“The Unfolding of Miscalculations” With Fire and Fury…


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…” 

Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles. 

The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.” 

Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.” 

Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party. 

Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said:  “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”

In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury. 


By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted. 

Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other. 

The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:

“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”

Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.” 

Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.” 

I only wonder what miscalculation will be next. 

Until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Filed under Foreign Policy, Korean Conflicts, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

A River Runs Through It: A Lament for Huntington, West Virginia, the Heart of Trump’s America, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Ohio River is one of America’s majestic rivers and for nearly two centuries has been one of the nation’s vital waterways. Over those years cities developed along it, cities that were at one time the center of much American industry and transportation. However, over the years many of those cities have lost their manufacturing centers and cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, fell, but have begun to rise again. 

Yesterday we traveled to one of the cities That hasn’t rose again, Huntington, West Virginia, to spend a week with a dear friend. However, unlike those other cities, Huntington has not only not recovered, but continues to slide into the abyss. For years I held onto hope that Huntington and the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio would come back, but today I realized that it won’t come back for the foreseeable future. No amount of fanatical belief in a political Messiah who promises to Make America Great Again is going to change that, the facts don’t support it and neither do the social, political, and economic culture that has developed over the past fifty years. 

For those that don’t know, Huntington, Cabell County, and adjoining Wayne County are my ancestral home in the United States. My family on both sides were early settlers in the area. In fact I was the first person in my immediate family born somewhere else, thanks to my parents I was a Navy brat and was born in California and raised on the West Coast. My family for the most part has either died off or moved away. I have a few cousins still in the area but haven’t seen any of them in years. 

In spite of that I have always considered Huntington a home away from home. We used to visit my grandparents and other relatives, all of who are now long gone. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were in Huntington. After I finished seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education residency in 1995 I got my first post-residency hospital job there while serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Even then it was a place that I felt safe and wanted to live. Though I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 still considered it a place that I might actually want to retire. It is a beautiful area. 

Twenty something years later I no longer feel that way. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and after we unpacked the car I had to pick up a few things at a local grocery store. I know Huntington like the back of my hand, every area, every street, and while the street names and the geography of the city have not changed, the city has fundamentally changed and though I had seen it coming I never wanted to believe it. 

Huntington used to be the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, things began to change. The heavy industry began moving out, especially in the 1980s when those industries imploded. Likewise in the 1960s the city council and business people decided that they didn’t want Interstate 64 to go through the city because they were afraid that it would negatively effect the downtown businesses. The interstate went around town and the businesses including the state’s largest mall moved to Barboursville in Cabell County. Downtown died and despite efforts to revive it, it has not recovered. 

Bad economic decision after decision, including the rejection of a Toyota engine plant with thousands of really good paying jobs not far from town in the late 1990s have doomed the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the population was close to 90,000, now it is under 50,000. Many people moved into the surrounding areas, but those too are beginning to suffer from many of the issues effecting Huntington which remains the heart of the Tri-State metropolitan area. 

The city infrastructure is crumbling, the ancient storm drain system is failing leading to flooding in areas previously immune from it, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. Its schools are underfunded, the educational outcomes are poor, its economy is failing, and society beginning to collapse, the opiod crisis is just a symptom of a larger decay. 

The city is still home to Marshall University but without it things would be much worse, as the University partners with business and the major medical centers. In fact if it wasn’t for the University, the medical school, and the hospitals there would be nothing here. Most of the industry including steel and chemical plants which used to supply auto manufacturers, make railroad cars, and other manufacturing goods are gone, and most of the derive industry jobs outside of medical care pay little more than subsistence wages and offer few or no benefits. The coal industry has downsized because the coal here is harder to get and thus more expensive than going elsewhere. Despite promises of bringing coal jobs back that is not going to happen. What is left of the coal industry in West Virginia, much of it owned by the state’s only billionaire and governor, Jim Justice,who by the way was a Republican and became a Democrat to run for governor in 2015, who just switched back to being a Trump Republican, is going high tech and not replacing miners. This is not because of environmental regulations but simply because the coal industry has already raped the state of the easily accessible coal, at a tremendous human and environmental cost. 


The city has some beautiful residential areas near Ritter Park which is a wonderful park that stretches for miles along Four Pole Creek. The homes through that area and in the hills that rise sharply above it are where the well off people live, the doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, corporate executives, and tenured university professors. But just a few blocks away people live in squalor. Boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots, and barely habitable homes predominant what were once affluent middle class neighborhoods that I remember all too well. 

