Tag Archives: al asad

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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Going to War: Life at TQ, Chuck Norris Visits and Mass Casualties

While we prepared for our first mission we adjusted to what life was like on a large airbase and logistics hub. Ta Qaddum is one of the larger Iraq Air Force bases from Saddam’s time but has a history going back to the old Royal Air Force base at Habbinyah which is just down the hill.  In 1941 the Iraqi Army laid siege to the British forces in Habbinyah from the escarpment that overlooks the town from what is now the northern edge of TQ.  One only has to imagine the feelings of the Iraqi soldiers short on supply and exposed to air attack on the escarpment while waiting for German intervention only to be driven off by the British when their relief force arrived from Jordan.

iraqi bomber at tqWrecked Iraqi Bomber at TQ

The Iraqi legacy on the base looms in some of the infrastructure as well as the hulks of Soviet made Iraqi Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft near the edge of the airfield.  When I was there in 2007-2008 the base was under the command of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group or 2nd MLG.  The MLG is a command and control headquarters for logistics support units of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.  It is tailored to support the Ground Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Division and the Air Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Air Wing and attached units.  Its function is similar to an Army Corps Support Command or whatever the Army calls them now.  TQ was also the home of several helicopter squadrons Marine and Army as well as a local defense force at the time made up of the 1st Battalion 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton. 1/11 was an artillery battalion but was being primarily used as a security and convoy protection force.  Other units including Navy Seabees and Army logistics units operated from TQ.  A Marine Infantry Battalion was stationed in Habbinyah while elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were operating in the area as part of the surge.

The base is about mid-range on the amenity scale for troop comfort. At the time we were there the only non-DFAC/ Chow Hall was the Green Beans Coffee trailer as opposed to places like Al Asad and Camp Victory which had a multiplicity of fast food places for the troops.  The Marines are tougher on communication security than the Army and many websites which troops could use on other bases were unavailable unless one went to the Iraqi internet café or the MWR computer and phone center.  The Iraqi run shop had the fastest internet on the base but you had to contend with huge amounts of second hand smoke and pay a nominal charge to use it.  The MWR facility often had broken machines, had a waiting list to use them and the connections were very poor with pages slower to load that the old dial up days.  On the plus side TQ did have a relatively decent Marine Corps exchange, not as big as Al Asad or Camp Victory, but one of the larger exchanges in Iraq and second only to Al Asad in the West.  Most places including Ramadi had pretty small and not well stocked exchanges.  TQ had nice fitness center facilities which I used a lot being coached by Nelson.

060Chaplains and RPs with Chuck Norris

The base MWR worked with the USO and other agencies to bring sports stars or celebrities to the base.  Just before we left on our first mission Chuck Norris came through.  Chuck was made an “Honorary Marine” a few years back and has made it his task to try to meet every Marine deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaking the hand of each one he met.  The chapel was the host facility for the visit which last about 2 hours in which Chuck pressed the flesh and had his picture taken with probably close to 5000 Marines and other personnel, maybe more.  The Chaplains were drafted to be the photographers and I lost count of how many different types of digital cameras that I took pictures with.  Chuck enjoyed the heck out of Nelson and was impressed with his fighting resume.  I think that Nelson got more face time with Chuck than anyone on the base and he deserved it.  Chuck was accompanied by Chaplain Langston and RP1 Roland our friend from Fallujah.  After they were done he had to get on the waiting helo and fly out to his next stop.

