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For Me It’s Personal: Veteran’s Day 2019


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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

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

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

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

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

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

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

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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

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

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

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

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

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

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

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

That is still my hope.

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

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

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

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President, and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

Judy were out with friends today, some military, retired, maybe some still active, as well as civilian friends, many of whom have military relations at Gordon Biersch, the brewer brewed a special Veterans IPA, proceeds from tonight which went to Virginia Veterans.

To my friends there I am Steve or the Padre. They all know me and know that I still serve, but that’s because they know me, not because I advertise. They also represent the span of political views in the country at large, but we are friends.

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, News and current events, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, Veterans and friends

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

Syria

To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the war:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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My Heart Remains in Al Anbar

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I keep a close watch at what happens in Iraq, especially Al Anbar Province.  I was there in 2007-2008 in the midst of the Anbar Awakening.  I had the honor of working with our advisors and the Iraqis of the 1st and 7th Divisions, 2nd Border Brigade and local police and Iraqi Highway Patrol. In my time there, traveling the entirety of the province, getting to work with and know Iraqi military officers and tribal leaders I gained a great appreciation for them as people and sympathy for the people there who in the course of over 30 years of war have suffered so much.

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To do so I have to use the English language services of various Arab and Iraqi news sources as well as some German and French services to get decent information. American media tends to ignore Iraq until it cannot be ignored because to be truthful most Americans don’t give a damn about Iraq or its long suffering people. Come to think of it, as I look at the voting records and actions of those that they elect to Congress of both parties, they don’t seem to give a damn about the Americans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan either. But then it is easy to buy a “I support the Troops” bumper sticker and then elect Congressmen who instead of cutting unnecessary and wasteful defense spending in their districts, cut the benefits to the troops.

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The situation in Al Anbar now with Al Qaida ISIL militants gaining strength and attempting to seize both Fallujah and Ramadi has brought back many memories. It has also given me great concern for the Iraqi people who I served among and Iraqi military personnel who not only risk their lives in combat but whose families are often targeted by terrorists. They are true patriots because deciding to serve not only endangers them but their families.

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When I came home from Iraq I was a changed man. My life, faith, politics and values were  challenged by what I experienced. I came home afflicted with chronic and serve PTSD, something that while I do better in managing the symptoms now still affects me in many ways.

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Nearly six years after I left Iraq it is amazing to me how much it still permeates my soul, my thoughts and life. I can close my eyes and I can be back there, on the Syrian border, in Ramadi, and in dozens of different camps and settlements. The kindness and hospitality of the Iraqis I met is something that I shall not forget.

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I do pray that the Tribal leaders in Al Anbar can take the fight to the militants and defeat them with the help of the Iraqi Army, perhaps the most trusted institution in the country. I hope and pray that the Shia leaders of the Maliki government stop the heavy handed and undemocratic tactics they have been using against the Sunni in Al Anbar. It looks that after his last meeting with President Obama that Maliki might be getting the hint.

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Too many people, Iraqis as well as Americans have shed their blood in a war of choice launched by the Bush Administration where Bush appointees squandered any good will after the invasion through sheer hubris and incompetence. Iraq will take years to recover even if a full fledged civil war does not erupt.

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The costs have been so great and I do pray that the Iraqis will find a way to unite and defeat both Sunni and Shia extremists so that they may one day again live in peace with themselves and their neighbors.

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I would go back again, because I did leave a big part of me in Iraq. I left my heart in Al Anbar. I can echo the words of T. E. Lawrence in his opening sentences of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 

“I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom” 

Peace

Padre Ste

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Moslem Allies and Friends

I posted a piece that I’m sure that some will find controversial yesterday.  Entitled “A Christian Defense of the Rights of Moslems in a Democracy (or Constitutional Republic) it dealt with comments and demands made by some that Moslems be removed from the military, security services and government positions simply because of religion or ethnicity.  You an see the post here:

https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/a-christian-defense-of-the-rights-of-moslems-and-others-in-a-democracy-or-constitutional-republic/

It generated some heated debate and I am sure that more will come. However I am just going to show a photo montage of the Iraqi military, US employed interpreters and former Iraqi officers helping the Iraqi government and US Forces.  The people of Iraq and much of the Middle East are not a monolithic bloc or extremists as many in this country are prone to believe.  Moslems fight every day against terrorists and are killed by the same kind of extremists who took down the Trade Center Towers and inspired Major Hasan in his shooting at Fort Hood.  They are friends and allies in the war against Moslem terrorists.  I post this article to put a human face on those that are often lumped together as the “enemy” simply because of their religion.

074Dinner with Brigadier General Sabah of 1st Brigade of 7th Iraqi Division in Ramadi. A professional soldier and Shia he sees himself as an Iraqi and ally of the US. The Last time we met in January 2008 in passing at the helo terminal in Ramadi he greeted me with a hug in front of his staff and many American soldiers and Marines calling me a friend.

