Daily Archives: November 11, 2020

Veterans Day 2020: a Coda at the End of a Career


With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day, which actually falls on The anniversary of Armistice Day. 

It is a strange feeling. I don’t really advertise that I am a veteran out in public, even though I have quite a few ball caps, sweat shirts, Polo shirts, hoodies, and fleeces that I could wear. To do that. I certainly am not ashamed of my service, but much of it has been hard, and I spend the time thinking about those who I served alongside, or set an example for me, living and dead. Unless something really unusual happens it will be my last on active duty.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

“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 forget.”

As I said, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 38 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.


My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With My trusty Bodyguard and assistant RP1 Nelson LeBron, Habbinyah Iraq, January 2008. 

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

 

“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.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.


The World War One Memorial Arch in Huntington West Virginia
I had a few people out in town thank me for my service when they saw me in uniform, and many more on Facebook today when Judy posted a picture of me from five years ago. My brother Jeff posted a tribute to my dad, me, and my nephew Darren, now serving as a Marine. I am grateful for this as when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.
My Nephew Darren
But I am glad that my nephew Darren is a Marine. Some of my most wonderful memories of service are over seven years spent assigned to the Marines. I proudly wear my Fleet Marine Force Officer Qualification Pin, and display my diploma from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. 

With Marines of Marine Security Forces in Bahrain, 2004

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often felt out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in 2018.

I can’t understand that when the President that the man worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and during all of his years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops until a year ago, and then it was a photo op which included handing out #MAGA hats. The President and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service, and them for defending him. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies, and I mean that from the depths of my being. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

The past year I have served at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. That assignment helped restore my faith and calling as a Christian and a Priest. I am thankful for the people who I served there, military and civilian. You cannot imagine how much that means to me and how much I will miss them. It looks like in addition to writing books and hopefully teaching in local universities  that I will also be working as a contractor with Navy Fleet and Family Services working with military personnel of all services in the area.

Today was a quiet remembrance. I am still dealing with the after effects of my tooth and am now having TMJ like symptoms. Yesterday we had a special ceremony at the shipyard during morning colors and I provided the invocation and benediction. It was a surreal feeling for it will be the last time I do that as a military Chaplain, and my last Veterans Day of over 39 years of service.

On 1 January 2021 I will finally be retired. It’s time. I am overwhelming grateful for having the chance to serve this country in uniform for so long, and I will never forget those who instilled in me the virtues of Duty, Honor, Country,” “Courage, Honor and Commitment,” and “Semper Fidelis.”

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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