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A Personal Bond: The Veterans who Impacted My Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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Today is Veteran’s Day. I wrote a reflective piece on it two days ago and I want to follow up on it in a more personal manner in this post.

I am one of those unusual people for our day whose entire life has been somehow connected to life in the military. Thus I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 34 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad, Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock in 1972

I come from a Navy family and was born in in a Navy hospital. Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was a big adventure for me that never got old. I still remember looking forward to each new duty assignment with only the wonder that a child can have and to each new adventure that the next move would bring. We lived up and down the West Coast, Oakland, San Diego, Long Beach, Oak Harbor Washington, and finally Stockton California. My earliest memories of life come from our tour at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in Philippines, the sharply dressed Marine gate guards, the Navy officers in their resplendent white uniforms, the jungle that came up to our back yard, and the wild boars that would show up and tear up our garden, trees and lawn. I remember the Blue Angles flying directly over our house in Oak Harbor, those huge F4F Phantom jets roaring over me so low that every detail could be seen. I remember going on my dad’s last ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hancock and being amazed at how big and impressive everything on it was, the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship evoked a wonder that to this day I feel whenever I set foot about a ship. Of course compared to our modern carriers Hancock was old, and small but she was my dad’s ship and I was proud of him.

My dad retired from the Navy in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer. While he was assigned to the Hancock was sent to manage aviation supplies at an emergency airstrip which was in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  Instead of being depicted an Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

Growing up then, we had a Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after. My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.” There are not many of them left anymore, but mom tries to stay in touch with them. It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is a big reason as to why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.

But there was another part of growing up in a military family in the 1960s, and that was the Vietnam War. I knew kids whose dads never came home from that war, and of course every night the evening news broadcast a “body count” segment which looked like a scoreboard showing how many Americans, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were killed, wounded or captured; but to me, at a very young age, those numbers on that “scoreboard” were flesh and blood human beings. This was my first experience of war.

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LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the veterans of Vietnam who were my teachers in Navy Junior ROTC and the men that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraq shook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN)

When I joined the California Army National Guard in 1981 Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeants Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences as we sat on lonely hillsides at Camp Roberts California calling in artillery fire on so many weekends and during annual training. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ, and Mickey a Forward Observer and they were fascinating men, with so many stories and such great experience which they imparted to me.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  In Vietnam he was wounded three times, and was awarded two Silver Star Medals. He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot at UCLA, a reminder of his time serving in Southeast Asia.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted adviser at UCLA, he served as a paratrooper and infantryman with the 173rd Airborne brigade in Vietnam.

Another fascinating character was Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982. I kid you not, that was really his name, but this was probably one of the most important experiences of my life, which was incredibly difficult but most necessary. Sergeant First Class Ball was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours in Vietnam and when he walked across the drill field his Smokey Bear hat reminded me of a shark fin cutting across the water, the man was scary as shit, but he had a heart of gold. Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in the classic movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere at the end of that movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.” Every time I see that movie

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put his family first.

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1985 with 2nd Platoon of 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Germany

Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen or served under in 34 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.

Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways. Another man who I knew at Indiantown Gap was Sergeant Billy Ward who just passed away last week of a major heart attack. Billy was a bear of a man, but one of the kindest and gentlest men who I have ever known. Billy never knew a stranger and loved people no matter what their station in life, no matter what their beliefs, no matter what their lifestyle. I can honestly say that Billy didn’t have an enemy and though he was a lay preacher and was later ordained to the ministry, he just loved people and never judged anyone. He exemplified what it is to be a Christian. 

Al Waleed Iraq 2007

In 1999 I resigned my commission as an Army reserve Major to enter active duty in the Navy, with a reduction in rank. Since joining the Navy my life has continued to be impacted and influenced by other veterans. A good amount of my Navy career has been spent serving with Marine Corps. I served with some great Marines and Sailors in those units, including Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, and then Major, but now Brigadier General Dave Ottignon of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Desroches of 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Colonel Lou Rachal of 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

I was blessed to become friends with many of the Marine Corps veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas. They and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.

