Category Archives: US Navy

Iron against Iron: The Clash of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads at 159 Years

800px-the_monitor_and_merrimac1

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today marks the 159th anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever. It was a watershed event which ended the reign of the great wooden ships which plied the oceans of the world under massive fields of canvas sails. 

It took place just a few miles from two of my last three active duty assignments. If it happened today I would certainly been able to watch it from beach any of the beaches were I worked at Joint Base Little Creek – Fort Story.  I could have watched Virginia steam from the Elizabeth River to do battle from my office at the Joint Forces Staff College, or I could have watched Virginia’s transformation from the salvaged wreck of the steam frigate USS Merrimac into the ironclad behemoth she became in Dry Dock Number One at Naval Shipyard Norfolk in Portsmouth, my last assignment on active duty.

On 9 March 1862, two very strange looking ships joined in battle. This is the story of the Battle of Hanpton Roads and the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at Portsmouth Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Awaiting her was a US Navy squadron of wooden warships including the steam Frigate USS Minnesota, the Sloop of War USS Cumberland, Frigate USS Congress and a number of smaller vessels.

The Virginia was an armored ram built from the salvaged remains of the large steam frigate USS Merrimack which had been burned at Gosport (Now Norfolk) Naval Shipyard. After Virginia’s forces seized the yard the hulk was salvaged. When the Confederate States Navy assumed command of the yard , Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory decided to reconstruct her as an Ironclad Ram. 

Her plans had been leaked to the US Navy through by Mary Louvestre  a former slave with a talent for drafting who worked as a seamstress for an engineer at the shipyard. Hearing her employer brag about the ship she went into his office and traced the plans, sending them to Union authorities. Virginia had a casemate of 24 inches of oak and pine topped by two layers of 2” thick iron plating. She was equipped with an iron ram on her bow and was armed with six 9” Dahlgren Smoothbores,  two 7” Brooke Rifles and two 6.4” Brooke Rifles. However she was barely seaworthy and had too deep draft to navigate inland waters. Her engines were unreliable and she had a very slow and long turning radius which hindered her against Monitor.

The United States Navy was also in the process of constructing a number of ironclad ships of different types. The first of these ships to be ready was the USS Monitor, a small ship mounting a single heavily armored (8” iron) turret mounting two powerful 11” Dalghren smoothbore guns. She was designed by Swedish inventor John Ericcson. Her design was best suited for coastal and inland waters and she was was faster and more maneuverable than Virginia.

On the morning of 8 March she was still steaming to Hampton Roads from New York when Virginia came out for battle against the Union blockade squadron.

 

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CSS Virginia 

During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. She destroyed Congress by gunfire which burned and blew up and appeared to be in position to destroy Minnesota the following day as that ship had run hard aground. The losses aboard Cumberland and Congress were severe and included the Captain of the Congress and Chaplain John L. Lenhart of Cumberland, the first US Navy Chaplain to die in battle. During the battle Virginia had several men wounded including her Captain, Commodore Franklin Buchanan.

Cumberland_rammed_by_Merrimac

Virginia rams the USS Cumberland 

Due to the coming of darkness and a falling tide the acting commander of Virginia, Lieutenant Catsby Ap Roger Jones her executive officer took her in for the night. During the night Monitor, under the command of Lieutenant John Worden arrived and took up station to defend Minnesota.

603px-Battle_of_Hampton_Roads_Map

 

The next morning Virginia again ventured out and was intercepted by the Monitor. The ships fought for over three hours, with Monitor using her superior speed and maneuverability to great effect. During the battle Monitor suffered a hit on her small pilothouse near her bow blinding her Captain,  Lieutenant John Worden, as such Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, the son of Union Brigadier General George Sears Greene, the hero of Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg took command. Neither side suffered much damage but the smokestack of Virginia was pierced in several places affecting her already poor engine performance.  Jones broke off the action and returned to Gosport for repairs and Monitor remained on station.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote after the battle:

“the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.”

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Monitor after the Battle

It did. The battle showed the world the vulnerability of wooden warships against the new ironclads. Monitor in particular revolutionized naval warfare and warship construction. Her defining mark was the use of the armored gun turret which over the succeeding decades became the standard manner for large ships guns to be mounted. Turrets like the warships they were mounted upon grew in size and power reaching their apex during the Second World War.

