Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I’m coming to an end of my photo history of my military and this one will reflect fun, seriousness, and some sadness. After my 17 1/2 years in the Army, Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard of three states I was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps on 9 February 1999. In my 21 plus years in the Navy I have served with the Marines for seven years, including Iraq where I was part of the Iraq Assistance Group of Multinational Force Iraq, attached to the Second Marine Expeditionary Force Forward working with the Marine, Army, and other Joint advisory teams across Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008. I served at sea aboard the USS Hue City supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Southern Watch in 2002 where I was an advisor to a boarding team inspecting and ensuring the health and safety of detained Iraqi oil smugglers, making 75 boardings of such ships where to say the least conditions were not great, crews often resentful not just of us but their ship’s Masters and employers and having to go aboard one ship several times that had active tuberculosis cases among about half of its crew. Once we came minutes from engaging Iranian Revolutionary Guards Naval Corps gunboats which were firing at our Force flagship. They hurried back into Iranian territorial waters before we could launch. That would have made headlines. We also were in between the Indian and Pakistani Fleets as they maneuvered as their nations stood on the brink of nuclear war. Good living and a lot of excitement. The ship and my boarding team were even featured in the first episode of Jerry Bruckheimer’s series Profiles from the Front Lines, featuring stores from the battles fields of Operation Enduring Freedom, and would have been on more had we not been cancelled by the invasion of Iraq. But if there are any television or film directors out there, take a look at this video and know that in a few short weeks I am available. I can can play good guys and bad guys, Military characters, clergymen, Nazi or Stasi bad guys, and I do speak pretty good German without an American accent. Our part starts at the 32 minute mark.
Anyway I served with Second Marine Division in four different battalions making a deployment to Okinawa, Japan, and Korea from early December 2000-July of 2001, Marine Security Force Battalion where my commanders had me always on the move to visit and even make emergency visits to Security Force Marines all over the World.
Returning from Iraq with a severe case of PTSD, mild TBI, and a host of other neurological, psychological, physical, and spiritual maladies I served as a Wounded Healer to people facing life and death in the ICU of Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, and later as Head of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Department at Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital. That is hard to do when you are struggling with faith, belief, and thinking about suicide almost every night. Faith did return but not in a traditional way, but I am better for it because I have much more empathy and being able to feel the emotions of others in ways I had never been able to do before. After Iraq it was much more difficult to compartmentalize my very logical and at times cold manner of analyzing issues.
Faith came back on an overnight on-call duty at Portsmouth around the middle of December. I was called to the ER because a man was dying. He had been a Navy office in the Second World War, became a Navy Doctor after the war doing his internship at Portsmouth. After his retirement from the Navy he served as a physician in Portsmouth, which was his home town providing care for the poor of the city, pre-natal care and delivering the babies of women without medical insurance or benefits, and volunteering his services to the prisoners of the county jail. He was a devout Episcopalian Christian, and when I arrived his wife asked if I was Episcopalian. At the time I belonged to an Anglo-Catholic denomination and told her that. She asked if I could perform the last rights and I said I could. I put on my hospital stole, broke out my Book of Common Prayer and Oil Stock. When I was making his head with the sign of the Cross while giving the final prayer of commendation he breathed his last and it was if something had changed. I felt the presence of God again.
I have not been the same since. Yes I still struggle with PTSD, anxiety, depression, severe nightmare and night terror disorders that have me attacking phantom enemies in my sleep, on more that one occasion requiring Emergency room visits for a broken nose, concussions, and a sprained jaw and neck. Judy has an inmate sense of when what she calls “the hand of death” is coming toward her and gently guides it down.
My tour there was made worse by my attempts to heal myself by never leaving the ICUs, working 60-100 hours a week. There were also a number of suicides and unexpected deaths, some of people I knew well on staff that further traumatized me, even as I tried to care for their survivors and friends on staff. I haven’t forgotten a one of them, they are burned into my brain. Then toward the end of the tour my dad died of Alzheimer’s, the morning after I had found I had been selected for promotion to commander. When I returned from his funeral I was given no-choice orders to go on a three year unaccompanied tour to Camp LeJeune to head the Pastoral Care Department, despite his knowledge that I was still very fragile, and need continuity of psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual care which all had to be restarted when I transferred with new providers, and I never found a spiritual community there where I fit.
