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“I imagined leave would be different from this” September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to 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 often feel that way.

Seventeen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “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.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 37 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. As I mentioned last night I did not take place in this year’s commemoration of the event at my base because I had been asked by name to do a funeral for a retired Navy Chief at a local veterans cemetery followed by more planning and preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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They are Not Just Names: September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In Star Trek Deep Space Nine there is a scene where the deputy commander of the Space Station, Major Kira Nerys gives a casualty report to Captain Benjamin Sisko. It resonates with me every time that I see it and especially on the anniversary of September 11th.

KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Today marks the seventeenth year since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and we do have to remember those who lost their lives that day, all those Americans and our coalition partners who died, and all the innocents lost, even to those of American military action. None of them are just names, they are real men and women, as well as children cut down by terrorism and unending war.

When we were attacked on September 11th 2001 I had already passed twenty years of service, though about half of them were service in the reserves and National Guard. Now I am over 37 years of service and by this time next year I should be on the retired list unless something very unexpected happens.

My base will be marking it with the dedication of a nature trail that now has plaques commemorating over 80 eighty men and women from our base who have died in action, on deployment, or training to go to combat since that occasion. While this ceremony is taking place I will be driving out to a Veteran’s Cemetery an hour or so away to perform the internment of a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer whose family requested me by name.

Thus I will be turning over the big high profile ceremony to my deputy chaplain. It will give him a chance to be on the big stage and get recognized for his own talents and abilities while I do something less visible but very meaningful to that Navy Chief’s family and to me as the son of a Navy Chief. In addition to conducting the service I will have the honor of presenting the colors of the nation to his daughter.

For me it is a chance to pay back the goodness shown to my dad and family when he passed away in 2010. The base ceremony and the internment were pretty close together time wise. My Commanding Officer and I talked about it decided and decided that since I am now in pretty much constant pain with knee and hip injuries since I fell down my stairs last month that I shouldn’t be doing back to back ceremonies with a long drive in between.

But anyway. Since September 11th 2001 I have lost count of the number of friends and comrades who died during the attack and the subsequent wars. This includes those that died by their own hand during or after their service due to the effects of combat trauma, PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Injury,  or the never ending pain of physical wounds and injuries. I often see their faces when I think about the past 17 years, their names are forever etched in my memory, but they are not just names and we cannot forget them. I cannot and I will not.

It seems like every week or so we lose another soldier, sailor, marine, or airman in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa. I loom at their names, where they are from, and the number of deployments that they have made. Some entered service well after me but because of their specialities and assignments made far more deployments that I can imagine. One soldier who was killed in action serving in Iraq had made 13 deployments, 9 of which were combat deployments in a 16 year career, and for the most part they are forgotten by all but their family, friends, and comrades, most barely get a mention elsewhere.

Sadly at this point in my career I believe that for many Americans, especially the faux patriots of the Fox News set, the political preachers of the Christian Right, and the President himself, that the troops are merely a prop to place in the background to promote their political causes and slam other Americans for not being patriotic enough.

Today I will continue to serve and I will mourn in my own way the friends, comrades, and shipmates that I have lost over these past 17 years. For me they are not just numbers or names, they are real people and no amount of flag waving will bring them back. No amount of corporate sponsored “patriotism” will make up for the lost lives, and the destruction of these wars. We can remember and honor the lost, and those who still suffer, including the wounded in body, mind, and spirit, and of the widows and children of the men and women who never came home or were never the same. I came home, but I am not the same.

They are not just names.

So as you go about your activities today take time to remember the victims of war, terrorism, and as I do the men and women who I knew who never came home, couldn’t make the transition back from war, or who still suffer in mind, body or spirit.

Never forget, they are not just names.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

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Everything Has Changed: The Aftermath of 9-11-2001 and Fifteen Years of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I posted a reflection yesterday on some of my reflections on the 9-11-2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, today a continuation of those thoughts. Yesterday morning after chapel and taking care of things I needed to for the opening day of our new class at the Staff college this morning I went to breakfast with Judy. We talked about how it was hard to believe that it had been fifteen years since the attacks of 9-11-2001. Judy mentioned that everything had changed since then.

