Category Archives: Tour in Iraq

It is a Long Way to Tipperary: thoughts on Return from War and Betrayal

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am a bit tired and going to post something that basically is a rerun with a few edits. Twelve years ago stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t home, the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD”.  I retired from the Navy at Midnight on December 31st, an occasion that I toasted in first with a glass of champagne with Judy followed by a couple of drams of 18 year old Glenfiddich Single Malt.

But the transition to retirement has been difficult. First was the ordeal of getting the Navy to get my DD-214 that statement of service that ensures that all service is credited, awards documented, and combat service documented for retirement, medical, and Veterans Affairs benefits. I was able to get the basics taken care of but so much was still missing, basically because the Navy probably has the worst system of documenting awards and service than any military branch. The I was told by the same people that our TRICARE medical insurance would remain in place until our identification cards were redone and our profiles updated in another system called DEERS. It was either a lie or something said in complete ignorance. Because of COVID-19 and the limited number of appointments available for new ID Cards we couldn’t get ours until 21 January. Since we were told we were covered during the interregnum we had no idea that our TRICARE  benefits had expired on 1 January until we found out Wednesday. I spent Thursday getting it fixed and the found out that evening the contractor for the Veterans Administration had screwed me on my VA Disability claim quite obviously not even reviewing the massive amount of evidence in my medical records. That sent me into a short tailspin where I actually thought about suicide. Once again I felt completely betrayed by representatives of our country.

Thankfully, I had a lot of friends, former shipmates and comrades come to my assistance. One a retired Navy Doctor who now works for the VA, another a retired Medical Corps Admiral who has friends at the highest levels who help military personnel when they run into problems with the VA, and another who is the personal friend of a high ranking Senator on the Veteran Affairs Committee. I received personal messages and phone calls from many friends and Monday we set about righting the wrong. I have been assured that this is an easy appeal, but the initial shock and sense of betrayal completely wore me out. Though I wanted to gather everything for my appeal today I was so emotional worn down that I couldn’t do anything. I am in a better place today, but I admit my anger at contractors who didn’t bother to really look at thousands of pages of documentation in order to minimize my experience with PTSD and so much else.

I still deal and suffer from PTSD, even if the VA contractor minimized it and did so with other conditions. Their audiologist even admitted that he never looked at my records before examining me. The psychologist didn’t say it but obvious had not examined my records.

However, the fact that I am a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of men who I never met, have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “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.”  Those terrible nightmares and terrors continue. My panic attacks continue, my inability to understand speech remains, the pain in my hip, knees and ankles is such that I still need to use a cane to walk or drag myself up the stairs. But I digress…

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from Iraq. I didn’t get a chance to re-read it today, but a while back I read a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary, which he wrote in the time shortly after the First World War. The title is a reference to the song It’s a Long, Long Way, to Tipperary which was written by Henry James “Harry” Williams and co-credited to his partner Jack Judge as a music hall song in 1912. It became very popular before the war, but became a world wide hit when George Curnock, a correspondent for the Daily Mail saw the Irish Connaught Rangers  Regiment singing it as they marched through the Belgian port of Boulogne on August 13th 1914 on their way to face the German Army. Curnock made his report several days later, and soon many units in the British Army adopted it. It became a worldwide hit when Irish Tenor John McCormack recorded it in November 1914.

Interestingly enough the song, like the German song Lili Marlene is that it is a call back to home, not a call to battle.

I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano. In a number of later comic strips, Charles Schulz, had Snoopy refer to it a number of times, in one strip, exhausted by his march, a tired Snoopy lays down and notes: “They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary.” I do understand that.

But, back to Santayana’s soliloquy, he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear former President Trump  make wild threats of war for four years before attempting to overthrow our own government and democracy on 6 January I feel betrayed by fellow Americans and veterans, but also the Veterans Administration and an overwhelmed and incompetent Naval Personnel Command. 

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war. As a historian I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“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.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past thirteen years, when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowded places, confined areas and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself. Likewise, I still deal with terribly physical nightmares and night terrors, more than one a month.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. In a sense I have been reprieved, although I observe things every day that take me back to Iraq. The news from that unfortunate country continues to discourage me. Likewise, the indifference of our former President that talked much about the loving “his” military, but in his and his supporters actions often demeaned military personnel and gutted the medical and mental health systems of the military and the Veterans Administration. But that is an article for another time. Thinking about what has transpired in the last few days and weeks that indifference and betrayal seems so real.  When I see and hear them I remember the words of T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia:

“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.” 

But as Santayana noted So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

It is that for me as I now go tilting after the Quixotesque Windmills that are such a real part of my life.

Until tomorrow, pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Christmas Coda: Joyeux Noel and My Call after the Military

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been thirteen years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of our soon to be ex-President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I have a REM sleep disorder in which my body doesn’t shut down when I get into REM sleep. This reacts well with the Nightmare and Night Terror disorders because I act out my responses to those terrors. In 2014 I ended up with a visit to the medical clinic with a concussion and sprained jaw and neck. In 2016 I broke my nose, and dark and early this morning I busted my head open  requiring 9 stitches, 2 deep ones and 7 on top. Thankfully Judy got my stubborn ass to the ER. Coupled with my other ongoing maladies of the past couple of months I am really getting too old for this shit.

As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will be retired, unless some massive war breaks out and they start calling back recent retirees to service. That has happened before and the Soviets, Chicoms and Iranians aren’t taking time off for Christmas.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. Three years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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Over the last year of my service I continued speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who supported a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he continues to defecate on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  Last year I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die, a real Padre Smedley if you get my drift.

Once again I watched Joyeux Noel, and as usual I cried. Though I had my retirement ceremony Monday, and am officially retired on 31 December and I am praying for peace in hopes that someday it becomes real. St. Francis prayed:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hated, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may no so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying hat we are born into eternal life. 

After all, I still belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, whether I am in the Navy or not.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts After My Retirement Ceremony: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and Thanking all Who Were there for Me

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sorry not to have written anything the past few days but I was exhausted after dealing with medical and dental issues, getting no sleep and being stressed out getting ready for my retirement ceremony. When it was done I was happy and so tired that I had a hard time doing anything.

Monday I had my COVID-19 Era retirement ceremony. It very special. Unfortunately the live stream video got deleted by the Chapel were it was held, but I heard from a number of people that a lot of it could not be heard on the livestream. Even so the people I wanted there were there and it was an appropriate coda to my career. One of our friends present with his wife is an active Staff Sergeant in the Virginia Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division in which I served after I became an Army Chaplain in 1995.

I had my Command Master Chief from Norfolk Naval Shipyard as well the Chief Bos’ns Mate from the Shipyard to sound the bells and pipe me ashore. Having two Chiefs was awesome, as the Command Master Chief read the traditional reading The Watch, something I wanted because my late father was a Chief Petty Officer. For me that was a huge honor. Seldom do Chief’s or Senior Non-Commissioned Officers get leading roles at an officer’s retirement, especially like in reading the The Watch in the Navy. If you have never heard it read this is how it goes, only the number of years of service change.

 Like the Chiefs, few Chaplains have their RPs or Chaplain Assistants speak at their retirement ceremonies. I don’t know why? In the Army we are Unit Ministry Teams, and the Navy Religious Ministry Teams, the key word being teams. I was talking to a friend today, the only other Chaplain that I have seen have one of his enlisted men speak. He noted that during his time in the Navy that most Religious Program Specialists at the Rank of Petty Officer First Class, had worked for at least one Chaplain who treated them in such a way that they lost faith in God, other Chaplains and the church or religious institutions in general. Nelson fricking nailed it. God bless him and his wonderful daughter.

