Category Archives: mental health

Padre Steve’s World at Eight Years: I’m Still Standing

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect. I was reminded by my WordPress, the company that hosts my site that I began this blog eight years ago today.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.

iraq-2007

bedouin

I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it. But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains. Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote 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.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love, writing history, which I completed my second Master’s degree in a year after I started this blog.

The latter which has been both educational, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My historical writings been further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 2,862 posts, and three draft books, I got to this point. I still do suffer symptoms of PTSD but I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillon Izzy, who is a therapy dog in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Tragic Heroes: Gouverneur Warren Part Four

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Going back to the leadership series and the fourth installment of my work dealing with Union Major General Gouverneur Warren.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

warren-and-staff

Warren With his Staff

Corps Command in Virginia and the Evidence of Combat Stress

Warren was promoted to be the acting commander of II Corps after Gettysburg as Hancock had been wounded and then was appointed to command V Corps.  He served well as a Corps commander, although his often “quick and sulphurous temper which he displayed in the Virginia campaign of 1864 worked against Warren by making him unnecessary enemies and dismaying his friends.” [1] Warren was so short tempered during the campaign, probably, due to the result of the strain of it that Colonel Charles Wainwright complained that Warren “had a screw loose and is not quite accountable for all his freaks.”  [2] In high command Warren’s “fellow officers respected his ability as an engineer, but disliked his arrogance and insolence. Warren’s temper was legendary, and when his anger boiled over he sputtered out profanities that, said one colleague, “made my hair stand on end.” [3] To be fair to Warren that last outburst followed the disaster inflicted by Grant on the army at Cold Harbor, when Grant threw it up against strongly entrenched Confederate troops with great loss. Warren who could not abide meaningless slaughter found it reprehensible.

The interesting thing about all the accounts of Warren’s temper being so violent is that they do not begin until after he is in Corps command, and he gives no hint of such anger and rage in his letters until after his experiences on the Peninsula, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and finally Gettysburg. During the Army of the Potomac’s inaction during the fall of 1863 it became clear that the war was taking a toll on Warren. Alcohol became a problem, so much that once after drinking a whisky punch with his staff he was “falling down drunk” and had to be told of his actions the following night by one of his staff members. [4]

His letters to Emily display a sense of depression and sometimes even despair. He wrote Emily:

“I repine a great deal. I begin to feel myself giving out in spirit. I need so to rest where I could be contented. So long now my life has been one continued worry or excitement that I am losing my elasticity and I am getting almost afraid for I am apprehensive that I cannot uphold my position…. Every day shows me more and more how this war is severing my old affiliations and making me lonely…here I sit all alone in this great camp (for so I feel) and the memory of my dear friends comes over me and I am morbidly depressed. Indeed I feel I am a very small man that I can endure no more, for I am well and not a prisoner…and have been honored more than I deserve. I have not the heart of a good soldier.” [5]

Since so many people that knew Warren after Gettysburg describe the fearsome and nearly volcanic nature of his temper we can accept that as a fact. Likewise his arrogant, insolent and even haughty attitude towards those that he believed himself to be intellectually superior is evident even during his early career as are his recurrent struggles with depression which only grew worse throughout the war and in following years.

Dr. Judith Herman, an associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School wrote:

“Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the basic attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.” [6]

But it is only after the continued trauma that Warren experienced at Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg that we see the evidence of Warren’s anger, bitterness and rage becoming a major factor in his life and relationships. If we are to take into account the findings of modern science, medicine and psychiatry in relationship to the descriptions provided by Warren and those that knew him, we have to at least give serious consideration to the real possibility that Warren’s issues were caused by his experience of war and some type of resultant combat stress injury. This could include PTSD, Moral Injury, or possibly even changes brought about by a traumatic brain or concussive injury.