As I recalled yesterday I can still remember the day like it had just happened, the images are burned into my memory and will never go away. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym. I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning. I thought to myself, “Some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.”

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well-deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer. Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I was stunned and I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn. I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when the South Tower went down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed. I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times. I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the right wing media, politicians, preachers, and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could. I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but eight years after going to war I am decidedly liberal. However, despite many allegedly conservative talk pundits, politicians and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom. After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before Iraq I was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnam when liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.” In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.” As a result I had little love for the Left. After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before. The emotions that they stirred up were primal. But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present. Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

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A man (C) identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State. Islamic State warned in the new video on November 16, 2015 that countries taking part in air strikes against Syria would suffer the same fate as France, and threatened to attack in Washington. The video, which appeared on a site used by Islamic State to post its messages, begins with news footage of the aftermath of Friday's Paris shootings in which at least 129 people were killed. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TVATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

I rejoiced when our SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah. They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. I feel the same way about ISIS and ISIL who are killing the Iraqis that I served alongside and their families, and if that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are all too personal and as far as the extremists of ISIl, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates around the world I am unapologetic, we should annihilate them. I would apply the words of the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent concerning the Confederates to the supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIL wherever the are:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step. We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.”

This will sound hard, but the life of every supporter of ISIL or Al Qaeda is of no value whatsoever to freedom and democracy.  I would apply that standard to any supporter of authoritarian dictatorship in any guise, not just militant Islamists, lest there be any doubt.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in we conducted in Iraq which seems to me has opened the gates of hell. I still think that the words that T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1920 about the British in Iraq are as applicable today as when he penned them; only the empires are different:

“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.”

The British who Lawrence wrote about, gave their people reasons for going into Mesopotamia which were similar to those of the Bush administration over 80 years later. They cloaked their intentions in the words of liberation and protection, the British from the Turks, and the Americans from Saddam. Lawrence noted in words that are hauntingly familiar to those that paid attention to the American war in Iraq:

“Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.”

At the fifteen year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed. On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down in Pennsylvania. One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner who I had served with at the Academy of Health Sciences Brigade in 1987-1988.

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Since then about 4500 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq and another 2400 in Afghanistan. NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost about another 1300 military personnel and that does not count the soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan who fought at our side. More than 45,000 American servicemen an women have been wounded in this fight. I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died. The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars; many of whom were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day. Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily. I have known too many of them as well, heroes who could not make the adjustment coming home. Likewise I cannot forget the devastation that I saw in Iraq, the deaths of so many, some estimates of over a million civilian casualties, not county what has happening during the current ISIS/ISIL era.

That is why I am in favor of a hard war against these people. Some would say that a hard war would endanger civilians, and yes I agree with that. But then what is the alternative? To leave those same people under a regime that crushes them, enslaves them, takes their children and schools them to be child soldiers and Islamic Kamikazes? William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

That may seem hard, but I have been changed by that tragic event and the wars that have followed. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down on that September day fifteen years ago.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world. While we yearn to return to the day’s before 9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge to go back, and those who advocate the same ideology as the attackers of 9-11 will not go back either.

As for me, I know that I can’t go back. But as much as I wish that I could I will have to live with reality, as I have for the last fifteen years, and I will continue to learn to live with it.  To live with the reality that this war will not end anytime soon and that far too many more people will die before this war ends. For those that find my opinions about this war repulsive or less than informed, I would actually hope and pray that you are right. But as my Iraqi friends say,

“Inshallah (إن شاء الله)”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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They are Not Just Names: Remembering the Fallen

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back in October of 2001 as the United States invaded Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which killed nearly 3,000 people I began to read the casualty reports. The first name that I knew was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, who was killed at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001. She had been a training company commander at the Academy of Health Sciences when I served there as the Brigade Adjutant.