058Chuck and Nelson

The chow halls, of which there were two, were large and usually had a pretty good menu.  I especially came to like the Indian nights where Indian specialties were served.  Since many of the cooks employed by Gulf Catering who had the contract were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Ceylon so it generally was pretty good unless they had to scrounge for suitable ingredients.  I like the curry chicken, but occasionally it was made with chicken nuggets when the real chicken was in short supply.  It almost reminded me of the Spam Lamb in the TV series M*A*S*H or the great quote out of the movie Meatballs: “Attention. Here’s an update on tonight’s dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight’s mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed “some kind of beef.”   I think that there were a number of times when I really wondered what the meat was.  They usually had a pretty good salad bar unless resupply convoys were interrupted and fresh vegetables had run out.  There were a number of times where the pickins were slim and Nelson and I had to get creative.  Breakfast was usually good with a good choice of food choices, some even healthy.  The workers were great, always friendly despite working 12 hour days 6 days a week for $300 a month.  Many had signed up through agencies which cost them $4000 so the first year that many worked was for nothing.  It was in my opinion a case of a KBR/ Halliburton subcontractor using them in effect as indentured servants and pretty well damned close to slaves, all legal by the US Government.  I thought that it was pretty immoral and certainly a case of a company contracted by the government reducing labor costs on the back of some of the poorest people in the world. Back at the end of the Cold War the military downsized and eliminated most of the Army and Marine mess specialists which paved the way for the contracting industry, led by the former Secretary of Defense and his Halliburton team to begin their massive contracting operations with the Bosnia deployments back in 1995.  They were limited to their own compound far away from anything and were always the last to eat.  They were polite and really tried to accommodate sometimes rude and condescending Americans, the local management did the best they could to give them good accommodations but were limited by their parent company.  Many of the workers were Roman Catholic or Anglican Christians  and Fr Jose had a great ministry that he took on to support them by going to their camp a couple of times a week to celebrate Mass.  His masses were packed and what a source of life and the love of God he was to so many people at TQ, Americans and non-Americans alike.

988Fr Jose on the bank of the Euphrates at Habbinyah

About a week after we got to TQ Marines from the battalion in Habbinyah were hit in an IED complex ambush while on patrol.  A couple of vehicles were hit, Jose was across the base celebrating Mass and Pat was in Fallujah.  A chaplain was needed in the Shock Surgical Trauma Unit or SSTP.  Wounded were being brought in, the platoon had been hit hard, 14 wounded and a couple killed.  I figured that since I was a pretty experienced trauma and critical care chaplain who had dealt with over 500 deaths, many traumatic with bullet wounds, burns and the host of other types of trauma, and tended to probably twice that many who did not die that I could handle this.  When I got to the SSTP I was greeted by a couple of nurses and docs and briefed as to what was going on.  Within a few minutes the casualties were beginning to roll in as the UH-60 Dust-off MEDIVAC helicopters landed and teams went out to meet them.  Some were ambulatory, or walking wounded bandaged with lacerations and burns on their faces and upper bodies, other were brought in on stretchers and ushered into the treatment beds in the area outside the OR.  It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H as the well honed surgical teams, surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and corpsmen went to work.  I now work with a number of these fine people. I was able to make my way about to the wounded Marines, praying with some, holding hands as and with a couple performing the sacrament of healing, or the anointing of the sick.  As I listen to Marines, prayed with them or anointed them there was a tremendous sense that this was different than what I did at Parkland or Cabell-Huntington.  These young men wore the same uniform that I wore, served the same country that I served and travelled the same roads that I would soon be on.  As each was assessed and moved off to surgery, prepared for further evacuation or treated and sent to a ward I noticed the little things about each of them.  The wounds, the torn uniforms, the burns and even the tattoos, these were our guys, they weren’t gang bangers or criminals but young Americans fighting a brutal war against a enemy that had terrorized Iraqis and found devastating ways to kill Americans.  Some of the Marines asked if they would be okay, others asked about friends and in those moments I learned what it was to care and be with men traumatized by the violence and brutality of war against an enemy that would not fight by our rules, much as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to fight our war.  The enemy was clever and determined and his weapons were deadly.

Stars and Stripes sstpTQ Surgical During Mass Casualty Event (Stars and Stripes Photo)

The teams did their work quickly and soon the event in the ER was done as the Marines were moved off to OR, the ward or further evacuation. I spent some time talking with unit Corpsmen and less wounded Marines and learned about the attack. They were in a convoy heading back to Habbinyah when the there was an enemy contact ahead of them.  As they moved forward to engage a primary and secondary IED hit the convoy heavily damaging two trucks with an ensuing firefight.  The Marines fought off their attackers, the wounded were treated and security set up as Dust-off came in to evacuate the wounded.  I thought back to my days as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and remembered my friends who had elected to apply for flight school to become Dust-off pilots.  I remembered learning to call in MEDIVAC missions and some of the Army MSC aviators that I knew; some had flown in Vietnam, being a Dustoff pilot can be a sporty occupation.  They fly an unarmed bird into hot landing zones and get badly wounded troops to medical facilities in 100 degree plus weather without killing them enroute, those guys are good. As the crowd dissipated I spend so time with some of the staff.  Eventually with night having fallen I began the walk back to my office in the Chapel.  I looked up at the night sky, in the darkness a another UH-60 sat down to pick up others being evacuated on to Baghdad or Balad.  I looked up at the sky and saw more stars than I had seen at any time since I was at sea on the USS HUE CITY.  It was amazing; it looked like you could almost walk across them from horizon to horizon. When I got to my office I checked on my our mission status, I had submitted our first Air Support Request earlier in the day, of course it had not moved yet, but at least it gave me something to do.  I checked my unclassified e-mail and knew that there was nothing that I could share with anyone so I looked at baseball scores, checked a couple of news sites and headed off to my “can.”