079Group Shot with General Sabah, his youngest son, our interpreter, the American Brigade Senior Adviser and my Assistant RP2 Lebron

176RP2 Lebron with one of the “Terps” interpreters named “Shaun” originally from Palestine but a Green Bay Packer fan living in Minnesota

237Iraqi Children Greeting us in a town along the Euphrates

227Iraqi man in traditional garb happy to see us because Americans helped clean out the terrorists from his village

258With Iraqi Officers of 7th Division and Marine Advisers at the 2007 Marine Corps Birthday Cake Cutting at Camp Blue Diamond. Trained by the Marines the 7th and the 1st Iraqi Divisions helped turn the Tide in Al Anbar and the 1st went on to liberate Basra and then to Diyala Province

372Blessing Advisers of 7th Division as they prepared to go with Iraqis to guard a fuel convoy. Following this the Iraqis asked if I would bless them and their vehicles too, it seems they have some kind of Holy Water too and were willing to take the Christian kind as well.

291A man with a Dangerous Job. Iraqi Policeman Escorting Civilians across Route Michigan in Ramadi. Shortly after we took small arms fire and Iraqi Police engaged the target

866With the Leaders of an Iraqi Border Force Company a kilometer from Syria, they like all the Iraqis we dealt with were hospitable offering us Ch’ai as well as food on our visit with the adviser team

880With a Bedouin Family near the Syrian border on Christmas Eve 2007

867Iraqi Border Troops at Border Fort Five near Syria

882Proud Bedouin Father and his son

883The Bedouin Father serves us Ch’ai and cakes

934Iraqi Troops of 7th Division coming back from Patrol on Christmas Day at COP North an isolated post near Syria. While we celebrated they worked and trained.

911One of the Iraqi vehicles in one of our convoy’s near Al Qaim pulling security for us to pass. Our convoys generally had about 3 American and 2-3 Iraqi trucks transiting dangerous areas with very few soldiers, nothing more than 240 series or .50 cal machine guns and far away from any big reinforcements should we have been hit

969New Iraqi Army Soldiers in Basic Training at Habbiniya. Imagine being far away from your family and know that they are in danger just because you serve in the Army

971Chaplains and our Assistants with General  Ali and his staff of the Training and Support Center at Habbinyah. He proudly showed us his well worn Arabic-English Bible. A Moslem he liked it because it had information not in the Koran

973Bakers at the Iraqi Army Bakery in Habbinyah the fresh bread is great

Dundas and FallahWith General Falah Hasan..driven from Iraq by Saddam under threat of death he returned from the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and advise the Iraq Assistance Group.When asked what branch of Islam he said “My mother was Sunni, my father Shia I don’t know I am an Iraqi”

Of course I had many more interactions with the Iraqis than just these photos.  There was the G-3 Officer at 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who said that he wished that the Iraqis had Christian Priests to serve as Imams because he knew that they would care for the soldiers and families and were not compromised like many Sunni and Shia clergy.  The Iraqi military, Sunni and Shia distrusts most Moslem clergy because of their political militancy and divisiveness during the worst part of the civil war.  At one time they had Imams during the Saddam era but many commanders refused to appoint Imams.  Then there was the Iraqi Company commander at out in the west who tracked me down to meet the “American Imam and thank him” for serving our Marines and for praying for Iraq and its people. He also said to let people know that if something ever happened between the US and “Persia” that most Iraqis would support us. I could go on but needless to say there are millions of Moslems who fight along side of us as well as the American Moslems who serve in our ranks without being traitors like Major Hasan.   

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+






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Going to War: Building Blocks for Success at TQ

Note: This is the latest chapter of my “Going to War” series which documents my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to serve as the Religious Support Team for all advisors in Al Anbar Province.  Previous posts of this series are located in the “Tour in Iraq” link in the topics section on the left hand column of the website.  If you have friends or family who are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and a little bit of an idea of what they might be experiencing or might have experienced feel free to read and share.  Peace and Blessings, Steve+

tq vew from airTQ: The Chow Hall is on the Right

It was about 0400 when I got to sleep after our flight to TQ.  About 0900 I woke up with the sun shining through the small holes in the metal shade over the window of my can.  I was still pretty groggy when I got up, went and got another shower just to try to wake up.  Even at 0900 it was close to 100 degrees and the sun beat down on me as I walked the 100-150 yards to the shower trailers in my PT gear.  After waking up and getting myself together I knocked on Nelson’s door and woke him up.  Nelson looked pretty beat as well and after this I walked over to the only non-military food outlet the “Green Beans Coffee” trailer and got me some coffee before I walked over to the Chapel.  The Green Bean is interesting; a couple of guys from California started with one store in Saudi Arabia and now is located around the world with U.S. Forces.  They have a program to buy a cup of Joe for a Joe.”  The company website is here: http://www.greenbeanscoffee.com/ now I have to admit I never got a free cup but it was good coffee.

