Category Archives: Tour in Iraq

A Song of Souls Changed by War: The Minstrel Boy

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Absolution of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg by Father Corby

Friends of Padre Steve’s World. All the things going on in the world, wars, disasters, plane crashes have all have had me a bit melancholy of late. I wonder about all the tragedy, what is going on in Iraq, where so much of my heart is still invested, the situation in Ukraine and the ongoing, seemingly never ending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and in the midst of it I am reminded that even today thousands of Americans are still in Afghanistan, pretty much forgotten by most Americans.

So today I have re-done a very old article about a song that means much to me; the Irish song The Minstrel Boy. 

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone, In the ranks of death ye will find him; His father’s sword he hath girded on, And his wild harp slung behind him; “Land of Song!” said the warrior bard, “Tho’ all the world betray thee, One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain Could not bring his proud soul under; The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again, For he tore its chords asunder; And said “No chains shall sully thee, Thou soul of love and bravery! Thy songs were made for the pure and free They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray When we hear the news we all will cheer it, The minstrel boy will return one day, Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit. Then may he play on his harp in peace, In a world such as heaven intended, For all the bitterness of man must cease, And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

In February of 2008 I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisors that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisors with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the distain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the television mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned. I don’t regret that and do believe that it is a good thing. If we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

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I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJudJ9S579A

This is dedicated to all those who have served, those still serving in harm’s way and all who have gone through the pain of war, until war shall be no more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree?

I travel the world and the seven seas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least I can hope…can’t I?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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God in the Empty Places. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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My Heart Remains in Al Anbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Ste

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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

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

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

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In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Where I Belong: Padre Steve and the Christmas Truce

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Christmas 2007 COP South, Al Anbar Province Iraq

“I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Father Palmer, the Chaplain in Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Last night I again watched the film classic Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead.  His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

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Father Palmer Tending the Wounded

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

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The Bishop Leads His “Service” 

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“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.”  Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

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Christmas Eve 2007 with the Bedouin 

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisors without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care.  So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been six years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Severe and Chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy.  It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.  

As for me I am in a better place now. I still suffer some of the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but I do believe again. Like the Priest in the movie I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” Like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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The Season of Hope: Advent and PTSD

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“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.” Jürgen Moltmann

Advent and Christmas are my favorite times of the Church year. But that being said I don’t see them in isolation from the rest of the Church year, especially Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. In fact they cannot be divorced from them. However for me the mystery of the incarnation and the season of waiting in hope is incredibly important in a world that mystery is unappreciated and waiting is an annoyance.

The beginning of Advent stands in stark contrast to the false God of Black Friday. Black Friday is marked by a materialistic rush for all that satiates our desires. Waiting takes a back seat to the throngs of shoppers lined up for a mad rush at retail outlets.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea I am not against business making profits or people saving money. However that being said the stark contrast between the crass materialism exhibited by our consumerist culture that is blessed by many Christian Conservatives and the message of Advent and Christmas.

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The starkness between the two really became apparent to me when I returned from Iraq in 2008 suffering from severe and chronic PTSD. It  something that still plagues me though not to the extent that it did for a long time. During that terrible time hope was hard to come by. In the midst of the madness I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic just praying that God still existed. Only my deep sense of calling as a Priest and Chaplain kept me going as I served in the ICUs of a major medical center working with people facing death and their families.

On Christmas Eve of 2008 I was doing so bad that I handed my wife the keys to our car at the Christmas Eve Mass where she was singing in the choir and walked home in the dark and cold. If there had been a bar within a few blocks I would have walked in and poured myself out. I understood the depth of hopelessness that Dante wrote about.

But a year later I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” while administering the last rites to a dying patient in our emergency room. It was a miracle and for the first time since Iraq I felt the mystery and wonder of Advent and the Incarnation.

Faith returned, albeit different. In place of the certitude that marked my previous faith I was now open to new possibilities as well as being okay with doubt. I rediscovered, or maybe better put discovered the importance of being human, something that the Gospel makes so clear when it comes to the humanity of Jesus. Jürgen Moltmann wrote of the incarnation:

“God became man that dehumanized men might become true men. We become true men in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving, the human God.” 

In a sense I was born again in that emergency room that Advent night. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Advent creates people, new people.” That I agree with.

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However there are some that profess to have a direct line to God who neither understand faith, life or humanity. On a Veteran’s day broadcast of The Believe’s Voice of Victory two of them made some incredibly ignorant comments about PTSD. Kenneth Copeland the host of the program a long time prosperity Gospel charlatan and huckster and the faux historian David Barton made the comments that real Bible believing Christians could not get PTSD. Copeland stated:

“Any of you suffering from PTSD right now, you listen to me. You get rid of that right now. You don’t take drugs to get rid of it, it doesn’t take psychology; that promise right there [in the Bible] will get rid of it.