I had two former Commanding Officers who had a huge impact in my Navy speak with prerecorded remarks. Retired Medical Corps Rear Admiral David Lane who was my commanding officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune during one of the darkest points of my life. He was there for they then and in 2015 when due to the maltreatment and abuse I was getting from staff members of the Mental Health Department of the Naval Medical Center, interceded with the Admiral commanding it. That Admiral called me, spoke to me for an hour, got me the appropriate referrals and got some things changed, because I wondered if a senior officer was being treated the way I was, how were junior sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen being treated. I was suicidal, but Admiral Lane helped keep me from it. Monday, he honored me, and my wife Judy with his remarks. He is one of the good guys, he sees people not in light of their rank or job, but as human beings. His words brought tears to my eyes too.

The other was Captain Rick Hoffman, my Skipper aboard USS HUE CITY on her first combat deployment having been a test ship for new combat systems for five years. That was shortly after the attacks of September 11th 2001, and he helped put my service aboard the ship in context. He is an amazing man. He lost his wife to Cancer not long after he retired. He offered to turn down command of the ship   when she was diagnosed, but she wouldn’t let him. She survived the first bout but not the second. The Admiral who presided over the ceremony, Rear Admiral Charles Rock said that when he was a young Lieutenant Commander that Captain Hoffman was a legend. He didn’t know that he had been my Skipper on HUE CITY. Likewise, he had worked with Admiral Lane not long before Admiral Lane retired in Washington DC.

Captain Hoffman’s children are great people, and since retiring he has continued to look after his sailors and our national security. He provided me chances to do things chaplains never get to do. His comments were so good, and brought back many fond memories of my shipmates, including the ones who removed me from breaking up a fight between a disgruntled crewman and Master of a ship impounded under the UN Oil Sanctions on Iraq, for which the crew gave me the nickname “Battle Chaps.” Not only was I unarmed, but because of a shortage of Kevlar armor plates for our combat floatation vests, I was also going into danger without any protection except that of my shipmates. Thankfully, I had great shipmates. That was good living, difficult, arduous, but what you live for if you sign up to serve as a Navy Chaplain. It was such an honor to have Captain Hoffman there, even as like Admiral Lane had to do, he did so virtually.

I also had Mikey Weinstein, President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who defended me when I was facing potential Court Martial. Since then he and I have become fast friends and allies in the defense of the civil and religious rights of military personnel and their families. He echoed the words of Nelson, Admiral Lane, and Captain Hoffman said about me, and he never had met them. All understand that a Chaplain’s job is far more than preaching his or her faith, it is about caring for military personnel, their families, and our Department of Defense and Department of the Navy civilian personnel, and protecting their Constitutional rights.

As Admiral Lane noted, to preach at stateside chaplains we could hire contractors, but we needed chaplains who could be there for our military personnel and their families, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. There really are no other places someone in the military can go with complete confidentiality to reveal their hurts, pains, anxiety, worries, and even sins in complete confidence without fear of reprisal, or punishment. In some ways, good military Chaplains are to use the words of James Spader’s character in The Blacklist, are sin eaters. This is not saying that we cover up crimes, but that we are a safe place for people to cast their cares and get sound counsel on how to get whatever help they need and if need be go with them to get that help be it medical, psychological, legal, administrative, or the help best given by their chain of command. One finds as a chaplain that most of our flock’s needs are not necessarily spiritual and that they don’t need to only person with absolute confidentiality they can go to shove religion down their throats.

Mikey understands this much more than his critics give him credit. He understands the needs and religious rights of military personnel as only one who has had his life threatened by Christian theocrats, and Anti-Semites can only understand. He spoke very personal and inspiring words about my service.

My regular readers understand my understanding of religious liberty, government, and citizenship. One of my inspirations is the great Virginia Baptist, John Leland who advised Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Declaration of Religious Liberties and James Madison on the First Amendment wrote, and which I quoted Monday in my remarks:

Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be  encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.”

I also quoted James Madison said, “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Sadly, in our country today many people, including the church leaders of a majority leader of many military Chaplains hold an opposite doctrine, that of the very doctrines of a supposedly “Christian” Religious theocracy that the Framers of our Constitution so opposed. I opposed those opinions and had someone try to get me tried by Court Martial for preaching a Biblical and Christian sermon on social justice and the the racist policies of the outgoing administration. Some people think that they can use their position to condemn people whose religious and beliefs in our Constitutional rights disagree with theirs. Thank God, whatever God’s there may be or just dumb luck and fate for men like Mikey. I look forward to working with him after my official retirement date.

I also brought up my understanding of leadership which included my devotion to the West Point motto Duty, Honor, Country. I received my commission as an Army ROTC cadet, and I was not an Academy graduate. However those words  have served as a compass to my career. For me the first duty has always been to the truth be it as a Medical Service Corps officer commanding a company and later dealing with the Army’s response to soldiers infected with HIV or dying of AIDS, where I helped write the Army’s personnel policies and because no other personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences wanted to be in the same room with an HIV infected soldier, I became CINC AIDS. I got to be the person who dealt with men and women dealing with a disease that at the time was certain to kill them, and how they could still serve. That brought me a whole new perspective on life, and a great deal of compassion for those who received news that they did not have much longer to live.

The same was true when I was an Armor Officer and Battalion S-1 in a Texas Army National Guard Armor battalion and saw how racism still permeated the National Guard in Texas. As a non-Texan and former Active Officer I found that I was a foreigner, something that I experienced transferring from Texas to Virginia. It is funny how the same prejudices that permeated the Armies of the Confederate States were still existent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Likewise, honor, is about my sacred honor to my Oath of Office and my sacred vows as a husband, and Priest, and finally my Country in good times as bad.

Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation said: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military. That really didn’t take that long. It began when I was an Army Second Lieutenant and has continued until today.

Likewise I have been guided by the words of General Ludwig Beck who resigned his office rather than obey Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, and then gave up his life in the attempt to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944. Beck said:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

I reminded those present or watching online that those words were especially important in our conflicted and divided country. While I did not say it directly I implied that Officers cannot simply dedicate themselves to purely military matters when their Chief Executive violates the Constitution they swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 

While it was in the script since we were running late and I didn’t want to get any more political than I had I left out. Beck also said:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

That is exactly what I believe. I wish time had allowed me to say it, but I digress…

Then there was my dear friend and colleague, retired Navy Chaplain Vince Miller who served as both the Chaplain and Master of Ceremonies for my retirement due to COVID-19 restrictions on how many people could attend. Vince and I have had so many similar experiences, endured similar treatment in the Chaplain Corps, but hold so many values about the rights of people, their faith, and those who served under our supervision sought to uphold, regardless of their beliefs. Both of us ended up getting off-ramped from promotion because of things that happened to us or family considerations. He is a fast friend, a man of integrity and honor who like William Tecumseh Sherman understood the value of friendship. Sherman was a friend of Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman said of their friendship:

“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand together.”

That my friends is friendship.

Finally, the ceremony was maybe more about the selfless love and devotion of my wife Judy. One cannot imagine what it is to spend almost 40 years in the military with someone who remains as faithful and devoted for so long despite the separations, deployments, and everything else associated with military marriage.

My God she has been through so much and not just because of deployments, separations, and the hassles of moves, and not seeing family. But also because Chaplains spouses don’t have much support, especially from other Chaplains or their spouses, especially if they suffer from a physical disability, like being profoundly deaf while having speech as good as any hearing person. But even with the best hearing aids around which have improved her hearing and life tremendously, there are times that our facilities are not built with the disabled, especially the deaf in mind. The acoustics were so poor where we had the retirement ceremony that with the exception of me and Admiral Rock Judy had a difficult time understanding the ceremony. She was hoping to try to watch it Tuesday with her Bluetooth hearing aids synced to her iPad but the livestream had been deleted, again reminding her of how little the military values people with disabilities. At least I have the speeches of the three men who spoke saved and she will be able to listen to them when we get the chance, but it hurt.

