Tag Archives: chaplain corps

Waiting for First Light at Slaughterhouse Five: PTSD and a Coda to te end of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am checking out of my current command to finish my career attached to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth Virginia. I am struggling. Not feeling appreciated and feeling like a cast off. This isn’t new, shortly after I was promoted to Commander, the newly appointed Deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me like a potted plant while making her rounds of the Generals and Major Commands. As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Slaughterhouse Five “and so it goes.”  My Problems in the Navy Chaplain Corps began when I went public with my struggles with PTSD. Somehow it seems that Chaplains can care for the wounded and those traumatized by war but if we admit that we are wounded we are expendable.

I read General Romeo Dallaire’s latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Struggle with PTSD a couple of years ago. General Dallaire had been the commander of the UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, men and women who were prevented from stopping genocide, and people who have been forever haunted by what they witnessed.

General Dallaire recounts a story of horror that never ended for him, and he details how difficult and traumatic coming home that neither appreciate nor understood what he had been through, including people in the military. I found so much in his story that was analogous to my own and in light of that I am going to begin writing my PTSD memoir.

It will be hard because I will have to write about things that are deeply traumatic and upsetting, especially how I was received and continue to be received by most of my fellow chaplains. Because I came and publicly discussed my issues with PTSD, the shattering of my faith in so many things, my wilderness experience of being an agnostic for two years, and the change in my faith since then, I experienced the rejection of my former church and many of my peers.

To many of my peers and Chaplain Corps superiors I am simply a broken Chaplain; and broken chaplains or for that matter broken ministers have no place and very few people who they can talk with. I remember my old Commodore at EOD Group Two, the late Captain Tom Sitsch ask me bluntly “Where does a chaplain go for help?”My answer to him was “not to other chaplains.” Sadly, he too was going through his own personal PTSD hell and with his life falling apart he committed suicide in January 2014.

General Dallaire recounts a similar experience, as like Chaplains, Generals and other senior leaders have no place to go, they like us are not supposed to break. General Dallaire wrote: “I received little support from my colleagues and peers; I received only a few messages from my sixty or so fellow generals – a couple of phone calls, and an e-mail from one old friend. The others appeared to be in two camps: those who were too busy to get in touch, and those who didn’t know what to say.” But I would also add, that there are those that do not want to know and others who actually turn their backs on men and women whose injury lies inside their brain, as well as some chaplains and ministers who seem to take a certain perverse joy in inflicting pain.

I still struggle with nightmares, night terrors, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. After more than a decade I cannot imagine life without them. Like General Dallaire, I still wait for first light.

So pray for me if you do that, if not send some positive thoughts my direction.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq, mental health, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

“The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be” Thoughts on the Eve Of New Year’s Eve

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

T. S. Elliott wrote:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

It is the eve of New Year’s Eve and I have been reflecting on the year past and thinking about the future, and trying to put the past year into words. The good thing is that I write a decent amount about my experiences as they occur on this site, so in addition to it being a wealth of historical, biographical, religious, and political thinking, it also serves as kind of a public diary.

I have to admit, 2018 was an difficult year for me personally as well as for Judy, even little Pierre had a brush with death. The difficulties have been many but we have survived and are preparing for a new chapter in our lives as I finally after over 37 years in the military am preparing to retire.

The year began fairly well but in April we had a water leak from our air conditioning drain pan while we were out of town. It was the first heat wave of the year and our AC unit is really good, it sucked out the humidity from the air like a beast. Unfortunately, the drain pipes had been clogged with blown in insulation which had solidified during the winter when the AC was not in use. The result was a flood on our second floor which damaged walls, floors, ceilings, and furnishings. It was a bitch to get fixed, in fact we still have some work to do, mostly painting, but a few other things, but those were delayed by other events.

I am grateful that we had insurance and some other resources otherwise it would have been much worse, even so it did cost us money and time, and I had to spend a couple weeks of leave that I could have used for other things. But it was stressful, and physically exhausting. The work, including having a professional water damage company drying out the place, getting a contractor, having contractors doing repairs and renovations, getting materials, and doing much work ourselves took us into September when we took a break for our pilgrimage to Germany.

That would be enough, but in the midst of it I had a threat to my career and freedom when military retiree member of my Protestant Chapel Congregation complained to my command about a sermon and attempted to have me tried by Court Martial. His complaint was political, my sermon which was solidly based on scripture and history conflicted with his Fox News and Donald Trump version of Christianity.

