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The Long and Winding Road of 31 Years of Commissioned Service

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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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To Iraq and Back: Prelude: I was Born for This

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Me in 1982 

This is the first actual chapter in my series “To Iraq and Back: Padre Steve’s War and Return.” I wrote last night that I was going to be doing this and I figure that there is no time like the present to start. Just about 6 years ago I was preparing to deploy to Iraq as an individual augment supporting the US Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security Forces in Al Anbar Province. After 6 years I think I can finally complete my literary account of my experiences in Iraq, my return and subsequent struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). 

Though I am not certain, I do think that many of us were born for what we feel called to do. As bit of a theologian I can honestly say that I am not a Calvinist or strict Augustinian who believes that we are simply playing out some predetermined role or fate on earth. Neither am I a fatalist but I really do feel, that whether it was something God ordained, something genetic or a product of my environment growing up, that I was born to do what I do.

As one who has some training as well in psychology and pastoral care I also understand that the human mind is a very complicated lump of gray matter. I know that we as human being as products of our genetic make up, our upbringing and environment, education, spiritual formation, relationships ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

So I know what I believe about my calling to serve in the military and the priestly vocation cannot be scientifically proven. That being said, I believe and that belief in my calling survived even in my times of unbelief.  A paradox for sure, belief and unbelief coexisting at the same time in the same person, but Father Andrew Greeley said it well in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

My tour in Iraq in a sense was the culmination of my calling, a call that I felt at a very early age, to serve in the military and later to be called to serve as a Priest in the military. I have long figured that to have served a full career in the military in time of war and not to have gone forward into danger to do what I have trained all my life to do.

I have a hard time not remembering when I wanted to serve in the military and serve in combat. That may sound strange but for some reason, even though I was not encouraged to follow this path it was something that growing up as the son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer who served at the Battle of An Loc in the Vietnam War that I felt was my destiny. Maybe it is faith, maybe it is some sort of mysticism or even fatalism, but I do believe that for good or for bad that I am doing what I was born to do.

George Patton commented: “A man must know his destiny. if he does not recognize it, then he is lost. By this I mean, once, twice, or at the very most, three times, fate will reach out and tap a man on the shoulder. if he has the imagination, he will turn around and fate will point out to him what fork in the road he should take, if he has the guts, he will take it.”

I am sure that my family and my earliest friends can testify to my love of all things military and the nearly romantic calling that soldiering had on my life. At nearly every turn in life I have responded to the military calling by volunteering for assignments that would place me closest to the action. There were times that my wishes were thwarted and my desires placed on hold, but they never died.

I served on the Fulda Gap in the Cold War and missed serving in ht First Iraq War because I had left active duty to attend seminary and my National Guard unit just missed being mobilized. I did support the Bosnia operation as a mobilized Army Reserve Major and during that mobilized period of service was told that I was not a place for me in the Regular Army. However, a few months after my last active reserve posting I was given the chance to apply for active duty as a Navy Chaplain. Less than 7 weeks after the first talk with the Navy I resigned my Army Reserve commission as a Major and accepted a lower rank, that of a Navy Lieutenant to enter active duty in February 1999.

The Marine unit that I was serving with in 1999 came very close to being sent to the Kosovo crisis and had Slobodan Milosevic not made a last minute peace deal after a 70 day air campaign I am sure I would have ended up there.

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With my Boarding Team, April 2002 aboard USS Hue City

However it was 9-11-2001 that changed everything. I was in Camp LeJeune North Carolina with the 2nd Marine Division when the hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Shortly after those attacks I was transferred to the USS Hue City, a Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser. My first wartime deployment was in 2002 aboard Hue City supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch. On that deployment I served as an advisor to one of our boarding teams and took part in over 70 boarding party operations against Iraqi and other oil smugglers who were breaking the United Nations oil sanctions against Iraq.

We were in the yards when Operation Iraqi Freedom began and in the fall of 2003 I was assigned to the Marine Security Force Battalion. In my time at Security Forces I travelled around the world and often to the Middle East and Europe, but not to Iraq or Afghanistan. Because the elements that we sent to Iraq were too small to rate an organic chaplain I did not deploy with them, though I heard about the experiences of many of those Marines and Navy Corpsmen as they came to me for counsel when they came home.