Likewise, it used to be that when a Chaplain retired the Chief of Chaplains at least sent a “thank you” note or acknowledged their retirement regardless of their rank. A few months ago I saw an email from our current Navy Chief of Chaplains and his Deputy acknowledging the Chaplains retiring in the rank of Captains and the Religious Program Specialists retiring as Master Chief Petty Officers by name but not acknowledging anyone below those ranks. I wondered to myself what the fuck? Is it all about climbing the highest ranks of the Chaplain Corps, or about caring for those we serve and lead? Of course for me it is about those that we serve, especially those who serve under us.

Then I realized that of all people, Senior Chaplains serving as Admirals or who would crush anyone to bet their Star, don’t give a damn about those who serve and have stomped over to achieve their positions. They don’t give a damn about anyone except themselves and their power.

During my remarks I quoted Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 about the Chaplain. There is something about secular power in religious matters that transforms otherwise decent people and ministers into monsters. No wonder my ceremony disappeared off of the Chapel’s Facebook video archive. Heller wrote:

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

That being said, we were blessed by those who attended, what they did and what they said. It meant the world to us, as do the wonderful words, thoughts, prayers, and actions of people who have been there for us to be there in person or by whatever virtual means available.

I am not bitter because I leave the service knowing that I have given all that I can and that the people that matter the most to me still care, regardless of rank or station. I would rather have the well wishes of a man or women I helped when they were an E-3 or E-4 rather than the platitudes of Clergymen wearing stars or eagles who didn’t care. But what I experienced is not uncommon, but most people will never speak as openly as I do, because from the earliest days of my service I believed in telling the truth whether it pissed people off, or harmed my upward mobility.

So despite being worn out and having to deal with more medical and dental issues than I thought I would ever see in the final days of my career I am still blessed and one of the luckiest men in the world, to paraphrase Lou Gehrig when he had to retire from baseball due to ALS. I am, at least to my knowledge not dying of anything, but it doesn’t take away my sentiments towards those people who have been there for me the past 39 plus years in the military, and even those before I signed my name on the dotted line.

When I am actually completely retired at 2359 hours on 31 December I can truly embrace my inner Smedley Butler, and embrace the fullness of truth and patriotism.

So until tomorrow,

Peace and thank you,

Padtre Steve+

 

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Finishing Where I Began: Navy, Marines, and with the Joint Force 1999-2020

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


Second Marine Division 



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

 





Deployment to Iraq



 


Joint Forces Staff College 






  • JEB Little Creek Fort Story and Norfolk Naval Shipyard 

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Remembering 37 Years of Military Marriage: Judy, My Own Lili Marlene


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most beloved songs of love between a woman and a soldier is the song Lili Marlene. Hans Leip, a school teacher conscripted into the Imperial Army wrote it in 1915 as a three verse poem. It was published in 1937 with two additional verses prior to the Second World War in Germany. It was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938 and recorded in German by Lale Anderson in 1939, and in English in 1942.

Lili Marlene German- English Translation

 

Lili Marlene (Semi-literal Translation)

Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor
In front of the barracks, at the large entrance gate

Stand eine Laterne, und steht sie noch davor.
Stood a lamplight, and if it’s still standing there,

So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n
We want to see each other there again

Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n
We want to stand at the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, Wie einst Lili Marleen.
As before, Lili Marlene, as before, Lili Marlene.

Unsere beide Schatten sah’n wie einer aus
Our two shadows appeared as one

Dass wir so lieb uns hatten, das sah man gleich daraus.
That we were so  much in love, one saw immediately.

Und alle Leute solln es seh’n
And everyone should see it

Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n,
When we are standing by the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen
As before, Lili Marlene, as before,  Lili Marlene.

Schon rief der Posten: Sie blasen  Zapfenstreich
The sentry had already called out: They are sounding curfew.

Das kann drei Tage kosten.  Kam’rad, ich komm sogleich.
“It can cost three days.”  “I’m coming momentarily, comrade.”

Da sagten wir auf Wiedersehen,
Then we said goodbye.

Wie gerne wollt ich mit mir dir geh’n,
How much I wanted to go with you,

Mit dir Lili Marleen, mit dir Lili Marleen.
With you, Lili Marlene, with you, Lili Marlene.

Deine Schritte kennt sie, deinen zieren Gang
It [the lamplight] knows your footsteps, your graceful walk

Alle Abend brennt sie, doch mich vergass sie lang.
Every evening it is burning, but it forgot about me long ago.

Und sollte mir ein Leids gescheh’n,
If harm should come to me,

Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen,
Who will stand at the lamplight,

Mit dir Lili Marleen, mir dir Lili Marleen?
With you, Lili Marlene, with you, Lili Marlene?

Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
From the quiet place, out of the earthly ground

Hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund.
I am lifted as in a dream to your loving lips.

Wenn sich die spaeten Nebel drehn,
When the evening mist swirls in

Werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n
I will be standing at the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
As before, Lili Marlene, as before, Lili Marlene.

The German and later the English version was broadcast by Radio Belgrade, under German control began to broadcast it. It became a sentimental hit among British, Australian, and New Zealanders of the British 8th Army in North Africa and it became the unofficial song of the 8th Army and 6th Armored Division. As American military personnel began arriving in Europe and began fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was infuriated and order that Radio Belgrade cease playing it, but under pressure from Field Marschall Erwin Rommel, Goebbels backed down. Afterwards, until Belgrade was captured by the Russians Radio Belgrade would play it nightly at their 9:55 sign off. Soldiers from both sides turned in to the song. In 1944 the expatriate German film star and singer Marlene Dietrich, for the OSS, and later in both the English and the original German version.

There is nothing political about the song, it reflects the heartache of separation and the anxiety experienced by those separated by military duties, deployments, and war. There is a certain tenderness and sadness that it reflects that that only those whose spouses or loved ones who go into harms way, that includes military personnel, law enforcement officers, Fire Fighters and EMS workers, and others who go into harms way not knowing what that day might bring. It has become popular in countries around the world, even today, were soldiers go to war and leave their loved ones behind.

 










But among these, military personnel are unique because when we go away, we go away not knowing when or if they would return. Most of us who have gone to war over the last two decades have wondered about this because no matter where we fought there was no front line, the enemy could be anywhere even on supposedly safe bases. Honestly I seldom told Judy exactly what I was doing in combat operations I was always the one unarmed dude accompanying small groups of 8-12 advisors to Iraqi forces in Al Anbar Province equipped with small arms and HUMMV mounted machine guns. Then there were the 75 missions I made as an adviser with a boarding team in the Persian Gulf during the Iraqi Oil Embargo, and the time we almost got into a shooting match with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Naval Gunboats who were harassing our flagship, an Australian special operations support ship with little in the way of defensive armament. It was just a matter of minutes until we launched at them when they broke off their attack and went back into Iranian territorial waters, then there was the week we were in between the Indian and Pakistani fleets as their nations sat on the brink of nuclear war.

For 37 years Judy has been my Lili Marlene, and she still is. Back in the early part of our marriage the Cold War was about to turn hot and we never knew when an alert to go to the Fulda Gap to sacrifice ourselves to support the 11th Armored Cavalry. Our casualties were predicted to be 75-90% in order to buy time for troops from the United States arrive. The wives had a way to figure out if it was a real thing or not, especially if the alert occurred at an odd hour, they looked to see if the cars from Air Force personnel were still parked. But I digress, in those days the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were very high, and there was one day where due to computer glitch the Soviets nearly launched a nuclear strike thinking that our missiles were already on the way.  Add to that the Red Brigade and Bader-Meinhof terrorist gangs that went around bombing and killing American military personnel, NATO and West German Officials.

 

Of course there were the times on stateside duty in non-deploying active duty units, or National Guard and Reserve units with combat missions should war break out where there were always things that kept us apart, field exercises, duty, Death notifications, meetings and planning sessions, conferences, required schools and so on. I figure over the course of my career where we were married, of over 37 years we have been separated for over 14 years due to a combination of everything above, I am probably underestimating by some because I’m not counting the number of days that I spent on call in hospitals, or was at home studying for another master’s degree, other schools, or taking students to Gettysburg,  I have been away for 17 wedding anniversaries and more holidays and birthdays than I can count.

