Category Archives: traumatic national events

Challenger: 27 Years Later

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“We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger, and one of the most effective ways to retain that thrust is to keep exploring possibilities. The sense of exploration is intimately bound up with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to a forward motion is to ensure its continuance.” James A. Michener 1979

It is still hard to believe. But then Space Shuttles don’t blow up every day, but the Space Shuttle Challenger just beginning mission STS-51L on that cold and sunny Florida morning.

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Challenger’s crew

I guess that events like the explosion of Challenger remain with those that viewed them because they were unusual, historic and most of all, tragic. Yes we remember events of triumph as well, and they too make an imprint on our memories, but tragedies that impact a nation and the world touch us in a different and often more powerful way. I think this is because they expose to us our own mortality and vulnerability to things that we cannot control.

I know that I, like many others of my generation had grown up with the triumphs of the NASA manned space program. We had seen the incredible success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  Success and triumph were associated with the program. Even the tragic fire which consumed the command module of the Apollo I mission on January 27th 1967 during a launch pad test killing Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee did little to quench our belief in the program.

In 1972 as the Apollo program wound down a new program was developed to be a more affordable means to continue space travel and scientific study. The program became the Space Shuttle program built around reusable orbiters of which Challenger was the third built for the program.

By the time Challenger was being prepared for STS-51-L we had become to Shuttle missions being routine. NASA was launching a mission every two to three months.  Challenger was the second of two missions in January 1986, her sister Columbia having returned from a 6 day mission just 10 days before her launch.

This familiarity with the routine of the Shuttle program and expectation of success made many of us forget that space travel is inherently dangerous and that complex vehicles like the Shuttle were not indestructible.

The STS-51-L mission was to be the 10th for the Challenger in under three years of service. The mission had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.

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Challenger takes off on January 28th 1986

The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

On the 28th of January 1986 I was a young commander of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Wiesbaden Germany. I had heard about the scheduled launch of the Shuttle but paid it little regard, despite the presence if Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space.” That evening was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of what we commonly called the Imperial Army on the Rhine, the US Army Europe.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

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Challenger’s last moments

About 20 minutes to Six my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!”

I was stunned by her pronouncement. I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen marking the spot where 73 seconds into the flight Challenger exploded. I stood there in shock, the images of the divergent plumes of smoke being etched into my mind.

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Atlantis landing on her final mission

It is hard to forget. 17 years later I was waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrive at Naval Station Mayport Florida for the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS HUE CITY. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

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The Shuttle program ended with the final mission of the Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. As one that still dreams of the stars and manned space exploration I do hope that NASA is able to return to manned space missions and go beyond what we have done before. I hope that future programs including the Orion program and maybe manned missions to Mars and beyond can fulfill that ever hopeful opening dialogue of Star Trek: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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God and Gun Violence: Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer Mock the Gospel in Comments about the Newtown Massacre

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I am still trying to comprehend the massacre in Newtown Connecticut. It seems to be an evil committed by a young man who was quite possibly mentally ill. He used an arsenal of weapons kept by his mother, a woman who ensured that he was able to handle weapons, and who he killed before he went on his rampage. He may have been evil. He may have been mentally ill. He may very well have been both, but more importantly he was well trained in the use of firearms and very well armed.

This is not an article about gun control. However after seeing the effects of these types of weapons on civilians in this country and US military personnel and Iraqi civilians in Iraq I wonder about the wisdom of allowing just anyone to own a military grade assault weapon and enough ammunition to lay waste to a town. No, this is my criticism of fellow “Christian” ministers that attempt to reduce all the ills of our society and crimes of individuals to the lack of government enforcement of their religious views in public schools.

In the wake of the massacre certain religious-political leaders on the political right. Former Arkansas Governor and current Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of the seminary that I graduated made this comment:

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools…Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

Not to be outdone failed former pastor Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said on his radio program:

“The question is going to come up, where was God? I though God cared about the little children. God protects the little children. Where was God when all this went down. Here’s the bottom line, God is not going to go where he is not wanted….God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”

Personally I think that the comments by both men do a grave disservice to God and God’s people. Men like these and their political hack allies use such language to attempt to blame everyone but the culture of death that their worldview helps promote. A culture that makes it easier and cheaper to obtain a military grade assault weapon than health care, that glorifies a perplexing blend of vigilantism and militarism mixed with apocalyptic religious views is not healthy. It is not Christian. It is not Pro-life. Of course the people of Newtown will also have to deal with the cultists of radical hate, Westboro Baptist Church as those professional religious hate spewers attempt to protest the funerals of the victims.

