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The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Gratitude, Relationships and Hope; Even in Death

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“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today I was able to attend the Celebration of Life for Captain Tom Sitsch. It was good to be able to attend. I was able to meet his brother Mike and Sister Karen as well as many others who knew and loved Tom. These included men that I know from my time with EOD Group Two, some of whom have since retired from the military.

I was touched by the words that Mike and Karen spoke about Tom, as well as the remembrances of others. There were times during the service that I felt tears coming down my cheeks, and when I needed to wipe them from my eyes.

The pastor who spoke mentioned something that resonated with me. He noted that when he talked with Tom about God and faith, that Tom commented to him that “after all he had seen and experienced he didn’t know if he could believe in God.” That I can understand, there is something about the moral injury of war, not just the the physical injuries sustained or the clinical diagnosis of PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Injury that does terrible damage to the soul. A good number of people noted that they thought that he saw something, or experienced a loss in his last tour in Iraq that shook him beyond anything he had ever anticipated. That too I can understand.

It was good to be able to be invited to attend and for me it was a good chance to remember the life of a man who was there for me when I needed it. There was a slide show that depicted Tom’s life, his love for is family, his military career and the life that he attempted to life after his retirement. Between the stories, the shared memories and the pictures I gained an even greater appreciation for Tom Sitsch.

On a personal side it was just good to be there with people who knew and loved Tom. It was really good for me because for once I didn’t have any official role. I cannot remember the last time when I went to a memorial service where I was not involved in the planning, execution or participation in it, quite often as the primary speaker. For once I was able to grieve, remember and celebrate the man that I knew with others whose lives he touched.

It was just good to be with such good people, all of who loved and cared for Tom. There is something healing when people are able to grieve the loss of someone they love together. It is healing, even when tears are shed. Unfortunately, there is nothing any of us can do to bring Tom back. We all, his family, friends, and those that he served alongside all grieve, each in our own way, but we share a common grief, that of the loss of a man who touched our lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted about loss:

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

The loss of Tom Sitsch left all of us with many beautiful remembrances, which as Bonhoeffer so correctly noted that his separation from us s “more difficult.”

But in the midst of the deep feelings of loss that all of us felt, there were questions. Many wondered what they could have done to change the tragic outcome. The question of “what if?” bothers all of us. Likewise, there was the realization that there are others, who like Tom who need help and are probably not getting it.

My prayers go put to all those who feel the loss of Tom Sitsch, especially his family, friends and those that served with him.

Tonight I heard from a Navy Chaplain that I had not talked to in a long time. It was really good to spend time on the phone with him. I had the honor of baptizing his children back in 2000 when he was my Religious Program specialist. He went on to become a chaplain and do well, serving in the thick of the fighting in Al Anbar Province with a Marine Corps infantry battalion, just missing getting blown up in a large IED blast after completing a service for Marines at a Combat Outpost. He will be retiring later this year, and I hope that he can get on with the Veterans Administration to continue to care for our veterans.

I do hope that in some little way that I can be of help to those who grieve, and those whose lives have been torn apart by the trauma of war. Hopefully, in my own small way, even though I am often filled with doubt, unbelief, and usually have more questions than I have answers, I can at least be there for people who struggle.

I go to bed tonight grateful for what Tom Sitsch did for me; for being invited to attend the service today, to be with others who grieve, and to reunite with an old friend. Those are some of the remarkable things about military life that I am thankful.

Well, that is all for tonight, except for a prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. (From the Book of Common Prayer) 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts Before a Memorial Service

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I am in a hotel in Fredericksburg Virginia tonight as I will be attending a Celebration of Life for Captain Tom Sitsch, United States Navy. As those who follow this site know, Captain Sitsch was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two and though I didn’t know him long he made a big impact in my life when I most needed human compassion. 

I traveled this evening, driving in the bitterly cold dark January night up Interstate 64 and Interstate 95, un-melted snow from the most recent winter storm still covers the ground on either side of the highway. The dark shapes of trees lined the road, silhouetted against the night sky, most stars unseen because of a thin cloud layer.