But Judy is an amazing woman, despite the hardships, frequent moves, my time in seminary and my hospital residency where between those things and duties in the National Guard, my mobilizations and deployments she soldiered on. We have had our share of difficulties, especially since we both suffer from different types of PTSD on top of my TBI and Moral Injury. Thankfully we’ve had our long line of dogs to help us through tough times, and were there for each other to the best of our ability, which sometimes wasn’t very good.

But since the day I laid eyes on her she has been the only woman I have ever loved. She is a friend who will tell me the truth and when needed try to keep me coloring within the lines. That my friends can be difficult as my personality type is a Myers-Briggs INTJ, think Dr. Greg House, (House M.D.) Marcellus Wallace, (Pulp Fiction) Michael and Vito Corleone, (The Godfather series) Professor Moriarty, (Sherlock Holmes) Ellen Ripley, (Alien), Gandalf, (Lord of the Rings), Mr. Burns, (The Simpson’s), Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs), Bruce Wayne/Batman, Emperor Palpatine and Count Doku (Star Wars trilogy) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). That being said she has to be a saint to love me the way she does and probably feels the same about me.

But Judy is my Lili Marlene and for too many years she has waited for me, and now my military career is coming to an end. My retirement ceremony will be as much as her as about me. She was there when when I marched to the sound of the guns and volunteered for every dangerous mission I could. When I came home from Iraq and melted down, and occasionally still do from my PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury, my anxiety and depression, nightmare and night terror disorder, which gets pretty violent at times, she stayed with me, and I can now understand a least some of what she suffered and struggled with for years.

She is the best, incredibly creative and talented, able to see what can be made and how to make it better, and so amazingly compassionate and caring for people, but willing to be honest with people when they are being unreasonable. I am incredibly thankful and blessed that she stood by me all these years.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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“ I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ Thoughts of a Washed up Priest and Chaplain at the End of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A few nights ago I watched the final episode of the television series M*A*S*H “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” As I mentioned in my last blog both the series and the film have been important and long lasting parts of my life. It is interesting because when I was first commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant on 19 June 1983 in the Medical Service Corps, and September 1992 became a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, subsequently serving in the Virginia Army National Guard and Army Reserve as a Chaplain. I also served as a Armor Officer in Texas during seminary. On 9 February 1999 I turned in my Gold Oak Leaf as a Major in the Army for the two Silver Bars of a Navy Chaplain Corps Lieutenant.

Now, 21 years after that move I am a washed up Chaplain and Navy Commander mostly abandoned by fellow Chaplains for openly and honesty dealing with the ravages of PTSD, abandonment which created moral injury that I have never recovered from, no matter how hard I prayed the Daily Office, or studied scripture and theology. Without going into such detail that it would harm me even more in much current fragile emotional state, I can only say that I was abandoned, ghosted, and off revamped by the senior Chaplains who sent me to war, of course I was a very willing volunteer, and then ensured that every subsequent assignment would be harmful to my career, while certain senior chaplains treated me in the most malicious and evil manner knowing I needed a continuity of psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual care, ripped me away from it sending me on a three year geographic bachelor tour, away from home and those supports.

I also continue to suffer physical and neurological disorders related to combat. One is a combination of serene Tinnitus, and abnormal degraded speech comprehension without corresponding hearing loss. The neurologist thought it was due damage to my auditory nerves and auditory processing center related to PTSD. My speech comprehension was rated in the third percentile, meaning that 97% of people process speech better than me. In order to understand speech in individual conversations or in large groups I have to be completely focused and not have any cross talk or background noise. This makes it difficult to function. Basically, I am functionally deaf unless I am completely focused on whoever is talking and they are speaking clearly enough for me to understand. Judy is really deaf, and she understands speech better than me much of the time.

During Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen the 4077th’s Chaplain, Father Francis Mulcahy is exposed to a mortar blast and suffers Tinnitus and hearing loss, which continue to get worse despite his prayers.

In one of his prayers to God, one which resonates much with me, he cries out:

“Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I’ve devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ 

My situation doesn’t simply involve my inability to understand speech but the residual effects of PTSD: hyper vigilance, anxiety, severe depression, sleep disorders, nightmare and night terror disorders that have resulted in injuries including a broken nose when battling the phantom like images of assailants in my dreams.And most recently under the stress I feel, horrible angry outbursts that are so unlike me. They make me feel horrible, but a decade of death threats, internet stalking, being called an “enemy of America”, and for supporting the rights of Blacks a “nigger lover” and “wigger,” and condemnation by Christians for caring about the rights, safety, and decent treatment of LGBTQ as enabling sin against God, but I never saw Jesus turn anyone away. The greatest hurt I experience is when Christian friends attack, condemn, and abandon me, especially over the past five years as so many became members of the Trump Dictatorship Cult. It took a while but I don’t take it anymore and after slicing and dicing their arguments leave things in their hands as where to they want to go with our relationship. Some cut me off and others make sure I know how rotten I am before they cut things off. Back in the early days after returning from Iraq while melting down and being thrown out of my former Church I culled a lot of them preemptively from my social contacts. A few have since renewed and reconciled but not all.

No amount of praying ever changed anything. I still believe in God, but I struggle every day. Sometimes I don’t feel that I am of any use, but too many people tell me that I do. Even so the fourth verse of the M*A*S*H them song, Suicide is Painless rings true for me now. I don’t have the answers. That verse says: A brave man once requested me to answer questions questions that are key, “Is it to be or not to be” and I replied “oh, why ask me?” 

Something that Colonel Potter said to Father Mulcahy and Mulcahy’s reply seems a pretty good place to end this before I sign off from this post:

Col. Potter: Well, Francis, you’ve been a godsend.
Father Mulcahy: Look on the bright side: When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, “No thanks, I’ve done mine.”

So here I am, an old, broken, washed-up Chaplain and priest who is a better historian than many looking to the next phase of my life, with Judy and the puppies, but even so, without a Parish, without an institutional Chaplain position, or any formal place of ministry, I will still be a Priest, and serve whoever comes into my life, even when I struggle and doubt.

Since I am going to have to get a bit of work done  house and do my damnedest to finish the illustration section of my book so I can send it to my agent and publisher tomorrow, which means whenever I wake up, I wish you all peace and safety.

Blessings and Peace,

Padre Steve+

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An Emotional Roller Coaster: Medical Problems, IT Issues, Hating Religious Theocrats, and Remembering those I Have Lost Through the Lens of M*A*S*H

 

Me as a young Medical Service Officer Second Lieutenant, Neubrucke Germany, 1984

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I started this article Tuesday night but couldn’t yesterday I was on emotional roller coaster, dealing with continued medical issues due to my jaw infection that began a month ago when a lower rear molar, cracked, the nerve abscessed, died, and infected the and more. I tried to finish it Wednesday night but couldn’t. I finally finished it dark and early after midnight Friday. Well, I thought I had, but for whatever reason what I wrote didn’t save correctly. So I just add this to let you know that as I revise it and put in the tags and topics represented in it. “That is All.” 

I am finishing my last two weeks on active duty before taking 20 days of job hunting and house hunting leave. I honestly cannot believe the emotions that I am feeling.

The Original Opening to the Film M*A*S*H

Tuesday morning I went in to work still suffering some of the effects of my tooth extraction and jaw infection still persist. Migraine like headaches, swelling in the jaw, lymph nodes and Parotid gland still persisted. I went to the Endontist who extracted my tooth and prescribed more antibiotics after the tooth extraction and he recommended that I get an appointment with my primary care doctor. I was glad he dad that because he realized that he didn’t have an answer.

My regular primary care physician who I really like wasn’t available, and he is an outstanding physician who listens and cares. But the physician I was assigned in his place was incredible. Our initial appointment on Monday was over the telephone and after taking time to listen to all that happened to me she made sure I got an appointment to see her in person Tuesday.

