Tag Archives: camp fallujah

Casing the Colors in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Padre Steve+

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August 2007: My Beginnings in Iraq

I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect today.  I woke up about 0430 in pain from my broken leg.  I was in enough pain to warrant a Vicodin which was the second that I had had since going to bed.  It knocked me out and after making a call to my staff to let them know that I was out of action I woke up aboutnoonto the sound of a MH-53E flying over my place toward the Marine Auxiliary Airfield a few miles from my place.  Vicodin makes my leg feel better but pretty much puts me out of action.

The memories invoked by the sound of the helicopter caused my period of reflection.  I haven’t written about my time in Iraqin a long time.  The memories of my time in Iraqstill evoke intense emotions which sometimes lead me into a depressed funk and can be brought on by many things.  However since I am doing better than the last time that I attempted to write them down I figure that I might as well start over and attempt to complete what I began in 2009.  Today marks the 4th anniversary of my arrival in Fallujah, the next to last stop before we arrived at Taqaddum and began our operations supporting the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

I arrived in Iraq with my assistant, RP1 Nelson Lebron.  We had detached from EOD Group Two in early July and after stops for processing and training in Norfolk, Fort Jackson South Carolina and Kuwait we arrived in Iraq on the 5th of August.  Our first stop was at the headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group atCampVictory inBaghdad.  We remained there several days getting briefings on our mission and awaiting a flight to Fallujah.  Our last night at Camp Victory was an interesting night where for the first time I was in the line of fire of a hostile rocket which whooshed over my head to explode harmlessly about a kilometer away.

107mm Rocket on improvised launcher

We had a very late flight, about 0200.  Since you normally need to manifest for a flight two hours prior it means that you back up at least a hour before the manifest time.  This particular evening there was not much cooling going on and there was little illumination which meant in most places it was very dark. Especially in troop the billeting areas.  We dragged our gear to the entrance to the billeting area.  Nelson went back to his tent and I plopped my ass down on my bags.  About 2300 I heard and felt a rush over my head.  It was a rocket, probably a 107 mm rocket which is one of the most popular indirect fire weapon used by the insurgents or possibly a 122 mm rocket.  Both are former Soviet systems produced in Iran and supplied to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They are not very accurate but still the fact that a rocket had buzzed me was disconcerting.  A few seconds later I heard an explosion.  I later heard the rocket had continued on and hit an uninhabited area of the camp.  Soon after it went over my head a very young looking soldier came running up to me in his PT gear with an M-16 at the ready.  He shouted “Sir, what was that?”  The young man appeared to be a bit scared to I simply quipped “Only a rocket son didn’t hit us.”  He seemed to relax just a bit and I said “You okay son?” the good thing about being as old as I am that you can get away with calling the young guys “son” because in most cases they I’m old enough to be their father.  I stay in game too much longer and the new kids could be grandchildren.  This young soldier said, “Well sir I’m on the quick reaction force and that sounded close.” In the background to the east machine gun and small arms fire could be heard.  A pair of gunships buzzed us going the general direction of the gunfire.Baghdadwas definitely not a violence free school zone.  I replied to the young soldier. “Son, if I were you I’d report to where you need to go, better grab your helmet and flak.”  The young man looked at me in the dark, assuming I was a Marine officer since I was in myMarineDesertdigital cammies, saluted and said “Yes sir” to which I replied “be safe soldier and God bless, keep up the good work.”  Once again he thanked me and hurried off into the night.

A few minutes later, Nelson who has been in some pretty sporty situations in Afghanistan including once where he took out a knife wielding assailant at a checkpoint in Kabul with his fists, came up to me.  “Hey Chaps, did you hear that rocket? Sounded like a 107.”  I said to him, “Shit brother, it felt like it went right over my head. “  He responded quickly “Boss I think we’re in a war here.”  And I said “sounds like it partner, definitely sounds like it.”  Then he said “Chaps, you wouldn’t believe what I just saw.”  I said “Really, what?”  And he told me the story. “I was over looking for our boy when I needed to go to the head, so I opened one of the port-a johns and when I opened it saw this guy and girl having sex in it, like they didn’t have the door closed and you know how nasty those things are.”  I said “Partner you’ve got to be kidding me” and Nelson said “Chaps I wouldn’t do that to you, those people looked at me like I was stupid when I opened the door and I just said excuse me and closed the door. That place stank sir; I don’t know how they were doing it in there.”  I replied “Partner, I guess after a year of more here some folks will take whatever they can get.” “But, you’d think that they would find some dark spot rather that a port-a-john,” replied a thoroughly disgusted Nelson.  As I laughed at the misfortune of my little buddy, bodyguard and protector I simply said “There’s no accounting for taste my friend, no accounting for taste.”

