iraq. This was also the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, mostly working with the Army in support roles. Some would serve in specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs.

As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network. I was right about her being down for a while but this deployment would be harder on her than others and the support network proved woefully inadequate. So much for assumptions.

I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in large and rectangular bags of coyote or sand color. Most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.”  We already had our personal protective equipment of the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive Army issue at Fort Jackson. There are pros and cons to such a arrangement.  The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater. The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war.  This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.

Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders.  After this we loaded our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. These were the first of many buses we would ride and the first of many roll calls and gear load outs in the coming months.

Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front.  I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat.  It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer they don’t know and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.

Many of the sailors had ever darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or religious people.  I have found that many times, even those with a vibrant faith are hesitant to approach a chaplain that they do not know. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them be judgmental about of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I try to be cognizant of this and be friendly and caring without scaring them away.  Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus ride I was still an unknown quantity to them.

Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep.  For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable.  Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable. Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe.  Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.

When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining. Part of course is a generational thing. I grew up and came of age the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The majority of these sailors from the 90’s and 2000’s.

The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching.  Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.  As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war take inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta.   Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and hundreds more wounded I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.

The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolina League. Our journey reminded me of the bus rides in the movie Bull Durham.  The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other,  We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places.  About half the sailors went to the McDonalds while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell. Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate.

When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway.  We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base. I wondered where the hell we were. Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year.  Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.

Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready.  It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.

Our welcome that first night was simple.  We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants.  We were met at the DFAC by a civilian.  I can’t remember his name but this guy was most congenial and he put the RED in “Redneck.” He joked with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did.  When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter. As such nearly every meal would be entertaining.

As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other.  He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.”  I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.”  The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.

Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready.  More sailors from NMPS San Diego were due in later. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and engaged in some rather surface pleasantries. When lights out was called lay down on the same type of Army bunk bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington.  I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage.

Much was still on my mind when I laid down and my mind was still thinking about the trip to base with Judy and the final kiss goodbye. I was troubled by it and how I had handed things. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly. It had been a long day and coupled with the lack of sleep and stress of the previous couple of days I was tired.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: A Last Night Together and a Kiss Goodbye

295_27076787058_8676_nJudy and I on the German Sail Training Ship Gorch Fock at the Norfolk Harbor Fest a couple of weeks before deployment

This is another of my “To Iraq and Back” articles about my deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 with RP1 Nelson Lebron. 

Now the time has come to leave you
One more time Let me kiss you
And close your eyes and I’ll be on my way
Dream about the days to come, When I won’t have to leave alone
About the times, That I won’t have to say

Oh, kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
Cause Im leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

From “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLBKOcUbHR0

The night before leaving on deployment and the actual day of departure are some of the hardest that any military couples or families experience. In time of war it is even more difficult. Judy and I have done this too many times in peace and war.

As I went through all of my preparations to go to Iraq in some was it was a replay of past pre-deployment situations. However, this time I was not merely deploying on a peacetime assignment or supporting a peace making operation, or even deploying on a ship and being part of a boarding team after the 9-11-2001 attacks. In that last instance  Judy did not know that I was part of the boarding team until about halfway through the deployment.

But this time going boots on ground into the most bitterly of Iraq’s contested provinces, Al Anbar. That lent at certain dark pallor to the occasion.

Our last night together was rather somber to put it mildly. Judy and I went out to dinner on Friday night. Since I knew that I would not be having a good beer for quite some time we went to the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach. For us Gordon Biersch is generally a good time kind of place, it has become over the years our version of Cheers a place where everyone knows our name.

That last Friday before the deployment to Iraq it was not a festive occasion, it was almost a wake. Judy and I were both quite subdued. In between the silence Judy talked about her fears about the deployment while I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine. I am a man who is somewhat Vulcan in my use of logic. I figured that even though things were bad in Iraq that my chances of returning were quite high, even of something happened to me. I tried to be calm and reassuring and no matter what I tried it didn’t work, human emotions are quite intense at times.