I kind of surveyed the area.  My “can” was located not far from the chapel, the gym and MWR facilities.  A bit down the way a hundred and fifty yards or so was the Marine Corps exchange which though not bad was often like shopping in East Germany, long lines and limited quantities of merchandise.  If you needed something and waited to buy it there was a strong likelihood that the exchange would not have it on your next trip.  About 400 years past the exchange was the main chow hall which was pretty large and covered with a canopy designed to cause high explosive shells from rockets or mortars to burst before they could penetrate the roof of the actual facility.  The chow hall was staffed by contractors, mostly workers from the Indian subcontinent of Sri Lanka and like other areas inside the perimeter guarded by a contracted Ugandan security force.

I walked over to the Chapel and was met by RP1 who introduced me to Fr Jose Bautista Rojas, the Group Catholic Chaplain and the Apostle of TQ.  Jose and I instantly hit it off.  He is out of Los Angeles and really has a good way with people.  On his first tour and first deployment he was having a huge impact around the base.  His support and prayers would be greatly appreciated by me and by Judy in the coming months.  Not long afterward, Chaplain Pat McLaughlin came in after a meeting.  Pat was a fairly newly promoted Commander who was the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain and was on his second one year tour in Iraq.  He had previously served as the Chaplain at Camp David.  He immediately gave us his full support and put his staff to work helping us get settled and to link us up with all the support staff that we would need to conduct operations. Without this our tour would have never have had the success that we had.

05_Flatbed_1 - NOVEMBERSouthwest Asia Huts or SWA Huts at TQ I stayed in one of these at the end of my tour

TQ was a major air and logistics hub perfectly suited to operate from to support advisers around the entirety of the province.  We had access to rotor and fixed wing aviation assets, excellent telephone and internet, secure and non-secure access, a place to call home and excellent support.  This is critical when you are operating independently and supporting multiple organizations.   Other Army Chaplain teams had gone into areas where they were given little or no support by the Army teams that they supported.  Unfortunately from a chaplain perspective the talk that I heard had more to do with the Army Chaplains than the units that they supported.  Part of the problem was that most of the Army teams were reservists with minimal training or preparation for a mission type that they were never taught about in chaplain School.   I know of a Navy Chaplain with Marine experience who had no significant problems when he was placed with an Army division level team in Mosel. There were probably a number of reasons for this, and to be charitable I will chalk it up to lack of experience, but lack of support was something that we never had to face.

Lebron, Bautista, McLaughlin, Dundas 2A Great Team: Nelson, Jose, Pat and Me…Pat and Jose helped us tremendously

Within days we had our “operations center” set up in an office in the back of the Plywood Parish chapel. The office had a somewhat auspicious history having taken a hit by a rocket or mortar earlier in the year, a shot that had also made a mess of the drums and other musical instruments of the chapel praise team.  The chapel was kind of a ramshackle affair but had some interesting touches mostly donated by the military personnel to include doors which had been made with care and donated.  Part of getting it together was having phone and internet cables run to the office.  The communications people made this happen quickly and they also got our elderly computers set up and loaded with all that we would need to operate on the secure and non-secure side the house.  I think that we were one of the few ministry teams lower than Regiment or BCT level to have the communications suite that we had been provided.  Likewise the G-3 Air section at the MLG headquarters gave us tremendous support and quickly got us the ability to plan and submit our own air mission requests.

The information that Luke Fabiunke had provided me back at Fallujah now became a gold mine to begin operations.  It was an amazing amount of information, not all current but the situation with adviser teams was always fluid and subject to change based on operational considerations.  There were phone numbers, secure and no secure e-mail contacts for key leaders.  Once we had our communications up the communication began with teams across the province and our calendar was rapidly filled.  The only “glunk” that we had in this was with the senior adviser for one of the Military Training Teams in our local area.  Though his staff and subordinate unit team chiefs were happy for our arrival he for all intents and purposes froze us out of his area.  That did not keep me from continuing to build relationships with some of his people which paid dividends later.  I think that sometimes some chaplains are intimidated by people who rebuff their honest and well meaning efforts to provide support.  I don’t work that way and will constantly work whatever angle I need to in order to get the mission done.  In order not to burn bridges I usually use a slow and patient approach to continually work to build relationships with those in charge of the units that I serve.  It really is an indirect approach.  If I can’t get in one place I put it on the back burner without burning the bridge.  I then work with all the other teams that I can and get out among people.  As we did this “back doors” to ministry opened with teams where we had been locked out of before as they contacted us to get support.  So I did not give up on these local teams but reached out to the furthest reaches of the province with the teams of the 7th Iraqi Division and the 2nd Border Brigade with its Border units and Port of Entry teams.  The senior advisers of these units, Colonel Cottrell and Lieutenant Colonel Bien gave me absolute freedom to coordinate with their teams and opened doors that were never shut.