Jonathan Shay, a psychologist with many years of experience in dealing with veterans afflicted with PTSD wrote that “The social conditions that cause complex PTSD – persistent betrayal and rupture of community in mortal stakes situations of captivity – destroy thumos, destroy normal narcissism and undo character.” [7]

Dave Grossman writes about how such events can become what we now call “Character disorders”:

Character disorders include obsessional traits in which the soldier becomes fixated on certain actions or things; paranoid trends accompanied by irascibility, depression, anxiety, often taking on the tone of threats to his safety; schizoid trends leading to hypersensitivity and isolation; epileptoid character reactions accompanied by periodic rages…..What has happened to the soldier is an altering of his fundamental personality.” [8]

Shay writes about what happens to character when it is damaged by war, and the spectrum of clinical manifestations of an injury to character seen in many combat veterans. Among the manifestation that Shay describes, a good number which are present in what we know about Warren. These include: Demoralization, self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness, pervasive “raw” vulnerability and feeling conspicuous, social withdraw irritability, rage at small slights, disappointments and lapses, coercive attempts to establish power dominance. [9]

Warren’s repeated writings about his isolation; depression and despair to Emily are powerful. He writes Emily in words that he shares with no one else. In those letters he conveys the depth of his injury, an injury that has shaken his faith in himself, his leaders and brought about an existential crisis. It is an injury that with a man like Ulysses S. Grant in command that he could not voice to anyone in the army for fear of what we would now call the stigma of PTSD that is experienced by so many combat veterans. Instead it comes out in a drive to ensure that his soldiers are not sacrificed in senseless battles, a sense of his own unworthiness, and a sense that he has been shunted aside, even betrayed by those commanding the army, including his former friend Meade as well as Grant. His letter to Emily that he wrote in 1866 describes the effects of PTSD and Moral Injury almost perfectly:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” [10]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.315

[2] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: the Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.305

[3] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.73

[4] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.104

[5] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.106

[6] Herman, Judith Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror Basic Books, a member of Perseus Books Group. New York 1992 and 1997 p.51

[7] Shay, Jonathan Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming Scribner, New York and London 2002 p.160

[8] Grossman, Dave On Killing Back Bay Books Little, Brown and Company New York, Boston and London 1995 and 1996 p.48 An epileptoid personality pattern is one that includes irritability, selfishness, aggressiveness and being uncooperative. All of these are demonstrated in the changes that Warren exhibits between 1862 and 1865

[9] Ibid. Shay Odysseus in America pp.160-161

[10] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: the Life of G.K Warren p.249

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Tragic Heroes: Gouverneur Warren, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been writing about leadership the past couple of days and despite all that is going on in the news I think that I will continue to do so using some parts of my Gettysburg text. I think it is incredibly important to get to know the men and women behind iconic pictures, statues, and biographies that are often not much more than hagiography. In my studies I have encountered people who I find fascinating and not just because of their achievements but also due to their suffering. One of my seminary professors said that you could never come to grips with Jesus until you came to understand suffering.

That is important especially when we deal with men and women who have been traumatized on the battlefield, who when they return from war they come home changed. Many are great leaders and outstanding people whose courage was proven but their lives after the war can only be considered tragic. One of these is Gouverneur Warren, one of the heroes of the Union in the Civil War, and who was instrumental in stopping the Confederate forces at Gettysburg 0n July 2nd 1863. I have written about him before, but I think now is an appropriate time to revisit his life as well as some other men who fought alongside him at Gettysburg.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Warren

The Statue of Gouverneur Warren on Little Round Top


History, Memory and Myth at Little Round Top 

The battle of Gettysburg is an iconic part of American history. The accounts of Buford’s delaying action and John Reynolds death on July 1st, the savage battle at the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard and Plum Run on July 2nd and the great charge known as Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd 1863 all draw us to the battlefield. The stories of individual courage and the sacrifice of soldiers from the North and the South that are enshrined on the monuments that now populate the battlefield have a nearly religious quality that draws Americans to Gettysburg by the hundreds of thousands every year.

