RP2 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.
LtCol 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.
Nelson, 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 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.