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An Advent of Doubt, Faith and Struggles

Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.

A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq,  Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season.  Until I came home from Iraq. Now while I have faith again I struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s Disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting.  I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event.  These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.  At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home.  As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me.  Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Tom Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th of this year, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt isolated from much of the clergy of my former church and many chaplains, something that I still feel to some extent today. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more for both church and chaplain corps.  The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.

I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared.  When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today.  To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing.  Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out.  I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”

There were many times that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and they often still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space.

Why I am is  sometimes hard to figure.  I am not a Christian because of the Church, though I love the Church, church bodies have often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection.  I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian.” Nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history, including that wrought by current Christian leaders.  Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.

At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts and the many sins and crimes committed by Christians, even genocide, I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)

Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.

In fact after coming through Iraq and returning home I know that it is not so.

I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers, and those who think that they do, and claim that in the name of God or Jesus, are fundamentally deceived, and that I would not follow them across the street.

I now understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said in class that “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.”  Likewise I certainly not a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others.  In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.

People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings.  Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder.  I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology.  I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends.  For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.

I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through.  However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope.  O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Religion, Tour in Iraq

The Bond: Veteran’s Day 2014

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Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause. Abraham Lincoln

I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional  around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 30 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad: Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock CVA 19 circa 1971-72

I come from a Navy family. My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was an adventure for me and that Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after.  My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.”

My dad retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  Instead of being depicted a Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.  That was also my introduction to war; the numbers shown in the nightly news “body count” segment were flesh and blood human beings.

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My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraqshook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN )

Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted advisor at UCLA.  An infantryman he served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called “Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut.” It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

My life more recently has been impacted by others. Since coming into the Navy I have been blessed to serve with the Marines and Sailors of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, 1st Battalion 8thMarines and Lieutenant Colonel Desroches, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines and Colonel Lou Rachal and Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake.   My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

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Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

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There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

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I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our staff nurse. She is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She is now able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are able to openly serve.

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Handley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile, died of complications of chemotherapy treatment. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died yesterday eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003, and some like Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford died by their own hand after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both of them were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

So for me, I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

Unless by some chance I am selected for Captain, I plan to retire from the Navy at the end of this assignment. As Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover) said in the movie Lethal Weapon “I’m getting too old for this shit.” The military is a young person’s game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty, and have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military.

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day. Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way this weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans

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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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

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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