Unlike so many physicians bound by the time limits of insurance, including the business model of Navy Medicine she and her nurse took the time to listen to me, to do a thorough examination, to explore the what antibiotics might treat all my different symptoms. The appointment took a long time but it was worth it. I received medicines to treat the lower jaw, upper jaw, sinus and ear infections caused by that damned tooth, as well as an order to get a CT scan to see what is actually going on.

That fact made a difference because even as that was going on I was experiencing problems with an Navy personnel site. That followed a NMCI Microsoft 10 update that will not allow me to access it in order to make sure that my DD-214 is correct. No matter what I do online and no matter how many times the Navy says my access is fixed I still cannot access the site, which mattes for all of my  my retirement and veterans benefits.

Because I had a low grade fever due to the infection and needed needed lab tests and another medical appointment today so I won’t be able to go in to fix ot until Monday.

Truthful I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore. I am too old for this shit I am going to vent my spleen. Before the update I never had an issue getting into the website. I really get frustrated and angry with the contractors whose programs don’t interface with the multiplicity of other hardware and software so that when one makes a change there is a cascade effect that fucks everything else up, like the simple fact of trying to access a site to check the one document everything in my post military career depends on. That pisses me off and I hate the damned Navy and military System for allowing this to happen.

I am really a fine with some of contractors, as I have noted, not all of them, not all of them, because there are quite a few who provide outstanding products and support, and have the integrity to back up their work. My friend David owns one of the highest ranked IT hardware firms that deals with DOD and many other government agencies. I have also encountered some very fine contractors for some of these IT firms who take the time to walk with you through the problem and fix it. There are also others who hire good people to provide services that the Navy can no longer due because those functions were added following wars our uniformed and GS systems were not prepared to deal with because of a never ending war. I might end up working as an educator for one using my experience to help personnel and their family members get the help they need and prepare to leave the service.

However, I get the feeling that I could be dying and it wouldn’t matter the damned corporate war and defense profiteers who the Navy hired to replace sailors that used to do these jobs. The thing is that a lot of these corporations have the backing of some of the leading politicians of both parties and are marketed and lobbied for by former high ranking military and DOD civilian officials. They are doing it for corporate profit but selling their services saying they will reduce cost and make things more efficient. But that is most often a lie, because we end up paying more for less, and harm readiness in the process.

Between them, and the former corporate defense and business executives who run much of DOD, they cut the active duty force in the name of “efficiency” and deprive Sailors (Also Soldiers, Marines and Airmen) from other active duty or DOD civilians who can fix their problems. I hate them, these corporations, with a passion. I miss the days when Yeomen and Personelmen, working with civilian GS personnel specialists, who we called the Little old ladies in tennis shoes would look at you in the face and fix what was wrong or what needed attention. Now that isn’t the case. All is handed online and you get an email response saying your problem has been resolved even when you still can not access their damned website. I want to say Duckmäuser them to hell, and I honestly doubt that the majority of senior Navy and military  leadership cares.

The Navy decided long ago that regardless of its technical ineptness and reliance on for profit defense profiteers that sailors who have full time jobs have to also manage and perform tasks that used to be handed by people they knew who were trained to do them. I don’t want any part of such a bastardized impersonal “personnel” system that doesn’t value sailors  and their families as people but “Human Resources” who can be expended without consequences because they really don’t matter. The same applies to training as well. These things take up so much of sailors time that they scarcely have time to do their real jobs. No wonder readiness rates are crap, ships can’t deploy, and aircraft cannot fly.

I read an article this week that a Navy official downplayed those rates and suggested the metrics showing how unready our Navy is for a major war were wrong and needed to be changed. That’s like lowering academic requirements to make sure students pass so their failure doesn’t harm the overall rating of Schools, school, districts, or universities. The only problem in the military are that such actions lead to defeat in in battle, massive losses of American lives and the inevitable after effects of losing a major war against a peer competitor. We have really never experienced that, but many others have, and we should learn from them before it happens to us.

Our humiliation will be greater than that of Imperial Germany, Imperial Russian, France in 1870 and 1940, Nazi Germany, Napoleonic France, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire in the First World War, and so many others. Military defeat combined with economic collapse, loss of territory, and great political and social calamities that In many cases are still being felt even centuries later. If we don’t take decisive actions to protect our democracy from all enemies, foreign and domestic, including the profiteers the coming collapse will make the division of the Trump years feel like the good old days. I personally wouldn’t doubt if Trump is actually hoping for that since he doesn’t give a damn about his oath, the people of the United States, including those who support him, or what happens to this country so long as he can line his pockets with unearned riches.

Marine Corps Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler realized that at the end of his illustrious career as a Marine when he wrote his classic anti-war book War is a Racket. If you haven’t read it you better well need to before you ever mindlessly thank a veteran for his or her service in wars that only weaken our defense and diminish our standing as a bastion of Liberty in the world. Most of the corporations Butler condemns in his book are still profiting from the business of war and “defense” today. Mind you I am an old anti-Soviet and Chinese Communist Cold Warrior. I fucking hate their systems, and while the Chicoms combine a nationalist bastardization of Capitalism with a desire for world domination at the expense of freedom at home and abroad; and while the former KGB Officer Vladimir Putin leads Russian which is nothing more than a rebranded Soviet Union, President Trump looked the other way and weakened us in more ways than anyone cannot imagine until the hell he created destroys our country long after he leaves office.

Iraq near the Syrian Border with Advisors and Bedouin Family, Christmas Eve 2007 

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of my service in war and peace, but I cannot fathom treason or abandoning military personnel to IT systems run by for profit contractors that have so many problems that they cannot be successfully navigated even by experts much less than the people who have full time jobs who need that specialized support. And yes it is treason when one looks at the billions of dollars paid to big defense contractors for the chump change that it would cost to pay military personnel and civilians to do things the old fashioned way using pen and paper while looking people in the eye to make sure that it was done right. This is a scandal for the ages that harms veterans and their families, undercuts combat readiness, and enriches defenses profiteers.

 

A Montage of Characters from the Series with the Original Score

I hate to say this but those in various Presidential administrations, Senators and Representatives of both parties, and high ranking Military Officers and Senior Executive Leaders in the Defense Department are all guilty as charged when it comes to sacrificing the well being of the volunteers who serve this nation in uniform in unending wars to enrich war and defense profiteers are all traitors. If it was up to me I would have them tried and after a fair trial s tan ever them and have them hanged until dead.

If I have to take up the mantel of men like Smedley Butler, David Hackworth, and Hal Moore, and countless number of men and women who remain unknown because they were crushed by the system or died through its uncaring incompetence, especially in the area of mental and spiritual  health. In retirement I will be a prophetic voice. Since while I was on active duty I had  member of my  congregation try to have by tried by Court Martial for preaching prophetically fro the pulpit and was exonerated after an investigation, I no loner give a damn who I offend.

With my Beloved Second Platoon, 557th Medical Company Ambulance, in the Taunus Mountains, Hessen, West Germany, 1985

 

By the latter I do not mean the fake spirituality of memorizing Bible verses or reciting The unbiblical and unchristian mantras of modern American Christianity. I don’t promote feel good Christian jibber-jabber but walking with people though The Valley of the shadow of Death, without abandoning them, or condemning them when they show weakness. Personally, I would rather have a caring Atheist or Agnostic at my side than a supposed Christian shoving a bastardized version of the Christian faith down my throat in my time of crisis.

We don’t need that. We  authentic Christian ministers and Priests who admit that they don’t know the answers. We need  ministers and Priests who are Un afraid to admit that they struggle with faith and yet still believe. Men and women who are transparent servants of a God that they only known through the Crucified God, not the opaque, impenetrable and unbiblical theology of Christian nationalism and Dominionism. Those are not theologies of faith in the Crucified God, but arbitrary, authoritarian systems to reconcile Christian beliefs to ungodly, nationalist, often racist, and exploitive systems of government which destroy the liberties of all, but even worse make Christians isolators of anti-Christian leaders and systems. It started with Constantine and has never stopped.

