Category Archives: Tour in Iraq

The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

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I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

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.” United States Army 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.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

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But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

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Ramadi, January 2008

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Long Road: Nine Years of Padre Steve’s World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect on the 9th anniversary of Padre Steve’s World, especially for my new readers who might not know how this blog came about.

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

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

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it.

But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote a friend: “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

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

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

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

So that’s how, some 3,225 posts, and three draft books later I got to this point. Hopefully my first book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Civil War Era get published sometime in the next year.

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

I still suffer from a lot of crazy dreams, nightmares, and occasional night terrors which are so physically violent that I trash around or even throw myself out of bed. Thankfully I haven’t physically hurt myself lately, or had to go to the emergency room as a result as I have on two occasions. I also remain somewhat hyper-vigilant, get anxious in crowded or confined spaces, and there are just some places that I avoid if at all possible. But that is life with PTSD.

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

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Finding Tipperary 10 Years After Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ten years ago today I 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 and over the next decade 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” and while I am doing much better now than even two years ago I still suffer from it. But being 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 those men 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.” 

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from it. Today I was reading a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary which he wrote in the time shortly after the war. I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw a Charlie Brown special where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano.

In 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 the American President make wild threats of war and the cavalier attitude of his sycophants toward it I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war and 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 decade when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, 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.

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. I have been reprieved, at least temporarily,  but as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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An Insult to Combat Veterans: Army Chaplains Invite PTSD Denier Kenneth Copeland to National Prayer Breakfast

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Kenneth Copeland in front of His Private Jet which he Flies Because “Demons fly Commercial” 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been mulling over writing about this since I first learned that the heretical Prosperity Gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland had been invited to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast at Fort Jackson South Carolina. In 2013 Copeland along with the faux Christian “historian” David Barton claimed on Copeland’s television show that PTSD is not real because PTSD is not Biblical

Copeland, who is a member of President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council has had his ministry issue a clarification of his remarks, but that being said the “clarification” smacked of more of a defense of his theology than a compassionate attempt to understand the ravages of PTSD.

I wish I was kidding, but neither Copeland or Barton have ever served in the military or been in combat and now Copeland is speaking this morning at the Fort Jackson NCO Club. Copeland is a self-described Christian Extremist  claimed on his show with Barton nodding in agreement that PTSD doesn’t effect true believers.

The Garrison Chaplain’s Office was a key part of that decision. I know a number of Chaplains stationed at the Post who protested in vain about the decision to invite Copeland. The breakfast is voluntary, but I can testify from years of military service in both the Army and the Navy that attendance is highly encouraged and chaplains are routinely pressured by senior conservative Evangelical Christian chaplains and commanding officers regardless of their own beliefs. The pressure is most effective on younger junior chaplains or other junior officers, typically company commanders or battalion or brigade staff officers.

Really, I first experienced this when I was a company commander in Wiesbaden Germany in 1986, as a brigade staff officer at Fort Sam Houston Texas in 1987, a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain in Germany in 1996, and a number of other times. The last one of these was when I was at Camp Lejeune North Carolina in 2000. I guess that I was lucky that deployments and operational commitments kept me from attending such events until I came back from Iraq in February of 2008. After that deployment suffering from severe PTSD and a crisis in faith I only attended one more at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in 2009, and once I became a senior and supervisory Chaplain I refused to serve as the host to such events because they are all too often platforms for politicians to ingratiate themselves with the military and as photo ops for high flying preachers who then use the video or pictures to show to their followers how they support the military and in the process use those for fundraising purposes. If chaplains want to bow the knee to that kind of idolatry and to use that rather old-fashioned and judgmental word “sin” than they can, but I won’t.

But Copeland has no shame. His comments about PTSD and the trauma experienced in combat are not limited to his 2013 show but are found throughout his remarks which are reckless and full of incredibly poor biblical exegesis and hackneyed heretical theology. My God, I’m actually sounding like I am orthodox in my Christian beliefs despite being liberal, but that’s because I am.

But I do struggle with faith every day. From 2008 to just before Christmas of 2009 I was struggling so badly that I was for all purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed even as I dealt with people in life and death situations on a daily basis as a critical care ICU chaplain at the Naval Medical Center. I figure that I believe now about 60% of the time, and when I do I really believe, when I don’t it is to be gently described as difficult.