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Boarding Team of USS Hue City 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  Two others who matter a great deal to me from Iraq were Army Colonel David Abramowitz, Navy Captain (Chaplain) Mike Langston, and Father Jose Bautista-Rojas, a Navy Chaplain and Roman Catholic priest. Then there are the men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our former staff nurse who retired last year. Lisa is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She was finally able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve of who you loved. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are now able to openly serve.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron just prior to leaving Iraq

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Hanley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile; she died of complications of chemotherapy treatment at far too young age. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died just over a year ago, eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003. Then there those who died by their own hand, having never recovered from war. Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford committed suicide after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both men were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

So for me Veteran’s Day is intensely personal because of the veterans, living and dead, who made an impact on my life. I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

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The military is a young persons game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty. I have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military, but my long strange trip continues. That being said, though I served over half of my career in the Army, at heart I have always been a navy man. I think that President John F. Kennedy expressed how I feel about serving the best. He said, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

So today I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day. Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, US Navy, vietnam

Changes of Plans: It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

Dinner as a Guest of Brigadier General Sabah of 7th Iraqi Division

Today I was planning on traveling about an hour from here up to Kinston to see the Kinston Indians play the Winston-Salem Dash. That did not happen as I was called out of the “bullpen” so to speak to see a lady in our ICU.  I got the word as I was celebrating Mass and when I was done went to the hospital to make the visit which was delightful. The lady was one of those indefatigable people that despite a serious medical condition exuded grace, confidence and life and who up to the day she came to us was taking care of people worse off than her, taking them to the store, the doctor, preparing meals and making quilts for young mothers. The visit lasted about an hour with her doing most of the talking as if I was a neighbor who had dropped by for a chat.  We prayed and she shared a couple of poems that were actually touching.  I do pray that the specialist that we send her to will be able to correct the problems that brought her to us as we need as many people like her as we can get.

So anyway with my well laid plans disrupted I have been doing some thinking and if you know me that can be a dangerous thing because I never know exactly what the muse will inspire.  It began early even before I got out of bed when I saw a Facebook chat message from an Army Chaplain of my denomination serving with an infantry unit in Afghanistan.  He asked if I had read a story in the Christian Science Monitor about an Army National Guard Chaplain who had been convicted of fraudulently awards for valor including the Bronze Star with the “V” device for valor, the Purple Heart and the Ranger Tab denoting his completion of the arduous Ranger School.  He added those awards to his recorded after Operation Desert Storm where he served as a clerk and saw no action and he carried the charade on into the time where he was commissioned as a Chaplain.

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2011/0403/Did-a-chaplain-s-fake-Purple-Heart-erase-good-deeds

He was tripped up after he returned from a tour in Afghanistan and was tried and convicted under the provisions of the Stolen Valor Act.  If he wasn’t a Chaplain it would have been bad enough.  However as a Chaplain his falsification discredited all the good work that he did in Afghanistan. What really did him in with his former soldiers was lying about his experiences to them point of wearing fraudulent awards for valor. His deception has caused many of the soldiers that he counseled to be angry and wonder if he was lying about other things.  When a Chaplain loses his or her credibility for an integrity issue it undermines their ministry, damages relationships with the people that they serve as well as their colleagues.  Their actions if married also negatively impact their families who suffer for their actions. The man in question received an Other Than Honorable Discharge which means that he receives none of the benefits that he would have received as a veteran including retirement. He is now getting help but the damage is done.

He certainly is not the first Chaplain to fall and won’t be the last.  I have spent a decent amount of my career being a “relief pitcher” for line officers and chaplains who have been relieved of their duties and been assigned to try to help rehabilitate others who have merely messed up without committing any crimes.  I have been fortunate in my long career to have men that have looked after me and protected me when I screwed up, sometimes with great aplomb.  My screw ups always seemed to be to being cocky and sometimes arrogant thinking that I was the greatest thing since micro-brewed beer.

When I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army back in 1983 I knew that I was quite possibly the smartest new Lieutenant in the Army.  I graduated from my Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course fairly high in my class without really trying too hard, had a pretty easy time at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course.   However, real life has a tendency to take the smartest of the book smart people and kick their ass.  Sometimes it takes a while but young guys in the military who think they know more than old dudes who have served on all kinds of places and been to combat tend to blow themselves up and hopefully there will be someone to save their sorry ass.

When I got to Germany I can say that there were a number of occasions where as a young officer I had my ass handed to me, even when I was right.  I’m not going to go into ugly details but it suffices to say that a good number of those times I got what I deserved because I was arrogant and not nearly as smart as I thought I was.  I was like a rookie pitcher thinking that my stuff was unhittable and finding out that guys who had played in the show for a long time had seen it all before.  It was in Germany that I found that while I had good stuff that I wasn’t savvy enough to know when to change my stuff up or when to take the hint not to keep pushing my luck.  I was kind of like the young pitcher Ebby Clavin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham in wanting to do what I wanted to do and it got me in trouble.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie has this dialogue.

