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Ending the Stigma: PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury in Senior Leaders

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Yesterday I wrote about the death of my former Commodore at EOD Group Two, Captain Thomas Sitsch who committed suicide on Monday outside a New Hampshire Hospital. Captain Sitsch was another casualty of the longest wars this nation has engaged.

Many senior leaders in the military, officers and senior enlisted of every service have frequently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan as well as other locations in the war on terror. Since the war has been going over 12 years many have spent over half of their careers preparing for, engaging in, or recovering from wartime deployments. Many have suffered physical injuries as well as the unseen injuries of war, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and Moral Injury. Unfortunately they are often the last people to seek help.

In the past few years I have personally known or know of a number of senior officers and senior enlisted personnel who have committed or attempted suicide or had their careers destroyed because of their actions. Some like Captain Sitsch were diagnosed with PTSD, others displayed some or all of the indicators but either refused help or put getting help aside in order to “stay in the fight.”

In the past couple of years the Commanding Officer of a deployed SEAL Team committed suicide in Afghanistan, two Marine Expeditionary Unit commanding officers were relieved after incidents that probably have their genus in PTSD, or Moral Injury. I would almost bet that some of the issues that some of our senior leaders have been relieved of their duties for are also the result of untreated PTSD, TBI, Combat Stress Injury or Moral Injury.

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Retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire still suffers from PTSD following his command of the UN Rwanda force in the middle of that country’s genocide. He attempted suicide in 2000 and still suffers. Last month he was involved in a car accident on his way to work in the Canadian Senate when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car. He had not slept the previous night due to reliving the horrors of that experience. As someone who still suffers chronic insomnia related to my PTSD I understand how this can happen.

The PTSD of T. E. Lawrence’s experience of war in the Middle East in the First World War shows in the pages of his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom and various letters. Lawrence, who could have risen to high rank in the military or the foreign service basically went underground under an assumed name to serve in the ranks of the Royal Air Force in the 1920s. He wrote to Eric Kennington in 1935 not long before his death in a motorcycle accident:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”  

That is a part of our military culture. Leaders are under a great deal of pressure to accomplish often impossible missions and to take care of their troops. Many have been exposed to repeated combat trauma and had to bury more than one of their troops, often after the person commits suicide. Many anguish over the deaths, blame themselves and heap guilt on top of grief on top of traumatic or moral injury.

As I said many do not seek help due to an overwhelming cultural stigma against getting help, or “going to the wizard.” Likewise they know that that the reality is that if they seek help them may never command or be assigned to sensitive career enhancing billets again. As one senior leader told me “its hard when they say if you have issues and they are known that you can still have a successful career, but you will never be promoted or selected to a critical position, again.” 

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A few senior leaders have admitted to suffering from the symptoms of Combat Stress Injury and sought treatment. The most senior was General Carter Ham who began to suffer symptoms following his deployment to Mosul Iraq in 2004. Major General Gary Patton has also sought help for PTSD. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, now retired has taken up the cause to reduce the stigma seeking to have PTSD renamed Post Traumatic Stress Injury instead of “disorder” because it is an injury.

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I wish I had an answer. For me it took a complete crash to get help as well as the assistance of two fine EOD officers, Admiral Frank Morneau and Captain Sitsch. Even with that initial assistance I still feel a certain stigma. My experience is that senior leaders who admit to this and seek treatment often become radioactive. I feel this most often around other chaplains. I am sure that senior leaders probably feel the same way when they are around others who either do not have the experience or who are trying to bury theirs.

One thing that I do think would be helpful is that instead of promoting stigma would be to stand alongside each other. Relationships are key to this and while professional help is good the only thing that can take away the stigma is to get back to standing beside each other in crisis rather than abandoning those who struggle. We are the willing participants in a zero defect culture which sees struggle as weakness and a mark of failure. The sad thing is that under our current system many of the greatest military leaders in history would not be promoted. It is no wonder the leaders who we have invested so much in developing and have sacrificed so much of themselves do not seek help.