The trip took about two and a quarter hours, good time if you know how traffic can be on these roads. When I got to the hotel I discovered that I had forgotten by sleep medications and what I call my “docile pills” so I expect that sleep will be a challenge tonight, even though I am quite tired. So I walked over to a nearby restaurant and had a couple of beers and some wings at the bar before coming back to my room.

Captain Sitsch took his life two weeks ago. A war hero, who suffered from PTSD he saw his, career, life and family collapse around him. He didn’t get the help that he needed and as things collapsed he was pilloried in the media. His wife and children had to suffer as well. Living with mental illness is not easy; families often don’t know where to turn when the person that they love falls apart. I wrote about this a number of years ago, my wife has suffered watching the man that she loves struggle with the ravages of PTSD, something that she too knows all too well having been abused as a child. 

This is especially true for military families who are used to their loved one being the strong one. The sad thing is that while this is a big problem in the military, it is also a problem in the civilian world. Some studies estimate that nearly one third of Americans either live with or work with someone afflicted with some kind of mental illness. 

The problem doesn’t just extend to families but the society at large. Our military compared to our population is quite small, all volunteer and quite often isolated from much of society. The horrific pace of wartime deployments and now the shift to doing more with less amid a major reduction in force, even as the wars wind down has a terrible effect on service members and their loved ones.

Those who don’t serve, or have not served do not really understand, even those who are sympathetic and actually care. I think that we will see a phenomena similar to the years after the Vietnam War, when our society rushed to forget the war and were often embarrassed by those who served. Stereotypes of soldiers shown in the media, on the news, or in entertainment then, presented veterans in almost comic book like caricatures, often in the most negative manner possible. Today the media coverage is a mixed bag, some making us to be uber-heroes and supermen, others men and women who deserve pity, and sometimes the negative portrayals that were so common after Vietnam. 

If it was just a media and society issue it be one thing, but even as men like Captain Sitsch fall through the crack there are those in the private sector and their political allies in Congress pushing the government to cut the pay, health and education benefits promised to those that served in the military, even those who came back wounded, or changed by war.

Those wrestling with budgets in Congress, look to solving budgetary woes not by cutting weapons systems that the military no longer wants or needs, or by cutting superfluous bases in their congressional districts. Instead, they choose to cut the benefits that they had promised to veterans and their families before and during the war. The proposed cuts now include health benefits as well as pensions, balanced unfairly on those who have spent the majority of their careers at war, many of whose skills do not translate in the civilian economy.

Of course these actions will have even more drastic effects on military members, veterans and their families. We can expect that more heroes like Captain Sitsch and their families will succumb to the pressures of service and what happens after they leave the service. Divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide have been on the rise for years in the military and there is no empirical or historical evidence to suggest things will get better anytime soon.

I predict that it will get far worse before it gets better.  Lieutenant General Hal Moore, famous for his book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young noted how his generation of warriors were treated after Vietnam.

“in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.”   

Sadly, things have not changed that much. Rudyard Kipling wrote in his Poem Tommy: 

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!” But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot; An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please; An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!” 

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Tomorrow I will be present to pay my respects to a tragic hero. Tom Sitsch, deserves to be remembered for all the good things that he did defending this country, saving lives and putting himself in danger time and time again. I pray that those present will know the comfort and peace of God as well as the special bond of friendship and family that we share as part of the Brotherhood of War.  I also pray, maybe against hope that our country will not throw veterans under the bus as they have so many times after war, and that no more men or women will have to be overcome by the despair that Captain Sitsch had to live with for God knows how long before he took his life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

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

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

In the eulogy Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rest In Peace Captain Tom Sitsch USN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under PTSD, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

My Brotherhood of War

Dynamic DuoRP2 Nelson Lebron and Me- The RST-2 “Desert Rats”

Back in the mid 80s shortly after I was commissioned as an Army Officer there was a series of historical novels by W.E.B. Griffin called the Brotherhood of War. The series traced the paths of several Army officers as well as family and friends beginning in World War II. I am not much of a reader of fiction, but this series, as well as Anton Meyer’s Once an Eagle well captured the unique culture of the career professional soldier through both war and peace.  They treated their subject respectfully while also dealing with the effect of this lifestyle on families as well as the soldiers, reading Once and Eagle I feel that connection with the fictional Sam Damon, the hero of the story and revulsion for the character of the self serving careerist Courtney Massengale.