A month later my former church denomination kicked be out because I had allegedly become too liberal for suggesting through a lot of theological study and reflection that women should be ordained as Deacons, Priests, and even consecrated as Bishops. I also announced that if we truly believed that the blood of Jesus forgave all sins why didn’t we welcome LGBTQ people into our church the way they were, especially when many of our Bishops engaged in various forms of the Seven Deadly Sins, and they remained bishops, and finally that I had seen Iraqi Muslims, Shia, and Sunni who had a higher reverence for Jesus and the Virgin Mary than many if not most American Christians, despite Mohammed’s adoption of the beliefs of the excommunicated Arian Christian Clergy and Monks he met in the Arabian Desert. They believed that Jesus was a lot like God, but not God, but just below him. That’s what Mohammed adopted as his, and now Islam’s view of Christ.
Well, those were my three strikes and I was out. Thankfully the military bishop of the main Episcopal Church found me a home with a small but reputable Old Catholic Denomination, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. They provided me a home where my beliefs about the Grace of God and efficacy of the Sacraments were welcomed and affirmed. This allowed me to continue to serve in the Navy as a Priest. Even when I retire in a few weeks I will remain with them whether I am in an active ministry or not, because I will always remain a Priest for people who have lost their faith, struggle with faith, have been rejected, traumatized or abused by the Church or its ministers, those afflicted with PTSD and other mental illness, and those who may never darken the door of a church.
Since I returned from LeJeuene I had the blessing of one of the most fulfilling assignments of my entire career, as the Ethics instructor, Chaplain, and leader of the Gettysburg Staff Ride. That opened the door that I always wanted, to be a historian, writer, teacher, and professor. I expect I will be focused more on that than anything when I retire.
I left the Staff College in April 2017 for a hellish assignment as the Command Chaplain at Joint Expeditionary Base Little-Creek Fort Story, which had become known as a toxic assignment and career killer for many who occupied the position. In June of 2018 I substituted for my Protestant pastor and a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander tried to have me tried by Court-Martial. Only one senior Navy Chaplain had my back and despite being much more conservative than me argued for my right to preach according to my Church’s tradition. Despite this I had to undergo an investigation where over half of the congregation present that day were interviewed. No one corroborated my accuser’s account because every part was a lie. Thankfully I had the support of Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who provided me legal counsel to defend me. The charges were dropped, but the damage was done.
No one from the Chief of Chaplains Office came to my defense or offered spiritual care or support, just as they had not when I went public with my struggles with PTSD in 2011 and 2014 when asked by my commands to do so. My story made the Front Page of the Jacksonville Daily News in March 2011. Soon after my story was featured as a video by the Department of Defense Real Warriors program.
Later I was a panelist at a forum presented by the Military Officers Association of America and other advocacy groups about caring for the wounding, including those with PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury.
In April 2014 while at the Staff College the Washington Times covered my story on their front page, which no one in the Chief of Chaplains Office could have missed. Pulitzer Prize winning military columnist David Wood in his 2016 book What Have We Done? The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars, used my story in the majority of a chapter. I was told later by an EOD Master Chief Petty Officer that while we could get help for PTSD and other similar injuries we would never get the premier assignments or be promoted. He was right, and while most of the time the Chaplain Corps provides great care for our Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and their families, they kill their own wounded.
My treatment led me to put in voluntary retirement papers for 1 September 2019, but those had to be cancelled because I was undergoing treatment for knee injuries, a failed meniscus surgery and injuries to my right hip and ankles that made it impossible to walk, much less run the 3-8 miles or more I ran 3 or more times a week until then. So my retirement date was moved to what was thought to be my statutory retirement date of 1 April 2020. However, when I called for my orders, I was told that there was a mistake and my retirement date was now 1 August 2020. That was fine with me but since my replacement had arrived, the Navy had to find something to do with me so they placed me at Naval Shipyard Norfolk, located in Portsmouth Virginia. There I found a welcoming environment, had the support of my commander, and my faith in God was again renewed as was my faith in the good of people. When the COVID-19 Pandemic in the spring the Navy put out a call for soon to retire officers to remain on active duty in a retired retained status until 31 December. I didn’t want to leave the people I had fallen in love with in the lurch so I volunteered and well here I am now. I think I have set more retirement dates than Brett Farve, but this one should be it.
