Tag Archives: al taqaddum

A Fish Called Wanda, Padre Steve and the Five Love Languages

A while back a conservative Christian author published named Gary Demonte Chapman authored a book on marriage and relationships called The Five Love Languages. The book has nearly a cult following in Evangelical Christian circles and is used by many pastors, lay leaders and teachers to help couples develop a sense of intimacy. I think this is commendable but for the life of me I cannot get past the title of the book to read it. Thus apart from internet reviews on Amazon.com I have no earthly idea what languages that Chapman is speaking. Personally I can speak, read and write German and some French and I can say that German class and German Club helped bring Judy and I together at San Joaquin Delta College, I cannot figure out how it would figure in my love life.

The book came out in October 1992 shortly after I graduated from seminary. Many of my friends recommended it as I said I couldn’t get past the title. The book was published four years after I saw the movie A Fish Called Wanda starring Jamie Lee Curtis, John Clease, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline which forever has colored my twisted view on language and love.

When I was in Iraq traveling about the country I had an office space at Taqaddum Air Base Chapel where I coordinated my team’s travels about Al Anbar Province.  Since I was not there most of the time I shared the office with a Chaplain who covered some of the Marine units on the base. He was a Southern Baptist and also did a lot of Bible studies and marriage classes. To do the marriage classes he ordered cases of the Five Love Languages as well as workbooks and videos. A came back from a mission and they filled half of the office. While the chaplain was good and had a good number of takers for his classes I am sure that when we left the base during the withdraw from Iraq that many copies were left behind. I can only image an Iraqi Airman seeing the title and knowing little English think that it was a book on foreign languages.

When I saw the books I could not help but think of the movie. I tried to keep it to myself but shared my humorous insights with others that I knew would understand. Eventually I confessed my twisted musings with the Baptist Chaplain who thankfully appreciated the humor.

In the movie which I do not want to spoil for those that have not seen it, language plays an important part. But because it plays such an important part in this story I have to give away a spoiler. Jamie Lee Curtis, who I have always thought was totally hot plays Wanda Gershwitz . She is the American girlfriend of a character named Friedrich Nietzsche Otto played by Kevin Kline. The two double cross their British partner in crime after robbing a diamond merchant in London with Curtis co-opting British barrister Archie Leach played by John Cleese who is defending the partner that they double crossed. But I digress and don’t want to spoil the whole thing.

However I do have to share the one point that ensured that I could never ever pick up a copy of The Five Languages without laughing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bqn8zoLpvU&feature=related

Anyway Curtiss’ character has an interesting quirk. She gets excited when the men that she makes love to speak foreign languages as they make love to her. Kline’s character Otto was somewhat an idiot and would speak incoherent Italian gibberish as he makes love to her like “Per cominciare, due insalate verdi con peperoni e un linguini primavera.” However she was really taken by Cleese who when she asks him if he speaks Italian says “I am Italian! Sono italiano in spirito. Ma ho sposato una donna che preferisce lavorare in giardino a fare l’amore appassionato. Uno sbaglio grande! But it’s such an ugly language. How about… Russian?”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyKy2JzREiE

The rest is history.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under books and literature, Just for fun, marriage and relationships, movies

Casing the Colors in Iraq

Today the colors were cased in a ceremony at the US Airbase co-located at the Baghdad International Airport.  It really is hard to believe that this excursion in Mesopotamia is over.  The ceremony marked the formal end to the US military operation in Iraq although a few thousand troops are finishing the retrograde of equipment from the country.

The fact that we might not end up in Iraq again if the Iranians push their Iraq Arab Shia friends too hard. They may share a common strain of Islam but there really is no love lost between the Arabs and the Persians as many Iraqis will derisively call them.  The Iraqis are a proud people and remember Persian rule like it was yesterday. The Persians treated Arabs like dirt and though it was centuries ago the Arabs have not forgotten.  My Iraqi friends both Sunni and Shia recognized that Iran was a threat and hope that if Iran ever attempted to take Iraq over that we would help defend Iraq.

