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Never Forget, They are Not Just Names… Reflections on War, Loss and Change: Iraq, Afghanistan and Deep Space Nine

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KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

I have had trouble sleeping the past couple of weeks and I think that late last night or early this morning I figured it out.

I am remembering.

It was about this time of year six years ago I was getting ready to celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary with Judy knowing that about a week and a half later I would be leaving for Iraq for duty in Al Anbar Province with our advisors and wondering, if at the height of the war I would come back.

Of course I did come back and the following year in 2008 we celebrated our 25th anniversary as I melted down, collapsing due to PTSD. I was home but I wasn’t.

Every time I see or read a casualty report I still feel a chill, knowing how easily my life could have ended. I saw a report yesterday that four American troops were killed by indirect fire at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. Reading it I remembered the rocket the flew over my head the night I was flying out of Camp Victory for Anbar and how nonchalant I was when a young soldier ran up to me in his PT gear nearly in a panic asking me “what was that?” and my response, “oh it was just a rocket.” We were not far from the eastern perimeter of the base in an area of tents set out as transient quarters gunship helicopters flew over the camp and the city beyond the walls, machine guns rattled in the distance as explosions echoed in the distance as American soldiers and Iraqi security forces battled insurgents not very far from where we sat.

This past week a number of things have been triggering me. The Marines have been conducting exercises at Camp LeJeune and I have heard artillery in the distance and aircraft have been taking off and landing at the auxiliary airfield across the sound a couple miles away.

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Even though it is still two weeks until July 4th the tourists and summer rental types are already shooting off fireworks in the neighborhood near the beach. Last night I barely slept and tonight the tourist insurgents have been going mad with the fireworks. I was out walking Molly when some rather large commercial type fireworks went off a couple hundred yards away on the next street over. I nearly went to ground until I realized that they were only fireworks. I thought about July 4th 2011 when Judy brought Molly down and we went down to the beach to watch the fireworks. That night I was terrified and only the unflappable calm of Molly sitting beside me barking at the fireworks to protect me kept me together. Tonight Molly was as unflappable as ever, not bothered by the explosions. That made me laugh despite the near panic that I found myself. It is amazing what a little dog, now blind but still very relevant can do for someone like me dealing with the PTSD Mad Cow. I hate July 4th now, not what it means but all the explosions.

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Molly supervising my writing in 2008 or 2009

Tonight I was watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on DVD and the end of the season seven episode The Siege of AR-558 got me a bit. At the end of the episode Captain Sisko and Colonel Kira are discussing the latest casualty lists, which Sisko posts each week for his crew. I quoted it at the beginning of the article and it really spoke to me.

Some 6700 American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen have died in Iraq or Afghanistan close to 50,000 more wounded and probably a couple hundred thousand afflicted with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. Hundreds, if not thousands more, active duty, reserve and former service members have taken their own lives after returning. Of course those numbers don’t count the troops from NATO or the Iraq Coalition Forces, the Iraqi and Afghan troops that have fought and died alongside us or the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been killed, wounded or driven from their homes.

But they are more than numbers. Every one has a name, the dead and those who have come back in some way forever changed by war. It is important that we never forget that. They cannot be just numbers, otherwise we dehumanize them and avoid the real cost of war, especially the human costs. I think that Smedley Butler said it the best:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

As I write the situation in Afghanistan is still dangerous and this week I saw another friend, a surgeon from my hospital depart for duty there. Likewise there is much debate about the US and NATO role in the Syrian Civil War, something that seems to me will eventually involve US forces in yet another war.

I guess that is why I can’t sleep and why some of my dreams have been so disturbing lately. I know that I will get through this as I have been through much worse over the past six years.

Another episode of Deep Space Nine entitled Paper Moon that I watched tonight dealt with the young Ferengi officer Nog who was wounded at AR-558, losing a leg and his struggles after returning to the station dealing with the trauma of war, loss and change.

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Nog tells his holographic friend the lounge singer Vic Fontaine played by James Darren When the war began…I was eager. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to prove I had what it took to be a soldier. And I saw a lot of combat. I saw a lot of people get hurt. I saw a lot of people die, but I didn’t think anything was going to happen to me.” I didn’t think that anything would happen to me either, I thought that I was immune from trauma and PTSD, I was an expert in dealing with trauma but I came back changed.

At the end of the episode as he comes to terms with his loss and the change he is asked by his father’s new wife “Are you okay?” and he replies “No. But I will be.”

