Category Archives: iraq

Finding my Way Home: Nine Years After Iraq


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was thinking last night  as I watched an episode of the television show The Blacklist, where the lead character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader made a comment about Homer’s classic Greek myth The Oddesy where he said, “Odysseus spent a decade at war. But his biggest battle was finding his way home.” I can understand that. Nine years ago I was on my first long distance mission out to the Syrian border in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. It was the first of many missions in the badlands of that war ravaged province, and seven months later I returned home, but I didn’t. Too much of me was still in Iraq, and in some ways still is, but that being said I think I can finally say that I am home. 

Now let me say, there is still a lot of Iraq in me and if I got the chance to go back I would probably jump at it. I still have issues from my tour in Iraq, the dreams, nightmares, and night terrors have caused more physical injuries than my actual time in country. Frankly, I expect that will never change, so I simply adapt to minimize risk, and to enjoy life to the utmost. That is my reality. I can dwell on the bad and hate life, or I can make the adjustments and enjoy life. 

After a major emotional crash in the spring I decided that the latter was the better choice and I have not looked back since. 

My experiences in Iraq have helped make me the man I am today, and for that I am grateful. I can admit that I am damaged and at the same time realize that I am in the process of becoming whole, maybe for the first time in my life. I have really come to appreciate life and the blessings that I have, especially my wife Judy, my two little dogs, and my friends. Things are not perfect, nor will they ever be, but I am happy and for the first time since I deployed to Iraq in July 2007 can say that I am home. Like the journey of Odysseus, mine has been a long, and for that matter, a strange trip.

Once I get at least one of my three texts dealing with the Civil War era and Gettysburg published, I’ll write my story. 

So until tomorrow I wish you peace, and the joy of making it home.

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under faith, iraq, Tour in Iraq

Disgusting, Disgraceful, and Dishonorable: Trump’s Pathological Need to Belittle those Who Sacrifice for the Country 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Three words: Disgusting, disgraceful, dishonorable, is how I have to characterize how Donald Trump and his campaign treats those who serve, those who have served, and the families of military personnel. 

Ever since the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan so eloquently spoke, and criticized Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention there has been a full court press by Trump, his aides, and his most strident supporters to demonize the Khans in the most cruel, senseless, and even evil ways. What they have done and continue to do is so offensive that it drew the official rebuke of many veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association. 

Trump is the ultimate bully and crybaby. He went to Twitter to complain of their “vicious attacks,” of course ignoring how has made a career of not only making vicious, and even libelous attacks on people of all walks of life. But then, like I said he is a bully and a crybaby. His assault on military personnel and veterans knows no bounds. He went out of his way to insult, attack, and demonize the Khans, and some of his aides and advisers have insinuated that they are connected to the Islamic Brotherhood, and demanded that they condemn Islamic militants, like losing their son in the battle against them doesn’t count. He mocked John McCain who spent years in a North Vietnamese POW camp, as well as others who have been POWs. He equates his high school years at an elite military prep school as being better than having actually served in the military. He says that he knows more than Generals about how to defeat ISIL. He stated in his acceptance speech that the military was “a disaster.” This list could go on, but even more despicable is the fact that while he claims to “have made sacrifices” he used five deferments to dodge the draft, something that he seems proud of doing. 

He claims to have made millions of dollars in donations to military charities but there are no records, he will not name the charities, and he will not reveal his tax returns. He biggest bragging point is his participation as a co-chairman of the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, in which he claimed credit for its construction is also full of deceit. In 1984 he was exposed by fellow members for only showing up at two or three of the twenty meetings. When asked by the Washington post about this he played down the military service of the other commissioners saying “They’re very small thinkers. They’re stockbrokers that were in Vietnam and they don’t have it.” 

The farcical comments by one of the head of his political action committee, that his sacrifice included losing two marriages because he was so committed to his business, conveniently leaving out the part about his constant affairs that led to the break up of those marriages. Some sacrifice. 

Why Trump acts this way might be a mystery to some, but I have a theory. Trump actually feels inferior to the men and women he is insulting because he knows that his avoidance of serving in Vietnam was cowardly. So he has to tear down McCain, he has to say he knows more than the generals, he has to go after the parents of a fallen hero. He is pathological in his need to prove his superiority, but as much as he blusters, Trump knows that he cannot live his own dishonor down, and so he must actively continue to belittle the sacrifices of, and even attempt to destroy the lives and reputations of those who actually did serve. 