The current US involvement is over after 4484 American service members were killed in action and 32000 wounded.  318 coalition Allied troops died.  The Iraqi Security Forces have lost 8825 soldiers killed with a further 1300 killed during the initial invasion of the country.  Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed and some agencies have estimated far higher totals.  Of course the Iraqis are still taking casualties as extremist groups both Shia and Sunni continue their blood feud and the Shia majority tries to solidify its power over the minority former ruling party Sunni.  Over a trillion dollars was spent on the war by the United States and long term costs are expected to reach 2-3 Trillion dollars.  Of course Iraq is still reeling from all of the damage and its involvement in wars with Iran from 1980-1988, the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and the United States response Operation Desert Storm, the post war sanctions and the enforcement of an oil embargo and a no-fly zone to keep Saddam contained even as he butchered thousands of Iraqis who rose up against him after he was driven from Kuwait and the the current war which began in 2003.

But the numbers are not just numbers, behind every one is a family, wives, husbands, parents, siblings and children as well as friends.  Every one has a name and a face and all meant something to somebody and left a void when they died or were irreversibly changed by the war.  That pain and cost will go on for a long time and there are no words that adequately compensate for these losses. Faith and trust in God’s grace help some but others struggle, even believers.  That I know for a fact because I still do.

I remember flying into Baghdad in 2007 it was the height of the “surge” and I was going to provide Chaplain support to US Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border, Police and other Security Forces in Al Anbar Province.  At the time the base was shelled and when we exited the aircraft it was no peacetime drill we left in our full gear and were brief on what to do should we encountered incoming fire.  It was in Baghdad that I first experienced a rocket attack when one flew over my head.  But now the bases are empty, it must be surreal to be one of the last Americans leaving the country.

For me the end of our involvement is a strange experience.  It was hard to believe in 2007 that we would ever leave. The great edifices that we erected around country some of which were going up even when I was there are mostly empty except for some taken over by the Iraqi military.  Former military bases even in this country are a surreal site.  I have been to a number that were closed following the end of the Cold War.  Fort Wolters Texas near Fort Worth is an example. When I would go to a small section of the base used by the National Guard I would go past many mostly unused buildings including what had been a brand new hospital which opened just before the base was closed following Vietnam. The last time I flew through the former George Air Force Base  when going to and returning from Twenty-Nine Palms it was a ghost town except a few businesses and hundreds of former commercial jets parked on the tarmac. I remember going through recently closed American bases in Germany in the 1990s and saw installations empty. I was also the final Federal Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when it was transferred to the National Guard.  Built during World War II it was a throwback to a different era. The base has been revitalized as a sizable ground and aviation training center by the Guard with much new construction but the sight of all the World War II “temporary” wooden buildings was amazing. Vast areas of the base we unused and some complete areas were demolished. I helped in getting the main Post Chapel Renovated in order that the existing congregation would be able to continue with a contract Chaplain paid by the Guard and activated or drilling Guard Chaplains.  We had to decommission or convert some to other uses and saved one which was donated to a church 40 miles away who paid to have it deconstructed and rebuilt on their own land. But I digress…

When I was in Iraq in many places there were the remains of Saddam Hussein’s military.  The base that I operated from had a number of abandoned or damaged Iraqi bombers and fighter aircraft parked at it.  Of course most of the existing buildings were converted to American use.  The biggest of these were the Al Faw Palace complex at Camp Victory but Camp Fallujah was the site of one of the Baath Party resorts used by Uday and Qusay Hussein.  I stayed there couple of days while traveling from Baghdad to Taqaddum which was my base of operations because of the capability to get around by air to where I needed to go and proximity to many advisor teams supporting the Iraqi First and Seventh Divisions.

Back then all were major bases with a large American presence which was inflated by many of the contractors, American and from other countries that supported base operations from the chow hall, to the laundry, the fire department and even the cleaning of the shower trailers and countless porta-johns.

People will debate for many years whether the war was worth it and I can only say that I hope that history will show that it was despite the huge loss of life, the destruction of a country and the vast expenditure of the national treasury.  It is probably too early to make that judgement, we tend to be pretty bad in making those decisions in the moment.  That is one of the problems in this age of information overload.  We have lots of data but no historical context and we make decisions that we think are correct but find out years later were tragically erroneous.

At the same time we cannot go back in time and change the past. For good or for bad we have to go forward from now and hopefully in time Iraq and its people will recover from the effects of over 30 years of war and economic sanctions.  We will find out over the next 10 to 50 years what the real effect is.  But for now we are left with a weak Iraq, a strong and threatening Iran and our own diminished military capacity and weak economy as well as a war that is not going well in Afghanistan.