But truthfully there is no promise in the Bible that says that you get rid of PTSD or any other neurological condition. The fact is that many Fundamentalist Christians believe that such conditions are a product of the sin of the individual. Something that they take from Douglas Adams’ “Nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling. Adams’ who believes that mental illness, including PTSD is not a “sickness” but due to the “sinfulness” of the afflicted person. This really is not much different than what Scientology preaches but it finds a home in many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian circles.

Barton added to Copeland’s ignorance showing that he is not only an ignorant pseudo historian but a danger to any person suffering from PTSD. Barton said:

“What we’re talking about, getting rid of the PTSD, guys who have been through battle, they need to understand that soldier’s promise, you come back guiltless before God and the nation…You’re on an elevated platform up here, you’re a hero, you’re put in the faith hall of fame if you take this [Bible],…We used to in the pulpit understand the difference between a just war and an unjust war. And there’s a biblical difference, and when you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.”

To cut to the chase these men believe that if you are a soldier suffering from PTSD it must be your sin causing it. Likewise if you are Barton you believe that if you kill in the name of Jesus it is not a sin, you are a hero of the faith. That sounds a lot like Al Qaeda’s understanding of killing in the name of Allah, and some people get mad at me when I call men like Barton “Christian Taliban.” But if the shoe fits they can eat it.

Barton, Copeland and their fellow travelers embody the worst of modern Evangelicalism and their type of Christianity is why young people in particular are leaving the church and not coming back. They are anti-science, anti-reason, anti-history and dare I say, Anti-Christ. Reducing the Bible to a technical manual they strip the mystery of faith and life out of the scriptures. Their certitude flows from a combination of arrogance and ignorance. Devoid of compassion, and love, consumed by the lust for power they are dangerous. Armed with money and air time they spread ignorance and hatred of others not like them and call it “the Gospel.”

Like Black Friday they too stand in stark contrast to the message of the Gospel proclaimed during Advent and Christmas as well as the week of the Passion.

For me, still suffering from PTSD I find great comfort and hope in the message of the season of Advent. It was during Advent that my faith and life returned.

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Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Gal 4:4-5

Now I look forward to the coming of Jesus, but on a daily basis, in the life I live in the real world where people like me struggle. It is the world that Jesus

I look forward to this time of hope and patient expectation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Reasons for Thanksgiving in 2013

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“Be thankful for what you have. Your life, no matter how bad you think it is, is someone else’s fairy tale.” Wale Ayeni 

Judy and I celebrated a wonderful Thanksgiving today with some dear friends. We had it easy, our job was to bring the growlers of Gordon Biersch Beer, which is a lot easier than having to cook. Our friends prepared a wonderful meal and as we talked, ate drank and watched football we were reminded that Thanksgiving really is about being thankful for all things in life.

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We have a lot to be thankful for and no matter how hard we have had it at times over the years we have it pretty good. Today was a nice day. Had we not gone over to our friends we probably would have invited people without family in the local area over. We have done that before. The past few years with me being either deployed or stationed away from Judy when we had thanksgiving together we would either cook a small traditional meal at home or go out. When we got home we watched a movie and hung out with our dogs Molly and Minnie.

At least though what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving has changed over the years. Mark Twain described the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Twain as opposed to those who mythologize the Pilgrims and those who followed them was actually a pretty fair summation:

“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.” 

I think my most memorable Thanksgiving in the past decade is Thanksgiving in Iraq back in 2007. At that time we had just come in from a mission in the far reaches of Anbar Province, a mission which had to be curtailed because visiting congressmen had sucked up most of the air assets. It was interesting to be in cold tents and air terminals sleeping on cots with several hundred others in the same boat. So after three days of being marooned at an intermediary stop we got a flight back to our home base.

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When we got back I was one of the servers, working alongside the vastly underpaid and overworked contract workers from India and Sri Lanka employed by an company affiliated with KBR-Halliburton in the DFAC or Dinning Facility. Those guys worked for 2 years 6 days a week, 12 hour days for about $8000 of which half was paid to the agent that hired them. I developed a healthy appreciation for these wonderful people who always kept a good attitude even when some Americans treated them rudely over things that they often had no control. Many were Catholic or Anglican Christians who were incredibly gracious despite their situation. My friend Fr Jose Bautista made sure that he celebrated Mass at their compound which was away from the main areas of the base.