But there are some places on the battlefield that seem to be the most iconic, the most spiritual, and the most inspirational for various reasons. Two of these places in particular have a nearly magnetic attraction, the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy on Cemetery Ridge where Pickett’s Charge met its end, and the rocky hill known as Little Round Top. A large part of the reason that these two places hold such an attraction is not just the way that the battle was fought.  Rather, it is often because of the way the stories of those actions and the stories of the men who fought at them have been passed down to us in the accounts of survivors, in history and even in the fictional accounts of the battle. In each of these stories there are elements of courage, devotion, sacrifice, and tragedy that touch us in deeply personal ways and connect us to them and what we see when we experience history tells us as much about us as it does them.

The story of the Battle for Little Round Top has been passed along to us in the many accounts and histories of the battle, but perhaps more importantly in literature and cinema through Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels and that book’s film adaptation, Gettysburg.  Many people who have never read an actual history of the battle know about the Battle for Little Round Top from Jeff Daniels’ inspirational portrayal of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the movie.

The mythic status that we accord Gettysburg is important to Americans as a people. It is a defining moment in our American story and that is why so many of us come to the battlefield. It is a part of who and what we are as a people. Chamberlain said this well a quarter century after the battle at the dedication of the Maine Monuments in 1888:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” [1]

While the accounts in the novel and the film are certainly inspiring and allow us to experience the emotion and near spiritual sense of what Chamberlain writes about the battle, there is much more to learn. When we go beyond the mythic portrayal of the battle we find that despite the vast amount of information available that there are a large number of approximations and ambiguities in the accounts of the battle.  So as we endeavor to look at the actions of these leaders on that fateful day it is important to recognize that it is impossible for us to totally separate the actions of the men that helped decide the battle from the mythos that surrounds the story. [2] Likewise, it is important for us to acknowledge, that we cannot completely separate the character of these men and how they lived their lives from their actions on this particular battlefield and afterwards.

That understanding is important if we want to be able to interpret these men and their actions; actions that are recorded in their journals, after action reports, unit histories, individual diaries and letters, as well as the accounts of their contemporaries who served alongside them; accounts which for many reasons are not completely reliable.

As important as these accounts are for us in attempting to sort out the truth of the matter we must apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to them and we must interpret them. [3]  We have to do this because all historical accounts are influenced by the writer’s motivations, ideology or perspective. There are some authors who omit damning or damaging information, especially about their own actions, or the actions of those leaders that they wish to protect, and the writers that “spin” the event in order to build up or destroy the reputations of those present. Even those writers of the contemporary accounts of the battle who wrote their accounts with the best motivations and intentions to record the events as best as they could describe them were often prone to mistakes, even in details such as the time an event took place. The location of people during the event was limited by their physical position on the battlefield and what they could see amid the bullets and bombshells that created carnage around their point of observation. Those not present at the battle, the men who recorded their accounts based on the recollections of those present are similarly limited.

There is also another factor to consider in dealing with these accounts, especially when untrained observers make observations of the actions and behavior of others which seem strange or erratic to them. This is especially true of men who are writing about men who have experienced the horrors of war and combat which might have resulted in some sort of combat stress injury such as PTSD, brain injuries such as TBI or a concussive syndrome or experience which is now called Moral Injury. Thus when we examine the behavior of such leaders and see a marked change in the way that they deal with others after their experience of war, those conditions, unknown to their contemporaries must be considered as a possibility when evaluating their actions.

The problem for the historian or for that matter the writer of military doctrine is how to interpret the information that they have available to them to make it relevant and useful in the art that they practice.  This can be a daunting task with many associated pitfalls that is neither an inductive, nor a deductive process. David Hackett Fischer writes:

“The logic of historical thought is not a formal logic of deductive inference. It is not a symmetrical structure of Aristotelian syllogisms, or Ramean dialectics, or Boolean equations….Instead it is a process of adductive reasoning in the simple sense of adducing answers to specific questions, so that a specific “fit” is obtained. The answers may be general or particular, as circumstances may require. History is, in a sense a problem-solving discipline. A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm.” [4]

All this is important because it reminds us, that when we study these accounts and attempt to use them as a basis for leadership theories, operation art and strategy, or for any other reason, that all that we know to be “true” is a combination of fact, myth and spin. Our task is to do the best we can with that in mind while admitting that we all have our own prejudices, agendas and ideas that color the glasses by which we interpret the event and the actions of the people involved.