I doubt that that can give comfort to the families of those that died in Iraq or came back wounded in mind body or spirit.  I know that I came back different, PTSD has a way of doing that.

But I am proud of the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Iraqi officers that I served alongside in the badlands of Al Anbar Province mostly far away from the immediate help of any big units if they got in trouble.  I know how valiant and skilled they were fighting Al Qaida Iraq and other insurgents and even foreign fighters from places like Chechnya aided by Iran and others.  It was a brutal fight at times but the men of the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and our advisors helped turn the tide during 2007 and 2008.  Without their diligence and toughness combined with the help of Iraqi civilians the war would have ended differently.

Tonight as I walked the dog to the beach I looked up at the sky. In our neighborhood there are not many street lights and most are clustered in one small area. Since many residents are not here in the winter many of the homes are dark as well and there are areas that have no houses but are lots covered in pine trees.  In the dark I was thinking about Iraq and I could hear the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.  I looked up at the sky and saw the most stars I have seen since being out on the Syrian border in December 2007.  I was reminded that I left part of me in Iraq and I pray for the Iraqis that I served with and those that provided us hospitality during our missions.

As I walked I thought of the words of Otto Von Bismarck one of the greatest statesmen that every lived.  Our war in Iraq was a preventive war.  Bismarck said that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”  I pray that in our case that he was not right and that we think long and hard before entering another preventive war with anyone.  Bismarck, who knew war commented that “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the vast majority of our elected leaders have ever done that.  Bismarck was certainly no pacifist but warned us that “I consider even a victorious war as an evil, from which statesmanship must endeavor to spare nations.”

The world is not a safe place and our near about 140,000 US and NATO troops are still engaged against a stubborn enemy in Afghanistan that has been aided by wavering allies such as Pakistan and sworn enemies like Iran.  War seems to threaten on many fronts.  I pray that we will be prudent before entering another.

I have rambled a bit tonight because I have so many thoughts and images of the war.  I trust your indulgence.  But for now the colors have been cased and our military involvement in Iraq is over.  We can only pray that Iraq will recover and become a free and prosperous country that treats its citizens well and that we too will recover from this war.  But then Bismarck is sometimes quoted saying that “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” I do hope that if he did say this that he was right.

Peace and and as my Iraqi friends would say Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Till the Smoke Clears: A Reflection on PTSD and Faith

A morning drive in Iraq, looks like that here too

We are in a drought in Eastern North Carolina and with that drought have come forest and peat fires in the areas surrounding the Crystal Coast. The fires have now shrouded the summer sky with a layer of dense smoke and the National Weather Service is predicting poor air quality and visibilities of a mile or less.

I had been noticing it periodically over the past few weeks and occasionally the stench from the fires would catch me unsuspecting and send me back to Iraq. Anyone that has served in Iraq can testify of the pall of smoke from burn pits and in locations around the cities and countryside of Iraq. Those afflicted with PTSD often have a heightened sense of awareness to things that most people take for granted such as noise, light and smell.  Having experienced this myself and talked to many more men and women that served in Iraq, especially those with PTSD these normal parts of everyday life now seem to be hard wired into our brains along with a need for safety and a certain level of hyper-vigilance.

Sand smoke and clouds

I had to drive to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point for my BLS recertification at the Medical Clinic this morning and the sky was weird hue. It reminded me somewhat of Iraq and the smell of the smoke hit me as did the sound of helicopters and jets taking part in a large exercise.  For a fair amount of the trip I was back in Iraq.  When I returned to LeJeune I had to stop by the UPS Store for a simple transaction and as I was filling out the paperwork someone barged in and slammed the door to the store as the sound of bombs exploding on the bombing ranges of the coast of Camp LeJeune went off. About that time a police car roared by with its siren wailing, just like they did in Iraq. I had to about put myself back into my skin as I remembered a morning doing PT near the perimeter of Taqaddam air base when an explosion rocked the town of Habbinyah less than a mile away with gunfire and sirens following the explosion. That’s some good living.  Hurriedly paying I got out of the store got in my trusty 2001 Honda CR-V and got on the road. As I drove west toward the base the smoke was worse in places as was the stench.

