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100 Years of Navy Aviation: Part One the Aircraft Carriers

Eugene Ely makes the first takeoff from USS Birmingham on November 14th 1910

On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsburg Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  At the age of 24 and having taught himself to fly barely 7 months before Eugene Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.  Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers who had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task but hearing that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight. Weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November and between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller and forcing him to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is.  Chambers would talk Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911.  Ely died in a crash at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911.

USS Langley CV-1

The Naval was slow to build upon the early achievements and the British and France would commission Aircraft Carriers well before the USS Langley CV-1 a converted Collier was commissioned.  After Langley the Navy commissioned the converted Battlecruisers USS Lexington CV-2 and USS Saratoga CV-3 in the mid 1920s.

USS Lexington CV-2 October 1941

The three ships formed the nucleus of the Navy’s embrace of aviation and the pilots that they trained and the experience gained would be the foundation of the Navy’s success in the Second World War.  They would be joined by the USS Ranger CV-4 the first U. S. Navy Carrier designed as such from the keel up in 1934.

USS Enterprise CV-6

In 1937 the Navy commissioned the first of its true Fleet Carriers the USS Yorktown CV-5 which was followed by the USS Enterprise CV-6 in 1938, the USS Wasp CV-7 an improved version of Ranger in was commissioned in 1940 and the USS Hornet CV-8 in 1941.   These ships would bear the brunt of US Navy operations in the first year of the war following the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Of these ships only the Enterprise and Saratoga would survive the first year of the war in the Pacific.  Langley now a Seaplane Carrier was sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942. Lexington would go down at Coral Sea in May 1942.  Hornet would launch the Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18th 1942.  Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet would take on and defeat the Japanese Carrier Strike force and sink the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu at Midway to avenge Pearl Harbor. Yorktown was sunk in the battle but Midway stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

The U. S. went on the offensive in August invading Guadalcanal in the Solomons Islands. The Guadalcanal campaign and the numerous sea battles in the adjacent waterways would claim many American and Japanese ships. Wasp was sunk by a Japanese submarine on September 15th 1942 and Hornet was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 27 October 27th 1942.  Saratoga spent much of 1942 in the yards having been torpedoed twice leaving the often battered Enterprise as the sole U. S. Navy Carrier facing the Japanese until Saratoga was repaired and the first of the Essex Class Fleet Carriers and Independence Class Light Fleet Carriers entered service and arrived in the Pacific.

USS Yorktown CV-10 1944 a good example of the wartime Essex class ships  below USS Cabot CVL-28 an Independence Class Light Fleet Carrier


The Essex Class ships became the nucleus of the Fast Carrier Task Forces in the Pacific and with their smaller consorts of the Independence Class would dominate operations at sea from 1943 on.  The Essex class would eventually number 24 ships with several more canceled before completion becoming the most numerous of any class of Fleet Carriers produced by the U. S. Navy.  The Essex class would figure prominently in all offensive operations including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, the campaigns at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and raids on the Japanese home islands.  In the process they and their air groups would be instrumental in sinking hundreds of Japanese ships including the Battleships Yamato and Musashi and destroying thousands of aircraft.  A number were heavily damaged by Kamikazes but none were lost with the epic story of the USS Franklin CV-13 and her survival after being hit by two bombs from a Japanese plane that slipped through the Combat Air Patrol. The resultant explosions and fires amongst her fueled and armed aircraft nearly sank her but for the heroic efforts of her crew including Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan who won the Medal of Honor caring for the wounded and dying and directing damage control teams. The ship lost 724 men killed and 265 wounded in the attack but survived though without power and dead in the water 50 miles off the Japanese coast.

Murderers’ Row

The Essex class were iconic and the ships etched their names in naval history. The Essex, Yorktown, Hornet, Wasp, Hancock, Ticonderoga, Franklin, Bunker Hill, Intrepid, Lexington and the other ships of the class had legendary careers. These ships became known as “Murderers’ Row” for their expertise in killing off Japanese ships and aircraft.  Fittingly four of the ships, the Hornet, Yorktown, Lexington and Intrepid have found a second life as museum ships and Oriskany was sunk as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida where she is a favorite of recreational divers.

