Category Archives: iraq

Mia San Mia: Finding Myself Again after the Thrill is Gone

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Glenn Frey of the Eagles penned these immortal words which kind of sum up here I am with life as a Navy Chaplain:

Same dances in the same old shoes
Some habits that you just can’t lose
There’s no telling what a man might use
After the thrill is gone…

Now please be sure, I cannot stop being a Priest, nor can I refuse the chance to care for people in need of pastoral care, or the sacraments, and I will remain faithful to the Church. That being said, apart from caring for servicemen and women and their families, the thrill is gone as far as serving in the Chaplain Corps.

I think that I realized it back in 2014 while teaching at the Joint Forces Staff College. I realized that my real calling as a Priest was being a historian, teacher, and writer. It is not surprising, the most influential people in my life have included Priests and Pastors who do more as teachers and writers in fields outside of traditional theology or pastoral care. In fact I credit the late Andrew Greeley for helping to restore and reorient my faith after a terrible faith crisis following my tour in Iraq. His Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries were they only things I read that in any sense communicated the mystery and magic of faith to me in a terribly dark time.

That being said I have always been a historian for as long as I can remember. I used to cut Geometry class in 10th grade to go to the library and read the books in the history reserved section that could not be checked out. I cut Geometry so often that the librarians thought I had a permanent pass to be there. Good thing my mother didn’t know. By the way, hi mom.

I probably should have retired when my assignment to the Staff College ended, but I thought that I could do another tour. If I had been used to my strengths it might have worked out, but I was put in charge of a large base chapel though my last base chapel experience was in the Army some twenty years before, in a far different religious, cultural, and political climate, where I had funding and command support to close down a regular army base, turn it over to the National Guard and find a way to creatively ensure that the base chapel remained open and the congregations continued after the transfer.

In the current Navy climate there is no money, funding, or support for anything on the base side of operations, far less chapel programs to make things work for servicemen and women and their families; active duty, Reserve, and retired. It’s a sad commentary, my facilities are falling apart, funding continues to be cut, and my staff is being decimated. If my base was being closed and turned over to the reserves I am sure that the chapel would go away and the 700 plus people who worship there would be cut loose.

Then there is the problem that I my opinion is that the Chaplain Corps is more invested in surviving than ministering. The institutional rot runs deep, and I think that unless there is a radical change that the Chaplain Corps has maybe 10 years left in it before the Navy decides to shitcan it. The Marines and Coast Guard will probably be the only thing that keeps the Navy Chaplain Corps going if it survives, but I digress. I know for me it is time to leave the institutional ministry of the Navy, the thrill quite frankly is gone.

But it’s not like that I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was warned about the Chaplain Corps even before I left active duty in the fall of 1988 to attend seminary. My Brigade Executive Officer told me: “Steve, you think the Army Medical Department is brutally political, and backstabbing, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.” Sadly, that witness has not only been born out in my career, but repeated by Chaplains and Line officers in both the Army and Navy since then. Despite the many selfless men and women who have served as military Chaplains, the institution itself has what Kierkegaard called, the sickness unto death, and most don’t realize it. I served in the Army and Navy Chaplain Corps fore 26 of my 37 plus years in the military, serving all because I believed in the First Amendment, sometimes more than God. But it is time for me to go.

Today, I interviewed for a part time history instructor position at a local college. I found out about the position by a stroke of luck. I was going through a required pre-retirement class and one of our exercises was to find a job listing and write a targeted resume for it. In a moment of inspiration I decided to follow the advice of our Department of Labor instructor to not only do an exercise, but to see if I could actually find a job doing it. A simple Google search provided an advertisement for a history instructor at a for profit local college. So I followed the instructions in the job description and made the phone call.

That was a month ago. Today, I did my interview and gave a demonstration lecture. It went well. There is still one more applicant, but he or she will have to be shit hot to take it from me. The comments about the interview and sample lecture about the causes and road to the First World War were as I had hoped: he’s an engaging and captivating speaker and great story teller.

I do hope and pray that I will get this job simply because I love history, as well as teaching it and writing about it. The fact is that I cannot do anything else. My former. Dean at the Joint Forces Staff College said that I was a “Historian masquerading as a Chaplain, not that there was anything wrong with that.” One of my subordinate Chaplains at my current base said to me: Sir, I need to start taking notes so I can try to get graduate credit for our talks.

