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Veterans Day 2010: Counting the Cost of War

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” General Robert E. Lee

Veterans Day had become a rather somber occasion for me over the past decade and since returning from Iraq in 2008 has taken on added personal significance.  I have noticed that I have become much more reflective about the sacrifices made by our military and the terrible coasts of war on our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and their families in this age of the all volunteer military.  The military which has about 2,225,000 members including the Reserves and National Guard is just 0.7% of the total population, the lowest percentage of military personnel compared to total population during any war in our history.  As a result this force has borne the brunt of a war that no politicians or bureaucrats figured would last half as long as it has.  As a result the “few” have been asked to do more for longer than and military that this nation has ever fielded during a war.

Thus for me Veterans Day has become a rather somber and reflective occasion as I ponder all the sacrifices made by our military and their families. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military has lost 1378 killed and our allies another 825.  In Iraq 4427 U.S. Military personnel have died along with 318 allied soldiers, not including the Iraqi military losses.  For each of the killed there are about 8 more wounded a total of over 38,000 wounded.  Of course the wounded numbers do not include 170,000+ cases of hearing damage; 130,000+ cases of mild traumatic brain injuries; and 200,000+ cases of serious mental health problems, over 30,000 serious disease cases, including a disfiguring, parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which results from bites of sand flies; thousands of cases of respiratory disease linked to exposure to toxic burn pit smoke and hundreds of suicides.  Then there are the injuries related to road and aviation accidents not in direct combat.  In my recent assignments in Iraq and Naval Medical facilities I have seen the human cost of the war.  I have friends who suffer as the result of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and Pulmonary diseases as well as those that have been wounded as the result enemy action.  I have a dear friend with a rare and irreversible pulmonary condition from two tours in Iraq. He is 41 his lungs are those of a 70 year old man.  My best friend, a senior Naval Officer is still suffering from the effects of TBI and PTSD incurred while serving with the Marines in Al Anbar Province.

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA-19 off Vietnam circa 1971-72

A year ago on Veterans Day I was at with my parents in Stockton California to visit my mom and my dad who was then in a nursing facility due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a terrible visit conflict with my mother due to witches’ brew of my PTSD and grief for my dad and my mother’s struggles with my dad’s condition and her own physical condition.  I visited my dad every day when in two and unfortunately he did not know who I was, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of everything that made him my dad.  He died on June 23rd of this year a day after I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander.  My dad was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam on a beach detachment manning an emergency airfield in the besieged city of An Loc in 1972.  He never talked about that tour or what happened there except to tell me that he saw the Communists executing civilians in the city from his observation point.  He came home a changed man.  Thankfully he is now out of his suffering and our family is beginning to find its way back from the abyss of his illness.

I have served for over 29 years in the Army and the Navy and have witnessed many things and been blessed to have my life enriched by many veterans.  Unfortunately many of these brave men have since passed away, some having lived many years and others that have died far too young as a result of service connected injuries.

With advisors to the 3rd Bn, 3rd Brigade 7th Iraq Division COP South 2008

In my current work I see many young men that wear the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I see those that need assistance to walk, amputees, men with obvious scars from burns and others suffering blindness from their injuries. Our hospital’s Medical Board sees 40-60 Marines and Sailors a day, quite a few of whom that will be medically retired due to their injuries.  There are also those that have died by their own hand suffering from psychological and spiritual injuries too deep to fathom, we had one of our own Corpsman suicide last week.

The cost of war is terrible, as General William Tecumseh Sherman so eloquently put it: “War is Hell.”

Despite this our brave men and women that serve in all branches of the military as well as those that have gone before us in the 235 year history of our military have shouldered the load, for most of that history depending on volunteers who often served in obscurity often derided by their fellow Americans who believed that the military was a place to go if you could not be successful in the civilian world. The pay was low, the duty arduous and benefits few. In the Civil War, the World Wars and up until 1974 the professionals were augmented by draftees who outnumbered the professionals by a huge margin.  Since 1974 the force has been an all volunteer force.

Health and Comfort Board Team USS Hue City, Northern Arabian Gulf May 2002

Regardless of whether our Veterans were draftees or volunteers they have served this country well and on the whole to use the current Navy description are “A Global Force for Good.” The countries liberated from oppressors and helped in humanitarian operations by American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are many and varied.  They have represented the spectrum of our society and represent the best the country has to offer.  Unfortunately they have not always been honored by some of their our countrymen and women and sometimes the children and grandchildren of the peoples that they liberated from Nazi, Fascist or Communist oppressors who often use the wrongdoing of a few military personnel or the decisions or actions of American politicians or businessmen to label American military personnel as criminals.

Unfortunately since the military is such a small part of our population and concentrated in a few large bases it is invisible to most Americans as they live their daily lives. Often in isolated from the bulk of America such as Killeen Texas home of the U.S. III Corps and Jacksonville North Carolina the home of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and Second Marine Division are quintessential military towns but neither are near major population centers and thus the sacrifice of these Soldiers, Marines and Sailors goes unnoticed by most of the nation.  In a sense the human cost of the war falls inordinately upon these military communities where there are few strangers.

In spite of this the current men and women of the American Military train, deploy, fight and return every day as they have since the 9-11-2001 attacks, many if not most have made multiple combat tours.  I have been pleased to see more support of the military in the media, especially sports media and leagues.  Many businesses are taking time to offer things of value to servicemen and women and those businesses should be commended and patronized.  I was touched by many stories that I saw about our veterans on ESPN over the past few days.  http://www.espnmediazone3.com/us/2010/11/espn%E2%80%99s-weeklong-salute-to-veterans-day/

Many of our Reserve component personnel give up civilian employment and chances for promotion to serve in the military, particularly when they are mobilized for service. When they return home most return to towns and cities that have little of the support afforded to active duty members when they return.  I pray that our political leaders in the future will exercise discernment and wisdom before committing us to another war. Otto Von Bismarck said: “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 current members of the House, Senate and Executive branch have little connection to the military as very few have served and I wonder if any really comprehend this maxim.  In the 111th Congress 120 members had some form of military service.  The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).  Those who have served a full military career are far fewer; the number of congressmen with military careers will remain relatively constant for the 112th Congress. In the Senate there will be one (as compared with two in 2006 and one in 2008) and in the House there will be eight (as compared with four in 2006 and six in 2008).  Some of these Congressional Veterans have been vilified by some broadcasters and pundits of the extreme right wing media most of whom who have never served in the military.  On the positive side nine members of the new Congress will have served in the current wars which hopefully will help promote the sacrifice of our current Veterans and help with programs that will help returning Veterans.

I have seen the cost of war up close and personal in Iraq and back here in the States. I suffer some the afflictions described as a result of my service and see the young men and women many of whom were not yet born when I enlisted in the Army, or when I was commissioned as an Army Officer, when I was a Company Commander or when I was a senior Captain in the Army. These young men and women are heroes.

Please take a moment to thank a Veteran.  If you have time volunteers are always welcome at organizations such as the USO and American Red Cross working with our troops, join or support organizations which promote the causes of Veterans including the Iraq Afghanistan Veteran’s Association www.iava.org the Veterans of Foreign Wars http://www.vfw.org/, American Legion http://www.legion.org/ , Marine Corps League http://www.mcleague.org/, the Fleet Reserve Association http://www.fra.org/, the Association of the U.S. Army http://www.ausa.org and the Disabled American Veterans http://www.dav.org/. There are also many charitable organizations that provide assistance to Veterans and their families’ one of the best being the Fisher House Foundation http://www.fisherhouse.org/ which provides comfortable and free lodging to the families of wounded, injured or sick military personnel on bases adjacent to military hospitals. I found these ten ways that you can help on Yahoo.com:

1. At 11 a.m., observe a moment of silence for those who’ve fought and died while in service to the country

2. Display an American flag

3. Attend a Veterans Day parade

4. Thank a vet for his/her service

5. Send a letter to troops through the U.S. Department of Defense Website

6. Work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen

7. Visit a veteran’s grave or pick up trash at a veterans cemetery

8. Visit with the family of a veteran who’s serving overseas

9. Visit with a wounded vet at a local VA facility

10. Donate to the USO, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars USA or other organizations that honor and assist vets

Keep us all in your prayers and please when Veterans Day is past do not forget those of us that serve and our families, especially those men and women serving in harm’s way.  To my friends and comrades I echo the words of the German commander to his troops in captivity at the end of the Band of Brother’s mini-series:

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

Going to War: Planes, Pit Stops, Patriots and Pubs… the Flight to Kuwait

cape san juanWWII Troopship USS Cape San Juan 1943

Going to war now days is certainly different than it was a generation or two back.  Back in World War II and Korea the primary manner in which troops deployed to and returned from war was on a troopship.  Troopships in the Second World War ranged in size from the great British Ocean Liners the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary down to small and often ancient passenger ships.  As the war went on the United States adapted a number of ship designs to serve as troop transports as well as built ships specifically designed to transport troops to combat.  There was one thing that all of these ships from the might Queen’s to the lowliest tramp steamer had in common was that they were really crowded.  Every in of space that could be made to fit a bunk was used.  The Queens, which in peacetime might carry 1500-2000 passengers routinely carried up to 15,000 troops.  Talk about cramped quarters, these ships made the steerage passengers on the Titanic look like executive class travelers.  The smaller the ship the worse the ride and many times soldiers would spend their entire voyage seasick.

qeen mary troopsTroops on RMS Queen Mary

Well times have changed.  We still have ships that carry troops, amphibious ships that can hit from both sides of the plate which carry the Marine Corps Expeditionary Units on their deployments.  However, it is seldom that much more than a MEU is ever carried to a war zone.  In the Gulf War and Build up from OIF a good number of Marines were brought over that way, however many of these in the Gulf War never went ashore and were kept at sea to keep the Iraqis thinking that they would be used in an amphibious operation.  The bulk of the troops who have deployed since Vietnam have done so by air, either military aircraft operated by the Air Force such as C-130s, C-141’s, C-5A Galaxy’s and C-17 Globemaster’s or alternatively civilian contract aircraft mostly run by non-scheduled airlines which specialize in just this sort of thing.  Airlines such as World Airways, North American Airlines, Miami Air, and the now defunct ATA have been the primary carriers of troops dating back to Vietnam while other commercial airlines also do charter work.  When large numbers of aircraft the DOD activates the CRAF, the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, which is composed of aircraft from the major airlines used on an emergency basis.

world airways dc10World Airways DC-10

The military and chartered aircraft are the closest things now in the world of transportation to the old troopships.  On military aircraft troops often fly with cargo in large cavern like fuselages on seats that can be reconfigured to about any way imaginable.  The -17 is the luxury bird of the military air fleet, but certainly not a paragon of comfort when fully load with troops and gear.  Of course the military aircraft were designed for utility and maximum use of passenger and cargo space.  The charter aircraft are a different matter.  Most of the aircraft used regularly by the charter carriers for deployments are older DC-10s, B-757s and occasionally a B-767 or L-1011.  With rare exception these aircraft are configured to get the most passengers on the aircraft, comfort is not terribly important.  There is no such thing in these aircraft as a true “First Class or Business Class section, merely front of the aircraft or back.  The seats are the same and as far as leg room there is no such thing as “Economy Plus.”  Simply put we are in steerage almost any time we get on one of these aircraft.