As we prepared for our mission the first few days were days of acclimatization to the base and to finally recover from the long road in.  One of the first things that we noticed was the pall cast over the mood of the camp by the crash of the Army CH-47 the day of our arrival.  The chapel was being rigged by the staff for the memorial service for the five Army aviators, all of who were significantly younger than me.  The Army was in charge of the service so except for the set up of the chapel and other miscellaneous administrative support.  It is a sobering thing to come into your base of operations and see the set up for five men who died in service of their country.  To look at their pictures and to read their biographies was humbling; one was on his last enlistment before retirement others at different points of their careers, all left behind families, friends and their fellow soldiers who did not know if the bird went  down to mechanical failure or hostile action.   This was in no small way lost on me as we would fly many missions with the men and women of this Army squadron.

Nelson and I worked hard that first day and thereafter to get set up for our first missions.  While I worked the big picture parts of the mission he took care of the little thinks that ensured our success.  Working with Pat, Jose and RP1 he became a key part of the team whenever we were not traveling.

That evening we went to dinner at the chow hall and took in some PT.  Following that I went back to my can where I continued to unpack and make the place somewhere that I could relax.  Though still exceptionally tired from the trip I had a difficult time getting to sleep between my own anxiety the din of UH-60 Army Medivac choppers coming in and out of the LZ for the Shock, Surgery and Trauma Platoon.  Not able to sleep I walked out of my can where I saw the sky light up to our north near Habbinyah with illumination rounds while outgoing artillery sent rounds somewhere into the night and small arms fire could be heard nearby.  A number of Marine and Navy officers gathered near me as we watched the display and talked among ourselves as we wondered what was going on.  Eventually I would get to sleep, but it was very late, that night I found the Office of Compline to be of great comfort, especially this collect.

“Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq

Going to War: Interlude in Fallujah Reunions, Redirection and a Stay at the Ramadan Inn

marine 155s in fallujahUSMC 155mm Howitzer firing on Insurgents at Fallujah in 2007

Note: This is the latest installment of my “Going to War” Series.  Other postings in this series are located in the Subjects section under “Tour In Iraq.” The series chronicles the tour of Religious Support Team-2 of the Iraq Assistance Group in MNF-West from July 2007-February 2008. We were the first Navy Chaplain and Assistant to work supporting advisers since the Vietnam War.

We woke up to the sound of more outgoing artillery fire.  The sun was shining outside as I look out my window at the sky above the California Barrier that protected our “suite” in the south wing of the Ramadan Inn.  Climbing out of the decrepit Iraqi bed with the fresh sheets I stumbled over my two tons of gear to look at the time while Nelson slept like a baby in his equally decrepit Iraqi bed.   My ever trusty alarm clock showed that it was about 0830, which meant we had gotten maybe 5 hours sleep and missed breakfast. Thankfully I had stockpiled a few pop-tarts and granola bars from the Camp Victory chow-hall the day before.   Opening the door and peering out into the hallway I saw it empty and walked across the hall to the head, shower and laundry room to do my morning business.   Despite being a Baath Party playground the suites at the Ramadan Inn were not furnished with their own toilet or shower, just a small sink and mirror.

ramadan innRamadan Inn

Though the Ramadan Inn had seen better days it was certainly, despite being the playground of Uday and Qusay Hussein it was not exactly a palace like those of their father Saddam.  It was somewhat reminiscent of an old and run down motel along Route 666.  The floor was a marble type tile and the sand painted concrete building with a flat roof.  I strolled over to the head in my PT-sleep clothes and was relieved to be able to relieve myself in a facility that had actual porcelain shitters which flushed using real water.  If you have been to Iraq or Afghanistan you know that this is not always the case.  The showers were passable being a more European design and the water was hot.  I guess even the cold water was hot in Fallujah with temps in the 120s.  Once I had gotten up I awakened Nelson, the sleeping beauty. He then went through his morning ritual to make himself presentable to the world.  Those who know nelson know that if he can he will take care of his personal hygiene.  I ate one of my Strawberry Filled frosted Pop Tarts washed done with water and when Nelson was ready we walked over to the Chaplain office.  It was like a maze to get there. We walked across the way a bit, took a right, made a left and went through the normal transient quarters area, took a right went up a block or two, took a left, made another left, wound our way past a decorative lake, took a right, went past a number of buildings before passing a final bank of green porta-johns finding the MEF- Forward Chaplain Office to our right.  The sun shone brightly and though not a long walk was relatively warm and by the time we got to the Chaplain Office I was sweating.