In retrospect I have loved serving in most of the places I have throughout my military career. As a Chaplain with only one exception I had great relationships with my commanders and the Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, the men and women of Allied nations, and members of the State Department, Defense Intelligence Agency, and other Federal agencies whose personnel I supported. As a Chaplain my problems, especially after coming out with PTSD came from other Chaplains, especially senior Chaplains. To them I was broken and pretty much a spent round. As my Executive Officer at the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences warned me before I left the active duty Army for seminary, “Steve, if you think the Army Medical Department is political, vicious, and back-stabbing, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.” Sadly, he was right, in both the Army and Navy.
Several of my former commanders in the Navy and Marine Corps have been there for me every step of the way as I struggled, and those I served returned kindness and support to me when I was hurting. A few other Chaplains who had been crushed by the system were also there for me. However, with the exception on one of my closest Chaplain friends of my previous denomination, who pledge to always be there for me and I them, a Band of Brothers we used to call ourselves, ghosted me, I would call them and they would not call me. That sense of betrayal still stings. Yes, I have forgiven, but the lingering pain of being cast off by people I knew and was close to for a decade or more is still there. These same is true for some of my Chaplain contemporaries who also turned their back on me. But the good thing is, that among the younger chaplains I supervised all have at least made Lieutenant Commander and one Commander. One who I supervised in the Army when I was a Major and he was a First Lieutenant is now a Catholic Priest and a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve. My Chaplain Assistant at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania is now a Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps. My Religious Program Specialist at 1st Battalion 8th Marines become a Chaplain and because he had so much enlisted time was able to retire as a Lieutenant at 20 years. He is now in civilian ministry. I have always thought that was more important to help others succeed by mentoring, giving sage advice to keep them from blowing up their careers, and to care for them in hard times, as I would anyone who came to me. Their success brings me great joy, as does the success of anyone who has ever come to me for assistance.
Recently I had a friend on Facebook remark that I hurt and suffered because I cared so much. I told them that being a narcissistic sociopath would be much easier, and my Skipper from the HUE CITY, Captain Rick Hoffman remarked, “no we have too many of those already.” I appreciated that. He and another of my commanding officers Medical Corps Admiral David Lane will be giving prerecorded remarks at my retirement. For those who don’t know, Admiral Lane quite literally helped to keep me from committing suicide in 2015 after being maltreated by a Psychiatrist at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, and the person responsible to help people resolve issues like mine refused to help. Admiral Lane contacted Rear Admiral Terry Moulton the commander of the Medical Center who called me and talked with me for over an hour, and then got me the help that I needed, listening to my complaints about how I was treated when I told him that “If I was treated so badly as a senior officer, imagine what was happening to junior Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers going there for care.” Admiral Mouton took action, and some things did change for the better. But since the the Defense Health Agency has taken over all military medical facilities, cut over 17,000 billets from the active duty medical force, reduced civilian and contract providers, forcing the military to push patients to civilian providers in the Tricare network, and that that includes people with PTSD and other psychological issues directly related to military service, including sexual assault. God help us now if we get in a real high intensity war, not the counter-insurgency campaigns we fought since 9-11-2001.
All of that considered I have so many good memories from my service and from serving with great people that I cannot be bitter. I will speak the truth to power, not as an embittered person, but a person who believes that all of our military personnel, veterans, and their families deserve to be treated as people, not numbers, not economic units, but real human beings, the kind that God loves and cares about.
As far as my service, I regret nothing, except for the men and women I couldn’t help, those who died in combat, or of tragic diseases at far too young ages, and those who as a result of their combat trauma and treatment in the military committed suicide. Those include friends and men and women I served with, including genuine war heroes. Their faces and voices don’t recede from my memory. Sometime I will have to write about them too, they should not be forgotten and maybe I can use my voice to make sure they are not forgotten.
But all that considered here is my Navy story in pictures.
Commissioning and Chaplain School
Deployment with 3D Battalion 8th Marines to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and South Korea
USS HUE CITY, deployment and Battle of Hue City Memorial
Marine Security Force Battalion, USA, Bahrain, Guantanamo Bay Cuba, France and Scotland