As the war spread following the Bush administration’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq those casualty lists got longer and longer, and I read them because I thought it was the least that I could do to attempt to enshrine their memory as something more than a number. Each year around Memorial Day the various publications of the Military Times, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Times would publish a center section with the names, pictures and dates of death of these men and women. Some were just eighteen years old, and a few in their fifties, showing the face of an all-volunteer force that few see. Most of the time I didn’t know the individuals, but sometimes I did, and when I did, the war came home.

The other night Judy and I were watching the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode The Siege of AR-558. At the beginning of the episode Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks is looking at the latest casualty list when his executive officer, Colonel Kira walks in on him. He makes a comment that hit home with me, in fact it summed up how I came to see those lists:

“I think that’s what I’m going to remember most about this war – looking through casualty reports. Sometimes it feels like that’s all I do – stare at the names of the dead. When the war started, I read every name. I felt it was the least I could do to honor their sacrifices… But now, the names have begun to blur together.”

Of course I did two combat tours, the second of them in Iraq where I served with our advisers in Al Anbar Province. A couple of times while back in the large base camp at T’Qaddum I was called to the Trauma Platoon, a Navy medical unit designed to try to save the lives of the wounded and evacuate them to higher levels of care in Iraq, Germany, or the United States. Despite all of the protective gear worn by soldiers, the injuries caused by IEDs, bombs, anti-tank rockets, explosions, and bullets are ghastly. I still can vividly remember the faces and the wounds of the young men that I attended to as the surgeons, nurses and corpsmen valiantly tried to save their lives.

Months later I was home but the war was still real. The casualty reports from Iraq and Afghanistan kept coming, and more people I knew were on them. Of course there were others who died later, sometimes by their own hand because of the suffering that they had been through in body, mind, and spirit. I saw many of them in the naval hospitals and medical centers where I served, to see the faces scarred by bombs, bullets, and burns, to see the men and women with artificial limbs struggling down hallways, and to see the pain in their eyes is something that I will never forget.

The last couple of years in my teaching assignment I have been somewhat shielded from revisiting those times. Likewise the number of casualties in the more recent reports has slowed to a trickle, just a few a month most of the time. But I don’t forget, I still check the reports on a daily basis.

Sadly, despite the yellow ribbons bumper stickers that boldly say “I Support the Troops,” for most Americans these wars never were that important, and without the constant reminder of the dead and wounded coming home, they have been forgotten. However, they are still very real, some 6840 American military personnel have died in these wars, and close to 50,000 wounded. Those numbers do not count the contractors, diplomats, or aid-workers killed and wounded, nor those diagnosed with combat related PTSD. Likewise it does it count the losses of our coalition or NATO allies, or those of the Iraqis or Afghanis.

At the end of the Siege of AR-558 Kira gives Sisko the latest casualty list. Their conversation is something that I think that we should remember when we think of those lost in these wars, and the ones who certainly will die in the war against the Islamic State.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI2WTfB0mz4

Colonel Kira: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.

Captain Sisko: How many this time?

Colonel Kira: Including the troops lost at AR-558 – 1730.

Captain Sisko: [whispering] 1730…

Colonel Kira: It’s a lot of names.

Captain Sisko: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Never Forget, They are Not Just Names… Reflections on War, Loss and Change: Iraq, Afghanistan and Deep Space Nine

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KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

I have had trouble sleeping the past couple of weeks and I think that late last night or early this morning I figured it out.

I am remembering.

It was about this time of year six years ago I was getting ready to celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary with Judy knowing that about a week and a half later I would be leaving for Iraq for duty in Al Anbar Province with our advisors and wondering, if at the height of the war I would come back.

Of course I did come back and the following year in 2008 we celebrated our 25th anniversary as I melted down, collapsing due to PTSD. I was home but I wasn’t.