George Truett, the great Southern Baptist Pastor who served as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote in his book Baptists and Religious Liberty in 1920 about the decidedly negative effect of when the Church became the State religion:

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

The late Senator Mark Hatfield a strongly committed Evangelical Christian before it became popular in Washington made this comment concerning those that are now driving this spurious debate:

“As a Christian, there is no other part of the New Right ideology that concerns me more than its self-serving misuse of religious faith. What is at stake here is the very integrity of biblical truth. The New Right, in many cases, is doing nothing less than placing a heretical claim on Christian faith that distorts, confuses, and destroys the opportunity for a biblical understanding of Jesus Christ and of his gospel for millions of people.”  quoted in the pamphlet “Christian Reconstruction: God’s Glorious Millennium?” by Paul Thibodeau

Barry Goldwater, the man who inspired Ronald Reagan to run for President and who was the conservative bulwark for many years in Washington DC warned what would happen when the Religious Right took over the Republican Party. Goldwater said of the types of people that currently dominate the conservative movement, if it can be still called that:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” November, 1994, in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience.

Well those that Truett and Goldwater warmed us about got what they wanted. They got control of a political party by prostituting themselves to a man whose heart is evil, and could not care less about Christians so long as they vote for him and his amoral, unchristian, and anti-freedom ideas which rip up the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and shred the Sacred protections of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Amendments to the Constitution.

Contemporary Conservative Christian Teachings have become hollowed out, unbiblical, unchristian, and untenable politically driven apologetics of Unfreedom which spit on the face of God on the Cross, just as much as did his Roman executioners.

Anyway I couldn’t finish this Tuesday night because I was too busy crying my way the final episode of the television show M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” The sobbing, tears, and overwhelming emotions made me put down my  iPad. I was using it as the basis for my final message to my Shipyard friends, family, and coworkers who mean so much to me now. They helped me recover my sense of faith, belief, calling, and belief in good people. As I watched the show I remembered all the men and women I have served with over the years, those still alive and those who passed away to natural causes, were killed in combat, or died by their own hand after coming home from war. People who like me suffered from the terrible effects of war; wounds to body, mind and spirit, which were so bad for some that they killed themselves. Believe me there were so many times that I could have done the same. I actually planned out how I would do it in a number of different ways, but some were so violent that just the image of me doing it in a public setting among other military personnel would have traumatized them in ways I could not bear, and the many nights I thought about driving into a tree while serving at Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital from 2010 to 2013 I could not imagine what my dog Molly who was with me would think when daddy never came home.

I am doing better now, I want to live and bear witness for those who no longer can. I certainly don’t have the answers. I can only be there for others. The words of the theme song to M*A*S*H  are unknown to those who only watched the series and never saw the film. The song’s music was written by Johnny Mandel, the lyrics written by his teenage son. The song was performed by an uncredited group of musicians and simple called MASH. It was played on AM music stations after its release in 1970. It is haunting and I certainly do not agree with the message of the chorus “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please…” I have found that life matters too much and I grieve for my friends and comrades who committed suicide, many far more brave, heroic, and selfless than me. Men and women who I wished I could have helped keep alive had I been there in their time of crisis.

But the lyrics of the verses all have an element of truth in them. The first said:

Through early morning fog I see, visions of the things to be, the pains that are withheld for me, I realize and I can see… (Chorus)

The game of life is hard to play, I’m going to lose it anyway, the losing card I’ll someday lay, so this is all I’ve got to say… (Chorus)

The sword of  time will pierce our skin, it doesn’t hurt when it begins, but as it works its way within, the pain grows stronger watch it grin… (Chorus)

A brave man once requested me, to answer questions that are key, “Is it to be or not to be?” And I replied “oh, way ask me?” (Chorus)

The faked suicide and salvation of Dr. Walt “the Painless Pole” Waldoski In the Film M*A*S*H

The song was sung in the film during a fake suicide and funeral for the 4077th’s Dentist Dr. “Painless Pole Waldoski” (John Schuck)  sung by Private Seidman (Ken Prymus) accompanied by Captain Bandini (Corey Fisher) on the guitar. Out of context the scene is one of the saddest in film history, with the doctors sitting at a table in a film rendition of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper as “Painless” takes what he thinks is a cyanide capsule and lays down in a coffin. He wanted help to die because he thought he was impotent. Hawkeye, Trapper, and even Father Mulcahy decided to play into his fantasy but save the life of Painless. So they recruited a nurse, Lieutenant Dish, played by the beautiful actress Jo Ann Pflug, who was to return to the States the next morning to make love to painless. The next morning Painless is alive, and Dish flies away. They lied to a suicidal man to stage a fake death in order to save his life. Yes, the ethics are completely convoluted, but in the end life was affirmed, and suicide ruled out. One interesting thing about the song is the faked suicide is a different verse which said “The only way to win is cheat, and lay it down before I’m beat, and to another give my seat, for that’s the only painless feat…”  (Chorus)

I thought I would finish this by midnight but so many things intruded. It is now officially Thanksgiving on the East Coast and I have much to be thankful for, even though we will celebrate the holiday in a very private and personal way, just us, our pups, and our friend Stephanie. We are making a fresh homemaker chicken pot pie with bone in chicken breast cooked for over 15 hours on low heat in our crock pot seasoned with fresh garlic, Black pepper corns, rubbed sage, bay leaves, poultry seasoning, garlic powder, and a dash of salt which will be baked minus the chicken bones with sliced carrots, sweet peas, whole kernel corn, and small broccoli florets and yellow onions. It will be the first time since Iraq that we have not had a large number of guests over for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. That will be strange, but it is better to adjust and protect the lives of others than keep traditions that can be continued after the COVID-19 Pandemic has passed.

Suicide and willingly subjecting others to a deadly virus are little different. The first is the murder of yourself, which I like the German word better than our word suicide. The German word is Selbstmord, or the murder of yourself. However, ignoring all the science and clinical evidence that indoor social gatherings of people traveling across state lines is potentially deadly, is the participation in mass murder. The choice to do that is like playing Russian Roulette with more than one chamber loaded, and the virus being spread to many more people than it should be if we weren’t so damned selfish and narcissistic. By they way, most of the people I know to be doing this are Christians, but sorry, your Holy Spirit Lungs won’t protect you from COVID-19 anymore than they did the Great Influenza or the Plagues of the Middle Ages, Yellow or Dengue Fever, Ebola, AIDS, or any other infectious disease. If you think your spiritually will protect you and others, you are fools who are not to be pitied, though the people you infect should be.

I am tired of death. After being present at over 700 I stopped counting. Many of the faces, lives, and stories of those people are forever seared into my conscience.

So anyway, this post that began some 54 hours ago, or 76 hours if you count this update, is at an end. It has meandered from my medical problems, my frustration with the Navy’s fucked up computer systems, national security, religious liberty, and freedom from religious tyranny, the issue of suicide, veterans who commit suicide, and the film and television series M*A*S*H, including the behind the scenes lyrics to its theme song Suicide is Painless.

It is kind of ironic that I was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army on 19 June 1983, and that when I graduated from the Medical Department Officer Basic Course the theme song of the Army Medical Department, minus the words was the Theme Song of M*A*S*H, “Suicide is Painless.” 

So I hope you had a happy and safe Thanksgiving. Please do not put others at risk, and by all means please do your best to remain alive and healthy so we can properly celebrate Thanksgiving in 2021. Maybe I will be in a more celebratory mood by then.

Pray for me a miserable and useless has been Chaplain and sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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


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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t forget.”

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


My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

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

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

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

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

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

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

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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

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

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

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

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

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

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

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

That is still my hope.

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

 

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

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


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

With Marines of Marine Security Forces in Bahrain, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, Veterans and friends

There Lies a Gulf: Reflecting on 9-11-2001 Nineteen Years Later

 

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 have decided to take the time tonight to share that day and what followed in my life and with the people that I served, including those who died.