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I like the example of Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Both had significant problems after they left the Army after the Mexican War and in the early days of the Civil War. Grant struggled with drinking and Sherman suffered terrible depression. Sherman said of their relationship: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

The reality is that in today’s more corporate military culture that neither of these men would have ever been promoted to high command. They would have been shunted aside.

Something has to change if we are to end this terrible scourge. I hope that General Ham and General Chiarelli are working with mental health professionals are able to help change the culture, but then by themselves they cannot. That has to start as we say in the Navy “at the deck plates.” It is up to us to change our culture, to be warriors who look after our fellow warriors in their time of need and who by our actions take away the stigma that keeps our brothers and sisters from getting help.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: A Bus Ride to Carolina

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series.

My CRV with Judy in it pulled away and Nelson and I went about our business. We staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment.  As we talked other sailors arrived and soon the gear of over 100 sailors was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.

Nelson’s parents, brother and sister had come to see him off.  His brother is a Navy First Class Petty Officer. His dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone.  They were really nice folks. Over the years I had heard much about them. They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.

Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter. He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally.  During his previous deployment to Afghanistan he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. A couple of months before this deployment he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family.  Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other.  For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy.  No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs.

When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal. Many times media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. We are going in as a unit.

In such times families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together.  When you deploy as a unit there is familiar support system for the families we leave behind. This is not so when you deploy individually.  Those leaving on this day were very much strangers. We would train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.

If you are a ship or unit chaplain and deploy with your people there is a relationship. Generally you know each other, in this case we were strangers.  I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors we were with today when we got to Iraq. This was also the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, mostly working with the Army in support roles. Some would serve in specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs.

As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network. I was right about her being down for a while but this deployment would be harder on her than others and the support network proved woefully inadequate. So much for assumptions.

I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in large and rectangular bags of coyote or sand color. Most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.”  We already had our personal protective equipment of the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive Army issue at Fort Jackson. There are pros and cons to such a arrangement.  The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater. The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war.  This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.

Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders.  After this we loaded our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. These were the first of many buses we would ride and the first of many roll calls and gear load outs in the coming months.

Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front.  I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat.  It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer they don’t know and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.

Many of the sailors had ever darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or religious people.  I have found that many times, even those with a vibrant faith are hesitant to approach a chaplain that they do not know. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them be judgmental about of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I try to be cognizant of this and be friendly and caring without scaring them away.  Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus ride I was still an unknown quantity to them.

Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep.  For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable.  Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable. Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe.  Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.

When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining. Part of course is a generational thing. I grew up and came of age the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The majority of these sailors from the 90’s and 2000’s.

The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching.  Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.  As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war take inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta.   Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and hundreds more wounded I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.

The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolina League. Our journey reminded me of the bus rides in the movie Bull Durham.  The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other,  We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places.  About half the sailors went to the McDonalds while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell. Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate.

When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway.  We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base. I wondered where the hell we were. Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year.  Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.

Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready.  It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.

Our welcome that first night was simple.  We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants.  We were met at the DFAC by a civilian.  I can’t remember his name but this guy was most congenial and he put the RED in “Redneck.” He joked with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did.  When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter. As such nearly every meal would be entertaining.

As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other.  He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.”  I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.”  The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.

Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready.  More sailors from NMPS San Diego were due in later. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and engaged in some rather surface pleasantries. When lights out was called lay down on the same type of Army bunk bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington.  I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage.

Much was still on my mind when I laid down and my mind was still thinking about the trip to base with Judy and the final kiss goodbye. I was troubled by it and how I had handed things. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly. It had been a long day and coupled with the lack of sleep and stress of the previous couple of days I was tired.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Living Wills, Immunizations Gone Bad and More Sleepless Nights

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series which tells of my deployment to Iraq with RP1 Nelson Lebron in 2007 and 2008.

One of the sobering things as you get ready to go to war are administrative issues that deal directly with your mortality. They are mundane actions when we do them in peacetime but chilling when you put them in context of going to war.

In our society in which people do all they can to push back even thinking about death discussing the issues that deal with your possible dismemberment, disability or your death are taboo. The month before I deployed  Iraq Judy had me take out an additional life insurance policy that doubled what the military would provide in the event of my demise.  At that point Iraq was a cauldron, hundreds of casualties each month and I was going to the heart of the action in Al Anbar province.

Part of our processing to go to combat was a will and power of attorney update.  We had not updated our wills since well before coming to the Hampton Roads area so I took advantage of this time to get it done.  The will itself was pretty easy since we have no children and have not been married to anyone else.  That was the easy part.

The next part was dealing with various powers of attorney, a general power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. The medical power of attorney is something that I routinely deal with at the hospital. I have dealt with them before in other places.  At the same time they become somewhat disconcerting when you are getting to go into a combat zone where there is heavy fighting going on. For most that is disconcerting enough, but chaplains go into action unarmed.

Sometimes when I fill out one of these I pray that I don’t end up like Karen Anne Quinlan or Terri Shaivo.  When I did it this time all I could think about was me being so badly wounded that it would be like the movie The Naked Gun.  I someone telling Judy “Doctors say that Dundas has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.” While this is going on I could just see me unable to respond trying to say “give me one more at bat skip, just one more chance…please.”  This may not seem like the most spiritual thing for a Priest to be saying but I don’t want to be in the afterlife before my time. It would be bad form.

Legal matters finished we had to get our immunizations. When you deploy the military always ensures that you are vaccinated against about everything imaginable. These include typhoid, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, certain regional diseases and probably others that I have forgotten.

I had received many of these before at various times. This included my first Anthrax vaccine. On this second occasion something happened and ti had a reaction to it.  My bicep felt like someone had shoved a baseball in it and the sucker hurt like hell. By the next morning I knew that my reaction was not “normal” because the first one I had did not do this.

I thought back to the Anthrax scare right after September 11th 2001 and I didn’t want to take any chances regarding something that the media said could be dangerous. What if they had messed up and given me a bad batch of the vaccine. Hell, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get me. Besides if I was going to die for my country I didn’t want it to be from a reaction to a vaccine and not something heroic.

So I went back to the immunization section. Like a typical officer I simply “excused” my way past the queue of sailors waiting to get PPDs read and went to the desk. I figured that I wasn’t going to wait in line behind people with routine stuff when things looked like they were getting sporty for me.I call it “self-triage.”

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The Corpsman at the desk was polite and asked what he could do.  I told him that “I think I’m having a reaction to the Anthrax vaccine.”  He gave me a funny look and asked which one in the series this shot was. It was the second and since I figured that the next question would be “did you have a reaction the first time?” I continued “This didn’t happen the first time.”

The Corpsman looked at my arm and said “Obviously sir the first time you had no antibodies to Anthrax so it had nothing to react to….”  I was thinking “no shit Sherlock” when the young man went to get his Chief. The Chief came in, looked at my arm and said: “Gee sir it looks like you are having a reaction to the shot.”

I was thinking well no shit but didn’t say it. So the Chief took me back to his office and started having me checked to make sure that I didn’t have a fever or a number of other things, like if I was dizzy or was having trouble breathing. No I was neither dizzy nor experiencing breathing difficulties but was simply in pain, a bit scared and really pissed.

After his battery of questions and a couple of phone calls asked me “do you think that you are safe to drive?”

At that point I would have said anything to get the hell out of there and get on with what I needed to do to make sure that I wasn’t going to die.  So I said “of course I am.”

He asked if I was sure and I reaffirmed this to him in a convincing enough manner for him to send me over to Portsmouth by ambulance.

Portsmouth Naval Medical has a small office manned by a couple of nurses whose job it is to report bad vaccine reactions up to the FDA and God only knows who else. These ladies were very pleasant and when they got a look at my arm they were impressed.  Once again I heard “Yes sir you are having a reaction.”