The once thriving downtown area is a shell of its former self. There have been a number of attempts to revive it, the latest being the very nice Pullman Square, but many businesses can’t make it there because people don’t have the money to spend. Even a Five Guys burger joint went out of business there, and I have never seen one of those places go belly up. 


The city is the poster city and epicenter for the opiod epidemic in this country. You cannot drive or walk down the streets without seeing someone with the wild-eyed or blank stare of an addict. Homeless people, often drug addicts, walk down the streets with their belongings, and sometimes their children in tow. It is quite sad to see. 

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country it is the seventh most poverty stricken state in the country. Most education ratings place the state in the bottom ten percent of the United States with one of the lowest success rates measured in educational attainment and earnings. It ranks 50th in life expectancy, it is second in obesity, and has the highest rate of opiod addiction and death in the country. I could go on but the drumbeat of negative statistics and outcomes gets too depressing after a while to go on about them. 

Until the past two decades the state was a reliable “blue state.” That didn’t mean the state was liberal in any sense, it was actually a lot like much of the American South which was reliably Democratic until Democrats began to support the civil rights movement, and other more progressive causes in the 1960s and afterwards. It stayed longer in the “Blue” column because most of its Democratic leaders such as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller did not defect to the GOP like many leaders in the South who followed Storm Thurman and the Dixiecrats to the GOP. In fact many of the Democratic state office holders were solidly on the side of business and would be considered conservatives in any other state. But it was only after Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency that the state shifted to be almost solidly Republican, with all statewide offices with the exception of now endangered Democrat moderate Senator Joe Manchin being controlled by the GOP. 

In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump with over 68% of the vote. Interestingly enough, West Virginia is one of the states that has benefited the most from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, and since that legislation was enacted more people have access to healthcare, which if you look at the state’s health rankings is badly needed yet opposed by many Trump supporters. Last week a cheering crowd greeted the President at a campaign rally in downtown Huntington cheering “lock her up!” while jeering former FBI Director and now Special Prosecutor Robert Muller over the Russia investigation. In desparation many people here have pinned their hopes on a false savior, one who promises to Make America Great Again, but cannot deliver for their city. 

Socially it West Virginia is a fascinating state. There are strip clubs and pornography super centers littering the interstate highways and around the outskirts of town, yet the state is full of churches and socially one of the most conservative states when it comes to people’s religious views, especially when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ issues. Of course this is not unusual as the Bible Belt is also the the porn belt. But I digress, I got more into statistics than I intended but they provide a mosaic of what is going on in the state. 

Today I came home in a sense to a place that is no longer home. Since we have been military nomads for some 36 years, West Virginia is still my home of record for the military. When I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 it was our intention to return. I can’t do that now. Today, for the first time in my life I did not feel safe on the streets of Huntington. The poverty is the least of my concerns, and it’s certainly not a racial issue because Cabell County is 91% white. I’ve been poor and lived in crime ridden ghettos that were heavily black and Hispanic, but I hate to say I felt safer in those places than I did today. 


Please don’t take this essay wrong. It is not a polemic by any means, it is a way to process my grief for a city and state that is not going to be great again anytime soon. People can shout Make America Great Again all they want, but fervor and fanaticism do not change facts. I do wish that it was different, but people here are doing what they have been doing since the Robber Barons, Coal Kings, and Lumber Lords raped the state of its natural resources, destroyed the encronment, and for all practical purposes enslaved the people in “company towns.” 

Huntington’s crisis didn’t happen overnight, it is the product of decades of poor leadership by politicians of both parties, business leaders, and yes, even citizens and now many are putting their trust in a false savior who despite his words and their fervor will not change the course of their city or state. 

I think that today after I do my run and walk through Ritter Park, that I will be out taking pictures, not just of the nice areas like I usually do here, the riverfront and Ritter Park, but the blighted areas. I will post them as a photo essay as part two of this either tomorrow or Thursday. 