We loaded our gear onto waiting trucks at Fort Jackson and boarded military operated “Blue Bird” buses like you send your kids to school on.   Unlike your kid’s bus these are white and driven by soldiers that are in some kind of transient status or Army civilians.  The air conditioning on a hot and humid southern day is asthmatic at best, especially when the busses are full of troops who are much bigger than the kids these buses are designed to carry.  I guess it could be worse; we could be traveling in the old un-air conditioned cattle cars.  When we got to the airport we did not go to the commercial side, but rather to the private side.  Our aircraft, a white World Airways DC-10 sat on the strip in front of the tiny and woefully undersized terminal where most of us ended up waiting in the open and un air conditioned hanger, our Desert Uniforms sticking to our bodies in the sultry South Carolina summer.  We formed up, the baggage trucks arrived with our sea bags and we were organized into teams to load the aircraft.  You guessed it, no airline staff to do this, just us.  Now since there were a couple of hundred of us finding enough people to do the work was not much of a problem.  Nelson and I both volunteered and with the others we stripped off our tops and in our brown t-shirts we organized for the task.  The small guys like me and Nelson got to go up into the belly of the aircraft where we waited for guys on the ground to send the bags up the conveyor.  Bag after bag they came, most were the tradition sea bag or duffel bag, but others like Nelson and my bags were oddly shaped and some were even large cases issued by individual’s units.  Weapons cases were also loaded, each weapon locked inside a lowest bidder plastic case that certainly would not last more than a few trips across the pond.  As we loaded the aircraft a rain shower passed by, the humidity was atrocious and the heat did not subside very much.  Eventually Nelson looked at me and asked, “Boss you alright?”  I assured him that I was and we kept loading the aircraft until there were no more bags to load, shoving bags and stacking them so that nearly every inch of space was taken in the baggage compartment.

One done loading we mustered again.  The pilots arrived and began their inspection of the aircraft.  At this point we were informed that there was a mechanical problem and that we would have to wait.  A couple of more hours waiting around the terminal we finally began to board the aircraft.  Finally we got underway and found that we had to make another stop.  We had to land at Pope Air Force Base in order to pick up an Army Transportation unit heading into theater.  The flight up was short and we expected that after a short delay we would again be in the air.  We were wrong.  We de-boarded the plane to allow it to be fueled.  As we waited in the terminal, once again a rather Spartan affair we found that the crew had exceeded their allowed flight or work hours and that we would have to remain overnight.  Unfortunately the contracting staff at the Air Mobility Command had not anticipated this situation and we were stuck.  We had already been up most of the day and there were no sleep facilities in this terminal except wooden benches and concrete floors.  With our gear loaded aboard the plane and unavailable it looked like things would not go well.  Vending machines were quickly emptied and like any sailors marooned anywhere we made the best of things.  Sailors broke out decks of cards, DVD video players, made phone calls home or found places to try to sleep on the benches or against terminal walls.

At first it didn’t look like we would be getting any assistance from the Air Force.  However, we were fortunate to have as our senior officer and Officer in Charge a Navy Captain who was a jet fighter pilot and wasn’t going to let “his” sailors let overnight in such conditions while still in the United States.  After a while our Captain secured box lunches and pillows.  He then continued to push and eventually some contracting weenie was rustled out of his waterbed and got us rooms at a Hampton Inn somewhere in Fayetteville.  As the hands on the dial of my watch worked their way past midnight the ubiquitous Blue Bird buses pulled up to the terminal.  A few people elected to stay behind and for some unknown reason the Air force required some of our sailors to watch the aircraft.  Mind you they could only watch it.  Our weapons were stowed in the belly of the aircraft.  The irony was that the airfield a Pope is secured by USAF Air Police and probably one of the most secure places in the area.  The Captain lost that argument and a number of sailors volunteered to remain along with sailors who had somehow made themselves comfortable and didn’t want to move.  In my younger days I would have been with them, but I had tried to sleep on those same benches when I went to Jordan earlier in the year I knew that I couldn’t hang with them.

The rest of us mustered again, accountability checks were made and we loaded ourselves on the buses.  T rip took about 15 minutes and we were deposited at the hotel.  It was about 0130 by this time.  The hotel staff was great.  Since like our toiletries like most everything else we owned were safely secured in the belly of our aircraft we were now tired, hungry again and pretty stinky. The hotel night manager opened up his stocks and gave us toothpaste, tooth brushes and shavers. He also gave away snacks.  I think I got a muffin out the deal. We stood in line and since there were a lot more of us than rooms we were assigned 4 to a room and at 0200.  My roommates were four youngish junior officers.  There were two beds and a cot in the room, and since none of us wanted to share a full size bed, something I think was a good idea not to do, two got the beds, one got the cot and the third grabbed all the extra linen and a comforter and lay down on the floor.  The young guys deferred to my age when I volunteered for the floor, they told me that “because you are a lot older than us sir you get a bed.”  I felt like applying for the AARP at that moment but I took a bed which felt really good as I sunk into it and passed out.