Truthfully, the man has no honor, and neither do his henchmen in the Christian Right who have been the loudest and most vicious critics of the Khans, simply because they are Muslim, and who have demeaned Captain Khan’s sacrifice to protect his troops from a terrorist car bomber. Some even said that he was not a hero. To see people who claim to be “Christians” act in such a manner defies the imagination and brings to mind the images of the burning of heretics, witch hunts, and more recently in American history the lynching of blacks by the supposed Christians of the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, and the White Leagues. 

But truthfully I am surprised at none of this. Many American Evangelical and Conservative Christians only care about the military and the men and women who serve in it so long as it fits their political and religious agenda, and they ruthlessly attack anyone who dares to criticize that agenda. I know this because it has happened to me on quite a few occasions. 

The whole affair has both sickened and angered me as a thirty five year veteran of the Army and Navy, as a combat veteran, and as a Christian. When I see the venomous nature of Trump, his campaign, and many of his supporters I fear for the country. A a Mike Pence speech the mother of a current Air Force member asked Pence about Trump’s attack on the Khans and was booed by the attendees, and he made no attempt to stop it. 

The campaign being waged by Trump reminds me of the 1932 campaign of Hitler against Paul Von Hindenburg. In that campaign war veterans of non-Nazi parties were attacked, derided, and sometimes murdered by Nazi Brownshirts. The violence of the Trump campaign language being used against the Khans and others who disagree with Trump could easily lead to physical violence against Trump’s enemies. Don’t say it can’t happen, violence was a central feature of Trump supporters during the primaries and as the election draws closer I would not be surprised to see an uptick in the number of acts of violence against those who oppose Trump. 

So anyway. That will be all. Have a great Tuesday. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, iraq, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

Celebrating 20 Years as a Miscreant Priest 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. July 7th 1996, it really is hard to believe that it has been that long, and this year it kind of snuck up on me. I had pretty much forgotten until I noticed an old friend from Camp LeJeune was wishing me well on it. If you are reading this Ray, thank you. 

Since Being ordained I have served in a lot of places as an Army and now Navy Chaplain, and I have served some of the most wonderful people ever, and in turn they have done more for me than I can ever imagine or repay. One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand is that the true joy in the priestly ministry is people, all kinds of people, regardless of who they are or what they believe. 

Over the years I have come to value that more than anything else. For me this is not about any kind of ecclesiastical power or desire for advancement. I do not desire to be a bishop, nor for that matter be in charge of anything. I prefer just to serve and care as I can, be with real people, and try as I might to show people God’s love by being real and caring for them. Now that doesn’t mean that I always do it well, I can be so stupid and insensitive sometimes, even when I am not trying to be. Judy tells me that it is because the male hormone causes brain damage. I won’t argue. 


Over the past twenty years I’ve have times of extreme faith, actually bordering on pious certitude bordering on arrogance. But I have also had doubts, very real doubts. In fact for almost two years after my tour in Iraq I can honestly say that at best I was an agnostic just praying that God existed. Eventually faith returned, and it has to be called faith, because it is not based on how much I think I know, but how little I do know. St. Anselm of Canterbury, the great Scholastic theologian described his task as “faith seeking understanding.” I used to think that way, but I don’t think that understanding the great mystery that is God is really possible, and that’s not a bad thing. I have faith in Jesus the Christ, I believe, and as one of the men Jesus encounters exclaimed, “I believe, help my unbelief.” 


I guess that is all part of the journey. When I look back at all of my time as a priest was my high point, it was my time in Iraq. In the midst of all chaos that I felt closest to God, even when I was struggling. As T.E. Lawrence wrote, “We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of the wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for…”  It was the richest time of my life, but also the most disappointing, personally and professionally. I found like Lawrence, that most people really don’t care about the Iraqis, and that most of my fellow clergy really didn’t care about me. No wonder Lawrence said, “the fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.” 

But all of that aside, despite everything, I have rediscovered faith, life, and joy in ministry. So at twenty years I am good, and hopefully I’ve got at last twenty more good years to serve God and the people of God, wherever they are and no matter what their faith or lack of faith is, and interestingly enough my idea of ministry has broadened. So I don’t think that the form of my future ministry will be in the traditional parish setting. That too is okay as I am still fond of the sweep of open places, and the ideas, often inexpressible and vaporous are still there to be fought for. 