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under culture, economics and financial policy, healthcare, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

The Day the Ghost Got Out of the Bottle: Reflections on Hiroshima 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-two years ago the world changed. A remarkably destructive weapon was introduced in combat, a single bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima Japan. The effects were immediate, 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of others wounded, many of whom would suffer from the effects of radiation and radiation burns the rest of their lives. Within days a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki with similar results, and Japan sued for peace. The Second World War was over and a new world was born, a world under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

The anniversary of that event yesterday is something that all of us should ponder with great trepidation as the world seems to lurch towards a day when such a weapon will be used again. The question should not be one of mere military or tactical expediency, but must consider the moral dimension of the use of these weapons as well as the whole concept of total war. 

In his book Hiroshima, John Hershey wrote: “The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?” His question is worth considering. 

Up until April of this year I spend the last three and a half years teaching the ethics of war to senior military officers at a major U.S. Military Staff College. One of the things that we do in the class is to have the officers do presentations on different historical, or potential ethical problems faced by national policy makers, military commanders and planners. The goal is to have these men and women dig deep and examine the issues, and think about the implications of what they will do when they go back out to serve as commanders, staff officers, advisors to civilian leaders and planners.

In each class that I taught, at least one student dealt with the use of the Atomic bombs.  Most were Air Force or Navy officers who have served with nuclear forces. Unlike the depiction in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove or other depictions that show officers in these forces as madmen, the fact is that I was always impressed with the thoughtfulness and introspective nature of these men and women. They sincerely wrestle with the implications of the use of these weapons, and many are critical of the use of them at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is comforting to me to know that at least in the U.S. military that there are many who can reflect and do try to look at things not just from a purely military standpoint. Of course since I know humanity I figure that there are others in our ranks who are not so reflective or sensitive to the moral implications of the use of these weapons, among whom is our current President. The fact that the President acts on impulse and seems to have no moral compass, strategic sense, or anything apart than what benefits him causes me to shudder, especially when he has to actually confront North Korea on their ICBM and nuclear programs, not to mention the use of weapons of mass destruction by a terrorist group. As Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Strong prejudices and an ill-informed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I am no stranger to what these weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons can do. Thirty years ago when I was a young Army Medical Service Corps lieutenant I was trained as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Officer. I learned the physical effects of exposure to these weapons, how many Rads of radiation a person could receive before they became sick and died. I learned what radiation exposure does to people at each stage. We trained with maps to chart fallout patterns, and the maps had the cities and towns that we lived in, this was Cold War Germany and yes both NATO and the Warsaw Pact expected that tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons would be used and we had to be able to operate in contaminated environments. We operated under the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD as a deterrent to war. It was chilling and made me realize that the use of these weapons today would be suicidal. When Chernobyl melted down we were in the fallout zone and were given instructions on what we could and could not do in order to minimize any possible exposure to radiation poisoning.

So when it comes to the first use of the Atomic bomb I am quite reflective. As a historian, military officer, chaplain and priest who has been trained on what these weapons can do I have a fairly unique perspective. Honestly, as a historian I can understand the reasons that President Truman ordered its use, and I can understand the objections of some of the bomb’s designers on why it should not be used. I’ve done the math and the estimates of casualties had there been an invasion of the Japanese home islands is in the millions, most of which would have been Japanese civilians. 


My inner lawyer can argue either point well, that being said the manner in which it was used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki troubles me. Hiroshima did have military targets, but a big part of the choice was its location, surrounded by hills, which created a bowl that would focus the explosion and maximized its effect. Many of the larger military and industrial targets lay outside the kill zone. The designers and officers on the committee wanted to show the Japanese, as well as the world the destructive power of the weapon. Those who opposed its use hoped that it would convince the leaders of nations that war itself needed to be prevented. These men wrestled with the issue even as they prepared the first bombs for deployment against Japan. The recommendations of the committee can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Interim.shtml
Of the 150 scientists who were part of the bomb’s design team only 15% recommended the military use without a demonstration to show the Japanese the destructive power of the bomb and a chance to end the war. The poll of the scientists can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Poll.shtml
Leo Szilard wrote a letter to Edward Teller seeking his support in sending a petition to President Truman regarding his opposition to the use of the weapon based on purely moral considerations. Szilard wrote:

“However small the chance might be that our petition may influence the course of events, I personally feel that it would be a matter of importance if a large number of scientists who have worked in this field want clearly and unmistakably on record as to their opposition on moral grounds to the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war.

Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for the acts which Germany committed during this war because they did not raise their voices in protest against those acts, Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable even though these Germans could not have protested without running risks to life and liberty. We are in a position to raise our voices without incurring any such risks even though we might incur the displeasure of some of those who are at present in charge of controlling the work on “atomic power.”