Crash calls for a curve ball, Ebby shakes off the pitch twice]
Crash Davis: [stands up] Hey! HEY!
[walks to meet Ebby at the mound]
Crash Davis: Why are you shaking me off?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh:
[Gets in Crash’s face] I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!
Crash Davis: Announce your f***ing presence with authority? This guy is a first ball, fast ball hitter!
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well he hasn’t seen my heat!
Crash Davis:
[pauses] Allright meat, show him your heat.
[Walks back towards the box]
Crash Davis: [to the batter] Fast ball. [Ebby throws a fastball which is hit out of the park and Crash comes to the mound]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: You told him didn’t you?
Crash Davis: Yup.

That was me as a young officer.  You would think that I would have learned, but after I became an Army Chaplain I did the same damned thing.  Now admittedly it was not in the units that I served in, but my hotheadedness still got me in trouble especially when I decided to challenge older Chaplains who had been around a long longer than me and who were a lot more savvy than me.  I had no idea how cunning and brutal some chaplains could be despite having good warning from my XO and Brigade commander at the Academy of Health Sciences, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Wigger before I left active duty for seminary.  Colonel Wigger pulled me aside one day shortly before I left active duty and said “Steve, I know that you think that the Medical Service Corps can be political and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”   He was right and I would have been wise to listen to him.  There are some Chaplains that have no problem taking down or destroying a young chaplain sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for less than noble reasons. Anyone that has served as an Active Duty Chaplain probably knows about or has experienced such an encounter up close and personal.  I got whacked pretty hard a number of times as a young Army Chaplain, but was fortunate that people who knew me and saw potential in me gave me some top cover and protection.  Not everyone gets this.  Chaplain Rich Whaley did this for me at the Chaplain school on a number of occasions even the time that I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course. That was not one of my finer moments; I left the school like former Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox would when he got tossed from games.

While Rich was not quite like Crash Davis he knew how to handle me when I got stupid. There is another scene in Bull Durham where Ebby ignored Crash and paid the price.  

[Mechanized bull noises in background after ball hits the Bull over the Right Field wall]
Crash Davis: Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?
[laughs]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [softly, infuriated] I held it like an egg.
Crash Davis: Yeah, and he scrambled the son of a bitch. Look at that, he hit the f***ing bull! Guy gets a free steak!
[laughs]
Crash Davis: You having fun yet?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh
: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
Crash Davis: Good.
[pause]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Crash Davis: He did know.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How?
Crash Davis: I told him.

Thankfully by the time I had spent 17 ½ years in the Army I had pretty much learned my lessons.  By the time I got to the Navy I had pretty much discovered when and under what circumstances that I could push things without crossing the line.  I had learned the hard way in the Army.  I finally learned that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.  In fact when I went to the Navy I came in at a lower rank that my Army rank and took no constructive credit to try to get promoted sooner.  A lot of people have asked me why I did this but I went in with no time in grade to make sure that I got the experience that I needed on the Navy and Marine side. By doing this I took the time to learn the nuances that make the work of a chaplain different in the Sea Services than in the Army.  While there are similarities that are common to all Chaplains even the similarities are often different depending on the service and even the type of unit you serve in or platform that you serve aboard.  These different similarities can kill you if you think that you’re smarter than everyone else.

Christmas at COP South

I’m now coming up to 26 years of commissioned service and soon to 28 total years of service.  I’m now a lot more like Crash Davis than Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.  Now I try to make sure the young chaplains and other Sailors, Marines or Soldiers don’t get themselves in unnecessary trouble by assuming that they know more than they do.  I know from bitter experience the price that any service member and especially Chaplains can pay for screwing up. I had some OERs in the Army that were less than stellar when seniors tried to torpedo me.  Thankfully like baseball statistics they don’t follow you when you get traded to or sign with a team in another league mid season. They are there for posterity but you get a clean start in the new service.  I am blessed because my Navy and Marine Corps stats are far better than my Army stats.

The Chaplain in question now suffers the ignominy of being put out of the service for his actions.  From the article it seemed that he had a need to appear more than he was failing to realize that there is honor in simply serving be it as a clerk or a Chaplain.  Military awards tell a story about a person, those that earn them for valor or for wounds suffered should have earned them. I see many young men and women that wear Purple Hearts and awards for valor in combat. While I have many awards and service medals, even for service in a combat zone I cannot dishonor the brave men and women that have paid with their lives by wearing something that I didn’t earn and find it hard to fathom others doing this.