So until tomorrow, have a great day, and as the wonderful and grace filled conclusion off the rite of penance says, “pray for me a sinner.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq, middle east, Military, ministry

They are Not Just Names: Remembering the Fallen

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back in October of 2001 as the United States invaded Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which killed nearly 3,000 people I began to read the casualty reports. The first name that I knew was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, who was killed at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001. She had been a training company commander at the Academy of Health Sciences when I served there as the Brigade Adjutant.

As the war spread following the Bush administration’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq those casualty lists got longer and longer, and I read them because I thought it was the least that I could do to attempt to enshrine their memory as something more than a number. Each year around Memorial Day the various publications of the Military Times, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Times would publish a center section with the names, pictures and dates of death of these men and women. Some were just eighteen years old, and a few in their fifties, showing the face of an all-volunteer force that few see. Most of the time I didn’t know the individuals, but sometimes I did, and when I did, the war came home.

The other night Judy and I were watching the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode The Siege of AR-558. At the beginning of the episode Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks is looking at the latest casualty list when his executive officer, Colonel Kira walks in on him. He makes a comment that hit home with me, in fact it summed up how I came to see those lists:

“I think that’s what I’m going to remember most about this war – looking through casualty reports. Sometimes it feels like that’s all I do – stare at the names of the dead. When the war started, I read every name. I felt it was the least I could do to honor their sacrifices… But now, the names have begun to blur together.”

Of course I did two combat tours, the second of them in Iraq where I served with our advisers in Al Anbar Province. A couple of times while back in the large base camp at T’Qaddum I was called to the Trauma Platoon, a Navy medical unit designed to try to save the lives of the wounded and evacuate them to higher levels of care in Iraq, Germany, or the United States. Despite all of the protective gear worn by soldiers, the injuries caused by IEDs, bombs, anti-tank rockets, explosions, and bullets are ghastly. I still can vividly remember the faces and the wounds of the young men that I attended to as the surgeons, nurses and corpsmen valiantly tried to save their lives.

Months later I was home but the war was still real. The casualty reports from Iraq and Afghanistan kept coming, and more people I knew were on them. Of course there were others who died later, sometimes by their own hand because of the suffering that they had been through in body, mind, and spirit. I saw many of them in the naval hospitals and medical centers where I served, to see the faces scarred by bombs, bullets, and burns, to see the men and women with artificial limbs struggling down hallways, and to see the pain in their eyes is something that I will never forget.

The last couple of years in my teaching assignment I have been somewhat shielded from revisiting those times. Likewise the number of casualties in the more recent reports has slowed to a trickle, just a few a month most of the time. But I don’t forget, I still check the reports on a daily basis.

Sadly, despite the yellow ribbons bumper stickers that boldly say “I Support the Troops,” for most Americans these wars never were that important, and without the constant reminder of the dead and wounded coming home, they have been forgotten. However, they are still very real, some 6840 American military personnel have died in these wars, and close to 50,000 wounded. Those numbers do not count the contractors, diplomats, or aid-workers killed and wounded, nor those diagnosed with combat related PTSD. Likewise it does it count the losses of our coalition or NATO allies, or those of the Iraqis or Afghanis.

At the end of the Siege of AR-558 Kira gives Sisko the latest casualty list. Their conversation is something that I think that we should remember when we think of those lost in these wars, and the ones who certainly will die in the war against the Islamic State.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI2WTfB0mz4

Colonel Kira: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.

Captain Sisko: How many this time?

Colonel Kira: Including the troops lost at AR-558 – 1730.

Captain Sisko: [whispering] 1730…

Colonel Kira: It’s a lot of names.

Captain Sisko: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, History, iraq, shipmates and veterans, star trek, Tour in Iraq, War on Terrorism

To Iraq and Back

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On the Way Home, 2008  with RP1 Nelson Lebron

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

T.E. Lawrence wrote, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” 

It is hard to believe that eight years ago I was almost ready to return from to Iraq with my bodyguard and assistant Religious Program Specialist First Class Nelson Lebron. During our time there our mission was to support the American advisers to the Iraq 1st and 7th Divisions, the 2nd Border Brigade, Port of Entry Police, Highway Patrol and Police forces in Al Anbar Province.