We had to be up early to head back to the airfield, the time in bed was too short but better than I had hoped and the shower was great.  I felt almost human and was glad that I had packed a clean undershirt socks and briefs in my backpack.  We got back to the terminal and box lunch breakfasts were on hand. We still had about 4 hours before the flight and it was Sunday morning so Chaplain Fauntleroy and Chaplain Rodriquez and I arranged to conduct two services.  Kyle and Dave did a more Evangelical style service while I celebrated a short field Eucharist.  We did this outside the terminal, the weather was not too bad, and probably half of the sailors as well as a good number of the soldiers who had joined us participated.  Since there was no Catholic Priest my service was better attended than I thought it would be as in such times I usually pick up a few Episcopalians, Anglicans and Lutherans and maybe a stray Catholic.  In these settings I do not interrogate the people that show up as to their background, I do ask that if they are not baptized Christians not to partake of the Eucharist, but figure that God and His grace in the Sacrament will do what needs to be done.  I learned this from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Chaplain in Germany supporting the Bosnia operation. Since the Missouri Synod practices “closed communion” meaning that you have to be Missouri Synod to take communion in their church I asked what he did in field settings or chapels where it was not a denominational service.  He told me, with great wisdom “Steve, you have to trust that God’s grace in the Sacrament will do His work.”  That was an epiphany and I have never forgotten it.

The services concluded we again mustered and finally were able to board the aircraft.  We had a stop at Portland Maine to refuel the aircraft in preparation for the trans-Atlantic flight.  Now this is a highlight for any serviceman or women being deployed or returning home.  The folks in Portland, veterans groups like the VFW, American Legion, Fleet Reserve and Marine Corps League have banded together to meet flights as they come in.  They have been given a space in the terminal in which they have computers, cell phones, land line phones and calling cards for troops.  They also hand out small “goodie” bags with snacks and home baked cookies.  These folks and their counterparts at the former Pease Air Force Base are amazing.  It is an example of small town America at its best.  Some are World War II vets, others from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.  They are still others who have never served but feel an obligation to help.  They span the political, religious and ethnic spectrum of the country.  After they personally greeted each of us as we entered the terminal, they had a small ceremony and thanked us for our service.  Many engaged us in conversation and their hospitality was simply amazing.  The Maine Troop Greeters have greeted over 800,000 troops from over 4000 flights in the past six years.  They are Patriots in their own right and what they did for us was amazing.  I felt a wave of emotion go across my and my eyes get a bit moist as these wonderful people, young and old greeted us, shook our hands and blessed us.  It is something that until you experience it you cannot comprehend and I wish that the  men and women who served in Vietnam had been greeted like this.  It makes you feel that you are not completely alone.

maine troop greeters 1

maine troop greeters 3Maine Troop Greeters

Eventually I decided to wander the terminal to see what was available.  I saw a small pub which featured the local micro-brew ale which our good Captain permitted us to have since we were still in the Continental United States.  I had a sandwich and chips as well as two pints of this local Amber Ale which would be my last drink until the Marine Corps Birthday in Ramadi.  The brew was quite good and if I saw it again I would probably buy some.  We were then called back to the aircraft.  Our flight to Germany was uneventful and we landed deep in the night in Leipzig where a small area had been set up for refreshments, souvenirs, television, games and internet access.  We were not allowed any alcohol at this stop as we were now under an 8 hour flight to Kuwait.  Our stop completed we got back on the aircraft for the flight to Kuwait which awaited us with temperatures of 120-135 degrees.  Something that I wonder how the Deity Herself allows unless it is to give us a chance to preview hell.

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq