Tag Archives: brotherhood of war

A Pause to Reflect on Iraq, Afghanistan and Unpopular Wars on a Sunday Night

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

Five years ago I was in the process of deploying to Iraq.  It is hard to believe that it has been that long.

For me the past few weeks have been filled with sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares, mostly related to my time in Iraq.  I have been far more hyper-vigilant and anxious than I have been for a while.  Crowds and crowded places cause me great anxiety. I guess it is sort of like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.  The experiences and places are forever in my mind. I can close my eyes and the images are fresh.

I jokingly refer to my continuing struggle with PTSD as the “Mad Cow,” somehow that takes some of the edge off for me.  But even my attempt at humor belies the fact that it does get old.

At the same time because of my service in Iraq I am part of a very special brotherhood, that brotherhood that Shakespeare’s Henry V voiced so well.

I have the wonderful opportunity to serve alongside men and women who have given much for this country, men and women who also bear the wounds of war, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral. I have the honor of serving with men and women who continue to deploy in harm’s way to Afghanistan and being stationed at one of the installations that have borne then heavy burden of this war I am reminded daily of the cost of it. I look at the casualty reports daily and last week yet another Marine Military policeman from Camp LeJeune was killed in Afghanistan. Two sailors from a Squadron based in Norfolk were killed in the crash of an MH-53 Helicopter in Oman, an aircraft sent to beef up capabilities against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This weekend at least 8 NATO troops or contractors were killed in Afghanistan, three being American contractors  killed by an Afghan policeman while training Afghan police in Herat. The war is never far away.

I am also grateful to people in the community who care to say a kind word when I am in public in uniform. Many people in the area have served in uniform, many during Vietnam as well as an ever dwindling number of World War II and Korea War vets.  I have had to make trips up to a local jail in a town up the road from us to see two of my sailors accused in a terrible crime.  I make those visits in uniform and on the way back one day I stopped to get a Coke at a store. As I walked in a man thanked me for my service.  While I was paying another man began to talk to me. He also thanked me and then went to describe his service in Vietnam.

Such encounters are humbling for me and a reminder of the very special brotherhood that I am just a part. That brotherhood for me is especially close for the that liked me served in Iraq but also Afghanistan, Vietnam and by extension the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria. We are veterans of unpopular wars that are fought by a minute segment of the population.

I saw a video of an advisor to Mitt Romney note that “real Americans don’t care about Afghanistan.” I did not take his remark personally but it did hit home. The man is a seasoned political advisor, his business is to look at numbers and polls. It was a remark that showed me what I already know, that for many Americans the war is not real.  Unfortunately as real as the war is to me and to many people that I know we are in the minority. The most recent opinion polls show that Afghanistan ranks 10th of 10 major issues that Americans are concerned about.  At the same time polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the nation.

Tonight I will try to sleep and in the morning, Inshallah, I will wake up and go back to serve the men and women who serve this country caring for the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, veterans and their families at Camp LeJeune.

The war is not over and despite what opinion polls and politicians say it is important to some of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

The Brotherhood of War: Part Two, Taking Chance

Today has been a difficult day, no one did anything nasty to me,  no angry outbursts, in fact a pretty good day spent with friends and brothers.  I had the privilege of being the celebrant at our morning Eucharist, following which we discussed what returning Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen returning from combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or other areas of operations have to deal with.  As people talked, my emotions got the best of me, I hadn’t slept well and had gotten up with what feels like a low level electrical current running through my body.  My friend David and I had talked well into the night so long that I had forgotten to take my meds. Not a good start. My stomach has been somewhat gooned up, I figure due to the schedule and a different diet than I normally maintain,  as well as my emotional state.  Funny just how much mind and body are connected.

During the session one of my friends described his experience receiving the bodies of over 250 service members with mortuary affairs in Kuwait.  In fact the last time I saw him was for about two minutes on the tarmac at Kuwait International as I was getting ready to board my flight out of theater as he was getting ready to great another flight of “Angels.”  As people shared their experiences my mind and emotions were cascading.  I had to leave that session to walk and eventually sit down in my rental car in the driveway.   Afterward we went to lunch, two of us  took my friend David back to the airport so he could head back to Fort Hood.  David the the friend that in his short military career has spent most of it in Iraq winning two Bronze Stars and having done more than many get to do in a career.  He is the one that I mentioned with the irreversible lung damage who will most likely within the next six months to a year be medically retired.  It was a sad parting, he is a dear friend and I admire his courage, faith and desire to serve both his country and God’s people.  The rest of the group went to dinner while we found a little Irish pub and continued our time with Yuengling Beer and Krispy Kreme donuts out at the hotel pool.  Two Iraq vets trying to get through another day dealing with our own stuff.  The good thing is that we have each other.

I came up to my room and turned on the TV.  HBO was airing Taking Chance about a Marine officer who volunteered  to escort the body of a fallen Marine back to his home following his death in Iraq in 2004.  The film, if you have not seen it is incredibly powerful and triggered for me a very intense emotional reaction.  I have made death notifications, done memorial services and military funerals for a good number of servicemen over the years.  I’ve also been in hundreds of end of life situations in hospitals, including many traumatic deaths of young people.  The movie brought back memories of some of these occasions.  It also showed the simple yet profound thanks that so many Americans express for our servicemen and women, which were portrayed in the film, as well as some of the idiocy that travelers in uniform occasionally have to deal with from some TSA agents.  I and probably most military members have experienced much of what LtCol. Stroeble, portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the film experienced. It is a part of the brotherhood, a brotherhood that extends across generations and even across national and cultural divides. God bless Mr. Bacon and the people who made this film and Lt.Col. Stroebel who wrote this story.

Today was a tough day, but it brought new insights and as well as appreciation of my journey.  Peace, Steve+

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