Every time I see or read a casualty report I still feel a chill, knowing how easily my life could have ended. I saw a report yesterday that four American troops were killed by indirect fire at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. Reading it I remembered the rocket the flew over my head the night I was flying out of Camp Victory for Anbar and how nonchalant I was when a young soldier ran up to me in his PT gear nearly in a panic asking me “what was that?” and my response, “oh it was just a rocket.” We were not far from the eastern perimeter of the base in an area of tents set out as transient quarters gunship helicopters flew over the camp and the city beyond the walls, machine guns rattled in the distance as explosions echoed in the distance as American soldiers and Iraqi security forces battled insurgents not very far from where we sat.

This past week a number of things have been triggering me. The Marines have been conducting exercises at Camp LeJeune and I have heard artillery in the distance and aircraft have been taking off and landing at the auxiliary airfield across the sound a couple miles away.

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Even though it is still two weeks until July 4th the tourists and summer rental types are already shooting off fireworks in the neighborhood near the beach. Last night I barely slept and tonight the tourist insurgents have been going mad with the fireworks. I was out walking Molly when some rather large commercial type fireworks went off a couple hundred yards away on the next street over. I nearly went to ground until I realized that they were only fireworks. I thought about July 4th 2011 when Judy brought Molly down and we went down to the beach to watch the fireworks. That night I was terrified and only the unflappable calm of Molly sitting beside me barking at the fireworks to protect me kept me together. Tonight Molly was as unflappable as ever, not bothered by the explosions. That made me laugh despite the near panic that I found myself. It is amazing what a little dog, now blind but still very relevant can do for someone like me dealing with the PTSD Mad Cow. I hate July 4th now, not what it means but all the explosions.

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Molly supervising my writing in 2008 or 2009

Tonight I was watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on DVD and the end of the season seven episode The Siege of AR-558 got me a bit. At the end of the episode Captain Sisko and Colonel Kira are discussing the latest casualty lists, which Sisko posts each week for his crew. I quoted it at the beginning of the article and it really spoke to me.

Some 6700 American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen have died in Iraq or Afghanistan close to 50,000 more wounded and probably a couple hundred thousand afflicted with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. Hundreds, if not thousands more, active duty, reserve and former service members have taken their own lives after returning. Of course those numbers don’t count the troops from NATO or the Iraq Coalition Forces, the Iraqi and Afghan troops that have fought and died alongside us or the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been killed, wounded or driven from their homes.

But they are more than numbers. Every one has a name, the dead and those who have come back in some way forever changed by war. It is important that we never forget that. They cannot be just numbers, otherwise we dehumanize them and avoid the real cost of war, especially the human costs. I think that Smedley Butler said it the best:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

As I write the situation in Afghanistan is still dangerous and this week I saw another friend, a surgeon from my hospital depart for duty there. Likewise there is much debate about the US and NATO role in the Syrian Civil War, something that seems to me will eventually involve US forces in yet another war.

I guess that is why I can’t sleep and why some of my dreams have been so disturbing lately. I know that I will get through this as I have been through much worse over the past six years.

Another episode of Deep Space Nine entitled Paper Moon that I watched tonight dealt with the young Ferengi officer Nog who was wounded at AR-558, losing a leg and his struggles after returning to the station dealing with the trauma of war, loss and change.

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Nog tells his holographic friend the lounge singer Vic Fontaine played by James Darren When the war began…I was eager. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to prove I had what it took to be a soldier. And I saw a lot of combat. I saw a lot of people get hurt. I saw a lot of people die, but I didn’t think anything was going to happen to me.” I didn’t think that anything would happen to me either, I thought that I was immune from trauma and PTSD, I was an expert in dealing with trauma but I came back changed.

At the end of the episode as he comes to terms with his loss and the change he is asked by his father’s new wife “Are you okay?” and he replies “No. But I will be.”

