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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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Not the Cover of the Rolling Stone but the Front Page: Padre Steve Featured in Washington Times article on PTSD

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“We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front

Well my friends it has been an interesting week. Last week I was contacted by a Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon who had been a student in our Winter Class because he had been asked by a reporter if he knew someone who could talk about PTSD. I was then contacted by the reporter, Maggie Ybarra of the Washington Times. I was interviewed and the paper sent a wonderful photographer Eva Russo to take pictures of me at Norfolk’s Harbor Park.

Now the Times is not my paper of choice. However the chance to talk about PTSD and the effect on veterans including senior officers in such a high profile forum is important. One does not have to agree with the political slant of news organization if they present the particular topic with sensitivity and balance. The reporter, editor and photographer involved all treated me and those who suffer with respect. I cannot ask for more. Since I was interviewed and quoted by David Wood of the Huffington Post last month for an article on “Moral Injury” shows a sense of balance, I will talk to anyone willing to fairly present the struggles faced by currently serving military members and veterans suffering from PTSD. My brothers and sisters mean more to me than my political leanings. This week I have been contacted by a producer from the BBC about a documentary on that subject but that is waiting on PAO to do something with it.

What matters to me is that veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury are not forgotten. That happens far too often often after every war. The public forgets, the military forgets and the government forgets. Major General Smedley Butler wrote in his classic War is a Racket:

“I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Likewise I understand the stigma of PTSD. Many senior personnel both officers and enlisted, the career men and women effected by it PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury don’t want to identify themselves or seek help. I can’t blame them in some ways even though it is killing them. My choice back in 2009 was to decide try tell my story as honestly and transparently. When my shrink asked me what I was going to do with this I thought about it hard. I am very much an introvert and it was scary to “come out.” It was even harder then because though a chaplain I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that there was a God and I was afraid of everything. But I knew that I had to start speaking out because very few senior leaders affected by this scourge had the freedom to do so. That is one of the reasons that I started this website.

It was risky to speak out. Despite efforts by some senior leaders to change the military culture the fact is that there still is a great stigma attached to “coming out” and seeking help for PTSD and other mental illnesses. In fact I know of numerous senior leaders, officer and enlisted whose careers have cratered due to the effects of PTSD and even some who have lost their families or even taken their lives. So for me this is very personal and serious.

The first time I spoke out being interviewed in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Daily News back in April 2011 there were trolls who made some incredibly hateful and vicious comments about me in the comments of the online edition. Some were even threatening. The paper took the abusive comments down but the wounds remain, some people are simply assholes and I pity them. No wonder people don’t want to talk about the subject and would rather resort to silence, substance abuse and suicide than talk about it.

The fact is that despite the fact that some senior leaders are doing what they can to try to change the culture of the military from one that penalizes, marginalizes and trivializes the suffering of those that serve the stigma remains, and many feel it. One senior enlisted leader in an elite branch of the Navy told me that “leaders could seek help that they would never get any more career enhancing or important assignments.” That was only a few months ago after the suicide of a retired Navy Captain who suffered from PTSD and TBI, a man who meant much to both of us.

The fact is that as a Chaplain I feel pretty much “radioactive” to other chaplains, at senior chaplains. I can count on one hand the number of senior chaplains who have bothered to contact me or ask how I was doing. But that being said I have been contacted by others, chaplains line officers and enlisted personnel who tell me that I am one of the few people who “gets it” and that they feel safe confiding in. Personally I would rather have that be my legacy than anything else.

The fact is it will take a generation of leaders to change the military culture to give the men and women who put it all on the line and suffer for their efforts to get help.

But enough of that for now, I’m getting upset and I already have a terrible time sleeping, I don’t need to spin myself up any more than I am. If you want to read the Times article the link is here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/22/less-silent-suffering-veterans-post-traumatic-stre/

On a different note, I did something today that in more than 32 years in the military I have never done. I received a maximum score on my physical fitness test. The past few years I have come close but never maxed it. The sad thing is what I need to do now to get a maximum score is more than I needed to do as a young Army officer in the 1980s.

Anyway, until tomorrow when I will have another Gettysburg article for you, have a great night and remember to care for the veterans and families who suffer the effects of PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Moral Injury: The Silent Killer of Veterans

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This morning I woke up and got ready to go to work. My wife was up. She had been up most of the night because unbeknownst to me I had been fighting something in my sleep. Judy tried to wake me up, but I didn’t wake up, and evidently the episode lasted much of the night. I do remember some dreams, or rather nightmares last night dealing with a particular situation that I experienced in Iraq, but such nightmares are so common that unless there is something really unusual about them I really don’t think much about them.

I first heard of Moral Injury in 2009 about a year after I was diagnosed with severe and chronic PTSD. However, that being said as a military historian I have to admit that I have read about it time and time again in less clinical language. What I had more experience with were the memoirs of common soldiers and officers, as well as the experiences of Sailors, Marines and Soldiers who had confided in me at various times as their chaplain.

Marine Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. They were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think of nothing but killing and being killed.

The suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjusting, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them anymore. So we scattered them about without any “three minute” or “Liberty Loan” speeches or parades.”

Last year I was interviewed by David Wood of the Huffington Post for a series of three articles that he just published on moral injury.* If PTSD and TBI are considered “invisible wounds” then moral injury must be included. It is a condition as old as war itself and can be seen even in the most ancient of writings about war, Homer’s Iliad, King David’s grief over the loss of his friend Jonathan and many others.

I came home from Iraq forever changed. I served with Marine and Army advisers to Iraqi Army, Border Troops, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police in Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008. That assignment, which took me throughout the province brought me into contact with a part of the war that many Americans, even those serving in Iraq were shielded from, a part of the war that was never shown in the media that exposed me to realities that before serving there I was unaware.

They were uncomfortable truths. The tensions between the various Iraqi factions, the real hopes for a better Iraq held by many Iraqis and the absolute devastation that the American invasion of Iraq had brought to that unfortunate country. I saw some of the disrespectful and insulting things done by American troops that had to be dealt with by the advisors, men who were as much diplomats as they were Soldiers and Marines. I saw the damage inflicted by bombing campaigns that had little to do with winning a war, but more with destroying infrastructure that even our own war plans had determined was vital to Iraq’s recovery after the success of our campaign. I saw children wounded in fire fights, as well as ministered to the wounded coming through the Fleet Surgical Facility at Ta’Qaddum on their way elsewhere.

I have spent time with Marines and Soldiers who feel real guilt from the actions that they saw or participated in both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise I have dealt with the grief of men and women, Corpsmen, Doctors and Nurses who wish that they could have done more to save the lives of others or done more to prevent suffering. I have also dealt with those who have attempted suicide after taking part in actions that they could not live with or due to what they saw or experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately Moral Injury is not taken seriously by the military. This despite the fact many military physicians, mental health providers and chaplains are on the cutting edge of dealing with it. We are doing research, writing and treating those afflicted the services themselves do not even acknowledge it. Even as we do this some in the military, including Chaplains want to call it something more ambiguous using the Orwellian term “inner conflict” to describe something that is far more damaging and insidious.

I suppose that a big part of the reason is that all of the services do an amazing amount of work to built a set of moral values in those that serve. In the Navy we talk about courage, honor and commitment. We talk about being men and women of principle, doing what is right. Such ideas are a part of who we are, Douglas MacArthur spoke of “Duty, Honor Country” and our military academies have long taught the principle that “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those that do.”

We teach our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen values that are often more rigorous than what they grew up with at home or in school. Then we send them to war and they see and sometimes do things that are at odds with those values as well as the values that we as Americans cherish. We place them in situations where the moral values we teach them contradicted by what we teach and train them to do, and the real unvarnished truth about war, it is hell. Smedley Butler wrote:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.
If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

How we expect anyone to retain their soul and their sanity when we teach them a set of values that we as a nation fail to uphold is beyond me. The fact that the politicians, pundits and preachers who constantly insist on using the under one percent of the population that serves in the military to bear such burdens to satiate their bloodlust and then refuse to recognize their injuries and then deny them care or benefits is abhorrent.

One of the survivors of the famed World War One “Lost Battalion” wrote:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

While I was impacted very much by what happened to me and what I saw. The sad thing is that I was far better prepared and seasoned to survive what I experienced than most of my younger counterparts. After years of training and experience I felt that I was immune to PTSD or Moral Injury. Sadly, I was wrong and today, more than six years after I returned from Iraq I deal with the consequences of war, in my life and those of those that I serve.

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do expect that our country takes responsibility for the injuries and suffering that its policies have created. Specifically I am speaking to that Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who constantly lobby for war and refuse to take personal responsibility for it when it comes, and who then for matters of political expediency throw aside the volunteers who went to war for far higher ideals and motives than those that sent them.

Okay, it is time for me to take a deep breath. But I do get really spun up about this, because I have lived this reality and I get angry when I see look around and realize that for most people in this country, the plight of veterans doesn’t matter. We are just another “special interest group” to use the words of a member of a committee appointed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that wants to decimate military benefits. But even now people like Bill Kristol who have never served a day in the military and never seen a war that they didn’t like, urge that we send more men and women to war over Crimea. But I digress…

Moral injury is a silent killer of the soul and it is high time that we recognize just how deadly it is.

Guy Sager, author of the classic The Forgotten Soldier wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

I don’t know what nightmares I will have tonight, hopefully at least for Judy’s sake I won’t have any.

With that, I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Wood’s Articles can be found here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-grunts
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-recruits
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/healing

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Switch Hitting and Life as a Lefty forced to the Right

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“He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.” Yogi Berra

Back in 1966 my late father made one of the few mistakes that he made in raising me. He turned me around in the batter’s box and turned me into a right handed hitter.

For years I wondered about this because my first grade teacher Mrs Brandenburg took the pencil out of my left hand and put it in my right hand. A few short years later my 4th grade teacher Mrs Gates whacked my hand with a ruler because of my poor penmanship. That didn’t help my penmanship and truthfully if forced to take notes on paper I  cannot read half of what I wrote.

During my first tour in Germany in the 1980s I started using my left hand to eat, and occasionally would just for shits and giggles write left handed. The sad thing is that I now eat left and that my writing when done with my left hand is nearly as legible as when I write with my right hand. But I digress…

Now ever since dad switched me at the plate I have not been a good hitter. We talked about this before he died, not that he turned me around at the plate but the fact that I was a crappy hitter. My life has been spent on the edge of the Mendoza line. (For those that don’t know what this is just google Mendoza Line or Mario Mendoza.) I haven’t hit for power but my dream is to start hitting balls over the fence, that way I can trot around the bases versus having to dig hard to get on base.

In the years since I have wondered what it would feel like to bat left-handed. However I was always too afraid to try it in a practice or game with real people. However today since for the first time in a long time I am playing somewhat organized ball I went to a batting cage after I did my circuit training around the lake in my neighborhood.

My first 40 swings were from the right side. But then I decided to go to the left side. It was amazing. My swing felt natural and not only did I make contact but it felt natural. I realized then that everything that I thought was right was really left.

Come to think of it for years of my life  tried for whatever reason to stay to the political and religious right side of the house. Of course that was before Iraq, PTSD and a major faith crisis. After that I ended up somewhat on the left. I moderate but somehow more to the left than the right. Maybe that makes me a switch hitter too.

That reminds me of an exchange in the TV series 30 Rock. 

Jack: When I was at Princeton I played baseball AND football. And back then football players went both ways.

Dotcom: Really? So you went both ways?

Jack: Yeah! We all did. It was the 70s.

In between as well as later tonight and tomorrow I will be doing some more studying and reading for my class and getting ready for my second exam at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School. Tomorrow after I celebrate Eucharist at my chapel I will do my PT, I think I  might run and then head over to the batting cage again. In the afternoon I will be meeting Pulitzer Prize winning author David Wood to talk about PTSD and suicide in the military. David is a war correspondent and Military Editor for the Huffington Post.

Tuesday, Lord willing and the shutdown not sending half of my team home I will be playing in my first game. By the way I do intend on hitting from the left side. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Pray for me a sinner and have a great night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy