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The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

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It is hard to believe because it seems like it was yesterday, but six Years ago tonight I got off a plane, home from Iraq. The final flight on a commercial aircraft going from Philadelphia to Norfolk was crowded, but the people on board were polite to us, both the flight crew and the passengers, but it was like I had returned to a different world. What I entered was the same as it always had been, but I was different.

Guy Sager, an Alsatian who served in the German Army in World War Two wrote at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier:  

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

About a year after my return, actually on February 16th 2009 I began writing on this site. I began it in large part to express my inner angst and as a means to my own healing as well as to help others. The beginnings came out of my initial therapy with Dr Elmer Maggard, who I sometimes refer as “Elmer the Shrink.” Elmer asked me if I was willing to open up and share my story even though I was still very broken and vulnerable, feeling abandoned by God, the church and most clergy.

At the time I was a practical agnostic. My collapse from PTSD and the moral injuries that I had sustained in Iraq were severe, it was if God had abandoned me, and try as I might nothing worked. In the months before I began writing I had hit bottom. That was then.

The last five years of writing my journey home has been illuminating. As I look back at things that I wrote, surveyed my moods, emotions, intellectual and spiritual development since the beginning of Padre Steve’s World I am reminded of the words to the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ because my life, especially since Iraq has been “a long strange trip.” 

That may seem kind of flippant, but it is true. My journey has been strange and I could not have predicted it back when I got my orders to go to Iraq in May of 2007. I was a volunteer for the mission and what I experienced changed me forever.

I don’t know what the future holds. I was shaken when my Captain Tom Sitsch, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two committed suicide a month ago. I know far too many men and women who have died by their own hand due to the after effects of the trauma they sustained in Iraq Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. What I experience is not unique to me, and that comforts me.

I have been busy this week, between storm recovery, home restoration and catch up at work I have had little time to muse about what the years have been like. I still feel a sense of melancholy as I do every time this year. My difficulty sleeping, nightmares and night terrors still plague me, some nights are better than others but the insomnia that has plagued me since my time in country is still all too real. My anxiety and panic attacks, though diminished still remain.

Faith, which had disappeared has returned, but even that has changed. What I knew to be sure in 2007 is often at best doubt plagued in 2014. For me faith is still often a struggle. Thus I have great empathy for those who do not believe, those who have lost their faith or struggle with doubt, and I cannot condemn them. Sometimes this puts me at odds with other Christians who strongly believe, but who have no tolerance for differences of opinion regarding things which cannot be proven without reference to faith in things that we cannot see. I am okay with that. What I believe about God is more open and less doctrinaire than it was before I left for Iraq. I agree with the late Father Andrew Greeley who wrote:

“I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.”

I am thankful that I have had the chance in a number of venues to share my story. That is a gift that has been given to me and I am thankful for those who at various times have reached out to me, encouraged me and shared their stories of service, faith, struggle, doubt and loss.

In the past five years I walked with and have heard the stories of many people, veterans and their families, both in person and comments made on this site who like me still struggle, with PTSD and moral injury, as well as others who suffer from TBI and other physical injuries. They are comrades. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his book  All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”

In the next week or so I will share some more including my first article, written for my former church while I was still in Iraq around Christmas of 2007.

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Faith, doubt. War, peace. Madness, sanity. Isolation, community, loss and gain. So much still to learn, explore and experience despite everything that has happened. It has been a long strange trip and I expect that the long strange trip will continue. T. E. Lawrence wrote to a friend years after his war in the desert:

“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.”

That is all for tonight as I have much to ponder as I sit with Judy. Our dogs Molly and Minnie passed out beside us, and I hope that tonight I will sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

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

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

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

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

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

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

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Contemplating the Past, Present and Future: The Third Anniversary of Leaving Iraq

 

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” Robert E. Lee

I began my flight home from the Middle East three years ago today. Three years ago I could not imagine what has transpired in my life since neither my return nor the situation that we see developing in Egypt.  It has been three years but it feels longer.  I have recounted my PTSD and psychological collapse as well as my crisis of faith which for nearly two years left me a practical agnostic numerous times so I will not say much about them in this article except to say while I still suffer from the effects of both I am doing better and faith has returned.

The war in Iraq changed me. I saw the suffering of the people of Iraq that the conservative media to which I had been wedded for years ignored or distorted.

Likewise when I came home to the nastiness of the 2008 Presidential Election I was unprepared for it. To see my countrymen tearing each other apart with increasingly violent rhetoric as well as the militancy of some was deeply unsettling and was a part of my collapse because I felt like my country was plunging into the abyss of hatred.