But that is who and what I am. In the Latin words of a Bavarian motto taken up by the Bayern München soccer team. Mia San Mia, We are Who We Are, or for me, I am Who I Am.

After twenty-six plus years as an Army and Navy Chaplain, I realized that while I would always remain a Priest and a part of the church, that I couldn’t be a parish pastor or continue working in institutional ministry just because I had the education, the experience, and the need for steady employment post Navy, enough to make up the difference between my retirement, disability, and what I make on active duty. But even without that, I know that I need to stay engaged and to read, teach, and write; Mia San Mia.

I am who I am.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under books, christian life, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, ministry, News and current events, Political Commentary, Teaching and education

“All Stop” Pausing to Remember the End of An Age

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the midst of a very busy “day off” due to the National Day of Mourning in honor of the late President George H. W. Bush, I stopped everything to watch his funeral. On a ship the command “All Stop” involves taking all engines off line by disengaging the engines from the propeller shafts, where they are neither driving the ship forward or in reverse. For landlubbers it is like one puts a car with a manual transmission in neutral or park. The engines may continue to run, but the ship is not being driven forward or reverse.

For a bit over two hours I did that today. I stopped. I didn’t look at email, didn’t answer telephone calls or texts, and didn’t check Facebook or Twitter, instead I stopped to watch, listen, and reflect during the funeral for President Bush. I had other things that I could have done, but as a historian I knew that it was the end of an age.

State funerals are something special in the United States, unlike our mother country we are a republic, and democracy. While Great Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy, it is still a monarchy. State funerals in the United States serve to remind us of our heritage even in times when many people either pay lip service to it, or actually despise it, longing for some form of autocracy. The funeral of President Bush served as a reminder of that better and more noble heritage, what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the better angels of our nature.

Earlier in the morning I had taken Judy to her first physical therapy appointment in two weeks since she tore a Quadricep muscle while doing at home physical therapy after her first knee replacement surgery. She is making great progress but the pain is still pretty bad and she has a hard time getting comfortable in bed, something that makes sleep difficult. After that we went out to breakfast before coming home.

As a Priest, Chaplain, military officer, and historian I thought that it was important. President Bush had been out of office for around 26 years and only had served one term as President, however, those four years were among the most critical in the history of the modern world. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany as a Westen oriented member of NATO and the European Union, and the liberation of Kuwait and defeat of Iraq by a disparate coalition of 29 very different nations under the authority of the United Nations all within a period of barely two years time were remarkable, and something that we will probably never see again in our lifetimes.

Whether one agreed or disagreed with individual policies enacted by him or his administration; and I did have my share of disagreements one had to admit the basic decency, humility, and respect for political opponents that enabled him to build relationships and keep friendships.

Today’s funeral dealt with history and what it is to be an American: friendship, family, faith, a dedication to the ideals written in the Declaration of Independence, spoken of by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, which referred to that ideal and pledged to build a more perfect Union, as well as a belief in an ideal of service to something greater than ourselves.

Historian John Meecham, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former Senator Alan Simpson, and his son, former President George W. Bush, speaking as a son and not a President, were a portrait and a biography of a man who loved life, loved his family, loved his country and who had the courage to defy Party hardliners if it benefited the county, and who could take the time to care about children afflicted with the Leukemia that killed his daughter Robin at the tender age of three.

His was the story of a man who defied affluence and privilege to serve his country by volunteering to serve as soon as he could after the nation went to war, and who at the tender age of 18 became the youngest Naval Aviator in our history. Shot down over Chuchi Jima, he mourned the loss of his flight crew and was always aware of the human cost of war. He did not commit the lives of young Americans, allies, or coalition partners without reflecting on the loss of his flight crew. When he committed the nation to war in 1991 he did so only under the mandate of the United Nations and with a coalition that would be unimaginable today. I could never see our current President doing what George H. W. Bush did to keep the world from plunging into an abyss of disorder and irresponsibility.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t make mistakes, couldn’t go for the jugular as a politician, or who didn’t change his positions on various issues out of political expediency; but he always remained a fundamentally decent man who had great empathy for others.

