Tag Archives: emdr

I Left My Heart in Al Anbar…Visions of Iraq 5 Years Later

I left Iraq in early 2008. My experience of Iraq was with various teams of advisors in Al Anbar Province. I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs and in tightly packed aircraft to get to these far flung teams of 12-30 Americans in places from the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various COPs on the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, occasionally taking fire and most of the time isolated, and sometimes alone and unarmed except for the presence of my Religious Programs Specialist and Bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron.

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ar Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It is a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members.

It was to Al Anbar Province that I deployed in 2007. I was assigned to the Iraq Assistance Group with duties to serve the advisor teams assigned to the Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police. While there I also served members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately as I have been having to recount my experiences as I get ready for EMDR and Biofeedback therapy to treat my PTSD. I have been surprised by how strong the memories are of my time there.

Today I was talking with my therapist and the discussion came to one of my experiences at a base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as COP Snake Pit. It is a base included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility an Iraqi Military and Police forces, an Advisor of Marines woking with the Iraqi Army 7th Division and an Iraqi Detention Facility. Surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls not far from a number of high speed avenues of approach an easy target for any attacker. In fact since the United States left Iraq the detention facility and Operations center have been attacked by Al Qaida linked insurgents.

When we visited there Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within the base. For me the memories of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison as well as the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. As I talked with my therapist those memories were so strong. I talked about things today that I have not shared with anyone and which are still hard to write about. Eventually I will, but not tonight, it will be hard enough to sleep as it is.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

Since I am all verklempt right now I think I will stop for the night. But as I told my therapist today to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Persistence: My Motto

Persistence by Calvin Coolidge

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. 

Talent will not;  Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. 

Genius will not;  Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. 

Education will not; The world is full of educated derelicts. 

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved  and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

If there is anything that I find is true about me it is that I am a persistent person. The motto on the family crest is the French word Esseyez, or in English, “try.” Somehow I can see the chieftain of the clan lining everyone up behind William Wallace, who by the way was executed on this day in 1300 inspiring his troops saying, “just try for once.” My parents used to say “quitters never win and winners never quit.”  I have been inspired by great naval Captains like John Paul Jones who when asked if he had surrendered replied “I have not yet begun to fight” and James Lawrence who when mortally wounded gave his crew the order “Don’t give up the ship.” I am inspired by the words of the legendary manager of the Baltimore Orioles Earl Weaver who said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love this poem by Calvin Coolidge. In fact I have a small framed copy of it presented by my residency director at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1994 on my desk today.

I have never been the smartest, fastest, strongest, talented or educated dog in the pack.    I just work hard and don’t quit. I love the journeyman that one finds in baseball. I admire the utility player who can play a lot of different positions, plug holes and fit in well on the team. The same for the pitchers pitchers that pitch in middle relief or are the 5th starter in the rotation. I like the guys that gut it out and hang around long after others have written them off.

I have been having to go through and recount the really significant parts of my life as I get ready for the EMDR and Biofeedback therapy for my PTSD. It has been really amazing to see a couple of threads that are prominent in the tapestry of my life and without which I would not be me. The things that keep coming up again and again are a dogged persistence to succeed and unwillingness to quit and profound dislike of bullies.

My Clinical Pastoral Education residency which followed a brutal seminary process was one of the most pivotal parts of my life. My CPE Supervisor was a man named Steve Ivy. CPE is one of the best training in that anyone working with people in churches, hospitals or the military can have. For me it helped me see areas that I was blind to in my life. It helped me become a better listener and more accepting of others. But even more it helped me, and still helps me integrate me theology and philosophy into life.  Dr Ivy made a comment that was one of the most instrumental in my life since I heard it. That is that I can write my future that I do not have to be condemned to perpetually repeating the past or being stuck in place or being a victim of circumstances or others. It was a revelation of a positive humanity and the grace of God.