I will be too. Tonight I hope to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, News and current events, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Loose Thoughts on a December Saturday: I’m not a Nurse, the Great Cain Wreck, the End at Camp Victory, LSU went to Georgia and Padre Steve Discovers Twitter….

Sitting on Saddam Hussein’s throne at Al Faw Palace Camp Victory Iraq 2007

Well it has been a week hasn’t it?  I mean really so much has happened and things just keep happening whether we want them to happen or not as the old adage goes “shit happens….”

For me it has been a hard week although in terms of hardness it has been Judy that has to endure more than me. Judy had surgery this week to remove a bone spur that had grown into her Achilles tendon. Remove of said bone spur a partial resection of the Achilles and she has not had a fun week. Especially with the nursing care available to her…me.

I admire and respect nurses beyond belief and now more than ever.  I don’t have a nursing temperament. When the TV show House MD began I was watching it with Judy and remarked that House was “me without Jesus” to which she responded “honey House is you with Jesus.”  I am a Myers-Briggs INTJ  which basically means that I am not the most warm and cuddly person in the world and I lack the qualities that make for a good and compassionate nurse.

Now I am very competent at doing things to help people including medical things, but that does not mean that I am good at the hands on work that nurses do with great skill and care. Unfortunately for Judy I am her nurse.  A few years back she had a surgical procedure and I did so bad that she said that I had went to the “Leave Them on the Ice Flow to Die School of Nursing.”  Now because of Global Warming there are no ice flows in our area so I have worked hard to help Judy. Having endured a broken leg last summer I have more patience and even empathy than I would have before.  However it has been hard on her and trying on me.  This week has made me more appreciative of nurses than I was before because I would last about a half a shift if I was a real nurse. Personally I am much more like House in that I like to be alone, come up with answers save the day and not get too attached to anything.  How Judy has dealt with me for all of these years is beyond me God bless her and for her sake I hope that her recovery goes really well.

But even as I have done my pitiful best to help and comfort Judy other things are going on in the world without considering that I have been too busy to write about them.  It is not right, the world should stop letting important things happen when I don’t have the time or am too tired to write about them.

I guess the biggest domestic news was that the “Herman Cain Train” became the new Great Cain Wreck as in yet another surreal news conference Cain suspended his campaign.  I don’t know if any of what Cain’s accusers stories have any validity.   However Cain’s responses to each accusation caused me to question his credibility.  I think that having a criminal lawyer introduce him at a press conference after the first accuser went public was part of this but not all. It took more than that. Likewise Cain’s plethora of inept interviews and answers to questions that serious Presidential candidates need to have answers have made me doubt his credibility as a candidate. This was echoed in the polls in which Cain had taken the lead and then saw it melt away as Newt, the new “Bob Dole” Gingrich has vaulted over his competition in many key states, no doubt helped by the Great Cain Wreck. I have no idea who will win the GOP nomination but if they want to defeat the most vulnerable Presidential incumbent that I have ever seen they need to do better.  My scientific polling at the Gordon Biersch bar is that most people are not thrilled with another four years of President Obama, and that many really don’t like him, but almost all view the current GOP field as “unexciting” “uninspiring” and “unprepared” and “un-presidential” bunch that they have ever seen. Jimmy Carter would have been so lucky to have had this bunch to run against rather than Ronald Reagan.  One of them may beat this very beatable President but none of them are Ronald Reagan, heck they make Bob Dole look inspired by comparison.

Across the ocean in the Land of Ur the U.S. Military handed over the massive base complex at Cap Victory over the the Iraqi government.  Camp Victory and the U.S. Air Base connected to it at the Baghdad International Airport was the great gateway in and out of Iraq for many US and coalition soldiers.  It was at one time a complex of palaces built by Saddam and from it U.S. commanders prosecuted the war in Iraq.  I went through it on the way in and out of Iraq. At the time it was a virtual city.  You went to bed with the sounds of combat and rockets and mortar rounds would land in the base even as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled insurgents not far from the perimeter of the base.  Despite this the base had the largest PX facility in country as well as many amenities that seemed like a different world when I went out to Al Anbar province and travelled among our advisors with Iraqi forces.  It had a myriad of fast food outlets, coffee houses and things that you might find on a base in the United States.  While there I did get the obligatory tour of the Al Faw Palace which served as the main headquarters building for Multi-National Corps Iraq and and sat in the throne presented to Saddam by Yasser Afafat.  At the end of my tour I travelled back through and was amazed at the amenities on the base.  Since it was only a stop over I never had any attachment positive or negative to it but just the same it is strange to imagine that this base which some imagined would be the hub of U.S. operations in the Middle East for decades is back in Iraqi hands. I sincerely hope and pray for the best for Iraq and all of its people.