Despite being exhausted from the trip worked the line for a couple of hours cracking jokes with our Marines, Sailors, Soldiers Airmen and civilians as well as the DFAC employees. It is a Thanksgiving that I will always remember, especially because of the people and being away from home and knowing that I would be going out again soon to the far reaches of the province.

Thus I always remember my brothers and sisters deployed in harm’s way and those deployed or stationed away from their families and friends at home.

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Today was wonderful and tomorrow will be spent around the house helping Judy do some cleaning and getting ready to put up our Christmas decorations over the weekend. Since I am not a fan of the craziness of Black Friday this will be a fairly relaxing day.

I do wish you and yours a blessed weekend and pray that your Thanksgiving went well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart

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This is second part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the second of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first part is linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

“There is a twilight zone in our hearts that we ourselves cannot see. Even when we know quite a lot about ourselves-our gifts and weaknesses, our ambitions and aspirations, our motives and our drives-large parts of ourselves remain in the shadow of consciousness. This is a very good thing. We will always remain partially hidden to ourselves. Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we ourselves can. The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. We will never fully know the significance of our presence in the lives of our friends. That’s a grace, a grace that calls us not only to humility, but to a deep trust in those who love us. It is the twilight zones of our hearts where true friendships are born.”Henri J. M. Nouwen

Dear Chaplain

The next section of our discussion is about the “minefields” that we so often encounter as Chaplains and to some degree as Ministers, Priests or Rabbis or other religious leaders. As I noted in the first section I am dividing these “minefields” into three major areas; the personal, the behavioral and the professional.

This section is about the “personal” minefields which I call the “Minefields of the Heart.” I call it this because it seems from the Christian and Jewish Scriptures the heart is the figurative locus of what we are, good and bad alike as human beings.

Of course there is always some spillage between the areas personal, behavior and professional areas and our behaviors and professional relationships are certainly influenced by the things that we hide deep in our hearts. As human beings we may try to compartmentalize our life to keep things apart such as keeping our personal life separate from our professional life, or hide behaviors from our friends, families, peers or co-workers; but the cold hard fact is whether we are aware of it or not each area impacts the other. If we are not aware of this fact, if we have little self awareness, if we have self awareness but try to live our lives with the illusion that we can separate our lives into neat little boxes we will most undoubtedly hurt ourselves, and as spiritual leaders harm those that come to us.

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There is a scene of the last episode of Star Trek the Next Generation entitled “All Good Things” that comes to mind.  In it the being known simply as “Q” helps Captain Picard discover how his actions influence human history.

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.

Capt. Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

You may wonder where I am going with this but it has to do with the personal minefields, those that exist inside of us, those that lurk beneath the surface which if we are unaware wreak havoc on everything else that we do. In the episode of Star Trek that I am referring to Captain Picard is allowed by Q to see the effects of his actions and to see how limited his thinking was.  The challenge for us is chaplains are to be aware of what Nouwen calls “the twilight zone in our hearts” and how what is at the depth of our heart impacts everything else that we do.

Too often though, mostly because of our own personal limitations and serious lack of real theological and pastoral formation involving self reflection and exploration we fail to see them. Like an uncharted minefield we are unaware of them until we either discover their existence through accident and “blow ourselves and others up” or until we listen to those that can see those twilight zones, those minefields better than we ourselves. Of course the latter, especially when it comes from those who love us, care for us and have our best at heart is the preferable method to learn about these things.

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However, that being said part of this can be done through reading. A lot of us simply read “how to” type books when it comes to ministry. We seek direct easy answers in how to run our programs be it in the church, in a para-church ministry or in the chaplaincy. Believe me there are plenty of those kinds of books out there, not only that but a plethora of “self help” books that tell us the “three things we must know” the “five whatever’s to success” or the Seven Habits of Highly Defective People.” The sad thing is, even when these books contain nuggets of truth, they serve it like fast food and reduce it to the lowest common denominator. In a sense, even the most well intentioned of these “how to” or “self help” books promote a reductionist view of faith, spirituality, psychology and in some cases ethics and doctrine.

Reading is important, especially the hard stuff, philosophy, history, moral theology, but also things that you might not expect science fiction for example. In addition classic literature from antiquity and from non-western traditions also sheds light on those personal minefields. Heck we can even find truth in television and film, note my continued references to Star Trek. I find that God can speak to us in many ways.