In a sense when we look at the records of the people present or their contemporaries we must entertain a fair amount of suspicion and be able to ask questions as if the writers were talking or writing to us presently. We must ask three questions to do this: Why are they telling this fact or story? Why are they telling it to me? Why are they telling it now? Or more succinctly put “Why this? Why me? Why now?”

Notes

[1] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Chamberlain’s Address at the dedication of the Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3rd 1888 retrieved from http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/maineatgettysburg.php 4 June 2014

[2] Note: My use of the terms myth, mythology or mythos should not be considered negative, and the use of the terms does not mean that there is not some degree of fact or truth in them. The definitions of the term mythos are important to understanding my use of the term here, first it denotes a traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure of a story, and secondly a set of beliefs or assumptions about something. (See the Oxford American Dictionary.)

[3] I mention the term a hermeneutic of suspicion. Hermeneutics is the theory of understanding and interpreting language and non-linguistic expression. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it this way: “The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions. As a theory of interpretation, the hermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy. In the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hermeneutics emerges as a crucial branch of Biblical studies. Later on, it comes to include the study of ancient and classic cultures.” 

[4] Fischer, David Hackett Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought Harper and Row, New York 1970 p.xv  

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Smile and the World Smiles with You: PTSD, Broken Noses, Smiles, F-Bombs, and God’s Love


 Smile and the World Smiles with You: It Looks and Feels a Lot Worse in Person, the Black Eye is Awesome

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tuesday morning began with a fucking bang. I was in the middle of one of my HD PTSD nightmares and I was rudely awakened when my face smashed into my nightstand. It’s not the first time that this is happened, and it is the second time in the past two years that the incident required a visit to the ER. I have had a lot of these incidents since returning from Iraq in2008, but thankfully only two required going in for medical treatment. The last time I required medical treatment was when in a similar nightmare, I bruised my jawbone and gave me a concussion. Today, just a gash across my face and a broken nose. The incident was so violent that it scared the hell out of Judy, Minnie, and Izzy. I woke up and felt liquid on my face and realized that I was bleeding. So I rapidly put some Kleenex to keep the blood from dripping everywhere I didn’t want to clean and stumbled into the bathroom where I was confronted with my bloodied image in the mirror. I looked like an old and out of shape MMA fighter who just had his ass kicked, but thankfully I didn’t tap out. 

Judy drove me to the Naval Medical Center, and two of the nurses both related to my situation, having both dealt with the nightmares of PTSD. One female nurse said that hers lasted over five years after returning, mine have been going on over eight years. It is one of the marks of PTSD, the fucking brain matter gets scrambled, and sometimes, no matter how much therapy you get, or how good your medication management is, shit like this happens.

That my friends is life. It may not be fair. It may not fit in with a theology that says of you pray that God will heal you, but it is life, and for that matter it is much more in keeping with scripture, and reality than the bullshit put out by the mega-church and television preacher bullshit artists who call themselves pastors, who fleece their flocks by the tune of millions of dollars every fucking day of the week. So fuck them, not that I would want to, but I digress… 

That being said, with the except of the chronic insomnia and nightmares I am doing much better when it comes to dealing with PTSD. I make accommodation for it, I avoid things that I know are likely to blow me up, and So I have a choice; I can either sulk and be angry, or while realizing how serious it is I can decide to live, to smile, and to love. So fuck it, I’m going to live and smile. I might need to start wearing a catcher’s mask to bed to keep from hurting myself when I have these high definition nightmares, but then I did play catcher in both little league and softball. 