Finally today back in Georgia where Herman Cain surprised no one by suspending his campaign the LSU Tigers surprised no one by whipping up on the Georgia Bulldogs in the Georgia Bowl.  The Tigers fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter but scored 42 unanswered points to remain undefeated and to play for the BCS National Championship.  As Bobby “Waterboy” Boucher would say the Tigers “put a can of whip-ass” on the Bulldogs.

Finally I have discovered the joy of Twitter.  Yes though I haven’t had time to put long coherent thoughts together this week I have discovered that I can put rich and pithy comments into 144 character tweets.  I said that I would never do this and I won’t demean anyone that subscribes to my Twitter account @padresteve by calling them “peeps” as I believe that no one besides little marshmallow chicks that proliferate at Easter should be called.

So with all of that said and more serious things to write about I bid you goodnight.

Peace

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: Life at TQ, Chuck Norris Visits and Mass Casualties

While we prepared for our first mission we adjusted to what life was like on a large airbase and logistics hub. Ta Qaddum is one of the larger Iraq Air Force bases from Saddam’s time but has a history going back to the old Royal Air Force base at Habbinyah which is just down the hill.  In 1941 the Iraqi Army laid siege to the British forces in Habbinyah from the escarpment that overlooks the town from what is now the northern edge of TQ.  One only has to imagine the feelings of the Iraqi soldiers short on supply and exposed to air attack on the escarpment while waiting for German intervention only to be driven off by the British when their relief force arrived from Jordan.

iraqi bomber at tqWrecked Iraqi Bomber at TQ

The Iraqi legacy on the base looms in some of the infrastructure as well as the hulks of Soviet made Iraqi Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft near the edge of the airfield.  When I was there in 2007-2008 the base was under the command of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group or 2nd MLG.  The MLG is a command and control headquarters for logistics support units of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.  It is tailored to support the Ground Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Division and the Air Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Air Wing and attached units.  Its function is similar to an Army Corps Support Command or whatever the Army calls them now.  TQ was also the home of several helicopter squadrons Marine and Army as well as a local defense force at the time made up of the 1st Battalion 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton. 1/11 was an artillery battalion but was being primarily used as a security and convoy protection force.  Other units including Navy Seabees and Army logistics units operated from TQ.  A Marine Infantry Battalion was stationed in Habbinyah while elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were operating in the area as part of the surge.

The base is about mid-range on the amenity scale for troop comfort. At the time we were there the only non-DFAC/ Chow Hall was the Green Beans Coffee trailer as opposed to places like Al Asad and Camp Victory which had a multiplicity of fast food places for the troops.  The Marines are tougher on communication security than the Army and many websites which troops could use on other bases were unavailable unless one went to the Iraqi internet café or the MWR computer and phone center.  The Iraqi run shop had the fastest internet on the base but you had to contend with huge amounts of second hand smoke and pay a nominal charge to use it.  The MWR facility often had broken machines, had a waiting list to use them and the connections were very poor with pages slower to load that the old dial up days.  On the plus side TQ did have a relatively decent Marine Corps exchange, not as big as Al Asad or Camp Victory, but one of the larger exchanges in Iraq and second only to Al Asad in the West.  Most places including Ramadi had pretty small and not well stocked exchanges.  TQ had nice fitness center facilities which I used a lot being coached by Nelson.

060Chaplains and RPs with Chuck Norris

The base MWR worked with the USO and other agencies to bring sports stars or celebrities to the base.  Just before we left on our first mission Chuck Norris came through.  Chuck was made an “Honorary Marine” a few years back and has made it his task to try to meet every Marine deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaking the hand of each one he met.  The chapel was the host facility for the visit which last about 2 hours in which Chuck pressed the flesh and had his picture taken with probably close to 5000 Marines and other personnel, maybe more.  The Chaplains were drafted to be the photographers and I lost count of how many different types of digital cameras that I took pictures with.  Chuck enjoyed the heck out of Nelson and was impressed with his fighting resume.  I think that Nelson got more face time with Chuck than anyone on the base and he deserved it.  Chuck was accompanied by Chaplain Langston and RP1 Roland our friend from Fallujah.  After they were done he had to get on the waiting helo and fly out to his next stop.