I will be too. Tonight I hope to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Memorial Service as Tragedy Strikes Camp Lejeune on the 10th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Iraq War

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“God didn’t put us here for that pat on the back. He created us so he could be here himself. So he could exist in the lives of those he created, in his image.” Chaplain (Captain) Fr Francis Mulcahy M*A*S*H 

The past week has been difficult at Camp LeJeune. We lost a sailor, a hospital corpsman who died by his own hand last Monday. He was a veteran of Afghanistan and his death came as a surprise to his friends, family and shipmates. Today we conducted his memorial service. It was a full house. His family travelled to be here and his friends, those that served with him while he was assigned to the Marines as well as his current shipmates were there in abundance.

It was a time to grieve. The young man was beloved by his friends, respected and cared for. However something that none of us will ever know or understand overwhelmed him. It may have been the trauma of war, maybe something else, but he maintained a facade that kept his friends, family and shipmates away from whatever despair drove him to take his life.

It was a time for all of us to grieve. It was as William Shakespeare wrote in McBeth a time to “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”

But even as we grieved the news filtered to the base that 7 Marines assigned to the Second Marine Division were killed, and a number of others injured when a mishap occurred where they were training in Nevada. Evidently either a mortar round either exploded in the tube or as it was being handled during a live fire exercise. They join the thousands of men and women who have died or been wounded in preparation for, the conduct of or the aftermath of their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The death of each one leaves a void in the heart of a loved one, friend or shipmate.

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Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman KIA Afghanistan

I have lost friends and shipmates in all phases of both wars and their aftermath. Some have died in combat, others while supporting combat operations of natural causes or accidents, some have committed suicide, including a Priest and Chaplain who served in both Vietnam and Iraq. Still countless others endure injuries or illnesses that will eventually kill them.

Likewise there are far too many more who have sustained terrible injuries to their minds, bodies and spirits that time will never heal. The young men and women that I see every day, those with the physical wounds of war and those with the unseen but sometimes even more disabling injuries such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury or Moral Injury remain in the fight, sometimes with the sole mission of recover or remaining alive.

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Ten years after the war in Iraq began and twelve and a half years after 9-11 and the invasion of Afghanistan the costs continue to build in lives and treasure. In Iraq almost 4500 American and over 300 other coalition casualties, more than 500 contractors and nearly 10,000 Iraqi Soldiers and Police and countless thousands of Iraqi civilians have died. US wounded alone number almost 35,000 in Iraq. In Afghanistan there are over 2100 US dead and about 1100 NATO and Coalition dead, hundreds of contractors, and thousands of Afghans with over 17,000 more American military wounded. Every day nearly 20 veterans take their lives while thousands of others struggle with physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war, wounds that don’t heal even as they find that they no longer fit in the country that went shopping when they went to war. The costs of both wars now are building into trillions of dollars, costs that will continue to grow even after the wars wind down.

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Two time Congressional Medal of Honor Winner Major General Smedley Butler, US Marine Corps wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….” (See War is a Racket: Remembering Major General Smedley Butler USMC and Why He Matters

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Likewise Lieutenant General (US Army Retired) Hal Moore, who is immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers and book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young told West Point Cadets in 2005:

The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

Needless to say, Moore, a West Point graduate has not been asked back.

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Thousands of young Americans, as well as NATO or other Allied nation soldiers, including Iraqi soldiers that I knew and Afghans that I have not worked with have died or been mangled by these wars. Yet too many Americans, Europeans and others that have sent young men and women to these wars have no stake in the game.  Most people continue with the mundane aspects of peacetime life while their political, religious and business leaders plot even more war. Syria, Mali, North Korea, Iran…where will it end?

Today we mourned a shipmate and friend at Camp LeJeune even as we wait to see who else that we know have been killed or injured in this latest training accident. I was honored to be a part of the memorial and happy to be of help to the families and friends of my sailor. At the same time I too grieve and wonder just how many more will have to die before the madness ends.

I left the base after the ceremony, and saw the massed trucks of the local and national news networks parked outside the gate like vultures. When I got home I hugged my dog Molly, I love that little dog, she has helped save my life after my time in Iraq. I then went for a four mile run on the beach and then had a couple of beers with my dinner while at the bar with my friends at my local watering hole.

