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The Long and Winding Road of 31 Years of Commissioned Service

hogansheroeslook

Today marks another milestone in my life and career, at least in terms of longevity. Thirty-one years ago today I was with my soon to be wife Judy, as well as my dad and brother at UCLA where I was being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Six days later I married Judy who has over the past 31 years seen me go my down the long and winding road of my military career. Truthfully the long and winding road has been to use the words of Jerry Garcia a “long strange trip” and usually not the Yellow Brink Road.

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Let’s see…service as a Medical Service Corps Officer, platoon, leader, company executive officer, maintenance officer, NBC officer, and company commander, and brigade adjutant. Texas Army National Guard, Armor officer, Chaplain Candidate (Staff Specialist Branch) and Chaplain serving with Combat Engineers, and Chaplain in the Virginia National Guard with the Light Infantry. Army Reserve Chaplain, drilling and mobilized to support Bosnia mission, Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania.

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The Army, Cold War Germany, the Fulda Gap and the Berlin Wall, supporting the Bosnia mission, exercises, and active duty for training, even doing an exchange program with the German Bundeswehr.

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Then the path took a different direction. After 17 1/2 years in the Army Judy was looking forward to the day that I would retire from the reserves and she would have me back. Instead, I took off my rank as an Army Reserve Major and became a Navy Chaplain. Two tours with the Marine Corps, Second Marine Division and Marine Security Forces, Sea Duty on the USS Hue City, a tour with EOD, interspersed with an individual augmentee in Iraq followed by 5 years working in Medical Naval Centers or hospitals and finally serving as Chaplain and doing teaching in military ethics and military history at the Joint Forces Staff College.

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Lots of field exercises and underway periods at sea, travel around the world to support deployed Marines, a Marine Deployment to Okinawa, mainland Japan and Korea including the DMZ. Then along came the 9-11-2001 attacks and war. A deployment to the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Oman and the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch aboard the Hue City, served as a member of a boarding team making 75 missions to detained Iraqi Oil Smugglers and helping keep peace on those miserable ships. Traveling to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Guantanamo Bay Cuba with the Marine Security Forces, standing at Gitmo’s Northeast Gate, and completing the “Commie Trifeca” of Cold War German, Korea and Cuba.

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Then there was EOD, serving with some of the most amazing men and women I have ever met, a tour in Iraq with my trusty assistant, bodyguard and friend Nelson Lebron. Of course as any reader of this site knows the time in Iraq changed me forever, the aftereffects of that tour remain with me every day, the battle with PTSD, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression and the shattering effect of seeing that my government leaders had lied about the reasons for war and by their actions devastated a country and helped throw a region into chaos. I saw the suffering of Americans as well as Iraqis in Al Anbar Province, death, badly injured Marines, soldiers and Iraqis, poorly treated third world nationals working for Halliburton and other contractors. After coming home dealing with all of my shit while trying to care for others in back to back tours at two different Naval Medical centers or hospitals. The ongoing violence in Iraq and the fact that that unfortunate country and its people are going to suffer more haunts me. I miss Iraq, I would go back not because I love war, but because I care about the Iraqi people.

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Now I minister, celebrate Eucharist in my little chapel, care for people and teach. The highlight of my life is leading our institution’s Gettysburg Staff Ride and being able to research, read, ponder, analyze and write about that campaign, the Civil War and relate it to what we teach at our institution.

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Throughout my career there have been two constants, my long suffering wife Judy who has spent close to ten of the last 17 or 18 years without me and those who I served alongside, many of who I am still in contact with through Facebook. I am amazed at the quality of men and women who have served alongside of me since 1981. The funny thing is that even though I probably still have another five to six years until I finally retire to civilian life, that I am watching men and women who entered the military 10-13 years after me retiring from the military.

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Thankfully I still love what I do and serve in a great place. To those who have served alongside me all these years in any capacity I thank you. You don’t get to where I am in life without a good deal of help, sage advice from men and women not afraid to speak the truth and without a bit of good luck and fortune and maybe a bit of the grace and mercy of God.

Yes it has been a long strange trip down a long and winding road, but it has been more than I could ever imagine.

Have a great night and thanks for reading,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Reflections on Ministry as Navy Chaplain: The Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps

I have served as a chaplain in the Army and then the Navy since 1992. In fact I was appointed as a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard around late September of 1992 following my seminary graduation and after 11 years of service in the Army.

I grew up in a Navy family and I am grateful for that. We lived in many places and my parents ensured that church was a part of our life growing up. They had grown up as Methodists but because of our military lifestyle which involved frequent moves our church experience was much broader that people who grew up in the same town or the same faith tradition. I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and church in a variety of churches. Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, as well as Navy Chapels. I felt called to the Navy Chaplain ministry as early as my senior year in high school while on a Navy Junior ROTC cruise on the USS Frederick, LST-1184. That was deferred for about 20 years and twenty-three years after feeling that call I celebrated my first Eucharist underway on Easter Sunday 2001 aboard the Frederick, the very ship that I felt that call in 1978.

In my own pre-ministry life in college and the Army I was part of Conservative Baptist, United Presbyterian, PCA Presbyterian, charismatic churches and Army Chapels. I attended seminary in schools that were not of my denomination.

I was ordained in a non-denominational Evangelical Christian Church and my theological journey in a Southern Baptist Seminary led me in a Anglican and Catholic direction. That led in 1996 to my ordination first as a Deacon then Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Eventually after a faith crisis following my time in Iraq which I came home from with a severe case of PTSD I was for all practical purposes an Agnostic struggling to believe in God. It was a most difficult time but eventually faith returned. However that faith was more progressive on social and political issues and more inclusive of others and within months I told by my bishop that I was “too liberal” and needed to leave the church.  That was just over two years ago. It came just a couple of months after I had lost my father to Alzheimer’s Disease and was just about to transfer to a new duty station. I was fortunate to find a home with a church of the Old Catholic tradition, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. (http://apostoliccatholicorthodox.org ) That was a blessing because though a small denomination it held to the beliefs that helped make me a Priest and Chaplain.

Navy and Army Chaplains had significant influence in my life and most came from Christian denominations other than whatever I was in at various points in my life. As first an Army Chaplain in 1992 and now since 1999 a Navy Chaplain I have tried to embody that care and love that was shown to me, both to military personnel, their families, retirees and veterans as well as my fellow Chaplains.  Many of these men and women regardless of their denomination or theological views are often isolated from their own denominations and have to deal with all of the stresses of military life while taking on the burdens of those that they serve.

I find the Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps to be something that I think set the Navy Chaplaincy from other types of ministry. They expound upon the motto of Cooperation without Compromise that lies at the core of the Navy Chaplain ministry. They are something that even before I was a Navy Chaplain that I could say that I believed and wanted to embody in my military career as well as in ministry.