The fact is that there is little linkage to what these men preach and the facts. If there was such a direct correlation one would think that the liberal-secular humanist countries of Western Europe would have astronomically high rates of gun violence. You would think that the same would be true of other countries as well. But the fact is that the United States has one of the highest gun violence and deaths per 100,000 of any country in the world. In fact our rates of death by guns dwarf those of any Western European countries, most Asian countries and are only exceeded by countries of Central America that are wracked by drug violence, much of which is enabled by the consumption of drugs by Americans, or countries wracked by full scale civil war. The fact is that in most instances you seldom see school shoots and mass murder on a scale seen in this country in Western Europe, most of Eastern Europe, Japan, Korea or other industrialized societies, most of which are far more secular than the United States.

If we want to look at history we can find that in almost any era, even in the days where American Christians dominated the political and moral landscape of the country that we were a country in love with guns and enamored with gun violence. The big difference now is the amount of firepower easily available to anyone that can afford it, or in the case of the latest maniac took from the mother that he murdered with her own weapons.

To be so crass as the seminary dropout turned political hack Huckabee and the professional hate monger Fischer to blame this on the lack of prayer in schools, or that “God will not go where he is not wanted” is nothing more than worst kind of religious abuse. It is shameful and it makes a mockery of the Gospel. God goes exactly where he is not wanted, and died on a Cross for it. In the midst of Good Friday and for that matter all Good Friday experiences, especially that horrible Friday in Newtown, God is there, not in power but in suffering, his name Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Cry in Newtown: Anguish after a Massacre

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“A cry was heard in Ramah–weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” Matthew 2:18

It came suddenly and terribly as at 9:30 AM on Friday the 14th of December a 20 year old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut. It was unexpected. The town is considered one of the safest if not the safest cities in the country and in it people, like people across the country were preparing to celebrate Christmas or the last two days of Chanukah. It is a festive time when people, especially children should feel safe, but on this day the people of Newtown and many in the United States discovered the fragility of life and reality of evil walking in the midst of them.

While the investigation is still ongoing it appears that he killed his mother at their home and then went to the school where according to initial reports had at one time either worked or volunteered. New reports indicate that she was not associated with the school. Clad in black and wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying  multiple weapons. Lanza used a .223 caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic carbine, the civilian version of the M-4 carbine used by the military, and had two semi-automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, Lanza entered the school, and opened fire in the office. Bt the time he was done he had killed 20 children and 6 adults before killing himself. We know almost nothing about him, his older brother 24 year old Ryan Lanza of Hoboken New Jersey was initially identified as the killer as Adam was carrying his identification. According to some reports Ryan told police that his brother had a history of mental illness. His parents had divorced in 2009 and people that knew the family described Adam as “troubled” and his mother “rigid.” Some reports on Saturday say that Nancy Lanza was a gun enthusiast who took her sons shooting.

When the news came this morning and the full terrible extent of the massacre became known I was stunned.  It was like being kicked in the stomach. Like most people I cannot fathom the absolute evil, or madness that brings a young man to kill people, but even more specifically young children in such a brutal manner.  Reports from one of the medical examiners conducting the autopsies indicated that each of the children were shot 5-7 times each. I have seen the results of such violence. I have seen the bodies of children who have been killed or maimed by bullets fired by violent people. I have been with the mothers and fathers of these children, in the Emergency Rooms and ICUs of major medical centers as well as in Iraq. To see the mutilated bodies of the children and the grief of the families in that moment of loss where no words can take away the grief is something that I live with as a Priest and Chaplain.

As the news continued I thought of my brother and sister in law. He is a school administrator and she a elementary school teacher in Stockton California, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. My mother had spent nearly two decades as a teacher’s aide in another elementary school in the same city, while my wife’s first job in college was as an aide with deaf children there. As I thought of them I thought of another school shooting. This one in Stockton in 1989. It occurred on a school playground where a young man named Patrick Edward Purdy took an automatic rifle and killed 5 children and wounded 30 more on the same school playground were I played. My brother and I had both attended that school, Cleveland Elementary School and it was the same school that my wife held her first job. So for me the news brought waves of emotion and concern, as it did for most people. It is a terrible event.

