Category Archives: Tour in Iraq

Finding my Way Home: Nine Years After Iraq


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was thinking last night  as I watched an episode of the television show The Blacklist, where the lead character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader made a comment about Homer’s classic Greek myth The Oddesy where he said, “Odysseus spent a decade at war. But his biggest battle was finding his way home.” I can understand that. Nine years ago I was on my first long distance mission out to the Syrian border in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. It was the first of many missions in the badlands of that war ravaged province, and seven months later I returned home, but I didn’t. Too much of me was still in Iraq, and in some ways still is, but that being said I think I can finally say that I am home. 

Now let me say, there is still a lot of Iraq in me and if I got the chance to go back I would probably jump at it. I still have issues from my tour in Iraq, the dreams, nightmares, and night terrors have caused more physical injuries than my actual time in country. Frankly, I expect that will never change, so I simply adapt to minimize risk, and to enjoy life to the utmost. That is my reality. I can dwell on the bad and hate life, or I can make the adjustments and enjoy life. 

After a major emotional crash in the spring I decided that the latter was the better choice and I have not looked back since. 

My experiences in Iraq have helped make me the man I am today, and for that I am grateful. I can admit that I am damaged and at the same time realize that I am in the process of becoming whole, maybe for the first time in my life. I have really come to appreciate life and the blessings that I have, especially my wife Judy, my two little dogs, and my friends. Things are not perfect, nor will they ever be, but I am happy and for the first time since I deployed to Iraq in July 2007 can say that I am home. Like the journey of Odysseus, mine has been a long, and for that matter, a strange trip.

Once I get at least one of my three texts dealing with the Civil War era and Gettysburg published, I’ll write my story. 

So until tomorrow I wish you peace, and the joy of making it home.

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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They are Not Just Names: Remembering the Fallen

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back in October of 2001 as the United States invaded Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which killed nearly 3,000 people I began to read the casualty reports. The first name that I knew was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, who was killed at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001. She had been a training company commander at the Academy of Health Sciences when I served there as the Brigade Adjutant.

As the war spread following the Bush administration’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq those casualty lists got longer and longer, and I read them because I thought it was the least that I could do to attempt to enshrine their memory as something more than a number. Each year around Memorial Day the various publications of the Military Times, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Times would publish a center section with the names, pictures and dates of death of these men and women. Some were just eighteen years old, and a few in their fifties, showing the face of an all-volunteer force that few see. Most of the time I didn’t know the individuals, but sometimes I did, and when I did, the war came home.

The other night Judy and I were watching the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode The Siege of AR-558. At the beginning of the episode Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks is looking at the latest casualty list when his executive officer, Colonel Kira walks in on him. He makes a comment that hit home with me, in fact it summed up how I came to see those lists:

“I think that’s what I’m going to remember most about this war – looking through casualty reports. Sometimes it feels like that’s all I do – stare at the names of the dead. When the war started, I read every name. I felt it was the least I could do to honor their sacrifices… But now, the names have begun to blur together.”

Of course I did two combat tours, the second of them in Iraq where I served with our advisers in Al Anbar Province. A couple of times while back in the large base camp at T’Qaddum I was called to the Trauma Platoon, a Navy medical unit designed to try to save the lives of the wounded and evacuate them to higher levels of care in Iraq, Germany, or the United States. Despite all of the protective gear worn by soldiers, the injuries caused by IEDs, bombs, anti-tank rockets, explosions, and bullets are ghastly. I still can vividly remember the faces and the wounds of the young men that I attended to as the surgeons, nurses and corpsmen valiantly tried to save their lives.

Months later I was home but the war was still real. The casualty reports from Iraq and Afghanistan kept coming, and more people I knew were on them. Of course there were others who died later, sometimes by their own hand because of the suffering that they had been through in body, mind, and spirit. I saw many of them in the naval hospitals and medical centers where I served, to see the faces scarred by bombs, bullets, and burns, to see the men and women with artificial limbs struggling down hallways, and to see the pain in their eyes is something that I will never forget.

The last couple of years in my teaching assignment I have been somewhat shielded from revisiting those times. Likewise the number of casualties in the more recent reports has slowed to a trickle, just a few a month most of the time. But I don’t forget, I still check the reports on a daily basis.