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.

Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, Medical Service Corps, US Army

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.

Nineteen 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 with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines.

Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, US Army, former US Marine, KIA, Afghanistan 26 May 2011

One of the Marines I got to know well at 3/8 was Corporal Ergin Osman. He eventually left the Marines enlisted in the Army and was serving with the 101st Airborne Division when he and 6 members of his platoon were killed on May 26th 2011 by an Improvised Explosive Device, while hunting down a Taliban leader.

Father (Chaplain) Tim Vakoc

Another man I knew was Father Timothy Vakoc, an Army Chaplain I knew when he was a seminarian going through the Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with in 1990. He was horribly wounded by an IED when traveling in a HUMMV to say mass for his troops near Mosul, Iraq in 2004. At the time he was a Major in the Chaplain Corps. He never made a full recovery from his wounds but was inspirational to all he met and served until he died in 2009 after having eithe been dropped, or fallen in a nursing home.

On the morning of 9-11-2001 I was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida, to deploy in January 2002 to support operations against the Taliban and take part in the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq.

 


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 pilot 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.

LutjensHonors

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. One thing that I do remember that for a brief moment in time we were united as Americans. Say what you want about him now and some of his later decisions, but President George W. Bush was inspirational in the days after the attack. He provided both rallied us and led us in our grief in a way the current President, who lied about what he saw and did that day, never could.

hue city boarding party

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.


In 2008 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.

 

with-mtt-3-7-ronin






 




















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 who 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 39 years of service, and unless something incredibly strange occurs I will retire on December 31st and this will be my last year, and last observance of 9-11 on active duty.

But that being said there are still U.S. Military personnel in harm’s way in many places around the world. I wish I could say that they will be safe and that there will be no more killed or wounded, but I know that will not be the case. Now we have young men and women serving in wars that began before they were born.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting.  Today I provided the invocation at our Navy Shipyard’s ceremony marking that day. As I gave them I could feel the emotions, see the faces, and remember all the people I knew and served alongside who died that day or in the following wars.

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. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world, and even more importantly that amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic and the damnable political division and violence in our country, much of it brought on by the President and some of his White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi followers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Christian theocrats whose message and goal is little different than the people who attacked us nineteen years ago.

On the good news side my wife Judy was pronounced cancer free and cured on her five year follow-exam today. Every exam, after her surgery was a anxiety laden exercise, now she doesn’t have to go back for a year.

Hopefully next year this time I will be teaching and writing, and we will have made the transition to civilian life with our three Papillon babies, Izzy, Pierre, and Maddy Lyn.

Peace, Shalom, and blessings,

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, iraq,afghanistan, national security, Photo Montages, Political Commentary, terrorism, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, War on Terrorism

When Heroes Return from War: Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain and the Complicated Lives of those Changed by War

fannychamberlain1

                     Fannie and Joshua Chamberlain (Dale Gallon) 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been catching up one work around the house, working on my book so hopefully I can have it ready to send to my agent no later than this time a week from now. So tonight I am reposting a portion out of one of my incomplete Gettysburg series dealing with an American Hero and icon with feet of clay, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  He became one of my heroes when I first read about his stand with the 20th Maine at Little Round Top back in Junior High school. At that time I only knew the basics of his biography, which did not include the struggles he had after the war dealing with combat trauma, a marriage on the rocks, his disappointment at not being retained in the post-war downsizing of the Army, and his attempts to serve in other ways, which did nothing for his health or marriage.

The impact of war on those who go to war and the loved ones that they return to is often incredibly difficult, I know from experience. I am lucky, first I survived war, then I at least until now have survived its aftermath, finally, I have a wife who survived it with me and in spite of all the trauma our marriage not only survived but has become better. I hope that you appreciate this account of the post-war life of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Joshua Chamberlain’s accolades were at Little Round Top certainly earned but others on that hill have been all too often overlooked by most people. This list includes Gouverneur Warren who was humiliated by Phillip Sheridan at Five Forks, Strong Vincent, who died on of wounds suffered on Little Round Top and Paddy O’Rorke, the commander of the 140th New York of Weed’s Brigade on Vincent’s right who was mortally wounded that day. Of course their were his subordinates that get little attention. But today is about what happened to Chamberlain and his wife Fannie after he came home.

After the war like most citizen soldiers, Chamberlain returned to civilian life, and a marriage that was in crisis in which neither he or Fannie seemed able to communicate well enough to mend.  The troubled couple “celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary on December 7, 1865. He gave her a double banded gold-and-diamond bracelet from Tiffany’s, an extravagant gift that only temporarily relieved the stresses at work just below the surface of their bland marriage. Wartime separation had perhaps damaged it more than Chamberlain knew.”  [1]

When he came home Chamberlain was unsettled. Fannie quite obviously hoped that his return would reunite them and bring about “peaceful hours and the sweet communion of uninterrupted days with the husband that had miraculously survived the slaughter” [2] and who had returned home, but it was not to be.

Army life had given Joshua Chamberlain a sense of purpose and meaning that he struggled to find in the civilian world. He was haunted by a prediction made by one of his fellow professors when he left his professorship at Bowdoin College to serve as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine. His colleague told him that “he would return from war “shattered” & “good for nothing,” [3]

Upon his discharge, Chamberlain began to search for something to give his life meaning. He began to write a history of V Corps and give speeches around the northeast, and “these engagements buoyed his spirit, helping him submerge his tribulations and uncertainties in a warm sea of shared experience. [4] In his travels he remained apart from Fannie, who remained with the children, seldom including her in those efforts. She expressed her heart in a letter in early 1866:

“I have no idea when you will go back to Philadelphia, why dont you let me know about things dear?….I think I will be going towards home soon, but I want to hear from you. What are you doing dear? are you writing for your book? and how was it with your lecture in Brunswick- was it the one at Gettysburg? I look at your picture when ever I am in my room, and I am lonely for you. After all, every thing that is beautiful must be enjoyed with one you love, or it is nothing to you. Dear, dear Lawrence write me one of the old letters…hoping to hear from you soon…I am as in the old times gone bye Your Fannie.” [5]

In those events he poured out his heart in ways that seemed impossible for him to do with Fannie. He accounted those wives, parents, sons and daughters at home who had lost those that they loved, not only to death:

“…the worn and wasted and wounded may recover a measure of their strength, or blessed by your cherishing care live neither useless nor unhappy….A lost limb is not like a brother, an empty sleeve is not like an empty home, a scarred breast is not like a broken heart. No, the world may smile again and repair its losses, but who shall give you back again a father? What husband can replace the chosen of your youth? Who shall restore a son? Where will you find a lover like the high hearted boy you shall see no more?” [6]

Chamberlain then set his sights on politics, goal that he saw as important in championing the rights of soldiers and their well treatment by a society, but a life that again interrupted his marriage to Fannie and brought frequent separation. Instead of the one term that Fannie expected, Chamberlain ended up serving four consecutive one year terms as Governor of Maine, and was considered for other political offices. However, the marriage continued to suffer and Fannie’s “protracted absence from the capital bespoke her attitude toward his political ambitions.” [7]  Eventually Chamberlain returned home and. “For twelve years following his last term as governor, he served as president of Bowdoin College, his alma mater. [8]

He then became a champion of national reconciliation who was admired by friend and former foe alike. However, he was filled with bitterness towards some in the Union who he believed did not care for his comrades or their families, especially those who had lost loved ones in the war. While saluting those who had served in the Christian and Sanitary Commissions during the war, praising veterans, soldiers and their families he noted that they were different than many Northerners, willing to forgive the South, admire it’s heroes and despise their own, and the cause for which they fought:

“Those who can see no good in the soldier of the Union who took upon his breast the blow struck at the Nation’s and only look to our antagonists for examples of heroism – those over magnanimous Christians, who are so anxious to love their enemies that they are willing to hate their friends….I have no patience with the prejudice or the perversity that will not accord justice to the men who have fought and fallen on behalf of us all, but must go round by the way of Fort Pillow, Andersonville and Belle Isle to find a chivalry worthy of praise.” [9]

His experience of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era North, was felt by many Union Veterans as the twin myths of The Noble South and The Lost Cause swept the whole country. Thus his bitterness, not toward the enemy soldiers he faced, but the citizens that he suffered so much to defend and the causes that they fought. Today his bitterness towards his countrymen, political and business leaders, academics and others, through their foul treatment of Union soldiers and fawning admiration of Heroes the Confederacy and the South, would be called Moral Injury. 