I also reasoned that since I had taken out the extra life insurance that I would be okay.  For me such logic makes sense. I kind of believe that if I don’t get it I will need it and if I do get it I won’t. It’s kind of like Yogi Berra’s logic when he said “You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”

After dinner and several half liter glasses of Gordon Biersch Märzen amber lager we went back home. Judy watched quietly while I finalized my packing. I ensured that all my field gear, uniforms and clothing were packed and rechecked my EOD issue protective gear.

I then packed my Mass kit, Bible, Prayer Book and my Marine Pattern camouflage reversible desert/woodland stole. The stole was special as Judy had made me a few years back from woodland and desert pattern shirts which were way too big for me. They are one of a kind items. I have seen similar, but what Judy made were far better than any others that I have seen. I still use that stole even when I am not deployed. It is simple but quite exquisite, adorned with an embroidered Maltese Cross in tan on the desert side and black on the woodland side it is unique and I treasure it.

The last items I packed were my books on counterinsurgency, a few DVD movies, music CDs and my hygiene items. It is funny to think that now all of this would be stored on my iPad which if I ever make such a deployment again will significantly simplify my life.

I wrestled the big bags down the stairs and put them in the back of my Honda CR-V so I wouldn’t have to fight them in the morning. That accomplished Judy and I just sat together, she was feeling pretty low, the look one of despair.

On the other hand I was a mix of conflicting emotions. I was excited by knowing that I was going to get to do what I had trained all of my life to do. However I was very cognizant of the reality that it would be tough on Judy and that it was a dangerous deployment.

My last couple of deployments had been very tough on her. When I deployed to support the Bosnia mission as a mobilized Army Reservist and newly ordained Priest three of my relatives in Huntington West Virginia where we were living died. One was my maternal grandmother “Ma Maw” who Judy had become very close to over the past couple of years. They had become buddies and Ma Maw had taken Judy in not as my wife, but as “her” granddaughter.

Ma Maw’s death hit Judy very hard and my mom and uncle in the midst of their grief over the loss of their mom they did not understood the depth of the relationship between Judy and Ma Maw. As a result, I was absent and there was much tension, misunderstanding and hurt feelings between them. In the week before Ma Maw’s death Judy tried repeatedly to get her to go to the doctor only to be ignored. The morning Ma Maw died Judy called me in Germany. She was frantic that I call Ma Maw and insist that she go to the doctor. I made the call and insisted that she go to the Emergency Room but she refused and said she would call her doctor. That night she died. I had lost my grandmother and could not go back to help and Judy had lost a woman who had become closer to her than her own grandmothers ever had been.

In 2001 during my deployment with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines to Okinawa, Japan and Korea we lost our 16 ½ year old Wire Haired Dachshund Frieda. Judy did her nest to keep Frieda alive for me, but there was nothing that could be done and finally with Judy being worn down to nothing herself, she was persuaded to have Frieda put down. The interesting thing is that after Frieda died she visited me in Okinawa and Judy about the same time in dreams. Frieda was always a weird animal and even in death has continued to find ways to remind us of her presence.

My 2002 deployment on USS HUE CITY to the Middle East and Horn of Africa came less than six months after my return from my deployment with 3/8. That deployment, coming on the heels of the 9-11-2001 attacks was also very difficult on her. In the space of 6 years we had been apart almost 4 1/2 years. Much of the time following that last deployment was spent on the road as I travelled to visit Marine Security Force and Navy EOD Mobile Units in the Middle East, Europe, the Far East and the Continental United States. In a four year period I averaged 1-3 weeks a month away from home.

With all of this in the background we spent our last night together. That night neither of us slept very well. When we got up I had a light breakfast and then accompanied by a friend from Judy’s Church choir we drove to the base.

Saturday morning traffic is generally not too bad so our trip was uneventful, but tense.  You could cut the tension between us by now with a knife.  It was about the time that we were nearing the base Judy said something about our relationship that I took really wrong. I sarcastically snapped back “Well I’ll just get blown up by an IED then.”