USS Croatan CVE-25 a Bogue Class Escort Carrier

During the war the Navy also built 118 Escort Carriers converted from merchant ships for use as convoy escorts, anti-submarine warfare and close air support for amphibious operations. 38 of these ships saw service in the British Royal Navy during the war.

USS Hancock CVA-19 in 1969 showing the extent of the modernizations that brought the Essex Class into the jet age

In the post World War II drawdown many carriers were decommissioned and the oldest, the Saratoga and Ranger disposed of.  The three ship Midway class entered service after the war and incorporated design improvements learned from combat operations in the war. As the Navy entered the jet era it was found that the existing carriers would need significant modernization to handle the new aircraft. Among the improvements made to the Midway and Essex class ships was the angled flight deck, steam catapults, hurricane bows and improved landing systems.  These improvements allowed these World War II era ships to remain front line carriers into Vietnam and in the case of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea into the 1990s.

Artists’ conception of USS United States CVA-58 a victim of Truman Era Air Force politics

The Navy began its first super-carrier the USS United States in 1949 but the ship and class was cancelled by Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, not a fan of the Navy or Marine Corps due to opposition by the Army and the newly founded Air Force.  The ship would have carried 12-18 nuclear capable bombers as well as 45-50 jet fighters and attack aircraft and been 1090 feet long and displaced 65,000 tons.  It would not be until after the Korean War that the Navy would begin construction of its first super-carriers.

USS Midway CVA-41 in 1971

During the Korean War most of the Essex class ships were called back into service with 15 modified to conduct jet operations while others were converted to serve as ASW Carriers and Helicopter Carriers (LPH) to support Marine amphibious forces. Likewise the Midway’s were modernized as the Navy began to construct the four-ship Forrestal Class which were 1036 feet long and displaced 56,000 tons and designed to carry 100 aircraft. The four ships, Forrestal CVA-59, Saratoga CVA-60, Ranger CVA-61, and Independence CVA-62 would all serve into the early 1990s before being decommissioned. In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga have begun the journey to be scrapped, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS Ranger CVA-61

They were all heavily involved in the Vietnam War on Yankee and Dixie Station and both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Cold War. All four have been stricken from the Navy List and are awaiting disposal.  Forrestal was programmed as an artificial reef but she, like Saratoga which had been on donation hold was approved for scrapping. Ranger is still on donation hold and the USS Ranger Foundation is attempting to raise the money to save her. Independence which had been programmed as an artificial reef project was approved for scrapping in 2008.In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga began the journey to be scrapped in 2014, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS John F Kennedy CV-67 a modified Kitty Hawk class ship

These ships were followed by the Kitty Hawk class consisting of Kitty Hawk CVA-63, Constellation CVA-64, America CVA-66 and John F. Kennedy CVA-67 which were improved versions of the Forrestal Class with a 60,100 ton displacement and 1047 foot length with the ability to carry 100 aircraft. Kitty Hawk had the distinction of being the last fossil fuel carrier in active U. S. Navy service being decommissioned and placed in reserve in 2009. Her sister the Constellation CV was decommissioned in December 2003 and in 2008 was programmed to be scrapped in the next five years.  America was decommissioned in 1996 after not being given a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) refit in the 1990s due to budget cuts.  America was involved in much of the Cold War, Gulf War and Vietnam including responding to the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, the Intervention in Lebanon in 1983 and the conflict with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra in 1985.  She was sunk as a test bed to see how modern carriers would be affected by battle damage and to incorporate those lessons into future carrier design in May of 2005.  John F. Kennedy was originally planned to be a nuclear ship equipped with 4 A3W reactors.  This plan was shelved and she was completed as a fossil fuel ship. “Big John” served in Vietnam as well as throughout the Cold War and Gulf War and also engaged the Libyans in 1985.  She was placed in the Reserve Force in the 1990s to save money and also served as a training carrier.  Like America she did not receive the necessary maintenance and by 2002 she needed emergency repairs in order to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kennedy made three deployments in support of the War on Terror and decommissioned in 2007.  She was placed in donation hold and currently two groups are making progress to acquire her as a Museum ship. Like the Forrestal’s the Constellation’s served in Vietnam, the Cold War, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and three continued their service into Operation Iraqi Freedom. Constellation began her journey to the scrapyard in August 2014.