Navy Chaplains – Called To Serve

We are religious leaders and naval officers.

We are faithful to our calling as chaplains and strive to grow in our faith.

We have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and will faithfully discharge our duties.

We respect the dignity of those we serve.

We seek to understand cultural and religious values that differ from our own.

We believe the right to exercise our faith is best protected when we protect the rights of all to worship or not worship as they choose.

We work together to meet religious needs.

We are called to serve our people, the Naval Service and each other.

We hold sacred the trust placed in us.

We Are Navy Chaplains

With that said I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Makes Padre Steve Tick: My Vocation, Life, Love and Baseball

I’ve always related to the characters in Kevin Costner’s baseball films, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. The main characters in each of the films touch me each in different way.  Crash Davis and Billy Chapel are players at the end of their careers.  Davis is a career Minor Leagues journeyman who “played 21 days in the show.” and Chapel is other a future Hall of Famer at the close of a final season filled with disappointment.

The character of Crash Davis strikes a particular chord in me.  Crash Davisis a journeyman minor league catcher with the dubious distinction of having the most minor league home runs, 227 to be exact. The real life Minor League Home Run King is Mike Hessman who played for 15 years in the Minors with a few trips to the Majors and the U. S. Olympic Baseball Team; he had 329 home runs and is now playing in Japan) I have seen Hessman belt numerous home runs and the man is a beast, but I digress…

Davis also played “21 days in the show.” In the film Davis is a consummate professional. He loves and respects the game and actually cares about the development of the young guys, even if they try his patience.  His dealings with Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLooche played by Tim Robbins are case in point.  Crash is demoted by the big team from his AAA contract to the single “A” Durham Bulls, back when Durham was in the Carolina League in order to help the team develop the young bonus baby.  Crash is not happy with the job, he’s proud, and threatens to leave the team, only to ask his new manager what time batting practice is.

He takes the new assignment on with a mixture of skill and humor in a manner that benefits not only the young pitcher but motivates the rest of the team.  It does not matter that he is in the minor leagues as he still plays his heart out and spends his time teaching the next generation.  He even gets thrown out of games if it helps motivate his team.  Likewise he is not hesitant to let his young charge learn the hard way when young “Nuke” decides to ignore his advice.  The thing that Crash has the hardest time in dealing with his young charge is that he feels that “Nuke” doesn’t respect the game. Respect matters to a professional.

Mike Hessman

The comparison fits for me in more than one way. In a sense my life has been like a journeyman ball player.  I started my military career in the Army almost 30 years ago.  I come from a different generation of military than the vast majority of the Sailors and Marines that I serve with today.  I am “old school” in some ways but have learned to adapt, just as the men who were the old soldiers when I was a young enlisted man and officer. My career has been quite diverse and I have not always done the same job on the same team or at the same level.  I think this is the mark of a true journeyman, to keep playing because you love the game. Mike Hessman is doing that in Japan.

To continue the baseball journeyman analogy I played one position for a number of years and then so to speak left the big team to train for a new position while playing in the minors.  I left my active career as a Medical Service Corps Captain and transferred to the National Guard to attend seminary. When I graduated from seminary I became a National Guard and Reserve Chaplain.  I did not go on active duty. Back then the reserves were kind of like the minor leagues. Being a Reserve component Chaplain while doing my hospital residency and first hospital chaplain jobs it was like working my way up through the minors.  When I was promoted to the rank of Major in the Army Reserve it was like moving up to AAA ball.  When I got mobilized to support the Bosnia operation it was like getting called up during the regular season by the Major League team.  When that time ended and I returned to the reserves it was like being sent back to the minors.  I honestly thought that I would spend the rest of my career there, maybe getting called up for brief periods of time but knowing that my career was destined to end in the minor leagues.

That all changed when I was given a chance to go into the Navy.  I took a reduction in rank and came in with no time in grade. This meant that I was starting from scratch with a new team.  I had all of my experience but I was starting over.  It was like when a player gets traded or is sent back to the Minors by one team and has his contract picked up by another team in a different league in mid season. His slate is clear; it is a new start with the new team. That is what happened to me.

The analogy also fits because I do not like it when I feel that people do not respect “the game.”  By game of course I mean the vocation of serving as a Military Chaplain as a calling as well as their attitude toward the organization in which they serve. I have little tolerance for clergyman or women who enter the military with better education and natural or God given abilities than me who do not respect the institution, those in it and are out to push their agenda. This is how Crash feels about “Nuke” and I love this exchange from the film:

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How come you don’t like me?
Crash Davis: Because you don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem. You got a gift.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I got a what?
Crash Davis: You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you’re pissing it away.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I ain’t pissing nothing away. I got a Porsche already; a 911 with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt.
Crash Davis: Christ, you don’t need a quadraphonic Blaupunkt! What you need is a curveball! In the show, everyone can hit heat.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well, how would you know? YOU been in the majors?
Crash Davis: Yeah, I’ve been in the majors.

Looking at Billy Chapel, the central character in For the Love of the Game I also find some connection though not quite the same as Crash Davis.  Billy has played the game a long time for the same team, 19 years. He came back from what should have been a career ending injury.  In the film and in the novel he pitches in what for his team is a meaningless last game of the season against the playoff bound Yankees in New York.  The story focuses on this last game, Billy’s relationships with current and former teammates as well as his long term relationship with the team’s owner who is selling the team.  The new management wants to deal Billy to another team in the off season and is asking him if he wants to continue in baseball.

While the game is going on, Chapel knows this is the end and spends a lot of time reflecting on his life, his parents, his World Series appearances and friendships. He thinks about things that have gone well and things that he regrets. He especially regrets his relationship with the woman he loves but has messed up.  While his mind visits these subjects he tries to maintain his focus on the game and block out the thoughts as well as the near hatred of the Yankee fans. “Clear the mechanism….”

The thing that hits me the most is relationship between Billy Chapel and Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston.  I have done a lot in my military career but at the same time have missed a lot of time with Judy.  From 1996-2001 we spent most of 40 of 60 months apart. Since September 11th 2001 we have spent many more months apart. We have only spent 12 of 28 wedding anniversaries together not to mention birthdays and other holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.  So many times Judy has missed the high points of my career and I have missed out on being with her to celebrate her achievements and to be there when times were hard.  But as anyone who serves a full career in the military knows it goes with the game. Chapel’s words to Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston after his perfect game strike a chord with me, I don’t ever think that I have said that I didn’t need Judy, but I spent a lot of my life not needing anybody, so she probably thought at times that I didn’t need her. Thus Chapel’s words to Jane do get me and when I first saw the movie put tears in my eyes:

“I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there. So I just wanted to tell you, not to change your mind or keep you from going, but just so you know, that I know, that I do need you. “

The second thing that really gets me is where the owner tells Billy Chapel that he is selling the team and tells Chapel that “the game stinks.”  I’ve seen a lot of people throughout my career with that kind of attitude about the Church, the military, their vocation and life in general that I want to scream.  Yes there is much that is not perfect in life and the institutions that we serve, but neither life nor serving God one this country stinks. Chapel’s words back to him echo how I feel about so much of life.