I got to answer yet another battery of questions and they took a couple of pictures of the baseball sized knot on my left bicep.  One of them made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later I was told that I would be okay. The explanation was that the subcutaneous injection had caused the vaccine to be encapsulated in my arm rather than doing what it needed to be doing. I was told to inform whoever gave me my next shot in the series to make sure that they got in the muscle. I was told to take some Motrin for the pain and swelling and do a lot of push-ups, pull-ups and massage the bicep to help the swelling dissipate faster. My fears eased and I left the hospital and reported back to the processing site where all of my fellow sailors had already left for the day.

I spent another tense and sleepless night with Judy, the emotional distance still there.  We talked about various things but nothing serious. I don’t think that either of us was able to vocalize well what we were feeling.

Even Molly seemed differed, I’m sure that she sensed that something was going on as I had continued to pack and re-pack my gear from EOD. Molly does not like it when either of us pack as it usually means that one or both of us is leaving.

The next morning I repeated my “Groundhog Day” trek back to Norfolk Naval Station fighting the idiots driving to work on the I-264, I-64 and I-564 battle zone where matching wits with the witless I safely picked my way through traffic while drinking my black coffee.

This was our next to last day of processing and we checked and re-checked paperwork, received our signed wills, living wills and powers of attorney. That morning I met with Father Pat Finn a mobilized reservist and Episcopal Priest from South Carolina and we had a nice chat where we were joined by Fr Steve Powers a retired Navy Chaplain and Rector of St. Brides Episcopal Church in Chesapeake.

Following that I was asked to assist with a sailor who was having some personal difficulties getting ready for the deployment.  These tasks completed I went back to muster with the others and sat down next to Nelson. Following this we went out where the Storekeepers and other supply staff had our gear.

We gathered outside where we lined up and given a sea bag in which to put our issue.  There were boxes of stuff everywhere and a couple of civilians and sailors stood by to ensure that we got what we were going to get.  Uniforms with all of our name tapes rank insignia and qualification pins sewn on were there as well as more socks, t-shirts and other assorted gear.

Our stash was a bit lighter than the others as we already had much of what was being issued. When this was done and we were released. I told Nelson to go home as his family was coming into town from New York.  Taking the newly issued gear home I again went about packing and repacking and took Judy out to dinner after which we spent our time alone together pondering the future.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Reporting for Duty

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In July 2007 my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP1 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is one of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story.  While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis.  Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands.  This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.

July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk.  As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find.  It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute.  I transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served from 2003 to October 2006 and had not made the trip since. Thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.

As I looked for a parking space I really missed my designated parking spot back at Security Forces. I drove around for a while and finally found a spot, then after wandering around a found the NMPS offices.

I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members.  I reported there in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two. They are an older type uniform similar to the old BDUs and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear. I still have a few sets in my deployment bag but figure that if I every get deployed to such a situation again that I will be wearing whatever Army or Marine Corps uniform the Navy sailors are wearing unless serving with the Seabees, Naval Special Warfare or an actual Navy command.

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Camp Zarqa Jordan March 2007

I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language. Until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services. Now in 2013 I think there are 10 different camouflage uniforms in use among the armed forces and Congress is about to force us in the military to find a common uniform again. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a huge amount of paperwork.  I found a seat which is not hard to do with so many to empty seats choose from and sat down. I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.

Shortly thereafter other people began to arrive in twos and threes, most enlisted dressed in utilities (the successor to dungarees) while most of the Chiefs and officers were dressed in khakis. A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox.  RP1 Lebron, then an RP2 then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving.  We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.

What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us.  Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner.  Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and a Corpsman or two.

The sailors spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating. There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders, Surface Warfare, Aviators, Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps and Medical Officers.  The highest ranking officer was a Navy Captain. I was the only Chaplain.

The enlisted sailors also spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists.  They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others.  Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold. The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war and not with the Navy or our shipmates. We were strangers to each other and would be strangers to Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors that we would serve with overseas.