Unfortunately there is little that most of us can do now other than to pray for the victims and if we are in a place to do so be there to care for the families and friends directly affected by this tragedy.

There were pundits, preachers and politicians across the political spectrum today advocating their specific agendas either for or against gun control, as well as throwing God and school prayer into the debate. Somehow it seems to me that those that mourn deserve better than such immediate outbursts of even well meaning partisan vitriol. There is a time for debate and action. However, I wish that people would have the good sense to give the survivors a chance to mourn and everyone a chance to absorb the magnitude of today’s tragedy.

Tonight the people of Newtown and surrounding communities gathered in churches and synagogues to mourn, to pray and to grieve, to seek comfort in God and as individuals and as a community. There will be much more of that to do in the coming days, weeks and months, but for many tonight there will be no comfort, for like the figure of Rachel comfort, at least for now is not possible, for their children are dead.

I think that the scripture quoted by President Obama is the most fitting to end with. It is time to comfort those that mourn and bind up their wounds.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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padresteve:

An older post of mine about Pearl Harbor as we approach the 71st anniversary of that “Day of Infamy.”

Originally posted on Padresteve's World...Musings of a Passionate Moderate:

Arizona Leading the Battle Line

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost.” Except of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Speech December 8th 1941

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and as we were then we are at war.

A Date that Will Live in Infamy: USS Arizona Burning

I remember reading Walter Lord’s “Day of Infamy” when I was a 7th grade student at Stockton Junior High School back in 1972.  At the time my dad was on his first deployment to Vietnam on the USS Hancock CVA-19.  As…

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The 9-11 Generation: The Few

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”

Winston Churchill referred to the Royal Air Force’s heroism in the Battle of Britain.  He remarked “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  By comparison with that tiny force the American military is massive. However in comparison with the missions that it has been given since September 11th 2001 and its size relative to the population of the United States it is a small force; a force that much more has been asked than anyone could have imagined on that terrible day.

Since the attacks of September 11th 2001 over 2.8 million young Americans have volunteered to serve in the nations military.  Since that fateful day some 5.5 million Americans have served in all branches of the military both active and reserve, many like me were on active duty that fateful morning. Today about 2.2 million serve in the various components of the military, just 1.4 million on active duty out of a total estimated population of 120 million men and women aged 18-49 fit to serve.

That makes the accomplishments of those that have served so much greater.  Never before has our country asked so much for such a long period of time from such a miniscule segment of the population.  Every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman and Coastguardsman that currently serve volunteered in a time of war to either join or extend their service in the military. Over 2.3 million have served in Iraq or Afghanistan with many more that have served in the Middle East and other regions supporting those wars as well as other anti-terrorist operations around the world.  While we have been committed to wars that may not be “winnable” we have accomplished so much and exacted revenge upon Osama Bin Laden and many of those who planned and perpetrated the attacks of 9-11-2001.

Many were children some as young as 8 years old when the attacks took place who have grown up in the years following the attack.  Others pressed the upper age limits to enlist many seeking age waivers to do so.  The vast majority of the men and women who enlisted because they felt it was their duty, not for money, not for glory.  They came from every State, District and Territory where Old Glory flies as a symbol of freedom.  The represent every race, creed and political party, and come from what the media like to call the “Red States and the Blue States” only for them it is not a question of “Red or Blue” but “Red White and Blue.”  Others have come to the United Statesfrom other nations because they felt that there was something great and noble about this nation and our ideals.

Some would wrongly call this military and those that serve in it a mercenary force, but no it is not and they are professionals that serve our country in time of war.  Mercenaries simply sign on for the money and fight for any regime that will employ them.  We are not mercenaries.

Over the course of this war some of those ideals have faded and of those that go back time and time again do it often because they do not want to abandon their friends or see their sacrifices wasted.  The war has taken and continues to take a toll on this small segment of America.  Over 6200 have died in action and over 45200 wounded, 77 wounded just today September 11th 2011 in Afghanistan.  The numbers do not count the large numbers suffering from PTSD or other combat stress related injuries nor does it count those that have died by suicide following deployment.