fallujah pondPond at Fallujah

The Chaplain office was like every other facility and was protected by California Barriers or Hesco’s. We were met by RP1 Roland and the Deputy MEF-FWD Chaplain CDR J.P. Hedges.  They were most hospitable and offered us water as well as coffee, which my caffeine deprived brain needed badly.  After introductions Nelson got together with RP1 Roland and I met with Chaplain Hedges doing the usual butt-sniffing that military professionals engage in when meeting someone for the first time.  This ritual usually consists of learning who our mutual friends are, where and with whom we had served in the Navy, where we went to school, something about our families and for Chaplains our faith tradition or denominational affiliation.  This is a customary act for chaplains as it is for other communities and specialties in the Navy.  On the positive side it is a way of making connection with each other and building relationships.  It is also a way or self preservation within the system as sometime there are people that do not have your best interests at heart. However for J.P. and I the meeting was very friendly. We d a lot of shared experiences in the types of duties we had done and we had mutual friends.  While we enjoyed conversation he began to introduce me to some of the things that had been going on in country the last few months.  After about 30 minutes Chaplain Mike Langston came in.  It was Mike who had worked with Peter Dissmore and the Corps Chaplain to bring us out to the west to cover the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

Mike had a couple of orders of business to take care of before he brought Nelson and I into his office and had our reunion. Nelson and I had both worked with Chaplain Langston.  It was good to see him again.  Nelson had worked for him in Afghanistan and I had been with him at 2nd Marine Division in 2000-2001.  He and Chaplain John Kaul arranged for me to take over Headquarters Battalion upon my return to work in a quasi-regimental billet with oversight of the independent battalions Religious Ministry Teams, though not the actual supervision of them. In addition to my regular duties counseling Marines, doing suicide interventions, conducting classes and supporting field exercises they used me, because of my experience to assist and evaluate chaplains who had been fired or relieved of their duties.  I got each one for 30-60 days to see if they could be recovered for further service or not.  In a sense this transformed me from a relief pitcher to a pitching coach.  Chaplain Langston was at a school when 9-11 occurred and during this time I was used as the Deputy Division Chaplain looking at readiness, training and potential deployment of our religious ministry teams with their units.  Both Nelson and I had experienced Chaplain Langston as a tough but fair chaplain.  What he did expect was that we would be out doing our job and keeping him or his office in the loop on our operations and issues facing us.  He did not attempt to micro-manage us.

bunkers_everywhere.jpg.w300h225Bunkers to Protect Against Indirect Fire at Camp Fallujah

Mike Langston is a prior Marine Corps Infantry Officer who had been a been a Company Commander and battalion staff officer as well as instructor at “The Basic Course” which is the leveling field for all Marine Corps officers regardless of their commissioning source.  He played football in college and still has the physique of a defensive lineman.  He left active duty and went to seminary and when he was ordained and graduated from seminary entered the Navy Chaplain Corps. He had since risen to the pinnacle of a career for most chaplains having been promoted to Captain, the same as a Colonel for the other services and assigned as the 2nd Marine Division Chaplain.  He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and kind with a high level of energy and emotion.  He explained the current situation in the Province was, the locations of the various Marine Regimental Combat Teams (RCT-2 and RCT-6) as well as the one Army Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division as well as the 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion and the MEF Aviation and logistics assets were located.  He then got down to the specifics of our mission which were pretty simple and suited to our personality as a ministry team. Basically he expected us to manage our own operations in the MEF area of operations. He expected that we coordinate our operations with the teams that we would support and keep his office informed of where we were going and what our general plan of operation was.  Since he had worked with both of us and we were both known and trusted quantities he gave us a tremendous amount of operational freedom to do our job.  His expectation was that we would be active and get out to the remotest places that we had training and assistance teams of advisors.  He told us about an Army team that had been based in Ramadi to do the job with the advisors.  He confirmed what Peter Dissmore had told us about this team.   They had never left the base in 4 months and basically hung out at the Ramadi main chapel. They managed to get their orders curtailed and left theater never once having contacted or visited any advisory teams.

ega fallujahMonument in the Traffic Circle at Camp Fallujah

We were also told of a change to our projected base of operations.  Our original plan of operations had us working out of the former British and Iraqi base at Habbinyah the location of the headquarters of the 1st Iraqi Division and the Advisors assigned to it.  Instead the Colonel in charge of those teams made the call that he could not support the operations of a Chaplain from his location. He held firm on this and the plan was changed so that we would operate from Ta’Qaddum a large air and logistic  hub about equidistant between Fallujah and Ramadi.  Ta’Qaddum is adjacent to Habbinyah on the south side of the Euphrates. It sits atop an escarpment overlooking the town to the north and Lake Habbinyah in the South.  In 1941 it was the site of a siege when the Iraqi military launched a revolt against the British who occupied the country despite it being given independence at the end of World War One.  The British we besieged in Habbinyah and the Iraq forces had the high ground atop the escarpment.  Unfortunately for the Iraqis and fortunately for the British the British forces had support from the Royal Air Force and the Iraqis had no logistics ability to support their units atop the escarpment.  The Iraqi forces were pounded and eventually a relief force arrived from Jordon to break the siege.  At TQ as it is known by most Americans we would be housed and taken care of by the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain, Commander Pat McLaughlin and his team.  We were instructed to make coordination to plan work with the teams supporting the 7th Iraqi Division, the 2nd Border Brigade, Iraqi Highway Patrol and the Provincial Police forces while working to build a bridge to the teams of the 1st Iraqi Division. The change was momentarily upsetting but ultimately it opened the door to the entire province where if we had been co-located with the 1st Division we may not have gotten out of its operational area.