 

Both Virginia and Monitor reached less than glorious ends. Virginia had to be destroyed by her crew to prevent her capture just over two months after the battle on May 11th 1862.

Monitor survived until January 31st 1862 when she sank during a heavy storm off Cape Hatteras North Carolina with the loss of 16 of her 62 man crew.

The remains of two of those men, recovered during the salvage of Monitor’s engines, turret, guns and anchor were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8th 2012. The relics from Monitor and some from Virginia are displayed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News (http://www.marinersmuseum.org )while one of Virginia’s anchors resides on the lawn of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Additionally, parts of her armor are displayed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. 

Those early ironclads and the brave men who served aboard them revolutionized naval warfare and their work should never be forgotten.

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Filed under civil war, hampton roads and tidewater, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

Draining the Swamp but not the One You are Thinking About


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been an exhausting day as I used my shop-vac to remove over 250 gallons of water from my back yard. Since the yard was graded by the builders toward the house the deepest areas were on the patio. The water in the yard ranched from an inch to five inches and after 14 days in which 12 involved rainfall amounts of an inch to three inches a day there was no way for it to drain or evaporate. The rain stopped Monday afternoon and Tuesday was sunny and dry, but there was no noticeable change in the amount of standing water in the back yard. The water was at the very threshold of our back French doors and found was to leak into the house, but thankfully not much got in and we were able to prevent any damage and dry things out before thinks could get worse. But I had to  get the water level down as rain is back in the forecast beginning Saturday and will last several days.

We live in an area called The Tidewater which includes southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The term was the name given to it by the early English gentry settlers as a polite term for a swamp. Speaking of swamps, the Great Dismal Swamp, aptly named by George Washington in his pre-General and President days when he was a surveyor is about 20 miles from where I live.

We have plenty of other swampland, and swampland that has been developed or paved over, including the parcel of land where I live that makes coastal flooding, or flooding caused by major rain events a rather routine experience, made worse by Global Warming and Sea Rise which has created a crisis for the United States Navy, which does not deny either and even produced a report on the danger.

The Tidewater is the home of Norfolk Naval Station which is the largest Naval base and the home port of five Aircraft Carriers. Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth is the oldest and the second largest government shipyard in the United States, it overhauls nuclear submarines and carriers. Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story is the home of East Coast SEALS, EOD, Expeditionary, Coastal and Riverine warfare units, as well as Amphibious ships and amphibious support units. Naval Air Station Oceana is the hub for East Coast Naval Aviation, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, is the Premier Naval Medical Center on the East Coast now that Bethesda is part of Walter Reed. The Tidewater is also the home of Joint Base Langley-Fort Eustis, the home of many Air Force Fighter Squadrons, the Army Training and Doctrine Command, and Transportation Center and School, and a host of smaller installations critical to national security, as well as the home of Newport News Shipyard, the private shipyard that produces all of our nuclear Aircraft Carriers, and conducts their mid-life reactor overhauls. Believe me, my problems with my backyard are very small potatoes compared to the national security issues to our nation represented by Global Warming and Sea Rise, which by the way Norfolk at the Sewells Point Buoy has the highest rise recorded on the East Coast in over a century.

How the hell did I go there, this was all about me initially, but then maybe it wasn’t. Many ordinary homeowners in the area face similar issues that I face because of unscrupulous real estate developers who stripped away the topsoil and built directly on the clay often not grading the soil away from the homes they built. In fact the developer who built our development and many others in the 1980s and 1990s ended up in jail when exposed for all of his deceit, fraud, and criminal negligence that he inflicted on people.

But let me go back a bit. We have a lot of low lying land and many inland waterways in addition to being on the Atlantic coast. Much of the land has minimal topsoil with a thick layer of clay just below. It doesn’t drain easily especially when the natural wetlands that provided protection were paved over in the name of progress, without any thought about the long term damage to our area.

So today I vacuumed out and dumped in storm drains in the front of my house those 250 gallons or more of storm water. Tomorrow I meet with a contractor to get gutters and stains that will direct storm water out of my back yard. Next week  a contractor begins work on painting and dealing with other work inside the house and my front porch. A friend has an electrician who will fix a couple of issues and replace my rare baseball motif ceiling fan in the kitchen and Judy’s Tiffany Coca Cola hanging  light fixture also in the kitchen. I will be getting another contractor to fix my storage shed. I’m waiting on my window contractor to get the new windows and install the  and then I will be ready to put on the market, hopefully no later than 1 April.