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The old regulars there have nicknamed me “Father Mulcahy” a name that some people at the hospital have also given me. Maybe it is that I ear round steel rimmed glasses. Maybe it is because I will join in the occasional poker game , football, basketball or NASCAR pool, which by the way I won the NASCAR pool this week. Or maybe it is just because they didn’t know I was a Chaplain or Priest until a mutual friend and co-worker told one of them. Until then I was just Steve, the guy that wore the Orioles and Giants baseball gear. Now I have become their Priest and Chaplain, funny how that works. Regardless, it is a nickname that I cherish, because when I was growing up Fr Mulcahy symbolized so much of what I thought was good in a Priest and Chaplain. The writers of M*A*S*H made him very human. But I digress…

As we mourned today I was reminded of something that Helen Keller said, something that I think no matter what any of us grieve is true. “We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world–the company of those who have known suffering.”

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Remembers 9-11 and the Forgotten War

It has been nearly eleven years since that fateful Tuesday when the world changed.

I can still remember it like it was yesterday despite the intervening years.

I was in my office at Camp LeJeune where I was serving as Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had just finished an early morning counseling case and had delayed my early morning PT in order to handle the case and after I checked e-mail I was about to close my internet browser when I saw a small headline on the Yahoo News headline section.

The headline simply read “Plane crashes into World Trade Center Building.” My immediate thought was “some dumb ass flew his Cessna into the building.” I simply thought that some inexperienced pilot had gotten lost and crashed his plane into a tower. Thinking nothing more I closed out the page and left the office. It was 0900.

I got in my car and the radio was tuned in to a local right-wing talk radio station, yes I used to listen to it all the time. The talk show host was former Congressman Bob Dornan. He was talking with someone about what kind of aircraft had struck the building when he shouted “oh my God another plane has crashed into the other tower!”

I was stunned. I knew that it had to be terrorism. I drove to the gym since they had multiple televisions and I figured that I could find out more there. I walked in and saw Marines, Sailors and civilians gathered around the sets. Every TV was tuned in to different news programs, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC as well as shows such as the Today Show and Good Morning America. Some whispered to each other but the silence of most was deafening. I remained a few minutes, transfixed by the images on the set. I then left the gym, got in my car and went back to the office where I showered, got into uniform, made a check of the news which was now reporting a strike on the Pentagon and the collapse of the South Tower of the WTC.

I drove to our battalion command post where I met with our Commanding Officer, Colonel Lake and Executive Officer Major Foster. We all knew that this was the beginning of a war and all of us had been through countless instances where we had been notified to get ready to deploy, most recently during the Kosovo action where Marines were to take a lead roll had the Serbians not backed down. While we talked the North Tower of the WTC collapsed. The emotions on everyone’s face showed, it was hard to believe that so much had happened and the great towers were smoldering heaps of rubble with possibly tens of thousands of victims crushed or incinerated in the ruins. I was instructed to get my gear and be back for a staff meeting as Colonel Lake was heading to division to meet with the Staff of 2nd Marine Division.

I made a quick run to my town home, hugged the dogs since Judy was out and grabbed my gear and some extra uniforms and underwear and headed back into the base through the back gate. I deposited my gear in my office and went around the building so see our Marines and Sailors assigned to our Truck Company, MP Company, Medical Company and Headquarters Company and all were waiting for more word, most gathered around televisions and watching breaking news. Some came to me and asked what it meant and expressed concern for families and friends in the affected locations. Then I went back to our headquarters where we heard from Colonel Lake what was known and what our actions would be. We were placed on high alert, patrols by full combat ready Marines were to patrol vulnerable areas of the base while roadblocks and checkpoints were established near every major headquarters aboard the base. The base was also locked down and only Marines, Sailors or Civilian workers returning to work were allowed aboard.

Later in the day I met with the chaplains who served our independent battalions, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Recon Battalion and 2nd Tank Battalion. I explained what I knew from my meetings with the Division Chaplain and Battalion Commander. We concluded our meeting with prayer for the victims of the attacks, the responders and for our Marines and Sailors.

It was both grim and surreal as the day passed and night fell. We remained in that condition four days. Meals were served at the Chow Hall, MRE’s issued and we went everywhere in full combat gear. I visited Marines at their guard posts during the night and worked counseling those who were concerned about family members or friends. They did so for good reason as nearly 3000 people were killed in the WTC, Pentagon and aboard the four hijacked aircraft.

Within a month U.S. Forces were engaged in combat in Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power and sending Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda into hiding. Various units of the division were deployed to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa over the coming weeks and months and even as we did so rumors circulated about Iraq.

I knew that the war would not be the short war that everyone hoped for and within 6 months I would be deployed with the USS Hue City and the USS John F Kennedy Carrier Strike Group to the Arabian Gulf, Horn of Africa and Gulf of Oman.  We would take part in maritime interception operations off the Horn of Africa and in the Arabian Gulf where we took part in the UN Oil Embargo on Iraqi smugglers.

I would travel to the Middle East frequently over the coming years supporting Marines from the Marine Security Force Battalion and later deploy to Iraq from EOD Group Two. I have lost friends and see the effects of the war every day at Camp LeJeune.

Osama Bin Laden is now dead, and it has been 11 long years of war. However it has been a war that for the most part has not been a national effort. After 9-11 the nation was not called to sacrifice, it was told by political leaders to “go shopping.” The brave men and women of our military and their families have made incredible sacrifices over the past 11 years. 2024 have died in Afghanistan while 4486 died in Iraq before the withdraw of US forces in December 2011. Another 32,223 were wounded in Iraq while 15,332 have been wounded in Afghanistan. These numbers do not count American contractors, State Department, CIA, FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

They also do not count the thousands afflicted by PTSD or other illnesses contracted in the combat zone, nor does it count the large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have taken their lives on active duty or following their discharge or retirement. Then there are the lives of over 1500 coalition soldiers, mostly British, Canadians and Australians who have given their lives in these wars. Finally there are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghan civilians who have died or suffered injury or have been dislocated or exiled as a result of the wars.

Then there is the economic cost which amounts to trillions of dollars for both wars which have been funded by borrowing against our economic future.

Despite this for most Americans the war in Afghanistan is unpopular, little understood and distant, far from daily life. This is backed by polling data and by words of some politicians of both major political parties, in every major poll over 60% of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the cost and needs to end.

One of the most glaring examples of how political leaders think about Afghanistan, but certainly not the only one is Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney did not mention either Iraq or Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, although he did mention “strengthening the military.” He explained it later in an interview by saying to Fox News anchor Brett Baier “When you give a speech you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important….”

The sad fact is that no matter why Romney left out any mention of an ongoing war out of his speech that his words “you talk about the things that you think are important” are indicative not only of him but the majority of Americans. The reality is that Romney and most Americans have no personal connection with the war or the military. The war has been fought by a relatively small professional military that represents less than one percent of the population. Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly who lost his son, a Marine Lieutenant in Afghanistan noted at the 2012 American Legion national convention:

“America as a whole today is certainly not at war, not as a country, not as a people… Only a tiny fraction of American families fear all day and every day a knock at the door that will shatter their lives….” 

This Tuesday we will reflect on something called Patriot’s Day and pause to remember the events of that bloody Tuesday of September 11th 2001. I hope, probably in vain that the American people and their leaders will do more than mouth a few words, talk about how terrible the day was and go back to business as usual. I hope, probably again in vain that Americans will wake up to the fact that tens of thousands of Americans are in harm’s way and that even more and probably more terrible wars loom just over the horizon.

I have no idea what it will take to actually engage the vast bulk of the American population that what happens in Afghanistan is still important. Nor do I think that most people have any idea that a war with Iran could be disastrous for US and coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.

It is odd to think that we can think about 9-11 and then ignore the subsequent wars the way that we have done. I really don’t.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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