Following the briefing, he, J.P, RP1 Roland, Nelson and I went to lunch at one of the two major chow halls on the camp where I met up with an old friend.  The friend was Captain Luke Fabiunke with whom I had served for 2 years at Marine Security Forces Battalion.  Luke was our S-6 and the Communications officer at Security Forces.  He was always fun to hang out with and was very supportive of my work as a chaplain there.  Luke was in the G-3 Operations shop t the MEF and specifically was working with the section that dealt with the training and advisory teams in the province.  It was good to see him and he immediately upon learning our mission asked how he could help.  This hook up was one that paid off in spades in the next 6 months.  It is a lesson that Chaplains need to build relationships with other staff officers in order to be successful, not just in their current assignment but in many cases later in their careers when they need assistance the most.  For me it helped meet my mission of finding and making contact with advisory teams of all types as soon as we hit the ground rather than operating blindly trying to figure our way around the labyrinth that was the operational setting for these teams.  I think that I owe Luke a beer or two for his assistance.

Following lunch we got to work.  Helped by Chaplain Hedges and RP1 Roland we were issued flight suits and Nelson a couple of sets of Marine Pattern Camouflage uniforms and I was issued two elderly Panasonic Tough Book laptops. One was set up for regular unclassified traffic and the other for classified work dealing with intelligence reports, weather and planning and submitting air movement requests.  Despite being a highly technological military when one gets into a combat zone technology assets for oddball teams like ours are sometimes scarce.  In fact I understood from Peter back at IAG that most of the Army teams had to share assets with others just to communicate.  Chaplain Langston and his staff ensured that we had freedom to be able to do our job without having to inconvenience others to do it.  They laptops may have been elderly but they worked.  Chaplain Hedges taught me the ins and outs of planning and coordinating the air support from Marine, Army and Air Force aviation assets and helped get us set up to do this.  Once again we got what we needed to do our mission.

We spent another three days in Fallujah preparing for the mission and making coordination with staff sections and others that we might have to call upon.  We also had a number of reunions with others that both of us had served with. I met Major Andy Niebel and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ottignon who I had served with a Second Combat Engineer Battalion. They were good friends then and are men for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect.  I also met a number of Chaplain with whom I had previously served or knew from other duty stations. One of these was LT Joe Buenviaje, who had been my RP at 1st Battalion 8th Marines when I had done my relief pitching job there.  Joe had cross-rated from being a Boiler Technician to the RP rating not long before I had met him.  We had qualified for the old FMF qualification together and I was able to help him begin his journey to be a Navy Chaplain.  I was also blessed and honored to baptize his children at Camp LeJuene.  Joe has a heart of gold and did well in Iraq.  He got out with his Marines a lot, once almost getting blown up by an explosive device which blew up a highway overpass where they had just been conducting services. With them was a Catholic priest who had likewise just celebrated Mass.  They were leaving the site when the explosion hit and following the attack helped to take care of the wounded.

Having a cross on your uniform in a chow hall can lead to interesting situations as well as ministry.  Some people will automatically avoid you when they see the cross as if faith and religion was some sort of communicable disease.  I admit that there are some religious people and groups across the faith continuum that I think are toxic so I understand this.  Likewise there are people have been used, abused or burned by religious leaders or groups and thus want nothing to do with organized or even disorganized religion.   There are other people who are afraid that if they say something wrong that the chaplain might come down on them.  There are still others who when they see that you are a chaplain ensure that they get together with you and some will even pray for you. Regardless of the situation I always try to be friendly to those around me in a chow hall despite my preference for my introversion.  In fact I will attempt to start up conversations with anyone around me if nothing else to let them know that I know that they are there and that they can talk with me.

Some of the people that we supped or dined with were Religious Programs specialists like Nelson….well actually not so much like Nelson.  Nelson is one of those one of a kind animals that the Deity Herself cracked the mold when he was out of the oven.  These young men and women had been in country various lengths of time and were having as happens in almost every case good or bad experiences working with their chaplain.  There are unfortunately a few bad apples that mistreat their RPs and give the rest of us a bad name. Likewise there are bad RPs in the force.  Some actually set new lows for military conduct and discipline and give a bad name to the good sailors in the rating.  I had one that stole from the offering in Okinawa, forged offering forms, leave papers and burned up a new pickup truck to try to get the insurance money. I had another who tested positive for cocaine upon arriving to my ship and yet another who pretty much stayed one step ahead of the law.  I guess it is human nature that we get such folks and unfortunately because there are people like this who serve as Chaplains and RPs there is kind of a guilt by association.  As such RPs question the RPs that they know  as to how their chaplains treat them and are often wary of a chaplain that they do not know.  Nelson assured them that I was “cool” and we had a couple of interesting meals together.

There were a number of times in Fallujah where young sailors or Marines approached me about spiritual issues, family problems or prayer requests. There were even some young men and women who were interesting in becoming chaplains.  It was neat to be able to be there in those moments where our lives intersected, maybe for the one and only time.

We spent our last day in Fallujah getting ready for our flight, another really late flight.  During the day we heard that an Army CH-47 Chinook had crashed at TQ killing the crew and that the cause was undetermined as to whether it was due to hostile fire or a mechanical problem.  Such incidents raise your pucker factor especially when you will be flying into the same place that they crashed.  With this in mind we picked up our laundry had some chow, made some final coordination, called and e-mailed our families, did some PT and settled in for the evening waiting for RP1 Roland to pick us up. While outgoing artillery boomed in the distance we sat back in our room at the Ramadan Inn and discussed our plans, as well as wondered out loud what was in store for us.

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq

My Brotherhood of War

Dynamic DuoRP2 Nelson Lebron and Me- The RST-2 “Desert Rats”

Back in the mid 80s shortly after I was commissioned as an Army Officer there was a series of historical novels by W.E.B. Griffin called the Brotherhood of War. The series traced the paths of several Army officers as well as family and friends beginning in World War II. I am not much of a reader of fiction, but this series, as well as Anton Meyer’s Once an Eagle well captured the unique culture of the career professional soldier through both war and peace.  They treated their subject respectfully while also dealing with the effect of this lifestyle on families as well as the soldiers, reading Once and Eagle I feel that connection with the fictional Sam Damon, the hero of the story and revulsion for the character of the self serving careerist Courtney Massengale.

I’ve been a military officer in both the Army and Navy now for almost 26 years with nearly 28 years total service. It is part of my heart, soul and being.  I was born for this, just as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ted Williams were born to be baseball players.  I grew up in a Navy family as a Navy “Brat” living up and down the West Coast and the Philippines and all I can remember from the earliest age wanted to be in the Navy Officer and later Navy Chaplain.  My dreams came true.  The first 17 ½ years of my service was in the Army, something that that initially my retired Navy Chief Dad had problems with, however he made his peace with it and was proud that I served and proud of the fact that I had made Major.  However, in 1999 in order to return to active duty I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and entered the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Lieutenant with no time in grade.  Outside of marrying my wife Judy, who somehow did not kill me when I did this, going in the Navy was the best thing that ever happened to me.

134LtCol David Kuehn and Me

Part of my time in the Army and Navy has been my time in the Chaplain Corps of each service.  I have been a chaplain for 17 years come September.  My best friends in the military are other chaplains, some from my own church and some from other communions.  The ones that I have the most connectedness to are those who have served in combat, especially those who served in Iraq, or ships in the war zone conducting various combat and maritime operations even when we were in different places.  In Iraq I was blessed to have Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas and Chaplain Pat McLaughlin supporting me at my base of operations.  There were others besides these men and many who were not chaplains. In Baghdad I had the staff of the Iraq Assistance Group Chief of Staff Colonel David Abramowitz and Chaplain Peter Dissmore and Captain Mike Langston at II MEF Forward.  Likewise I had Colonel Scott Cottrell and Colonel John Broadmeadow at 7th Iraqi Division Military Training Team, my friend LtCol David Kuehn at 3rd Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Military Training Team, LtCol Stephen Bien with the 2nd Border Brigade and a host of others about Al Anbar Province. As important if not more was my assistant RP2 Nelson Lebron, a true hero and friend.

chaplains and rp2 lebron at TQNelson, Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas, CDR Pat MCLaughlin and Me at TQ

Back in March of this year I was with a number of chaplains from my church gathered for our annual conference.  Some of these men I have now known for at least 10 years, some more.  I’ve seen the young guys start to age and others retired from the service.  We have grown together; we at least in most cases have come to love each other as brothers and friends.   What has made this conference different from past gatherings is that all of us have had one or more combat deployments or are getting ready to go for the first time or back for another tour.