Despite having spent time of the boarding teams and having deployed numerous other places in my career there were times that I felt like William Tecumseh Sherman, who missed the war with Mexico having been sent to California who wrote: “I have felt tempted to send my resignation to Washington and I really feel ashamed to wear epaulettes after having passed through a war without smelling gun-powder.”

In October 2006 I was assigned to Navy EOD Group Two and shortly thereafter my life which had been very active with more time spent away from home than with my wife since my call up in 1996 to support the Bosnia operation became much more complicated. While at EOD I was supporting very skilled sailors most of whom had deployed multiple times in the always dangerous work of defusing and defending against Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also was called to support sailors either preparing to go to Iraq or Afghanistan as Individual Augments or those that were returning home.  As I heard their stories, especially those serving as advisors with Iraqis or Afghani soldiers I knew that was what I needed to be doing.

In early 2007 a call went out seeking chaplains to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan in various roles that were not supported by unit chaplains. With the permission of my supervisory Chaplain, Captain Deborah McGuire who was at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command I put my name in the hat and was notified that I would be sent overseas. I explained to Judy that despite her misgivings that I felt that Nelson and I were the most ready, qualified and prepared team to take on the mission. Needless to say that did not assuage her fears and concerns and an emotional distance began to grow between us.

Initially we thought it would be sent to Iraq, then it was Afghanistan, and finally the first week of June 2007 the orders came down for Iraq. My faithful assistant, Religious Program Specialist Nelson Lebron would go with me. It was the first time that an existing Religious Ministry Team had been tagged to take on an independent mission of this nature.

Our orders were to support Marine Corps and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province, a mission that was new because when the advisory teams were first formed no one thought about organic religious or spiritual support. It was assumed that chaplains from nearby units would suffice but the Army and Marines learned that the assumption was wrong and that the advisors needed their own chaplain support.

The next few weeks would be a whirlwind as we prepared to go. They would be weeks that were trying both individually and for our families and neither of us would realize how much we would be impacted by our time in Iraq, but in June of 2007 that was still a part of our yet uncharted future.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Next: The Preparations

 

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Filed under PTSD, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

29 Years in the Military and still Going Strong

“It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between the All-Star Game and an old timer’s game.” Vin Scully

Padre Steve in 1982

They say that “time flies when you’re having fun” and I cannot believe that I have been in the military now for 29 years. On August 25th 1981 a 21 year old college kid with long Southern California “surfer” hair walked into the California Army National Guard Armory on Van Nuys Boulevard to enlist in the National Guard after having just sworn into the Army ROTC program at UCLA.   Back then I enlisted in what was or is called the Simultaneous Membership Program or SMP program.  My initial military training came through the ROTC program as well as on the job training in the National Guard as a Field Artillery Forward Observer and Intelligence Specialist.

Like Cal Ripken Jr commenting about his career “So many good things have happened to me in the game of baseball. When I do allow myself a chance to think about it, it’s almost like a storybook career. You feel so blessed to have been able to compete this long.” I can say the same thing just substituting the words “military career” for “the game of baseball.”

On the day that I enlisted I met with Major Charles Armagost the S-1 of 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery and full time advisor for the battalion filled out my enlistment papers and raised my right hand. I still remember the day when I enlisted. It was a hot smoggy Los Angeles day where you could see the air.  I walked down the hall after I swore in to see the supply Sergeant who outfitted me with four sets of Olive Green fatigues and ordered me two sets of the brand new BDUs.  I was issued my TA-50 gear and taken to the motor pool where I was given cursory training on the M151A1 “Jeep” and issued a military drivers license.  The three weeks later I was driving one of those venerable machines to Fort Irwin on a Friday through Sunday drill with the advanced party. It was the beginning of a 29 year career spanning two services, the active and reserve components and now multiple trips to combat zones.

Army Captain 1987

It has to quote Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead “a long strange trip” spanning the Army and the Navy, active and reserve components as well as two tours with the Marine Corps while serving in the Navy and the beat goes on with my selection for promotion to Commander and my Senate nomination to that grade on August 21st.  I have served on the Fulda Gap in the Cold War, been to what was then East Berlin driving the Helmstedt-Berlin corridor sharing the road with Soviet armored columns.  I supported the Bosnia Operation in 1996-97 and the Korean DMZ with the Marines in 2001. I served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch in 2002 where I was on a boarding team, boarding 75 Iraqi and other country smuggling ships while serving aboard the USS Hue City.  That was followed by multiple trips in and out of theater with the Marine Security Forces from 2003-2006 as well as time on the Cuban fence line at Guantanamo Bay before serving in Iraq with our Marine and Army advisors and their Iraqi Army and Security forces.  I’ve served with Infantry, Armor, Combat Engineer, Artillery, Medical and Ordnance units, Security forces, support elements, bases and training centers, hospitals and ships.

Berlin Wall November 1986

When I enlisted I thought that once I was commissioned that I would serve my entire career in the Army and retire as a Lieutenant Colonel. I did not anticipate becoming a Chaplain nor leaving the Army for the Navy. When I am officially promoted to Commander it will be the first rank since I was an Army First Lieutenant that I have not held twice.  When I first enlisted and had no ribbons I used to look at wonderment at the Korea and Vietnam veterans who had tons of ribbons and tell Judy that I wish I had what they had. Now that I am working on 9 rows of the things I cringe every time I have to remount ribbons and ribbons and my wallet screams in agony.  Judy is quick to remind me of my whininess back then and tell me that I asked for it.

She didn’t know what she was getting into

As an Army and Navy Officer I have served or done some kind of military duty in Germany, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Croatia and Turkey, Spain, Malta, Korea, Japan, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq.  I’ve done what I call the “Commie Trifecta” the Berlin Wall, Korean DMZ and the Cuban Fence Line. At the same time I have spent 16 of 27 wedding anniversaries away from home and lost count of birthdays and other important occasions that I missed while serving the country.

Guantanamo Bay Cuba 2004

I have served 5 different Presidents. In that time I have seen changes in the political, social and economic conditions of the country and the world that I could not have imagined at the time of my enlistment.  The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis had just ended but within the Soviet Union had been defeated the Berlin Wall taken down and collapse of the Soviet Union.  Twenty years after I enlisted the people that defeated the Soviets were attacking us on our own soil.

Boarding Party Arabian Gulf May 2002

I lived in Europe and went through the Chernobyl radiation cloud which is obviously the cause of my glowing personality.  While in Europe I ate enough beef to be labeled by the Red Cross as a potential carrier of Mad Cow disease. I worked on military personnel policies at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and saw the beginning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  I saw the Reagan build up and the post Cold War drawdown.  When I was a Company XO and Company Commander we had landlines and typewriters with carbon paper and did not get internet in my office until 1997.  It is hard to believe the changes even in the quantum leaps in computer and communication technology in the past few years where I can check e-mail on my Blackberry and work from almost anywhere with my laptop.

With Advisors and Bedouin on Iraqi-Syrian Border December 2007

Looking back here are some of the things that I have seen since I entered the military:

October 23rd 1983: Beirut Bombing: BLT 1/8 barracks and French 1st Parachute Regiment destroyed by suicide bombers 241 Americans and 58 French Paras killed.  I was at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course at Fort Knox watching CNN late at night when they broke the news.

December 12th 1985:  Arrow Air Charter Boeing 707 crashed in Gander Newfoundland killing 248 American Soldiers returning from Peacekeeping duty in Sinai Peninsula. Among the dead was Sergeant Charles Broncato who had been one of my Squad Leaders in 2nd Platoon 557th Medical Company Ambulance. I was then serving as the Company Commander.

January 28th 1986: The Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into flight killing 7 Astronauts.  I was in my office at the close of the day getting ready to adjudicate an Article 15 when my Charge-of Quarters SPC Lisa Dailey ran into my office and said “Lieutenant Dundas, the Space Shuttle just blew up!” My response was “Come on, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.”

February 15th 1988: The Soviet Union withdraws from Afghanistan. I was a National Guard Officer in Texas attending Seminary and thought this was a good thing.  Now I wish that they had done better and at least killed Osama Bin Laden, then a relatively minor commander.

December 21st 1988: Pan Am 103 downed by Libyan operatives over Lockerbie Scotland killing all 270 passengers and crew. The aircraft a Boeing 747 named the Maid of the Seas was the same aircraft that we had flown home from Germany on December 28th 1986.

October 17th 1989: the Loma Prieta Earthquake causes massive damage in San Francisco and Oakland. I was watching pregame activities of game 3 of the World Series between the A’s and Giants on television when it happened.

November 9th 1989: The Berlin Wall Fell. In November of 1986 we had been to East Berlin and like most Americans never thought that we would see this day.

August 2nd 1990: Iraq Invades Kuwait: At time few people believe it well end in war. I was deputy course leader for Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course, tell my classmates to get ready to go to war.

December 31st 1991: The Soviet Union is dissolved.

April 19th 1993: FBI and other Federal Law Enforcement personnel using Combat Engineering Vehicles from the 111th Engineer Battalion, the unit that I serve as a Chaplain assault the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco Texas. Davidian leader David Koresh and dozens of followers die in fire and shoot out.

June 17th 1994:  Police arrest O. J. Simpson after nationally televised low speed chase charging him with murder in the death of his wife Nicole and Ronald Goldman. NBC splits screen between NBA championship series game between Houston Rockets and New York Knicks and the chase. I watch in back of M577 Command Vehicle on 9 inch television in the field at Fort Hood.

August 12th 1994: Baseball strike cancels season, playoffs and Worlds Series.

April 19th 1995: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blow up Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building

January 26th 1998: Bill Clinton states that “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

December 31st 1999: The world awaits the end of life as we know it due to the Y2K flaw sthat supposedly causes computers to malfunction and bring calamity to the earth.

January 1st 2000:  People including me wake up from hangovers to find that computers still work.

September 11th 2001: Al Qaeda terrorists hijack four commercial airliners crashing two into the World Trade Center Towers in New York collapsing them and one into the Pentagon. A fourth is brought down by passengers before it can reach Washington DC and its target, the US Capital killing 2976 people and injuring another 6000+. I am at Camp LeJeune North Carolina and remained locked down on base the next 4 days.

March 19th 2003: US and Allies launch attack on Iraq known as Operation Iraqi Freedom to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disarm his stocks of weapons of mass destruction. I am assigned to USS Hue City and the ship is in dry dock. The rest is history.

I also saw a lot of baseball mostly from afar, Pete Rose’s epic hit, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games record, Nolan Ryan’s 5000th strike out and 7th no-hitter as well as all of the now steroid tainted home run records including Barry Bond’s 756th home run which I saw live in a chow hall in Baghdad.

Somehow it is all worth it. Judy has not divorced me although I have probably given her reason on more than one occasion to do so and I love what I do and the people that I get to serve. It really is amazing to look back and think about all the events that I have either witnessed or been a part of in the military as well as all of the great people that I have been associated with. Those friendships and relationships mean more than about anything to me and I am grateful to God and to Judy, my family and all of my friends who have helped me, sometimes in very dark times to go as far and as long as I have in both the Army and Navy.

I was selected for promotion to Commander in June and confirmed by the Senate on August 23rd. I now am about to enter a new phase of life, military service and ministry as the supervisory Chaplain at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune North Carolina.  Lord knows what the future hold, but whatever happens I feel that things will be fine.

I hope that whatever you do that you will experience good things and be able to look back in life and say “wow that was something else.” So here is to all of us and the long strange trips that we embark upon in life.  In the words of Lou Gehrig, “I am the luckiest man alive.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, History, Military, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Sometimes You Wanna go Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The hit long running comedy Cheers set in Boston Bar is something that I have grown to appreciate more and more throughout the years.  It comes from the community of disparate people who find refuge in that bar each with their own lives and stories which all intersect at Cheers.  The lyrics to the theme song from the show sum up where I sometimes find myself in life, especially coming back from Iraq.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

The last verse to the song “Where Everybody knows Your Name” never aired on the show and continue….

Be glad there’s one place in the world
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to go where people know,
People are all the same;
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

The need for community is something that I didn’t think that I really needed for most of my life.  It took a huge amount of time isolated in the military as well as coming back from Iraq with a nice case of PTSD to realize that I could not exist without some kind of local connection.  This is something that when I returned from Iraq I knew that I did not have.  For a good amount of time this didn’t matter because I was always on the road or deployed.  It is easy to cover up the need for local relationships and community when you aren’t around.