But even before that I was a fighter. In seminary when everything that one could imagine to go wrong did and pastors, and people at ministries told me that I should reconsider my call or quit. In the fall of 1989 when everything had gone to complete shit in our lives, Judy was sick, we had lost our home, cars and were living in a horrible house in a horrible neighborhood of Fort Worth, I was working two jobs and was in the National Guard, was a full time student and it looked like my time in seminary was over and that I had failed I called a TV ministry prayer line. I told my story to the prayer partner who told me that I couldn’t be called to ministry because if I was “God would be blessing me.” Somehow that hit me wrong. I just couldn’t imagine Jesus telling anyone that, nor could I reconcile it with Scripture or Church History.

I got mad and kept working despite everything going to hell managed to hang in long enough for things to work out. I didn’t do it all myself because a lot of people came alongside when they saw that I was in this for the long haul and would not quit. I graduated from seminary in 1992 with a 3.5 or 3.7 GPA, I can’t remember which and am not looking at a transcript while working more than full time and being in the National Guard. I worked my ass off and between good people and the grace of God made it through.

That continued after seminary when I was a late addition to the residency program at Parkland, when I got my first hospital chaplain job and when I was rebuffed by a senior chaplain in the Army Chief of Chaplains to return to active duty as a very young Army Reserve Major in 1997. He told me that I wasn’t good enough to bring back.

But despite that things continued to work out. I was helped along the way by great people. I had opportunities that opened up which gave me great experience and provided for my family. This culminated when I was selected for active duty in the Navy and resigned my Army commission to go in the Navy Chaplain Corps at a lower rank in February 1999.

There have been hard times in the Navy especially after my return from Iraq. I went through an emotional and spiritual crisis that I never imagined was possible, but I  I didn’t quit. I am an average guy who worked hard and got a lot of help along the way. But had I quit at any point I wouldn’t be where I am now and there were plenty of opportunities when I was ready to give up but held on just long enough to make it through.

Calvin Coolidge was so right. I am not the most talented person that I know in my field. I am not a genius and though I have a good education there are plenty of other people that know a lot more than me. However, I am persistent. I gain inspiration every day when I look on my desk and read that poem. I am thankful for grace of God and the people that God put in my life and who helped me during the tough times. I hope that I can always be the kind of person that helps people through their tough times and inspires them to keep trying, to keep working and never to quit and then pass that along to others.

The past few weeks have been a blessing because I have had to look back at my life and remember what got me to this point. Some of the memories have been difficult to think about because they were so difficult but at the end of the day I can count myself blessed.

Have a great night and don’t give up your dreams and always stay in the fight.

Peace and Blessings!

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care, philosophy

HD Dreams and Stranger Things: PTSD and Sleep

Those that have followed me on this site for any length of time know that I have been dealing with PTSD since my return from Iraq in 2008. I have written extensively about it including times when I was not doing well at all. Just take a look at some of my articles from 2009 and 2010 and you can see how bad I was doing. I have occasionally likened my dreams to the character of Binkley in Bloom County with his “Closet of Anxieties.”

I am like thousands of other active duty, reserve, retired military personnel or veterans  that suffer from PTSD related to my time at war. When I started treatment in 2008 one of the things that my therapist asked was if I thought that I could talk about my condition. It was a scary thought because there is where we like to admit it there is a stigma attached to PTSD and other psychological conditions. At some point I decided to say “what the hell, I’m going to talk about it.” That was really a big part of why I started writing on this blog. Since then I have been able to share my story in a number of venues and have had a lot of people contact me, many to share their stories and simply to offer either thanks or support. There have been a few knuckleheads but what amazes me is how many people contact me and how many military personnel or family members deal with the same things that I have faced.

I am hyper-vigilant as hell and there are a lot of places that I don’t feel safe. I still have bad days and there are plenty of times that I get in situations, like doing through airports, malls, Wal-Mart and sluggish traffic where I really have to fight anxiety and panic. The sight and smell of smoke and brush fires and sewage send me back to Iraq. The smell of death, which I still occasionally deal with has its own dread quality. Certain types of vehicles, aggressive drivers and debris on the road can send me back to Iraq. I can attribute a number of speeding tickets and an HOV violation to flight or fight responses in traffic.