We sat on our gear and waited, and waited.  The time when we should have been picked up went by and after about 15 minutes of chatter about not being picked up on time, Nelson said. “Boss you want e to go find our ride?”  I responded that I wanted him to as it was so dark that he might not know where to find us. A few vehicles had come and gone but none were our assigned wheels.  Finally after about 45 minutes our ride showed up, Nelson had found him on the other side of the compound in his truck listening to AFN radio.  He had come to the wrong side of the billeting area and was chastising me for not being there.  I said, “Sergeant, I said to meet us over here and I’ll be damned f we have to lug our gear a couple hundred yards to make you happy.”  I paused as he started to interrupt and then cut him off “Sergeant, don’t go there, you’re talking to a field grade officer who wasn’t always a chaplain, you went to the wrong place and you didn’t take the initiative to try to find us. We had to find you so don’t push your luck.”  He replied, almost dejectedly, “Yes sir” and I said, “consider this matter ended, get us to the airfield, we have a flight to catch.”  Nelson and I piled our gear into the back of the truck, got in and rode the airfield.

CH-46’s landing

In 2007 the Camp Liberty airfield, which deals exclusively in rotor wing aircraft, was one of the busiest heliports in the world.  Hundreds of flights went through it every day.  They were primarily Army, but a fair amount of Marine aircraft pass through as well.  We were flying Marine air tonight.  When we got to the heliport our chauffer had a difficult time finding a place to park.  Eventually we sort of double parked and Nelson and I and Nelson and I unloaded our gear with a bit of help from our chastened chauffer got up to the manifest desk where we were greeted by a civilian. He took our names and our mission number and then took out a marking pen and wrote it on the back of our hands.  I found that that at each place this was the primary way to identify who was getting off where or if you should even be on the aircraft. I found a seat and then because I couldn’t get comfortable walked outside for a while.  Nelson on the other hand, ground his gear, threw himself upon it pulled his cover over his eyes and took a power nap. He can sleep almost anywhere.

With about 10 minutes to go I woke up Nelson, and I find it amazing how he can wake back up the way he does.  When I take a nap I am useless for about 30 minutes after I wake up as my body tries to figure out what time it is. We both took turns guarding our gear as the other hit the head, once again a darkened port-a-john that stank to low hell.  When done we staged our gear near the lineup point.  Our mission was called and we lined up with about 30 others, a mixture of Marines, Sailors, contractors and a few soldiers.  We geared up, securing helmets, flaks, our packs as well as our massive EOD issue sea-bags.  Nelson helped me with mine as we got ready to walk, once was over my back and the second strapped across my chest, actually going from my chin to just above my knees.  Many of our fellow passengers had very little gear, and one fairly large contractor offered to help me with my gear.  I took him up on it about half of the 100 yards to where our bird had landed.

Watching our aircraft come in, a flight of 2 Marine CH-46s which date back toVietnamservice I was amazed at how surreal they looked coming in out of the night, their haze gray fuselages almost having a ghostly appearance as they set down.  Of course we had the bird that was farthest from the line up point and I was really glad for the help of this generous contractor.  As we loaded our bags onto the aircraft, stacking it in the center of the deck with everyone else’s gear, we each took one of the jump seats along the side and strapped ourselves in.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt totally winded, no amount of running, pull ups, pushups and crunches had prepared me to lug our heavy and ungainly gear around.  The dimly lit troop compartment was hot and I looked around the aircraft.  I noted the machine gunners in the front doors and the crewman in the back who took a seat with a 240 series machine gun mounted on a swivel.  It reminded me of the films I saw of the inside of World War Two B-17s, except that the flight suits were different.  The crew gave the let the pilots know that we were ready, and I wondered what we were heading into.  Nelson got my attention and gave me a “thumbs up” and I returned it as the lights went out that our flight lifted off.

Banking around to the left the 46 gained altitude and flew back across the camp as it did so I got my first view of Iraq after dark.  As we flew into the city ofBaghdadthere were lights and sometimes lit streets. In a few places I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.  We soon began to descend into the city surrounded by tall buildings, mainly hotels and government buildings and I knew that we were in the “Green Zone.” We sat down on a small landing pad, the dim lights came back on and a couple of passengers got out of our bird which a couple of more boarded the flight. The scene fromCampLibertywas repeated and gear was off and on loaded, passengers boarded and debarked from the flight and the lights went off and the bird lifted off.  Gunners took their positions and chatted on their headsets obviously scanning for threats and assessing what was going on, or they could have been talking about the new video game one of them had bought at the exchange.