I’ve been a military officer in both the Army and Navy now for almost 26 years with nearly 28 years total service. It is part of my heart, soul and being.  I was born for this, just as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ted Williams were born to be baseball players.  I grew up in a Navy family as a Navy “Brat” living up and down the West Coast and the Philippines and all I can remember from the earliest age wanted to be in the Navy Officer and later Navy Chaplain.  My dreams came true.  The first 17 ½ years of my service was in the Army, something that that initially my retired Navy Chief Dad had problems with, however he made his peace with it and was proud that I served and proud of the fact that I had made Major.  However, in 1999 in order to return to active duty I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and entered the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Lieutenant with no time in grade.  Outside of marrying my wife Judy, who somehow did not kill me when I did this, going in the Navy was the best thing that ever happened to me.

134LtCol David Kuehn and Me

Part of my time in the Army and Navy has been my time in the Chaplain Corps of each service.  I have been a chaplain for 17 years come September.  My best friends in the military are other chaplains, some from my own church and some from other communions.  The ones that I have the most connectedness to are those who have served in combat, especially those who served in Iraq, or ships in the war zone conducting various combat and maritime operations even when we were in different places.  In Iraq I was blessed to have Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas and Chaplain Pat McLaughlin supporting me at my base of operations.  There were others besides these men and many who were not chaplains. In Baghdad I had the staff of the Iraq Assistance Group Chief of Staff Colonel David Abramowitz and Chaplain Peter Dissmore and Captain Mike Langston at II MEF Forward.  Likewise I had Colonel Scott Cottrell and Colonel John Broadmeadow at 7th Iraqi Division Military Training Team, my friend LtCol David Kuehn at 3rd Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Military Training Team, LtCol Stephen Bien with the 2nd Border Brigade and a host of others about Al Anbar Province. As important if not more was my assistant RP2 Nelson Lebron, a true hero and friend.

chaplains and rp2 lebron at TQNelson, Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas, CDR Pat MCLaughlin and Me at TQ

Back in March of this year I was with a number of chaplains from my church gathered for our annual conference.  Some of these men I have now known for at least 10 years, some more.  I’ve seen the young guys start to age and others retired from the service.  We have grown together; we at least in most cases have come to love each other as brothers and friends.   What has made this conference different from past gatherings is that all of us have had one or more combat deployments or are getting ready to go for the first time or back for another tour.

nelson and me flight homeNelson and Me in the Air Everywhere

We have shared our stories but now they are the stories of men who have all seen war.  In our careers we have all experienced success, as well as heartache.  Due to our duty we have been often isolated from the church and each other.  We all came back from the war changed in some way.   Some of this is due to health related issues stemming from our service and for others things that we have seen or experienced.  Of course each of us has had different types of experience in country, but nonetheless our experienced changed all of us in some way or another.  For me the events have been trying to make sense of the torrent of emotional, physical and spiritual distress that I have had to deal with.  While I have made a lot of progress in some areas, there are a lot of places where I’m still sorting through things as are a number of my friends.  I can say that I often feel alienated from my own church.  When I read things that some of our bishops write or say I know that I do not belong.   Based on my service in combat and to my country for almost 28 years  and 13 years as a faithful priest I have tried.  The fact that with the exception of some of my fellow military priests I have no relationships with anyone in my church,   I was at one time banned from publishing by a former bishop.  I was forbidden to have contact with the priests of a my old diocese when I was stationed in it by the same man.  The civilian diocese that I transferred  to has had nothing to do with me for the most part since I was transferred to Virginia and since I moved here no one has bothered to say a thing to me.   None of this was because I didn’t try and the thing is I don’t care anymore.  I just plan on caring for God’s people where I’m at and building relationships with people who bother to invest in my life here. I haven’t the spiritual or emotional energy to keep trying to make something happen with people who obviously don’t care about me and haven’t for years.