Loud noises, screams, explosions and numerous other external and unexpected stimuli can trigger one hell of a startle reflex and anxiety. Tonight I was walking Molly down to the beach, a normally peaceful experience when an unexpected loud scream and crashing noise from a beach house startled and scared the hell out of me. That is not normal for my neighborhood. Thankfully Molly was there to protect me and her unflappable reaction was reassuring.

I am also unsettled by the political vitriol in our country, especially that stirred up by preachers because I have seen the results of such vitriol in Iraq and the Balkans. When I read or hear about the killings of US or NATO personnel by supposedly friendly Afghan “partners” I have a hard tome sleeping. I spent my time in Iraq traveling and doing a “circuit riding” type ministry with US Marine Corps and Army Advisors to the Iraqi Army and other security forces.  I look at some of those times and it causes me to think of just how easily I could have fallen victim had any Iraq Soldier or Policeman turned on any of the small groups of Americans that I was out with. But it is night when things get weird.

One of the things that I deal with is chronic insomnia. I used to be a very good sleeper but a few months into my time in Iraq I found that I wasn’t sleeping. So for about five years I have had very few good nights of sleep despite numerous attempts by doctors to help with sleep and anxiety meds. Those help sometimes but have side affects. On duty nights when I might be called in to the hospital I can’t take my meds because I want to be able to drive the 23 miles to work down a rural state highway.

Since Iraq my dreams have become rather HD, or High Definition involving some quite terrifying blends of Iraq and other parts of my life. I know that Judy and our dog Molly have been been awakened by me screaming or fighting the things that I battle in these dreams which are often nightmarish. Even relatively benign dreams have the DH quality now.

When I was in Houston a couple weeks ago and staying in a hotel the dreams were quite disturbing. Somehow not being in a familiar setting is bad for my sleep. But even the least disturbing was a dream was rather startling. In the dream I was sitting between the stands and the left field foul line at a major league game about 50 feet from 3rd base. I woke up when dreaming of diving for a baseball I ended up on the floor. I have to admit that the outfield grass was the lushest and most beautiful that I have ever seen. I don’t think that the left fielder and third baseman appreciated me being in their way when tracking down the pop ups and line drives hit towards me in the dream.

Thankfully though startling that dream was benign.  I find that the dreams of wounded Marines and soldiers in Mass casualty situations, night convoys with small teams of advisors, patrols and getting shot at on occasion that are the ones that really get me. When they are intermingled with current life events or other parts of my life in HD it is quite terrifying.

The dreams are almost like horror movies that you can’t leave. I have woken up from a dream, gone back to sleep and have the same dream resume. Other times I cannot go back to sleep.

I wondered why and a few weeks ago I was able to get evaluated with a QEEG or Qualitative EEG. Basically it is a brain map that tracks responses to various stimuli. Some of that testing is done with your eyes closed to see the differences in how the brain works when there are no visual stimuli. Before I had the test I spent a couple of session telling the doctor what I was going through and he would tell me what part of the brain that was affected. When I took the test it showed in graphic form what was going on and validated what I had been experiencing for these past five years.

Normally when people close their eyes they can relax. I used to be able to do this, but it has been a long time. The results of the test showed that unlike normal people when I close my eyes my brain basically goes into overdrive. The doctor remarked “no wonder you can’t sleep and have such vivid dreams.”

I have another couple of evaluation sessions before I begin EMDR and or Biofeedback therapy. For the first time in a long time I am hopeful that I will get some relief and improvement in my condition that may actually help me get off some of my medications. That would be nice. Normal sleep and a decrease in the HD dreams and nightmares would also be a good thing.

Thank you for your prayers and kind words. It has been a while since I have written about this in any detail and I hope as always that what I share will help encourage others suffering from similar issues and hopefully encourage and educate those that have to live with them. Believe me, it has not been easy for Judy.

There are resources available and one that I recommend for those that are dealing with PTSD is the Real Warriors Campaign http://www.realwarriors.net. I also recommend Doonesbury’s The Sandbox http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/  Both sites allow military personnel to share their experiences. There are numerous other resources and if someone asks I will gladly post some others. I do have a link to the National Center on PTSD on the site.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under News and current events, PTSD