So… What now? Well for me the answer is simple, live, love, and smile, because when you smile, no matter how fucked up things are, the world smiles with you. Laugh, and no matter how fucked up things are, and the world laughs with you; and for that matter, God might even give me a grin, because the God I believe in actuality understands and cares about real human beings and is much more concerned about our happiness than he is about the occasional F-Bomb. 

As for me, no matter what life and dealing with the effects of PTSD and TBI may be, I am still going to fucking laugh, and fucking smile. Even so I do think I will go looking for a comfortable and well fitting catcher’s mask when I get back from Gettysburg. 

Have a great night, and no matter what happens, try to smile.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I will post something about the Democratic Party National Convention tomorrow and promise to soon do something on the Trump-Putin bromance and Trump’s probable treason in the coming days. 

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The Second Thing: Living and Thriving with PTSD


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wanted to take some time to reflect on the struggle I have had with chronic PTSD following my tour in Iraq.

For years, PTSD dominated my life, in fact it almost defined who I was. The nightmares, night terrors, anxiety, depression, occasional thoughts of suicide, and so many other effects of it were often almost more than I could bear. But over the past few months, beginning with an existential crisis around Easter, I think I have turned a corner. 

I have quoted James Spader’s character Raymond Reddington from the television series The Blacklist. Reddington told an FBI agent who had seen his fiancée murdered: “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing that you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” 

For me, my time in Iraq haunted me. It was the first thing that I thought of when I got up, when I went to bed, and so many times during the days, and through the sleepless nights. It still is there, I left part of me in Al Anbar Province and brought part of it back with me. That will not change, but it is no longer the first thing that I think about. 


That my friends is a turning point. I still suffer in many ways from the effects of PTSD and mild Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, but while they are a big part of me, they do no longer define who I am. Iraq is no longer the first thing that I think about, and that my friends is important. It has taken over eight years, and yes, I still deal with the effects, but they don’t define who I am. I am a priest, a chaplain, a historian, a theologian, a husband, and a career military officer; not to mention daddy to two very sweet and smart Papillons. 

Indeed, there is nothing that can take the pain away, but for me, it is now the second thing. For me, that is a victory. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Finding Ways to Live With It: 8 Years After Returning from Iraq

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Just a short thought on this Friday morning. It has been eight years to the day that I stepped back in country and returned from my tour in Iraq. I have written much about that tour so I won’t spend any time recounting those experiences and just share a couple of observations that come from my struggle with PTSD and other maladies associated with that tour. In fact the night before last I fell out of bed as during a nightmare I rolled to escape attacking enemy soldiers. Sadly, this is nothing new, at least this time I escaped unhurt. 

It has been a terribly difficult eight years as in addition to my own struggles I have watched friends who also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggle as they have tried to readjust to life out of the sandbox. Of course there are those who never came home, friends and comrades killed in action, as well as those that either died of illness or wounds incurred during their tours, and others who sadly took their lives after their return. Likewise, there is the cost born by spouses, the broken marriages, substance abuse, and so many other issues.

No wonder two-time Medal of Honor winner, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler noted, “What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

I have spent years trying to make heads or tails out of my own struggles and I finally have come to the realization that I am probably about as good as I will get. I do not trust the military mental health system, even though there are some very good doctors, therapists and other providers in it. While I have had some very good therapists, all were civilians, I cannot see any of them here and to try to get back into the system is often dehumanizing. I have someone managing my medicines, for PTSD and my chronic insomnia and the combinations are working better than other attempts so I am not going to complain.

I have a wonderful wife who has neither divorced nor killed me, though she probably would have been justified a number of times. I have two wonderful little dogs who incredibly comforting. Likewise I have friends, some in the military, some at my work at the Staff College, and others at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, my version of Cheers. I don’t know what I would have done without these wonderful people. So I am grateful, and as I said, things are about as good as they will get.

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that I began to embrace last year, and though some might find it odd, I find it comforting.

“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Have a great weekend,

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.

irish brigade monument

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