As Christians we may also find lessons, insights and inspiration from the Bible that can be quite helpful. Unfortunately most of us have so many theological filters in place that we often miss the very things that would be most helpful to us. They can serve as blinders that keep us from sensing what the Spirit of God is trying to teach us. Our church, denominational or theological traditions as well as our hermeneutical methods often cloud our minds to what God is trying so hard to say. It was a problem that the religious establishment of his time had with Jesus, and often with the various prophets that preceded him whose stories we read about in the Old Testament.

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I am sure that others who are not Christians can say similar things about their faith, traditions and holy books. I remember an Iraqi General who I met who took the time to show me his well worn and read Arabic-English Bible. He was a Moslem, but he said that he learned so much from it because it was different than what was in the Koran and he meant no disrespect of his own faith by saying that. He had opened his mind to truth that others turn a blind eye to.

Some of the personal issues that prove to be deadly include what we don’t know about ourselves, usually dating back to childhood, how were raised, how we see God, if we perceive ourselves to be worthy of God’s love or worthy of the love and respect of others.  Those attitudes, especially those created as a result of negative relationships or even physical, emotional or sexual abuse, abandonment and rejection are powerful. Many of us like to pretend that we have gotten past those things but few of us actually do. Unfortunately there is a tendency for those issues to raise their heads in often very ugly ways as we minister as Chaplains.

For example: Let us say that we are distrustful of authority because of having an abuse parent, that we fear that no matter how well we do that there is always someone waiting to take us down. Let us say that we had previous experiences in the church, at work or maybe in prior military service where we were mistreated by those in authority.

I have found that if that condition is not dealt with that in a hierarchical organization such as the Chaplain Corps and the military that it is almost always fatal to the ability of the chaplain to minister in the organization. That is because the military is based on trust, our lives and mission depend on it. We have to trust the chain of command, we have to trust those that serve alongside of us and we have to trust our subordinates. There may be times when the chain of command fails and things don’t go right. There are toxic leaders and there are also toxic chaplains, one has to be aware that they are out there, know how to deal with them or survive under their command but one cannot presume that everyone is like that, trust is essential.

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I find it interesting that Jesus commended the faith of the Roman Centurion when instead of asking Jesus to come to his house and heal his servant simply said “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”Matthew 8: 8b-9 Jesus told the people around that “he had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Jesus saw the virtue of the Centurion, a virtue that many of his own people were lacking.

That is just one of a myriad of personal issues that can trip up a Chaplain in the military. The fact is that issues of the heart those things that we don’t like to admit are true about us, things that we are unaware about or in outright denial about in our lives are the things that go to the “heart” of who we are.

As fa as the minefields of my heart, they too are many. However the one that gets me time and time again is my passion for justice and my visceral reaction to those that I believe are bullies. That comes from my childhood. As a Navy brat I was always the new kid in town, and being that I was kind of the short, shy and introverted kid I was also kind of a nerd, or geek. I was not gifted with speed or great athletic abilities and it took me a while to find my academic prowess. That meant that I often didn’t fit in and though I was generally well liked that I would on occasion be bullied and I learned to defend myself, not very well at times but well enough to as the Klingons say “to die an honorable death.”

Jeremiah the prophet, who admittedly was most certainly clinically depressed if you look at his writings did note that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 Depressed or not Jeremiah did seem to understand that what he and many writers of scripture call “the heart” is hard to understand, especially when it is our own.

Thus I go back to Nouwen’s comment about the “twilight zone of the heart” that we cannot see. That it is why as Chaplains we have to develop relationships with people who can help us see what is in the twilight zone of our hearts and lovingly come alongside of us, not just as colleagues but as friends.

Those people may be clergy or other chaplains, but then they may not be. Perhaps they are senior enlisted personnel, long time friends, teachers, spiritual directors, counselors or our God forbid our spouses, I jest about the latter because my wife can see things about things about me that I cannot see, she is incredibly wise.

The minefields that exist in our hearts are so varied, so diverse and so treacherous. They have the potential to affect so many other parts of our lives. Thus for us as chaplains if we are not careful they can be destructive not only to us, but to those that we serve as well as those that we presume to love.

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When I look back at my career and I am honest about it, I can say without a doubt that most of the things that hurt me were a direct reflection of the minefields that were already present in my heart. When things that happened that I felt were unjust or threatening I reacted and quite often my reactions caused problems greater than what I was reacting to. All they needed was something to set them off. What I have come to understand is even though I have had a very successful and that I am now a Senior Officer that what lies in my heart can still blow me up and that I need to always be careful of those minefields that exist in the twilight zone of my heart.

Lao Tzu said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

That is the key, those things that emanate from the deepest recesses of our hearts are full of minefields and we need to guard our hearts and minds in this ministry that we are privileged to have as military chaplains.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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