Since I have seen the tragic and long lasting effects of the unbridled hatred among former friends and neighbors in the Balkans as well as Iraq I know that anything is possible when we make the subtle shift from viewing fellow Americans as political opponents to mortal enemies to whom we equate every vice and evil.  What has happened to us?  Last night I responded to a dear family friend who has kept sending me e-mails of such intense anger and even hatred regarding those that he believes are destroying the country. I had to tell him that I could no longer go to those places and told him things that I have experienced after Iraq. He is older and both he and his wife have been sick and are isolated.  They are good people but I have not heard back from him.

Likewise the sense of abandonment I felt from my former church as well as many clergy and chaplains did nothing to help my faith. For the first time I realized how deeply that I needed other Christians and for the most part few were there for me, my brokenness made me radioactive to many.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”


Despite this healing came but also change which I think actually has been good for me and for the ministry that I am called to as a Priest and Chaplain.  While healing has begun I am cognizant of my own wounds and how they affect how I deal with life and others. I pray that they have made me a better vessel of the grace of God and his love.

Tonight I am somewhat contemplative. I have turned off the news and I am watching a movie called Lost Command starring Anthony Quinn.  It is an adaptation of Jean Larteguy’s novel The Centurions which is about the French Paratroops in Indo-China and Algeria.  These were men who after surviving Viet Minh prison camps after the fall of Dien Bien Phu were almost immediately redeployed to fight the insurgency in Algeria, sometimes against former Algerian comrades who were now part of the Algerian independence movement. Algeria was brutal and though the French had militarily defeated the insurgency they still lost the war, and for many soldiers part of their souls which were sacrificed for their country.

It has been three years since I stepped on the aircraft to come home and in some ways miss Iraq and my friends American and Iraqi. I watch as that nation and its people struggle.  I watch the continuing war in Afghanistan and emerging danger in Egypt and much of the Arab world I wonder what further sacrifices our Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen will have to make if the chaos spreads and if the violence will again come to our shores.  I wonder if our politicians from both parties will support us or abandon us even as we fight.

I remember my time in Iraq well. I can see the faces of my friends; remember the hospitality of the advisors that I spent my time with and the friendship of Iraqi Officers.  Sometimes the memories seem so real especially when I look into the eyes of those that served in Iraq. Fallujah, Ta-Qaddum, Habbinyah, Al Asad, Al Waleed, Al Qaim, Korean Village, Ramadi and its various neighborhoods, Hit, Baghdadi, COP North and COP South and what seems like a hundred more locations in Al Anbar Province from villages to small outposts.

I remember thousands of miles in helicopters, C-130s and in convoys, the smell of Jet Fuel, Diesel and hydraulic fluid which always seemed to find me in any helicopter I rode in.   I hear the helicopters fly overhead, some even tonight. I close my eyes and it feels like I am in Iraq again.

I am somewhat melancholy tonight, that war is never far away and unfortunately there are more to come.  But tomorrow is another day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Political Commentary, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle

Merry Christmas!

I do not throw the word miracle around lightly.  In fact I generally get irritated when I hear people calling things miracles that are no such thing such as giving God credit for the screw ups or successes of people.  I heard of a case recently where someone’s loved one had a preliminary test that showed possible cancer. Of course the person was upset and asked people to pray.  A second confirmation test was done and it turned out that the first was a “false positive.”  False positive tests are a part of the whole medical package, people and machines make mistakes.  The person sent an e-mail out to announce that the test had been a false positive and then proceeded to say that it had to be God healing the relative in question, not a mistake.  I think that to makes such a claim actually cheapens the term “miracle” and does God a disservice.  God at least to my understanding does pretty well on his or her own.   It is like in baseball where an infielder commits an obvious error that is glaring and the official scorer scores the play as a hit.  Now I rejoice that this person’s loved one did not have cancer, but the fact was that they never had cancer to begin with and thus to call the event a miracle is rather silly.  The same is true when a medical team works their ass off to save someone from death, does everything right and makes the save only to have people give all the credit to God.  Once again I have no doubt that God can be involved but to simply write off the efforts of dedicated people is to do a disservice to God.  I think that God is okay with people that he or she created getting credit where credit is due.

Miracles are rare and not everything is a miracle.  So when I say that I am experiencing a miracle I am certainly not doing so just to make me look deserving or extra spiritual.  Anyone who knows me knows that such a claim would be fraudulent.   I think that miracles related to one’s spiritual and psychological condition are rare and since there is no lab test to prove that you are all better that they are difficult to quantify.  When I hear people talk about being completely “healed” in such matters I am a wait and see kind of person, as Ronald Reagan once said: “Trust but verify,” especially in regard to anything to do with me, simply because I don’t want to look like an ass or by my claims make God look stupid when they do not pan out.

The past couple of years have been the hardest of my life.  I have talked about the effects of PTSD, issues with my father’s Alzheimer’s disease, my own sense of alienation and isolation, anxiety, depression and the crisis of faith that I experienced quiet a few times so I will not rehash them in this essay.  The reality is that they are a reality that I have had to try to come to grips with.  For most of this time I have existed in a world where everything hurt and I struggled to believe.  Imagine having to pray for people when you are wondering if God even exists at times.  To put it mildly it sucks.   That has been my world, despite my expertise at what I do and the pent up knowledge that exists in the gray matter mounted in my bald brain housing group it has been a struggle to keep going.

While PTSD, anxiety and depression are major issues I think the thing that made them worse was how alone I felt and how it seemed that God had abandoned me.  I think that was actually more frightening than the nightmares, insomnia, fear and everything else associated with my experience in and return from Iraq.  I believe, at least from my experience that a crisis of faith and feeling alienated and abandoned by God is one of the most frightening and dehabilitating things that can happen to a Priest or any other minister.  In fact I am pretty sure that when you ask ministers who have left the ministry that somewhere in their experience is a crisis of faith. That might be hidden by other circumstances but I’m pretty sure that it is there.

Christmas in Iraq…The Last Time I Felt the Presence of God…until Now

The past 22 months since returning from Iraq have been a terrible ordeal in an emotional and spiritual sense, however something has begun to happen and I cannot place my finger on it but somehow I am beginning to feel touched buy the grace of God again.  It actually began quite unexpectedly.  I came home from a disastrous trip to visit my parents in November completely wiped out and depressed.  It seemed that I had crashed yet again and I expected that this Christmas would be no different than that of last year where I left Mass before it began and walked for an hour in the dark and cold wondering where God had gone.  So when things started to happen, beginning ironically with the experience of performing the last rites for a patient in our ER and experiencing a number of other situations where I again felt part of something bigger than me I was surprised.  Lo, even astonished at events that I couldn’t explain were happening as well as the fact that people care for me, all kinds of people, co-workers, friends from baseball, friends from Gordon Biersch and friends from church.  I think that is where I began to realize that God might just care and maybe that there was hope for me again that maybe what I did mattered.

Today was a busy day as I walked about the medical center.  I saw the work of my physician, nurse, corpsmen and technicians of various sorts as they fought to save the lives of people.  I spent time with our staff as they worked to stabilize a very sick child for transport to another hospital in a last ditch attempt to save the child’s life as the child’s mother looked on.  I watched our ER team assisted by one of our anesthesiologists from the ICU work to save the life of an elderly man and get him to the ICU.  I saw surgeons and neurologists evaluating and working with a fairly young man who is in dire straits.  For all of these folks Christmas Eve and Christmas day are days that they are “in the fight.” They are days where the miracle is real, but not evidenced to all.  I am amazed by the skill, dedication and care of all of these folks who are attempting to ensure that Christmas does not end badly for others, both the patients in their charge as well as their family members.

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

Now I know that I still have some hurdles in regard to my PTSD and that I am still not a “full up round” spiritually, but I have hope again. I am not the same Christian or Priest that I was before Iraq.  I have changed in a lot of ways, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  I know I have a long way to go, but for the first time in this see that I might actually get there.

I guess that is the miracle. Last year I dreaded the very thought of Christmas and this year I look forward to the Advent of Jesus, the Christ.  That in the middle of life and death, experiencing pain, alimentation and all that I have described that something has touched my life and I have hope again.  Tonight the Abbess is singing at her 5 PM Mass while I attend the 6 PM Mass over at Saint James Episcopal on my way home from work.  When we get home we will have dinner together, open presents, watch Molly open her presents and probably if I have my way watch funny Christmas movies and specials as we spend the night together.

I pray that you will experience some measure of grace this Christmas, or whatever you celebrate.  I do pray that God will protect us all and that we will be able to experience together the grace, mercy and peace of God.

Merry Christmas my friends, thank you for being there for me this year.

As Tiny Tim said at the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “May God bless us all.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion

War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people.  Nor was it fully appreciated by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the “Greatest Generation” was citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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