Among the many speeches today I was most taken with that of Vice President Joe Biden. The Vice President talked about this generation in a speech today at the Pentagon. The speech was one of the most moving that I have heard about our military in a long time.  It made me even more proud of all that I serve alongside.  I have excepted this passage:

“Many of them were just kids on that bright September morning. But like their grandparents after December 7, 1941, they courageously bore the burden that history placed on their shoulders. And as they came of age, they showed up to fight for their country – 2,800,000 Americans of the 9/11 Generation were moved to join our military since the 9/11 attacks, to finish the war that began on 9/11. They joined knowing full well that they were likely to be deployed in harm’s way – and in many cases deployed multiple times in Afghanistan, Iraq and in other parts of the world….

Over a decade at war, they pioneered new tactics, mastered new languages, developed and employed advanced new technologies. They took on responsibilities once reserved only for those with years of seniority- responsibilities that extended far beyond the base or the battlefield to politics, economics, and development tasks….And one more thing about this generation of warriors-never before in our history has America asked so much, over such a sustained period, of an all-volunteer fighting force. So I say without doubt or exaggeration that the 9/11 generation ranks among the greatest our nation has ever produced.” (See the video or read the speech at http://foxnewsinsider.com/2011/09/11/video-and-text-vice-president-biden-speaks-at-the-pentagon-reflects-on-the-courage-of-the-911-victims-and-their-families/

I have long contended that this generation of patriots who serve in our military as well as in our Federal police and intelligence services are a “new greatest generation.”  All of us have served to defend this country many making multiple deployments to combat zones.  I have made just two combat deployments and feel that I have not done enough, especially compared to those that have done far more of these deployments.  However I would guess that I will get at least one more in before my long career is done.

All Americans and millions of people around the world owe so much to these men and women as well as those from other nations that stand together with us.  For us it is not just remembering that terrible day that changed the world, but to give ourselves to serve and hopefully keep this from happening again.

Always remember9-11-2001, never forget that day or those that died at the hallowed grounds of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that lonely field outside Shanksville Pennsylvania.   But please never forget those that continue to give the last full measure of devotion, the 9-11 Generation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Never Forget: 9-11-2001

It has been ten years since we saw the horrifying images of airliners crashing into theTwinTowersof the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ten years since we saw people plunging to their deaths to avoid being burned to death in the doomed towers. It has been ten years since we saw the images of the heroic New York Fire Department Firefighters and the Policemen of the NYPD and Port Authority rush into the towers to save those that they could at a terrible cost to themselves.  343 NYFD Firefighters died in the towers, 23 NYPD Officers and 37 Port Authority Police died alongside their firefighter brothers and sisters.  A total of 2977 souls perished that terrible day.  Most were Americans but 60 countries lost citizens in the attacks.  6236 American military personnel 559 British military personnel and 707 other coalition or NATO allied troops have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Another 45170 American military personnel have been wounded.

For those at the sites or personally affected or those that would go to war in the days, months and years that followed the day is etched forever in our minds.  How can it not be?  Our world changed that day.  Our country had its illusion of security shattered and despite the efforts of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men that sense of security will never return.  The intervening years have brought further shocks to us.

What began as the “New American Century” where we stood unchallenged militarily, economically and even morally has collapsed upon us like the fallen TwinTowers.  Our military is worn out, our economy in tatters and our reputation as a “city set on a hill” soiled by some of our actions and policies in the wake of those attacks.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks much if not most of the world stood with us.  I remember the image of the German Guided Missile Destroyer Lütjens steaming alongside the USS Winston Churchill with a banner which simply stated “We stand by you.”  That sentiment is no longer there in many parts of the world.  Yet many people still stand with us and mourn this occasion hoping  for a better future even as others are talking of  our “long slow decline” in almost celebratory fashion.

Today is a day for somber reflection as individuals and as a nation.  Memorial services and other events will mark the day.  Hopefully we all can come together as a nation as we did on that terrible day to honor and remember all those that lost their lives in the attacks and those in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations during the war on terrorism.

Though Mayor Bloomberg has excluded any formal clergy participation or prayers from the WTC Memorial Service it still is appropriate for Christians and all people of faith to offer prayers for the victims, their families and survivors of the attacks as well as the peace of this nation and world.