For me this isolation really began when we moved to the Hampton Roads area back in 2003.  I was assigned to a command where I was on the road a lot.  However I sought to make build relationships with the local mission of my church in our area as well as other local clergy.  After a clash with the local idiot masquerading as a priest I was forbidden by the bishop to have any contact with any of his priests or parishes.  I guess since that bishop didn’t get my tithe that I didn’t matter. A couple of years later both the bishop and the idiot priest had left our church for happier hunting grounds.  So when I came back from Iraq in 2008 I was isolated.  I had transferred in October 2006 from a Marine Command where I felt absolutely comfortable to a different command where I was new and about everyone else was going about 95 different directions.   The command chaplain who I had come on board under in the larger command had transferred during my deployment, while the one officer that I had developed a relationship with at my new command was deployed a couple of months after me.  When I returned from Iraq even my office had been packed up and I had no-where to work from for over a month.  My belongings, including many military mementos and awards were crammed into a trailer and it took almost a year to find the majority of them.  A couple of items were not recovered.  So on the military side I was pretty isolated and feeling pretty down.   As I said I had no church ties from my denomination anywhere near me and had not, due to my own pathology and hectic travel and deployment schedule did not establish a relationship with another church until this year.   Other friends had transferred over the years and I had one other chaplain in the area that I can call a friend.  We have known each other since 1999 and our wives are best friends.  Apart from that I was about as isolated and alone as I could get.  It was then with my PTSD kicking my ass that I knew after all these years that I needed to be in community and in relationships with people locally.  It was no longer good enough to simply check in with guys that I had known for years but who lived far away.

It took a while to get from knowing that I needed something until I was able to get established in a number of places and begin to build my local ties.  The first two places were Harbor Park where I see the Norfolk Tides play and the local Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.  Harbor Park was something that I went to before Iraq as I love baseball.  I was no stranger there, I’ve been around long enough to get to know staff, vendors and ushers and have met the General Manager Dave Rosenfield on a good number of occasions as he walks the concourse among the Harbor Park faithful.  However something happened when I came back from Iraq.  In most places I could not handle crowds, even going to church at the fairly large Catholic Church where I occasionally attend with Judy who is a member there.  It is large and rather busy and since I only know a few people there I get a bit anxious, even though I love the Pastor, Deacons and the few people that I know.  However every time I would step onto the concourse at Harbor Park and the lush green field came into view I could feel stress and anxiety leaving my body.  Somehow almost magically I am at peace when at a ball game.  I felt the same thing even in crowded Major League Parks at San Diego and San Francisco when I made trips to the west coast.  When the season ended last year it was terribly difficult as the PTSD and Anxiety, nightmares and chronic pain were still raging.  When this season came around and with Harbor Park now on my way home from work I knew that I needed to get a season ticket.  I cleared with Judy and for the first time in my life I had a season ticket.  Since the season began in April the Park has become more of a place of refuge and place of fellowship with some great people.  Seeing Elliott the Usher, Ray and John the Vietnam Vets at the Beer Stand behind the plate, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Skip the Usher in the section above me, Mandy up in the Tides Store my next seat over neighbor Barry, Barry’s daughter Julie, Tina and her husband, the Judge and others has given me a sense of community that is like a comfortable pub.

The same has been true at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant has become another place where I feel at home.  I think this began with Kira, the choir child from Judy’s Church as well as guys like Mike, John and girls like Kai Ly who been incedible.  We began by being frequenters of the dining room but have over the past several months moved to the bar as it is a bit more laid back and we get to know more people.  Now the noise can occasionally be a bit much, but the kids who work there are really great to be around.  I was just recently inducted into the Stein Club.  Both Harbor Park and Biersch were important because even though the people that I met were those in the intersection they were places and people that began to get me back in touch with community.

Another really key part of building community for me is my work at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Somehow I am at home in the surreal environment of the ICU and PICU and the great folks who work on those floors. On call I am beginning to feel the same way about our NICU.    The relationships formed in these areas as well as with my fellow chaplains have become especially important.  My boss and some of our other chaplains have really helped me through some really rough times since I got here as I have dealt with the PTSD and other issues from Iraq. As I have made the adjustment to being back in the hospital setting I realized just how much I enjoyed the challenge of Critical Care chaplaincy, the care for patients, families and especially the staff and residents.  I am at home here.

The final piece fell into place a few months ago, that was beginning to worship at St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.  I had met the Rector (Pastor) of the Parish, Fr John at the hospital as he visited two of his parishioners who were patients in my ICU.  We not only met but we became friends and he invited me to St James.  Now Fr John is from Nigeria and the parish is predominantly African American, West Indies or Nigerian.  The church reminds me a lot of East Side Presbyterian Church in Stockton CA which I attended with Judy.  The liturgy while Episcopal is punctuated with familiar hymns and Old Negro Spirituals.  The Church itself was founded in the 1890s as a place for African American Episcopalians to worship, Jim Crow being quite strong in those days.  When I first went there I wondered about the wisdom of it but I knew that I needed a place to worship outside my little guestroom altar.  I didn’t know what to expect, but the folks at St James love worship, music and have enfolded me, a Priest from a different communion into their community and for the first time since I came in the Navy, and certainly since I came back from Iraq I feel a sense of connection with a local parish.  One thing that I believe is quite significant is that prior to the Civil War my familyowned slaves in what was then the western part of Virginia.  I even met a man from Liberia who has my last name. His family went from the United States, to Canada, back to the UK and then on to Liberia before his family came back to the United States.   His brother even serves in the US Navy.  I’m sure at one point Cecil Dundas’s ancestors once were owned by some part of my family in Virginia.  But we are both of the Dundas family and I think that is pretty cool.  Small world.

I don’t necessarily think that I am alone in the search for community.  I think for a lot of people they would want to find such a community in church, but from what I am seeing across the denominational spectrum and the move to large churches or mega-churches I am seeing more lonely people who attend church regularly but never feel a sense of family or community.  Some of the things I hear from these lonely and disconnected Christians remind me of the lyrics to Abba’s hit Super Trouper:

Facing twenty thousand of your friends
How can anyone be so lonely
Part of a success that never ends
Still I’m thinking about you only

Part of this I think is that many churches have places more value on “Church growth” and programs than they have on people.  There has been a shift, especially in larger churches to proliferate programs which take up a lot of time, but don’t foster relationships.  Often the senior pastor is unreachable and untouchable in large churches.  Someone may get contact with a staff pastor, but often this is even driven down to minimally trained small group or home group leaders.  The churches themselves are so large it takes a long time for a new person to get to know anyone.  Now large church can do a lot of good, but I do think what they lack is intimacy.  Some home groups have this but others are train wrecks full of pretty bad juju.  So I wonder if this is a part of the isolation and disconnection of people.  Just a thought….

It has take me about five years to get connected in this area.  The cool thing now is that there are a number of places where I can go where just about everybody knows my name.  Slowly but surely I’m getting better as I get more connected.  I now have the beginnings of a community which is rich and diverse, military and civilian and have the blessing of friendship with so many people that that make up the communities of which I have become part. The Deity has a wry sense of humor to take this introverted rugged individualist to put me into community with such a great bunch of people.  She had to about throw me under the bus to do it, but I am glad that she did.

Peace, Steve+

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Implants? On my 13th Anniversary of Being a Priest…What’s up with that?

cantaloupes

I found out today that I’m going to get an implant….and I can’t believe it. And I find out about this on the 13th anniversary of being ordained as a Priest and I was not a happy camper.  The dentist looked at me and told me that the root canal which I had come in to complete would not be possible.  This kind of pissed me off, not at him but for the fact that I knew that this was going to happen.  Going in to today I knew from the first dentist who examined me two weeks ago that there was only a fifty-fifty chance of saving the tooth, but only a ten percent chance of that.  So when the dentist showed me the live camera images of the abyss that used to be the inside of my tooth and the fractures on both sides of the abyss I was not surprised.  Not happy, but not surprised.  Of course I was hoping and praying that the root canal would be done with and that I would not see dental again until my next exam.

As his team dug around in my mouth the dentist told me that they were going to have to set me up with Oral Surgery to extract the tooth and put an implant in its place.  Since my mouth was still full of crap I had difficult time trying to reply.  The crap included a rubber dam and its suspension system.  I was informed that this was to keep crap out of the abyss and keep it from getting infected. The dentist didn’t say crap, but that is what I inferred. I also had a butt-load of anesthetic aboard.  When he asked me the question: “Are you familiar with what an implant is?”  I mumbled an unintelligible answer that went something like “yam eh ike marl hmmmn wah”  And I kind of motioned over my chest with my hands to try to give as visual but my attempt at communication failed.  He said, I’ll wait until we’re done for you to answer and I said “thang u er.”  Since my woeful attempt at communication was not understood so I relaxed as best I could for the remainder of the procedure.

steve at dentist

When they were finished the resident had sealed the abyss, removed the dam and washed out my mouth.  My mouth, which still hurt some from the work two weeks ago, and the tooth which still had some throbbing as a bit of nerve had survived the first go round caused me some persistent pain even through this morning.   This particular tooth had been repaired twice as a child, the first by Doctor Mengele and once as an adult before it erupted two weeks ago.  Now after being excavated for the second time in two weeks my mouth felt like a battle zone even with the full effect of the anesthetic.

The dentist then asked about if I understood what an implant was and in my smart assed way said, “Yes, it’s like those things that they put in Mariel Hemingway back in the 1980s right?”  The dentist looked at me funny and then, maybe being just a bit older than me then shook his head and started laughing and said “No not that kind of implant.”   The resident and the technician being a bit younger than us took a bit longer to get it, and the dentist said, “I saw you motioning with your hands but just didn’t understand the connection.

So I will be getting an artificial root for the old tooth which will be surgically removed possibly under a general anesthetic.  I wonder which is worse, enduring a great deal of pain or going under as I am a fan of neither.  They say it will take 6-9 months to have the artificial root to be fused into the jaw bone, after which a new crown will be constructed over it.  I’m told that the entire process will take about a year to complete.  I get my consultation with the Oral Surgeons the middle of August so this story will probably go on in future blog posts in the coming months.

Today is also the 13th anniversary of me being ordained as a Priest at what used to be the Cathedral of the Resurrection, Life in Jesus Community when it was part of my Church.  I am ever grateful to the bishop who ordained me back then, in those days he was a teacher and father.  We parted ways when he led his community out of the Church after having his Archdeacon tell me that he was not leaving as the Church experienced a major crisis.  While his leaving bothered me it was the deception that I found most difficult and combined with actions of two other former bishops in the church which impacted me in a very personal and hurtful manner which ended our relationship.  Since he left I understand that he was removed from the leadership of his community and that the community was not doing well.  That saddened me as back in the mid and late 1990s it was a wonderful place where the ancient and modern converged, where hospitality and kindness was shown and people were blessed.  I do not know what happened over the years, but it is sad as I cannot go back to the place where I was ordained and have it be the same.  When the bishop’s council on ordination recommended that I be ordained I was told by one of the priests said “Steve, you’re home.”  Unfortunately only one of that council remains in the church, and that community is no longer home.

891Christmas Eve in Iraq

Since then I have been blessed.  I was ordained on the evening of July 7th the eve of the Feast of Saint Killian and his companions, an Irish missionary to what is now the German area of Franconia where at Würzburg he was martyred in 689 AD.  It was just a few weeks later as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain I reported to Würzburg to support the Bosnia operation in my first assignment as a Priest.  I lived in town as there was “no room at the inn” on base and since I spoke German I would head downtown in the evenings for Mass at the Killian Dom (Killian Cathedral) as well as visits to many of the other churches.  I found it interesting that the occasion of my ordination was the eve of feast of the man responsible for planting the Christian faith in the first place I would serve as a Priest.  I feel quite a connection to St Killian as a result of this and whenever I go to Germany I attempt to attend a Mass at the Killian Dom as well as a few steins of Würzburger Hofbrau Pilsner.

killian domKillian Dom Wurzburg Germany

Since then I have celebrated the Eucharist and served God’s people around the world in places that I would have never dreamed.  My first Eucharist at sea was on the USS Frederick LST-1184 on Easter 2001, the same ship that in high school Navy Junior ROTC I first felt the call to be a chaplain in March of 1978.  I’ve celebrated near the fence line at Guantanamo Bay, all over Al Anbar Province, been a base chaplain and served in units and at sea all over the world.  I celebrated my 7th anniversary celebrating at the ruins of the Martyr Church of Saint Phillip the Apostle in Pamukale Turkey, the site of Ancient Hierapolis.

Today for the first time I spent it in a dentist’s chair.  So my mouth feels like a bombed out combat zone, I have the shattered shell of a tooth being held together by a temporary patch and praying that it won’t come apart before it is extricated and I have to wait over a month to just begin talking about the details of how process will unfold with the Oral Surgeon who will perform it.  Tonight I will try to eat something soft so as not to tempt fate, drink a good beer or two or three and get ready for work tomorrow.

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace, Steve+

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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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