Banking left we gained altitude heading east, with Baghdad fading into the night the lights of the communities along the Euphrates came into view as we flew on toward Fallujah.  For me it was a fascinating experience, surreal and a bit of anxiety making but interesting as I thought of the history of the ancient civilizations who had settled here. As a historian I thought about the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and the fact that the faith of the Christian Church through Abraham and later the people ofIsraelbegan inIraqwith Abraham’s obedience to the Lord in theLandofUrof the Chaldees.

The flight only took about 16-18 minutes and we flew into Fallujah.  The bird sat down on a large tarmac and the crew motioned us to get up grab our gear and get off of the aircraft.  I was praying desperately that it would not be a long walk to the terminal from the helicopter pad.  As we hauled our gear off the 46 to get to the terminal I was about tapped out.  The 46 had landed about 100 yards from the terminal where our ride waited.  It might as well have been 100 miles.  I loaded one bag on my back and commenced to drag the other.  Nelson was ahead of me and realized that his old Padre was not doing well.  I was about halfway to the terminal when Nelson showed up with a Marine on a John Deere Gator. My gear was loaded aboard the Gator; I gave a hearty thank you to Nelson, the Marine and to the Deity Herself as I dragged my sorry ass to the terminal.

The Fallujah terminal like most terminals at heliports in Iraqwas a plywood building constructed by the Seabees.  It was well lit inside, had air conditioning which I sucked up and a large refrigerator with bottled water stashed in it.  Once inside I took off my helmet as we checked in at the desk.  By now it was about 0245, I had been up since 0530 the previous day, done PT a Camp Victory, had a rocket fly directly above me and dragged 200 pounds of gear more places than I wanted to in 100 degree heat and I was a spent round.  War is a young man’s game and even though I am in good shape for someone my age, the key is that I am in good shape for someone my age, not a young guy.  Sweating profusely I found a liter bottle of water and downed it.  About that time a large African American 1st Class Petty Officer came in the door.  RP1 Donnie Roland was the LPO of the II MEF Forward Chaplain’s office and worked for Mike Langston.

Donnie, who is now retired from the Navy, is a guy that you definitely want on your side.  He hooked us up.  Normally personnel in a transient status in Fallujah are housed in tents with cots in varying degrees of disrepair.  Donnie got us rooms in the VIP quarters, nicknamed by the Marines the “Ramadan Inn.”  The place had once been the haunt of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddaam’s sons.  It had a pond in the center of the court yard and was reputedly a place where they would entertain senior members of the Ba’ath Party amid scenes of debauchery.  We were given a small room that had a desk and two small Iraqi beds, both of which had thin concave mattresses which had little support but were a definite step up from a cot.  Sheets, pillows and a blanket were included.  Our gear took up the majority of the room but it didn’t matter.  After a shower I crashed hard.  The bed might have been from a 5 star hotel; all that mattered at 0330 was that I could get to sleep.  RP1 Roland told us that Chaplain Langston said that we should get some sleep and come in when we could.  With outgoing artillery fire going off in the background I laid my worn out body down on the waiting mattress, I thought about the day and it came to me that the rocket that had went over my head could have killed me and a chill went down my tired spine.  Another salvo of artillery lashed out at the enemy, and my mind drifted back to the present.  I was now in Fallujah.  One more stop on the way to my war, Nelson was already asleep; I am amazed at his ability to go from 0-60 and 60-0 so fast.  More artillery fire boomed and as a former forward observer I found outgoing artillery fire to be comforting, amid it’s lullaby I went to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Going to War: Interlude in Fallujah Reunions, Redirection and a Stay at the Ramadan Inn

marine 155s in fallujahUSMC 155mm Howitzer firing on Insurgents at Fallujah in 2007

Note: This is the latest installment of my “Going to War” Series.  Other postings in this series are located in the Subjects section under “Tour In Iraq.” The series chronicles the tour of Religious Support Team-2 of the Iraq Assistance Group in MNF-West from July 2007-February 2008. We were the first Navy Chaplain and Assistant to work supporting advisers since the Vietnam War.