“The game doesn’t stink, Mr. Wheeler. It’s a great game.” After all these years I still love the game, my vocation, my service as a chaplain in the military and the young people that I get to work with.

Since coming back from Iraq there have been plenty of times that I have felt like I had nothing left to give. In the times that I was really struggling I made my transfer to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where I ran into a number of guys who were like Chapel’s catcher Gus Sinski (played by John C. Reilly) and let me know that they were not only with me but were going to take care of me:

Billy Chapel: I don’t know if I have anything left.
Gus Sinski: You just throw whatever you got, whatever’s left. The boys are all here for you. We’re gonna be awesome for you right now!

There are times in life where we think that we have nothing left and when we have people that challenge us and stand with us even painful situations where we don’t think that we don’t think we have anything left to give.

Finally there is the announcer, the legendary Vin Scully calling the game and realizes that something special is going on:

“And you know Steve you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”

Now I know that I am quite as far down the road career wise as Billy Chapel in the movie, but I do know that I am closer to the end of my military career than I was even a couple of years ago, but the thought that I could be on the last few years does cross my mind a lot.

I guess that there are three major things that I want to accomplish before the end of my military career. I want to take care of all of the people that God gives me and puts in my life.  Second is to help coach the young men and women that I meet along the way, especially clergy and chaplains as well as colleagues and friends, especially when they hit difficult patches.  In one scene Billy Chapel talks to a young player named Mickey Hart (played by Greer Barnes) who made a boneheaded play on a fly ball against the “Green Monster” in Boston.  The young man knows that his flub will be all over the news and chapel advises him:  There’s a bunch of cameras out there right now waiting to make a joke of this, Mick. So you can either stop, give them the sound bite, do the dance. Or you can hold your head up and walk by, and the next time we’re in Boston, we’ll go out there and work the wall together. Don’t help them make a joke out of you.” When I see young guys get in trouble or make mistakes I want to help them get back on their feet, especially the young chaplains and medical professionals that come into my life.

What is funny is that I am as old or older than most of our young Sailors and Marines parents.   I’ve been in the military since before many of the Sailors and Marines were born.  In a sense I’m a Crash Davis and Billy Chapel kind of guy. I want to finish well and have my last season be my best, to go out like Mike Mussina when he retired from the Yankees.

My career isn’t done yet. I should have a few more good years left. I’ll be promoted on September 1st to Commander in the Navy.

I love both films and characters and find a new connection every time that I watch them. I think that it is important when we have lived the often disconnected military life that we find things that help connect us to the people closest to us, those who have often have had to endure our choice of vocation.  Somehow in Her grace the Deity Herself allowed me to find this in baseball and somehow relate it to the rest of my life.  After all, it is for the Love of the Game.

Peace, Steve+

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Changes of Plans: It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

Dinner as a Guest of Brigadier General Sabah of 7th Iraqi Division

Today I was planning on traveling about an hour from here up to Kinston to see the Kinston Indians play the Winston-Salem Dash. That did not happen as I was called out of the “bullpen” so to speak to see a lady in our ICU.  I got the word as I was celebrating Mass and when I was done went to the hospital to make the visit which was delightful. The lady was one of those indefatigable people that despite a serious medical condition exuded grace, confidence and life and who up to the day she came to us was taking care of people worse off than her, taking them to the store, the doctor, preparing meals and making quilts for young mothers. The visit lasted about an hour with her doing most of the talking as if I was a neighbor who had dropped by for a chat.  We prayed and she shared a couple of poems that were actually touching.  I do pray that the specialist that we send her to will be able to correct the problems that brought her to us as we need as many people like her as we can get.

So anyway with my well laid plans disrupted I have been doing some thinking and if you know me that can be a dangerous thing because I never know exactly what the muse will inspire.  It began early even before I got out of bed when I saw a Facebook chat message from an Army Chaplain of my denomination serving with an infantry unit in Afghanistan.  He asked if I had read a story in the Christian Science Monitor about an Army National Guard Chaplain who had been convicted of fraudulently awards for valor including the Bronze Star with the “V” device for valor, the Purple Heart and the Ranger Tab denoting his completion of the arduous Ranger School.  He added those awards to his recorded after Operation Desert Storm where he served as a clerk and saw no action and he carried the charade on into the time where he was commissioned as a Chaplain.

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2011/0403/Did-a-chaplain-s-fake-Purple-Heart-erase-good-deeds

He was tripped up after he returned from a tour in Afghanistan and was tried and convicted under the provisions of the Stolen Valor Act.  If he wasn’t a Chaplain it would have been bad enough.  However as a Chaplain his falsification discredited all the good work that he did in Afghanistan. What really did him in with his former soldiers was lying about his experiences to them point of wearing fraudulent awards for valor. His deception has caused many of the soldiers that he counseled to be angry and wonder if he was lying about other things.  When a Chaplain loses his or her credibility for an integrity issue it undermines their ministry, damages relationships with the people that they serve as well as their colleagues.  Their actions if married also negatively impact their families who suffer for their actions. The man in question received an Other Than Honorable Discharge which means that he receives none of the benefits that he would have received as a veteran including retirement. He is now getting help but the damage is done.

He certainly is not the first Chaplain to fall and won’t be the last.  I have spent a decent amount of my career being a “relief pitcher” for line officers and chaplains who have been relieved of their duties and been assigned to try to help rehabilitate others who have merely messed up without committing any crimes.  I have been fortunate in my long career to have men that have looked after me and protected me when I screwed up, sometimes with great aplomb.  My screw ups always seemed to be to being cocky and sometimes arrogant thinking that I was the greatest thing since micro-brewed beer.

When I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army back in 1983 I knew that I was quite possibly the smartest new Lieutenant in the Army.  I graduated from my Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course fairly high in my class without really trying too hard, had a pretty easy time at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course.   However, real life has a tendency to take the smartest of the book smart people and kick their ass.  Sometimes it takes a while but young guys in the military who think they know more than old dudes who have served on all kinds of places and been to combat tend to blow themselves up and hopefully there will be someone to save their sorry ass.

