I Left My Heart in Al Anbar: Memories & Nightmares


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been having a lot of Iraq memories lately, and with them nightmares.

I deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2007. My experience of Iraq was far different than most Americans. I served as chaplain to a large number of teams of advisers in American advisors to Iraqi forces in Al Anbar Province. Most were teams working with the Iraqi 7th Division and 2nd Border Brigade, the 1st and 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol, and various other sundry groups.

During the deployment I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs in tiny convoys and in tightly packed aircraft with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron. The teams consisted of 12-30 Americans who were embedded with the Iraqis in far flung locations between the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various small outposts along the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, including a lot of trips to bases in Ramadi. There were times that the convoys or helicopters that we traveled on took enemy fire, and there were other times that we were in places where we were in meetings with groups of Iraqis where we didn’t know the good guys from the bad guys, and of course I was the only person not armed.


Crossing the Bridge on way to Camp Blue Diamond and the Snake Pit

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It was a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members. When the region fell to DAESH I was heartbroken, for I had gotten to know too many Iraqis, military, police, and civilians in the region. I had broken bread with them, been asked to pray for them, to bless their vehicles on missions.

As I said, I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately with the retaking of Ramadi, and I am surprised by how strong the memories those memories still are. I have not slept well and have had plenty of strange dreams and nightmares, many which include surreal Iraq memories mixed in with others. PTSD is something that keeps on giving.

Mission Prep

I remember one of my experiences at a small base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as Snake Pit. The base was north of the Euphrates and included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility, Iraqi Military and Police forces, Marine advisers working with the Iraqi Army 7th Division, and an Iraqi Detention Facility. The base was surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls, and immediately adjacent to a number of high-speed avenues of approach. It was an easy target for any attacker. In fact the area was overrun by DAESH and only recently retaken by Iraqi forces.


Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron on a Flight

When I visited the base Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within it. For me strongest memories of that visit were of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison. I have been to prisons and jails in this county, but that was a wake up call, the prisoners were hard-core jihadists and the conditions were to put it mildly were harsh. But then, the nowhere in the Middle East are prisons anything near as civilized as they are here.

Neither will I forget the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. Those women were eager to serve their people and their country and the memories of how they received me are still so strong. I wonder how many are still alive.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

I will stop for now but to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco, I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.


Padre Steve+



Filed under iraq, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

2 responses to “I Left My Heart in Al Anbar: Memories & Nightmares

  1. Maybe you’ll be able to explain my brother’s strange reaction to something. When he was in Iraq the first time (he was with 101st Airborne combat unit, 2003-2004) a church from back home sent him a care package. In it was a little card that looks like a business card but isn’t. It had a sleeping orange cat on it. Above the animal were the words ‘Have Faith. Trust. Rest Assured.’ He kept it with him until the minute he returned home, then gave it to me and made it clear how much he hated the card. I still have the card.
    I thought it was an unusual reaction. I couldn’t understand why it upset him so much. I can’t understand why half of what distresses and outright angers him does so and I’ve been the recipient of his hissy fits. He sent back a present I gave to him because the content in it bothered him so much (this was in 2004 when he returned; he doesn’t act that distressed now.) But I felt terrible about it so I ended up telling Richard. My daughter’s godfather, who’s a Vietnam Veteran and was in Special Operations the second time he went to Vietnam. The first time he was a Paratrooper with the sky soldiers (more than 1,660 names of sky soldiers are on the Wall.)
    He said he wasn’t sure why my brother disliked the card but if he had to guess “he probably was annoyed with the platitudes on it. ‘Have Faith. Trust. Rest Assured.’ Let’s see the sender of the card do that while stuck in a rice paddy full of water so you can’t even use your weapon if the enemy were to appear.” He kept hoping nobody would appear because he couldn’t use his weapon, something about not being able to position it right. I don’t understand his explanation.
    He said he would have kept a card if someone from the American home front had given him one. “In Vietnam,” he said, “you didn’t get anything pleasant from most of the American home front. From your family and friends, if you were lucky enough, but not mainstream America.”
    He remembers the world “not being with Vietnam Veterans.” I have no recall of that war, except what I hear from people who lived through it.
    He says when he came home war protesters threw food at him, called him names and told him to go back to Vietnam because they “don’t want you here.”

    • padresteve

      Lord only knows what he is going through. I know there I deal with some things that trigger a lot of unpleasant thoughts and that this is very common. So many different events and experiences get lodged in our brains. God only knows what your brother is going through but I do wish him and you the best.

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