We woke up to the sound of more outgoing artillery fire.  The sun was shining outside as I look out my window at the sky above the California Barrier that protected our “suite” in the south wing of the Ramadan Inn.  Climbing out of the decrepit Iraqi bed with the fresh sheets I stumbled over my two tons of gear to look at the time while Nelson slept like a baby in his equally decrepit Iraqi bed.   My ever trusty alarm clock showed that it was about 0830, which meant we had gotten maybe 5 hours sleep and missed breakfast. Thankfully I had stockpiled a few pop-tarts and granola bars from the Camp Victory chow-hall the day before.   Opening the door and peering out into the hallway I saw it empty and walked across the hall to the head, shower and laundry room to do my morning business.   Despite being a Baath Party playground the suites at the Ramadan Inn were not furnished with their own toilet or shower, just a small sink and mirror.

ramadan innRamadan Inn

Though the Ramadan Inn had seen better days it was certainly, despite being the playground of Uday and Qusay Hussein it was not exactly a palace like those of their father Saddam.  It was somewhat reminiscent of an old and run down motel along Route 666.  The floor was a marble type tile and the sand painted concrete building with a flat roof.  I strolled over to the head in my PT-sleep clothes and was relieved to be able to relieve myself in a facility that had actual porcelain shitters which flushed using real water.  If you have been to Iraq or Afghanistan you know that this is not always the case.  The showers were passable being a more European design and the water was hot.  I guess even the cold water was hot in Fallujah with temps in the 120s.  Once I had gotten up I awakened Nelson, the sleeping beauty. He then went through his morning ritual to make himself presentable to the world.  Those who know nelson know that if he can he will take care of his personal hygiene.  I ate one of my Strawberry Filled frosted Pop Tarts washed done with water and when Nelson was ready we walked over to the Chaplain office.  It was like a maze to get there. We walked across the way a bit, took a right, made a left and went through the normal transient quarters area, took a right went up a block or two, took a left, made another left, wound our way past a decorative lake, took a right, went past a number of buildings before passing a final bank of green porta-johns finding the MEF- Forward Chaplain Office to our right.  The sun shone brightly and though not a long walk was relatively warm and by the time we got to the Chaplain Office I was sweating.

fallujah pondPond at Fallujah

The Chaplain office was like every other facility and was protected by California Barriers or Hesco’s. We were met by RP1 Roland and the Deputy MEF-FWD Chaplain CDR J.P. Hedges.  They were most hospitable and offered us water as well as coffee, which my caffeine deprived brain needed badly.  After introductions Nelson got together with RP1 Roland and I met with Chaplain Hedges doing the usual butt-sniffing that military professionals engage in when meeting someone for the first time.  This ritual usually consists of learning who our mutual friends are, where and with whom we had served in the Navy, where we went to school, something about our families and for Chaplains our faith tradition or denominational affiliation.  This is a customary act for chaplains as it is for other communities and specialties in the Navy.  On the positive side it is a way of making connection with each other and building relationships.  It is also a way or self preservation within the system as sometime there are people that do not have your best interests at heart. However for J.P. and I the meeting was very friendly. We d a lot of shared experiences in the types of duties we had done and we had mutual friends.  While we enjoyed conversation he began to introduce me to some of the things that had been going on in country the last few months.  After about 30 minutes Chaplain Mike Langston came in.  It was Mike who had worked with Peter Dissmore and the Corps Chaplain to bring us out to the west to cover the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

Mike had a couple of orders of business to take care of before he brought Nelson and I into his office and had our reunion. Nelson and I had both worked with Chaplain Langston.  It was good to see him again.  Nelson had worked for him in Afghanistan and I had been with him at 2nd Marine Division in 2000-2001.  He and Chaplain John Kaul arranged for me to take over Headquarters Battalion upon my return to work in a quasi-regimental billet with oversight of the independent battalions Religious Ministry Teams, though not the actual supervision of them. In addition to my regular duties counseling Marines, doing suicide interventions, conducting classes and supporting field exercises they used me, because of my experience to assist and evaluate chaplains who had been fired or relieved of their duties.  I got each one for 30-60 days to see if they could be recovered for further service or not.  In a sense this transformed me from a relief pitcher to a pitching coach.  Chaplain Langston was at a school when 9-11 occurred and during this time I was used as the Deputy Division Chaplain looking at readiness, training and potential deployment of our religious ministry teams with their units.  Both Nelson and I had experienced Chaplain Langston as a tough but fair chaplain.  What he did expect was that we would be out doing our job and keeping him or his office in the loop on our operations and issues facing us.  He did not attempt to micro-manage us.

bunkers_everywhere.jpg.w300h225Bunkers to Protect Against Indirect Fire at Camp Fallujah

Mike Langston is a prior Marine Corps Infantry Officer who had been a been a Company Commander and battalion staff officer as well as instructor at “The Basic Course” which is the leveling field for all Marine Corps officers regardless of their commissioning source.  He played football in college and still has the physique of a defensive lineman.  He left active duty and went to seminary and when he was ordained and graduated from seminary entered the Navy Chaplain Corps. He had since risen to the pinnacle of a career for most chaplains having been promoted to Captain, the same as a Colonel for the other services and assigned as the 2nd Marine Division Chaplain.  He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and kind with a high level of energy and emotion.  He explained the current situation in the Province was, the locations of the various Marine Regimental Combat Teams (RCT-2 and RCT-6) as well as the one Army Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division as well as the 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion and the MEF Aviation and logistics assets were located.  He then got down to the specifics of our mission which were pretty simple and suited to our personality as a ministry team. Basically he expected us to manage our own operations in the MEF area of operations. He expected that we coordinate our operations with the teams that we would support and keep his office informed of where we were going and what our general plan of operation was.  Since he had worked with both of us and we were both known and trusted quantities he gave us a tremendous amount of operational freedom to do our job.  His expectation was that we would be active and get out to the remotest places that we had training and assistance teams of advisors.  He told us about an Army team that had been based in Ramadi to do the job with the advisors.  He confirmed what Peter Dissmore had told us about this team.   They had never left the base in 4 months and basically hung out at the Ramadi main chapel. They managed to get their orders curtailed and left theater never once having contacted or visited any advisory teams.

ega fallujahMonument in the Traffic Circle at Camp Fallujah

We were also told of a change to our projected base of operations.  Our original plan of operations had us working out of the former British and Iraqi base at Habbinyah the location of the headquarters of the 1st Iraqi Division and the Advisors assigned to it.  Instead the Colonel in charge of those teams made the call that he could not support the operations of a Chaplain from his location. He held firm on this and the plan was changed so that we would operate from Ta’Qaddum a large air and logistic  hub about equidistant between Fallujah and Ramadi.  Ta’Qaddum is adjacent to Habbinyah on the south side of the Euphrates. It sits atop an escarpment overlooking the town to the north and Lake Habbinyah in the South.  In 1941 it was the site of a siege when the Iraqi military launched a revolt against the British who occupied the country despite it being given independence at the end of World War One.  The British we besieged in Habbinyah and the Iraq forces had the high ground atop the escarpment.  Unfortunately for the Iraqis and fortunately for the British the British forces had support from the Royal Air Force and the Iraqis had no logistics ability to support their units atop the escarpment.  The Iraqi forces were pounded and eventually a relief force arrived from Jordon to break the siege.  At TQ as it is known by most Americans we would be housed and taken care of by the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain, Commander Pat McLaughlin and his team.  We were instructed to make coordination to plan work with the teams supporting the 7th Iraqi Division, the 2nd Border Brigade, Iraqi Highway Patrol and the Provincial Police forces while working to build a bridge to the teams of the 1st Iraqi Division. The change was momentarily upsetting but ultimately it opened the door to the entire province where if we had been co-located with the 1st Division we may not have gotten out of its operational area.

Following the briefing, he, J.P, RP1 Roland, Nelson and I went to lunch at one of the two major chow halls on the camp where I met up with an old friend.  The friend was Captain Luke Fabiunke with whom I had served for 2 years at Marine Security Forces Battalion.  Luke was our S-6 and the Communications officer at Security Forces.  He was always fun to hang out with and was very supportive of my work as a chaplain there.  Luke was in the G-3 Operations shop t the MEF and specifically was working with the section that dealt with the training and advisory teams in the province.  It was good to see him and he immediately upon learning our mission asked how he could help.  This hook up was one that paid off in spades in the next 6 months.  It is a lesson that Chaplains need to build relationships with other staff officers in order to be successful, not just in their current assignment but in many cases later in their careers when they need assistance the most.  For me it helped meet my mission of finding and making contact with advisory teams of all types as soon as we hit the ground rather than operating blindly trying to figure our way around the labyrinth that was the operational setting for these teams.  I think that I owe Luke a beer or two for his assistance.