That sarcastic comment really hit her hard and I knew immediately that I had blown myself up with it. The words were harsh and devastating. I should have known better and should have kept my moth shut. After all I’d deployed a lot and taught pre-deployment classes talking about the emotional cycle of deployments. I was supposed to be an expert at this sort of thing, but instead my comment was very cruel.

To be sure the stress on both of us the preceding weeks had taken its toll and both of us were on edge.  For two months we had each in our own way imagined the deployment, me as a great adventure and her as a threat to our mutual existence. I wondered just what I would face when I got to Iraq and those were unanswerable questions. Judy’s great fear that something might happen to me and that she would be alone, not just for the time of the deployment but for the rest of her life.

That is one of the tensions in a military marriage that many people who have not lived it fail to understand. It is not just the wartime deployments it is the cumulative effects of multiple short and long term separations on the health of a relationship.

We got to the base pretty quick, maybe 15-20 minutes but the tension made me feel that the trip was three times as long. As we pulled up in a parking spot near the baggage drop off area we sat there for a few minutes. I got out of the car as did Judy.  I asked if she wanted to wait a while with me and with tears in her eyes said that she couldn’t handle the wait.

I unloaded my gear with the help of Nelson. He looked at Judy and said, “Don’t you worry ma’am we’ll do good and I’ll keep him safe.” Judy gave a soft “thanks” and gave him a hug.

With my gear unloaded I went back to Judy.  We looked at each other, embraced and kissed each other, each of us wondering if it was possibly the last time. We parted our embrace, and she the turned and walked back to the car, handed her friend the keys and they drove off.  It was a moment that I will not forget as long as I live. As she left I said a prayer under my breath and asked God to keep her safe while I was gone.  Then I turned to Nelson and said, “Okay partner, let’s get this done.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Living Wills, Immunizations Gone Bad and More Sleepless Nights

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series which tells of my deployment to Iraq with RP1 Nelson Lebron in 2007 and 2008.

One of the sobering things as you get ready to go to war are administrative issues that deal directly with your mortality. They are mundane actions when we do them in peacetime but chilling when you put them in context of going to war.

In our society in which people do all they can to push back even thinking about death discussing the issues that deal with your possible dismemberment, disability or your death are taboo. The month before I deployed  Iraq Judy had me take out an additional life insurance policy that doubled what the military would provide in the event of my demise.  At that point Iraq was a cauldron, hundreds of casualties each month and I was going to the heart of the action in Al Anbar province.

Part of our processing to go to combat was a will and power of attorney update.  We had not updated our wills since well before coming to the Hampton Roads area so I took advantage of this time to get it done.  The will itself was pretty easy since we have no children and have not been married to anyone else.  That was the easy part.

The next part was dealing with various powers of attorney, a general power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. The medical power of attorney is something that I routinely deal with at the hospital. I have dealt with them before in other places.  At the same time they become somewhat disconcerting when you are getting to go into a combat zone where there is heavy fighting going on. For most that is disconcerting enough, but chaplains go into action unarmed.

Sometimes when I fill out one of these I pray that I don’t end up like Karen Anne Quinlan or Terri Shaivo.  When I did it this time all I could think about was me being so badly wounded that it would be like the movie The Naked Gun.  I someone telling Judy “Doctors say that Dundas has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.” While this is going on I could just see me unable to respond trying to say “give me one more at bat skip, just one more chance…please.”  This may not seem like the most spiritual thing for a Priest to be saying but I don’t want to be in the afterlife before my time. It would be bad form.

Legal matters finished we had to get our immunizations. When you deploy the military always ensures that you are vaccinated against about everything imaginable. These include typhoid, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, certain regional diseases and probably others that I have forgotten.

I had received many of these before at various times. This included my first Anthrax vaccine. On this second occasion something happened and ti had a reaction to it.  My bicep felt like someone had shoved a baseball in it and the sucker hurt like hell. By the next morning I knew that my reaction was not “normal” because the first one I had did not do this.