When I got to Germany I can say that there were a number of occasions where as a young officer I had my ass handed to me, even when I was right.  I’m not going to go into ugly details but it suffices to say that a good number of those times I got what I deserved because I was arrogant and not nearly as smart as I thought I was.  I was like a rookie pitcher thinking that my stuff was unhittable and finding out that guys who had played in the show for a long time had seen it all before.  It was in Germany that I found that while I had good stuff that I wasn’t savvy enough to know when to change my stuff up or when to take the hint not to keep pushing my luck.  I was kind of like the young pitcher Ebby Clavin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham in wanting to do what I wanted to do and it got me in trouble.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie has this dialogue.

Crash calls for a curve ball, Ebby shakes off the pitch twice]
Crash Davis: [stands up] Hey! HEY!
[walks to meet Ebby at the mound]
Crash Davis: Why are you shaking me off?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh:
[Gets in Crash’s face] I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!
Crash Davis: Announce your f***ing presence with authority? This guy is a first ball, fast ball hitter!
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well he hasn’t seen my heat!
Crash Davis:
[pauses] Allright meat, show him your heat.
[Walks back towards the box]
Crash Davis: [to the batter] Fast ball. [Ebby throws a fastball which is hit out of the park and Crash comes to the mound]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: You told him didn’t you?
Crash Davis: Yup.

That was me as a young officer.  You would think that I would have learned, but after I became an Army Chaplain I did the same damned thing.  Now admittedly it was not in the units that I served in, but my hotheadedness still got me in trouble especially when I decided to challenge older Chaplains who had been around a long longer than me and who were a lot more savvy than me.  I had no idea how cunning and brutal some chaplains could be despite having good warning from my XO and Brigade commander at the Academy of Health Sciences, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Wigger before I left active duty for seminary.  Colonel Wigger pulled me aside one day shortly before I left active duty and said “Steve, I know that you think that the Medical Service Corps can be political and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”   He was right and I would have been wise to listen to him.  There are some Chaplains that have no problem taking down or destroying a young chaplain sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for less than noble reasons. Anyone that has served as an Active Duty Chaplain probably knows about or has experienced such an encounter up close and personal.  I got whacked pretty hard a number of times as a young Army Chaplain, but was fortunate that people who knew me and saw potential in me gave me some top cover and protection.  Not everyone gets this.  Chaplain Rich Whaley did this for me at the Chaplain school on a number of occasions even the time that I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course. That was not one of my finer moments; I left the school like former Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox would when he got tossed from games.

While Rich was not quite like Crash Davis he knew how to handle me when I got stupid. There is another scene in Bull Durham where Ebby ignored Crash and paid the price.  

[Mechanized bull noises in background after ball hits the Bull over the Right Field wall]
Crash Davis: Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?
[laughs]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [softly, infuriated] I held it like an egg.
Crash Davis: Yeah, and he scrambled the son of a bitch. Look at that, he hit the f***ing bull! Guy gets a free steak!
[laughs]
Crash Davis: You having fun yet?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh
: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
Crash Davis: Good.
[pause]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Crash Davis: He did know.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How?
Crash Davis: I told him.

Thankfully by the time I had spent 17 ½ years in the Army I had pretty much learned my lessons.  By the time I got to the Navy I had pretty much discovered when and under what circumstances that I could push things without crossing the line.  I had learned the hard way in the Army.  I finally learned that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.  In fact when I went to the Navy I came in at a lower rank that my Army rank and took no constructive credit to try to get promoted sooner.  A lot of people have asked me why I did this but I went in with no time in grade to make sure that I got the experience that I needed on the Navy and Marine side. By doing this I took the time to learn the nuances that make the work of a chaplain different in the Sea Services than in the Army.  While there are similarities that are common to all Chaplains even the similarities are often different depending on the service and even the type of unit you serve in or platform that you serve aboard.  These different similarities can kill you if you think that you’re smarter than everyone else.

Christmas at COP South

I’m now coming up to 26 years of commissioned service and soon to 28 total years of service.  I’m now a lot more like Crash Davis than Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.  Now I try to make sure the young chaplains and other Sailors, Marines or Soldiers don’t get themselves in unnecessary trouble by assuming that they know more than they do.  I know from bitter experience the price that any service member and especially Chaplains can pay for screwing up. I had some OERs in the Army that were less than stellar when seniors tried to torpedo me.  Thankfully like baseball statistics they don’t follow you when you get traded to or sign with a team in another league mid season. They are there for posterity but you get a clean start in the new service.  I am blessed because my Navy and Marine Corps stats are far better than my Army stats.

The Chaplain in question now suffers the ignominy of being put out of the service for his actions.  From the article it seemed that he had a need to appear more than he was failing to realize that there is honor in simply serving be it as a clerk or a Chaplain.  Military awards tell a story about a person, those that earn them for valor or for wounds suffered should have earned them. I see many young men and women that wear Purple Hearts and awards for valor in combat. While I have many awards and service medals, even for service in a combat zone I cannot dishonor the brave men and women that have paid with their lives by wearing something that I didn’t earn and find it hard to fathom others doing this.

Receiving the Defense Meritorious Service Medal on my way out of Iraq from Colonel David Abramowitz Chief of Staff Iraq Assistance Group on 31 January 2008. RP2 Nelson Lebron my assistant is to the right

There are other ways that chaplains can get in trouble and I have seen them all I think. Moral issues, alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, misappropriating or even stealing government funds and doing things in combat zones that cross the line such as actually engaging the enemy.  There was a Chaplain back during Operation Iraqi Freedom that displayed photos of him in combat carrying an M-16 and I have heard of others in previous wars that have crossed that line. That last offense violates the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions and the consequences are greater than the individual chaplain as a Chaplain that does such surrenders his status as a non-combatant and exposes himself to potential war crimes charges. Likewise in the current war with much media coverage and an enemy that would exploit such actions to incite further violence and embarrass the United States it would be criminal for a Chaplain to take part as a combatant. It would harm the war effort, make him a potential target and endanger all other chaplains in the combat zone.

Chaplains are already a high priority target for Al Qaeda as our capture would be of great propaganda value. I had a number of Iraqi officers express their admiration for my service and care for American and Iraqi soldiers and the fact that they recognized that I was in constant danger and was unarmed.  I felt that it was high praise. Chaplains don’t need to be anything except what they are, servants of God and servants of the men and women that they serve. Being recognized with awards and promotion is cool but at the same time if that becomes the focus then we have somehow forgotten why we are in uniform and probably shouldn’t be.