The entire text of Szilard’s letter can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/SzilardTeller1.shtml
The two petitions of the scientists to the President are here, the second letter concludes with this recommendation:

“If after the war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States–singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power.

The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.

In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in the light of the consideration presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.”

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/SzilardPetition.shtml

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Petition.shtml

Ralph Bard, Undersecretary of the Navy wrote to Secretary of War Stimson his opinion on July 17th 1945:

“Ever since I have been in touch with this program I have had a feeling that before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally is responsible in the main for this feeling.”

I think that those who debate the history of this need to look at the entire picture and read the letters, the documents and take into account everything. My hope is that leaders, policy makers, legislators and we the people continue to work to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is true that the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia are significantly smaller than when the Cold War ended, but even so what remain are more than enough to extinguish human life on the planet. Add to these the Chinese, French, British, Indian, Pakistani and the hundreds of undeclared weapons of Israel the fact is that there remains the possibility that they could be used. Likewise there are nuclear programs in other nations, especially North Korea, which given enough time or believing them necessary could produce weapons. But the North Koreans are not alone, they could easily be joined by others including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the possibility of a terrorist group producing or acquiring a weapon the world is still a very dangerous place.

That is the world that we live in and the world in which policy makers, legislators and educated people who care about the world must attempt to make safe. If you asked me I would say outlaw them, but that will never happen. Edward Teller wrote Leon Szilard:

“First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls…. Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing…. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape…”

The ghost is out of the bottle, and nothing can ever get it back in. We can only hope and pray that reasonable people prevent any of these weapons from ever being used and that war itself would end.

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, Foreign Policy, History, Military, national security, Political Commentary, world war two in the pacific

An Accidental Activist 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I would have never thought that I would become a civil rights activist. I’ve been in the military my entire adult life and grew up in it as a child. I was raised with the concepts of loyalty, obedience, and honor as being central to my life. Likewise I have been a Christian pretty much all of my life, and a minister, priest, and chaplain for a quarter of a century. Typically when you mix military, Christian, and clergy the combination does not lead to one becoming a civil rights activist. 

But the long strange trip that has been my life to dates has thrust me into places that people like me seldom experience, much less live.  When I was in high school I was part of a school district that desegregated. There was a lot of opposition to it in the community, but my class at Edison High School, Stockton California, was as racially diverse as anyone could imagine and unlike many other places where the experiment went wrong, our class came together and made it work. Many of us have stayed in contact throughout the decades and our reunions are always well attended, we were, and still are, Soul Vikes. 

When left active duty to go to seminary and went into the National Guard, came to know what it is to be poor, to wonder where the next meal, rent payment, tank of gas, or money for prescription medicine might come from. I know what it is like to have a home foreclosed on, to have a car repossessed, to have bill collectors harass one day and night. To work full time with a college degree and not make a living wage because “good Christians” didn’t think seminary students deserved a living wage because they were not going to stay around after they were done with seminary. I know what it is to have lived in a crime and drug infested area in a rented house that did not have heat during the winter. I know what it is like to lose a job when mobilized to serve overseas, and have those that did it blacklist me among my profession when I complained to the Department of Labor when I returned home. 

Likewise, my profession as a military officer, first as a Medical Service Corps officer, and later as a Chaplain in the military and as a civilian hospital chaplain brought me into contact with people and experiences that I would not have had otherwise. I was assigned to help write the Army’s personnel policy for people with HIV and AIDS in 1987 and because I was the junior personnel officer I because the point of contact for every officer diagnosed with that dread disease. The experience made me realize that the people who got it, regardless of whether they were gay or straight were real human beings faced what was then a certain death sentence. So I started speaking up for them. 

When I was in seminary I worked for a social service organization working in the slums and barrios of San Antonio before moving to Fort Worth and for a time working as the administrative coordinator for a homeless shelter. 

When I finished seminary I ended up doing my hospital chaplain (Clinical Pastoral Education) residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. While most of my time was spent in the trauma-surgery department and the emergency rooms, I still dealt with many AIDS patients, some whose families rejected them, and if they were Gay, were also condemned by their families, pastors, and churches. While at Parkland I dealt with death every day, much of it violent, and I saw the vast disparity between those who had insurance and those who had to rely on charity or some kind of minimal government provided heath care program. 

