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A Return to “God in the Empty Places”

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Seven years ago yesterday I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  In some ways things are better, now but it was a very dark time for several years and I still have a lot of bad days.

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French Wounded awaiting Evacuation from Dien Bien Phu

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

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Border Fort Five “West Virginia” on Syrian Border

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 10,000 Americans in Afghanistan alone. We are sort back Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that the fight with the Islamic State will be long and costly.  

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Bedouin Camp

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

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British Tombstone: Habbinyah Iraq

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially 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.

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French Chaplain and Soldiers Indochina

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. 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. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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Mass at COP South and Blessing a Convoy at Ramadi

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla 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.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who 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 have changed.

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French Foreign Legion Paratroops Algeria

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Ready for Convoy: Ramadi to Al Asad

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, 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.”

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French Foreign Legion in Indochina

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Convoy: Route Uranium west of Ramadi

Another 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 Dien Bien Phu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

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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 Sanh 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.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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French Convoy Under Attack Indochina

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Al Waleed

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.

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Commanders of a Doomed Force: French Commanders at Dien Bien Phu

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With Brigadier General Sabah, Interpreter and my Assistant Nelson Lebron: Ramadi

The French soldiers in Indochina 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, or 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, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice 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, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were 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 and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Advisers at COP South

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. 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. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

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. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people 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 are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

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For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina 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 Dien Bien Phu 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 Nuremberg 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.

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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. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Things that Go Bump in the Night Terrors of PTSD

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Bram Stoker wrote in Hamlet these immortal words in his novel Dracula:

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” 

I am getting ready to go to bed, hopefully a bit early tonight and hopefully without the terror of so many nights, but I dread to sleep. I can understand why the savior of Little Round Top, General Gouverneur Warren wrote his wife after the Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

Last night was difficult, the nightmares and night terrors were quite terrifying. Thus I almost dread bedtime tonight. Since the summer my dreams and nightmares have become much more vivid and often so terrifying that I either wake up or am woken up by Judy when she sees me becoming too physically active in them. I have when up several times either screaming or hitting the floor when I fall out of bed trying to attack something in my dream which is threatening me or Judy, or when I am fleeing a threat, usually as I hit the floor or the bookcase that doubled as my nightstand. Judy has woken me up a number of times, once when it appeared that I was shooting at someone. It must be thrilling for her. Of course Minnie our youngest Papillon decided that hanging on to mommy during such times is a good idea, while my unflappable Molly, my Papillon-Dachshund mix who helped get me through many nights after coming home from Iraq now simply looks up and goes back to sleep. Evidently she is used to me now, it is good that someone in our little household is able to not be too bothered by nightmares.

Last night I in a place where Judy and I had been trapped by enemy soldiers of some kind. I was unarmed and to allow Judy to escape up a hill I shut a gate to keep the enemy soldiers from pursuing us. As I struggled to lock the gate, I turned and saw that Judy had reached safety. I turned to join her but found that I could not get up the hill, I struggled and as I did the soldiers broke through the gate and began to shoot at me, I dove to avoid their bullets and was rudely awakened by my chin hitting the edge of the previously mentioned bookcase.

I slammed into it hard, so hard that my teeth cut my upper lip, and that my chin and jaw were swollen and in pain. I got up, walked into our master bathroom where my mouth was full of blood and my chin already swollen from the impact. Because of the hour I did not want to have Judy take me to the emergency room so I rinsed out my mouth, packed it with tissue to soak up the blood and lay back down until my normal time to wake up.

When boring came I got up, unpacked the very bloody tissue from my mouth and lips, showered and got ready for work. As I did so I noticed the damage to the bookcase, my jaw had shattered the pressed wood. I was shocked, evidently I have as hard of head as my dad accused me of as a child. I was surpassed, took a picture of he damage and went to work, where I reported what happened to my dean and went to our branch medical clinic. I spent most of the morning getting my head examined.

Though I hurt from the neck up, and was in a lot of pain nothing was broken so the doctor sent me home. The doctor said that though nothing was broken that I would be in pain for some time, and I am. He compared the impact to being in an auto accident. My neck is sore, the chin, jaw and mouth sore and I do have a pretty good headache.

When I see my new primary care doctor I will get scheduled for a sleep study.

Judy mentioned something that I didn’t think about either last night when this happened or while I was at the doctor. The fact is that had I not crushed the bookcase with my jaw I could have suffered a very severe injury, perhaps even a fractured skull.