USS Enterprise CVN-65

As the Navy continued to develop the capabilities of the aircraft carrier it commissioned the nuclear powered USS Enterprise CVAN-65.  The added capability of nuclear power enabled her to operate without dependence on fossil fuel which in addition to her range and speed allowed her to carry more aviation fuel and munitions than the fossil fuel ships.  Unique among the Nuclear Carriers she produces 280,000 SHP and is powered by 8 Westinghouse (A2W) Reactors driving geared turbines, 4 screws with a classified top speed in excess of 35 Knots and is the quickest carrier going from all stop to full speed. At 1101 feet long and 75,700 ton (93,000 Full Load) displacement she was larger than any other carrier. She served in Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf War and Operation Enduring and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was and was decommissioned in 2013.

USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71 of the Nimitz class

The Nimitz Class of nuclear powered carriers is the most numerous class of capital ship in the U.S. Navy since the Essex Class.  Slightly smaller than Enterprise with a 1088 overall length and 91,000 full load displacement the Nimitz CVN-68 and her sister ships are the mainstay of the U. S. Navy carrier force.  These ships have been the symbols of American naval power for three decades and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.  Each of the ships has embodied successive improvements gained from the previous ships and the latest ships of the class the USS Ronald Reagan CVN-76 and USS George H. W. Bush CVN-77 incorporate technologies that were not known when Nimitz was on the drawing board. Thus whenever a ship is taken in for their Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) it is upgraded to the capabilities of the newest ship.  The class consists of the Nimitz, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69, USS Carl Vinson CVN-70, USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71, USS George Washington CVN-72, USS Abraham Lincoln CVN-73, USS John C. Stennis CVN-74, USS Harry Truman CVN-75 as well as the previously mentioned Reagan and Bush. They can carry 90% more fuel and 50% more ordnance than the Forrestal class. Carrying 90 or more aircraft they pack a mobile offensive punch that is not matched by any other surface ship.  The have served in every major military and many humanitarian missions since Nimitz was commissioned in 1974.

Artist conception of USS Gerald R Ford CVN-78

The Nimitz class will be joined by the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78.  The Ford is the first ship of an entirely new class. While approximately the same size as the Nimitz class at 1092 feet long and approximately 100,000 tons full load displacement the Ford class of which three are currently authorized and one under construction will feature many improvements over their predecessors. Among improvements are an advanced arresting gear, automation, which reduces crew requirements by several hundred from the Nimitz class carrier, the updated RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missile system, the AN/SPY-3 dual-band radar (DBR), as developed for Zumwalt class destroyers an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) in place of traditional steam catapults for launching aircraft, a new nuclear reactor design (the A1B reactor) for greater power generation, advanced stealth features to help reduce radar profile and the ability to operate the new F-35C Lightning II. If the class is built as programmed on a one ship every five year rate with the Ford commissioning in 2015 then 6 ships of the class will be in commission by 2040. The next two ships have been named, the John F Kennedy and Enterprise. 

Of course as with any military technology the future never is certain. In 1918 no one would have thought that the all-big gun Dreadnought Battleships would be eclipsed by the Aircraft Carrier in less than 25 years. While the Carriers have ruled the waves since Midway there are threats to them both military and financial.  Countries such as China while building their own carriers have are developing weapons such as guided ballistic missiles designed to destroy carriers.  As of now there is no defense against such a weapon if a carrier is within range. While China has not yet deployed the weapon it could be a game changer in the Western Pacific. Likewise there is the ever present threat posed by new and advanced submarines even those deployed by 2nd and 3rd world nations.  Finally there is the financial cost which could derail the procurement of more carriers in an era of austerity. The cost of the Ford is currently estimated to be $9 Billion Dollars which if stretched end to end would probably reach Vulcan where the Vulcans would come up with an answer to our current problems.