Anyway, my mission now is to help the young guys and gals along and hopefully keep them from stepping on the land mines that I stepped on in my career.  I also know and am very aware that even as smart as I think that I am that I don’t know nearly as much as I did when I entered the military.  It’s like Earl Weaver said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under Baseball, christian life, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, Pastoral Care

Star Trek the Next Generation: Captain Jean-Luc Picard Deals with PTSD

Counselor Deanna Troi: Interesting.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Counselor…
Counselor Deanna Troi: I just find it interesting. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the man who couldn’t be pried out of his seat for a vacation for three years!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: It’s Earth. It’s home. Do I need another reason?
Counselor Deanna Troi: I don’t know, what do you think?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Your help has been invaluable during my recovery, but…look, I’m, uh…I’m better! The injuries are healing.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Those you can see in the mirror.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The nightmares have ended. All I need now is a little time to myself.
Counselor Deanna Troi: I agree. In fact, I’m delighted you’re going. It’s just that…the choice of where you’re going could stand some scrutiny.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: If you wish to believe my going home is a direct result of being held captive by the Borg, be my guest.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Is that what you believe?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I hate it when you do that.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: And what better place to find oneself than on the streets of one’s home village.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Interesting.

I have always found the Star Trek TNG episode Family quite compelling.  The episode (Season 4 Episode 2) deals with Captain Jean Luc Picard’s return home following his capture and assimilation by the race known as the Borg during The Best of Both World’s Part 1 and II (Season 3 Episode 26 and Season 4 episode 1.)

The story is interesting because it deals with some of the issues that people traumatized in combat deal with as they try to find themselves again.  In the story Captain Picard, in a very typical manner of someone traumatized by combat believes that his injuries are healing.  His counselor, Deanna Troi who serves as the Ship’s “Counselor” challenges him on his belief that he has recovered and his choice of where he wants to go to find himself again.

I saw the episode when I was in Seminary not long after completing the Chaplain Officer Basic Course and then saw it again when I was going through my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency.  It was during that process, one in which I was trying to find and define what “home” was, that it really caught me.  I was Captain Picard, the brother who left home to explore and travel while serving in the military.   My brother Jeff was Picard’s brother Robert.  He is the one who stayed home and minded family business.  The parallels then got me and even more so now.  My Residency Supervisor used this to good effect during that time in dealing with the issues of home, but the post combat and PTSD part was yet to come.

Back in the days of my residency I struggled with another of issues related to being a military brat and having begun a career in the Army.  In a sense I was a nomad.  I had lived a lot of places but none were really home, even where I had spent all of junior and senior high school.  Like Picard my eyes were set on far horizons of exploration and adventure of military life.  My brother Jeff on the other hand like Picard’s brother was content at staying at home, being near our parents, getting established in the school district and taking care of his family.   We both chose our own paths and both were right for us.  I still long for adventure and exploration but have begun to settle down.

When it came to the placement of the PTSD in this picture it was after Iraq that I had a crisis in a number of areas in my life and every time I thought that I was doing better and maybe even “getting well” that there was always something that could trigger the memories, bring back the dreams and keep me from sleep.  I can say that a year and a half after my return from Iraq I am doing better in a lot of ways but still having struggles with anxiety insomnia and hyper-vigilance.  I did find out that there is one thing that does not evoke a startle reflex is a foul ball that comes back against the screen in from of me in Section 102 at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish.  Last night while taking pictures right up against the screen I had several balls that hit within a couple of feet of me, one of which hit my camera and knocked it out of my hand.  Anywhere else loud noise, unexpected crashes, things flying past me sends me into a hyper-alert status.

picard familyPicard Meets His Family after Many Years and Wounds Away

When Picard goes home it is not the confident Starship Captain who returns, but a man unsure of himself and where he fits in life.  His encounter with the Borg has changed him and he contrary to assurances to Counselor Troi is still wounded.  When I returned from Iraq I wondered where I fit, I felt like I had abandoned my advisers in Al Anbar when I returned because my relief had to be sent elsewhere do to circumstances beyond my control.  I did not feel a part of my own unit as nothing was the same when I came back.  I felt weak, useless and at the end of my rope after having completed incredible tour in combat of my then 26 years in the military.  Physically I was falling apart; I had several nagging injuries from Iraq that caused chronic pain.  I was flashing back with every moment, fires burning in the Great Dismal Swamp had turned our air the color of an Iraq sand storm while the smell was like that of the ever present burn pits, both military and Iraqi.  Walking out the door one morning with my neighborhood shrouded in smoke I began to melt down.  That day we had a seminar done by a nationally known speaker dealing with trauma and combat with the associated feelings and emotions.  At the end of the day I was a wreck.  My Unit Doctor, Chris Rogan looked at me and said “Chaplain you don’t look good, are you okay?”  I said “no I’m not, I’m losing it and I’m scared.”  That was the place where I finally began to get help.  It has been about 14 months since I started and it is still a process.  We made a trip home that summer and I did not do well.  It was painful and I had great difficulty both in the travel as well as the visit.  When I hear fellow vets talking about the surreal and often painful times that they experience I can understand.  The fact is that you can be with a hundred friends and family members and be totally alone when you return home because it is something that you cannot really share and that they usually don’t understand.  Once again I have been fortunate.  My little brother actually listens to me and lets me vent when I need to.  Of course dealing with our family’s stuff this is a two way street.

not a happy camperVisiting Home and not Doing Well

In the story Picard is offered a chance to leave Starfleet and go to work on a project under the ocean on Earth.  He is sorely tempted to take it but before he can he has an encounter with his brother who challenges his decision.  They exchange words and Captain Picard feeling picked on starts a fight.  During the fight he breaks down about his experiences sobbing in his brother’s arms.  “His brother then said: So – my brother is a human being after all. This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You’ll have to learn to live with it. You have a simple choice now. Live with it below the sea with Louis, or above the clouds with the Enterprise.”

In a sense that is something that all of us who serve after having been traumatized by the experience of wart have to deal with, the physical as well as the psychological and spiritual wounds.  For me it was the realization that I was human after all and the slow realization that this will be with me a long time.  The choice is how I choose to live my life and where I do so.

In the series and subsequent Star Trek: The Next Generation films Picard is forced to deal with his psychological wounds from the encounter with the Borg culminating in the second of those films Star Trek: First Contact. In it Starfleet Command leave Picard and the Enterprise out of the battle leading to this exchange between Picard and his First Officer which deals with the stigma associated with such an injury.

Cmdr. William Riker: Captain, why we are we out here chasing comets?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Let’s just say Starfleet has every confidence in the Enterprise and her crew – they’re just not sure about her Captain. They believe that a man who was once captured and assimilated by the Borg should not be put in a situation where he would face them again. To do so would introduce “an unstable element to a critical situation.”
Cmdr. William Riker: That’s ridiculous. Your experience with the Borg makes you the perfect man to lead this fight.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Admiral Hayes disagrees.

The stigma associated with psychological injuries is far greater than that of physical injuries.  The unseen injuries are not as well understood and those who suffer them often are broken down by the system as they try to get help and many simply go underground and self medicate.  Last year two Army Generals opened up about their struggles with PTSD. I was fortunate to have people come alongside of me when I went down hard.  People who did not give up on me and kept faith by caring about me when I was and still get down.