That took place at the end of June and I first part of July preparing for and being investigated by the command. The investigation exonerated me, but I did have to hire a lawyer who represents many high profile military and government personnel in religious liberty cases. That cost a decent amount of money but it was far better than trusting my freedom and career to a brand new Navy defense attorney. Even some emotional and spiritual toll that it took convinced me to retire. I came to realize that there is no place for who tries to stand for truth in front of politicized right wing chapel congregations.

That coupled with an insufferable amount of other chapel bullshit and bullying by military retirees in my chapel congregations at me and my staff made up my mind. My junior Chaplains have asked if I would be willing to preach again in the chapel, but I had to be honest, I don’t feel safe with and don’t trust and good number of people in the Protestant congregation.

The fact that I am neither Protestant or Roman Catholic has kind of made me a man without a country in the Navy Chaplain Corps. Members of Religious minorities who don’t tow the line to the powerful are not tolerated. After 26 years of championing religious liberties for people of all faiths regardless of their beliefs or social-political stances as an Army and now Navy Chaplain, I found out that some people don’t give a damn and would use their religious rights to attempt to destroy me.

I say, fuck that, I don’t need it. So I am retiring before I am required to do and before the end of this tour of duty. That being said, I appreciate my staff who stood by me, and I am proud to have been able to serve this country in peace and war in so many different ways, in so many places, and with so many great people; the people who did this can’t take that away from me. But I cannot be silent and I will still speak the truth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

 “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Then there were the medical challenges. During August after work, and more work at home I was called by a former shipmate going through a very difficult time. I was on the phone with him until about 2:30 AM. When I went upstairs I realized that I had Judy’s car keys in my pocket, so I trudged back down the stairs but took my eyes off the stairs and didn’t keep my hand on the railing. I slipped and fell, spraining my left ankle, the ACLs of both knees, and my right hip. After a long period of getting examined, x-rays, physical therapy, and MRIs I will be getting arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in my left knee and PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma) treatment on my right knee. In the next month or so. I can only echo the words of Mickey Mantle who said “I always loved the game, but when my legs weren’t hurting it was a lot easier to love.” I haven’t been able to run and even walking is not without pain, and considering that even earlier this year I was running thee to five miles or walking and running six to ten miles a day, this really sucks.

Then Judy had her right knee, which she thought was her good knee go out. She thought, and the ER docs thought it was a sprain, but it turned out that the knee, like her left knee needed replacement. She went through that on November 9th and has been recovering and rehabbing ever since. She will have to have the left knee replaced next year.

The scariest thing was when our little Papillon, Pierre ingested something toxic, probably from a mushroom, that caused him to have severe bleeding ulcers in his stomach which turned into a life threatening situation. He had to have emergency surgery, but came through it well. He had completely recovered but it was scary because he is my little shadow, daddy’s boy, and still so young.

But there were good things. We celebrated our 35th marriage anniversary, we have good friends, we made it through, or are making it through the difficult times. We also made a trip to Germany where we saw German friends, visited Munich, Berlin, Karlsruhe, Wittenberg, and other locations, and I was able to visit a good number of historical locations dealing with the Holocaust and the resistance to the Hitler regime.

Despite everything that we went through I am grateful for family, friends, and my staff at work who helped us get through everything. We are alive, we are making it through our medical and physical issues, the house is getting fixed and I am getting ready to retire from the Navy and transition to hopefully teaching history, writing, and working with veterans.

In the movie Star Trek: Generations, Captain Jean Luc Picard tells Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

So as I close out the old year I wish you my readers all the best. May the coming year be good for all of us.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, life, Loose thoughts and musings

All Good Things: My Decision to Retiree from the Military

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the Star Trek Film Generations Captain Jean Luc Picard told Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today was like any other Saturday for me except that I made the decision to put in my retirement papers from the Navy. Lord willing about this time next year I will be “piped ashore” in a retirement ceremony.

When that day comes it will be the end of a thirty-eight year military career in which I have served as an enlisted man, then an officer. I have served in the active duty Army, the Army Reserve, and California, Texas, and Virginia Army National Guard. Then in February of 1999 after 17 1/2 years in the Army I declared free agency so to speak and joined the Navy.  On February 8th I was a Major in the Army Reserve and on the 9th I was taking the oath of office as a Navy Lieutenant. My wife and my paternal grandmother were there when I took the oath in a humble, and now abandoned Naval Reserve Center in Huntington West Virginia.

So now, some 19 years and 8 months later I have made the decision to put in my retirement papers. For me it is a time for reflecting and realizing that it is the right time to do this. The last number of months in my assignment have been difficult and brought me little joy. I have sought to serve my congregations and to mentor, help, and protect the personnel assigned to me.

I have grown weary of the frustrations of dealing with a moribund bureaucracy, decaying facilities with no money to fix them, the prospect of losing most of my experienced enlisted personnel with no experienced personnel coming in, and dealing with Protestant and Catholic congregations that try my very soul. When one of my Protestant parishioners attempted to have me tried by court martial because he disagreed with my sermon content and then wrote a lying letter to my commander forcing an investigation in which I had to spend money on a lawyer to defend myself I crossed the Rubicon. I knew that I was going to retire at the end of my current tour.

Then this week I hit the culminating point when the faith group leader of my Catholic congregation and my new contract Priest raised such a ruckus and problems for my enlisted personnel and one of my Chaplains that I had to intervene despite being on leave and in the middle of massive work on my house. I spent Friday evening texting that lay leader and it only made me more upset. I realized that no matter what I did that had done to keep them going in the absence of a priest and how I fought for them that they had no loyalty of concern for me or my personnel. Gratefulness to others is not a virtue for most American Christians today, I knew that but learned it again.

This morning I read a Navy Message announcing a Selective Early Retirement Board for Captains and Commanders. I am in the zone and if chosen to be retired I would have little lead time to plan my retirement and do all the things that I would need to do medically, administratively, and personally to retire and have a decent chance of landing on me feet. Honestly, I would have rather spent the last year in a combat zone in Iraq like I did in 2007 and 2008 than deal with the bullshit that I have been dealing with lately.

I know that did the best that I could and I can say that the team of chaplains and Religious Program Specialists whose work I help direct and support are some of the finest people I have ever served with. Their honesty and likewise their care for me has been about the only thing that got me through. Honestly, I am so grateful for them and I treasure them all, just as I have so many of my other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians employed by the military for the last thirty-seven years.

I am at peace, and I am going to spent the time leading up to my retirement to cherish every moment. Now I know that my situation at work is not going to change but I am going to cherish the moments with the people that I care for and do my best to serve without getting to stressed out because I know now that I my future is only beginning. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, iraq, leadership, life, Military, ministry

What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, mental health, middle east, Military, ministry, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam

“As Men Can Die Heroically as Brothers so Should They Live Together in Mutual Faith and Goodwill” The Four Chaplains in the Age of Trump

four chaplains

The Four Chaplains

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing a brief remembrance of four men who I never met but whose lives helped guide me into my vocation as a Priest and Chaplain. I think I first read about them in junior high school and at that time I had never thought about becoming a minister, priest, or chaplain. To be sure, ever since I was in early grade school I wanted to be in the military but it would not be until my senior year of high school that I felt a call to become a Navy Chaplain. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a brief op-ed on religion in the United states.

In this day and age where fanatical religious extremists of many faiths seek to divide society, launch wars of religion, discriminate against non-believers or even people who believe differently than them, or hold different philosophical or political beliefs, it is important as Americans to find something that holds us together. The fact that our founders were profoundly against establishing or favoring any particular faith or denomination, there are those today who militantly fight to establish an Evangelical Christian theocracy that has no basis for existence based on the testimony of the Founders, and the earliest proponents of religious liberty in the United States including Virginia Baptist John Leland who helped influence James Madison in crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Sadly, men like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and a host of others use their theocratic political judgments to condemn people of good faith in this life and the next. Aided by men like the President they stand in opposition to Leland and the others like him who understood that the American experiment in religious liberty could not be tied to fixed dogma, nor the Apostle Paul who wrote to the Church in Corinth: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[a] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

But I digress, you can read previous articles on this site in which I quoted Leland and other defenders of real religious freedom. For me it’s a matter of my Christian faith. So back to the story…

The four men that I never met were Army Chaplains.