058Chuck and Nelson

The chow halls, of which there were two, were large and usually had a pretty good menu.  I especially came to like the Indian nights where Indian specialties were served.  Since many of the cooks employed by Gulf Catering who had the contract were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Ceylon so it generally was pretty good unless they had to scrounge for suitable ingredients.  I like the curry chicken, but occasionally it was made with chicken nuggets when the real chicken was in short supply.  It almost reminded me of the Spam Lamb in the TV series M*A*S*H or the great quote out of the movie Meatballs: “Attention. Here’s an update on tonight’s dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight’s mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed “some kind of beef.”   I think that there were a number of times when I really wondered what the meat was.  They usually had a pretty good salad bar unless resupply convoys were interrupted and fresh vegetables had run out.  There were a number of times where the pickins were slim and Nelson and I had to get creative.  Breakfast was usually good with a good choice of food choices, some even healthy.  The workers were great, always friendly despite working 12 hour days 6 days a week for $300 a month.  Many had signed up through agencies which cost them $4000 so the first year that many worked was for nothing.  It was in my opinion a case of a KBR/ Halliburton subcontractor using them in effect as indentured servants and pretty well damned close to slaves, all legal by the US Government.  I thought that it was pretty immoral and certainly a case of a company contracted by the government reducing labor costs on the back of some of the poorest people in the world. Back at the end of the Cold War the military downsized and eliminated most of the Army and Marine mess specialists which paved the way for the contracting industry, led by the former Secretary of Defense and his Halliburton team to begin their massive contracting operations with the Bosnia deployments back in 1995.  They were limited to their own compound far away from anything and were always the last to eat.  They were polite and really tried to accommodate sometimes rude and condescending Americans, the local management did the best they could to give them good accommodations but were limited by their parent company.  Many of the workers were Roman Catholic or Anglican Christians  and Fr Jose had a great ministry that he took on to support them by going to their camp a couple of times a week to celebrate Mass.  His masses were packed and what a source of life and the love of God he was to so many people at TQ, Americans and non-Americans alike.

988Fr Jose on the bank of the Euphrates at Habbinyah

About a week after we got to TQ Marines from the battalion in Habbinyah were hit in an IED complex ambush while on patrol.  A couple of vehicles were hit, Jose was across the base celebrating Mass and Pat was in Fallujah.  A chaplain was needed in the Shock Surgical Trauma Unit or SSTP.  Wounded were being brought in, the platoon had been hit hard, 14 wounded and a couple killed.  I figured that since I was a pretty experienced trauma and critical care chaplain who had dealt with over 500 deaths, many traumatic with bullet wounds, burns and the host of other types of trauma, and tended to probably twice that many who did not die that I could handle this.  When I got to the SSTP I was greeted by a couple of nurses and docs and briefed as to what was going on.  Within a few minutes the casualties were beginning to roll in as the UH-60 Dust-off MEDIVAC helicopters landed and teams went out to meet them.  Some were ambulatory, or walking wounded bandaged with lacerations and burns on their faces and upper bodies, other were brought in on stretchers and ushered into the treatment beds in the area outside the OR.  It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H as the well honed surgical teams, surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and corpsmen went to work.  I now work with a number of these fine people. I was able to make my way about to the wounded Marines, praying with some, holding hands as and with a couple performing the sacrament of healing, or the anointing of the sick.  As I listen to Marines, prayed with them or anointed them there was a tremendous sense that this was different than what I did at Parkland or Cabell-Huntington.  These young men wore the same uniform that I wore, served the same country that I served and travelled the same roads that I would soon be on.  As each was assessed and moved off to surgery, prepared for further evacuation or treated and sent to a ward I noticed the little things about each of them.  The wounds, the torn uniforms, the burns and even the tattoos, these were our guys, they weren’t gang bangers or criminals but young Americans fighting a brutal war against a enemy that had terrorized Iraqis and found devastating ways to kill Americans.  Some of the Marines asked if they would be okay, others asked about friends and in those moments I learned what it was to care and be with men traumatized by the violence and brutality of war against an enemy that would not fight by our rules, much as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to fight our war.  The enemy was clever and determined and his weapons were deadly.