God of the ages, before your eyes all empires rise and fall yet you are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror and in these moments of remembrance. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love. By your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and work in large ways and small for those things that make for peace. Bless the people and leaders of this nation and all nations so that warfare, like slavery before it, may become only a historic memory. We pray in the strong name of the Prince of Peace. Amen. (From the September 11th Litany published by the National Council of Churches)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Uneventful Monday on the Eve of War: September 10th 2001

It is hard to imagine that 10 years ago the furthest thing from my mind and probably anyone else’s mind was that a brazen attack would be launched on the United States. We never imagined that by10 AM the following morning that nearly 3000 Americans would be dead, the World Trade Center Twin  Towers would be in ruins, the Pentagon ablaze and a final airliner down in rural Pennsylvania.  It was unimaginable but it happened.

As far as potential threats to national security I had my eyes on China and North Korea having just returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea.  During that deployment a Chinese fighter plane forced a Navy P-3C Orion down on Hainan Island and my battalion was alerted for a potential rescue mission.  Thank God that never happened.  If there was any concern about the Middle Eastit was the continual run-ins that we were having with Iraq and terrorism against American forces in the Middle East such as the suicide bombing of the USS Cole.  Despite the atrocities committed by the Taliban and presence of Al Qaeda Afghanistan seemed too remote to be of any real threat to the continental United States.

On September 10th I was the Chaplain for the Headquarters Battalion Second Marine Division at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. I spent that Monday taking care of routine business.   I had the usual counseling appointments for Marines dealing with marriage and financial problems and administrative work punctuated by a meeting or two and a nice run.  I also spent time working with a couple of underperforming chaplains who had been fired from their battalion chaplain jobs and who assigned to me in the hopes that their careers might be salvaged.

The weather that day was wonderful temperature was 86 degrees at Marine Corps Air Station New River just across the water from LeJeune.  That evening Judy and I grabbed a quick bite to eat and hung out with our dogs, our 13 year old fat red Dachshund Greta and our wild child 9 month old Papillion-Dachshund mix Molly. I figure that we spent the evening watching television and or reading and each taking a little time to check e-mail.  I was involved with a couple of theological discussion boards and I was in trouble with my old church for an article I had published in a conservative Catholic theological journal.  It was amazing how spun up people got on that forum re-fighting theological battles between Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

That night we went to bed not expecting anything of importance to occur.  War seemed far off and a terrorist strike on the centers ofUnited Statesfinancial and military power was unimaginable to us.  The thought that the next day would begin a war that would still be going on today was equally unthinkable.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring. I don’t venture to guess except that I pray that no new attackers will succeed in creating any more havoc in our nation or kill anymore of our countrymen.  But I have my doubts. To quote Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt when he received the reports of the German disaster in France in September 1944…. “I am not optimistic.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on 9-11-2001: How the Day Changed Me….

We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of a date that changed the country.  I wrote about it last year in an article entitled 9-11-2001: A Date that Will Live in Infamy 9 Years Later.  This year I am going to post a couple of short reflections leading up to the anniversary on how that event changed me.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym.  I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning.  I thought to myself, “some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer.  Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn.  I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when theSouthTowerwent down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed.  I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times.  I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the media, politicians, preachers and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could.  I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but now I really don’t know what I am.  Some call me “liberal” and in fact I was told to leave my old church last year because I had become “liberal.”  However, despite what some of the talk pundits and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom.  After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before IraqI was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnamwhen liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.”  In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.”  As a result I had little love for the Left.  After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before.  The emotions that they stirred up were primal.  But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present.  Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

I rejoiced when our SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah.  They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. If that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are personal.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in Afghanistan.  I see it as a potential disaster on the order of Stalingrad or Dien Bien Phu should the Pakistanis shut off the supply routes that constitute the major support to our troops there, especially if they did so in the winter months.

At the ten year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed.  On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down inPennsylvania.  One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner was a classmate of my in 1983 at the Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course.

Since then 4474 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraqand 1760 in Afghanistan.  NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost another 1270 military personnel.  Another 45,170 Americans have been wounded.  I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died.  The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars, many that were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day.  Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily.

I have been changed by that tragic event. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down.  They are hard to watch and while I will observe the anniversary with prayers and a lot of reflection I do not know how much of the continuous media coverage of the anniversary that I will be able to watch.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world.  While we yearn to return to the days before9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge.   I know I can’t go back.  Maybe that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, national security, traumatic national events

Facing the Darkness that Lurks Behind Trauma

The Einsatzgrüppen: The Banality of Evil

I am in the second day of my conference and as I noted yesterday that the presenter, Dr. Robert Grant is dealing with spirituality and trauma.  As was the last time I listened to him this conference is full of good information.  For me though it is not merely information for information sake, but something very personal having gone through the living hell of a psychological, spiritual and physical collapse following my tour in Iraq and battle with chronic PTSD.  For me it was passing though the abyss and when I emerged I was a changed man.

Today Dr. Grant began with some existential truths about life which have to be acknowledged.  The basic list is his but I have taken those thoughts and ran with them.

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

Nothing exposes these truths faster than trauma.  It does not matter if the trauma is impersonal and the result of a natural disaster or the result of individual or corporate evil and malevolence, be it physical, psychological or spiritual trauma the effect is often destructive.

In response to these facts we all as well as our society and culture develop patterns of denial about these existential truths.  They are truths that most of us don’t want to face and which we often will do anything to avoid most often attempting to find meaning and comfort in materialism and consumerism. Others seek a “solid” faith in more fundamental branches of their religious tradition.  Still others see to recreate a world that supposedly existed before our time attempting to roll back the clock to a time when the world was right. This is true especially in our political life, progressives think back to the Great Society or the New Deal, while conservatives tend to look back to what the Founding Fathers wrote or the ones that they agree with wrote.  The overarching theme, be it in the life philosophy, religion or political-ideological arena people seek to create a world that is stable, where they can exist in their comfort zone free of trauma and free of anxiety.  However the experience of trauma often blows such constructs into a million pieces.

The fact is that the comforts and protections that we seek refuge in are often fleeting or the myth that we have created for our self protection.  Such beliefs are often illusions.  One thing about trauma is that it tends to shake one’s world.  In fact trauma can destroy long held belief structures including faith in God, humanity and deeply held beliefs about life and one’s place in the world. Religious beliefs, political ideologies and belief the righteousness of one’s country, friends, family and heroes can be devastated when trauma picks the lock of our soul and reveals our vulnerability.  Such events including war, natural and manmade disasters, the loss of loved ones to death, divorce or the loss of one’s position in life, work and safety net all can be events that trigger crisis and reveal the startling truth that we are not invulnerable.  The recent earthquake and Tsunami in Japan is a classic example as it has shaken the long held beliefs of the Japanese people regarding the respect that they have for their government and corporations.

Collectively as Americans we have experienced numerous national traumas in the past 10 years beginning with the 9-11 attacks.  We have seen war, financial disaster and numerous natural disasters which have impacted our collective psyche as a nation.  In response we elect to deny the effect of trauma on us as individuals and on our society.  Politicians seek to find quick material fixes to a greater problem which is both spiritual and existential.  Simply put we seek to treat the symptom rather than the greater problem which is that we have been so shaken that we have stopped believing in our nation, our fellow human beings and sometimes even the Divine.

We do the same as individuals because the darkness of trauma and the malevolence of those individuals and systems, governmental, corporate and ecclesiastical that inflict trauma on us is so great that we bear not to face them and face further trauma.  The impact on individuals is often devastating as the perpetrators often use their power to dehumanize people.  Thus facing the evil is to expose one to even greater danger.  Thus the more common reaction is to edit the trauma, sealing it off so that we can reenter the safety of our protected sandbox without having to face the darkness that exists.  The malevolence of evil, or what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” manifests itself in ways that most of don’t ever want to face, thus the damage done by the trauma remains unhealed.

The problem is in order to really experience healing we have to be willing to face that darkness without succumbing to it.  To do this requires not only facing the existential truths about ourselves but also uncomfortable truths about respected individuals,  government, corporate and ecclesiastical organizations and systems which perpetuate trauma.   Most of us do not want to go there.  I know I didn’t until my crisis became an existential one where I had to face the darkness or try to cover it up.  For me it was a crisis of faith in God, my church and even in the actions of my government and the political party that I had been loyal to for 36 years.