George Lansing Fox was a 42 year old Methodist minister from Lewiston, Pennsylvania who had served as a medic in the First World War in which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix De Guerre. Thirty-one year old Reformed Rabbi Alexander Goode of Brooklyn, New York was the son of a Rabbi who before the war had applied but not been accepted as a Navy Chaplain. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered and was commissioned as an Army Chaplain. Clark V. Poling was a Baptist minister serving as pastor of a Reformed Church when the war broke out. His father had served as a Chaplain in the First World War and Poling, the married father of one child became an Army Chaplain in 1941. Father John Patrick Washington of Newark New Jersey was a Roman Catholic Priest who entered active duty in May 1942. The four men attended the Army Chaplain’s School, then at Harvard and were united for the journey across the Atlantic aboard the transport ship SS Dorchester.

On the night of February 3rd 1943 the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223. She went down in 20 minutes, of the 904 men aboard the ship only 230 survived. Despite the fact that the ship’s captain had ordered a high state of readiness and that all hands wear life jackets at all time, “Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.”

When the ship was hit by a torpedo power went out and the four chaplains worked amid the chaos to calm the situation and assisted the soldiers, sailors, and merchant mariners aboard the ship as they tried to abandon ship. The four chaplains handed out life jackets until the supply ran out and then gave their own life jackets to soldiers that had none.

In doing so they signed their own death sentence, the water temperature was just 34 degrees, the air temperature was 36 degrees, many who survived the sinking died of exposure within minutes of the sinking, rescue ships found hundreds of bodies floating in the water. As the ship went down they died together, praying with arms linked after giving away their life jackets as the troop transport that they were on sank beneath the waves into the icy depths of the North Atlantic. A survivor wrote:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Other survivors reported hearing the prayers of the chaplains in English, Latin, and Hebrew as the ship went down. Their bodies were never recovered. They have been remembered as heroes. In 1960 Congress named February 3rd as Four Chaplains Day. The U.S. Post Office commissioned a stamp in their honor in 1948. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1951. President Harry Truman spoke at its dedication noting:

“This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

The chapel was moved to Temple University in 1953 and to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 2001.

 

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Father John Patrick Washington (Top Left), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Top Right), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Bottom Left), and Reverend George Lansing Fox

Of course my journey in finding that call and answering it had a number of detours in which I first rejecting following the call. Instead, when I was in college I simply enlisted in the Army National Guard, entered ROTC and then was commissioned as an Army officer. After a number of incidents on active duty which renewed that sense of call I left active duty to go to seminary, went back into the National Guard and in September of 1992 became an Army National Guard and civilian hospital chaplain.  On February 9th 1999 I resigned my commission as a Major in the Army Chaplain Corps to become a Navy Chaplain, and in the process accepting a reduction in rank.

In the nearly 37 years that I have served in the military of which almost 26 have been spent as a chaplain I have had the privilege of serving with many fine ministers of many denominations, priests, rabbis, and even an imam.  Of course I have served alongside some chaplains who regardless of their faith or denomination were simply assholes, but that being said I truly do appreciate those men and women from so many faiths and denominations who have cared for me. I do think that any of them could have linked arms with me and prayed after doing the last best things that we could do for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who entrust themselves to our care.

Despite what some senior chaplains in both the Army and Navy had done to me at different points; when I think of those men and women who regardless of their beliefs or the beliefs of the religious organizations that endorse them for the chaplaincy, I realize just how blessed that I am.

In the day that we live I can still stand with Harry Truman when he praised these chaplains. Now I am sure that there are quite few people who would say that either Goode, Fox, Poling, or Washington are already in Hell; but I don’t believe that. I understand from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus that God looks on the heart, and that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. I think that Jesus said that in doing those things that people fulfill the entire law.

Thus I thank God for the Chaplains of various denominations, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims who I would be blessed to link arms with to care for those in our care.

So today, I ask my readers to share this message with others.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, Political Commentary, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

Shitty Days and Mondays…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For tonight nothing about politics or history, or for that matter even baseball. The late Karen Carpenter sang that Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down. Well Monday was a thoroughly shitty day for me at work and it just happened to be raining.

iIn fact, Monday was emotionally one of the worst days I have gone through in a long time. I won’t go into any detail here as I was able to deal with the immediate issues at hand, but some of what I was dealing with but part of this goes back to my return from Iraq in 2008. I came back from Iraq afflicted with severe and chronic PTSD which still effects me, but also something called Moral Injury which was caused by what happened to me when I returned from Iraq, injury that whether intention in some cases, or unintentional in most cases, left me in a place where I I have a hard time trusting, or believing that senior Navy Chaplains or other leaders have my best interests at heart. Truthfully, I have been hung out to dry by too many of them since then to trust or believe anything that they say.