I think that most of my current nightmares are triggered by reading about or seeing news reports about what is currently happening in Iraq where I left so much of my heart. But my dreams and nightmares are such surreal mixtures of fact, history, reality and imagination that it is sometime hard to tell where the dream ends and reality begins, or for that matter if there is much difference between the dream and reality, as Edward Allan Poe wrote:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”

I make no pretense of saying that I can understand or interpret them. Last night may have been triggered by the F-18s from the USS George H.W. Bush flying in to the Naval Air Station following their return from deployment not far from where I work during the day. The noise of their jet engines took me back to Iraq.  When I was in Iraq, any time that I was going west or east and waiting on flights at Al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar, the Marine and Navy F-18s based there would keep me up all hours of the day and night as I tried to sleep in the tents that transients like me stayed. Of course those tents were only a couple hundred yards from the flight line, so sleep was rare and the noise got into my head.

I honestly do hope that my new therapist and medication manager can find the right combination of therapy and medications to manage this. It would be nice to be able to sleep without waking up in terror with dreams of war and of enemies, both real and imagined trying to kill me.

I have posted the photo of the broken bookcase here just to give you an idea of how hard I hit it with my chin. It shocked the hell out of me when I saw it. Yes that is the damaged that I caused, it is about three inches in size.

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So anyway, I am going to try to get some sleep. But as Guy Sajer, the author of the classic account of brutal combat wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” Since returning from Iraq, my nights have been nightmarish. I wish that I never had to sleep, for sleep is far worse than being awake, even awake in a combat zone. Like Gouverneur Warren, my dreams sometimes, in  fact most of the time cause me to dread going to sleep.

All that being said I do not want to lose my dreams, the good, the bad or even the terrifying. The somehow are a part of me, though I certainly would wish that they would not be so vivid that I end up physically bruised and sitting in an acute care clinic. That being said, I have to agree with Joseph Heller who wrote: “I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long.”

With that, I wish all of us peace and pleasant dreams, even in the midst of real life nightmares.

Padre Steve+

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I Wish I Did Not Dream That Much…

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“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” Major General Gouverneur Warren, hero of Gettysburg in 1867 in a letter to his wife

I have had a pretty good couple of weeks with my trip to the Oktoberfest and this past week. Apart from being tired from the travel and trying to catch up and reset myself my sleep has been good, well until last night. It was surprising because I have been happy, good things are happening in my life and I found out that I am being inducted into my high school’s Hall of Fame laster in the month. I have been catching up at work and preparing for the next iteration of the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I lead and I am working with a number of others on a new ethics class for our students. Likewise the baseball teams I want to win in the playoffs are winning, what could be wrong? 

That being said since coming home I have been following the events in Iraq and Syria. Of course I have been horrified, but not surprised in the least at the latest public execution of an innocent hostage by the Islamic State. However, I have been watching the continued Islamic State advance in Al Anbar province where I served with out advisors and the Iraqi Army, Border and other security forces. Islamic State appears to be on the verge of capturing a number of important bases including Al Asad, and are advancing on Baghdad and may be in control of Abu Ghraib, nearly in artillery range of Baghdad International Airport. The fact that this is where I left so much of my heart and soul is particularly upsetting.

As the situation grows more serious and U.S. and allied involvement grows deeper I have no doubt that eventually ground troops will be fighting the Islamic State, which is perhaps exactly what they want. Last night I was surprised as I had a nightmare which went on and on. My wife Judy woke me up at one point, I was awoken again when I kicked the bookcase that serves as my nightstand. The nightmare did involve Iraq, but this time it was not set in the past, but in the future and it was frightening in its vividness and reality involving me as well as a number of people that I know from the military and other agencies including the State Department involved in a humanitarian mission.

As the politicians, pundits and preachers who lust after war and are seemingly eager to commit the sons and daughters of other people to a new ground war, without of course providing them the funding and equipment that will be needed because they would rather have tax cuts for the rich and corporations chum the waters; I am concerned. Sadly, we may have to commit ground forces, perhaps a sizable number to halt the advance of the Islamic State, and possibly even defeat them in Iraq. However, the Islamic State will not be stopped with military victories; they will regroup and morph into something else. I don’t think that the war we are in won’t end, at least in my lifetime. It will be like the Thirty Years War, but maybe longer. I would like to be wrong and I pray that I am, but the war keeps growing and nightmares keep coming.