medivacPackaging a Casualty for Further Evacuation on the TQ Surgical Pad

That night I did not sleep well, the images of the wounded Marines were burned into my mind; I could see their faces, their wounds and their tattoos.  I prayed the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer using Psalm 91 and the prayer “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” I took some comfort in this, walked out again into the night to see illumination rounds in the vicinity of Habbinyah and the distant sound of automatic weapons fire.   For once my insomnia was not related to jet lag or exhausting night flights, it was instead a realization that what happened to these Marines could well happen to me as I we launched later in the week.

The next morning another eight or ten Marines from the same company came in, this time I went to the SSTP with Jose and we did a tag team match, we tried to determine religious affiliation of the wounded Marines with him taking the Roman Catholics to provide sacramental needs and me taking the rest.  Once again the images were vivid; these Marines were on a mission to recover the damaged vehicles and were hit by IEDs on their way back to base.  This time one Marine was killed.  I walked to the graves registration and mortuary affairs team with the battalion surgeon and a corpsman who were to identify the body.  I listened to their frustration and heartache as they described what they had been through the past two days.  The company had taken over 20 casualties including 3 dead.  A high percentage of casualties for a unit that probably numbered about 120 men.  Once again I walked back, this time in the hot mid-morning sun with Jose to the Chapel.  We talked for a while about the past two days, he knew the battalion that had been hit well as he supported them as well.  The surgeon was one of his parishioners.  After we went our separate ways I did my morning prayer and settled in to study more about where we were going.  Nelson and I got PT later in the evening and I spent a restless night in my “can” playing computer Maj-Jong and Chess on my laptop deep into the morning.  Once again I spent time walking in the dark looking at the vast sea of stars above me.

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq

The Art and Science of Staying Awake and Going to Sleep When You Have PTSD

“The blood level in my caffeine is getting too high” Woody Paige on ESPN’s Around the Horn

opus coffeeToday: 3 24 Ounce Cups of Southern Pecan Coffee with French Vanilla Creamer and Splenda

Which came first the chicken or the Egg McMuffin?  That is the type of life I have when it comes to a little thing that you never notice until you can’t do it…something called sleep.  Today is one of those days where the inner Chinese kids, Yin and Yang are trying to get themselves into some kind of equilibrium, or maybe even equilibriumnumnum after a pretty rough week and a night on call at the medical center.  As usual my insomnia and anxiety have joined their ever loving hands together to ensure that I have had less than optimal sleep.  Yesterday’s on call duty and that of last night was fairly relaxed.  I had my new residents with me getting oriented to pulling duty and I have to say they are a fun bunch. We have two Americans and two Canadians all with great senses of humor and all who have had some kind of combat tour.   I actually like being around them which I cannot say of everyone that I have worked with in 28 plus years in the military.  They are a joy.  Likewise I love being around the hospital staff doing my rounds at night and to top things off there were no tragedies.

This being said I still could not get to sleep last night which kind of tops off a week of crappy or too little sleep.  Love them or leave them crappy or insufficient sleep over a long period of time beat the hell out of you.  I know, it has me and to make an astute observation it makes me tired.

My battles with insomnia began about a third of the way into my Iraq tour. When we came back from a mission I would go to my “Can” and just sit awake either reading, playing chess on my computer or going out and watching the Dustoff helicopters coming in and out of the Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon helipad or looking off to the perimeter to see illumination rounds lighting up the night sky and hearing occasional gunfire and explosions.  It was incredibly hard to get to sleep no matter how tired I was.  That continued the whole tour and got worse.  Part was the late night flights that we so often took, part the danger that we faced and part the conditions that we slept in. At one FOB in Ramadi we stayed in an old trailer that we could hear the rats chewing on the ceiling. When we had to stay in Al Asad to catch a morning flight after having flown in our tents were near the flight line and F-18s flying in and out all night do not make for a quiet and restful night’s rest.  In some of the more remote FOBs the isolation and vulnerability made it hard to rest.  I think that it was about two-thirds of the way through that the dreams and nightmares started.