I thought back to the Anthrax scare right after September 11th 2001 and I didn’t want to take any chances regarding something that the media said could be dangerous. What if they had messed up and given me a bad batch of the vaccine. Hell, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get me. Besides if I was going to die for my country I didn’t want it to be from a reaction to a vaccine and not something heroic.

So I went back to the immunization section. Like a typical officer I simply “excused” my way past the queue of sailors waiting to get PPDs read and went to the desk. I figured that I wasn’t going to wait in line behind people with routine stuff when things looked like they were getting sporty for me.I call it “self-triage.”

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The Corpsman at the desk was polite and asked what he could do.  I told him that “I think I’m having a reaction to the Anthrax vaccine.”  He gave me a funny look and asked which one in the series this shot was. It was the second and since I figured that the next question would be “did you have a reaction the first time?” I continued “This didn’t happen the first time.”

The Corpsman looked at my arm and said “Obviously sir the first time you had no antibodies to Anthrax so it had nothing to react to….”  I was thinking “no shit Sherlock” when the young man went to get his Chief. The Chief came in, looked at my arm and said: “Gee sir it looks like you are having a reaction to the shot.”

I was thinking well no shit but didn’t say it. So the Chief took me back to his office and started having me checked to make sure that I didn’t have a fever or a number of other things, like if I was dizzy or was having trouble breathing. No I was neither dizzy nor experiencing breathing difficulties but was simply in pain, a bit scared and really pissed.

After his battery of questions and a couple of phone calls asked me “do you think that you are safe to drive?”

At that point I would have said anything to get the hell out of there and get on with what I needed to do to make sure that I wasn’t going to die.  So I said “of course I am.”

He asked if I was sure and I reaffirmed this to him in a convincing enough manner for him to send me over to Portsmouth by ambulance.

Portsmouth Naval Medical has a small office manned by a couple of nurses whose job it is to report bad vaccine reactions up to the FDA and God only knows who else. These ladies were very pleasant and when they got a look at my arm they were impressed.  Once again I heard “Yes sir you are having a reaction.”

I got to answer yet another battery of questions and they took a couple of pictures of the baseball sized knot on my left bicep.  One of them made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later I was told that I would be okay. The explanation was that the subcutaneous injection had caused the vaccine to be encapsulated in my arm rather than doing what it needed to be doing. I was told to inform whoever gave me my next shot in the series to make sure that they got in the muscle. I was told to take some Motrin for the pain and swelling and do a lot of push-ups, pull-ups and massage the bicep to help the swelling dissipate faster. My fears eased and I left the hospital and reported back to the processing site where all of my fellow sailors had already left for the day.

I spent another tense and sleepless night with Judy, the emotional distance still there.  We talked about various things but nothing serious. I don’t think that either of us was able to vocalize well what we were feeling.

Even Molly seemed differed, I’m sure that she sensed that something was going on as I had continued to pack and re-pack my gear from EOD. Molly does not like it when either of us pack as it usually means that one or both of us is leaving.

The next morning I repeated my “Groundhog Day” trek back to Norfolk Naval Station fighting the idiots driving to work on the I-264, I-64 and I-564 battle zone where matching wits with the witless I safely picked my way through traffic while drinking my black coffee.

This was our next to last day of processing and we checked and re-checked paperwork, received our signed wills, living wills and powers of attorney. That morning I met with Father Pat Finn a mobilized reservist and Episcopal Priest from South Carolina and we had a nice chat where we were joined by Fr Steve Powers a retired Navy Chaplain and Rector of St. Brides Episcopal Church in Chesapeake.

Following that I was asked to assist with a sailor who was having some personal difficulties getting ready for the deployment.  These tasks completed I went back to muster with the others and sat down next to Nelson. Following this we went out where the Storekeepers and other supply staff had our gear.