This year our gathering was marked by a lot less light heartedness.  There was a lot less bravado than years past, more reflection, less intense discussion of the theological issues that have divided the Christian Church for centuries.  I know for myself I don’t have the energy to spend battling people over things that the rest of Christendom hasn’t been able to settle on.  For me I’m okay with the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds and the first 7 Ecumenical Councils, though I have a great love of the Second Vatican Council.  If people want to fight the other fights they can go ahead without me how many pins you can stick in the head of an Angel.

As far as health concerns I know that at least two of us have confirmed real live PTSD, and one with a case of TBI.  Based on the way others act I’m sure that almost all have at least a combat stress injury, and maybe a couple more have PTSD.  One young Army Chaplain has an Iraq acquired constrictive bronchiolitis, or bronchiolitis obliterans which has no cure. This young man has won two Bronze Stars and now has the lung capacity of a 70 year old man.  At best he can hope that his lungs will not worsen and only age at a normal pace, which means in 10 years he has 80 year old lungs.  This young man is a Priest who I have mentored, coached and been a friend and colleague of since before he was ordained.  He is looking at something that will kill him; it is just a matter of when.  He is going through all of his medical boards now at Fort Hood and expects that in six to eight months that he will be medically retired.  It seems to me that a hero is being kicked to the curb by the Green Machine after laying himself on the line for his country.  He was treated by many people in the Army Medical system with suspicion and made to prove that he was sick at almost every point until a high ranking medical officer found out about his case and sent him to civilian specialist for evaluation.

While I was at our conference I had a major PTSD meltdown where I basically hid in my room of a day and a half, sneaking out at night to gather with just a couple of my friends by the pool for beer and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.  Unfortunately we could only get the store bought ones because the hot and fresh glazed go great with a good pilsner or lager.

We have several Chaplains who have won Bronze Stars for their service in combat. I was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for what I did in Iraq.  I treasure that award because it cost me something to get, I still have a lot of Iraq with me and I always will.  Some day when all is said and done I want to see some of my Iraq military friends again and visit the country as part of a journey of discovering the ancient.

Some of my friends and I have experienced the indifference of the medical and administrative parts of the DOD and VA systems, including sometimes people in our own military service.  When I returned I found my personal and professional belongings crammed into a trailer with those of my assistant because the office space was needed and we were deployed.  There are things which I considered important that are still missing and likely never to be found.  I know that it was not intended to hurt because the space was needed because of major unit re-stationing. If I was the Commanding Officer I would have probably done the same thing and since I have had command I know that mission comes first. You try to take care of people but some things fall through the crack. That is simply part of life.

On the other hand some of my friends have had experiences where they felt the cold indifference of bureaucratic systems often staffed by personnel, military, DOD Civilians or contractors who act if the returning or injured vet is there so they can have a job. To be sure there are a lot of very caring people in our organizations, but these coldly indifferent people seem to show up all too frequently. This unlike what happened at my unit is intolerable.

What touched me about my unit was once it became clear that I was a PTSD casualty they did everything to try to get me help.  My first Commodore, now Rear Admiral Frank Morneau pulled me into his office to make sure that I was alright and that I was getting the help that I needed.  The man who replaced him Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me a question that was totally legitimate.  “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  When I went to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center I was strongly supported by both my department head and his deputy.  I wish that everyone who came back like I did had the support of both line officers and Chaplains in their immediate chain of command.  It makes all the difference in the world.

The chaplains that I have served with in Iraq are part of my brotherhood, be they from my church or not. I believe that most of us who have gone to war have by and large matured. We saw death and destruction and were exposed to danger from enemies that could strike in the most unexpected moments in the most unexpected ways.  We have experienced sometimes difficult adjustments to life back home, a knowledge that we are different and that we are even more cognizant of our own obligation to care for God’s people.  Our brotherhood has deepened as a result of war, of that I am sure.  We are truly brothers.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq