Me in 1982
This is the first actual chapter in my series “To Iraq and Back: Padre Steve’s War and Return.” I wrote last night that I was going to be doing this and I figure that there is no time like the present to start. Just about 6 years ago I was preparing to deploy to Iraq as an individual augment supporting the US Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security Forces in Al Anbar Province. After 6 years I think I can finally complete my literary account of my experiences in Iraq, my return and subsequent struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
Though I am not certain, I do think that many of us were born for what we feel called to do. As bit of a theologian I can honestly say that I am not a Calvinist or strict Augustinian who believes that we are simply playing out some predetermined role or fate on earth. Neither am I a fatalist but I really do feel, that whether it was something God ordained, something genetic or a product of my environment growing up, that I was born to do what I do.
As one who has some training as well in psychology and pastoral care I also understand that the human mind is a very complicated lump of gray matter. I know that we as human being as products of our genetic make up, our upbringing and environment, education, spiritual formation, relationships ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
So I know what I believe about my calling to serve in the military and the priestly vocation cannot be scientifically proven. That being said, I believe and that belief in my calling survived even in my times of unbelief. A paradox for sure, belief and unbelief coexisting at the same time in the same person, but Father Andrew Greeley said it well in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”
My tour in Iraq in a sense was the culmination of my calling, a call that I felt at a very early age, to serve in the military and later to be called to serve as a Priest in the military. I have long figured that to have served a full career in the military in time of war and not to have gone forward into danger to do what I have trained all my life to do.
I have a hard time not remembering when I wanted to serve in the military and serve in combat. That may sound strange but for some reason, even though I was not encouraged to follow this path it was something that growing up as the son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer who served at the Battle of An Loc in the Vietnam War that I felt was my destiny. Maybe it is faith, maybe it is some sort of mysticism or even fatalism, but I do believe that for good or for bad that I am doing what I was born to do.
George Patton commented: “A man must know his destiny. if he does not recognize it, then he is lost. By this I mean, once, twice, or at the very most, three times, fate will reach out and tap a man on the shoulder. if he has the imagination, he will turn around and fate will point out to him what fork in the road he should take, if he has the guts, he will take it.”
I am sure that my family and my earliest friends can testify to my love of all things military and the nearly romantic calling that soldiering had on my life. At nearly every turn in life I have responded to the military calling by volunteering for assignments that would place me closest to the action. There were times that my wishes were thwarted and my desires placed on hold, but they never died.
I served on the Fulda Gap in the Cold War and missed serving in ht First Iraq War because I had left active duty to attend seminary and my National Guard unit just missed being mobilized. I did support the Bosnia operation as a mobilized Army Reserve Major and during that mobilized period of service was told that I was not a place for me in the Regular Army. However, a few months after my last active reserve posting I was given the chance to apply for active duty as a Navy Chaplain. Less than 7 weeks after the first talk with the Navy I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and accepted a lower rank, that of a Navy Lieutenant to enter active duty in February 1999.
The Marine unit that I was serving with in 1999 came very close to being sent to the Kosovo crisis and had Slobodan Milosevic not made a last minute peace deal after a 70 day air campaign I am sure I would have ended up there.
With my Boarding Team, April 2002 aboard USS Hue City
However it was 9-11-2001 that changed everything. I was in Camp LeJeune North Carolina with the 2nd Marine Division when the hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Shortly after those attacks I was transferred to the USS Hue City, a Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser. My first wartime deployment was in 2002 aboard Hue City supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch. On that deployment I served as an advisor to one of our boarding teams and took part in over 70 boarding party operations against Iraqi and other oil smugglers who were breaking the United Nations oil sanctions against Iraq.
We were in the yards when Operation Iraqi Freedom began and in the fall of 2003 I was assigned to the Marine Security Force Battalion. In my time at Security Forces I travelled around the world and often to the Middle East and Europe, but not to Iraq or Afghanistan. Because the elements that we sent to Iraq were too small to rate an organic chaplain I did not deploy with them, though I heard about the experiences of many of those Marines and Navy Corpsmen as they came to me for counsel when they came home.
Despite having spent time of the boarding teams and having deployed numerous other places in my career there were times that I felt like William Tecumseh Sherman, who missed the war with Mexico having been sent to California who wrote: “I have felt tempted to send my resignation to Washington and I really feel ashamed to wear epaulettes after having passed through a war without smelling gun-powder.”
In October 2006 I was assigned to Navy EOD Group Two and shortly thereafter my life which had been very active with more time spent away from home than with my wife since my call up in 1996 to support the Bosnia operation became much more complicated. While at EOD I was supporting very skilled sailors most of whom had deployed multiple times in the always dangerous work of defusing and defending against Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also was called to support sailors either preparing to go to Iraq or Afghanistan as Individual Augments or those that were returning home. As I heard their stories, especially those serving as advisors with Iraqis or Afghani soldiers I knew that was what I needed to be doing.
In early 2007 a call went out seeking chaplains to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan in various roles that were not supported by unit chaplains. With the permission of my supervisory Chaplain, Captain Deborah McGuire who was at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command I put my name in the hat and was notified that I would be sent overseas. I explained to Judy that despite her misgivings that I felt that Nelson and I were the most ready, qualified and prepared team to take on the mission. Needless to say that did not assuage her fears and concerns and an emotional distance began to grow between us.
Initially we thought it would be sent to Iraq, then it was Afghanistan, and finally the first week of June 2007 the orders came down for Iraq. My faithful assistant, Religious Program Specialist Nelson Lebron would go with me. It was the first time that an existing Religious Ministry Team had been tagged to take on an independent mission of this nature.
Our orders were to support Marine Corps and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province, a mission that was new because when the advisory teams were first formed no one thought about organic religious or spiritual support. It was assumed that chaplains from nearby units would suffice but the Army and Marines learned that the assumption was wrong and that the advisors needed their own chaplain support.
The next few weeks would be a whirlwind as we prepared to go. They would be weeks that were trying both individually and for our families and neither of us would realize how much we would be impacted by our time in Iraq, but in June of 2007 that was still a part of our yet uncharted future.
Next: The Preparations