When I came back from Iraq suffering from full-blown PTSD I came to understand what it was like to suffer depression, hopelessness, struggle with faith, and contemplate suicide. I also came to know what it was like to be ostracized and then kicked out of my church, and be sidelined by other Navy chaplains. 

As I struggled during the early stages of returning home and dealing with the craziness of PTSD my first therapist asked what I was going to do with my experience. I told him that regardless of the cost I would be honest and speak out. I started doing that with PTSD but soon as I was struck by how unjust I felt that I had been treated, and seeing others being treated the same way because of prejudice, whether it dealt with mental health, race, sexuality, religion, social or economic status, I began to speak up for them as well. Speaking up for the LGBTQ community, women, and Muslims, got me thrown out of the church I had served for 14 years as a Priest, but that only hardened my resolve to fight for others, even in my own neighborhood. 

That has continued now for almost a decade since I returned from Iraq. All of the experiences I had before then came more sharply into focus, and if you read this site regularly or scroll through my vault of over eight years of articles you will see how over the years I have continued to become more of an advocate for civil rights. But I think that this is something that my faith as a Christian and oath as an officer to the Constitution demands I do. The German pastor and martyr to the Nazis Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself. That means that I have to fight the battle. 

Many of the causes that I fight for are not popular in Donald Trump’s America, but one cannot give up and be silent just because it is unpopular. Mahatma Gandhi said: “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

I have become an activist, I didn’t plan to become one, it just happened as a part of a very long long strange trip; one that is continuing in ways that I could never had imagined. When people ask how that can be when I am still serving as an officer I believe that my answer is found in the words of the German General, Ludwig Beck who died in the attempt to remove Hitler’s from power in July 1944. Beck wrote: “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.” 

So anyway, here I am an accidental activist. 

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, healthcare, LGBT issues, Political Commentary, PTSD

Bomb Threats and Terror: Flashbacks to the Baader Meinhof Gang


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The last week was stressful for me. I am dealing with a contractor who is causing problems, and I had a number of other issues going on at work. Likewise, as you know from my last two articles, I was dealing with people in the neighborhood who were and still may be working to make sure that the kids in our neighborhood don’t have a safe place to play. Of themselves they would have been stressful and time consuming but not anything that would amp up my anxiety level. 

But this week, my base and another one nearby were the targets of a significant number of bomb threats, in fact on Wednesday we had five separate bomb threats on my base and I ended up spending over half of my day in our Emergency Operations Center. Now I know that for most Americans that bomb threats are of little concern, mainly because they have never really experienced actual terror threats in their neighborhoods that impacted their daily lives for months on end. Bigger events like the 9-11 attacks are a different matter. 

Most Americans live in a nice cocoon of comfortable safety were  terrorist bombs are something that blow up in other countries. But my life, and that of my wife have been different from most Americans. For almost three years we lived with the very real threat of being bombed, kidnapped, or killed by members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or as it is sometimes known as the Red Army Faction when we were stationed in what was then West Germany during the Cold War. Not only them, but by Muammar Ghadafi’s regime was was sending out terrorists bombers who were bombing places where Americas congregated, clubs, and shopping areas.

Of course I also dealt with the possibility of being blown up by Improvised Explosive Devices during much of my tour in Iraq. So for me, and to some extent Judy, a bomb threat is a source of real anxiety because on two occasions we barely missed being blown up by Baader-Meinhof bombs in 1985, and two years after we returned from Germany the aircraft that we flew home in was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie Scotland by a bomb planted by Libyan terrorists. 

When we lived in Germany in the mid-1980s the threat was real and as I said on two occasions, once at the Frankfurt Post Exchange and once at Frankfurt International Airport, we almost ended up in the middle of bomb blasts that killed and wounded a good number of people. The threat was such that before you got in your car in the morning or started it, that you looked to make sure that there was nothing suspicious. When you entered a base, not only was your identification checked, but your car was inspected. Units on the base had to supply soldiers to patrol the perimeter of the base, and as a young officer I often had to be in charge of the overnight patrols. 