I have lived with PTSD for a decade. I know what it is to be clinically depressed, suicidal, and to be labeled and ostracized by Christians, other clergy, chaplains, and long time friends all because what I was going through did not match their theology. I have been honest in  documenting my struggle with PTSD and moral injury on this blog which I began in February 2009 in past as a way to process what was happening to me, as well as my struggle with faith and belief. Because of that was contacted by reporters and with the help of caring Pubic Affairs Officers and commanders I was able to share my story in the Jacksonville NC Daily News, the Washington TimesHuffington Post the Department of DOD Real Warriors Campaign project. All were terrifying experiences because even though I wrote about my story here, the fact that they went out in local, national, and DOD sites exposed me to more publicity than I could sometimes deal with but I did them to encourage other veterans, especially those in helping and caring professions,; physicians, nurses, chaplains, corpsmen, and medics to see help and not suffer alone and in silence.

I am sure that has affected my career and I while some people were quite compassionate a lot, especially Christians were not. As far as my career went I was effectively sidelined after Iraq and placed in billets that very few were ever promoted out of, and ultimately that is okay because it made me realize what is really important in caring for and leading men and women in the military. I probably will retire as a Navy Commander in two years, maybe three, and move on with life after what will then be 39 to 40 years of military service. Since I spent 17 1/2 years in the Army and resigned my commission as a Major in the Army Reserve to go on active duty as a Navy Lieutenant in 1999 I have nothing to be ashamed of; I don’t know too many people who have risen to be a Field Grade Officer in the Army and a Senior Officer in the Navy. I am profoundly grateful that I still am able to serve and to care for young sailors, marines, soldiers, and chaplains.

In the mean time I still suffer the effects. I am doing a lot better now in large part because of my wife Judy and my three Papillon dogs, Minnie, Izzy, and Pierre. Izzy especially is very sensitive to my moods and we often describe her as “Nurse Izzy.” That being said in 2015 I crashed so badly that my colleagues at the Joint forces Staff College feared for me and ensured that I got help. I have suffered concussions, sprained my neck, bruised my jaw, and broken my nose during various combat related night terrors.

I have had friends, including chaplains, commanders, and others who I have served with lose their careers, families, and even take their lives while struggling with PTSD. Some were much better Christians than I could ever hope to be, and the presence of Kenneth Copeland speaking on one of the Army’s largest training bases where there are many young, vulnerable, and impressionable recruits who have never been to war, but who probably end up at war is offensive to me.

I am not against faith, spiritual fitness, or finding inspiration and help for life’s struggles in the Bible; but I am against charlatans of any kind that spout all kinds of base doctrines while profiting off of their victims, or should I say followers?

So anyway, to Mr. Copeland and those who invited him,  have a nice breakfast. I hope that the bacon gives you indigestion and the undercooked scrambled eggs give you the shits.

I’ll get hate mail for this as there is nothing more unforgiving and vengeful than fundamentalists scorned.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas from a Wounded Healer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We had a special Christmas this year with friends who can be best described as a relatively eclectic group. We hosted dinner as is our custom and it really turned out well, and I do have to say that emotionally and spiritually I am in in a better place than was not too long ago.

So today, especially for my new readers I want to recount a bit of that journey.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That war changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“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.” 

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.” Sadly Captain Sitsch, struggling with his own PTSD and other life crises took his life in 2014, but I think that he understood me better than most Chaplains or clergy.

That the crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” For those not familiar with that book it is the sense that God has withdrawn his presence from you which you must go through to experience true union with God.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, for they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.  When I watch the classic film about the 1914 Christmas Truce, Joyeaux Noel I very much understand the priest who is being relieved of his duties by his bishop who he tells “I belong here, with those in pain who have lost their faith.” 

