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The Black Hole of Sleep and Nightmares: PTSD, Iraq, and my Continuing Struggle

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier these words:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” 

I am exhausted tonight and I will be going to bed early for me. Hopefully I will get some restful sleep. I will be posting this article to post shortly after midnight by which time I hope not only to be in bed but asleep.

Last night was a night of violent nightmares taking me back to my worst fears when I was serving in the badlands of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008 supporting U.S. Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol, and Provincial Reconstruction teams.

I do not often write about it because I have been doing better, but I suffer from severe and chronic PTSD related to my experiences at war. The images are seared into my brain and sometimes the memories, and my deepest fears from my time there as an unarmed Chaplain working for the most part with very small groups of Americans and our Iraqis far away from the help of the big battalions if we got into serious trouble. I have written about those experiences and my struggles after my return many times on this blog. Likewise, I have had my story told on the front pages of the Jacksonville Daily News and the Washington Times. A video of my story is on the Department of Defense Real Warriors Campaign website, and is a large part of a chapter of Pulitzer Prize winning War Correspondent David Wood’s book  What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of America’s Longest Wars.  

Since Iraq, my nightmares are very vivid and often involve much physical acting out. The physical acting out is unusual and I have actually injured myself badly enough to require trips to the emergency room after crashing hard throwing myself out of bed combatting imaginary enemies. Likewise, other have been violent and physical enough to wake Judy up.

Last night was one of those nights but very different. In the nightmare I was being attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. Our advisor team had been attacked as we were stopped in the dark to determine if an Improvised Explosive Device had been laid in the road in front of us. This was just a few miles from the Iraq-Syrian border between Al Qaim and COP South, the base of the advisor team which was working with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi 7th Division.

The part about being stopped in the desert in the dark while examining a potential IED actually happened. The attack did not happen but at the time I fully expected something like it to happen. We were sitting ducks on a two lane highway in the middle of the desert. But the attack never happened and we continued to COP South, which would become a part of many of my future missions.

But in my nightmare it happened and as the fighting devolved into close quarters hand to hand combat I found myself grappling an insurgent who was attacking me with a large knife. I managed to roll on top of him and knock the knife from his hand when I was awakened. I was on top of Judy and she was afraid that I was going to strangle her. My hands had not gotten to her throat but she woke me and told me what had happen. I dropped back to my side of the bed in a cold sweat. I could not believe what had happened and that terrifies me. I have set up an appointment prior to my regularly scheduled one with my shrink to talk about this.

Since I my day had been quite good and I have been much more relaxed at work since putting in my retirement papers the event came as a huge surprise. In trying to figure out what triggered it I was at loss until I remembered that I had had dinner last night with a retired Navy EOD Captain who had been my Chief Staff Officer at EOD Group Two and running partner before I went to Iraq. He was sent there not long after me and we met at Camp Victory in Baghdad not long before I left Iraq on the way to Kuwait and home in 2008. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night and we did talk about all manner of things including our time in Iraq and those men that we had served alongside.

But to try to explain nightmares is not really helpful. I think that Stephen King said it best:

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” 

Yes I can try to logically deduce my nightmares and night terrors, but the poetry of fear as Stephen King so rightly calls it cannot be fully explained. For those of us who deal with the memories of combat, of having been shot at and have seen the human cost of war, the dead, the wounded, the destruction, and the aftermath of war, they are all too real and they never completely leave us.

Christmas on the Syrian border

Over ten years after I returned from Iraq I still find that much of me is still there. In fact, deep down I miss Iraq and the Iraqis that I was honored to know and to serve alongside and I still pray for them and for their future. Maybe someday I will get back.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Memorial Day: “To Take Increased Devotion…”

Major General John Logan

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I detest the overly recreational and commercialized hype of how we Americans “celebrate” Memorial Day. It is a time for contemplation and remembering those who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country.

Abraham Lincoln summed it up well in his conclusion of the Gettysburg Address:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

As we contemplate the importance of Memorial Day and remember the men and women who gave their lives for this country it is important to remember why we do this. Memorial Day grew out of local observances following the Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of over 620,000 American Soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy. New demographic studies by historians estimate the losses at closer to 750,000. Hundreds of thousands of other people had they lives shattered by the war, killed, wounded, maimed, crippled, and shattered in mind and spirit, the country in many places devastated by war’s destruction. If we use the 620,000 number as our yardstick, it would have meant that 2.5% of the population of the country died in the war. People needed to make sense of the terrible losses that often wiped out the younger male populations of the small towns and communities from which most of these men, and a few women hailed.

To put this in perspective, if the same number of Americans were to die today in a way the total would be over seven million people, seven million my friends. The war reached into every home in some way, and sadly or perhaps thankfully we have no concept of such losses today.

In 1868, Major General John Logan who had been an excellent corps commander during the war was serving as the Commander of the nation’s first true Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic which gave those veterans a place of refuge in a country that was leaving them behind and forgetting their sacrifice in the name of westward expansion and a growing economy. Let’s face it, money has almost always been more important to Americans than the troops who sacrificed their lives for the nation, but I digress…

Anyway General Logan issued this order on May 5th 1868:

HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC, General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

  1. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If our eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

  1. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

JOHN A. LOGAN, Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN, Adjutant General

Official: WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

General Logan’s order is remarkable in its frankness and the understanding of the war in the immediate context of its conclusion. In 1868 the day would be observed at 183 cemeteries in 27 States and the following year over 300 cemeteries. Michigan was the first state to make the day a holiday and by 1890 all states in the North had made it so. In the South there were similar observances but the meaning attributed to the events and the sacrifices of the Soldiers of both sides was interpreted quite differently. In the North the Veterans overwhelmingly saw themselves as the saviors of the Union and the liberators of the Slaves. In South it was about the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers in what became known as the “Lost Cause.” But in both regions and all states, the surviving Soldiers, family members and communities honored their dead.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Frederick Douglass both spoke about the meaning of the sacrifice made by so many.

Holmes, a veteran of the war who had been wounded at Antietam ended his Decoration Day 1884 speech:

“But grief is not the end of all…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death, — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and glory of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

Frederick Douglass

Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist who lobbied Lincoln for emancipation and to give Blacks the chance to serve their country had two of his sons serve in the war spoke these wars:

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

It is important for the country not to forget those who served and the cost of those who have given the last full measure of devotion to duty and those who still carry the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds and spirits. I am one of the latter and I have known too many of the former.  Maybe that is why am so distrustful of those who advocate for war but have no skin in the game.

An Alsatian-German Soldier named Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

I agree with him and pray that those who direct the course of this nation will take the words of General Logan, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Frederick Douglass and Guy Sajer to heart before they embark on war, and when they remember those that have served.

May we never forget the sacrifices made by these men and women and those who continue to fight and sometimes die today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Stephen King wrote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

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I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

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But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

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Ramadi, January 2008

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Finding Tipperary 10 Years After Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ten years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t and over the next decade the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD” and while I am doing much better now than even two years ago I still suffer from it. But being a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of those men have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from it. Today I was reading a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary which he wrote in the time shortly after the war. I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw a Charlie Brown special where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano.

In Santayana’s soliloquy he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the American President make wild threats of war and the cavalier attitude of his sycophants toward it I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war and I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past decade when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. I have been reprieved, at least temporarily,  but as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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There Lies a Gulf Between that Time and Today: Remembering 9-11-2001

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “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.” I often feel that way.

Fifteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

LutjensHonors

Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

hue city boarding party

 

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

with-mtt-3-7-ronin

 

When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 35 years of service. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire in about four years.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared this a of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq.

I will quietly reflect as I conduct my chapel services today, and as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. I will also try to get a good run in and then spend some time with Judy, and then have a few beers with some friends at Gordon Biersch.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, PTSD, remembering friends, terrorism, War on Terrorism

Reflections on Christmas & War

bedouin

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Yesterday I posted an essay about a German physician and pastor who drew the picture The Madonna of Stalingrad, and the day before one about the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the movie Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas). As I have mention before, I get very reflective around Christmas, in large part due to my experiences in Iraq. While I am certainly happy this year, I am, as I still tend to be a bit melancholy. My time in Iraq changed me, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “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.” I often feel that way.

As I said, when I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

Likewise my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

My first Christmas at home was so difficult that at a Christmas Eve mass I handed my wife the car keys and walked home in the dark and cold. Had there been a bar on the way home I would have walked in and poured myself into a bottle.

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before, especially at Christmas.

But I live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As difficult as things have been and as much as I wonder what will happen next, at Christmas I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war.

But amid such unholy thoughts one can hope and pray for peace at Christmas, I guess that is a reason I love the song Happy Christmas, I have put Melissa Etheridge’s version here.

As my Iraqi friends are prone to say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Yes, God willing,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, PTSD, Tour in Iraq