Likewise, because of the threat you remained observant to things around you even when out in town. One Saturday in 1986 while walking through the parking lot at an early version of something like a Wal-Mart in Wiesbaden, a place called Wertkauf we noticed something unusual. As we walked toward the store there was a van that had it back hatch open and a number of people sitting in it. For a moment our eyes locked that the people in the van watched us until we got out of site. Both of us noticed the obvious suspicion and hatred in their eyes. But we went in and did our shopping. When we left they were gone. We mentioned to each other how strange it was but we went home. The next day we went to dinner at a restaurant downtown and as we past the main Police station, we saw a wanted poster for Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction members, so we went in and made out report, which the Polizie took seriously and interrogated us for over two hours. Most of these people were arrested and tried for their crimes after they lost sanctuary in East Germany when the wall came down. 

So when these threats occur, especially when they appear to be well coordinated in order to maximize the disruption, I get amped up. My mind goes back to those days in Germany and Iraq. But not only does my mind go back to those places, but it imagines the reality of what could happen if whoever was calling in the threats was also intent on actually killing people. Sadly, it wouldn’t be that hard to kill a lot of military personnel in an attack around our area, there are far too many soft targets, and as a matter of course I pretty much avoid them, even when there are no broadcast terror or bomb threats. When I do go to them I am on high alert looking for things that might be out of place. Hypervigilance is a part of my life with PTSD, and bomb threats only make me more hyper vigilant. 

The threats we had this week were all false alarms. Thankfully no one set off any actual bombs, but at the same time I wonder if the strategy of the callers is to lull people into a sense of complacency, thinking that there is no basis to the threats. If so that would be a good strategy, because people might stop taking them seriously, opening a gateway for a real bomber. 

The Navy has put out a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever has been behind this weeks’ threats. Personally, if I ever found out who was doing this I would do my best to have them locked away forever. 

Thankfully my stress level has gone down over the past couple of days, with Wednesday being the worst day this week. I stil might have to deal with fallout from my contractor over the weekend but I am prepared for that. So until tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, PTSD, terrorism

Fighting for Justice in My Neighborhood Update: Let Freedom Ring and I Have not Yet Begun to Fight


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I made the first step against the racists in our neighborhood who on Wednesday succeeded in convincing the man who put the basketball hopes in our neighborhood to take them down. 

I called the neighborhood association office as soon as it opened this morning to ask what the hell was going on and to express my displeasure in what happened. I’m not going to go into detail today, but according to the lady who works in the office the hoops will come back this weekend. She told me about the alleged complaints and I told her what I had dealt with for a certain older white lady in the neighborhood last week. She knew exactly who I was talking about and she mentioned some of the complaints that were being made against the kids. So I told her about how much worse that I and the kids in the various neighborhoods that I grew up in behaved compared to these kids, and then said but we were white kids in a white neighborhood. She remained silent after that. 

But I was reminded of a story that my late dad told me about a man in his neighborhood in Huntington, West Virginia, who harassed kids for playing in the neighborhood. After being harassed and screamed at by the old man who lived on 18th Street Hill, my dad, his twin brother, and their friends waited until after dark one night when the man went into his outhouse. Once the hatful old geezer was safely in the outhouse they gathered around and pushed it down the hill, with him in it. Then they ran away, and never got caught. To me that was impressive. It wasn’t that they were bad kids, it was just that the old fart was an asshole. Sadly, we have indoor plumbing and no hills in my neighborhood or I would d what my dad and uncle did to the old racist bitch who has caused this situation in my neighborhood. 

But instead of just simply complaining and being a part of the problem I offered a solution. I offered to open and close the gate of the court, and spend time with the kids to make sure things were cleaned up at night and the area was secure. I have other neighbors who are willing to do the same. I also said that the association needs to post the rules about the use of the courts and reiterated my belief that since the developers and city haven’t done anything to give our kids a safe place to play that it was our responsibility to do so. I got no argument. I also announced my intention to run for one of the vacant seats on the homeowners association board of directors. For years people have asked me to do that but I didn’t want to, I just wanted to mind my own business. 

But now it’s different. My wife and I have an investment in this neighborhood. Though I have been deployed, been assigned as a geographic bachelor, and travelled a lot because of my military duties, Judy has lived here for fourteen years and we have been homeowners paying dues to the association for twelve years. We don’t have kids, but the kids of our neighborhood are our kids, and I will be damned if I stand by and let them be treated like crap, as less than human by people who should know better, 

I am hoping that the association will take up my offer and that of my friends to help the kids of our neighborhood. They are good kids, they just need a safe place to play, and if we as homeowners and association members cannot facilitate that then what the hell good are we?