At the same time the carriers have defied those who predicted their demise since the Truman administration.  Currently no sea based platform has the multitude of capabilities of a carrier and its associated air wing and battle group and thus they should remain the Queens of the Sea for some time to come and the United States Navy which has led the world in their development and operation should continue to lead the way.

The next installment which will appear later this week will discuss the aircraft employed by the United States Navy not only those from carriers, but seaplanes, rotor-wing aircraft and lighter than air ships.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships

A Base at War: First Impressions of Camp LeJeune Nine Years after my First Tour

This is just a brief post on some first impressions on my assignment to Camp LeJeune after a nine year absence from the base. When I left LeJeune and my assignment with the Second Marine Division I had just completed twenty years in the military though I was not even three years into my service as a Naval Officer.

Today I was part of a Casualty Assistance Team meeting with the family of a young Navy Corpsman and Afghanistan veteran who killed himself in his apartment last night.  The Corpsman was part of a family with a long tradition of Naval Service who in his time in the Navy had gone to war with a Marine Battalion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province and returned home changed by the war and struggling with PTSD and all the related symptoms of it.  This is something that I can understand having come back from Iraq in a rather bad way about two and a half years ago.  In my time with this young man’s parents today I found a young man that loved life but was wracked by his experiences of war.  He was well liked at his Marine Battalion as well as at the hospital and his death shocked the community almost as much as it did his family.  The sad thing is that this young man is emblematic the suicide problem in the military.  He is not alone, far too many Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen on active duty, in the Reserves or those that have left the service suffer so much from the unseen wounds of war that they commit suicide.  Since I have been here just a bit under two weeks this was a confirmation of what I knew just walking around the hospital, getting around the base and the local area.  Camp LeJeune is a base at war with Marines and Sailors fighting in Afghanistan and unfortunately many suffering from deep wounds of war at home living with physical, psychological, spiritual and moral injuries that don’t go away just because they return home.

When I left LeJeune in compliance with orders to the USS Hue City CG-66 in December 2001 we were just 3 months into the current war and barley two months into the Afghanistan campaign.  Marine morale was high though most Marines had not been to combat and those that had were veterans of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Somalia or the Balkans. Of course none of these actions lasted as long nor caused the amount of deaths as either the campaign in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Marines wanted to get a shot at the Al Qaeda terrorists that had attacked the United States and killed nearly 3000 Americans.

The Marines answered the call and have performed magnificently in every theater of the current war but the Corps has changed. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Marines had a swagger that was typical of the work hard; train hard and play hard attitude of the Corps.  The Corps is now composed of many battle hardened veterans that have made deployment after deployment to the hottest combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in which they took the initiative in both offensive operations in taking the battle to the enemy and employing solid counterinsurgency techniques especially in Al Anbar Province where the Iraqi Army performed quantitatively better under their tutelage in helping to turn the tide during the Anbar awakening.  Navy Corpsmen, Doctors and Chaplains serve alongside the Marines as they have done throughout our history.

I served with Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar in 2007 and early 2008 in many of the remotest parts of the province and have dealt with individual Marines since. The Marines still have much of their swagger but it seems more fatalistic now.  An expert in trauma and moral injury told me of a recent visit to Camp Pendleton where Marines referred to themselves as “the walking dead” in an almost cavalier manner. The sad thing is that for many Marines this is only half a joke. The Corps in 2009 had the highest suicide rate in the military at 24 per 100,000 and suicides continue at a similar pace in 2010.  http://www.yuma.usmc.mil/desertwarrior/2010/03/11/feature6.html One occurred on Camp LeJeune where a Marine Sergeant pulled out a pistol and shot himself after being pulled over by Military Police in front of the base Fire Station.

As I made my way around the base the past week or so, I saw a lot more Marines with canes and obvious physical injuries from their combat injuries incurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Marines as always were professional but appeared to be much more serious than 9 years ago, many seeming to be old beyond their years. I love serving with and around Marines because they have a unique sense of professionalism combined with humor that is unlike almost any found in any part of the United States Military. However that positive is sometimes offset by a need to maintain an image of toughness even when they are dying on the inside which leads many not to seek help because it might make them look weak or broken, terms that no self-respecting Marine wants associated with his or her name.

In addition to the obvious injuries I noticed that while there was a much more serious tenor around the base that the Staff Sergeants and Gunnery Sergeants are a lot younger than they used to be back 9 years ago. With the war lasting as long as it has and the coupled with the expansion of the Marines during the war coupled with casualties and attrition by other means these young men and women are being promoted sooner than they were in the prewar days. Their leadership experience is mostly combat-related and they are in general superb combat leaders. However, this does not always translate well in a garrison setting especially if they are dealing with their own untreated PTSD or TBI nor is it helpful on the home front. As a result many of these young leaders are suffering the breakups of families at a record rate as well as substance abuse when they return home.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a speech at Duke University on September 29th of this year:

“There are a number of consequences that stem from the pressure repeated of deployments – especially when a service member returns home sometimes permanently changed by their experience.  These consequences include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began.  And, most tragically, a growing number of suicides.

While we often speak generally of a force under stress, in reality, it is certain parts of the military that have borne the brunt of repeat deployments and exposure to fire – above all, junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties.  These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up close.  They’ve lost friends and comrades.  Some are struggling psychologically with what they’ve seen, and heard and felt on the battlefield.  And yet they keep coming back.” http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1508

These young men and women have forged a bond in combat and in many cases multiple combat tours. The have served well with honor and many don’t feel that people who have not been “in the shit” understand them or what they have been through.  There is a comradeship that comes out of war. There is segment at the end of the Band of Brothers mini-series where a German Commander is speaking to his soldiers after they have surrendered to the Americans. As the German Commander speaks to the survivors of his unit Corporal Joe Liebgott is asked to translate by another American. As he translates the German officer’s words the Americans know that he also speaks for their experience of war:

“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.”

I think that sums up what many feel today except unlike the Germans our war drags on with no end in sight.

The Marines are still tough and a force to be reckoned with on any battlefield. They, especially the Marine Divisions are an elite force but I believe that many are losing some of their resilience as the war goes in Afghanistan goes on.  Many from reports that I have read as well as those that I have talked with are concerned that much of the country doesn’t support the war nor appreciate their sacrifice. Many are concerned that their sacrifices as well as those of their friends, those killed and wounded will be wasted and the suffering that goes on after the war will be swept aside by politicians, the media and the public at large. They are also concerned that the people that they have worked with against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and those that they have tried to protect and care for will suffer even more if the Taliban return to power.  I can say that I worry about my Iraqi friends and fear for them when I hear news of more attacks.

In the midst of this war we went through a number of elections and it troubles me that in the last election that the war and those fighting it were hardly ever mentioned by candidates from either party.  We mentioned it was usually for show to help politicians gain favor with voters.  We deserve better, we are not just a something to talk about at political rallies that when the election is over simply budget item to be slashed because the country is in a mess. These young men and women, as well as old guys like me are the sons, daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters that have volunteered to serve this country.  The wounds that these young men and women, their experiences in combat that have left their souls scared will not go away when the last American leaves Iraq or Afghanistan.

This young man that we lost last night will be buried by his family and we will have a memorial service in his honor.  His many friends will grieve and those of us who are caring for his family will not forget them. I don’t want this young man or any other to be forgotten like so many who have returned from war before them.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people.  Nor was it fully appreciated by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the “Greatest Generation” was citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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