See the article at: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/03/06/generals.ptsd/

Despite this and the efforts of many in the Military to help those with PTSD and other “unseen” injuries, to include medical conditions brought on by exposure to toxins in the combat zone, there is still the stigma.  As the young officer suffering from a rare and eventually fatal pulmonary condition acquired in Iraq as well as yet untreated PTSD “I squarely wish I had lost my legs then than the lung function that I have lost!”

Captain Picard’s story of course is fictional, but it demonstrates to some degree what those who experience the psychological and spiritual wounds of war face when they “come home.”  This stuff doesn’t go away.  Here are some of the comments that I have had from readers who deal with their own or a family members PTSD.

Australian Vietnam Veteran who wrote me said:  “As an Australian Vietnam Veteran with PTSD, I find these articles fascinating. I long wondered why the world had to be such a hostile mongrel place. Then 30 years later I was diagnosed with PTSD and I can now relate to why I have the condition but the world has not changed and medication is of limited use. There are many of us who are still very isolated and have to limit our social contacts. I recently started a Vietnam Veterans group, for members of our small unit, on the web and I found men who were relieved to be part of something and someone they could relate to as they had all but withdrawn from society. Sadly a few of them refuse to take any medication for their medical conditions as they see that as prolonging their miserable existence.”

A family member of a WWII veteran said: “thank you. It’s really needed for women to read articles/memoirs like that. It’s easy to say someone has PTSD, but another to live with and love who has it. I come from a family with rich military history and this is an everyday issue. Never goes away, even after 40 – 60 years.”

A USMC Vietnam Vet that I know wrote: “It’s a bitch at times, and the sleep, or lack of will eventually come, although it will never be a fully restful sleep. The Hyper vigilance seems never to go away. Yes it could be good, but eventually it can be bad…. well do I know both.”

An Army Chaplain from Iraq noted: “I too am a chaplain who felt that he and his assistant were the best equipped to handle the horrors of war – just to find out after being home for about a year just how much I had changed. I was sitting with my daughter in my lap one weekend afternoon when she asked, “Daddy, why don’t you play and laugh with us like you use to before you went to Iraq?” It was the key event that brought everything to a point where I could get help. In the months since there have been good days and definitely bad days – however, my faith remains strong….”

I run into people like this every day in the course at work who deal with this and sometimes it spills over into my stuff.  However I am glad to know that I am not alone.  To those who have helped me since I have be back, Chris, Two Feathers, Limey, Greg, Jesse, Jeff, Elmer, my longsuffering wife the Abbess of the Abbey Normal Judy and my brother Jeff, Colonel P and Janet, the folks I work with, the people at Harbor Park, especially Ray, Charlie and the Vietnam Veterans of America who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate and all the others who have come alongside I am grateful.  It is my sincere wish and prayer that all veterans will have such fine people there for them when they hit the wall.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, star trek

My Brotherhood of War

Dynamic DuoRP2 Nelson Lebron and Me- The RST-2 “Desert Rats”

Back in the mid 80s shortly after I was commissioned as an Army Officer there was a series of historical novels by W.E.B. Griffin called the Brotherhood of War. The series traced the paths of several Army officers as well as family and friends beginning in World War II. I am not much of a reader of fiction, but this series, as well as Anton Meyer’s Once an Eagle well captured the unique culture of the career professional soldier through both war and peace.  They treated their subject respectfully while also dealing with the effect of this lifestyle on families as well as the soldiers, reading Once and Eagle I feel that connection with the fictional Sam Damon, the hero of the story and revulsion for the character of the self serving careerist Courtney Massengale.

I’ve been a military officer in both the Army and Navy now for almost 26 years with nearly 28 years total service. It is part of my heart, soul and being.  I was born for this, just as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ted Williams were born to be baseball players.  I grew up in a Navy family as a Navy “Brat” living up and down the West Coast and the Philippines and all I can remember from the earliest age wanted to be in the Navy Officer and later Navy Chaplain.  My dreams came true.  The first 17 ½ years of my service was in the Army, something that that initially my retired Navy Chief Dad had problems with, however he made his peace with it and was proud that I served and proud of the fact that I had made Major.  However, in 1999 in order to return to active duty I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and entered the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Lieutenant with no time in grade.  Outside of marrying my wife Judy, who somehow did not kill me when I did this, going in the Navy was the best thing that ever happened to me.

134LtCol David Kuehn and Me

Part of my time in the Army and Navy has been my time in the Chaplain Corps of each service.  I have been a chaplain for 17 years come September.  My best friends in the military are other chaplains, some from my own church and some from other communions.  The ones that I have the most connectedness to are those who have served in combat, especially those who served in Iraq, or ships in the war zone conducting various combat and maritime operations even when we were in different places.  In Iraq I was blessed to have Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas and Chaplain Pat McLaughlin supporting me at my base of operations.  There were others besides these men and many who were not chaplains. In Baghdad I had the staff of the Iraq Assistance Group Chief of Staff Colonel David Abramowitz and Chaplain Peter Dissmore and Captain Mike Langston at II MEF Forward.  Likewise I had Colonel Scott Cottrell and Colonel John Broadmeadow at 7th Iraqi Division Military Training Team, my friend LtCol David Kuehn at 3rd Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Military Training Team, LtCol Stephen Bien with the 2nd Border Brigade and a host of others about Al Anbar Province. As important if not more was my assistant RP2 Nelson Lebron, a true hero and friend.

chaplains and rp2 lebron at TQNelson, Fr Jose Bautista-Rojas, CDR Pat MCLaughlin and Me at TQ

Back in March of this year I was with a number of chaplains from my church gathered for our annual conference.  Some of these men I have now known for at least 10 years, some more.  I’ve seen the young guys start to age and others retired from the service.  We have grown together; we at least in most cases have come to love each other as brothers and friends.   What has made this conference different from past gatherings is that all of us have had one or more combat deployments or are getting ready to go for the first time or back for another tour.

nelson and me flight homeNelson and Me in the Air Everywhere

We have shared our stories but now they are the stories of men who have all seen war.  In our careers we have all experienced success, as well as heartache.  Due to our duty we have been often isolated from the church and each other.  We all came back from the war changed in some way.   Some of this is due to health related issues stemming from our service and for others things that we have seen or experienced.  Of course each of us has had different types of experience in country, but nonetheless our experienced changed all of us in some way or another.  For me the events have been trying to make sense of the torrent of emotional, physical and spiritual distress that I have had to deal with.  While I have made a lot of progress in some areas, there are a lot of places where I’m still sorting through things as are a number of my friends.  I can say that I often feel alienated from my own church.  When I read things that some of our bishops write or say I know that I do not belong.   Based on my service in combat and to my country for almost 28 years  and 13 years as a faithful priest I have tried.  The fact that with the exception of some of my fellow military priests I have no relationships with anyone in my church,   I was at one time banned from publishing by a former bishop.  I was forbidden to have contact with the priests of a my old diocese when I was stationed in it by the same man.  The civilian diocese that I transferred  to has had nothing to do with me for the most part since I was transferred to Virginia and since I moved here no one has bothered to say a thing to me.   None of this was because I didn’t try and the thing is I don’t care anymore.  I just plan on caring for God’s people where I’m at and building relationships with people who bother to invest in my life here. I haven’t the spiritual or emotional energy to keep trying to make something happen with people who obviously don’t care about me and haven’t for years.