Nelson and I have deployed a lot. We had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the RP detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero. I think he has deployed about 10 times in his 20 year career from which he will retire this fall.

The year and a half prior to our deployment Nelson had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.  On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut.

I think to some extent his frequent deployments actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam. Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study. That would happen again during the coming deployment and lead to a pretty funny incident on one of our trips in Iraq, but that story will be told later.

Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact  kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won the 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.   He is the real deal.  Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions.  Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.

As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention and the processing site Commanding Officer came. He spoke with us a few minutes and then led us in the Sailors Creed. With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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PT and Bumping into Old Friends at Camp Swampy and Getting Carded at Applebee’s

The Main Gate at Camp Swampy

One nickname that Camp LeJeune North Carolina bears is “Camp Swampy.” This is because of the marsh like conditions of some of the base, the normally abundant rainfall and the propensity of said rainfall to accumulate wherever it falls. It is somewhat like the Tidewater, a polite name for “swamp” is in Virginia, only with more rain and in the spring and summer the humidity, mosquitoes and other vermin that love the conditions.  However, because it is a Marine Corps base one can find people doing PT at any time of the day or night in a variety of forms.  Of course the Marines at Camp LeJeune PT in any weather and Chaplains assigned here, even those with the Navy are kind of expected to do the same. Of course each Chaplain does so within his or her physical constraints. Despite being 50 years old I am still in pretty good shape and have the psychological need to try to keep up with people 20 to 30 years my junior so when I do my PT I am serious about it.  In fact when I was stationed with Navy EOD I did so well on the physical readiness test that an EOD tech asked my assistant Nelson Lebron “what kind of ‘roids is the Chaplain on?”  I found this funny since I don’t do this but I can tell you at the age of 50 and being subject to all sorts of minor bumps, dings and nagging injuries I can understand why some professional athletes would use substances such as HGH, but like the rest of the Navy-Marine Corps team I survive on “Vitamin M” or as it is commonly known to laypersons as 800 mg Motrin.

My normal or abnormal regimen is to do what I call “distance interval training.” Interval training usually entails combining some kind of cardio with exercises that work various muscle groups interspersed throughout. I first did interval type training in high school football practice, back then we called them “grass drills” where we ran in place and whenever the coach blew his whistle we would drop for pushups, sit-ups, flutter kicks or any other exercise that could put us on the ground.  I saw a variation with the Marines early in my Navy career that entailed sprinting and then dropping for whatever kind of punishment the leader determined.  Back then I preferred to run long distances up to 20 miles in training for half-marathons and marathons.

However a series of nagging overuse injuries took me down to 5-8 miles a run before I went to Iraq. In Iraq I picked up a few more injuries and it took me a while to recover so after I was assigned to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I built my runs back up to 3-5 miles but I didn’t find that this was working for me anymore. So I went back to something that I hadn’t done since high school, interval training but I didn’t want to give up running.  I devised a plan that works for me and what I need it to accomplish.  I am now adding the P90X fitness program to fit in on alternate days.

Now I run about 3 miles but every 100-200 yards I drop for a set of 15-25 pushups get up and then do one of 5 different sets of abdominal exercises, 15-30 regular crunches, 40 oblique’s, 15-20 crunches with legs up at a 90 degree angle, 60-100 bicycle crunches and 50-100 flutter kicks with sets of pushups between each of them.