In the meantime I need to arrange for a POD unit to take out things that need to be removed for work inside and and sort through to determine whether to keep or discard and to ensure we can stage the house for sale. With what we have done and what we are doing I expect to get a lot more than we paid for it, just based on what the same house and floor plan are going for today.

I have more to write about but it can wait until tomorrow night, or rather later tonight.

So until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under Climate change,, History, Loose thoughts and musings, national security, Political Commentary, US Navy

Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy and “The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age”

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Stephen Decatur

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am tired after several arduously emotional days. So tonight a rerun of an older post. It is a fascinating story because it has to deal with the amazing courage of the sailors serving in the United States Navy and the determination of President Thomas Jefferson to ensure the freedom of United States and other citizens plying the seas of the Mediterranean Sea from the North African Pasha’s and their raiding fleets of marauding pirates who captures ships from many nations and extorted ransom for their crews. Interestingly it was the young United States that decided to ensure the freedom of the seas for everyone. This is the story of one of the most incredible exploits of that campaign.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

In 1803 the United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco.  For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of these states for free passage of its ships and hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships.  By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.

In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions.  The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him. These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west.  When Jefferson refused the demand and put his beliefs into practice Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.

Jefferson sent a small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more. Congress did not issue a declaration of war but authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”

Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels.  The squadron was composed of ships that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Richard Dale, Edward Preble, and later Commodore John Rogers, at various times the squadron included the USS Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, President, Congress, Enterprise, Intrepid, Essex, Philadelphia, John Adams and Syren.  The Constitution, Chesapeake, and Constellation, Congress and President were among the first six frigates authorized by Congress on March 27th 1794. Philadelphia a subscription Frigate paid for by citizens and merchants of Philadelphia, Essex a subscription Frigate pride for by the citizens of Salem and Essex County, Massachusetts, John Adams, a Subscription Frigate paid for by the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, Argus a 20 gun Brig, Enterprise and Vixen 12 gun Schooners, Syren (later Siren) a 16 gun Brig, and Intrepid a captured Tripolitan Ketch, several smaller American built vessels, and about a dozen gunboats and mortar boats supplied by the Kingdom of Naples, which also provided the Americans with access to the ports of Messina, Palermo, and Syracuse, as well as supplies, and craftsmen to maintain the American Squadron.

Many of the officers who served in the Squadron, including William Bainbridge, Issac Hull, Charles Stewart, David Porter, would continue in service and make names for themselves in the war of 1812 and after.

One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Lieutenant Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France.  By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York.  After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution.  Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.

On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolian ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors.  The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.

Normally such an event would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy.  On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron under the command of Captain William Bainbridge ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured.  Her crew was taken prisoner and the ship floated off by the Tripolians partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor until her foremast could be remounted having be cut away by Bainbridge in his  unsuccessful  attempt to float the ship off the shoal.

Burning the Philadelphia

The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Prebble order Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers to destroy the Philadelphia at anchor.  Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers  from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well.

Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolian ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon.  Posing as a Tripolian ship he was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using a Sicilian sailor who spoke Arabic to request permission. This was granted and Intrepid approached Philadelphia and when close enough ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control of the vessel and set it ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of the shore batteries and gunboats.

Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends.  Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.

Decatur leading American Sailors in hand to hand combat against Barbary Pirates at Tripoli 1804 his younger brother Lieutenant James Decatur was killed aboard another gunboat in the action

Decatur would return to command the Enterprise and was given command of Constitution and was promoted to Captain bypassing the rank of Master Commander. He would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli before departing for the United States. He distinguished himself  in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 where when in command of USS United States defeated and captured HMS Macedonian which would serve in the U.S. Navy and later in the Second Barbary War.

During that war, which began in 1815 Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron Rais Hamidu.  The Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done.  His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean. Following that he became a Navy Commissioner in 1816 and moved to Washington, D.C.

Stephen Decatur more than any one man ended their reign of terror against the United States and the great European powers. The actions of Decatur, Preble, their officers, crews and ships in the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812 established the United States as a credible nation, willing use its Navy to protect its citizens and commerce overseas, without becoming an occupying power. The latter would not occur for another eighty plus years during the Spanish American War, and continues to the present day.

Of course, that did not apply to our conquest of North America which involved countless small wars which exterminated vast numbers of American Indians, opened vast lands to the expansion of slavery, and the conquest of forty percent of Mexico. I am sure that Decatur, who so boldly proclaimed, My Country Right or Wrong, would not have approved of subjugating non-hostile weaker nations. He lived in a different time, when the United States was being threatened alternately by France, Britain, and the Barbary States at sea, and Britain and its American Indian allies as it expanded west.

Likewise, Decatur did not live a long life. He was killed in duel with Commodore James Barron on March 22nd 1820. Barron had never forgiven Decatur for voting for his conviction and removal from service after being humiliated when his ship, the Frigate Chesapeake, was caught unprepared for action, fired upon, and after twenty minutes surrendered, to HMS Leopard in 1807. Following her surrender several of her men were taken off as supposed deserters from the Royal Navy. Leopard’s commander then allowed Chesapeake to return to Norfolk where Barron was relieved of command and tried by a Naval Court which included John Rogers and Decatur.

Barron was convicted removed from the Navy for at least five years. Six years later he returned from a self imposed exile and petitioned for reinstatement. Decatur remained one of his fiercest opponents, and though reinstated was embittered toward Decatur. Their seconds arranged the duel to be conducted in such a way that one or both would die. During the negotiations between their seconds, Commodore William Bainbridge, and Captain Jesse Elliott, the two came close to reconciling but the seconds pushed for the duel. Decatur was mortally wounded and refused medical treatment, dying late that night. Barron, though horribly wounded, survived, eventually becoming commander of the Norfolk Naval Yard, becoming the senior Naval officer on active duty in 1839. He died in 1851 and is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Episcopal Church, in Portsmouth, VA.

The death of Decatur, a bonafide hero, at the hands of a fellow officer stunned Washington. President James Monroe, the members of the Supreme Court, most of Congress and 10,000 citizens attended his funeral. His pallbearers included four Commodores, and two other officers, followed by many other officers and other ranks. During the funeral, one sailor burst forth and cried out “He was the friend of the flag, the sailor’s friend; the navy has lost its mainmast.”

Decatur to help form the United States Navy, and among its early leaders, who included many valiant and brilliant men, he remains the foremost. While he achieved greatness, it was that night in Tripoli harbor where he was immortalized by the words of Lord Nelson as the man who led “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  Of course Nelson was no stranger to boldness or daring, it was a constant theme of his life even in his final battle at Trafalgar. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, middle east, Military, national security, Navy Ships, US Marine Corps, US Navy, War on Terrorism

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

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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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Trying to Get Back to Normal: Another Tooth Adventure While Trying to Retire


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After another dental emergency and the beginning of a root canal after the tooth extraction and major jaw infection last month I am starting to catch up on what I need to be doing, getting ready to retire from the Navy. I still have some things to do, but the retirement ceremony is moving forward. You can catch it beginning about 1230 PM Eastern Standard Time, 0930 AM Pacific Standard Time, and 1830 or 6:30 PM Central European Time. Simply go to the Facebook Page of the Naval Air Station Oceana Dam Neck Annex Chapel Facebook page and you will be able to livestream it as it happens. The link is here. https://m.facebook.com/oceanadamneckannexchapel/

Tomorrow I have to go in to Norfolk to digitally sign my last bit of paperwork for my DD-214. Then I go to the Naval Medical Center for a CT Scan of the left side of my head to get a better look at what was going on with the infection that was the result of my first tooth issue last month, and finally visit the Shipyard to work with the petty officer working on my pre-retirement slide show. Then I can come home and pay attention to Judy and the pups after I get the garbage and recycle bins out.