Chamberlain’s post-war life, save for the times that he was able to revisit the scenes of glory and be with his former comrades was marred by deep personal and professional struggles and much suffering. He struggled with the adjustment to civilian life, which for him was profoundly difficult. He “returned to Bowdoin and the college life which he had sworn he would not again endure. Three years of hard campaigning however, had made a career of college teaching seem less undesirable, while his physical condition made a permanent army career impossible.” [10] The adjustment was more than even he could anticipate, and the return to the sleepy college town and monotony of teaching left much to be desired.

These are not uncommon situations for combat veterans to experience, and Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top who was well acquainted with the carnage of war, suffered from immensely. His wounds which nearly killed him on the front lines at Petersburg never fully healed, and he was forced to endure the humiliation of wearing what would be considered an early form of a permanent catheter and bag. In 1868 he was awarded a pension of thirty dollars a month for his Petersburg wound which was described as “Bladder very painful and irritable; whole lower part of abdomen tender and sensitive; large urinal fistula at base of penis; suffers constant pain in both hips.” [11] Chamberlain struggled to climb out of “an emotional abyss” in the years after the war. Part was caused by his wounds which included wounds to his sexual organs, shattering his sexuality and caused his marriage to deteriorate.

He wrote to Fannie in 1867 about the “widening gulf between them, one created at least in part by his physical limitations: “There is not much left in me to love. I feel that all too well.” [12] Chamberlain’s inability to readjust to civilian life following the war, and Fanny’s inability to understand what he had gone through during it caused great troubles in their marriage. Chamberlain “felt like hell a lot of the time, morose in mood and racked with pain.” [13] His wounds would require more surgeries, and in “April 1883 he was forced to have extensive surgery on his war wounds, and through the rest of the decade and well into the next he was severely ill on several occasions and close to death once.” [14]

By 1868 the issues between he and Fannie were so deep that she threatened him with divorce, and went about accusing Joshua of domestic abuse, not in court, but among her friends and in town; a charge which he contested. It is unknown if the abuse actually occurred and given Chamberlain’s poor physical condition it is unlikely that he could have done what she claimed, it is actually much more likely, based on her correspondence as well as her issues which included:

“chronic depression, her sense of being neglected of not abandoned, and her status as an unappreciated appendage to her husband’s celebrated public career caused her to retaliate in a manner calculated to get her husband’s attention while visiting on him some of the misery she had long endured.” [15]

The bitterness in their relationship at the time was shown in his offer to her of a divorce; a condition very similar to what many combat veterans and their families experience today. After he received news of the allegations that Fannie was spreading among their friends around town, Chamberlain wrote to her:

“If it is true (as Mr. Johnson seems to think there is a chance of its being) that you are preparing for an action against me, you need not give yourself all this trouble. I should think we had skill enough to adjust the terms of a separation without the wretchedness to all our family which these low people to whom it would seem that you confide your grievances & plans will certainly bring about.

You never take my advice, I am aware.

But if you do not stop this at once it will end in hell.” [16]

His words certainly seem harsh, especially in our time where divorce, be it contested or uncontested does not have the same social stigma it did then. Willard Wallace writes that the letter “reflects bewilderment, anger, even reproof, but not recrimination; and implicit throughout is an acute concern for Fanny, who did not seem to realize the implications of legal action. The lot of a divorcee in that era in a conservative part of the country was not likely to be a happy one.” [17]This could well be the case, but we do not know for sure his intent. We can say that it speaks to the mutual distress, anger and pain that both Joshua and Fannie were suffering at the time.

The marriage endured a separation which lasted until 1871 when his final term of office expired they reconciled, and the marriage did survive, for nearly forty more years. “Whatever differences may have once occasionally existed between Chamberlain and Fanny, the two had been very close for many years.” [18] The reconciliation could have been for any number of reasons, from simple political expedience, in that he had been rejected by his party to be appointed as Senator, and the realization that “that politics, unlike war, could never stir his soul.” [19] Perhaps he finally recognized just how badly he had hurt Fannie over all the years of his neglect of her needs. But it is just as likely that deep in his heart he really did love her despite his chronic inability for so many years to demonstrate it in a way she could feel. Fannie died in 1905 and Chamberlain, who despite all of their conflicts loved her and grieved her, a grief “tinged with remorse and perhaps also with guilt.” [20] The anguished widower wrote after her death:

“You in my soul I see, faithful watcher, by my cot-side long days and nights together, through the delirium of mortal anguish – steadfast, calm, and sweet as eternal love. We pass now quickly from each other’s sight, but I know full well that where beyond these passing scenes you shall be, there will be heaven!”

Chamberlain made a final trip to Gettysburg in May of 1913. He felt well enough to give a tour to a delegation of federal judges. “One evening, an hour or so before sunset, he trudged, alone, up the overgrown slope of Little Round Top and sat down among the crags. Now in his Gothic imagination, the ghosts of the Little Round Top dead rose up around him….he lingered up the hillside, an old man lost in the sepia world of memory.” [21] He was alone.

Chamberlain died on a bitterly cold day, February 24th 1914 of complications from complications of the ghastly wound that he received at Petersburg in 1864. The Confederate minié ball that had struck him at the Rives’ Salient finally claimed his life just four months shy of 50 years since the Confederate marksman found his target.

Sadly, the story of the marriage of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain is all too typical of many military marriages and relationships where a spouse returns home changed by their experience of war and struggles to readjust to civilian life. This is something that we need to remember when we encounter those changed by war and the struggles of soldiers as well as their families; for if we have learned nothing from our recent wars it is that the wounds of war extend far beyond the battlefield, often scarring veterans and their families for decades after the last shot of the war has been fired.

The Battle for Little Round Top which is so legendary in our collective history and myth was in the end something more than a decisive engagement in a decisive battle. It was something greater and larger than that, it is the terribly heart wrenching story of ordinary, yet heroic men like Gouverneur Warren, Strong Vincent, Chamberlain and Paddy O’Rorke and their families who on that day were changed forever.

Chamberlain, ever the romantic, spoke about that day when dedicating the Maine Monument in 1888; about the men who fought that day and what they accomplished:

“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.” [22]

The one thing none of us who return changed by war and military service seem to really master, is how to fully be present in the lives of those we love when we return.

                                                             Notes 

[1] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.282

[2] Ibid. Smith Fanny and Joshua p.182

[3] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180

[4] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.260

[5] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua pp.178-179

[6] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.181

[7] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.

[8] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.245

[9] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180 It is interesting to note that Chamberlain’s commentary is directed at Northerners who were even just a few years after the war were glorifying Confederate leader’s exploits. Chamberlain instead directs the attention of his audience, and those covering the speech to the atrocities committed at the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864 and to the hellish conditions at the Andersonville and Belle Isle prisoner of war camps run by the Confederacy.

[10] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.203

[11] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.289

[12] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.259

[13] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.288

[14] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.285

[15] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.268

[16] Chamberlain, Joshua L. Letter Joshua L. Chamberlain to “Dear Fanny” [Fanny Chamberlain], Augusta, November 20, 1868 retrieved from Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Documents http://learn.bowdoin.edu/joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/documents/1868-11-20.html 8 November 2014

[17] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.227

[18] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.297

[19] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.290

[20] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.290

[21] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond PPP.342-343

[22] 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

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