Sunset in the smoke and sand and a smoky day in ENC

I got back to the Hospital and took care of what I needed to do and went home. On the way out the door I could not find my Blackberry. It was nowhere. Not in my uniform, my desk or anywhere. I wracked my brain wondering where it could be.  Then I thought that it had to be at the UPS store, the Cherry Point Clinic or the Cherry Point base gas station.  I was beginning to hit panic mode but was able to calm down and as I drove back home toward the UPS store I just prayed that I had left it there. Thankfully I had and the very kind lady that runs the store had safeguarded it.  Evidently when the other customer had slammed herself through the door I had dropped it out of my hand without even noticing.  That old startle response is still there and thank God for life in small towns.

I finally arrived at home relatively calm and turned on baseball. As I fixed dinner I could hear more bombs exploding on the ocean bombing range which is only about 6 or 7 miles away from my apartment.  Meanwhile the aircraft were much more active even deep into the night. I turned up the television and hunkered down on my big bean bag, finished an article that I began yesterday about the Battle of the Philippine Sea and tried to tune out the aircraft and the occasional explosion.

Hanging on at the end of the Iraq deployment with RP1 Nelson Lebron

A friend of mine recently wrote about the “tentacles of PTSD” which I think is an apt description of the neuro-sensory reactions that are part of life with PTSD.  While I have had a lot fewer reactions over the past few months I have noticed an increase of hyper-arousal and hyper vigilance as these stimuli trigger physical responses to perceived danger.

I remember when I was collapsing in the summer of 2008 there was a rather large and long burning fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. I walked out one morning and the smoke was so thick that the sky looked just like Iraq between the smoke and sandstorms.  That was the day that after a daylong seminar on combat and trauma that my medical officer looked at me and asked if I was okay and I said that I wasn’t. In fact that was around June 16th 2008.  It marked the beginning of me recognizing that I was different and damaged and that nothing was the same including my faith which was shattered to the point that for all practical purposes I was an agnostic. But that day was also my first step to healing.

Now I do not expect a major crash because I am a lot more aware of what is going on and what triggers me. At the same time I do feel less safe in large part due to the sights sounds and smells that are running rampant and reminding me of Iraq. They say that the smoke will be worse tomorrow and the temperatures will also rise into the mid-90s, low by Iraq standards but enough to increase sensitivity to the sights sounds and smells that I and thousands of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the area will experience.

Eventually the smoke from the fires will clear away and with it the neuro-stimuli should decrease and life will return to my “post Iraq normal” where the hyper-vigilance will subside a bit. In the mean time I have the wonderful privilege of caring for and providing ministry to those who like me have returned from war changed.

My faith which was shattered when I returned from Iraq has returned and while I still have days where I have doubts I am no longer an agnostic.  I am able to be with those that doubt and even those that have “broken up with God” to use the term of Sarah Sentilles, especially those who had their faith damaged by war. I see a lot of that here as well as a lot of men and women that have doubts but try to hold onto faith while battling PTSD, TBI, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.  Many like I did probably have to lie to their friends and families about their doubts, fears and struggles because most people don’t want to hear them.  When people do start talking they become “radioactive” to use the term of Dr. Robert Grant.  For me that openness cost me friends in my former denomination and led to me being asked to leave it in September of last year. I am better for the experience but it is still somewhat painful as I see more young men and women coming home from war not only injured or damaged in mind body and spirit but also wondering about the war itself and feeling cut off from their countrymen.  No one likes to talk about that but there are tens of thousands of veterans including many still on active duty that struggle with all of this.

Yes the smoke will clear someday, I am confident that somehow God’s grace mercy and love shown to us in Jesus will get us all through.  Until then we wait for that day when the smoke clears and we can see clearly.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

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

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

Tom Watson: Gentleman, Champion and Supporter of the Troops

Tom Watson and Me

Shaking the Hand of Legendary Golfer and True Champion Tom Watson at Al Taqaddum Iraq 24 Nov 2007

My dad was a golfer.  He began golfing as he was in his last few years in the Navy.  Before he started golfing he was constantly watching it on TV when no baseball was on.  When he retired he began golfing in earnest.  It remained a lifelong passion of his even after he contracted Alzheimer’s disease.  He developed as a golfer and by his early 50’s had developed a decent handicap.  He also would help out as a volunteer at major tournaments at Pebble Beach.   Dad loved golf, but as with everything in his life he took it very seriously.  Sometimes when I visited home on leave dad would take me golfing and let me use his old clubs.  Well, since I would golf once every three to five years I would not do very well.  Before long he would be preaching at me and berating me because he said I had natural talent to hit the ball well and was wasting it.  Those were always interesting outings, as my brother Jeff can testify to himself.