Doonesbury-082108Too True I can Relate

Having talked to others with PTSD or other combat related injuries of the brain and nervous system I find that I am not alone and most of us are mid-grade to senior career officers.  It’s kind of weird because when you are young in the military you are taught just to “suck it up” and as you go through your career you tell others the same thing until it happens to you. Thus for us old guys I think PTSD is actually harder than for young people because it destroys our world view and our tough personas which most up us have cultivated over a long period of time.  My friends and I share the same or similar experience and we all are trying some way of managing it.  All of us have some drugs, the legal kind of course to help us with anxiety, panic, depression and insomnia.  However there are times when the drugs don’t work as well as they should, or they need to be adjusted or changed.  In those times you still have to find ways of getting to sleep and for the times where you can’t sleep ways of keeping sharp so you can stay in the game and not screw anything up.

bean church 1Staying Awake

Some guys I know have added to the mix other kinds of over the counter drugs and supplements.  I don’t do that, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I guess I never grew up.  I like my medicine whenever possible to taste good.  Thus my self-medication is limited to caffeine and really good beer.   My choice in caffeine is coffee which I have been drinking since I was 12 and I believe that by my junior year of high school Navy Junior ROTC my index finger was beginning to mould itself into the shape of a coffee cup handle.  With caffeine there is little moderation because since I don’t sleep I need to stay awake.  My alcohol consumption is moderate and I don’t drink hard liquor.  I always try to maintain the Yin and Yang of the blood to medicine to caffeine and alcohol at some kind of balance so I can get to sleep and then not be exhausted the next day.  I make sure that I don’t mix alcohol with my meds since I don’t want to do the Karen Anne Quinlan thing and end up in a coma, and end up in a broccolitative or asperagative state (I don’t do just any vegetables thank you).  However I know guys who have a lot heavier load of meds than I do who have no problem ingesting them and alcohol close together and most of these guys don’t just drink limited amounts of beer.  I’m quite happy not to be there and mixing meds and alcohol.  So for me the equation looks like this.  Please note I am a historian and not a mathematician and that since this is a new field of study for me that it does not yet factor in sleep quality:

Drugs- caffeine² ± beer÷ “defensive factor” (anxiety+ hyper-vigilance) + normal work and life stress ÷ spirituality factor² = sleep

Now also since I am a Priest and Chaplain there is the spirituality factor which is hard to quantify but can be stated very simply “Please God let me sleep + have I been to a baseball game.”  This is hard to quantify but I have given it a numeric value for the sake of argument. Now I’m not a mathematician by any means but this seems to work somehow.

axieties and dreamsYep…Them Iraqi Snorklewackers Show up Often

Now back to me and the guys I know who struggle with this.  Pretty much to a man we all still manage to do our jobs.  In fact we all love what we are called to do which probably helps us as far as the management of our situation.  Many of the folks I know are like me and if we had the chance would go back to the fight.  You put us together with men and women who have similar experiences in combat and we are in our element, there is a shared brotherhood because of the real dangers that we faced.  However that is not necessarily true of others that we serve alongside who have not been, as is oft said “in the shit.” Within that category there are those who are people that help us and care for us, they are appreciated even if they have not been in our shoes.  The often exude a kindness and love that helps us make it when we have bad days.  But there are also those that don’t always seem to have our interests at heart or who would appear by their words and sometimes their actions to use our injury against us.

garfield show me the coffeeAmen!

So this whole deal gets weird when you can’t sleep due to anxiety or insomnia and have to maintain your ability to do your job.  Now this is where the art and science of self medication come together. You have to be able to figure out how things balance out. Medications are set by prescription unless you throw in a wild card of over the counter meds and supplements.  Thus for me they are a relatively stable factor.  Then you factor in the caffeine factor.  This may vary but in my case I drink 24-72 ounces a day of coffee which is usually spread over a 4-8 hour period, and maybe 12-24 ounces of Diet Coke, Coke Zero or Diet Dr Pepper later in the day.  My caffeine level is variable based on how tired I am. If I am well rested the amount consumed goes down.  Today I was maxing out the caffeine factor because my ass was whipped and it was all I could do to get through the day.  Today I was so wiped that I added in the Skittles factor to get the quickie sugar rush.  I hate skittles, when we were poor in seminary it was the only candy we got because the church food bank gave them out.  Skittles, Boston Baked Beans, Swee Tarts and Smarties are all great instant energy, the problem with them is that they are like lighting the afterburner; they are only good for short spurts.  Beer varies but if I am home I might have two beers at dinner.  I have stopped any late night drinks.  Then there is the “defensive factor” which for me includes my anxiety and hyper-arousal levels.  This is combined with normal life and stress and divided by the spirituality factor to get a night’s sleep.  That is the science.  The art is how to make the adjustments to the factors that are variable fit the current life situation and find those illusive Chinese kids, Yin and Yang.