With Paul Rumery in Sicily, he has the hair

It has taken me a while to get settled at Camp LeJeune and begin to plan safe routes to run this and I am just getting back into the groove. Today I went out at lunch amid threatening rain. About a third of the way into the workout the rain came down and I continued to run, the rain was actually quite refreshing and by the two third point of the run I was soaked, my orange Baltimore Orioles t-shirt and gray running shorts must have weighed 5-6 pounds.  As I got up from a set of crunches I wiped off my sunglasses, no I didn’t need them I just like to look cool and as I wiped them off on my previously mentioned soaked Orioles t-shirt I started to run and a car pulled alongside where I was running, the window rolled down and I heard a familiar voice, LCDR Paul Rumery, the Chaplain who had relieved me on USS Hue City in 2003 and who had taken me to dinner the last time I was in Sicily with EOD called out “Hey Steve wild man I knew that it had to be you!” I pulled up and went over to the car, we had a brief talk. Paul had a brand new Chaplain with him who he told that I was a “wild man.” Paul let me know that he didn’t know that I was aboard Camp LeJeune and said that we needed to get together.  It was good to see him and I hope that we do get together soon. I picked up the run again and took it back in to the hospital where my now squishy running shoes and waterlogged clothing dripped of my mud stained body. A Marine Staff Sergeant came up to me and said that I had leaves on the back of my head. I laughed, said “I’m not surprised” and commented “if it ain’t raining we ain’t training.” The Staff Sergeant asked about my workout and was suitably impressed. I then ran into a Corpsman who had been assigned with me at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines back in 2000-2001.  He and I talked for a while. It’s funny what a small world it is when you are stationed in a place like Camp LeJeune.

After work I stopped by the local Applebee’s for a beer and a burger and I was carded by the server. I thanked the server who told me that they and to card anyone that looked under 30 and when he saw my ID and age he was surprised. I must say that since there are so many Marines and Sailors here it is not uncommon to be carded and since I don’t dress my age I can see why I get carded. I must say that it appeals to my vanity.  I guess part of this must be due to good genes as well. Whatever it is I will take it.

Tomorrow I will drive up to Virginia as I have a specialty appointment and assessment to figure out what might be causing my auditory processing disorder.  I haven’t understood speech well since returning from Iraq and the additional Tinnitus is at times deafening.  Hopefully they will figure it out and find something that will make it better.

So anyway, until tomorrow….

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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A Global Force for Good

A Global Force for Good: A Sailor holds the hand of a Haitian Child

The Navy A Global Force For Good TV Spot

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DriBYQvG_4

“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’” President John F Kennedy 1 August 1963, at the Naval Academy

“It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” George Washington 15 November 1781 to the Marquis de Lafayette

“A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” President Theodore Roosevelt 2 December 1902, second annual message to Congress

“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.” Admiral Arleigh Burke CNO 1 August 1961 at the Naval Academy

USNS Comfort off of Haiti

The newest Navy recruiting and public relations campaign features a comment “America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good.”  When it first came out some expressed their dislike of the new slogan; however as a Navy and Army veteran as well as a long time “Navy Brat” I found the slogan and the accompanying commercial inspiring and I can be extremely jaded and cynical when it comes to such advertisements and slogans.  See my post Memorable Recruiting Slogans and the All Volunteer Force. http://https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/memorable-recruiting-slogans-and-the-all-volunteer-force/

Neurosurgeons from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth operating on a patient aboard the Comfort- Baltimore Sun Photo

Maybe it is because I serve with a lot of great people who make up the Navy that I think this way. I have served with the brave souls of our EOD force, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, the crew of an elite Guided Missile Cruiser, the USS Hue City CG-66 and the professionals of Navy Medicine.  All these professionals be they war-fighters or care givers give so much of themselves to serve this country and protect others while at the same time laying their lives on the line to defend the people of the United States and others around the world.  For me this understanding of the Navy being a global force for good is relational and it goes beyond the crass cynicism of so many in the world who find little good about our nation.  I know that we have our faults but I really do believe that the good that we have done over the years and now outweighs our sins of commission and omission.  I was really offended when I saw some of the comments from some people in other countries condemning our efforts in Haiti.  I know of no other country that will empty itself to care for the people of a devastated and impoverished nation without expecting any form of repayment even while it is still in difficult economic straits.