On Thursday I was sitting in the waiting room of the doctor who prescribes my psych meds I caught the first part of an interview by Fox News with former President Bush. When I heard the questions and his answers I was livid, because it was Bush and his chicken-hawk advisers who in their ill-conceived and criminal invasion of Iraq helped birth the Islamic State, and now they were claiming that they predicted this. If these people were held to the same standard that we held the major war criminals of the Nazi regime at Nuremberg, they would all gone to the gallows. These people and their propaganda machine at Fox News keep trying to blame everyone, especially President Obama for their criminal negligence.

To me that it is infuriating. I know too many people whose lives have been devastated by their policies and decisions. I was so angry when I heard Bush say that “he understood the enemy” that had to tell the receptionist that I would be outside. The man has no clue about the enemy, he helped create them and will not take any responsibility for his decisions and the actions of his administration. Those decisions and actions were the seeds of a strategic defeat in terms of geo-politics and economics for us in the Middle East, a defeat from which we may never fully recover. As the former President spoke I wanted to rise up like the First Officer of Soviet Alpha Submarine Konovalov in The Hunt For Red October and say “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed us!”

Jesus says we are not to hate others, however I wrestle with this. When I experience the dreams and feelings that I have over the past couple of days I think I have to admit that I hate George W. Bush almost as much as I hate war and the Islamic State. Frankly

Maybe that is why I cannot sleep and why that nightmare was so terrifying and would not end. I can fully understand what Gouverneur Warren felt after the Civil War, because I feel the same way. “bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

I pray for sleep tonight and I pray that I am wrong about this war, but I know that I am right. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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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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Going to War: The First Mission Flying West in a C-130

Workhorses: C-130s at an US Base in Iraq

This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year.  In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I started this article in the spring but again put it on hold.  I have reached the point that I can again write about this. I will post follow up articles about our operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in Al Anbar province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: https://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/

Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north .  Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence known as Korean Village or simply KV. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien.  Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.

Nothing in Iraq is easy.  The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed.  Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad.  Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request.  For this mission I had to submit two Air Force and three Marine Air Support requests.    Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission.  Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change.  The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved.  This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website.  Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in.  It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930.  This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.

I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare.  Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep.  I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep.  I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep.  I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out.  I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel.  The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel.  I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.

The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors.  All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft.  When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft.  This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling.  We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed.  As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft.  As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed Wiley-X ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD.  Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center.  The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry.  Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985.  Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over.  Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded.  As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.

As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish.  With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off.  Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude.  The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.

The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read.  Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo.  Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind.  When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach.  As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft.  The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats.  Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.

Passengers disembark from a C-130 at Al Asad

After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts.  Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal.  After being accounted for we got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal.  The tents were large and poorly lit with plywood floors and several air conditioners built into the sides of the tent.  The bunks were in very poor condition, many broken and even more with dirty worn out mattresses sagging in the middle.  Nelson and I looked at each other and Nelson made some comments about the accommodations and we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit in order to clean up before trying to go get some chow.

Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar: the California Line.

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Going to War: Flying in Al Anbar on C-130s

C-130’s in Iraq

This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year.  In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more on the story of my deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I have reached the point that I can again write about this so on occasion I will post these articles which now deal with our actual operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in the province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: https://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/

Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north .  Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien.  Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.

C-130 unloading its passengers

Nothing in Iraq is easy.  The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed.  Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad.  Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request.  For this mission I had to submit 2 Air Force and 3 Marine Air Support requests.    Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission.  Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change.  The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved.  This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website.  Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in.  It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930.  This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.

I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare.  Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep.  I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep.  I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep.  I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out.  I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel.  The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel.  I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.

The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors.  All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft.  When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft.  This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling.  We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed.  As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft.  As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD.  Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center.  The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry.  Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985.  Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over.  Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded.  As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.

Interior shot of a C-130

As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish.  With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off.  Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude.  The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.

The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read.  Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo.  Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind.  When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach.  As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft.  The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats.  Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.

Padre Steve Chillin’ at Al Asad Terminal

After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts.  Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal and got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal where we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit to clean up before trying to go get some chow.

Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar the California Line.

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Padre Steve’s Thanksgiving Thoughts

The Abbess: “Steve would you pray for the food?”

Padre Steve: “Dear Lord we pray for this turkey and all of it’s relatives on this Thanksgiving. We ask you to comfort them in their sorrow and give them your peace. Amen.”   Padre Steve’s Thanksgiving prayer from 1992.  I think the last time that we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner.

I am on duty tonight, pretty tired and I have been pretty busy this evening.  Hopefully things will settle down and no one will take any turns for the worse that will cause them or their families to have to mourn on this Thanksgiving 2009.  We have several in pretty bad shape as well as some I know not in hospital who are in pretty dire straits.