I make no predictions about my personal future, because I tend to be more right about history and prognostications that don’t include me, but I do think that I will be able to get back to a relatively normal life. I can start finishing the last thing I have to do with my book to get it to the publisher, get the estimates I need to fix up out townhome to put it on the market, and get a new place that is more suitable for what we need. Also make sure I have the employment I need until the book is published. Then I can go on the book tour and take up a professorship at one of the local universities and finish the five books I have in process and get to work on others.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre 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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The Army Interregnum, 1981-1999: A Photo Montage


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another in a series of posts that serve a dual purpose, the first and most important is to shrink pictures of my 39 year military career into sizes where they won’t crush the size of the Power Point presentation to be played before my retirement ceremony, the second is to provide just a brief look through pictures at my time in the Army.

Without using a lot of verbose prose I grew up in a Navy family but surrounded myself with all things military, Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force. Of course that included everything I could read about history, especially military and Naval history, biography, technical aspects of ships, aircraft, artillery, small arms, armored fighting vehicles, strategy, operational methods, strategy and grand strategy, and even ethics and war crimes even before I finished high school.

After my dad retired from the Navy I was lost, I didn’t want to be a civilian, and this was at the end of the Vietnam War when the military was not popular at all. The draft had been abolished, the all-volunteer Force established and there were a lot of problems even as the Soviets became a greater threat and the Middle East began a descent into the chaos that it is now. But even so I want to serve.

My parents talked me out of enlisting in the Navy or Army right out of high school to try a year of junior college. It was a good thing they did because in August of 1978 I met Judy, we began dating and in 1980 I followed her to California State University at Northridge.

Before I went to Northridge I applied and was accepted into the Air Force ROTC program and I would have jumped on it had they not insisted on attending a four week summer training camp that would have destroyed the income from an extremely well paying summer job at the John Deere and Company Warehouse where my dad worked in Stockton, California. I am forever grateful for my dad for getting me that job because it paid a good amount of my college expenses. So the Air Force was out, as was the Navy because Judy who had a number a sister and two brothers-law-serve in the Navy, did not want to have to deal with regular Navy deployments. I asked her if the Army was okay and she said yes because at the time Army assignments were pretty predicable, and with Vietnam in the rear view mirror Not too bad for family life on the whole. Not to say that in Cold War Germany my work days were usually 12-14 hours long and we had a lot of alerts, field exercises, and a massive event called REFORGER once or twice a year that took a month to six weeks out of our lives.

This is my Army story in pictures, from Army ROTC at UCLA and time in the 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery while in ROTC, my commissioning as a Medical Service Corps Lieutenant and our marriage in 1983, and my first five years on active duty from July 1983 to September 1988, which included time as a platoon leader, motor maintenance officer, NBC defense officer, Company Executive Office, Company Commander as well as Group and Brigade Personnel Staff Officer. I left active duty to attend seminary while serving in the Texas Army National Guard where I was commissioned as an Armor Officer and served in an Armor Battalion as the S-1, and on brigade staff before the State Chaplain forced me into the Chaplain Candidate Program because by regulation seminary and theological students are not allowed to serve in combatant positions. He had me branch transferred into the Staff Specialist Branch where seminary and law students went while in school. Now if you know the Army every Branch or Corps has its two letter designation. An Armor officer is AR, Infantry IN, Military Intelligence MI, and Field Artillery FA. There are many more but the Staff Specialist Branch was SS, so yours truly was a SS Captain, but not the Nazi kind for a couple of years. That being said, though I had orders and wore the insignia, the God of Military personnel in the 49th Armored Division still kept me on the books as a Medical Service Corps Officer, and a secondary Armor Officer in case we were mobilized for Operation Desert Storm, and we were days away from mobilization when that war ended. But during seminary I completed the Chaplain Officer Basic Course, and commissioned as a Chaplain following my graduation and ordination.

During that time I decided to try civilian hospital chaplaincy, completed a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, and then took a full time contract position as a Contract Emergency Department Chaplain in my parent’s home town of Huntington West Virginia, where both my grandmothers and numerous other more distant relatives lived. During all of this time I served as a Chaplain in the Texas and Virginia National Guard and when promoted to Major in December 1995 transferred to the Army Reserve. In the summer of 1996 8 volunteered for and mobilized to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the NATO Intervention in the Balkans. Coming home from that I had no civilian job as contractors have no reemployment rights.