pub1

So the week is coming to a close, I have now been up 36 of the last 40 hours and have worked every day since last Monday, though Saturday and Sunday were just a few hours each despite having the duty pagers. I am tired I had a decent meal complete with vegetables, several portions of fruit and other healthy things.   As soon as the Orioles game is over I plan on heading to bed and hoping my meds and my general sense of exhaustion will overcome any anxiety or insomnia that might join hands to interfere with me.  I think I have managed to bring old Yin and Yang into balance for the evening and if I didn’t I I do hope that the Deity Herself will assist this effort tonight.

Peace, Padre Steve+

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Revisiting the Demons of PTSD: Returning to Iraq in Virginia a Year and a Half Later

Today I am attending a conference on Caregiver Operational Stress Control.  This brought out my “demons” as I was faced with the stories of others who had been to the same places that I have been in Iraq, and experienced similar things that I experienced on my return.  This is a re-posting of something that I wrote in March at the very beginning of this blog.  At that time I had very few readers.

I am glad to be at this training today.  I needed to take a Xanax when I arrived because I don’t do well with these kind of events anymore.  The intial session and a video of Dr Heidi Kraft talking about her expereinces at Al Taqaduum where I was based out of.  I was scheduled for another meeting but I knew that I needed to be here.  So I asked my Department Head who was going to the meeting if I could stay and he allowed me to do so. God bless him.

I received a note from a new friend in another country’s military, a physician with multiple tours in Afghanistan.  He is dealing with many of the things that I discuss in this essay and had a bad day that took him back to Afghanistan.  I am sure that he is not alone as I deal with many people in my Medical Center who have similar experiences.  Yesterday I was walking down a hallway near our Operating Room and I saw a pretty good sized blood spill on the floor. I was surprised at my reaction as I kept seeing it in my mind the rest of the day and flashbacks to Iraq and the TQ Shock Surgery Trauma platoon where I was pulled into a couple of the last major mass casualty events where 10-15 Marines or soldiers came in at a time. I began to see those wounder Marines on the tables and can visibly see those Marines, their wounds, even tattoos… I hope this helps break the code of silence.  I wrote this on a particularly rough day and will repost some of those early essays as they are still very relevant.  Peace, Steve+

964Trying not to Show my Stress and Exhaustion after 2 weeks out while in between flights at Al Asad

The feeling of abandonment and aloneness, separation and disconnection run deep for those returning from unpopular wars in which the majority of the citizens take no part.  The effects are devastating.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their lives in the years after that war.  Last year the Army had its highest number of active duty suicides ever recorded, January and February of 2009 have been banner months for Army suicides.  Of course as I noted in my previous post these numbers don’t include reservists and Guardsmen who have left active duty or veterans dischaged from the service.  Neither do they include the host of service men and women who died from causes undetermined.

Many veterans attempted to return to “normal life” and family following the war. Many only to have marriages fall apart, continue or leave untreated alcohol and drug addictions acquired in country which often follow them back destroying lives, families and careers.  Most felt cast aside and abandoned by the goverment and society. Many got through and return to life with few visible effects, but the scars live on.  My dad would never talk about his experience in the city of An Loc in 1972 where he as a Navy Chief Petty Officer was among a small group of Americans operating an emergency airstrip in the city which was besieged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for 80 days.  I do know that it affected him, he wasn’t the same when he returned, he was a lot more tense and had some problems initially with alcohol.  He never talked about his time there.