Comfort receiving casualties- Baltimore Sun Photo

In the forefront of the humanitarian effort are my friends and shipmates in Navy Medicine on the USNS Comfort and ashore who are caring for the injured, sick and dying Haitian people.  These men and women were pulled out of our medical treatment facility and others with as little as 24 hours notice to deploy on a mission of incredible difficulty and undetermined length.  The emotional toll can be difficult as many of these professionals, physicians, nurses, corpsmen and others have deployed at least once if not two or three times to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Navy Pediatric Intensivist performs a procedure on a Afghan child

While the staff of the Comfort and those ashore toils to save lives others serve in Afghanistan running medical facilities often in conjunction with our allies.   These professionals are deployed from 7 months to a year and include some of the finest clinicians in the Navy.  Serving in Afghanistan the care for American wounded and sick, those of our NATO and Afghanistan National Army allies as well as the unfortunate civilians including children who are victims of terrorists acts, IEDs or military action mostly initiated by Taliban or Al Qaida forces.  Serving in harm’s way they see their compounds bombarded by incoming rockets, mortars and occasional artillery fire.  They also know that the vehicles that they travel in and helicopters that they fly in are targeted by Taliban forces and they care for those who are injured by IEDs on the same routes that they travel.  Having experienced this in Iraq I can say that it is a sobering and often eerie feeling that you get after you have been with Marines or Soldiers wounded by IEDs and ambushes on routes that you travel.  These men and women see the worst that humanity can do and still care about the victims.

USS Carl Vinson arrived quickly and began relief operations

Others serve in Iraq now supporting our Army troops with medical care working alongside Army and Air Force medical personnel, others are in the Horn of Africa and still others involved with other humanitarian missions or operational support of US Forces abroad.

One has to remember that these medical professionals do not just come out of a vacuum but are normally assigned to medical treatment facilities in the United States. As they depart to serve abroad those left behind continue the mission of caring for our military, their families, and military retirees going back to the Greatest Generation and other combat wounded veterans still entitled to medical care.   The workload back at home does not let up and the professionals back here work harder and longer to provide the quality care that our beneficiaries deserve. Dealing with patients and families I always hear about how much they appreciate the kindness and superior care that they get from our physicians, nurses, corpsmen and other medical professionals.

Boarding Team from USS Hue City

If you do not believe that these men and women are a “global force for good” then I am sorry that you cannot see the labor of love that these men and women provide to those entrusted to their care.  I am ashamed when I hear prominent media personalities call these “meals on wheels” missions. Personally I think it is hateful and demeaning towards the proud professionals who serve in these human tragedies and care for God’s people.  Likewise those that claim that this is being done to further US influence in Haiti are so clueless, in Haiti there is no payback even from a military or strategic point of view and even with our forces stretched thin around the world we still go out and do what no other country can do when we use our military to care for those afflicted by disaster.

In Haiti we are working hand in hand and side by with numerous Non-Governmental Organizations and other military medical professionals from the United States, Canada and other nations who are giving of themselves to serve the Haitian people.

USS Hue City 565 Feet of Naval Power on Patrol

I think that for once a recruiting phrase actually captures the essence of the Navy.  This is not about just being a better individual or improving your life or getting an education and experience.  It is about serving our nation and people as well as others around the world whether that mission is combating terrorists, pirates, protecting our vital interests or like in Haiti, or during the Indonesian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or at the World Trade Center and hundreds of other places, this Navy is a global force for good.

Tonight as you go to bed and sleep soundly after eating well and spending time with family, friends or enjoying some form of entertainment remember those of our Navy who serve at sea, in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, the cities of Iraq, the desolation of the Horn of Africa and around the world defending our interests, caring for our military personnel and their families and deploying to serve in harm’s way and in areas of devastation.  They are America’s “Global Force for Good.”  They are my shipmates.  They are the United States Navy.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: A Bus Ride to the Carolina Countryside

This is part four in my “Going to War” series. Previous parts are noted here:

Part One:Going to War: Reflections on My Journey to Iraq and Back- Part One

Past Two: Going to War: Interlude July 4th 2007

Part Three: Going to War: Wills, Living Wills, Immunizations Gone Bad and Christmas in July

Part Four: Going to War: Last Night together and a Kiss Goodbye

Nelson and I staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment.  As we talked other sailors arrived and gear was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.  Nelson’s parents, brother and sister were on hand to see him off.  His brother is a First Class Petty Officer and his dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone.  They were really nice folks.  Over the years I had heard much about them.  They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.

Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter.  He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally.  During his Afghanistan deployment before he and I hooked up again he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team.  His last major title was just this year when he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.  The guy has more titles than you can imagine, his title belt collect could fill a room.  However, he was raised by a boxer, his dad.  His dad taught him and coached him growing up and helped Nelson win multiple New York State Golden Gloves titles.  His dad is a congenial man and who was very friendly, speaking English with a heavy Puerto Rican accent.  Nelson’s mom speaks some English.  Nelson tells a great story of the only time he was knocked out in a fight.  This happened at the Fort Apache Gym in the Bronx after Nelson had gone picking on his little sister when Nellie was about seventeen.  Nelson’s dad found out, told him to put on his gloves and get in the ring.  Nelson proceeded to talk trash to his dad as he got ready to fight and the first round got quite a few hits in on his dad.  In between rounds according to Nelson’s account he told his dad to quit, that he was too old to be in the same ring with him.  Nelson said that his dad simply commented “I was just letting you taste the water.”  The second round began and Nelson was hit by a combination from his dad, which he says “rung his bell” and made him “see stars.”  He remembers trying to get up and not being able to while his dad was talking trash to him.  I cannot do the story justice but meeting Nelson’s family was a joy.

So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family.  Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other.  For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy.  No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs.  When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal.  Media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together.  The families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together and leaving some kind of familiar support system for the families.  This is not so when you deploy individually.  We may have been going off to train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.  Normally as a chaplain you are a known quantity to the people that you go to war with.  I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors who were going through this process with us.  I know that was the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, often without any other Navy personnel, mostly working with the Army in support roles, and specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs.  As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network.

I looked at our gear as opposed to the others.  Our gear was in different deployment bags, ours were large and rectangular and more of a coyote or sand color while most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.”  We had all of our personal protective equipment or the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive some variation of Army issue at Fort Jackson.  There are pros and cons to such a arrangement.  The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater.  The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war.  This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.

Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders.  After we were accounted for we were told to load our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. I think there were four or five of these chartered tour buses  which as it turned out would be the first of many tour buses, roll calls and gear loads in the coming months, especially as we entered and exited theater.  Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front.  I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat.  It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.  Some of the young folks have never darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or really over the top religious people.  I have found in my career that until they get to know a Chaplain a lot of them will be very careful in how they approach a chaplain, even those with a vibrant faith.  Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them or disapprove of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I need to be cognizant of this fact and be friendly and caring without scaring them away.  Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus I was still an unknown quantity to them.  Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep.  For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable.  Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable.  Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe.  Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.

When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining to say the least.   Part of course is a generational thing.  I am from the 60’s 70’s and 80’s.  These guys and gals are from the 90’s and 2000’s.  Music is different, culture is different, and the internet, cell phones, i-phones and Blackberries have revolutionized communications and life.  The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching.  Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.  As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war taking inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta.   Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and many others wounded and maimed I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.

The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolinas like in the movie Bull Durham, the coaches and older players mixed in with a lot of young guys.  The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other,  We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places.  About half the folks went to the McDonalds where we pulled in while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell.  Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate.  When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway.  We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base.  I wondered where the hell we were.  Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year.  Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.

Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready.  It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.

Our welcome that first night was simple.  We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants.  In the chow hall or DFAC we were met by a civilian running the line.  I can’t remember his name but this guy was really nice and put the RED in “Redneck.”  He made jokes with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did.  When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter.  As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other.  He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.”  I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.”  The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.

Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready.  More sailors to fill out the class were due later coming in from San Diego.  I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and when lights out was called lay down on the same type of bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington.  I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage.  Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly.

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