“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I was interviewed about a week and a half ago by Hope Hodge a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News. The paper had discovered me through an article I wrote last September entitled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? The editor assigned Hope to the project. After thinking about the request a number of days I knew that I needed to do the interview and had Hope contact our Public Affairs Officer, Raymond Applewhite. When he secured the permission of my Commanding Officer Captain Daniel Zinder he set up the interview with Hope and photographer Chuck Beckley.
The interview was a very healing experience and the article was well done and I have nothing but thanks to Hope and those that arranged this. While I have talked extensively about my tour in Iraq and subsequent battles with PTSD, loss of faith and my slow recovery on this site as well as with individuals but I have carefully avoided media until now. While I write a lot tend to be somewhat reclusive in real life especially since coming home from Iraq with my safe places being Harbor Park in Norfolk and Gordon Biersch Virginia Beach.
I knew that the interview would trigger some memories and I knew that once the article was out in public that there would be varied reactions including some that I knew would be negative. At the same time the negative has been far outweighed by the positive reactions, especially among those that have gone through similar dark times. As I read the comments I knew despite that any negative reactions or attacks on me that the interview was the right thing to do. I read the stories of those who told about their battles with PTSD, experiences with military and VA healthcare as well as their crisis’s of faith posted in comments section and was touched. They were telling things that are hard to talk about, especially in a public forum of a local newspaper where people can be quite vicious. I know that even in that forum when most remain anonymous there is a risk and an emotional cost in posting experiences that in a sense are holy to the people sharing them and should be respected so I am glad to see that for some the article was helpful and encouraging. I was also blessed and even comforted by those that spoke well of me. The kindness, support and comradeship that one has with such people is amazing, there is a brotherhood of war and we will support each other.
There was one man that was particularly nasty and I do need to deal with his comment here, not because I am upset but rather because I know how war, especially was like Vietnam and the current wars can do to a person. The man who is an anonymous poster to this and other articles on the Daily News website claims to be a veteran of Vietnam in 1969-1970. I have no reason to doubt him as there are a lot of Vietnam Era combat vets in the local area and since I am a child of a Vietnam combat veteran and remember the shameful way that these men were treated when they returned I would never disrespect his service or even his feelings about how he was treated and the abuses that he saw when he came home. I am very close to the Marine veterans of the Battle of Hue City and still maintain correspondence with these men who I count as friends.
At the same time I think that this man’s comments need to be addressed, not because of his service or experience following his return but because of the use of character assassination that is so common in our national discourse now days. The last time I experienced an attack on this site of similar invective was when a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist from East Tennessee went so far as to physically threaten me. That man claimed to be a former paratroop officer. I really don’t know what brings people to launch such attacks on people that they never have even met but it is part of life and I knew that I might get something like this so it is what it is. This is what this man said:
“This man should never have been in the military as he is too weak-minded. And/or, he, like a surprising number of his fellow officers have found it is best to get out under a disability as it’s a tax free cream puff ride to the bank each month. Imagine if he was one of the thousands of trigger pullers afield and try to pull this off? Pathetic!!” Comment by Your62 on Jacksonville Daily News (This and other posts by this man was removed by the newspaper sometime today 3/30/11)
Needless to say he was pretty nasty to others who commented on the article as well so I cannot take it personally and some of them gave it back to him in spades. As for me I hope that this man finds peace someday.
As for me I figure that since I have been in the military, not only as a Navy chaplain but also an Army Officer for nearly 29 years and that I have volunteered for every combat, humanitarian or contingency mission that I could over the course of my career, much to the chagrin of my wife, family and friends that I am by no means weak or lack courage. I know that I didn’t volunteer to go to Iraq to come out of it with PTSD and all that I have gone through since and what I have put my wife through.
Much to the surprise of this veteran I am not looking for a “tax free crème puff” as I figure that 5-10 years from now when I actually retire that I will have maxed out about every pay scale that there is and probably will have another deployment or two in me before I am done. I figure that the way things are going in the world I will get a shot in Afghanistan or North Africa before all is said and done.
I certainly do not claim to be anywhere or done anything that I did not do or experience and never claim that I experienced what many other veterans of our current wars or past wars have in any of their wounds. I see too many young men and women who have suffered grievous wounds to body and soul as a result of war to do such a thing. Likewise the many veterans of previous wars that I know who still suffer their wounds I would never dishonor. I consider it an honor to have served alongside such fine men and women or to met them long after their service in Vietnam, Korea or the Second World War or at the end of their careers when I was a young and idealistic know nothing officer in the early 1980s.
My war was different than others. It was in a lot of places where many never went serving alongside small units of 15-20 American advisers stationed with Iraqi units. These men were remarkable because they were incredibly exposed to danger and often far from big units that could help them if they ran into trouble. They were the men that help organize and train the Iraqi Army to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 as much as anyone they were responsible for helping build friendships with Iraqi military officers that will be a cornerstone of our friendship with Iraq in the future.
As for me I did not shrink from danger. I went on foot patrols, night convoys in the badlands and was in a helicopter that was shot at and returned fire. I have had rockets fly over my head and being on a convoy that took some fire. Thankfully I was never in a convoy hit by an IED or big coordinated ambush. Since the convoys that I travelled with usually had three HUMMVs with nothing heavier than a single .50 cal or 240 series machine gun that any such action would have been a battle for life and death and I know what I would have done had such a situation occurred. Since Al Qaeda Iraq had Chaplains as a high value target and since our Iraqis new that I was the “American Imam” and that such word would filter out of the camps the men that I served with took good care of me even in very exposed locations. Likewise even Iraqi officers sought my counsel and asked me to bless or to pray for their soldiers. I will never forget the Iraqi soldiers that asked me to bless their vehicles on one of our convoys with Holy Water as I did for our advisers as we set off on Route Uranium west of Ramadi.
Through it all I can now say that I am grateful for what I have been through. It still is not easy as even though I continue to see improvement I still on occasion have flashbacks, nightmares and have to make the effort to go into places where I don’t feel safe. At the same time I would gladly go back to Iraq or to Afghanistan or anywhere else to serve the men and women of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force that I love and respect so much. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about serving in combat again, much to the chagrin of my wife and family. I am not a proponent of war, in fact the more I see I am against it. I fully agree with General Robert E. Lee who said “It is good that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” However, I know my place until the day that I retire from the Navy is when my Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen are in harm’s way.
For those who are silently suffering the ravages of PTSD and moral injury related to their service I know the pressure. I didn’t seek help until the EOD Diving Medical Officer saw me falling apart and got me into the medical system. Unfortunately there can be and often is a stigma attached to PTSD and for some to suffer in silence is preferable to the stigma of seeking help and being called weak. I made the choice to get help when I couldn’t do it on my own any longer but have seen others be traumatized by other servicemen and women for seeking help, that whole thing about being “weak.” I got lucky when I was sent for help, not everyone has my experience.
Despite that I encourage those suffering from such injuries to seek help because there are a lot of us out here that really care because we know what it is like. I admit that it is not easy to seek help and sometimes getting it can be problematic simply because of the stress on the medical system, but help is there.
Blessings and Peace