There have been great exceptions, men and women who did look after me. I was fortunate with the leaders I had at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, including now Rear Admiral David Lane, and my leadership and academic colleagues at the Joint Forces Staff College. But despite their wonderful support, I find that too many of my senior Navy Chaplain Corps leaders as well as a few line officers (but none of the line officers that I am currently serving with) embody everything that is wrong in the U.S. Military. I cannot go into any detail in public or name any names as much as I would like to, but if I did I would be crushed and vilified. So I won’t, at least until I retire, whenever that may be. Then I will “go Smedley” like Marine Corps General and two time Medal of Honor winner, Major General Smedley Butler who wrote the book War is a Racket and fought against a growing Fascist movement in the United States in the 1930s. But until I retire I can’t do that.

Anyway, I am doing much better today than I was doing Monday, and I am great full for my staff who because of what happened to my predecessor under a different commander and executive officer are very protective of me. Their loyalty and care for me, a very broken and imperfect leader encourages me to do all that I can to support them, but also not to give up. If there is one reason that I remain on active duty after 36 plus years in the Army and Navy, it is my determination to work hard for them and for so many others who serve our country with such good hearts. In a world where men and women like them get screwed by the system every day I cannot retire, as much as it would make my life easier in some ways.

So, this post went totally off the track that I had when I began it so I will write about my original topic tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on PTSD and Moral Injury after a Gettysburg Staff Ride


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity which has involved a transfer, travel, and teaching, coupled with finding that I was not selected for promotion. The failure to select for promotion was less of a disappointment with not being selected, or jealousy towards those that were, but rather the feelings of betrayal I feel towards the senior leaders of the Chaplain Corps that have been part of my life since I returned from Iraq back in 2008, and my ever present battle with the effects of PTSD. Since I have written about these things many times I shall not go into depth about them today.

While I was at Gettysburg I stood beside the monument to General Gouverneur Warren on Little Round Top as I discussed Warren’s actions which were decisive in ensuring that Union forces held that edifice against the Confederate assault of July 2nd 1863. However, Warren would suffer unjustly at the hands of General Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Five Forks just days before the end of the war. The effects of combat trauma, what we would now diagnose as PTSD and moral injury at having been betrayed by the leaders of an institution that he had faithfully served in war and peace were devastating to him. After the war he wrote his wife:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

I fully understand what Warren felt in terms of dreams and what they call to mind time and time again nearly every night. Whenever I go to bed I pray that I will not again injure myself during a nighttime as I have numerous times, two of which sent me to the emergency room with head and facial injuries including a concussion and a broken nose. Yet even the dreams and nightmares that do not result in physical injury are often disturbing, and thankfully one of our Papillon dogs, Izzy, will do all that she can to comfort me and calm me down, and if I am awake and she senses that I am depressed or anxious she does what she can to be near me and to calm me. She is incredibly sensitive and does this with anyone not feeling well. I need to get her certified as a therapy dog as she is a special soul. 

Even so there are really very few people with whom I can talk about these things as they are foreign to the experience of most people. Guy Sager wrote in his classic book The Forgotten Soldier of his experience on returning home after the Second World War: “In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

But anyway, that is where I live. I am happy, relatively content, and look forward to life. I love to teach as I did at Gettysburg over the weekend and to write, at the same time I struggle every night with sleep, and with belonging in the institution that I have served for nearly thirty-six years. After I found out about the non-selection for promotion I became quite angry, as I said, not because I wasn’t selected, but because of the feelings of betrayal that go back now some nine years. It helped for me to walk in the woods along the Potomac River on Thursday night and to walk the lines that the Union Union First Corps occupied on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg last Friday. For me there is something about walking hallowed ground which no matter what I am feeling helps to center me. It is as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain wrote:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Every time I walk that hallowed ground at Gettysburg I feel that presence and experience the power of that vision.

So I do wish you the best and appreciate the kind thoughts and words that many of you post on this page, in emails, and on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Until tomorrow, have a great day. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Loose thoughts and musings, mental health, PTSD