Stars and Stripes sstpTQ Surgical During Mass Casualty Event (Stars and Stripes Photo)

The teams did their work quickly and soon the event in the ER was done as the Marines were moved off to OR, the ward or further evacuation. I spent some time talking with unit Corpsmen and less wounded Marines and learned about the attack. They were in a convoy heading back to Habbinyah when the there was an enemy contact ahead of them.  As they moved forward to engage a primary and secondary IED hit the convoy heavily damaging two trucks with an ensuing firefight.  The Marines fought off their attackers, the wounded were treated and security set up as Dust-off came in to evacuate the wounded.  I thought back to my days as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and remembered my friends who had elected to apply for flight school to become Dust-off pilots.  I remembered learning to call in MEDIVAC missions and some of the Army MSC aviators that I knew; some had flown in Vietnam, being a Dustoff pilot can be a sporty occupation.  They fly an unarmed bird into hot landing zones and get badly wounded troops to medical facilities in 100 degree plus weather without killing them enroute, those guys are good. As the crowd dissipated I spend so time with some of the staff.  Eventually with night having fallen I began the walk back to my office in the Chapel.  I looked up at the night sky, in the darkness a another UH-60 sat down to pick up others being evacuated on to Baghdad or Balad.  I looked up at the sky and saw more stars than I had seen at any time since I was at sea on the USS HUE CITY.  It was amazing; it looked like you could almost walk across them from horizon to horizon. When I got to my office I checked on my our mission status, I had submitted our first Air Support Request earlier in the day, of course it had not moved yet, but at least it gave me something to do.  I checked my unclassified e-mail and knew that there was nothing that I could share with anyone so I looked at baseball scores, checked a couple of news sites and headed off to my “can.”

medivacPackaging a Casualty for Further Evacuation on the TQ Surgical Pad

That night I did not sleep well, the images of the wounded Marines were burned into my mind; I could see their faces, their wounds and their tattoos.  I prayed the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer using Psalm 91 and the prayer “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” I took some comfort in this, walked out again into the night to see illumination rounds in the vicinity of Habbinyah and the distant sound of automatic weapons fire.   For once my insomnia was not related to jet lag or exhausting night flights, it was instead a realization that what happened to these Marines could well happen to me as I we launched later in the week.

The next morning another eight or ten Marines from the same company came in, this time I went to the SSTP with Jose and we did a tag team match, we tried to determine religious affiliation of the wounded Marines with him taking the Roman Catholics to provide sacramental needs and me taking the rest.  Once again the images were vivid; these Marines were on a mission to recover the damaged vehicles and were hit by IEDs on their way back to base.  This time one Marine was killed.  I walked to the graves registration and mortuary affairs team with the battalion surgeon and a corpsman who were to identify the body.  I listened to their frustration and heartache as they described what they had been through the past two days.  The company had taken over 20 casualties including 3 dead.  A high percentage of casualties for a unit that probably numbered about 120 men.  Once again I walked back, this time in the hot mid-morning sun with Jose to the Chapel.  We talked for a while about the past two days, he knew the battalion that had been hit well as he supported them as well.  The surgeon was one of his parishioners.  After we went our separate ways I did my morning prayer and settled in to study more about where we were going.  Nelson and I got PT later in the evening and I spent a restless night in my “can” playing computer Maj-Jong and Chess on my laptop deep into the morning.  Once again I spent time walking in the dark looking at the vast sea of stars above me.

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How Padre Steve’s Teams did in 2009 and What a Game…Twins Win in 12

1972 Oak Park AL RamsThe 1972 Oak Park Little League Rams, American League Champs, Padre Steve’s One and Only Trip to the Post Season

Well, I gave my divisional playoff picks last night and as I start this post the Twinkies and Pussy Cats are going to the 12th inning tied at 5. As I said last night I hope the game goes as long as the Braves-Astros NLDS game that went 18 innings back in 2004. While I’m waiting and watching to see who wins I need a bit of a review to see how my teams in the major and minor teams do this year?