nelson and me flight homeNelson and Me in the Air Everywhere

We have shared our stories but now they are the stories of men who have all seen war.  In our careers we have all experienced success, as well as heartache.  Due to our duty we have been often isolated from the church and each other.  We all came back from the war changed in some way.   Some of this is due to health related issues stemming from our service and for others things that we have seen or experienced.  Of course each of us has had different types of experience in country, but nonetheless our experienced changed all of us in some way or another.  For me the events have been trying to make sense of the torrent of emotional, physical and spiritual distress that I have had to deal with.  While I have made a lot of progress in some areas, there are a lot of places where I’m still sorting through things as are a number of my friends.  I can say that I often feel alienated from my own church.  When I read things that some of our bishops write or say I know that I do not belong.   Based on my service in combat and to my country for almost 28 years  and 13 years as a faithful priest I have tried.  The fact that with the exception of some of my fellow military priests I have no relationships with anyone in my church,   I was at one time banned from publishing by a former bishop.  I was forbidden to have contact with the priests of a my old diocese when I was stationed in it by the same man.  The civilian diocese that I transferred  to has had nothing to do with me for the most part since I was transferred to Virginia and since I moved here no one has bothered to say a thing to me.   None of this was because I didn’t try and the thing is I don’t care anymore.  I just plan on caring for God’s people where I’m at and building relationships with people who bother to invest in my life here. I haven’t the spiritual or emotional energy to keep trying to make something happen with people who obviously don’t care about me and haven’t for years.

This year our gathering was marked by a lot less light heartedness.  There was a lot less bravado than years past, more reflection, less intense discussion of the theological issues that have divided the Christian Church for centuries.  I know for myself I don’t have the energy to spend battling people over things that the rest of Christendom hasn’t been able to settle on.  For me I’m okay with the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds and the first 7 Ecumenical Councils, though I have a great love of the Second Vatican Council.  If people want to fight the other fights they can go ahead without me how many pins you can stick in the head of an Angel.

As far as health concerns I know that at least two of us have confirmed real live PTSD, and one with a case of TBI.  Based on the way others act I’m sure that almost all have at least a combat stress injury, and maybe a couple more have PTSD.  One young Army Chaplain has an Iraq acquired constrictive bronchiolitis, or bronchiolitis obliterans which has no cure. This young man has won two Bronze Stars and now has the lung capacity of a 70 year old man.  At best he can hope that his lungs will not worsen and only age at a normal pace, which means in 10 years he has 80 year old lungs.  This young man is a Priest who I have mentored, coached and been a friend and colleague of since before he was ordained.  He is looking at something that will kill him; it is just a matter of when.  He is going through all of his medical boards now at Fort Hood and expects that in six to eight months that he will be medically retired.  It seems to me that a hero is being kicked to the curb by the Green Machine after laying himself on the line for his country.  He was treated by many people in the Army Medical system with suspicion and made to prove that he was sick at almost every point until a high ranking medical officer found out about his case and sent him to civilian specialist for evaluation.

While I was at our conference I had a major PTSD meltdown where I basically hid in my room of a day and a half, sneaking out at night to gather with just a couple of my friends by the pool for beer and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.  Unfortunately we could only get the store bought ones because the hot and fresh glazed go great with a good pilsner or lager.

We have several Chaplains who have won Bronze Stars for their service in combat. I was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for what I did in Iraq.  I treasure that award because it cost me something to get, I still have a lot of Iraq with me and I always will.  Some day when all is said and done I want to see some of my Iraq military friends again and visit the country as part of a journey of discovering the ancient.

Some of my friends and I have experienced the indifference of the medical and administrative parts of the DOD and VA systems, including sometimes people in our own military service.  When I returned I found my personal and professional belongings crammed into a trailer with those of my assistant because the office space was needed and we were deployed.  There are things which I considered important that are still missing and likely never to be found.  I know that it was not intended to hurt because the space was needed because of major unit re-stationing. If I was the Commanding Officer I would have probably done the same thing and since I have had command I know that mission comes first. You try to take care of people but some things fall through the crack. That is simply part of life.

On the other hand some of my friends have had experiences where they felt the cold indifference of bureaucratic systems often staffed by personnel, military, DOD Civilians or contractors who act if the returning or injured vet is there so they can have a job. To be sure there are a lot of very caring people in our organizations, but these coldly indifferent people seem to show up all too frequently. This unlike what happened at my unit is intolerable.

What touched me about my unit was once it became clear that I was a PTSD casualty they did everything to try to get me help.  My first Commodore, now Rear Admiral Frank Morneau pulled me into his office to make sure that I was alright and that I was getting the help that I needed.  The man who replaced him Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me a question that was totally legitimate.  “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  When I went to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center I was strongly supported by both my department head and his deputy.  I wish that everyone who came back like I did had the support of both line officers and Chaplains in their immediate chain of command.  It makes all the difference in the world.

The chaplains that I have served with in Iraq are part of my brotherhood, be they from my church or not. I believe that most of us who have gone to war have by and large matured. We saw death and destruction and were exposed to danger from enemies that could strike in the most unexpected moments in the most unexpected ways.  We have experienced sometimes difficult adjustments to life back home, a knowledge that we are different and that we are even more cognizant of our own obligation to care for God’s people.  Our brotherhood has deepened as a result of war, of that I am sure.  We are truly brothers.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq