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Christmas 2007 in Anbar: My Last Mass to Love…

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“It’s my last mass, my last mass to love…”

It’s funny how a slight twisting of the lyrics of a classic Disco song can blend with one’s wartime experience, instead of my last dance, it was my last mass, to love….

I was in Iraq in December 2007 on an 11 day expedition to American advisors to Iraqi Army and Border units in Al Anbar Province toward the end of my tour in Iraq. The mission was to provide chaplain support and spiritual succor to the American soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and civilians, as well as the Iraqi and other Arab interpreters and contractors serving in incredibly isolated parts of the province near the Syrian border.

For me it was one of the last magical times in my life. I was exhausted and already suffering from insomnia and nightmares caused by PTSD that I was unaware of having, but while I was there that didn’t matter, in fact if I would have been allowed to extend in Iraq back then I would have. It was my life and the men and women that I served mattered more to me than anything. It still does…

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COP South

After a number of visits with other elements we traveled out to a small base near the Syrian border called COP South. It was the location of two teams of advisors, one which supported elements of the Second Border Brigade and one which supported the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division. We were not strangers to either team. Following the vista there we made our way to COP North, also along the Syrian border to do the same for two other advisor teams, one supporting a different Border unit and and the 2nd battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Division.

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With the Bedouin on the Border, I’m the bald guy without the helmet. 

These outposts were terribly isolated. The men who served there served in incredibly austere conditions where danger lurked just beyond the sand berms that were the boundaries between them and the Islamist extremists of Al Qaeda Iraq and their supporters. The berms were not much comfort to anyone on either of the two most west most COPs in theater. Just to the west was Syria, a haven and support to the Al Qaeda Iraq insurgents and their supporters. All around were Iraqi Sunnis who many only recently had changed their allegiance to support the Americans against the largely foreign AQI forces.

The men that I served were not a typical congregation that you would find in the states. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Catholics, non-denominational types, Latter Day Saints and even a few Iraqi Christians, some who had not received Eucharist from any priest for years gathered for mass at COP South and COP North that Christmas of 2007. Iraqi Moslems wished us well. Peace on earth in the midst of war.

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At Border Fort Five on the Syrian Border

As I mentioned I was exhausted. We had been on the road, flying and in small convoys of just a few vehicles since we arrived in theater, I was also on my last legs. I had stood with and stayed with the wounded, I had seen the destruction wrought on Iraqi facilities and people by both sides. All that mattered was to get out with the men and women who had no other formal spiritual support. I would have stayed another year to provide that support, but I knew that would not happen.

When they were done and we headed back to Ta’Qaddum, the base that we operated from I realized that the support we had provided was the high point of my military Chaplain career as well as my priesthood. Instead of my “last dance” as Dona Summer’s song said, it was my “last mass” to love.

Since then things have not been the same for me. I have talked and written about this before on this site, but those masses with those small groups of Americans and Iraqis meant more to me than any I have ever celebrated, especially those after my return from Iraq in 2008. For me, the magic and mystery have disappeared. I struggle with faith and belief even as I chose to believe in spite of my doubts.

There are times I wonder if it would have been better to have been killed by a rocket, an IED, an ambush or to have been shot down in Iraq, rather than to have to deal with this seemingly endless crisis of faith and to inflict my shit on those that I love. But then such is life and such is war.

Honestly I have to say that I believe again, but I am not sure why. I have to say that while I believe my doubts encompass me.

Christmas will never be the same for me. Yes, I have celebrated man masses since I returned, but to quote the Barry Manilow song, I’m “trying to get the feeling again” and sadly, despite my efforts I don’t think that will ever happen. If it does I will rejoice. If it doesn’t I will persevere just hoping and praying that feelings and facts matter less than faith and doing the best that I can.

Anyway. I am tired and just hoping that this Christmas will be different and that maybe I will get that feeling again, if not now, maybe someday….

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Where I Belong: Padre Steve and the Christmas Truce

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Christmas 2007 COP South, Al Anbar Province Iraq

“I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Father Palmer, the Chaplain in Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Last night I again watched the film classic Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead.  His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

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Father Palmer Tending the Wounded

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

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The Bishop Leads His “Service” 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMPxjUE40iw

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.”  Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

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Christmas Eve 2007 with the Bedouin 

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisors without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care.  So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been six years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Severe and Chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy.  It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.  

As for me I am in a better place now. I still suffer some of the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but I do believe again. Like the Priest in the movie I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” Like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Contemplating the Past, Present and Future: The Third Anniversary of Leaving Iraq

 

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” Robert E. Lee

I began my flight home from the Middle East three years ago today. Three years ago I could not imagine what has transpired in my life since neither my return nor the situation that we see developing in Egypt.  It has been three years but it feels longer.  I have recounted my PTSD and psychological collapse as well as my crisis of faith which for nearly two years left me a practical agnostic numerous times so I will not say much about them in this article except to say while I still suffer from the effects of both I am doing better and faith has returned.

The war in Iraq changed me. I saw the suffering of the people of Iraq that the conservative media to which I had been wedded for years ignored or distorted.

Likewise when I came home to the nastiness of the 2008 Presidential Election I was unprepared for it. To see my countrymen tearing each other apart with increasingly violent rhetoric as well as the militancy of some was deeply unsettling and was a part of my collapse because I felt like my country was plunging into the abyss of hatred.

Since I have seen the tragic and long lasting effects of the unbridled hatred among former friends and neighbors in the Balkans as well as Iraq I know that anything is possible when we make the subtle shift from viewing fellow Americans as political opponents to mortal enemies to whom we equate every vice and evil.  What has happened to us?  Last night I responded to a dear family friend who has kept sending me e-mails of such intense anger and even hatred regarding those that he believes are destroying the country. I had to tell him that I could no longer go to those places and told him things that I have experienced after Iraq. He is older and both he and his wife have been sick and are isolated.  They are good people but I have not heard back from him.

Likewise the sense of abandonment I felt from my former church as well as many clergy and chaplains did nothing to help my faith. For the first time I realized how deeply that I needed other Christians and for the most part few were there for me, my brokenness made me radioactive to many.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”


Despite this healing came but also change which I think actually has been good for me and for the ministry that I am called to as a Priest and Chaplain.  While healing has begun I am cognizant of my own wounds and how they affect how I deal with life and others. I pray that they have made me a better vessel of the grace of God and his love.

Tonight I am somewhat contemplative. I have turned off the news and I am watching a movie called Lost Command starring Anthony Quinn.  It is an adaptation of Jean Larteguy’s novel The Centurions which is about the French Paratroops in Indo-China and Algeria.  These were men who after surviving Viet Minh prison camps after the fall of Dien Bien Phu were almost immediately redeployed to fight the insurgency in Algeria, sometimes against former Algerian comrades who were now part of the Algerian independence movement. Algeria was brutal and though the French had militarily defeated the insurgency they still lost the war, and for many soldiers part of their souls which were sacrificed for their country.

It has been three years since I stepped on the aircraft to come home and in some ways miss Iraq and my friends American and Iraqi. I watch as that nation and its people struggle.  I watch the continuing war in Afghanistan and emerging danger in Egypt and much of the Arab world I wonder what further sacrifices our Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen will have to make if the chaos spreads and if the violence will again come to our shores.  I wonder if our politicians from both parties will support us or abandon us even as we fight.

I remember my time in Iraq well. I can see the faces of my friends; remember the hospitality of the advisors that I spent my time with and the friendship of Iraqi Officers.  Sometimes the memories seem so real especially when I look into the eyes of those that served in Iraq. Fallujah, Ta-Qaddum, Habbinyah, Al Asad, Al Waleed, Al Qaim, Korean Village, Ramadi and its various neighborhoods, Hit, Baghdadi, COP North and COP South and what seems like a hundred more locations in Al Anbar Province from villages to small outposts.

I remember thousands of miles in helicopters, C-130s and in convoys, the smell of Jet Fuel, Diesel and hydraulic fluid which always seemed to find me in any helicopter I rode in.   I hear the helicopters fly overhead, some even tonight. I close my eyes and it feels like I am in Iraq again.

I am somewhat melancholy tonight, that war is never far away and unfortunately there are more to come.  But tomorrow is another day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Advent 2010: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Christmas Eve 2007 with Border Team and Bedouin family on Syrian Border

The Season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus on Christmas and during the Christmas Octave is my favorite season of the Church year. I have always even as a child been mesmerized by the aspect of hope that is intrinsic to the celebration, the twofold emphasis on the time leading to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in the manger of Bethlehem and the personalities involved to the promise of the Second Coming which was considered the “Blessed Hope” by the early Church which believed that the event would occur during their time as has the Church in times ever since.

I think the most meaningful season of Advent and Christmas that I have known was my time in Iraq in 2007.  At the time I was travelling about the remote western regions of Al Anbar province with my trusty assistant RP2 Nelson Lebron.  We had been doing this kind of work at a steady pace travelling thousands of miles by air and ground to be with the Military Training Teams that were assigned to the 1st and 7th Iraqi Divisions and those of the Border Training Teams assigned to the 2nd Border Brigade as well as Army advisors assigned to the Iraqi Police and Marines working with the Iraqi Highway Patrol.  By the time we made our far west Christmas expedition which lasted almost two weeks.  The immediate days around Christmas were spent on the Syrian Border with the teams assigned to the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 3rd Brigade 7th Division and Border forces at COP South and COP North.

As we traveled the area with our teams, especially Captain Josh Chartier’s Military Training Team and Major Stan Horton’s Border team out of COP South I was taken in by the Bedouin camps that dotted the desert because in so many ways they lived a life so similar to the shepherds that received the angelic visitation recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Luke.  The Bedouin are nomads and travel where they can tend flocks or fields according to the season.  On December 23rd we traveled with Major Horton’s team visiting both the Bedouin in the area and the Iraqi Border Forces in a number of border forts along the Syrian border which at the time was a major conduit for money and arms being smuggled to Al Qaeda Iraq and indigenous Iraqi insurgents.  The Iraqi troops were most hospitable as were the Bedouin who hosted us in their tents or homes.  We delivered toys, candy and school supplies to the Bedouin kids and were treated to food and Ch’ai tea. Had it not been late and we had not had more sites to visit we would have taken the invitation of the head of one Bedouin family to have dinner with him.

That night we celebrated a Christmas Eve Eucharist a day early for the teams at COP South.  Since we were the only Religious Ministry team that spent any real time with the isolated teams like these it was a special occasion for all, one man in particular, one of the Iraqi interpreters, a Christian who had not been able to attend a Mass of any kind for over two years.  The next day we would travel 50 miles of often very rough roads and trails to the even more isolated COP North where we did the same for the members of those teams and had a wonderful Christmas day and eve with these Marines.

That was the most meaningful Advent and Christmas season I had ever seen. It was a season without all the bells and whistles, without all the commercialism and distractions to take away from the simplicity of the message that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5) the simple message of redemption and the grace and mercy of God that has been shown to all people and is the heart of the season.

After my return from Iraq I experienced a major spiritual and emotional collapse related to PTSD which changed me in fairly significant ways.  For nearly two years I struggled desperately to recover faith that was lost after I returned home.  I was overwhelmed with the turbulence of the country, a disastrous series of splits in my old church, feeling abandoned by the Navy and dealing with the long, slow and painful demise of my father due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. I am told that I am not alone in what I went through.  I begin this Advent having made the transition from my old church to the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church which is a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith and I am quite at peace with that move.

After nearly two years faith returned during Advent due to an event in the Medical Center that I worked in where I provided the last rights to an Anglican patient as he drew his last breathe in our ER. I call it my “Christmas miracle.”   https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/padre-steve%E2%80%99s-christmas-miracle/

It was ironic and fitting that my spiritual rebirth came in the midst administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the sick.  Faith has returned and unlike last year when in the midst of my personal gloom and despair I rediscovered faith and the wonder of the season I look forward to the fullness of the season.

I don’t know how much I will write about the season this year, certainly some articles but I do look forward to the continued rediscovery of faith in the Incarnate God.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Moslem Allies and Friends

I posted a piece that I’m sure that some will find controversial yesterday.  Entitled “A Christian Defense of the Rights of Moslems in a Democracy (or Constitutional Republic) it dealt with comments and demands made by some that Moslems be removed from the military, security services and government positions simply because of religion or ethnicity.  You an see the post here:

https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/a-christian-defense-of-the-rights-of-moslems-and-others-in-a-democracy-or-constitutional-republic/

It generated some heated debate and I am sure that more will come. However I am just going to show a photo montage of the Iraqi military, US employed interpreters and former Iraqi officers helping the Iraqi government and US Forces.  The people of Iraq and much of the Middle East are not a monolithic bloc or extremists as many in this country are prone to believe.  Moslems fight every day against terrorists and are killed by the same kind of extremists who took down the Trade Center Towers and inspired Major Hasan in his shooting at Fort Hood.  They are friends and allies in the war against Moslem terrorists.  I post this article to put a human face on those that are often lumped together as the “enemy” simply because of their religion.

074Dinner with Brigadier General Sabah of 1st Brigade of 7th Iraqi Division in Ramadi. A professional soldier and Shia he sees himself as an Iraqi and ally of the US. The Last time we met in January 2008 in passing at the helo terminal in Ramadi he greeted me with a hug in front of his staff and many American soldiers and Marines calling me a friend.

079Group Shot with General Sabah, his youngest son, our interpreter, the American Brigade Senior Adviser and my Assistant RP2 Lebron

176RP2 Lebron with one of the “Terps” interpreters named “Shaun” originally from Palestine but a Green Bay Packer fan living in Minnesota

237Iraqi Children Greeting us in a town along the Euphrates

227Iraqi man in traditional garb happy to see us because Americans helped clean out the terrorists from his village

258With Iraqi Officers of 7th Division and Marine Advisers at the 2007 Marine Corps Birthday Cake Cutting at Camp Blue Diamond. Trained by the Marines the 7th and the 1st Iraqi Divisions helped turn the Tide in Al Anbar and the 1st went on to liberate Basra and then to Diyala Province

372Blessing Advisers of 7th Division as they prepared to go with Iraqis to guard a fuel convoy. Following this the Iraqis asked if I would bless them and their vehicles too, it seems they have some kind of Holy Water too and were willing to take the Christian kind as well.

291A man with a Dangerous Job. Iraqi Policeman Escorting Civilians across Route Michigan in Ramadi. Shortly after we took small arms fire and Iraqi Police engaged the target

866With the Leaders of an Iraqi Border Force Company a kilometer from Syria, they like all the Iraqis we dealt with were hospitable offering us Ch’ai as well as food on our visit with the adviser team

880With a Bedouin Family near the Syrian border on Christmas Eve 2007

867Iraqi Border Troops at Border Fort Five near Syria

882Proud Bedouin Father and his son

883The Bedouin Father serves us Ch’ai and cakes

934Iraqi Troops of 7th Division coming back from Patrol on Christmas Day at COP North an isolated post near Syria. While we celebrated they worked and trained.

911One of the Iraqi vehicles in one of our convoy’s near Al Qaim pulling security for us to pass. Our convoys generally had about 3 American and 2-3 Iraqi trucks transiting dangerous areas with very few soldiers, nothing more than 240 series or .50 cal machine guns and far away from any big reinforcements should we have been hit

969New Iraqi Army Soldiers in Basic Training at Habbiniya. Imagine being far away from your family and know that they are in danger just because you serve in the Army

971Chaplains and our Assistants with General  Ali and his staff of the Training and Support Center at Habbinyah. He proudly showed us his well worn Arabic-English Bible. A Moslem he liked it because it had information not in the Koran

973Bakers at the Iraqi Army Bakery in Habbinyah the fresh bread is great

Dundas and FallahWith General Falah Hasan..driven from Iraq by Saddam under threat of death he returned from the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and advise the Iraq Assistance Group.When asked what branch of Islam he said “My mother was Sunni, my father Shia I don’t know I am an Iraqi”

Of course I had many more interactions with the Iraqis than just these photos.  There was the G-3 Officer at 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who said that he wished that the Iraqis had Christian Priests to serve as Imams because he knew that they would care for the soldiers and families and were not compromised like many Sunni and Shia clergy.  The Iraqi military, Sunni and Shia distrusts most Moslem clergy because of their political militancy and divisiveness during the worst part of the civil war.  At one time they had Imams during the Saddam era but many commanders refused to appoint Imams.  Then there was the Iraqi Company commander at out in the west who tracked me down to meet the “American Imam and thank him” for serving our Marines and for praying for Iraq and its people. He also said to let people know that if something ever happened between the US and “Persia” that most Iraqis would support us. I could go on but needless to say there are millions of Moslems who fight along side of us as well as the American Moslems who serve in our ranks without being traitors like Major Hasan.   

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+






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