We gathered outside where we lined up and given a sea bag in which to put our issue.  There were boxes of stuff everywhere and a couple of civilians and sailors stood by to ensure that we got what we were going to get.  Uniforms with all of our name tapes rank insignia and qualification pins sewn on were there as well as more socks, t-shirts and other assorted gear.

Our stash was a bit lighter than the others as we already had much of what was being issued. When this was done and we were released. I told Nelson to go home as his family was coming into town from New York.  Taking the newly issued gear home I again went about packing and repacking and took Judy out to dinner after which we spent our time alone together pondering the future.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Days at the Deployment Processing Center

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Me Aboard an Iraqi Oil Smuggler in 2002

This is another installment of my account of my account of mine and RP1 Nelson Lebron’s deployment to Iraq in 2007.

By the time the first day had ended there were nearly 120 of us being processed to serve in individual augment positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djibouti. Most of us were going to Iraq at this time since the “surge” was at its peak.

NMPS was just the first stop on the way to Iraq, for us it was the initial administrative processing that we would receive on the to Iraq. Most of our compatriots, save a few Seabees or Medical types who had served with the Marines had neither been on a deployment like this, been trained for land warfare of had served in a combat zone except aboard ship. After Norfolk we would receive more specific training and equipment at Fort Jackson South Carolina and then Kuwait.

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Nelson with an Afghani child in 2005

When compared to many of our fellow sailors Nelson and I had a lot of experience. I had served in the Army and both of us had served in infantry units of the Fleet Marine Force. Additionally Nelson had served with Naval Special Warfare Group Two, and the Marine 3rd Recon Battalion. He had previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. I had much field experience with the Army and Marines and had been a part of a boarding team from the USS HUE CITY which conducted boarding operations supporting the UN Oil Embargo on Iraq in 2002. Likewise, Nelson is an accomplished martial artist, boxer, kick boxer and MMA fighter who has competed at many levels, while I am a military historian and theoretician  with much advanced education in both on top of my theological and pastoral care training and experience.

Our mobilization processing proceeded the next couple of days as we received our immunizations, were issued DCUs and other clothing needed for the deployment.  Nelson and I of course were already well outfitted by our unit, EOD Group Two, much more so than our counterparts reporting from other fleet units or the reserves.

In spite of this we drew additional DCU uniforms, brown t-shirts, socks and a host of miscellaneous gear. Thankfully as I have mentioned, EOD had outfitted us well including boots of our choosing, not the standard uncomfortable Army issue desert boots being provided to the rest of the sailors. I had a pair of Blackhawks and a pair of Magnum 5.11’s, both much more comfortable than those being issued. As far as other gear we already had much of it, and because it was EOD issue it was superior quality to  much of what was being issued.

Wills and powers of attorneys were drawn up by JAG officers. We updated our “page 2s” the record of who we wanted notified in the event of our demise were verified. Additionally new dog tags ordered and a myriad of forms were filled out, in typical military fashion often for the second or third time.

Of course even before we reported to NMPS we had we had completed numerous online pre-deployment courses on Navy Knowledge Online or NKO to orient us to operations, health and safety issues and for Nelson classes on the M-16A2 and M9 Pistol. Some were good but many were of dubious value especially in the online format.I could have taught many of them. Obviously some contractor got rich selling them to the Navy, but such is war and the activities of war profiteers who make their living inferior products to the military.

Both of us had the additional advantage of living in the Norfolk area so we could spend times with friends or family.

At the end of each day we were able to go home while our companions who had come from other locations were staying in transient quarters on base.

Since we had the 4th of July off we would both take advantage of it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Reporting for Duty

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In July 2007 my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP1 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is one of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story.  While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis.  Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands.  This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.

July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk.  As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find.  It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute.  I transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served from 2003 to October 2006 and had not made the trip since. Thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.

As I looked for a parking space I really missed my designated parking spot back at Security Forces. I drove around for a while and finally found a spot, then after wandering around a found the NMPS offices.

I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members.  I reported there in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two. They are an older type uniform similar to the old BDUs and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear. I still have a few sets in my deployment bag but figure that if I every get deployed to such a situation again that I will be wearing whatever Army or Marine Corps uniform the Navy sailors are wearing unless serving with the Seabees, Naval Special Warfare or an actual Navy command.

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Camp Zarqa Jordan March 2007

I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language. Until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services. Now in 2013 I think there are 10 different camouflage uniforms in use among the armed forces and Congress is about to force us in the military to find a common uniform again. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a huge amount of paperwork.  I found a seat which is not hard to do with so many to empty seats choose from and sat down. I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.

Shortly thereafter other people began to arrive in twos and threes, most enlisted dressed in utilities (the successor to dungarees) while most of the Chiefs and officers were dressed in khakis. A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox.  RP1 Lebron, then an RP2 then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving.  We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.

What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us.  Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner.  Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and a Corpsman or two.

The sailors spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating. There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders, Surface Warfare, Aviators, Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps and Medical Officers.  The highest ranking officer was a Navy Captain. I was the only Chaplain.

The enlisted sailors also spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists.  They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others.  Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold. The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war and not with the Navy or our shipmates. We were strangers to each other and would be strangers to Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors that we would serve with overseas.

Nelson and I have deployed a lot. We had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the RP detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero. I think he has deployed about 10 times in his 20 year career from which he will retire this fall.

The year and a half prior to our deployment Nelson had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.  On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut.

I think to some extent his frequent deployments actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam. Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study. That would happen again during the coming deployment and lead to a pretty funny incident on one of our trips in Iraq, but that story will be told later.

Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact  kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won the 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.   He is the real deal.  Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions.  Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.

As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention and the processing site Commanding Officer came. He spoke with us a few minutes and then led us in the Sailors Creed. With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Prelude: I was Born for This

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Me in 1982 

This is the first actual chapter in my series “To Iraq and Back: Padre Steve’s War and Return.” I wrote last night that I was going to be doing this and I figure that there is no time like the present to start. Just about 6 years ago I was preparing to deploy to Iraq as an individual augment supporting the US Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security Forces in Al Anbar Province. After 6 years I think I can finally complete my literary account of my experiences in Iraq, my return and subsequent struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). 

Though I am not certain, I do think that many of us were born for what we feel called to do. As bit of a theologian I can honestly say that I am not a Calvinist or strict Augustinian who believes that we are simply playing out some predetermined role or fate on earth. Neither am I a fatalist but I really do feel, that whether it was something God ordained, something genetic or a product of my environment growing up, that I was born to do what I do.

As one who has some training as well in psychology and pastoral care I also understand that the human mind is a very complicated lump of gray matter. I know that we as human being as products of our genetic make up, our upbringing and environment, education, spiritual formation, relationships ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

So I know what I believe about my calling to serve in the military and the priestly vocation cannot be scientifically proven. That being said, I believe and that belief in my calling survived even in my times of unbelief.  A paradox for sure, belief and unbelief coexisting at the same time in the same person, but Father Andrew Greeley said it well in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

My tour in Iraq in a sense was the culmination of my calling, a call that I felt at a very early age, to serve in the military and later to be called to serve as a Priest in the military. I have long figured that to have served a full career in the military in time of war and not to have gone forward into danger to do what I have trained all my life to do.

I have a hard time not remembering when I wanted to serve in the military and serve in combat. That may sound strange but for some reason, even though I was not encouraged to follow this path it was something that growing up as the son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer who served at the Battle of An Loc in the Vietnam War that I felt was my destiny. Maybe it is faith, maybe it is some sort of mysticism or even fatalism, but I do believe that for good or for bad that I am doing what I was born to do.

George Patton commented: “A man must know his destiny. if he does not recognize it, then he is lost. By this I mean, once, twice, or at the very most, three times, fate will reach out and tap a man on the shoulder. if he has the imagination, he will turn around and fate will point out to him what fork in the road he should take, if he has the guts, he will take it.”

I am sure that my family and my earliest friends can testify to my love of all things military and the nearly romantic calling that soldiering had on my life. At nearly every turn in life I have responded to the military calling by volunteering for assignments that would place me closest to the action. There were times that my wishes were thwarted and my desires placed on hold, but they never died.

I served on the Fulda Gap in the Cold War and missed serving in ht First Iraq War because I had left active duty to attend seminary and my National Guard unit just missed being mobilized. I did support the Bosnia operation as a mobilized Army Reserve Major and during that mobilized period of service was told that I was not a place for me in the Regular Army. However, a few months after my last active reserve posting I was given the chance to apply for active duty as a Navy Chaplain. Less than 7 weeks after the first talk with the Navy I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and accepted a lower rank, that of a Navy Lieutenant to enter active duty in February 1999.

The Marine unit that I was serving with in 1999 came very close to being sent to the Kosovo crisis and had Slobodan Milosevic not made a last minute peace deal after a 70 day air campaign I am sure I would have ended up there.

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With my Boarding Team, April 2002 aboard USS Hue City

However it was 9-11-2001 that changed everything. I was in Camp LeJeune North Carolina with the 2nd Marine Division when the hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Shortly after those attacks I was transferred to the USS Hue City, a Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser. My first wartime deployment was in 2002 aboard Hue City supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch. On that deployment I served as an advisor to one of our boarding teams and took part in over 70 boarding party operations against Iraqi and other oil smugglers who were breaking the United Nations oil sanctions against Iraq.

We were in the yards when Operation Iraqi Freedom began and in the fall of 2003 I was assigned to the Marine Security Force Battalion. In my time at Security Forces I travelled around the world and often to the Middle East and Europe, but not to Iraq or Afghanistan. Because the elements that we sent to Iraq were too small to rate an organic chaplain I did not deploy with them, though I heard about the experiences of many of those Marines and Navy Corpsmen as they came to me for counsel when they came home.

Despite having spent time of the boarding teams and having deployed numerous other places in my career there were times that I felt like William Tecumseh Sherman, who missed the war with Mexico having been sent to California who wrote: “I have felt tempted to send my resignation to Washington and I really feel ashamed to wear epaulettes after having passed through a war without smelling gun-powder.”

In October 2006 I was assigned to Navy EOD Group Two and shortly thereafter my life which had been very active with more time spent away from home than with my wife since my call up in 1996 to support the Bosnia operation became much more complicated. While at EOD I was supporting very skilled sailors most of whom had deployed multiple times in the always dangerous work of defusing and defending against Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also was called to support sailors either preparing to go to Iraq or Afghanistan as Individual Augments or those that were returning home.  As I heard their stories, especially those serving as advisors with Iraqis or Afghani soldiers I knew that was what I needed to be doing.

In early 2007 a call went out seeking chaplains to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan in various roles that were not supported by unit chaplains. With the permission of my supervisory Chaplain, Captain Deborah McGuire who was at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command I put my name in the hat and was notified that I would be sent overseas. I explained to Judy that despite her misgivings that I felt that Nelson and I were the most ready, qualified and prepared team to take on the mission. Needless to say that did not assuage her fears and concerns and an emotional distance began to grow between us.

Initially we thought it would be sent to Iraq, then it was Afghanistan, and finally the first week of June 2007 the orders came down for Iraq. My faithful assistant, Religious Program Specialist Nelson Lebron would go with me. It was the first time that an existing Religious Ministry Team had been tagged to take on an independent mission of this nature.

Our orders were to support Marine Corps and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province, a mission that was new because when the advisory teams were first formed no one thought about organic religious or spiritual support. It was assumed that chaplains from nearby units would suffice but the Army and Marines learned that the assumption was wrong and that the advisors needed their own chaplain support.

The next few weeks would be a whirlwind as we prepared to go. They would be weeks that were trying both individually and for our families and neither of us would realize how much we would be impacted by our time in Iraq, but in June of 2007 that was still a part of our yet uncharted future.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Next: The Preparations

 

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Filed under PTSD, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq