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Padre Steve’s Reasons for Thanksgiving in 2013

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“Be thankful for what you have. Your life, no matter how bad you think it is, is someone else’s fairy tale.” Wale Ayeni 

Judy and I celebrated a wonderful Thanksgiving today with some dear friends. We had it easy, our job was to bring the growlers of Gordon Biersch Beer, which is a lot easier than having to cook. Our friends prepared a wonderful meal and as we talked, ate drank and watched football we were reminded that Thanksgiving really is about being thankful for all things in life.

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We have a lot to be thankful for and no matter how hard we have had it at times over the years we have it pretty good. Today was a nice day. Had we not gone over to our friends we probably would have invited people without family in the local area over. We have done that before. The past few years with me being either deployed or stationed away from Judy when we had thanksgiving together we would either cook a small traditional meal at home or go out. When we got home we watched a movie and hung out with our dogs Molly and Minnie.

At least though what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving has changed over the years. Mark Twain described the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Twain as opposed to those who mythologize the Pilgrims and those who followed them was actually a pretty fair summation:

“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.” 

I think my most memorable Thanksgiving in the past decade is Thanksgiving in Iraq back in 2007. At that time we had just come in from a mission in the far reaches of Anbar Province, a mission which had to be curtailed because visiting congressmen had sucked up most of the air assets. It was interesting to be in cold tents and air terminals sleeping on cots with several hundred others in the same boat. So after three days of being marooned at an intermediary stop we got a flight back to our home base.

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When we got back I was one of the servers, working alongside the vastly underpaid and overworked contract workers from India and Sri Lanka employed by an company affiliated with KBR-Halliburton in the DFAC or Dinning Facility. Those guys worked for 2 years 6 days a week, 12 hour days for about $8000 of which half was paid to the agent that hired them. I developed a healthy appreciation for these wonderful people who always kept a good attitude even when some Americans treated them rudely over things that they often had no control. Many were Catholic or Anglican Christians who were incredibly gracious despite their situation. My friend Fr Jose Bautista made sure that he celebrated Mass at their compound which was away from the main areas of the base.

Despite being exhausted from the trip worked the line for a couple of hours cracking jokes with our Marines, Sailors, Soldiers Airmen and civilians as well as the DFAC employees. It is a Thanksgiving that I will always remember, especially because of the people and being away from home and knowing that I would be going out again soon to the far reaches of the province.

Thus I always remember my brothers and sisters deployed in harm’s way and those deployed or stationed away from their families and friends at home.

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Today was wonderful and tomorrow will be spent around the house helping Judy do some cleaning and getting ready to put up our Christmas decorations over the weekend. Since I am not a fan of the craziness of Black Friday this will be a fairly relaxing day.

I do wish you and yours a blessed weekend and pray that your Thanksgiving went well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fiscal Cliff Notes: There are Always Results

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I am not a fan of heights. I find cliffs, bridges and tall buildings frightening. As a result unless there is like a high wall that I cannot be thrown over I stay far away for the edge. I think the correct term for this is ohnosplataphobia. This is the fear of what you say when you realize that you are going over the cliff and the last words that you say before you hear the sickening sound your body makes when it reaches the bottom. “Oh no”…splat.  There are several derivatives of this, there is “Our Father which art in…” splataphobia, the “Oh shit”…splataphobia, the “Did I remember to lock the car door…” splataphobia and my favorite the “Fuck it all you assholes….” splataphobia.

When we visited New York a few years back we went to the top of the Empire State Building and 30 Rock. Both gave us very good views of the New York skyline and no I did not come even close to looking down.

Sometimes I watch movies where there are scenes where a character dives off a cliff or some other really tall place. We were watching the 3D version of Men In Black 3 the other night and the scene where Will Smith has to dive from the top of the Chrysler Building was enough for me to hold onto the couch for dear life.

But now our nation is at what everyone is calling the “Fiscal Cliff” which if you ask me would be a terrifying horror movie if it wasn’t real. In fact in term for the phobia of people like me to the Fiscal Cliff is the “Fuck it all assholes…” splat. Of course the assholes are all the idiots in Congress who a year and a half ago passed a law on the extension of the nation’s debt ceiling in 2011 to keep the nation from defaulting on its debts. It was called the Budget Control Act of 2011 and basically it was caused when the Republicans  decided, believing that anyone that they ran against Obama in 2012 would win, forced a showdown on the usually innocuous measure of extending the debt limit. So to get the deal done all parties joined together to pass this bill, which is such bad legislation that it will screw everyone in the country if our elected leaders don’t do something about it.

Back when it was passed people pretty much figured that with a year and a half before the big mandatory across the board cuts, quaintly called “sequestration” which I think is similar to what happens when you castrate the cast of Sea Quest, except that it happens to all of us.

Since we are not a dictatorship and Mussolini is still dead and magically make things happen we have to depend on both houses of Congress and the President to figure this out. Now in the past we did these things. Politicians frequently compromised to get things done for the benefit of the country even if they did not get everything that they, or their supporters wanted and for the most part we were all better for it.

What I think needs to be done now is drastic. I am really pissed off that the House of Representatives, led by the Orangeman himself John “I need a smoke” Boehner didn’t even show up to work today. I mean that is really responsible. I think that all the members of Congress, House Members and Senators of all parties need to be forced at bayonet point into chambers and not allowed off of the House or Senate floor until they get a deal done. No office visits, no runs to the coffee shop, no ordering pizza for everyone, no conjugal visits and no smoke breaks.

Now I am not completely inhuman. They would get to go to the shitter, except that instead of going to one of the nice ones that our tax dollars pay for we would bring shitters to them. Yes it would break up the decorum of the place but we could put an inadequate number port-a-johns around the wall of the chambers and not empty them until the deal was done. This would be kind of like what happens when KBR-Halliburton contractors run Forward Operating Bases.

We should give them MREs to eat and all the Pabst Blue Ribbon and Busch beer needed to get the deal done even if that means that the port-a-johns overflow. The C-SPAN cameras should be going live the whole time Then maybe these assholes would do something, and if they don’t they should be allowed to leave, at the point of a bayonet. This may seem rather harsh and undemocratic but these men and women, of both parties are failing the country and seem more attuned to those that through their massive campaign contributions help keep them in office.

Will this happen? Probably not, but back when the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed I knew that it would come down to this. I remembered and wrote about this on August 2nd of 2011 (The Deal is Done and are We? There are Always Results )and I quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words about the Missouri Compromise:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” 

God help us all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Follow the Money: The Real Motives behind those Seeking to Radically Change the Military Retirement System

The Military Times put it on the Front Page last Week: Wednesday Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced at the National Defense University that no changes were coming soon. Despite that Military personnel should be on guard as the Defense Business Board continues to push for retirement changes that are bad for the service member, bad for keeping the best people in the military but that are great for Wall Street and Defense Contractors

There is much talk amid the current debate on the National Debt and the budget crisis of changing the military retirement system.  Of course the argument now being used by the most fervent advocates of change is that military retirement is a “rich entitlement program” which is draining the Defense Budget and keeping us from buying weapons, to quote Defense Business Board member Richard Spencer “What are you going to trade off — a rich entitlements program, or boots and bullets for the troops?”

Now on the surface that seems logical but in truth it is simply a way for American business and financial corporations to gain control of military retirement for their own gain.  The way they propose is to eliminate the current program and institute a 401K based system as used in many businesses.  However they fail to mention that military service in time of war, which if anyone hasn’t noticed we have been at for 10 years is quite different than working in the civilian world, the little things like long deployments, family separation and need I say getting shot at by bad guys and watching your friends and comrades be killed our maimed do tend to make military service more arduous than 99% of those that work in the civilian world.

The ideas put out by the Defense Business Board gut the military retirement system.  These plans are not in any sense of the word an “overhaul” of the system but a complete scrapping of a system that has worked.  The members of the board seem to believe that the problem with the military budget is that military personnel make too much money and that their retirement if they get to 20 years is breaking the budget.  The members of the board blame cutbacks in weapons systems on the personnel budget ignoring that most of the weapons systems cancelled or cut back were due to the massive cost overruns charged by defense contractors and the failure of those contractors to deliver the systems that they promised on time on budget or for that matter operational.

That list includes the grounded F-22 Raptor of the Air Force, the mechanically challenged LPD-17 San Antonio class amphibious ships, the under armed, undermanned and corrosion prone Littoral Combat ships which are actually two distinctly different classes of ship increasing the cost of the project.  Then there is the FA-35 Joint Strike Fighter which is way over budget and far behind schedule and despite all efforts none are in operational units yet and those in test units were grounded last week.  The Marine Corps lost the much touted but never produced Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the planned replacement for its Assault Amphibian Vehicle when the troubled and expensive program was cancelled by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  The Army had to cancel their Future Combat Systems Manned Vehicle project in 2009.  The list can go on and on and on all the while the contractors that were involved made a mint off of the military.  Much was due to the fact that all of these systems were over budget, behind schedule and often under performing what they were designed to do.

Something else that the Defense Business Board ignores is the massive cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the money being paid to civilian defense contractors such as Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root, the former Blackwater and hundreds of other players in the dash for Defense Department cash. They also fail to mention that the financial industry which a number of heavy hitters on the board represent ran our and the world economy onto the rocks back in 2008.

The Defense Business Board was established by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2001.  All of the members are appointed by the Secretary of Defense and all of the current board members were appointed by Rumsfeld or Robert Gates.

So who are the members of this board and who do they work for?

John B. Goodman, Chairman: Serves as managing director of the U.S. Defense portfolio for Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

Mark H. Ronald, Vice Chairman: As senior advisor to Veritas Capital Management is a private equity fund that invests in a broad range of middle market companies through buyouts, growth capital investments, and leveraged recapitalizations. Veritas Capital invests in companies that provide outsourced services to the government – primarily in the areas of defense and aerospace, security, and infrastructure. It has also earned a reputation as a niche defense investor and for turning around troubled defense contractors.

Fernando Amandi: The former Chief Operating Officer for Citibank Consumer Bank International inLatin America, President of Motorola International Network Ventures based in London, England and Senior Vice President and General Manager of the American Express Consumer Financial Services Division in Latin America.  At present, he is the President of Fanta Real Estate Investments, LLC.  He served for 6 years as an enlisted member of the Florida Army National Guard.

Owsley Brown II: Retired chairman and CEO of Brown-Forman Corporation. He served from 1966 to 1968 as an Army intelligence officer at the Pentagon.

Pierre A. Chao: Managing Partner and co-founder of Renaissance Strategic Advisors. The company website gives this description “Renaissance Strategic Advisors is focused on the global defense, space, government services, homeland security and commercial aerospace market. Our clients are typically senior decision makers at the Board of Directors, CEO, CFO, sector president or investment partner level. We work with firms up and down the value chain, from component manufacturers to prime contractors to private equity/venture capital firms. Our clients span the full life cycle from early stage startup firms to industry leaders.”

Patrick W. Gross: Chairman of  the Lovell Group, a private investment and advisory firm, where he works with a portfolio of venture capital backed private technology and internet commerce companies. He is currently a director of four public companies: Capital One Financial Corporation, Career Education Corporation, Liquidity Services, Inc., and Mobius Management Systems, Inc. In the 1960’s he worked in the Pentagon as one of “McNamara’s Whiz Kids.”

Lon Levin: President of Sky Seven Ventures, which works with, helps manage, and invests in new technology companies, particularly space-based businesses, including Sentinel Satellite (CEO), Transformational Space (Chief Strategic Officer), Slacker Radio (Senior Advisor to CEO and Board), Integral Systems, Terrestar Networks, and Near Earth LLC.

Bonnie Cohen: A consultant specializing in management and financial issues.  Ms. Cohen serves on the Board of Cohen & Steers Mutual Funds, a $20 billion dollar family of mutual funds. Ms. Cohen is a member of the Cosmos Club and on the Endowment Investment Committee.

Mel M. Immergut: Chairman of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP “a global law firm, with approximately 550 lawyers who provide a full range of financial and business legal services to many of the world’s leading financial, industrial and commercial enterprises, as well as governments, institutions and individuals.”

Edward A. Powell Jr.: President and CEO of the USO World Headquarters.

David H. Langstaff: President & Chief Executive Officer TASC, Inc. A technology and intelligence services a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman and Litton industries, both major Defense contractors.

Phil Odeen: Non-executive Chairman of AES, an international energy company and Convergys, a leading outsourcing company.  Convergys is one of the leading firms that help companies in the United States and  Western Europe outsource jobs overseas.

Arnold Punaro: Chief executive officer of the Punaro Group, LLC, a Washington-based firm offering government relations, strategic planning, federal budget and market analysis, communications, crisis and emergency management, business development and sensitive operations consulting.  Punaro retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Major General and unlike the rest of the board served in combat as a Rifle Company Platoon Commander where he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart Medal.  He was mobilized for the Gulf War, the Bosnia operations and again at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Since his retirement he has been a consistent critic of the military retirement system.

Richard Spencer: Managing Director of Fall Creek Management LLC a privately held management consulting company. He was the former Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer of Intercontinental Exchange, Inc. (NYSE-ICE) which according to its website “operates leading regulated exchanges, trading platforms and clearing houses serving global markets for agricultural, credit, currency, emissions, energy and equity index markets. ICE operates three futures exchanges including London-based ICE Futures Europe, which hosts trading in half of the world’s crude and refined oil futures contracts traded each day. ICE Futures U.S. and ICE Futures Canada list agricultural, currency and Russell Index futures and options markets. ICE also provides trade execution, processing and clearing services for the over-the-counter (OTC) energy and credit derivatives markets.”  Spencer served as a Marine Corps Aviator from 1976-1981.

Bobby Stein: President of the Regency Group, a family holding company located in Jacksonville,Florida. The Regency Group has invested in many businesses including the water, sewer and waste, real estate, mortgage service, and fast food industries.

Robert I. Toll: is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Toll Brothers, Inc., the leading builder of luxury homes

Atul Vashistha: Founder & Chairman, neoIT Founder & Chairman, NEOGROUP. According to the Defense Business Board website he is “a leading proponent and practitioner of globalization and futurizing enterprises. He is recognized globally as one of the leading advisors on globalization and outsourcing. He founded Neo Group (Formerly neoIT) in 1999 with the mission of helping enterprises grow their business and improve operations by leveraging outsourcing and globalization. Neo also advises government and trade bodies on how to be better destinations for outsourcing. Neo also help enterprises manage and monitor supply relationships, risks and governance.”

Kevin Walker: Chief Operating Officer of Iberdrola USA a public utility company and subsidiary company of the Spanish Electric Company Iberdrola. Walker is a 1985 graduate of theUnited States Military Academy and served as a Field Artillery Officer from 1985-1991 including a tour during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Joe Wright: Senior Advisor to the Chart Group, L.P. which is a merchant banking firm investing in both venture and growth capital companies that also provides senior level advice and capital access to corporate clients. According to the company website it “is a merchant banking firm organized in 1994 to sponsor alternative investments and provide discreet, senior level advice and capital access to corporate clients.”

Jack Zoeller: Chairman and CEO of Bank of Virginia, a subsidiary of  which he co-founded in 2009 to bring new capital and management to troubled community banks in the Eastern U.S. He has also served as CEO of Cordia Bancorp, Capital Risk Management Corporation, ComFed Bancorp Incorporated, North American Company Health and Life Insurance Company, and AtlantiCare Risk Management Corporation.  Zoeller is a Military Academy graduate and former Infantry Officer who served with the 82nd Airborne Division.

John Hamre Chairman of the Defense Advisory Board and Chairman of the Defense Science Board serve in an ex-officio status.

Senior Fellows:

Neil F. Albert: President and CEO of MCR, LLC, a company specializing in management consulting, business analysis and forecasting, and information systems.

Barbara Barrett: Former Ambassador to Finland until 2009.  She is an international business and aviation attorney. CEO of Triple Creek Guest Ranch, a Montana Hideaway resort.

Denis Bovin: Co-Chairman and Co-CEO of Stone Key Partners LLC, a strategic and financial advisory investment bank which “offers mergers and acquisitions advisory services.” Prior to forming Stone Key Partners, Mr. Bovin was Vice Chairman –Investment Banking, Senior Managing Director and Chairman of the Global Technology, Media and Telecom Group at Bear Stearns & Co. He was a member of the team that directed Bear Stearns’ Investment Banking activities and had direct responsibility for a wide variety of the Firm’s key domestic and international investment banking clients.

Frederic W. Cook: Founding Director of Frederic W. Cook & Co., an independent consulting firm providing advice to corporate boards and compensation committees on executive compensation matters.  The company website says that they provide “consulting assistance to corporations in order to develop compensation programs for senior executives, key employees, and board of directors.” Prior to forming the firm in 1973, Fred was a principal in Towers, Perrin, Forster & Crosby, a firm which he joined in 1966 following four years of service as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Madelyn Jennings: A Founder of the Cabot Advisory Group, President of the McGregor Links Foundation, and Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the Freedom Forum. She is the retired Senior Vice President of Personnel at the Gannett Co., the largest newspaper company in the U.S., publisher of USA TODAY. Previously she was Vice President of Human Resources at Standard Brands Inc.

Jim Kimsey: Created America Online, Inc. He currently serves as Chairman Emeritus. He attended theUnited StatesMilitaryAcademy atWest Point.  He served three combat tours as an airborne ranger, two in Vietnam, earning various awards for service and valor.


William R. Phillips: Principal in Charge of KPMG’s Federal Advisory unit, located inMcLean,Virginia. In this role he is responsible for the development and execution of the unit’s business strategy, client services and business operations. His team supports clients across the Federal Government, representing most all agencies, including the Departments of Treasury, Energy, Defense, and Homeland Security, in addition to the intelligence community. Services include financial management improvement, strategy, IT security and internal controls, and supply chain management. Prior to joining KPMG, Mr. Phillips was a Vice President at IBM responsible for their services to the global defense community.  While Mr. Phillips was not involved his company KPMG has been the focus of several major criminal and civil investigations. In early 2005, theUnited States member firm, KPMG LLP, was accused by the United States Department of Justice of fraud in marketing abusive tax shelters. KPMG LLP admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients avoid $2.5 billion in taxes and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties in exchange for a deferred prosecution agreement. KPMG LLP would not face criminal prosecution if it complied with the terms of its agreement with the government. On January 3, 2007, the criminal conspiracy charges against KPMG were dropped.

Dov S. Zakheim: Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at the CNA Corporation a non-profit research organization that operates the Center for Naval Analyses and the Institute for Public Research. Previously he was Senior Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton, where he was a leader in the Firm’s global defense practice. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he served as a senior foreign policy advisor to then-Governor Bush. From 2001 to April 2004 he was Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Defense.  He chairs the National Intelligence Council’s International Business Practices Advisory Panel, and is a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Defense Business Board, which he helped establish.

Consultants:

John M. B. O’Connor: Chairman of J.H. Whitney Investment Management, LLC, which according to its website “pursues high absolute risk adjusted returns in a limited number of highly specialized investment strategies in the public markets. Our specific areas of excellence are Asian markets, Global Commodity and Macro markets, the US Equity Volatility complex and US Small Capitalization deep value equities.”

Leigh Warner: Senior Advisor to business leaders and government officials.  Her biography on the DBB website is very vague as to what corporations that she worked for or managed except that she did at one time serve as Director for Marketing of Kraft Foods.

Admiral Vernon Clark USN Retired: Former Chief of Naval Operations sacrificed 30,000 Navy personnel and decommissioned dozens of ships early in order to “recapitalize” the fleet, something that never occurred. Current CEO of SRI International  “an independent, nonprofit research institute conducting client-sponsored research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations, and other organizations. SRI also brings its innovations to the marketplace by licensing its intellectual property and creating new ventures.” On Board of Directors of Raytheon Company, Rolls Royce North America, Horizon Lines, and the World Board of Governors of the USO. He is a Distinguished Professor atRegentUniversity and serves as a Trustee at RegentUniversity,Vanguard University and Air University. He is a senior advisor with Booz Allen Hamilton, and is on advisory boards with the Defense Policy Board, Fleishman-Hillard, Northrop Grumman, Robertson Fuel Systems LLC, Cubic Defense Applications, Inc., and the Executive Committee of Military Ministry.

General Michael Carns USAF Retired: Served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force from 1991-1994. In 1995 he withdrew his nomination to become director of the CIA when it was revealed that he had failed to properly compensate a young Filipino who legally accompanied his family to the United States, an act he said that was an “innocent mistake.” He currently serves as the Vice Chairman of Priva Source, Inc., a small software firm specializing in the security and de-identification of large, sensitive databases, in Weston, Massachusetts and serves on the Board of Directors for Virtual Agility, Inc.

Putting it all Together

Everyone knows that our country needs to put its financial house in order.  However let us put a few things in perspective.

The 50% of Pay Retirement Myth: The 50% myth is widely circulated and most people wrongly assume that a military member that retires at 20 years gets 50% of their pay when they retire.  First the 50% is actually the average of their highest three years of base pay, usually amounting to about 47% rather than 50%.  A lot of people talk about the 38 year old retiree getting 50% of his or her pay for life.  First only a fraction of enlisted members can retire that early and most of those are in the pay grades of E6 and E7.  Many more especially officers, warrant officers and those that reach the E8 to E9 level stay longer meaning that they enter civilian life at a point where their age becomes a factor against them.  Additionally all lose special pays and things like the Basic Allowance for Housing, combat pay and other benefits. This means that the average service member is only receiving about 35% of their active duty pay and allowances when they retire.  Add to this the fact that many have incurred injuries including combat related injuries that follow them well past retirement.  The board is also recommending cutting medical benefits with General Punaro calling them a “GM type benefit” that cannot be sustained.

Reserve Retirement: Reservists that qualify for retirement receive that pay at the age of 60 and only receive a fraction of what they would if they had 20 active years. Reserve retirement is calculated on actual days of active duty, points for inactive duty training (drills) and points for being in a drilling status.  To have a “good year” for retirement a reservist has to accumulate 50 retirement points which can be any of the above plus points for correspondence or online courses offered by the military.  Most reservists spend many more hours and days in unpaid status in order to maintain their qualifications and ensure that their units are able to do their mission.

Many Military job specialties do not have a civilian equivalent: Here is another fact that the Board and other civilian critics of the military compensation like to ignore.  The way they market their proposal is to basically say that military retirement puts one on easy street and that veterans walk right into great jobs when they leave the military.  The unemployment rate for veterans is far higher than the national average as are medical and psychological problems related to their service.

What would replace the current system? A mandated program similar to a 401K which invests the service member’s contributions estimated at about 16% a year into mutual funds and the stock market.  The Board’s plan reduces retired pay 5% for each year before age 57 (17 years x 5% = 85% reduction), yielding only $3,600 a year at age 40 for an E7 at current pay rates.  At age 60, the retiree would begin drawing money from the 401(K)-type plan. Using their assumptions that project a 7% return on the investment, the retiree would draw $13,600 more per year until age 85. If the member wanted to withdraw money after age 85, the annual withdrawal amount would be reduced.  Now the plan would provide a limited benefit to those that leave the service before the 20 year mark and that is a plus for those service members.

Retaining Qualified People: The retirement system is a huge part of our military’s success.  It encourages well qualified people who could be making more money in the civilian world to stay in the military.  Back in the 1980s Congress passed a retirement reform plan that reduced the 20 year retirement benefit to 40% of the high three years. Secretary of Defense Weinberger said that it would make it hard to retain qualified people. Congress passed it and during the Clinton administration had to return to the 50% high-three plan because we were losing too many of our best people.  To use a rather quaint term “you get what you pay for.”

Follow the Money:

The crux of the Defense Business Board’s proposal is to make military retirement like civilian retirement.  The only problem is that civilian firms generally don’t have a “retirement plan” anymore.  Instead they make minimal investments in 401K programs which leave their “retirees” at the mercy of the economy and the markets.  I know many people in their 60s and 70s that have seen their nest eggs blow away in the latest market turmoil.  This is not exactly a secure investment especially when these same retirees will certainly face the reduction or elimination of their Social Security benefits that they like all people (except the miniscule number that can opt-out of it) contribute.

So it really isn’t the service member that benefits from this plan. Likewise if you admit that like in the 1980s and 1990s we will lose a lot of our best people if the retirement benefit is removed or substantially reduced with the resultant loss in experience and expertise and the effect on combat power.

So who benefits? Follow the Money: The reason that I put all the board member names and who they work for and what their connections are is so you can follow the money.  I have not seen any other articles or blogs that really trace this to the source.  Almost every single member, fellow or advisor has significant ties and relationships with major defense contractors or Wall Street forms that deal in mutual fund management, investment and businesses that focus on outsourcing. All were appointed by either Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or Gates and represent institutions that are closely allied with the business interests of the Republican Party. Those that say that “Obama is threatening to cut military retirement” either are ignorant or lying.

Since none of the Board members are employees of the government and only are reimbursed for their per diem they are not fair arbiters.  They represent the very firms on Wall Street and the Defense Industry that will gain the most from this plan.  Almost all are so deeply enmeshed in what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex that their ultimate loyalty is to those that they work for, those very firms that have swindled and cheated the government by their mismanagement and inefficiency in building weapons systems that are over budget, behind schedule and often cannot be fielded, have to be cancelled or truncated or are failures that cannot perform the mission that they were designed to do.  Likewise they represent the major financial interests that were hat in hand responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008, our record unemployment and possible double dip recession.  The firms that these men and women represent would receive a cash infusion of major proportions coming from the forced contributions by a million and a half active and reserve military members.

To his credit the new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on Wednesday that there would be no changes coming soon and any changes will have to be passed by Congress.

Conclusion: We have been at war for 10 years and in various states of war or peace making operations for 20 years.  During that time only about one half of one percent of the American population served in the military at any given time.  To insinuate that the military personnel who have borne the brunt of these wars are greedy, overpaid or self serving is obscene and to imply that they veteran’s organizations that go to bat for the serviceman or women are working against our national security by fighting for military personnel is unconscionable. For the members of this board to suggest that somehow what military personnel receive in compensation is too much and the benefits too generous should look in the mirror.  The retired military members of the Board have not given up their retirement and are all connected with the major defense contractors and financial institutions that would benefit the most from this plan.  Many of the corporate members have been living off of other people’s money and government contracts almost all of their professional lives.  They are the people that pay lobbyists to ensure that they get tax breaks even as they collect every government contract and service that they can take.

I do not know any of the people on the board and many are philanthropists and some donate time and money to organizations that honor the military.  I am not saying that these are bad people. I simply am saying that they represent their interests and those of the corporations that they run or that employ them.  It is what is called “crony capitalism.”

Follow the money my friends follow the money.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: All information in this article regarding the members of the committee comes from the Defense Business Board website, the corporate websites of the various organizations that employ them and various business periodicals and publications on the web.  

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Filed under Military, national security, Political Commentary

Living in the Bizzaro Post Osama Bin Laden World: Another Denny Crane Moment for Padre Steve

Note to readers: Another of my Denny Crane moments which seem to be coming more likely, must be the Mad Cow

“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?” Oddball -Kelly’s Heroes

I love that quote and everyone in this country needs to see the truth of it.

I think that I have stepped into the Bizzaro World.  For the first time in a nearly ten year old war we get a real victory. Will killed the SOB who started it by killing thousands of our people. We do it the old fashioned mano on mano, look him in the eyes way and had Navy SEALS double tap him. We minimize the collateral damage by not plastering the place with bombs killing lots of other people. The President and the National Security team kept the plan a secret for months with no leaks that could have jeopardized Bin Laden’s elimination.  Likewise the uncompromised raid secured major intelligence bonanza including laptops, hard drives, cell phones and documents that probably have more raw and up to date intelligence from the source than we ever have had which likely lead to major victories against Bin Laden’s fellow Al Qaeda leaders and their organization, finances and maybe even their contacts with other nations intelligence services.  Such information will make it a far easier task to take the Al Qaeda organization apart at the seams. This is a victory that combined with pro-democracy revolutions across the Arab World could very well make the Middle East and the world a far safer place. There are dangers out there but this is something to celebrate so why can’t we be happy? I know that some people are but as a nation we are not a happy bunch.

We have been through two terribly long was that have cost of thousands of dead and tens of thousands wounded.  The military aspects of the wars alone have cost the nation well over a trillion dollars not counting the other economic costs. The 9-11 attacks created a massive wound on the American psyche which has been aggravated by our losses in the wars and the failure to kill or capture Bin Laden. We have given up a significant number of civil liberties in the name of security.  The collective impact of these events compounded by the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib and the “Afghanistan “Kill Team” episodes the escapades of contractors like Blackwater and Kellogg Brown and Root- Halliburton have stained our conscience. Coupled with our massive economic problems and poisoned political climate these wars and losses have beaten us down.

Rather than be happy that we finally got one in the “win column” we have become so used to losing that we have forgotten that it is okay to win once in a while.  Instead of thanking God that Osama Bin Laden is bottom feeder food in the Arabian Sea and is now rehearsing for the 2011 South Park “Christmas Time in Hell” musical joining Saddam Hussein and Hitler as they use their asbestos water skis on the Lake of Fire we are all glum or pissed off. Some are wringing their hands because Bin Laden was unarmed and didn’t have a lot of security around him and that in the heat of the moment the SEALS double tapped his sorry ass.  What the hell? Did they want a firefight that would have gotten a bunch of SEALS killed? Was it fair that he was unarmed but reaching for a gun when we capped his ass? But then was it fair to the 3000 people killed in the Twin Towers when Bin Laden directed the attack on those unarmed people?

Then there are people questioning the legality of the action. Sorry Bin Laden was a man that never stopped plotting the deaths of innocent people to the end of his days. While it might have been interesting to put him on trial you can be assured that some would have provided millions if not billions of dollars for his defense and that the proceedings would have dragged on at least a decade and that his allies would have gained inspiration from his incarceration just as they will his death.  Those who question the fact that a SEAL shot him when he was unarmed does not understand the inherent danger in the action and split second decision making that went into that courageous man’s decision to kill Bin Laden.  Legally Bin Laden as a terrorist was accorded no protections under the Geneva Conventions.

Then there are the Christian objectors, those on the left that say he should have been captured and put on trial.  Some Evangelicals that really don’t care that he was killed but don’t think that Christians should be happy about it or rejoice in his death.  But I remember some of these same people smugly saying that the 9-11 attacks were “God’s judgment on the United States.”  I’m sorry but many supposedly conservative Christians are schizophrenic on being pro life. Kill the unborn it’s murder. Kill a man convicted in a state court in the United States on the basis of circumstantial evidence is okay, especially if you are from Texas where I think it’s popularity is slightly below football and NASCAR.  Have a terrorist kill 3000 of your countrymen, well God must be pissed at us but kill the man responsible for those deaths and be happy he’s dead?  Nope can’t do that we should be sad that he died without knowing the Lord. Yes it is a sad that anyone would die without knowing the Lord but this man had no desire to convert to Christianity or anything else. He was convinced of his rightness and he made no move to surrender to U.S. or Saudi authorities for nearly 20 years and still didn’t in his final moments.  He made his bed beneath the sea.  I personally think this is simply people that need to be morally superior to others spouting their opinions rather than people that are inconsistent in their application of their faith and ethics to a wide variety of issues.

Now the politicians are making political hay over this.  Some Liberals are pissed that Obama actually had the balls to order the strike.  Some Conservatives are pissed that Obama succeeded in doing something that Bush couldn’t do and that he didn’t give Bush any credit. But it serves me well that Bush never gave Clinton any credit for keeping the pressure on Saddam Hussein and keeping him from really building up his forces after the Gulf War using no-fly zones, the UN oil embargo/blockade of Iraq and selective military strikes to keep Saddam in check.  So this is all politics as usual and once again it is detrimental to the county and makes light of the sacrifices of all that have fallen in these wars and the bravery of the SEALS that killed Bin Laden.

This really is a Bizzaro world.  When Hitler died this country got happy and that happiness spanned the political, philosophical and religious divides in the country. We celebrated Hitler’s death and the destruction of his murderous regime.  Back then we actually understood the importance of such events and didn’t wring our hands and shed faux tears when evil men perished.  But now after nearly 10 years of war and thousands of causalities we get the perfidious bastard that started this and our collective jock straps and panties are in a wad. I don’t get it. The reason that we went to war is dead and we have information that probably will decimate what is left of his network and we can’t be happy.  This is bizarre and I wish that people would stop with all the negative waves.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Disdain of American Business for Military Personnel and their Benefits

“What are you going to trade off — a rich entitlements program, or boots and bullets for the troops?” Richard Spencer Defense Business Review Board (quoted in the Navy Times 2 May 2011 print and internet edition)

The Federal Government is looking for ways to slash funding any way that it can. In light of the seriousness of the nation’s financial crisis previously sacrosanct areas are probably going to be cut.  Military pay and pension portion of the Defense Department budget continues to increase. For the active force due to inflation and medical care costs are the culprits and due to the fact that the pesky retirees just aren’t dying off fast enough.  Obviously something needs to be done otherwise we won’t be able to afford the “bullets” or rather the weapons systems that we use to fight our wars with.

But for a man who has made his money on Wall Street using other people’s money including government bailouts every time our financial, banking and real estate industries due their best to destroy the economy to call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” is simply obscene. If there is anything that has broken the back of the military budgets it is a series of wars that won’t end that somehow make contractors and defense industries rich.  Every day they find new ways to overbill the military for weapons systems that they cannot field on time, or are such money pits that the Defense Department tries to cancel them while our fiscally minded Congress makes the military buy them anyway.

Billions of dollars have been paid to defense contractors that employ a wide scope of companies many foreign owned to provide basic services at overseas bases such as food, transportation and even security supposedly because they can do it more efficiently than the military. The truth is that over the past 20 years the military personnel that would have performed these missions were cut from the force so much so that when we went into Iraq we didn’t have the forces to do all that was needed. Yes we could slap the snot out of the Iraqi or any other military that got in our way but we couldn’t sustain the force without employing and enriching companies like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and dare I say Blackwater.  Additionally our defense contractors have ensured that nearly major weapons system produced in the past 20 years is plagued with problems and cannot be produced on time, are horribly over budget and due to their cost cannot be produced in the numbers needed by the military.  Then there are some projects that are so Rube Goldbergish that the technology needed to make them work isn’t attainable so compromises are made just to keep the programs alive.  Money is spent and weapons are produced that never meet the hype of their supporters in Congress, the defense industries and the army of lobbyists which I think number more than the actual Army. Then there are the weapons systems that are not only money pits but also never are deployed.  Congress and successive Presidential Administrations have made these countries wealthy while killing the defense budget and adding to the massive Federal Debt, which before the wars was actually shrinking, God bless you Bill Clinton.

But now we have a crisis and it is not the corporate welfare queens of the defense industry or the contracting vampires like Halliburton who will feel the pinch it is those who serve.  Yes my friends rather than these blood suckers it is the Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who since 1990 have been deployed who if more that any generation of our military for a great length of time than any force in the history of our country. Count the places Panama, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo just to name a few. Then through in things like Operation Southern Watch, no-fly zones, humanitarian missions around the world that we have conducted over the same period.  By the way since these things are expensive and there is not enough money we are told to “work smarter not harder” and “leverage our synergies” so we can cut the force and still do the mission.  We look where that got us. We decided the get involved in massive ground combat operations without the manpower to do them effectively resulting in longer campaigns costing more lives and more money that the wise “smarter synergy” people ever estimated.

And now we have one of these barons of modern American-Global Capitalism which if I can remind you are the same people that have created the financial crises that enveloped the world that had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.  By the way most of these barons of business received exorbitant and obscene bonuses sometimes with the taxpayer’s bail-out money, the very people who brought the house financial house down now call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” while embracing tax cuts for themselves.

Well doesn’t that beat all? Is there anyone but me that has a problem with this? But let’s look at some facts.

Let’s see.  If someone retires at 20 years they get 50% of their high-three or basically the average of their last three years pay, not 50% of their highest pay but the last three years of pay. That was changed back in the late 1970s to save money by pretending to say that you got 50% of your base pay but really a bit less. If you serve 30 years you get 75% of you high three, of course by then you better be set for retirement because most military personnel with skills that are not directly transferrable to the civilian world will not be hired by anyone because they are too old. Mind you the retirement percentage is just from the base pay of the individual, not the housing allowance or other pays that you get for deployments or hazardous duty.  Likewise all those little perks from active duty disappear like state tax breaks for being in the military and by the way the health care costs they go up too. Military retirement is taxable and the Feds, the States and local taxing authorities are quite good at making sure they get their “fare share” of something that they never earned.

Speaking of healthcare what really interesting is that military personnel also pay into Social Security and Medicare. In fact when we are 65 our TRICARE health insurance is supposed to be secondary to Medicare or other insurance that we might have.  Since most of us currently serving are under 55 year old cut off that Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed in ending Medicare we lose that too.  So much for Medical Care unless a veteran is qualified to receive treatment in a Veteran’s Administration hospital.  But those hospitals face an increasing number of patients and a decreasing budget.  Who knows maybe they just give us the Soylent Green option.

Look out if Congressman Ryan and his band have their way as Social Security will go by the wayside too.  That is really a good deal isn’t it? Spend 20-30 years getting busted up for your country and put your family through hell as you constantly deploy to combat zones or on regular operational deployments or training exercises and then get told that the benefits that you worked hard to get are simply a “rich entitlement.” Then to top it all off find out all the money that you have paid into other people’s retirement and health care won’t be there for you.

But let’s take a look at why some of the cost of these “entitlements” is rising. It’s the wars stupid. A lot of money is now being paid to combat-wounded veterans that are medically retired from the service.  No one begrudges them this and I certainly don’t because they have paid their pound of flesh for it. They deserve it and most go through a lot of shit in the medical board and with the Veteran’s Administration to get that.  However, if you add up the tens of thousands of these pensions provided to these men and women that might have only served one or two tours it is a lot of money. This is an increase because in normal times many would have left the military without retirement benefits after they were done with their enlistments. Then there is the cost of paying the survivor pensions to the wives, husbands, children or parents of those that gave the last full measure and died while on active duty.

Some entitlement program huh? An entitlement program that often involves multiple tours in combat zones, separation from family, injuries that build-up simply because we are expected to stay physically active in physically and emotionally environments that wear people down.  Yet Mr. Spencer who served as a Marine Corps Aviator from 1976-1981 a period when we were not at war has the nerve to call this a “rich entitlement program.”  However a one term Congressman gets a retirement and benefits for life. We grind it out for 20 or more years and get told that we are leaches in so many words. Mr. Spencer didn’t use that word but that is exactly what he meant.  In the great World War Two film The Caine Mutiny LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer chastised the members of the Caine’s Wardroom following the acquittal of the Executive Officer on the charge of mutiny.

“You know something… When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.”

I don’t want to question the honor of Mr. Spencer but I will. Wait maybe I really want to question his honor so what the hell here it goes. According to his bio on the DOD website Mr. Spencer graduated from private college with a business degree in the middle of a really nasty economy. Gerald Ford was President and since the Vietnam War was over and a strong anti-war feeling lingered there was not much chance of seeing action.  So Mr. Spencer took his business degree and went in the Marines, not the grunts but as a Naval Aviator.   As soon as he finished his obligation and the Reagan boom began he left the service. After all he knew that you couldn’t make any money in the military.  I enlisted in 1981 and when I was commissioned as an Army officer in 1983 I had a base pay of $900.00 a month.  I didn’t do it for the money I did it because of what had happened in Iran and the Soviet moves all over the world.  Back then there was no GI Bill and limited tuition assistance or money for college when you got out of the service. I was not alone there were thousands maybe even hundreds of thousands that joined for similar reasons despite the low pay and benefits. We did it out of good old fashioned patriotism.

I resent the term “Entitlement program.” It is pejorative. It is a wonderful big business and fiscal conservative code word for “unearned and undeserving welfare program.”  Now there are programs that could legitimate targets of such a pejorative term especially corporate welfare but for Mr. Spencer and others of his ilk to lump the retirement pay of career military men and women is reprehensible.

How many military personnel and their families lose money every few years due to moving costs, changing the kid’s schools having spouse have to quit work to move to new locations? Let me see, almost all of us who serve a full career that’s who. But to Mr. Spencer we are the welfare queens and leaches. Again those are my words not his even though that is exactly what Mr. Spencer meant. We who serve and go into harm’s way so Mr. Spencer’s cronies on Wall Street can make the big bucks are the problem.  When a military officer fails his or her career is over and he or she suffers scorn, when the executives that Mr. Spencer rubs shoulders with destroy a company or defraud the public they get big bonuses multi-million dollar buyouts and move on to new hunting grounds.

So now we are on the chopping block. All the services are shedding personnel even as the mission demands have not gone down in order to save money.  In the Navy as we speak there are boards being held at almost every rank to send people home, including junior enlisted personnel.

It is a shame that we have come to this. A nation at war for 10 years and engaged all over the world in war and peacekeeping operations the 10 years prior to this using a smaller force percentage wise than we have had than at any time since the 1920s and 1930s.  Less than 1% closer to half a percent of Americans currently serve in the active or reserve components of the military and many have served one or more combat tours.  Meanwhile nearly 90% of people military age cannot meet entry standards to join.

This, my friends makes military personnel an easy target for bean counters. We don’t have a lot of votes and if people like Mr. Spencer and some in Congress have their way we will be thrown under the budget bus. They will throw us into wars that are unwinnable because we don’t have the resources to successfully prosecute them or the strategy and goals don’t match the forces that are there to accomplish them.  Meanwhile the defense industries and the big war contractors like Halliburton will continue to make money hand over fist. The late Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler was absolutely correct when he said “War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” 

In the past month another 50 or so American military personnel have died in Afghanistan nine in the latest attack on advisors to the Afghan Air Force just this week. The total losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are now over 6000 dead and almost 43,000 wounded not counting those suffering from mild to moderate Traumatic Brain Injury and the tens of thousands of others that suffer from PTSD.  Of course this does not count those that have died on their return to the United States due to suicide risky behaviors caused by their experience in combat.  Neither do the numbers count those that succumbed to their wounds after their return to civilian life or in the Veteran’s Administration system.  God knows how many of these uncounted casualties of war there are but remember this is just another “entitlement program” according to Mr. Spencer.

Meanwhile as Rome burns the Legions continue to serve while the world that the politicians, diplomats and business leaders put together falls apart. Wars and crises abounding into which they will gladly send us. The Middle East is threatening to explode and Mr. Spencer and those like him would call us parasites leaches and welfare queens, again my words not theirs even though that is exactly what they mean and call the benefits that we have sacrificed for over 20 or more years of service a “rich entitlement program.”

In fact as this drumbeat from the business leaders advising the Pentagon continues people will begin to believe it. Already polls are showing the American people think that the military budget needs to be slashed in order to pay for their entitlements.  We know that the defense industry, the lobbyists and the contracting Giants will suffer the least in this, as always it will be the men and women that have volunteered to do the job that no one else wants to do that will feel the brunt of the cuts.

We have been at war for 10 years with an 11 year lead up to it. In a sense we have been at war or heavily engaged in peacekeeping, humanitarian or actual war for 20 years. Your Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are remarkable. In spite of an unending war, deployments that never seem to end and being forgotten by a population more caught up in the problems of Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen, their own financial worries or trying to demonize their political opponents in our perpetual election cycle. Even so they serve selflessly and with distinction.  They don’t deserve to have their retirement called a “rich entitlement program.”

When I see the son’s of the wealthy that inhabit Wall Street and other financial centers say this I become incensed.  Many were born into wealth and all make themselves wealthy on other people’s money usually while exporting the industrial base of the United States overseas because they say that American workers are overpaid. Many simply see the military as the government arm which guards their overseas operations but really hold us in contempt and for the past 40 years have thrown the servicemen and women of the country under the bus if there is a possibility of them having to pay more taxes.

To read about such comments from businessmen and politicians I am reminded of a quote of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott from the movie Gettysburg:

“Meade will finally attack… Straight up the hillside, out in the open, in that gorgeous field of fire. We will charge valiantly, and be butchered, valiantly! And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was…I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this.”

Yes we will continue to serve and many will continue to die as the vampires of Wall Street consider those of us who serve as leaches and characterize military retirement programs as a “rich entitlement program.” They will thump their chests and say how much they support the troops but such words will only come from their marketing departments hoping to gain the military market share.

The attitude of Mr. Spencer and those like him needs to be confronted and challenged at every turn or they will dishonor those that serve so selflessly.  We need more men like Smedley Butler.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Memorial Day Weekend 2010: We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

On May 27th 2010 the US Military experienced the loss of its 1000th KIA in Afghanistan. The young man killed was Corporal Jacob C Leicht of Kerrville Texas.  Corporal Leicht was assigned to 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division Camp Pendleton California. Corporal Leicht had previously served in Iraq where he had been badly wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that hit the HUMMV that he was traveling in.  Pulled to safety by his Iraqi interpreter Leicht spent the two years recovering from those injuries engaged in a letter and phone call campaign to get back into the fight with his fellow Marines.  He was killed when he stepped on a land mine during that desperately sought after second tour. His younger brother Jesse Leicht who just 10 days ago enlisted in the Marines said “He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered, he didn’t want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something.”  Please keep his family and his fellow Marines in your prayers this Memorial Day.

Last year I was very melancholy during Memorial Day and stories of young Marines, Soldiers and Sailors killed in the line of duty usually cause me to reflect on the sacrifice that the young men and women who volunteer to serve our country make on a daily basis while most of the country goes about its business often oblivious to the wars being waged by our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in Afghanistan, Iraq and other lesser known fronts in this war.  Last year I was still very much in the midst of my PTSD crash and struggling with depression and faith.  At the same time I was still remembering all of the veterans who made a difference in my life.  That was covered in the posts Memorial Day 2009- Thoughts and Musings and Remembering the Veterans in My Life…Memorial Day 2009.

As we approach Memorial Day 2010 we must remember that while the war in Iraq is drawing down that the war in Afghanistan is heating up even as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to engage the Taliban in their spiritual home of Khandehar.  Likewise there is are rising tensions on the Korean peninsula where the Heavy Combat Brigade and Air Combat Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are based in support of Republic of Korea and UN forces in Korea backed up by Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Hawaii that are not currently in Afghanistan. At sea U.S. Navy forces patrol strategic choke points including the Straits of Hormuz where an ascendant Iran continues to build up for forces that could threaten the Freedom of the seas.