About a week later the Army gave me orders to Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania to help close it down as a Federal installation and prepare to hand it over to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. That kept me there until the end of September 1997, but the Garrison Commander did not want to go the final year without a Chaplain, and since the Army didn’t have money to do it, he worked out a deal with the Pennsylvania State Military Department to hire me as a civilian chaplain while remaining a drilling member of the Army Reserve. That was a really cool time, Judy got to be with me, we had a great congregation, and I was recognized by the Army for my creativity in preparing the chapel congregation and the other inactive chapels on the base for turnover. This included the demolition of one, the decommissioning and neutralization of two others to serve in other capacities, one as a daycare center, the other a supply building. The partial renovations of three to serve as chapels for units training on base or mobilization purposes, the renovation of a tiny but historic Catholic Chapel, the Our Lady of Victory. The donations and removal of another which despite the structure being in pristine condition, would have been demolished with the rest of area six. It was donated to the First Free Congregational Church of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. After it had its lead paint exterior planks removed and was decontaminated by the removal of asbestos panels inside, the church had a crew of Amish workers take it apart and reassemble it on their site where it still stands. Judy represented me at the groundbreaking because I was serving as a Exchange Officer at the Chapel of the German Panzertruppen Schule in Munsterlager, between Hamburg and Hannover. When we turned the base over we went home to Huntington where jobs for someone like me were incredibly nonexistent, I got a call from the bishop of my old church Just before Christmas of 1998 that the Navy was willing to take me on active duty if I was willing to reduce in rank from being an Army Major to being a Navy Lieutenant. On 8 February 1999 I drilled for the last time in the Army Reserve and on 9 February was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain.

But the Army did a lot for me that led me to success in the Navy, Marine Corps, and in Combat. It prepared me by allowing me to serve in command and staff positions. To realize that war was more than a game, that one always had to expect the unexpected, and to realize that soldiers and their families were more than cogs in a wheel. I learned to try to balance justice with mercy and I learned from my mistakes when I didn’t to that as well as I should. Because of Judy we never were ones to treat ourselves above enlisted people, particularly because the Army tends to be a less stratified service than the Navy, and because we made sure that we invited enlisted personnel to dinners, including thanksgiving at our quarters, and to treat enlisted personnel and their families with respect, especially when unexpected things happened like massive pay failures during a unit move, or when we had to remain in the field longer than scheduled and Judy and the platoon leader, XO, or Company Commanders wife making sure that families were notified and cared for during such times.

I learned from excellent leaders and from the less than caring or stellar leader on how to treat people and not treat people. I learned how much my Oath to the Constitution meant, and though not a West Point Graduate adopted their creed of Duty, Honor, Country as my own.

As I said, the Army thought me about how to survive and succeed in combat, and prepare me for war. Good Army leaders taught me to think outside of the box and to throw away the book when it’s answers didn’t make sense. The bad ones always said to stick to the book no-matter what. Combined with my study of military history and successful leaders I found that taking risks and doing things that the Chaplain Corps frowned upon in combat was key to being where people needed me. Thankfully I had leaders that let me do those things.

I also leaned that to be honest and truthful when things were going to shit wasn’t appreciated by much of the brass, but was appreciated by the enlisted men. I also found that being honest and truthful could make one enemies more devoted to their power in the system than by being honest and truthful with people that have to power to fix things, including faulty weapons systems and vehicles, communications equipment, personnel regulations, training programs, and so much more that when not fixed or changed to meet changing situations, cost lives unnecessarily, and lose wars.

As the British military theorist, historian, and philosopher B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote toward the end of his life:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

He then noted something that some of us learn as we progress through the ranks of the military if we are honest, “As a young officer I had cherished a deep respect for the Higher Command, but I was sadly disillusioned about many of them when I came to see them more closely from the angle of a military correspondent. It was saddening to discover how many apparently honourable men would stoop to almost anything to help their own advancement.” 

Anyway, here is the Army Part of my story in pictures.

Peace,

Padre Steve+














 





 








Well friends, that’s my Army story. There are many more photos I could have digitalized and used but this will have to work for now. On to the Navy and some reflections at the end of my career.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Where It All Began, a Navy Family and NJROTC: Prelude to a 39 Year Military Career

 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every story has to start somewhere. Mine began in the womb of my mother after she and my father engaged in some merry making somewhere along the scenic 17  Mile Drive near Monterrey California. Nine months later after nearly a day of labor I was was born at what used to be Oak Knoll Navy Hospital in Oakland California. At the time my dad was a young Petty Officer serving at Naval Station Alameda. Thus I became a Navy brat and by the time I was in kindergarten I had dreams of military glory, and I kid you not.