I have seen the effects of this in so many lives,  I remember a Vietnam vet who attempted to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chin in Dallas during my hospital residency.  He forgot to factor in recoil and blew off his face without hitting his brain or any major arteries.  He survived…talk about having something to be depressed about later.  I have seen the tears as veterans rejected by the country during and after than war begin to seek community with their wartime brothers, men who had experienced the same trauma followed by rejection and abandonment by the people that sent them to Southeast Asia.  One only has to talk to veterans of the Ia Drang, Khe Sahn, Hue City, the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta or read their stories to know what they have gone through.  LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once..and Young and We are Soldiers Still have deeply penatrating and soul searching views of Vietnam as does Bing West in The Village. Bernard Fall does the same from a French perspective in Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy. Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace discusses and tells the story of many French soldiers in Algeria, who fought a war, won it militarily and had their government abandon them, bringing out a mutiny and coup atempt by French Soldiers who had fought in Indochina, were almost immediately back in action in Algeria with little thanks or notice from thier countrymen.  Abandonment is an ever present reality and “demon” for many of us who have served regardless of our nationality, French, Canadien or American who have fought in wars that have not engaged the bulk of our fellow citizens. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and tocuh it, trace the outline of a name, look upon the makeshift memorials and tokens of remembrance left by comrades who came home and understand the sorrow and the sacrifice.

Unfortunately we would like to think that this is something out of history that we have learned from and applied the lessons and in doing so no longer have an issue.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  There are many, depending on the study anywhere from8-20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from some type of PTSD, Combat Stress reaction or other psychological malady incurred during their tour. Similar numbers are reported by the Israeli Armed Forces in from the 1973 War forward.   The British are seeing the same now as their veterans return from war.  Canadian Forces assigned to the UN command during the Rwanda genocide suffer horribly from PTSD. The mission commander, LTG Romeo Dalliare now a Senator in the Canadian Parliament is a leading spokesman for those who suffer from PTSD. His book Shake Hands with the Devil is a study of how military professionals were exposed to atrocities that they either were forbidden to stop or lacked the combat power to do so even if they wanted to.  These men and women tell their story in a video put out by Canadian Armed Forces.

105Convoy along Route Uranium

I am not going to rehash stories that I have recounted in my other posts dealing with PTSD here, but both I and many men and women that I know are scarred by the unseen wounds of this war.  We gladly recognize, and rightfully so, those who suffer physical wounds.  At the same time those who are dying inside are often ignored by their commands or if they come out are shunted into programs designed to “fix” them.  In other words make them ready for the next deployment.  I am not saying here that there is an intentional neglect of our service men and women who suffer from PTSD and other issues.  I do not think that is the case, but it is a fact of life. The military is shorthanded and stretched to the breaking point. Many Army Soldiers and US Marines have made 3-5 deployments since 2003. The Navy has sent over 50,000 sailors, not including those assigned with the Marines into “Individual Augmentation” billets in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other fronts in this war.  The Navy personnel, as well as Air Force personnel who perform similar missions often do not have the luxury of going to war and coming home with a particular unit.  We serve often in isolation and incredibly disconnected from our commands, our service is often misunderstood.  Now there are efforts by the services and some commands to do things better to support our sailors, some of these at my own hospital.  However as an institution the military has not fully made the adjustment yet.

Many sailors feel abandoned by the country and sometimes, especially when deployed by the Navy itself.  I have debriefed hundreds of these men and women.  Almost all report anger and use terms such as being abandon, cut off and thrown away by the service and the country.  Those from all services who work in unusual joint billets such as advisers to local military and police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq feel a sense of kinship with each other, often feel a connection to the Iraqis and Afghans but are often not promoted or advanced at the same rate as others who have served in conventional forces in traditional jobs.  There was a film called Go tell the Spartans staring Burt Lancaster about Army advisers in the early stages of Vietnam.  If you see it and have been to Iraq with our advisers you can see some of the same dynamics at work.

At this point we are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars divided the nation and the veterans, though better treated and appreciated by society than most of thier Vietnam counterparts have no memorial.  Words of thanks uttered by politicans and punits abound, our Vietnam era and other fellow veterans in their latter years come to the airports that we fly in and out of to say thank you, but our numbers are rising, the war rages on both in country and in our minds and lives are being lost long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

not a happy camperNot Doing Well on Leave about 5 months After my Return from Iraq

We have to do a better job of ensuring that those who sacrifice so much do not feel that they have been cut off and abandoned while they are in theater and especially when they return. When it is time we need a memorial on the Capitol Mall for those who served in these wars.  I don’t know when that will be, but I do hope to see it in my day.  Sure it’s only symbolic, but symbols can be healing too, just look at the black granite wall rising up from the ground and going back down into it, filled with the names of those who gave their lives and made the supreme sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  Simply known by most as “the Wall” it has become a place of healing and rememberance.  A place to say thank you, goodbye and amen.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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