Well…let me change the order of things here, the Twins just won the game actually fulfilling my prediction.  It was one of the best baseball games that I have watched in a long time.  Jim Leyland and Ron Gardenier both did a great job of managing and both teams played really hard.  There were some amazing plays and the Twins pitchers came up big when they needed to in difficult situations often aided by outstanding defense including a play at the plate with the bases loaded with one out in the top of the 12th.  It ended with one out in the bottom of the 12th when Alexei Casilla singled to right off Tigers closer Fernando Rodney to drive in Carlos Gomez.  As I predicted the Twins had the advantage of the 10th man in the Metro Dome.  To win the AL Central they won 17 of their last 21 games and overcame a 7 game Tigers lead.  Even more amazing they came back from 3 three game deficit with only four games left in the season to force the playoff against the Tigers.  When they did that I knew that they would win tonight.  There are some things in baseball that you can feel and no matter how many times the Tigers took the lead I knew that it wouldn’t last.  On a side note, Twins reliever Bobby Keppel got the win. Keppel pitched here in Norfolk when the Mets were the Tides major league affiliate.  It was good to see one of the Tides come through in the clutch to deliver the win.   What a game, I hope every playoff series is this exciting.

As anyone who knows me can tell you I love the game of baseball.  So unlike most people who live and die with one team I can honestly say that I have a number of favorite teams, often for different reasons but always because I like something about them.  This doesn’t mean that they are all winners as is evidenced by some of the records this season, or maybe the past few seasons.  Likewise it means I get conflicted sometimes when two of my favorites play one another.

Of course my favorite team is the San Francisco Giants. They came out west the year before I was born across the Bay in Oakland.  I cannot forget all the greats who have played there and how close they have come to winning the World Series but not doing so.  Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichel, Bobby Bonds, Gaylord Perry and the list can just keep going.  I saw my one no-hitter back in 1975 at Candlestick when Ed Halicki no-hit the Mets.  I won’t forget watching the 1989 World Series when the Bay Area was rocked by a major earthquake or when I saw Barry Bonds hit 756 when sitting in a Army Dining Facility eating breakfast at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

I also have liked the A’s, well I was born in Oakland and even though my dad hated Charlie Finely and never was a fan of the American League I enjoyed the freewheeling A’s of the 1970s, the teams fielded by Tony LaRussa and Billy Ball.  We saw a couple of games in the A’s and Tigers Championship series.  It is really amazing to think that back then you could get field level tickets for a decent price on game day.  There is some tension here because I have a soft spot for the Anaheim Angels who happened to be the California Angels when my dad took us to a huge number of games at the “Big A” before Disney redid everything.  I really came to love the feel of a ballpark in the confines of the “Big A.”  I still have a Angels hat signed by a number of the players from that era including Jim Fregosi, Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer and Chico Ruiz.  I have pictures of my brother and I with Angles Manager Left Phillips and 3rd Base Coach Rocky Bridges.  Back in those days’ players and managers still had interesting nicknames like Lefty, Rocky, Catfish and Mudcat.

I also liked the Orioles because when we moved to Stockton California they were affiliated with the Stockton Ports of the California League.  I had an Orioles cap that I got there for many years afterward.  I visited Orioles Park back in 2004 and fell in love with the place.  When the Orioles affiliated with the Tides in 2007 I renewed that affection for the O’s even though they have not been very good the past few years.  This year was great to see a number of Tides go up to the majors and do well.

In  2003 I came to follow the Atlanta Braves after seeing their AA and AAA affiliates on a regular basis beginning when I saw the AA affiliate when they played Jacksonville in the Southern League and the Richmond, now the Gwinnett Braves play Norfolk in the International League.  In 2004 when they had the year of the “baby Braves” I had seen all play in the minors that same season.

So how did my teams do?

San Francisco finished 3rd in the NL West despite having an 88-74 .546 record. The Braves had a very similar situation finishing at 86-76 .531 behind the Marlins and Phillies.  Both teams were in contention for the NL Wild Card until the last week of the season.  They had the 6th and 7th best records in the National League.

My American League Teams did not do well with the exception of the Angels.  The Orioles had a bad season topped by a dismal September.  They were able to pull off a 4 game win streak to end the season and keep from losing 100 games.  They finished 64-98 .395 and 39 games out of first place.  They have some positives to build on as they had a very young and fluid roster.  I expect them to be significantly better next year.  The A’s also had a bad year, not as bad as the O’s but bad.  They finish last in the AL West at 75-87 for a .463 winning percentage 22 games behind the Angels.  The Angels though won the AL West with a 97-65 .599 winning percentage. They had the second best record in the American League.