We did our job well, and it was a life changing experience for both of us, even though we were no strangers to deployment or danger. In 2008 we returned to the United States changed by our experiences. It was also to test my marriage and even my career in the Navy. Both of which I thought might be lost within a year or two of my return.

To quote Charles Dickens “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I came back diagnosed with a case of severe and chronic PTSD as well as chronic Tinnitus and severely impaired ability to understand speech. Nightmares, and night terrors chronic insomnia, flashbacks, hyper vigilance, panic attacks and claustrophobia have all been part of my life since then. Nelson too, though now retired from the Navy has had his struggles.

The experience left me severely depressed, at times feeling the pain of despair and hopelessness, a loss of faith and its restoration.

Despite all of that I consider my time in Iraq to be the high point of my military career. It was a place that I was able to use every gift, talent and skill at my disposal to do a job that took me to places and allowed me to work with people that I could not have imagined. My tour in Iraq, though painful and life changing was also the best of times, it opened my eyes to things that I never thought possible, relationships unimagined and ministry unbound by the constraints of the terrible model of contemporary American Christianity.

I plan to go back to the articles that I first wrote I started to recall my experiences back in 2009. I was unable to complete them then because the memories were still to fresh and painful to relive. I tried a couple of other times but stopped because of how vivid and sometimes painful the memories still were. I found my notebook from my time there and hope that it as well as my memories don’t fail me as I try again to recount our time there. Of course when I do this I will have to recount my post-Iraq experiences as well.

Hopefully when they are complete I can get them published as a book. The goal, I hope is that others who have been through what I have been through, and those who have been through much worse will be able to know that what happened to them can happen to anyone that goes to war, including Chaplains and other care givers who are by nature of or calling and training supposed to be immune from such experiences.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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One Faithful Harp Shall Praise Thee: The Minstrel Boy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Eight years ago I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisers that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisers with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I  had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  I felt betrayed and still do. I was asked by my therapist about this and frankly, though I have tried to forgive the feelings always come back, especially this time of year.

Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the disdain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

I think that is why the line in the song “Tho’ all the world betray thee” means so much to me and a big reason why the song touches me in the way it does. It is a song of men changed by war.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

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Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the television mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill and one in the movie Gettysburg as Father Corby blesses the Irish Brigade.

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned and even now eight years later still I struggle with belief, unbelief and faith in general, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. I believe that if we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow as human beings, or for that matter are of much use to anyone else. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war.

This is dedicated to all those who have served who have gone through the pain of war and return until war shall be no more, but until then at least one faithful harp will praise thee…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq, mental health, Military, music, Tour in Iraq

Iraq Revisited: An Unexpected Phone Call

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With my Friend Falah in late January 2008

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I often write about my time in Iraq, but today just a short thought, a good news story.

Since I left Iraq in 2008 I always prayed that those Iraqis that I knew and worked with, for them, their families, and their country. There is something that comes from having actually gotten to know these men and women and having served alongside them that those who have never done cannot understand or fathom. It is a connection that enables one to see clearly when others minds are clouded by ideology, and information about Iraq and its people, that they really do not understand, because frankly they have never really gotten to know and care for actual Iraqis.

I guess that is one of the things that was so devastating from me personally when I came home from Iraq, I actually cared for the Iraqis. Those that I knew and worked with were amazing hosts, and would do anything for you. Those who fought alongside of the United States, even after how we destroyed their country in the name of liberating it from Saddam, while unleashing a witches cauldron of violence which is spreading around the world, risked their lives then, and those still alive risk their lives today.

One of those men, my friend General Falah, called me yesterday. It was a pleasant surprise, as he is a friend. He was the first Iraqi that I met when I served with the Iraq Assistance Group, and the last that I saw as I left country. At that point he was working for the U.S. supporting the advisory forces, and staff. I wish that I could tell you more about him, his amazing story, and his family, but I cannot say too much about him because I do not want to endanger them. However, as a senior leader in the Iraqi Air Force he is actively engaged in fighting DAESH, and sadly, most Americans do not give him, or the other Iraqi troops now engaged in fighting DAESH enough credit. They are risking their lives in an attempt to defeat DAESH and reunify their country, while American politicians and pundits criticize them for having to do what they need to do to defend their country.

I pray that my friend Falah and his men will be successful, because it matters not just to Iraqis, but to us. Likewise, I pray that one day, I can go back to Iraq. But then I don’t expect most people to understand. Inshallah. (إن شاء الله)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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