Receiving the Defense Meritorious Service Medal on my way out of Iraq from Colonel David Abramowitz Chief of Staff Iraq Assistance Group on 31 January 2008. RP2 Nelson Lebron my assistant is to the right

There are other ways that chaplains can get in trouble and I have seen them all I think. Moral issues, alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, misappropriating or even stealing government funds and doing things in combat zones that cross the line such as actually engaging the enemy.  There was a Chaplain back during Operation Iraqi Freedom that displayed photos of him in combat carrying an M-16 and I have heard of others in previous wars that have crossed that line. That last offense violates the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions and the consequences are greater than the individual chaplain as a Chaplain that does such surrenders his status as a non-combatant and exposes himself to potential war crimes charges. Likewise in the current war with much media coverage and an enemy that would exploit such actions to incite further violence and embarrass the United States it would be criminal for a Chaplain to take part as a combatant. It would harm the war effort, make him a potential target and endanger all other chaplains in the combat zone.

Chaplains are already a high priority target for Al Qaeda as our capture would be of great propaganda value. I had a number of Iraqi officers express their admiration for my service and care for American and Iraqi soldiers and the fact that they recognized that I was in constant danger and was unarmed.  I felt that it was high praise. Chaplains don’t need to be anything except what they are, servants of God and servants of the men and women that they serve. Being recognized with awards and promotion is cool but at the same time if that becomes the focus then we have somehow forgotten why we are in uniform and probably shouldn’t be.

Anyway, my mission now is to help the young guys and gals along and hopefully keep them from stepping on the land mines that I stepped on in my career.  I also know and am very aware that even as smart as I think that I am that I don’t know nearly as much as I did when I entered the military.  It’s like Earl Weaver said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under Baseball, christian life, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, Pastoral Care

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Baghdad, Briefings, Coordination and Connections

This is the 10th installment of my “Going to War” series which Chronicles my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to Iraq in 2007-2008.  This installment deals with our time at Camp Victory in Baghdad as were prepared to go west. For other segments go to the “Tour in Iraq” link on the sidebar.

051Sitting on Saddam’s Throne

Following our arrival at Camp Victory Nelson and I continued to get our bearings. We went to the Iraq assistance Group where we checked in and began to meet the people who were going to be assisting us as we got ready to do our mission where we met with the Chaplain, Major Peter Dissmore, the Chief of staff, Colonel David Abramowitz and the Commanding General.  We received briefing and coordinating assistance from a number of the G-Shops in the IAG, the Chaplain and the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.

The visits with all were cordial and my long Army career as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Chaplain allowed me to have a edge in working with the Army because I knew the system, the language and the culture.  Now the IAG was run by the Army but was a joint command with Navy, Air Force and Marine staff in addition to the Army.  The IAG at least then was the coordinating office for the teams of Advisors and trainers working with the Iraqi Army, Border Forces and National Police.  Another command worked with the Provincial Police and other security forces throughout the country.

While we had an idea where we would be working before we deployed that we would work with the Marine and Army advisors in Multi-National Force West, we received the word that we would be going there.  MNF-West operates in Al Anbar Province which at that time was still a very dangerous place, although there were signs that things might be beginning to turn around.  It was funny as during our pre-deployment preparation and training took place almost everyone who heard that Nelson and I were going to Anbar expressed concern as the battle there had been very difficult since the U.S. led invasion.

The actual briefings and preparations did not take long, but the important part was building relationships that would assist us in our mission as it developed.  The two key people at IAG for our mission were Chaplain Dissmore and Colonel Abramowitz.  Chaplain Dissmore a chaplain of the Assemblies of God denomination, graduate of Princeton and ethics instructor at the Army Engineer school had been deployed like us as an individual augment as had Colonel Abramowitz.  We got along with both very well as we got details of the mission.  Colonel Abramowitz took a liking to us, especially Nelson, a fellow New Yorker.  Abramowitz is an Army Aviator and the son of an Army Infantry Colonel.  He is a big man, about 6′ 6′ or maybe taller and reminds me of a Jewish version of Patton.  When he found out that Nelson was a fighter and had multiple championship belts he had to “Google” him.  Nelson told him to “Google Nelson Lebron, kick boxer.”  When Colonel Abramowitz did he was amazed that Nelson was the real deal.  He became one of our strongest advocates in Baghdad.  We talked baseball of course the good Colonel being a Yankees fan. Another group of men who were invaluable to us were two former Iraqi Army and Air Force Generals who had fled the country during the reign of Saddaam after the the Gulf war.  Both helped us considerably as we gt to know more about the make up of the new Iraqi Army which after a couple of years had been purged of many of the opportunists and political hacks who had come in after it was re-established.  Many of the officers replacing the problem children were career military men, secular in outlook who had served since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s are well as in the First Gulf War.  These men wanted the chance to get the Iraqi Army back in shape as a fighting force, but faced opposition from certain political and religious groups in the country not to mention the insurgents who desired to undermine the effectiveness of this force from the beginning.

Almost immediately after meeting with the IAG staff we were on the phone with Navy Captain Mike Langston the Chaplain for MNF-W and II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward and his deputy Commander J. Hedges.  They were excited to have us coming to their area.  When Chaplain Dissmore informed them that they had the choice of a Navy team or an Army team they of course picked us.  This was also the intent of the IAG who realized that a Navy team would understand the more Marine oriented advisors and chain of command out west.  When Chaplain Langston heard that the team was composed of Nelson and me he expressed great pleasure as Nelson had served with him in Afghanistan and I had served with him at Second Marine Division.  As a result we had a great amount of trust placed in us because of prior service together as we were both known quantities.  Relationships matter in the military and this time they were a great help to us.

Dundas and FallahMeeting with General Falah

One of the things pointed out to us was that we were the first Navy team assigned to doing this type of mission since Vietnam.  Most of the Army teams doing the mission were reservists and according to the information that we were given were struggling.  A team that had been dispatched out west prior to us had been sent back early because of their ineffectiveness.  I had already known that we were the first Navy team to do this mission since Vietnam and had taken the time to read the histories of the chaplains who served in this “niche” role in that war.  Likewise being a history major and working on a second Masters in Military History I had been doing a lot of study on counter-insurgency and revolutionary warfare.  Not long prior to our deployment the Army and Marine Corps had issued a new manual on the subject.  When I read it I was surprised to find that I had already read many of the primary sources used in its compilation.  These are things that while not directly related o being a chaplain are things that help give a chaplain “street cred” and an ability to adapt to the culture and understand the language of the men that he serves with.  I did not stop being a Priest in this, but I knew where we fit and understood what the advisers on the MiTT  Military Transition teams, mission was and challenges that they faced.  This again put us ahead of the power curve going into the mission.  I do not think that any Religious Ministry or Army Unit Ministry Team has been as well prepared for this kind of mission than we were.

While at Camp Victory I met several old friends and acquaintances from Army and Navy service, as well as a Marine Corps Officer with who I had attended Command and Staff College.  One, LCDR Andy Wade who I had served with at 2nd MARDIV was completing a tour with the MNC-I Chaplain Office. Two of the Army Chaplains had been in my officer basic course and one, an Orthodox Priest was a friend from the Army Chaplain Officer basic course at Fort Monmouth NJ in 1990.  Peter Batkis was a newly commissioned 1LT when I went to the basic course and was the room mate of my good friend Fr Jim Bowman.  He was  now a Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain for the 18th MP Brigade.  The other former classmate had been with an advisory team elsewhere in country and not had a good experience.  I was shocked to see how he had aged and how badly he wanted to get out of country.

While at Camp Victory we continued to get ourselves ready to go.  Our flight to Fallujah was arranged by the IAG staff and we began the process of waiting.  While waiting we were able to get some PT in and on the morning of the 8th of August (7 August in the States) while at breakfast I saw Barry Bonds hit home run #756 to break the record of Hank Aaron.  What I saw at Camp Victory amazed me.  The place was a veritable “little America” complete with the largest military exchange in country, about the size of a small Wal-Mart with a separate market for Iraqi vendors and, American fast food outlets housed in white trailers outside the exchange and a host of other exchange services found anywhere in the world, except to much of Al Anbar where we were heading.  It was kind of surreal, all of this Americana plunked down in there heart of Iraq, surrounded by blast walls and guarded with multiple check points. Parking lots were filled with a  mixture of tactical and non-tactical vehicles and every military person was armed. Helicopters overflew the area regularly, both transport aircraft and gunships, the gunships which flew what would have at one time been called a “Combat Air Patrol.” Additionally there was the ever present noise of small arms fire, distant explosions and sirens of various emergency and police vehicles.  The weather while 6-8 degrees cooler than Kuwait was still very hot and we were constantly picking up liter bottles of fresh water to stay hydrated.

Additionally we received the tour of the Al Faw Palace which was one of Saddaam Hussein’s major residences which had been taken over as the headquarters of Multi-National Force Iraq.  The palace was abuzz with the activity of the MNF-I staff.  In the lobby of the palace there is a throne given to Saddaam by Yasser Arafat in which almost everyone going through Camp Victory gets their photo taken in.

On our 4th day in country we got word that we would fly that night.  Nelson and I got ourselves packed, made final preparations and coordination with the IAG staff and waited.

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