But since things have settled down a little I do need on this Thanksgiving Eve pause to give thanks for all of the blessings that I have been given.  I also need to give thanks for  wife who has had to suffer all of my rough edges, refusal to completely grow up, my wanderlust, dreams as well as my obsession with work, academics and yea verily, even baseball.

I am grateful for so many things but most of all the Abbess of the Abby Normal.  This dear soul has put up with me yea these 26 years of marriage and the 31 years that we have known each other.  She has had to deal with a husband who has devoted himself to a military career and vocation as a Priest that has spanned 28 years of that time.  She has endured separations too many to count and a decent number of deployments, unaccompanied tours and temporary duty out of the areas that we have lived.  In the 20 or so months that I have been back from Iraq she has also had to deal with my struggle with PTSD and all the trimmings that go with it.  Likewise she has had to see me grieve my dad, who though still alive only exists in body and does not know me anymore. I am truly thankful for the wife that I am blessed to have.

I think I have tried this dear woman’s patience quite often in our marriage, of course I do not think that she has forgotten the 1992 “Prayer for the Food.”  It is dangerous sometimes to ask me to pray because I might just take you literally, as I did the Abbess back in 1992 who slipped up and instead of asking me to “ask a blessing on the meal” “say grace” or simply “give thanks” but rather asked me to “pray for the food.” Something that I did, and I think that the prayer was actually longer as I remember making eye contact with her during the prayer as she glared daggers at me as the guests either giggled or listened in stunned silence. This will surprise no one who really knows me well.  Tonight as I made my rounds in our cardiac care unit I noticed one of the newer high-tech CPR dummies looking bored in the training/ conference room.  I had to remedy the situation.  Taking the obviously bored and neglected dummy I set him in a high-backed office chair facing the television which happened to be on.  I so arranged him so that a person coming in the room would see the back of the head, which happens to be bald like mine as it was looking at the TV.

Bob the CPR Dummy Watching TV

A person entering from the hallway into the unit would see the profile for the dummy.  This one is kind of cool as it has a shirt and the facial features are more realistic than the old style.  I did let the charge nurse know so he could get a laugh out of anyone who does a double take as they enter the unit bleary eyed at two or three in the morning.  I mentioned my misdeeds to my buddies Cinda and Jennifer over in the PICU who both got a laugh out of it.

Bob Chilling Out

I think the greatest honor that I had on a Thanksgiving  was in 2007 serving in Iraq. I got  a chance to serve the troops and workers in the chow hall at TQ after coming back that afternoon from an aborted mission to Waleed on the Syrian border when our air support mission was cancelled when a host of Congressmen, Senators and dignitaries decided that they needed to visit Iraq leaving us and quite a few others marooned at Al Asad’s air terminal for 4 days as they flew about Iraq in our aircraft.  Thankfully when I knew that we could not get anywhere the west and that we had to return to TQ so we could prepare for our next mission later in the week I got us on a C-130 back to TQ which delivered us home in time for me to help serve at the dinner that night.  I was in charge of the Mac n’ Cheese and the Sweet potatoes.  So since Mac n’  Cheese was not in my typical Thanksgiving dinner growing up I figured that I had to sell it.  So with that in mind as each person came up to where I was I would say “Get your Mac n’ Cheese, an American Classic….8 of 10 customers agree that this is the best Mac n’ Cheese in Iraq.”  The servers from the Gulf Catering Company who were to my right and left, both from the Indian subcontinent somewhere had very limited English but were laughing as I served people and even called people over to my serving station from across the room. When the workers got a chance to come up and eat knowing that they were mainly vegetarians  I would say, “step right up, get your Mac n’ Cheese an American delicacy making American kids fat for years.” I don’t know if they bought the shtick but they did come back for more and most were smiling.

This year because of my duty schedule as well as my comprehensive exams the Abbess has done most of the work, even the turkey which is usually my job. When I go home I will help her with what I can since she has worked hard to get ready for this.  After all, we haven’t hosted one of these since 1992 so I’d better help.

Anyway, it is late and with any luck the Deity Herself will grant me a night’s sleep with no 2 AM pages.

Peace and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Please pray for my fellow Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who serve in harm’s way, those who suffer the wounds of war in any form and those in need in the USA as well as around the world.  Despite all of our countries issues we still have so much to be thankful for to live in such a country.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I know that I am grateful and thankful for all the blessings that God has given me and all the people who have been there for me.  God bless you again.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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