His funeral was attended by more heads of state, former heads of state, or royalty since that of John F. Kennedy. As I watched the hearse which bore his body from the funeral in which the current President and four other Presidents gathered along with so many heads of state or former leaders gathered I was reminded of the words of historian Barbara Tuchman speaking about then funeral of British King Edward VII:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, iraq, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

“I imagined leave would be different from this” September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Seventeen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 37 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. As I mentioned last night I did not take place in this year’s commemoration of the event at my base because I had been asked by name to do a funeral for a retired Navy Chief at a local veterans cemetery followed by more planning and preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, ethics, History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, Political Commentary, terrorism

PTSD, Medical Records, Malfeasant Malpractice, and the Minstrel Boy: Surprises You Discover by Seeing Your Actual Medical Records

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was going through some of the 1000 pages of my electronic medical records and close to 500 pages of hard medical copy records. My God, they are a treasure trove of information. I am beginning to organize them for my meetings with Disabled American Veterans and Veteran’s Administration for my military disability claim. According from one of my friends, a retired Navy Physician who now works for the VA in dealing with claims I should have an 80-100% disability rating from the VA due to all that is goofed up with me. I’d settle for 80-90%, 100% sounds too extreme. But severe chronic PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, chronic insomnia, night terrors, injuries sustained in physically acted out nightmares, severe Sleep Apnea, hearing loss, Tinnitus, speech comprehension at the 3rd percentile, not to mention numerous injuries to my legs, knees, hips, ankles, shoulders and wrists incurred through years of physical abuse in and out of combat environments.

These do not include many of my psychiatric and psychological records which are in a different system, nor the hard copy records from my time in the Army which I still have, but they are impressive and full of surprises.

For me this included an obviously punitive diagnosis made by a Psychiatry Resident four years ago who had only met me for 15 minutes. During that time she treated with such contempt and disrespect that I issued a formal complaint about her. My complaint actually helped get me a competent therapist, but this physician attempted to harm me by diagnosing me with a disorder than cannot be made in such a short time of clinical observation. The fact is that I was dealing with PTSD and combat trauma while she was still in high school, and that was before it happened to me. As a result I am going to seek some kind of sanctions on that doctor through the military or through her accrediting body.

If it wasn’t for the restrictions of the Feres Doctrine I would immediately sue the Navy because how badly that encounter effected me then. I do actually plan on exploring ways to punish that doctor for what she did because the diagnosis was made purely to poison the relationship that any future Navy (Military or Civilian) therapist might have with me, but I digress because I went all of this to write about a Star Trek the Next Generation episode which I just watched as part of my current binge watching of Star Trek TNG seasons. The episode was called The Wounded and dealt with PTSD, combat trauma, loss, and the unwillingness of some to let wars end. It has always been one of my favorite episodes of that franchise, long before I ever went to Iraq or came back with PTSD and TBI.

One of the quotes from the episode was uttered by Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart. He made a comment about people who could not get over their anger, that is especially applicable to those who went to war or lost friends or family in war:

“I think, when one has been angry for a very long time, one gets used to it. And it becomes comfortable like…like old leather. And finally… it becomes so familiar that one can’t remember feeling any other way.

I understand that. I still have a lot of anger. Not at the Iraqis, but the men and women who sent us into Iraq. Trust me, I have no lingering sympathy for Saddam Hussein and his thuggish dictatorship, but that being said the justification to go to war was so unjust that had our leaders been in the dock at Nuremberg they would have been found guilty of at least two counts on those charges. No honest person who looks at history or international law can say otherwise, especially it because it was an American, Justice Robert Jackson who organized the trials and who noted before they began:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Once again I digress, because what brought all about my post tonight was that Star Trek TNG episode that I first saw some 27 years ago. When the episode comes to it’s conclusion Chief Miles O’Brien played by Colm Meaney tells his former Captain, Benjamin Maxwell played by the noted character actor Bob Gunton that the war is over. He then reminds him of the Irish song The Minstrel Boy which they begin to sing:

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.

It is a breakthrough, a new war is averted, a former enemy warned of that future activities would be watched, and the possibility of peace and understanding between old enemies. Honestly, that is what I want to see in life. I have written about that many times.

I have meandered too much tonight, so I wish you a good night and a happy Labor Day Weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, iraq, mental health, Military, PTSD

The Black Hole of Sleep and Nightmares: PTSD, Iraq, and my Continuing Struggle

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier these words:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” 

I am exhausted tonight and I will be going to bed early for me. Hopefully I will get some restful sleep. I will be posting this article to post shortly after midnight by which time I hope not only to be in bed but asleep.

Last night was a night of violent nightmares taking me back to my worst fears when I was serving in the badlands of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008 supporting U.S. Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol, and Provincial Reconstruction teams.