Sadly, despite the yellow ribbons bumper stickers that boldly say “I Support the Troops,” for most Americans these wars never were that important, and without the constant reminder of the dead and wounded coming home, they have been forgotten. However, they are still very real, some 6840 American military personnel have died in these wars, and close to 50,000 wounded. Those numbers do not count the contractors, diplomats, or aid-workers killed and wounded, nor those diagnosed with combat related PTSD. Likewise it does it count the losses of our coalition or NATO allies, or those of the Iraqis or Afghanis.

At the end of the Siege of AR-558 Kira gives Sisko the latest casualty list. Their conversation is something that I think that we should remember when we think of those lost in these wars, and the ones who certainly will die in the war against the Islamic State.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI2WTfB0mz4

Colonel Kira: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.

Captain Sisko: How many this time?

Colonel Kira: Including the troops lost at AR-558 – 1730.

Captain Sisko: [whispering] 1730…

Colonel Kira: It’s a lot of names.

Captain Sisko: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, History, iraq, shipmates and veterans, star trek, Tour in Iraq, War on Terrorism

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

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great weekend,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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One Faithful Harp Shall Praise Thee: The Minstrel Boy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Eight years ago I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisers that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisers with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I  had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  I felt betrayed and still do. I was asked by my therapist about this and frankly, though I have tried to forgive the feelings always come back, especially this time of year.

Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the disdain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

I think that is why the line in the song “Tho’ all the world betray thee” means so much to me and a big reason why the song touches me in the way it does. It is a song of men changed by war.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

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Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the television mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill and one in the movie Gettysburg as Father Corby blesses the Irish Brigade.

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned and even now eight years later still I struggle with belief, unbelief and faith in general, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. I believe that if we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow as human beings, or for that matter are of much use to anyone else. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war.

This is dedicated to all those who have served who have gone through the pain of war and return until war shall be no more, but until then at least one faithful harp will praise thee…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Iraq Revisited: An Unexpected Phone Call

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With my Friend Falah in late January 2008

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I often write about my time in Iraq, but today just a short thought, a good news story.

Since I left Iraq in 2008 I always prayed that those Iraqis that I knew and worked with, for them, their families, and their country. There is something that comes from having actually gotten to know these men and women and having served alongside them that those who have never done cannot understand or fathom. It is a connection that enables one to see clearly when others minds are clouded by ideology, and information about Iraq and its people, that they really do not understand, because frankly they have never really gotten to know and care for actual Iraqis.

I guess that is one of the things that was so devastating from me personally when I came home from Iraq, I actually cared for the Iraqis. Those that I knew and worked with were amazing hosts, and would do anything for you. Those who fought alongside of the United States, even after how we destroyed their country in the name of liberating it from Saddam, while unleashing a witches cauldron of violence which is spreading around the world, risked their lives then, and those still alive risk their lives today.

One of those men, my friend General Falah, called me yesterday. It was a pleasant surprise, as he is a friend. He was the first Iraqi that I met when I served with the Iraq Assistance Group, and the last that I saw as I left country. At that point he was working for the U.S. supporting the advisory forces, and staff. I wish that I could tell you more about him, his amazing story, and his family, but I cannot say too much about him because I do not want to endanger them. However, as a senior leader in the Iraqi Air Force he is actively engaged in fighting DAESH, and sadly, most Americans do not give him, or the other Iraqi troops now engaged in fighting DAESH enough credit. They are risking their lives in an attempt to defeat DAESH and reunify their country, while American politicians and pundits criticize them for having to do what they need to do to defend their country.

I pray that my friend Falah and his men will be successful, because it matters not just to Iraqis, but to us. Likewise, I pray that one day, I can go back to Iraq. But then I don’t expect most people to understand. Inshallah. (إن شاء الله)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Left My Heart in Al Anbar: Memories & Nightmares

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been having a lot of Iraq memories lately, and with them nightmares.

I deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2007. My experience of Iraq was far different than most Americans. I served as chaplain to a large number of teams of advisers in American advisors to Iraqi forces in Al Anbar Province. Most were teams working with the Iraqi 7th Division and 2nd Border Brigade, the 1st and 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol, and various other sundry groups.

During the deployment I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs in tiny convoys and in tightly packed aircraft with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron. The teams consisted of 12-30 Americans who were embedded with the Iraqis in far flung locations between the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various small outposts along the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, including a lot of trips to bases in Ramadi. There were times that the convoys or helicopters that we traveled on took enemy fire, and there were other times that we were in places where we were in meetings with groups of Iraqis where we didn’t know the good guys from the bad guys, and of course I was the only person not armed.

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Crossing the Bridge on way to Camp Blue Diamond and the Snake Pit

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It was a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members. When the region fell to DAESH I was heartbroken, for I had gotten to know too many Iraqis, military, police, and civilians in the region. I had broken bread with them, been asked to pray for them, to bless their vehicles on missions.

As I said, I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately with the retaking of Ramadi, and I am surprised by how strong the memories those memories still are. I have not slept well and have had plenty of strange dreams and nightmares, many which include surreal Iraq memories mixed in with others. PTSD is something that keeps on giving.

Mission Prep

I remember one of my experiences at a small base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as Snake Pit. The base was north of the Euphrates and included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility, Iraqi Military and Police forces, Marine advisers working with the Iraqi Army 7th Division, and an Iraqi Detention Facility. The base was surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls, and immediately adjacent to a number of high-speed avenues of approach. It was an easy target for any attacker. In fact the area was overrun by DAESH and only recently retaken by Iraqi forces.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron on a Flight

When I visited the base Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within it. For me strongest memories of that visit were of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison. I have been to prisons and jails in this county, but that was a wake up call, the prisoners were hard-core jihadists and the conditions were to put it mildly were harsh. But then, the nowhere in the Middle East are prisons anything near as civilized as they are here.

Neither will I forget the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. Those women were eager to serve their people and their country and the memories of how they received me are still so strong. I wonder how many are still alive.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

I will stop for now but to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco, I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Ramadi: Liberation and Destruction

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A few days ago the Iraqi military recaptured the city of Ramadi from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or DAESH. When DAESH captured Ramadi last May it struck me very hard, I cried for the people of Ramadi as I knew that they were going to suffer terribly both from DAESH as well as in the campaign of the Iraqi military to retake the city.

Some Americans, even other military members do not understand this, but for me Ramadi is more than an Iraqi city, but a place that I have a great deal of feeling. I spent a significant amount of time in and around Ramadi, as well as the distant reaches of Al Anbar Province. I care deeply about the people of Iraq, and I grieve because the horror that they are now experiencing is mostly due to the actions of the Bush administration; first for launching a war that met no standard of the being a just war, a war that was condemned as unjust by Pope John Paul II, and a war that many of our closest allies refused to support. Then there was the totally bungled occupation policy which destroyed the country and brought about a massive insurgency and civil war. The results of that war have been devastating, for Iraq, Syria, the Middle East, and yes even for the United States.

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In fact the aftermath of that 2003 invasion opened a Pandora’s Box of chaos, and opened the door to what T.E. Lawrence warned about in 1919: “A Wahhabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” DAESH is exactly that, a fulfillment of Lawrence’s warning.

Whenever I read about Iraq I am reminded of how much of my life has been intertwined with that country and people. As I have said on more than one occasion I left my heart in Al Anbar. Back in 2007 and 2008 things were different there. Sunni’s and Shia were at least in the Iraqi military working with Sunni tribesman cooperated with American forces to destroy or drive out the forces of Al Qaida Iraq. I was meeting regularly with Iraqis who are some of the most hospitable people you would ever want to know. I remember meeting with the women who were going to become the first female Iraqi police officers in Ramadi.

Of all those people I wonder how many are still alive, how many have been driven out of their homes, lands, or have suffered the loss of family, friends, and their livelihoods. I grieve for what is happening to them and their once proud country. The towns, cities and bases that I served at have almost all been taken over by DAESH, or have been scenes of terrible fighting. Fallujah, Ta’quadum, Habbinyah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha, Al Rutba, Rawah, Al Qaim, Al Waleed, Al Turbial, Baghdadi, and so many others devastated by invasion, insurgency, civil war, and the battle against DAESH.

When I left Iraq in 2008 I had hopes that the country might survive, as did many of the Iraqis that I met. I hoped one day to go back and travel to the places that I served, and maybe had the opportunity to see the gracious people that I love again. Maybe in 15 or 20 years there might, God willing be an opportunity. I hope and pray that those I know who were so good to me are safe. Until then I can only pray and hope that for them things will one day be better.

When I think of the Iraq war and its costs I am reminded of the words of Major General Smedley Butler in his book War is a Racket: “What is the cost of war?…this bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

For the Iraqis, the Syrians, Americans, and so many others, the cost will be with us for at least a generation. But I do always hope and pray that things will be better.

Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre

Padre Steve+

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