This year our gathering was marked by a lot less light heartedness.  There was a lot less bravado than years past, more reflection, less intense discussion of the theological issues that have divided the Christian Church for centuries.  I know for myself I don’t have the energy to spend battling people over things that the rest of Christendom hasn’t been able to settle on.  For me I’m okay with the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds and the first 7 Ecumenical Councils, though I have a great love of the Second Vatican Council.  If people want to fight the other fights they can go ahead without me how many pins you can stick in the head of an Angel.

As far as health concerns I know that at least two of us have confirmed real live PTSD, and one with a case of TBI.  Based on the way others act I’m sure that almost all have at least a combat stress injury, and maybe a couple more have PTSD.  One young Army Chaplain has an Iraq acquired constrictive bronchiolitis, or bronchiolitis obliterans which has no cure. This young man has won two Bronze Stars and now has the lung capacity of a 70 year old man.  At best he can hope that his lungs will not worsen and only age at a normal pace, which means in 10 years he has 80 year old lungs.  This young man is a Priest who I have mentored, coached and been a friend and colleague of since before he was ordained.  He is looking at something that will kill him; it is just a matter of when.  He is going through all of his medical boards now at Fort Hood and expects that in six to eight months that he will be medically retired.  It seems to me that a hero is being kicked to the curb by the Green Machine after laying himself on the line for his country.  He was treated by many people in the Army Medical system with suspicion and made to prove that he was sick at almost every point until a high ranking medical officer found out about his case and sent him to civilian specialist for evaluation.

While I was at our conference I had a major PTSD meltdown where I basically hid in my room of a day and a half, sneaking out at night to gather with just a couple of my friends by the pool for beer and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.  Unfortunately we could only get the store bought ones because the hot and fresh glazed go great with a good pilsner or lager.

We have several Chaplains who have won Bronze Stars for their service in combat. I was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for what I did in Iraq.  I treasure that award because it cost me something to get, I still have a lot of Iraq with me and I always will.  Some day when all is said and done I want to see some of my Iraq military friends again and visit the country as part of a journey of discovering the ancient.

Some of my friends and I have experienced the indifference of the medical and administrative parts of the DOD and VA systems, including sometimes people in our own military service.  When I returned I found my personal and professional belongings crammed into a trailer with those of my assistant because the office space was needed and we were deployed.  There are things which I considered important that are still missing and likely never to be found.  I know that it was not intended to hurt because the space was needed because of major unit re-stationing. If I was the Commanding Officer I would have probably done the same thing and since I have had command I know that mission comes first. You try to take care of people but some things fall through the crack. That is simply part of life.

On the other hand some of my friends have had experiences where they felt the cold indifference of bureaucratic systems often staffed by personnel, military, DOD Civilians or contractors who act if the returning or injured vet is there so they can have a job. To be sure there are a lot of very caring people in our organizations, but these coldly indifferent people seem to show up all too frequently. This unlike what happened at my unit is intolerable.

What touched me about my unit was once it became clear that I was a PTSD casualty they did everything to try to get me help.  My first Commodore, now Rear Admiral Frank Morneau pulled me into his office to make sure that I was alright and that I was getting the help that I needed.  The man who replaced him Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me a question that was totally legitimate.  “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  When I went to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center I was strongly supported by both my department head and his deputy.  I wish that everyone who came back like I did had the support of both line officers and Chaplains in their immediate chain of command.  It makes all the difference in the world.

The chaplains that I have served with in Iraq are part of my brotherhood, be they from my church or not. I believe that most of us who have gone to war have by and large matured. We saw death and destruction and were exposed to danger from enemies that could strike in the most unexpected moments in the most unexpected ways.  We have experienced sometimes difficult adjustments to life back home, a knowledge that we are different and that we are even more cognizant of our own obligation to care for God’s people.  Our brotherhood has deepened as a result of war, of that I am sure.  We are truly brothers.

Peace, Steve+

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

Always on the Road…Memories of a Marriage Spent Apart Together

anniverary 200926 Years Together: At Murphy’s of DC

The 1980s super-group Journey had a song called Faithfully. It is to this day one of my favorite songs for though it is about the life a travelling musician the lyrics are quite fitting for a military family.

Highway run
Into the midnight sun
Wheels go round and round
You’re on my mind
Restless hearts
Sleep alone tonight
Sendin’ all my love
Along the wire

They say that the road
Ain’t no place to start a family
Right down the line
Its been you and me
And lovin’ a music man
Ain’t always what it’s supposed to be
Oh girl you stand by me
I’m forever yours…faithfully

Circus life
Under the big top world
We all need the clowns
To make us smile
Through space and time
Always another show
Wondering where I am
Lost without you

And being apart ain’t easy
On this love affair
Two strangers learn to fall in love again
I get the joy
Of rediscovering you
Oh girl, you stand by me
Im forever yours…faithfully

Oh, oh, oh, oh
Faithfully, Im still yours
Im forever yours
Ever yours…faithfully

If your read yesterday’s post you know that we have only spent 10 of 26 anniversaries together.  In those years we have often been apart.  In fact a mere 3 ½ weeks after we started dating I left on a 3 month tour with a Christian singing group called the Continental Singers and Orchestra.  Fort those that have heard me sing there is nothing to fear as I was the spotlight tech.  In this position I got to sing along without anyone having to hear me as I trained my Strong Trouperette III spotlight on the various soloists and while in Europe on the whole group.  This continued on multiple occasions after we were married during my military career, periods of 6-9 months were common, once a 15 month separation with a three week period together.  From May of 1996 until August 2003 we spent 43 out of 63 months apart.  This did not include the period of my hospital residency and civilian hospital chaplain jobs working many second shifts and overnights in addition to National Guard and Army Reserve exercises, training, official travel or schools.  Of course this put strain on both of us yet somehow we survived.

It is in the times like these that you find out what you as a couple are made of.  Both of us are somewhat independent spirits and though both natural introverts have strong personalities.  At the same time we both see the world through a somewhat warped prism and both have strong senses of irony which is strange because I take my clothes that need pressing to the cleaners.  I think a lot of what besides the grace of God, which the Deity Herself has seemed to has given both of us a lot of, many times in spite of me.