That is why there is always next year.  Besides I still have the game and this post season could be a great one if tonight was any indication.  I’m sorry but the battles on the gridiron cannot compare to the drama that happens on the diamond.  That is why I belong to the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish and this is my view from 102.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Tripping into Ta Qaddum

helos at nightCH-53s and CH-47s

Our interlude in Fallujah over we waited in a tent outside the helicopter terminal operations building after RP1 Roland dropped us off.  Roland was good and helped hook us up with some of the Marines to get the Gator to put our ton of gear on to get it out to the helicopter.  I looked around and noted that both here and a Camp Victory most passengers had a significant amount less gear than us of course all had deployed with units and not as individuals thus the load that had to pack on their person was not exorbitant.  I thought of all we had been issued as individuals and the fact that I did not take everything that they wanted me to take and thought crap…what is wrong with this picture?  Of course whining about it does no good and if my lot was to suffer dragging all of this around then I would try to do so in good humor.  I pondered this and began to think of the movie Kelly’s Heroes and how the character played by Don Rickles Staff Sergeant “Crapgame.” I kind of chuckled as I thought of how he complained to “Kelly” played by Clint Eastwood and  Master Sergeant “Big Joe” played by Telly Savalis when after their vehicles were destroyed by American aircraft when saddled with a .30 caliber machine gun and its associated ammunition.

I looked in one tent which was full and eventually found another we a couple of open seats for us.  I sat my ass down on the wooden bench grounded the gear that I had with me, a back pack, and two briefcases now with 3 computers. My Mass kit was packed in my rucksack and all of my personal gear that could be placed on my flak vest was there including two knives…I was not allowed to pack a weapon but figured that these were simply to keep my fingernails clean and shave when I had nothing else to shave with.  Nelson of course was loaded for bear, dual armed he had an M-16A2 and a Beretta 9mm pistol and packed a significant amount of loaded clips of 5.56 and 9mm rounds in his ammo pouch. He sported two K-Bar fighting knives.  He also had his “game face on, the same look of determination that he sports when he fights.  Having an assistant who actually could kill someone to protect me was comforting.  There are some that I have met in both the Army and Navy that would have been as capable as Barney Fife if they were in a combat zone.  Of course Nelson and I knowing that we would be out in isolated areas with small teams of Americans had worked out a deal.  If were got into a bad situation he would toss me the 9 mil and we would defend ourselves and the people on our team figuring that since I was a chaplain that if I was captured that I would be used for propaganda purposes and executed on TV.  The plan was that if this happened that he would get credit for anything that I hit and no one would ever know that I did it.  I would not be like a few chaplains in the 2003 invasion of Iraq who carried and fought and then put it on their web sites, I figured that if this happened I would go to confession and ask for forgiveness rather than having to explain to Judy why I was dead.

The time passed slowly though it was only a couple of hours it felt like forever.  The tent was stuffy with a good number of people in it, Nelson found a corner and threw his gear down laid down comfortable.  I was a bit on the hyper-aroused side of life despite being tired so I got up and took a walk outside in moonlight.  The night air though still pretty warm felt better than that of the tent, as sweat dripped down my face I took a drink out of the liter bottle of water that I had pulled out of a cooler in the tent.  The airfield was busy, pairs of helicopters, 46’s, 53’s, and Army MH-60s and CH-47s landed and took off staying just long enough to disgorge their passengers and cargo and then pick up their next load before lifting off.  I watched in fascination as Marines and other passengers were led by ground crew staff to and from the aircraft, their shadowy figures blending into the illumination provided by the moon.  A couple of AH-1 attack choppers sat down for a few minutes and then took off.  I wondered if they would find targets or be called to respond to attacks on Marines or Soldiers in the area.  As I walked back to the tent I heard the boom of our artillery in the distance.