Anyway, back in the 1970s when I was still living at home dad would frequently watch golf on TV.  One of his favorite players was Tom Watson.  Back in those days because of dad I was familiar with almost every major figure in the sport.  However they were not the same to me as like baseball players.  Baseball was more of my sport, though I did and still do appreciate golf and now that my shoulder is getting healed up from the beating it took in Iraq I am going to be getting out on the course on a much more frequent basis once the Minor League Baseball season is over.  The last time I was out in California my brother told me the same thing that my dad did about my ability to hit them ball.  I trust Jeff as he is a very good golfer and had coached golf at the high school level.  I think I am even more attuned to what I’m doing on the golf course because of Iraq and my PTSD.  I am much more in tune with what my body is doing at any given point of time.  I can now feel when a shoulder dips or I pull up on a shot as well as a number of other things that I never noticed before when I would go out on the course.

Because of dad I have retained a latent interest in golf.  So when I heard that Tom Watson was in the lead at the British Open while listening to my local ESPN Sports Radio 1310 on the way home from having the Undead Tooth of Terror extracted my ears perked up.  I had met Tom as well as a number of other golf legends in between missions at Al Taqaddum Air Base which was my home away from home while deployed to Iraq.  Tom and several others came through on a tour.  Now celebrities would make the rounds of Iraq and Afghanistan and I am grateful for them coming to visit, especially when things were not going well and a lot of guys were still getting killed and wounded.  Many times I was out in the far reaches when people would come through so I didn’t see many of them.  My friend Father Jose Bautista-Rojas was an escort for some dignitaries who accompanied the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen on his tour which included Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams.  Jose got to spend some time with them and got me baseball hat signed by both.  He said that Robin said that “I had better be praying for him.”  I thought that was both funny and kind.  I did meet Chuck Norris when he made his 2007 trip through Al Anbar visiting Marines.  He shook about every person’s hand and had pictures taken with them and he didn’t just go to the big bases, but some of the little remote places that I went. I would have liked to meet Robin. I have heard from a number of folks that he is great to military folks.  One thing that I noticed about the celebrities that came out, no matter who they were or what their politics, they were generally very friendly and seemed to care.  Celebrities take a lot of knocks for many reasons, some justified and others not, but when they come out to a combat zone it is appreciated.  I remember my dad talking about the Bob Hope tour that came to his ship off of Vietnam which included Sammy Davis Junior and Charro.

Anyway, I met Tom at Al Taqaddum in between mission’s right after Thanksgiving on November 24th 2007.  He and his group comprised of him David Feherty, Butch Harmon, Joe Inman, Tom Lehman and Howard Twitty were some of the finest and kindest men I have ever met while deployed.  These men took time with every Marine, Soldier and Sailor who came to see them.  They not only signed items but they gave away more things to our folks than I have seen given anywhere.  I received a hat signed by Tom and the others from the Rider Cup Team, and a picture signed by all, personalized to me.  That was really cool.  While talking with Tom I told him about my dad and his condition as well as my brother.  I asked if it would be possible to get something signed for them.  Tom got with the other guys and had a hat signed for my brother and each of the golfers inscribed a person message to my dad on the pictures.  They all expressed their well wishes to him and prayers for his health.  I was really touched by what gentlemen all of these men were.

I watched the last part of the British Open today pulling for Tom, but unfortunately he lost in the playoff to Stewart Cink after making bogey on 18. The golf miracle story ended with Tom finishing in second place, but even still he was not expected to do what he did even a week ago.  I really felt bad for him as he stood with tears in his eyes.  Despite the fact that he finished second Tom Watson to me is a gentleman, sportsman, a supporter of us who serve in unpopular wars, a man of compassion and a true Champion.  God bless you Tom and thank you for what you did for my dad while I was in Iraq.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, celebrities, golf, iraq,afghanistan