In the fall of 2008 was losing my battle with PTSD during that time I was clinically  depressed, terribly anxious, angry, and in despair I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass because I could not get through it. If a bar had been open anywhere within walking distance I would have poured myself into it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care, my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 70-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support. Likewise I was largely absent from home which was not a good thing for my marriage.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas of 2009 I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain. It was as if his faith

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: 

https://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. That being said over past couple of weeks or so my crazy nightmares and night terrors have come back with a vengeance, last night I threw myself out of bed in the midst of a particularly violent nightmare but it hasn’t soured my mood, my hip still hurts a bit but like unlike the last couple of times I neither broke my nose, sustained a concussion, nor bruised by jaw and sprained my neck.; that my friends is an improvement.

I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt, especially the men and women that call themselves Conservative Evangelical Christians who seem to me to have sacrificed any pretense of faith in Christ in the pursuit of raw political power by supporting a man who is as much of a Christian as the Medici Popes. So I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer celebrated Christmas at home, hosting friends after having preached at Christmas services for American and German military communities. It was a healing experience for me and helped to increase my faith. I know: faith versus reason. I get that, but as reasonable and logical as I try to be I do find the mystery of faith to be something that attracts me to Jesus the Christ.

So this evening, this Christmas night, I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on my posts.

You are appreciated as some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. Likewise there are times that my own biases show through in what I write, and I know that a decent number of people who subscribe to this site and comment don’t always agree with me. I appreciate that and thank you for continuing to follow what I write.

Likewise, if you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends 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 cheerleaders for war.

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 President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

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 ten 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 the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me as opposed to . 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 also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. 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 retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe Iran too.

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. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to 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 support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact 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.

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.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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There Are Still Nightmares: Reliving the Inner Terror of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It was a good but exhausting weekend and yesterday at work was very busy and challenging. So this I am posting just a note today.

Saturday night, or rather early Sunday morning I had another of my high definition Iraq nightmares. Very realistic and terrifying. Once again I found myself being attacked while in a HUMMV and being thrown out of the vehicle with enemy gunmen closing in. During the nightmare I threw myself out of bed and looked up to see a gunman dressed in black with an AK pointed at me, so I tried to tackle him and when I awoke in a very groggy state I found that I was wrestling my television to the ground. All of this in my sleep. It took about thirty minutes to calm down. Minnie, Izzy and Pierre all came in to check on me and the left. Izzy gave me a short snuggle and I finally got back to sleep in enough time to get back up, go to breakfast and finish my sermon preparation. 

I find it amazing that ten years after I departed for Iraq that I still relive my greatest fears from when I was over there, traveling with small groups of American advisors and Iraqi troops throughout the badlands of Al Anbar. I was always afraid that our tiny convoys, usually just two or three HUMMVs and maybe an Iraqi vehicle or two would get ambushed by an IED and attacked. Being so small and mostly away from big concentrations of American troops with significant firepower we were very vulnerable. We got shot at from a distance a few times, mostly in Ramadi, and couldn’t return fire because we couldn’t see who was shooting at us. 

While we were there I seldom slept, even when we were back at our home base at Ta Qaddum to plan our next mission. That base was relatively secure but it had taken rocket and mortar fire before we got there. Thankfully that had ended but it was always in the back of our minds when we heard gunfire coming from the nearby town of Habbinyah. I remember doing a run around the airfield one day when I heard gunfire coming from the town with me in plain view of it. I ran faster than I think I ever have before to get out of the line of sight. T. E. Lawrence wrote of his time with the Arabs in the First World War “We lived always in the stretch or sag of nerves, either on the crest or in the trough of waves of feeling.” Those words well describe my time in Iraq. 

My nightmares include fragments of what happened as well as my fears that thankfully never materialized. Over the past three years I have ended up in the emergency room twice, once with a broken nose from these episodes. I suppose if I had been sleeping in my own bed, which I am not because my snoring has gotten so loud that Judy, who is profoundly deaf could not sleep even wearing ear plugs that took another 30 decibels off her hearing, that I would have gone to the ER again. In the guest room I didn’t run into my nightstand with my face. Even so it is not fun. 

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

That being said I am not depressed or in a funk and life is relative good. I am rather fortunate, despite the often terrifying reality of living with my PTSD and these bloody nightmares, things could be a lot worse. I do have nightmares but at least at the moment they are not dominating my waking hours.

Tonight I plan on watch the Major League Baseball All Star Game. I’ll write about that for tomorrow before moving on to other things. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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