Following lunch we got to work.  Helped by Chaplain Hedges and RP1 Roland we were issued flight suits and Nelson a couple of sets of Marine Pattern Camouflage uniforms and I was issued two elderly Panasonic Tough Book laptops. One was set up for regular unclassified traffic and the other for classified work dealing with intelligence reports, weather and planning and submitting air movement requests.  Despite being a highly technological military when one gets into a combat zone technology assets for oddball teams like ours are sometimes scarce.  In fact I understood from Peter back at IAG that most of the Army teams had to share assets with others just to communicate.  Chaplain Langston and his staff ensured that we had freedom to be able to do our job without having to inconvenience others to do it.  They laptops may have been elderly but they worked.  Chaplain Hedges taught me the ins and outs of planning and coordinating the air support from Marine, Army and Air Force aviation assets and helped get us set up to do this.  Once again we got what we needed to do our mission.

We spent another three days in Fallujah preparing for the mission and making coordination with staff sections and others that we might have to call upon.  We also had a number of reunions with others that both of us had served with. I met Major Andy Niebel and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ottignon who I had served with a Second Combat Engineer Battalion. They were good friends then and are men for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect.  I also met a number of Chaplain with whom I had previously served or knew from other duty stations. One of these was LT Joe Buenviaje, who had been my RP at 1st Battalion 8th Marines when I had done my relief pitching job there.  Joe had cross-rated from being a Boiler Technician to the RP rating not long before I had met him.  We had qualified for the old FMF qualification together and I was able to help him begin his journey to be a Navy Chaplain.  I was also blessed and honored to baptize his children at Camp LeJuene.  Joe has a heart of gold and did well in Iraq.  He got out with his Marines a lot, once almost getting blown up by an explosive device which blew up a highway overpass where they had just been conducting services. With them was a Catholic priest who had likewise just celebrated Mass.  They were leaving the site when the explosion hit and following the attack helped to take care of the wounded.

Having a cross on your uniform in a chow hall can lead to interesting situations as well as ministry.  Some people will automatically avoid you when they see the cross as if faith and religion was some sort of communicable disease.  I admit that there are some religious people and groups across the faith continuum that I think are toxic so I understand this.  Likewise there are people have been used, abused or burned by religious leaders or groups and thus want nothing to do with organized or even disorganized religion.   There are other people who are afraid that if they say something wrong that the chaplain might come down on them.  There are still others who when they see that you are a chaplain ensure that they get together with you and some will even pray for you. Regardless of the situation I always try to be friendly to those around me in a chow hall despite my preference for my introversion.  In fact I will attempt to start up conversations with anyone around me if nothing else to let them know that I know that they are there and that they can talk with me.

Some of the people that we supped or dined with were Religious Programs specialists like Nelson….well actually not so much like Nelson.  Nelson is one of those one of a kind animals that the Deity Herself cracked the mold when he was out of the oven.  These young men and women had been in country various lengths of time and were having as happens in almost every case good or bad experiences working with their chaplain.  There are unfortunately a few bad apples that mistreat their RPs and give the rest of us a bad name. Likewise there are bad RPs in the force.  Some actually set new lows for military conduct and discipline and give a bad name to the good sailors in the rating.  I had one that stole from the offering in Okinawa, forged offering forms, leave papers and burned up a new pickup truck to try to get the insurance money. I had another who tested positive for cocaine upon arriving to my ship and yet another who pretty much stayed one step ahead of the law.  I guess it is human nature that we get such folks and unfortunately because there are people like this who serve as Chaplains and RPs there is kind of a guilt by association.  As such RPs question the RPs that they know  as to how their chaplains treat them and are often wary of a chaplain that they do not know.  Nelson assured them that I was “cool” and we had a couple of interesting meals together.

There were a number of times in Fallujah where young sailors or Marines approached me about spiritual issues, family problems or prayer requests. There were even some young men and women who were interesting in becoming chaplains.  It was neat to be able to be there in those moments where our lives intersected, maybe for the one and only time.

We spent our last day in Fallujah getting ready for our flight, another really late flight.  During the day we heard that an Army CH-47 Chinook had crashed at TQ killing the crew and that the cause was undetermined as to whether it was due to hostile fire or a mechanical problem.  Such incidents raise your pucker factor especially when you will be flying into the same place that they crashed.  With this in mind we picked up our laundry had some chow, made some final coordination, called and e-mailed our families, did some PT and settled in for the evening waiting for RP1 Roland to pick us up. While outgoing artillery boomed in the distance we sat back in our room at the Ramadan Inn and discussed our plans, as well as wondered out loud what was in store for us.

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