I do not often write about it because I have been doing better, but I suffer from severe and chronic PTSD related to my experiences at war. The images are seared into my brain and sometimes the memories, and my deepest fears from my time there as an unarmed Chaplain working for the most part with very small groups of Americans and our Iraqis far away from the help of the big battalions if we got into serious trouble. I have written about those experiences and my struggles after my return many times on this blog. Likewise, I have had my story told on the front pages of the Jacksonville Daily News and the Washington Times. A video of my story is on the Department of Defense Real Warriors Campaign website, and is a large part of a chapter of Pulitzer Prize winning War Correspondent David Wood’s book  What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of America’s Longest Wars.  

Since Iraq, my nightmares are very vivid and often involve much physical acting out. The physical acting out is unusual and I have actually injured myself badly enough to require trips to the emergency room after crashing hard throwing myself out of bed combatting imaginary enemies. Likewise, other have been violent and physical enough to wake Judy up.

Last night was one of those nights but very different. In the nightmare I was being attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. Our advisor team had been attacked as we were stopped in the dark to determine if an Improvised Explosive Device had been laid in the road in front of us. This was just a few miles from the Iraq-Syrian border between Al Qaim and COP South, the base of the advisor team which was working with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi 7th Division.

The part about being stopped in the desert in the dark while examining a potential IED actually happened. The attack did not happen but at the time I fully expected something like it to happen. We were sitting ducks on a two lane highway in the middle of the desert. But the attack never happened and we continued to COP South, which would become a part of many of my future missions.

But in my nightmare it happened and as the fighting devolved into close quarters hand to hand combat I found myself grappling an insurgent who was attacking me with a large knife. I managed to roll on top of him and knock the knife from his hand when I was awakened. I was on top of Judy and she was afraid that I was going to strangle her. My hands had not gotten to her throat but she woke me and told me what had happen. I dropped back to my side of the bed in a cold sweat. I could not believe what had happened and that terrifies me. I have set up an appointment prior to my regularly scheduled one with my shrink to talk about this.

Since I my day had been quite good and I have been much more relaxed at work since putting in my retirement papers the event came as a huge surprise. In trying to figure out what triggered it I was at loss until I remembered that I had had dinner last night with a retired Navy EOD Captain who had been my Chief Staff Officer at EOD Group Two and running partner before I went to Iraq. He was sent there not long after me and we met at Camp Victory in Baghdad not long before I left Iraq on the way to Kuwait and home in 2008. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night and we did talk about all manner of things including our time in Iraq and those men that we had served alongside.

But to try to explain nightmares is not really helpful. I think that Stephen King said it best:

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” 

Yes I can try to logically deduce my nightmares and night terrors, but the poetry of fear as Stephen King so rightly calls it cannot be fully explained. For those of us who deal with the memories of combat, of having been shot at and have seen the human cost of war, the dead, the wounded, the destruction, and the aftermath of war, they are all too real and they never completely leave us.

Christmas on the Syrian border

Over ten years after I returned from Iraq I still find that much of me is still there. In fact, deep down I miss Iraq and the Iraqis that I was honored to know and to serve alongside and I still pray for them and for their future. Maybe someday I will get back.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq, Military, PTSD, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

All Good Things: My Decision to Retiree from the Military

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the Star Trek Film Generations Captain Jean Luc Picard told Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today was like any other Saturday for me except that I made the decision to put in my retirement papers from the Navy. Lord willing about this time next year I will be “piped ashore” in a retirement ceremony.

When that day comes it will be the end of a thirty-eight year military career in which I have served as an enlisted man, then an officer. I have served in the active duty Army, the Army Reserve, and California, Texas, and Virginia Army National Guard. Then in February of 1999 after 17 1/2 years in the Army I declared free agency so to speak and joined the Navy.  On February 8th I was a Major in the Army Reserve and on the 9th I was taking the oath of office as a Navy Lieutenant. My wife and my paternal grandmother were there when I took the oath in a humble, and now abandoned Naval Reserve Center in Huntington West Virginia.

So now, some 19 years and 8 months later I have made the decision to put in my retirement papers. For me it is a time for reflecting and realizing that it is the right time to do this. The last number of months in my assignment have been difficult and brought me little joy. I have sought to serve my congregations and to mentor, help, and protect the personnel assigned to me.