I have become a civil rights activist over the years. I will fight for these kids who are mostly African American, I will fight for women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants. I believe in the proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  To me that means everyone, including the black kids of my neighborhood. They are my neighbors and they are the children of God as much as anyone else. 

That may make me unpopular in some circles but I no longer give a damn, because I share the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…” 

I re-read Dr. King’s speech last night and as I did tears welled up from my eyes. In fact I had a hard time containing them as I read the majestic cadence of his words: 

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And let me add, Let freedom ring in the suburbs of Virginia Beach Virginia and on on a unused tennis court on which kids can safely play basketball. 

And as Doctor King concluded:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

As of now I don’t need to go to my city council member, I don’t yet need to go to the NAACP, ACLU, or the local media, but if I have to I will. I will run for one of those vacant seats on the board and I will speak out every day until I see the dream of Doctor King realized in my neighborhood. 

I will not stop speaking out and I will work with my neighbors to do the right thing for our kids, the thing that developers, the city, and homeowners associations don’t do around here because honestly they really don’t give a damn about the kids. That is evident in the way the these neighborhoods were designed, with lakes, golf courses, and tennis courts, but no ball fields or basketball courts. Don’t get me wrong, I like the lakes, and the golf course, but why the hell should the kids have to play on the streets while unused tennis courts sit idle instead of being converted into basketball courts and a skateboard park? It wouldn’t be that hard, but some of my neighbors don’t want the kids here, so I am standing up today for the kids. I am not going to stop speaking out and I will be part of the solution, not just a complainer. If I am going to complain then I need to be part of the solution or I am no better than the people who do all that they can to oppress others. Actions speak louder than words. 

Anyway. Thank all of you for your kind and inspirational words on this website, on Facebook, and on Twitter. 

Spread the word my friends because in the words of the American naval hero, John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight.” 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under civil rights, Loose thoughts and musings, Political Commentary

Going to War Against Neighborhood Racists and the Kempsville Lakes Homeowners Association: The Kids are Still Alright


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last week I wrote about the lady who came to my door trying to get me to join her in trying to get recently installed basketball hoops removed in our neighborhood. Yesterday, after the National Night Out  gathering in our neighborhood on Tuesday where at least 30 kids were playing basketball, those hoops were taken down with no notice to anyone. So now, the kids of of neighborhood have no safe place to play. If you want to read the details of the history behind this just go back a week or so on this site. I’m not going to rehash details today. 

I found out about this while talking to a couple of my neighbors after a pretty shitty day at work with multiple bomb threats and a couple of shit bombs left by one of my contractors. It was the whipped cream on my shit sundae for the day. 

My neighbors and I are all going to complain to the association tomorrow since the association office was already closed. But besides complaining to people who a few years ago objected to the idea of basketball courts by telling my wife Judy that they didn’t want “unwanted elements”  and tried to tell her that we have a “gang problem” I plan on doing more. 

The fact of the matter is that our homeowners association board which is composed mainly of older white people does not like the fact that we have a mixed race community and that most of the younger families with kids in the area are minorities, many who are military families. I am career military, having spent 36 years in the Army and Navy and having grown up as a Navy brat, where I was always an outsider. I am white. I am 57 years old. We have lived in this neighborhood for almost 14 years, though I have been deployed or assigned elsewhere much of that time. We like our neighborhood, we like our neighbors. Our town home block has been very stable with good neighbors, quite a few, including Larry, a junior high teacher and coach who has lived here longer than us, are African American. Crime is low and kids are well behaved, the biggest problem is that they have to play in the street because when this area was developed the land that could have been used for parks or playgrounds was turned into lakes. 

Today I am going to war. I will call the association, then I will call my local city councilman, the I will call the local chapters of the NAACP, and the ACLU, the latter which I am a member of at the national level, as well as local media, including television news outlets. What is happening is not right. When I was a kid we were allowed to play in our neighborhood and we were a lot less well behaved than these kids, but then most of us were white, living in predominantly white neighborhoods. Race does have its privileges. 

I am going to protest the overt racism of our homeowners association as well as some of our neighbors, especially the old bitch who showed up at my door last week complaining about the kids. They are going to get a fight from me and as much as I hate doing it I will probably have to run for one of the vacant seats on the homeowners association board. 

I’ll be damned if I let them get away with this. I am going to fight for the kids. I am going to war for them. They deserve better than this. 

Pray for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under civil rights, Loose thoughts and musings