The journey was painful but in time I began to recover beginning a process that continues to this day and which I expect will be part an ongoing part of my life.  In the process I know that I have changed hopefully for the better.   As I began my recovery I found that not everyone understood, in fact when I began to write about my faith journey it cost me friends and resulted in me being asked to leave my church.  To me it seemed that some people especially in the church were more comfortable with me being damaged and quiet than recovering and posing difficult questions especially when I deviated from the party line.

I found that many people did not want to walk with me through those dark times and I can understand why not.  To walk with someone through the darkness exposes us to that darkness and sometimes takes us to places that we would rather not go places that lay outside of our safety zone.  However those that did walk with me, those who held me but let me walk though the crisis without trying to force feed me formulas for success or what I needed to do to “be healed” when I was in free fall gave me the freedom to experience healing. Part of that was healing was spiritual, God’s grace became real again and not just a concept. Part was psychological as I became more stable and had fewer symptomatic episodes, and part was physical as the nagging injuries healed and I was able to reassert control over my diet and exercise.  Finally part has been relational as I have started to rebuild the relationship that I have with my wife Judy because I had neglected that relationship for far too long and when I came home from Iraq I did her no favors.   A few weeks ago she told me that she felt that she had me back for the first time since Iraq.

I have been through the abyss and have emerged from it different but I think better. I still have work to do because I know that I am still full of issues.  I still have anxiety at night, trouble sleeping, especially without medication.  Other times I can experience bouts of depression and anxiety and on some occasions still battle anger and occasionally rage when I feel endangered or see injustice being inflicted on others. I still have some measure of hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal and I am much more aware of my surroundings than I used to be.  Even in ministry I am careful what I share with people. I figure on this website people can pick and chose what they want to read, but when counseling or teaching I have to be more careful.  I know that I have some deep work to do especially in relation to forgiveness of those people and systems that I felt hurt or betrayed me.  I don’t know how all of that will work out but that is part of the journey.

In the mean time I will walk in faith and hope even knowing that some of the answers that I seek will not always sit well with me or others. But then such is life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, PTSD, traumatic national events

Remembering Challenger

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4JOjcDFtBE

About 5:30 PM on January 28th 1986 I was a young Army Medical Service Corps 1st Lieutenant in command of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) which was based on Wiesbaden Air Base in Wiesbaden Germany. I was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of the Imperial Army on the Rhine.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

Back then communications and television for military personnel stationed overseas was primitive. The Armed Forces Network had one channel then and only recently had added live needs feeds from stateside news programs on CNN and morning shows such as NBC’s Today Show. By 1986 the Space Shuttle missions had become routine but this one was different because of a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe who was a payload specialist on the flight.

The Challenger was making her 10th flight in less than 3 years having first flown on April 4th 1983.  The mission STS-51-L had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.  The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

I had heard that the Challenger was to launch that morning in Florida which of course was the early evening for us in Germany.  However I had seen numerous shuttle launches on television, considered them routine and by then rather uninteresting.  Since I was a very junior 1st Lieutenant commanding a company forward deployed with a mission to race to the Fulda Gap in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany up to my ears in work I had no interest in watching another one.

Challenger disintegrates (BBC Photo)

About 20 minutes until 6 my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!” That startled me. I grew up with the space program and remembered the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Although I remember the fire on Apollo 1 which killed three astronauts on the launch pad, but that was different, no American spacecraft had ever been lost though Apollo 13 was nearly lost while on a Moon mission.

I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen.  I was stunned and will never forget the image that I saw with my soldiers that day.

Seventeen years after that event I was waiting at the Naval Air Station at Mayport Florida for General Peter Pace.  General Pace who was then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was coming to be the guest speaker at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS Hue City. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

There are two more shuttle flights scheduled before the program ends this year. An era will be ever. The shuttles will pass into history and unfortunately for many the signature moment of the program will not be the many successes it will be the Challenger disaster and the images shown on CNN that cold and clear Tuesday in 1983.

The brave astronauts of all of our space programs deserve our highest admiration. The Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs pioneered space travel. We should not forget their sacrifices especially those that gave the last full measure especially those that we remembered yesterday. Ronald Reagan ended his short speech the evening of the Challenger’s demise with this line:

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

As a child I grew up with the space program and Star Trek. It is my hope that manned missions aboard better and more capable space ships capable of reaching the far reaches of this solar system and the galaxy will be built and humanity’s constant desire for exploration and discovery will herald a better future.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, traumatic national events