Pretty soon I was watching television series like Combat, The Rat Patrol, Twelve O’Clock High, Gomer Pyle USMC, Hogan’s Heroes, and McHale’s Navy. Then I graduated to military movies like Sink the Bismarck, The Caine Mutiny, Away All Boats, The Desert Fox, The Enemy Below, Mr. Roberts, Cockleshell Heroes, Stalag 17, The Battle of the Bulge, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, They Were Expendable, The Great Escape, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Fort Apache, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day, and later Patton, M*A*S*H, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, A Bridge Too Far, and Stripes. By the time I was a teenager I wanted to be every hero, malcontent, misfit, rebel that ever served in the military. But that wasn’t all I graduated from toy soldiers to military models of all kinds, the old hexagonal war games, and reading every book about military history, battles, leaders, and technology I could. When I was in 10th Grade I even cut geometry classes to go to the library reference section to read the books I couldn’t check out so often the librarians thought I had a permanent pass to be there.

It was also in 10th grade where I first donned a uniform, actually that’s not true, I was a Cub Scout for two weeks until my Den Mother quit right after I got my Bobcat pin, but I digress. I think that when my dad retired from the Navy in 1974 and we were going to settle down that I must have had some kind of mental break, but I could have just been mental.

Armed for Battle, Cubi Point, the Philippines 1963 or 1964

After moving up and down the West Coast from San Diego to Oak Harbor, Washington, and across the Pacific to Naval Air Station Cubi Point, the Philippines we stopped moving and it was like the life I knew ended. I knew I didn’t want to live what I thought was the boring life of a civilian.

All I knew was being around Navy bases, watching Navy ships and aircraft, and even traveling home from the Philippines on the USS John C. Breckinridge, AP-176, a Navy Transport Ship assigned to the Military Sea Transportation Service moving Military Personnel, their families, and Marine Units around the Pacific from San Francisco, Pearl Harbor, Guam, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other exotic locations. To safeguard the families a Marine Guard was stationed at the family quarters. My first real memories are being stationed in the Philippines, and I never will forget the F-4 Phantoms of the Blue Angels flying low over our house in Oak Harbor practicing for an air show at the Naval Air Station.

 






My little and much more serious and mature brother who is now a School Principal  was born at the Naval Hospital and when dad retired he and mom never looked back, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I joined the NJROTC unit at Edison High School, Stockton California. My instructors, LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness were awesome. In addition to our classes and our extra curricular activities like the Rifle Team, Drill Team, and Color Guard, they got us every opportunity to experience life at sea on Navy ships. in an interesting twist, his son Darren is now a Marine serving with a squadron at MCAS Yuma, Arizona. So now we have three generations, my late father, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas, me, and my Nephew Darren who have served or are currently serving in the Sea Services. 


During high school I spent about 70 days aboard ships or naval installations learning about the Navy at NTC San Diego mini-Boot Camp, with Coastal River Division 11 at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and aboard USS Agerholm DD-826, a modernized World War Two designed destroyer, USS Pyro AE-24 an ammunition ship, USS Coral Sea CVA-43, USS Mount Vernon LSD-39, a Dock Landing Ship used to Transport Marines, USS Frederick LST-1184 a Landing Ship Tank which was the last of here type in the Navy when she was decommissioned and sold to Mexico in 2002, where she still serves, and finally USS Grey FF-1054. Aboard those ships I sailed up and down the West Coast and to Pearl Harbor and back. Aboard Frederick I first felt the call to be a Navy Chaplain just before Easter of 1978. Little did I know that 23 years later, as a Navy Chaplain serving with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines in Korea, that Frederick would embark us for our return to Okinawa and on her I celebrated my first underway Easter Sunrise Service and first underway celebration of the Holy Eucharist aboard a Navy Ship.

My parents talked me out of enlist immediately out of high school but asked me to try at least a semester at our local Junior College before making the decision. That was a good thing, because in late August 1978 I met Judy, and began a brief interregnum before my heart would no longer let me remain a civilian. That is my next subject.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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