I have grown weary of the frustrations of dealing with a moribund bureaucracy, decaying facilities with no money to fix them, the prospect of losing most of my experienced enlisted personnel with no experienced personnel coming in, and dealing with Protestant and Catholic congregations that try my very soul. When one of my Protestant parishioners attempted to have me tried by court martial because he disagreed with my sermon content and then wrote a lying letter to my commander forcing an investigation in which I had to spend money on a lawyer to defend myself I crossed the Rubicon. I knew that I was going to retire at the end of my current tour.

Then this week I hit the culminating point when the faith group leader of my Catholic congregation and my new contract Priest raised such a ruckus and problems for my enlisted personnel and one of my Chaplains that I had to intervene despite being on leave and in the middle of massive work on my house. I spent Friday evening texting that lay leader and it only made me more upset. I realized that no matter what I did that had done to keep them going in the absence of a priest and how I fought for them that they had no loyalty of concern for me or my personnel. Gratefulness to others is not a virtue for most American Christians today, I knew that but learned it again.

This morning I read a Navy Message announcing a Selective Early Retirement Board for Captains and Commanders. I am in the zone and if chosen to be retired I would have little lead time to plan my retirement and do all the things that I would need to do medically, administratively, and personally to retire and have a decent chance of landing on me feet. Honestly, I would have rather spent the last year in a combat zone in Iraq like I did in 2007 and 2008 than deal with the bullshit that I have been dealing with lately.

I know that did the best that I could and I can say that the team of chaplains and Religious Program Specialists whose work I help direct and support are some of the finest people I have ever served with. Their honesty and likewise their care for me has been about the only thing that got me through. Honestly, I am so grateful for them and I treasure them all, just as I have so many of my other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians employed by the military for the last thirty-seven years.

I am at peace, and I am going to spent the time leading up to my retirement to cherish every moment. Now I know that my situation at work is not going to change but I am going to cherish the moments with the people that I care for and do my best to serve without getting to stressed out because I know now that I my future is only beginning. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Remembering the Men of D-Day: In the Era of Trump who Will We Channel?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find the days around Memorial Day and the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landings to be a time when I become quite reflective about what it means to be a career American military officer, combat veteran, and the son of a Navy Chief who was also a combat veteran.

When he spoke on Omaha Beach during the ceremony marking the 70thAnniversary of the D-Day landings President Barak Obama said:

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”

All of my adult life I have striven to uphold those values that those men were prepared to die for, and for almost 37 years of Army and Navy service that I have been prepared to do so at a moment’s notice. I still am, against all threats, foreign and domestic. I just hope that I will never have to repeat the words of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg: “I’m a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience.”

Seventy-four years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France. In his D-Day message to his troops General Dwight Eisenhower reminded them that their mission was the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” There are still those in the world who subject their people to tyranny and attempt to destabilize and overthrow the governments of liberty loving peoples, likewise Eisenhower knew that security for ourselves meant close alliances with those who have our values and not isolating ourselves from the world.

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers; the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize these veterans, but it was a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

Had the Germans been able to hold out. Had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front. Had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially the elite paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, the German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr, and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground. In doing so they were ground to dust, their casualties massive, but Hitler forbade his commanders to withdraw his troop to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers, but many of them too shared in the crimes of the Nazi regime. Their courage and sacrifices were forever tarnished by the cause that they fought for and the way their country and many of them waged war, on the Eastern Front, and in some case on the Western Front.

For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation. As President Trump continues to go his own way to make the United States a pariah nation we have to be very aware of the costs of it and also remember that the Americans who went ashore on D-Day did so to help defeat a pariah nation that had flaunted every standard of justice in attempting to make Germany Great Again. When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday and it is possible that our day may come sooner than we think. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private RyanThe Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we who serve often strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Masters of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will meet. I hope that he is still alive and maybe he will see this.  I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

The survivors of the D-Day landings and those on the other side of the hill are continuing to pass from the bonds of this earth and into eternity. We owe it to them and to the world to make what they sacrificed themselves to do into reality, battling tyranny and striving for peace and security.

But that being said, what good will that be if we allow freedom to die at home? I wonder if like Claus von Stauffenberg who came to understand that serving Germany was not the same as serving Hitler, if we who serve today will have to make that same choice in regard to President Trump. In light of his actions and his words which indicate that he believes that he is above the law, can that point not be far away? Likewise will we who serve more embody the Americans, British, Canadians, and French at D-Day or the Germans?

Both are good questions to ask as we remember the men of D-Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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