In the course of our marriage we have lived quite a few places and of course I have been to even more.  We were married in Stockton California, aka “Mudville” of Casey at the Bat fame or more recently the birthplace of the drive by shooting and 2500 square foot two story suburban marijuana farms and the highest home foreclosure rate in the country.  Stockton is a great place to be from and a nice place to visit family.  If the economy wasn’t so sucky and the crime rate so high it would be a really awesome place to live only a couple of hours from the San Francisco and the Northern California coast, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe, the California Wine country, Redwood Groves, Yosemite and many historic or natural venues.

That rabbit chase we first set up house in a little town called Eckelhausen Germany in the Saarland when my first unit the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) was based at a little Kaserne called Neubrücke.  Eckelhausen and Neubrücke  were ideal small bases in West Germany during the Cold War.  We lived off base in a small town overlooking a resort lake called the Böstalsee.  The town was so small that it only had a small Postamt (Post office) and one Gästhaus. The people spoke a strong dialect of German that approximated Appalachian English.  Not long after settling there the unit was moved to Wiesbaden, the state capital of Hessen.  We got our first dog in Wiesbaden, the little Wire Haired Dachshund named Frieda, or sometimes “Dammitt Frieda” or simply “little shit.”  In Wiesbaden The Deity presumed to started meddling in my life and renewing a call to ministry that I knew that I had back before I went on tour with Continentals.  I successfully parried the Deity’s call until we moved to San Antonio Texas when I was the Adjutant of the Academy Brigade of the Academy of Health Sciences.  This was where the Deity really began to rain on my parade and Judy of course was affected as well.  She was supportive of the call to ministry and what we hoped would be the Army Chaplaincy, but really had not signed up for this.  She had in fact signed up to be the wife of a regular active duty officer who would spend 20 or so years in and retire at a comfortable pay grade.  Nope, the Deity had other plans.

Seminary as I hinted in other posts was hell for us.  We lost pretty much everything and it was only the grace of God and the people of God who saw some glimmer of hope in me that we made it through.  Now true, I worked my ass off in school and always at least one job plus the National Guard, often more than one job.  We saw what only can be described as miracles as we fought our way through seminary.  Those are enough themselves for another post.  We did seminary in Fort Worth Texas and lived there and in the Mid-Cities of Hurst-Euless-Bedford.  The entirety of seminary and my hospital residency was spent at the poverty line and we often didn’t know where the next meal, tank of gas or tuition payment would come from.  We then moved to Huntington West Virginia where I was a full time contract hospital Emergency Department Chaplain following my residency.  We thought that Huntington would be the final stop as it was the city and area that my family came from, I being the first born on the West Coast.  That changed in June 1996 when I was mobilized the support the Bosnia Operation.  When that happened my contract was terminated and another minister of the Pastoral Care Department’s Chief was hired.  After the 9 month deployment I went on very little notice for 6 months at Fort Indiantown Gap PA.  This morphed into a civilian position during the transition of the base from the Active Army to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.  This position was a yearlong and I was able to move Judy up with me.  Following this it was back to unemployment and poverty in Huntington.

That changed in December 1998 when I was offered the chance to become a Navy Chaplain.  Now mind you back in our courtship Judy said that she would not marry me if I joined the Navy, so I did it without consulting her.  Now men this is not a smart move, if I had asked her nicely and explained things she probably would have signed off on it.  However, like an idiot I nearly blew the marriage apart by doing it my way.  I wanted to go back on active duty and the Army told me that I was too senior to go back on active duty.  It was like I declared free agency and was picked up by another team, like going from the American League to the National League.  It was nearly 8 months later that Judy finally relented and moved to Swansboro North Carolina with me.  I really don’t blame her, she had a life and friends in Huntington, in fact far more than me and to move was painful and what I did by not being gentlemanly and asking her was both unfair and stupid.  It is my biggest regret in our marriage. At the same time Judy rapidly adapted to the life of a Navy Chaplain on a Marine Corps base and even at a Chaplain wives meeting helped break into the chapel so that it could be set up for the meeting when a Religious Program Specialist did not show to open it up.  Never underestimate a Navy wife and her best friend and evil twin, though they might contest which one is actually the “evil” twin.

From Swansboro and Camp LeJeune we went to Mayport/Jacksonville Florida where I was chaplain of a guided missile cruiser.  I arrived just prior to deployment and Judy remained in North Carolina until I returned.  This was kind of funny because I was calling the US looking for an apartment from a port call in Croatia.  Making a call I found out that the place I wanted had already been rented.  I can’t remember my exact words when I got this news but be assured that they were a colorful metaphor.  I called Judy totally disappointed on to find it was she who had scored the apartment.  Our stay in Jacksonville was only about 13 months after the deployment ended when we moved to the Hampton Roads area.  It finally looks like we are in the place we will stay after the Navy.

Judy has been with me across country, and a lot of places in Europe to include Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, France, Spain and the UK. She made it to East Berlin as well as Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  We have met many people and seen many interesting things.  Likewise we have experienced the reality of God’s grace in our lives.

Ours has been strange journey to say the least, but every day I know that it is worth it.  Today we had or 26th wedding anniversary.  We drove to DC.  One of the cool things was that Judy is trying out a pair of new hearing aids, which she hopes that Tricare will purchase when the time comes due.  The hearing aids are remarkable.  For the first time in her life she can hear words in songs played on a radio or stereo.  She can hear conversations going on behind her without having to look and she has heard for the first tie sounds like the letter “S” a pen scratching on paper, rain dripping down a drain spout and the richness of her guitar.  It has been quite an emotional day for her.  She is continuing to notice the nuances of sound and every so often she is overcome with all that she has missed over the years.  One of the things that she is discovering as she hears the lyrics to songs for the first time without having to read them is that I am a hopeless romantic.  A lot of my CDs are compilations of my favorite songs, many of which were picked with Judy in mind.   It was quite an emotional ride for both of us as she really experienced what is that hearing people hear on a daily basis.

She is beginning to write about in on her blog, the Abbey Normal Abbess which is on my links menu.  We would both appreciate your prayers as Tricare eventually makes the decision as to whether she will get them.  Tonight we had dinner with Judy’s cousin Becky who works for the US Department of Fish and Game Law Enforcement at Murphy’s of DC.  While on the way there we heard that Michael Jackson had died quite unexpectedly not long after Farrah Fawcett had passed away from Cancer earlier in the day.  I guess that we will remember this anniversary.

Anyway, it has been a long day.  Judy has passed out a while ago and it is time for me to get some sleep.

Peace and blessings,

Steve+

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