After a while they called for our flight.  We gathered up the gear that we had and Nelson got with the Marines to make sure that we were on the same flight as the “gator” was taking our gear to.  When we flew our “ticket” to get on a flight was the two letter code for our destination with the number of the flight such as 26 or 54 or whatever the mission or route number was.  In our case it was “TQ” and the number was either 54 or 56 which was from HMH 463 flying CH-53-Ds out of Al Asad.  Their flights were known as Kahuna followed by the number.  This was written on our left hand with a black marker.  As passengers we staged by our flight by young Marines with flashlights shaded by red cones.  We got in a line with about 30 other passengers, Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians and moved out for the 53 which had just landed coming in from the east.  The companion bird was forward of ours.  The Gator move alongside of us and reached the helicopter just before we did.  Amid the din of the rotor blades and engines the Marine on the Gator got off and called out “Is the Chaplain that this gear belongs to here.”  I called out that I was and Nelson and I moved to the Gator and began the off load of four “super sized” suitcase shaped canvas sea bags and two flight bags. To get an idea how big our bags were you have to think of something about a third bigger than the biggest suitcases that you can buy only soft sided with no wheels.  No they did have straps that you could try to carry them with, but they were not the greatest.  Also note that we had a full deployment worth of gear in those bags and were expected to lug them across Iraq and you can see that this was a less than fun evolution and why I thought of Staff Sergeant Crapgame.  We dragged our gear aboard the aircraft moving toward the center of the bird placing it on the deck under the rotor blades where we took our places in jump seats and strapped ourselves in.  I felt something warm dripping on me and looked up, it was hydraulic fluid coming from the transmission of the bird which was located above me.  There is an old joke among those who fly in Marine Corps helicopters:  “How do you know when a Marine Helicopter is low on hydraulic fluid?  When it stops leaking.” I thought of the joke but this time it wasn’t funny.  I’ve never been a big fan of rotary wing flight and the fact that I was exhausted, sweaty and sitting in a cramped hot, leaky, dark and heavily loaded helicopter in a combat zone made the experience less than fun.

It was about 0200 when we lifted off into the night on what we understood to be a short flight to TQ.  Admittedly it was, if you only count the flight time from Fallujah to TQ itself.  As we flew in I could see the sprawling airbase below but we flew off to what looked like the other side of the airfield.  As we flew in I thought of the Army bird that had gone down earlier in the day.  I wondered what had caused it to crash and my pucker factor went up just a bit higher as I wiped more hydraulic fluid from my face.

When we landed we told to exit the bird without our gear.  We released ourselves from our seats and stumbled over our gear and that of the rest of the passengers that was in the middle of the deck.  We exited out the rear of the aircraft down the ramp into the rotor wash.  Turning left we moved off about 70 yards from the fifty-three and looked around.  A few crew members and ground crew personnel moved in and out of the bird.  At first I wondered if we had been moved off to refuel but there was no fuel in view.  We waited for about 25 minutes in the dark as Marines moved in and out of the fifty-three.  Finally a crew member came over to us, and motioned us to follow him back into the aircraft.  Once again we negotiated the gear and found our seats.  Once we were back in the fifty-three lifted off and flew a short distance across the airfield where were instructed to exit the bird with our gear.  For most of the passengers this was a fairly easy evolution, for us it was not so easy.  We had to take one bag at a time down the ramp and get each a decent distance from the bird before returning for the others.  We got our gear off the bird and found that the rest of the passengers were already being herded the 200-300 yard hike to the paved area near the terminal.  Nelson and I each packed one of the large bags on our back and began to pull the other bags behind us as another group of Marines walked out to the fifty-three.  Eventually about a third of the way to the terminal a Marine on the ground crew came and asked if we needed assistance.  I replied that it would be appreciated.  He instructed us to wait where we were and about three minutes later a forklift with a large plywood box on the forks.  The Marine who had asked if we needed help instructed us to place the gear in the box and proceed in the direction of the terminal with another member of the ground crew.  As the birds lifted off behind us we set off for the terminal area.  When we got there we had to wait again.  A Marine collected our ID cards and walked in the building telling us to remain where we were.

About this time, our gear on the ground again with us there with our helmets off and sweat pouring down our faces a female petty officer came up to us.  It was the 2nd Marline Logistics Group senior RP.  Nelson knew her from Afghanistan so our welcome was pleasant.  The RP had a Chevy SUV in front of the terminal.  The Marine came back with our ID cards, I grabbed a bottle of water and the three of us began to move the gear to the truck which was about 50 years away via the closed route through the terminal. After loading the gear she drove us about 10 minutes to the other side of the base where the billeting area was.  She got the truck as close as she could and once again we lugged the gear about 100 yards to our new homes which were called “cans.”  These are like a storage container with a window and linoleum floors.  Unlike some of the places I had been recently this also had a small wall unit air conditioner that worked.  It was now about 0315 and I stank to low hell.  I dug through my bags, found my shower gear and towel and got a shower.  Finally about 45 days after we detached from EOD with stops in Norfolk, Fort Jackson, Kuwait, Baghdad and Fallujah we could get to work.  On my return to my new home I did the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer, laid down on the bed and passed out.

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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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