How am I different this year? To answer the question I can only say that I have regained some measure of faith and community that had been absent in my life after I returned from Iraq.  This has made a lot of difference however it in no way takes the place of remembering those men and women that I have served with in harm’s way as well as the veterans who made an impact in my life and still do today.

Memorial Day, initially known as Decoration Day is a somber holiday in its truest sense however it is as Paul Reikoff of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association notes is “One Country, Two Holidays.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-rieckhoff/memorial-day-one-holiday_b_592398.html For those that have served in war going back to our WWII veterans but also those of the not so popular wars, Korea, Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost friends and sacrificed spending months and even years in combat zones and the work-ups and exercises that part and parcel to deployment.  There are the wounded in body, mind and spirit and those whose physical injuries who have killed them in previous wars but now live in tortured bodies somewhere in between life and death.  Likewise there are those whose injuries are invisible, the injuries of PTSD, TBI and other psychiatric or psychological disorders related to their time in combat.  I spent almost two years in PTSD hell and though I am making a good recovery now still am reminded of the fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and an existential crisis of faith that came with my return.  I know too many Marines, Soldiers and Sailors that suffer much more than I have whose struggles pass unnoticed by most of society.  I am now working with our Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program and it is hard to see the young men and women that are in the program whose problems either came in part from their combat experience or their experience upon returning home.  Likewise we are now receiving more of our combat wounded at the medical center and thus I am reminded of the sacrifices made by veterans every day.  For those who work to help these young men and women and in many cases have served alongside them in the combat zones it is a continual reminder of the cost of war.

For those of us that have served, not just in the current conflict but our brothers and sisters that served in previous wars, especially Vietnam and Korea there is one Memorial Day.  While we do attempt to do some things with families and friends the holiday is one of sober reflection as we count the cost of war in human terms, both in our lives as well as our families, the soldiers of our Allies that serve alongside of us and the populations of lands devastated by war.

But then there is another country.  A country consumed with materialism and for whom “heroes” are reality television “stars,” actors and actresses and sports figures.  There are those who while they profess to “support the troops” are the first to want to replace military personnel with contractors such as Halliburton and the company formerly known as “Blackwater” with often disastrous results. Political operatives and lobbyists support paying astronomical sums to corporations that often embarrass the country and make the  job in the military harder in Iraq and Afghanistan having done things that alienate those populations.  Then there is the cost for services delivered and the often terrible way that these corporations treat their employees, especially the third country nationals with working hours and living conditions that would be punishable he in the United States, but also Americans who gain employment but serve driving trucks or other hazardous duties that they have little combat training to do and receive little if the are wounded in action nor for their families if they are killed or disabled. That is part of the “other country.” About 1.8 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan less than 6/10ths of 1 percent. Unlike World War II where the war was truly a national effort this war is waged by a small minority of the population.

I do not have any problems with people enjoying a holiday but hope and pray that Americans will take at least a few minutes to pay their respects to the Veterans of wars past and present the honored dead as well as the living.  Say a prayer, visit a military or veteran cemetery, and pay a visit on a living vet or the family of one of those killed. Donate to reputable veteran organizations or charities and maybe take a vet out for a bite to eat or buy them a cup of coffee, Coke or a beer.  Don’t let the day pass by simply looking at the faded yellow ribbon “I support the troops” on your car but take a few minutes to thank and remember those that have served our country regardless of race, creed or color and pray that the fallen will rest in peace and the living will recover from all wounds.

Unfortunately for the country the President will not be at the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery this year. Unlike some who are vehemently criticizing him I can only say that I am disappointed that the Commander-in-Chief will not be present because of what I feel is the tremendous symbolic importance of his presence at the event when we are at war. At the same time the President’s absence in emblematic of how much of the country “celebrates” Memorial Day.  Unfortunately as the number of men and women who have served our nation in time of war goes down in proportion to the population at large the day will become less significant to many, a curiosity that is quaint and nice but does not impact their lives.  I do not mean this in a bad way or with any malice; it is simply a statement of fact as for most the military and the war is not an everyday part of their lives. I think that the Previous President while understanding the significance of this day did not help the nation when after the September 11th attacks did not marshal the energy of the nation for a war which his administration readily acknowledged would be a “long war” but instead told people to “go shopping” to pump up the economy.  I think that was an act that has limited the personal effect of the human cost of these wars to a very limited segment of the population.

At the same time I as well as most veterans do appreciate the fact that we in the military are treated well by our countrymen even if they do not truly understand what we go through.  I for one am thankful to people who go out of their way to thank us in public places, those that take on hateful groups like the crowd at West Baptist Church that protests outside of military funerals and bases invoking God’s wrath on us.  Likewise there are the volunteers who meet returning servicemen and women at airports as the come home from war, the sports that honor the military before games or as in the case of most of Major and Minor League Baseball in the 7th inning stretch.  At the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish in Norfolk they display the photos of servicemen and women currently serving overseas.  The Raley’s grocery store near my parents’ home in Stockton California has a display of hundreds of 8 x 10 photos of military personnel in the front of their store and a wide range of people and groups try to find ways to help.  This in is stark contrast to the treatment of our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam and the attitudes and treatment of military personnel on college campuses that lingered far into the 1980s.  Thankfully the vast majority of Americans are appreciative of what we do.  At the same time most are not personally effected and as such will simply see Memorial Day as a three day weekend that kicks off the summer vacation season hardly pausing to think of the cost that has been born to ensure that Americans and people around the world have the opportunity to live in freedom.

Band of Brothers, Above Me and RP2 Nelson Lebron, below Foot Patrol Al Waleed Iraq

This weekend I pause to remember the veterans in my life, my father who remains in a nursing facility with dementia brought about by Alzheimer’s disease, men like my NJROTC instructors Senior Chief John Yarro and Buff Rambo who taught me in our FIST or Fire Support Team, SFC Harry Zilkan and CSM John Butler from my UCLA Army ROTC program and SFC Harry Ball my Drill Instructor in ROTC Advanced Camp. All were Vietnam Vets.  Then there were 1SG Jim Koenig of 557th Medical Company who was my 1st Sergeant when I was a new Lieutenant in Germany and Colonel Donald A Johnson the Commander of the 68th Medical Group and his successor Colonel Jim Truscott a high decorated Medevac or “Dustoff” helicopter pilot.  I cannot forget Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley a company commander in Vietnam who saved my ass as an aspiring Chaplain at the Chaplain School in 1990 and 1992.

Then there were the WWII and Vietnam Vets in my Chapel at Fort Indiantown Gap PA. USAF Major General Frank Smoker a B-17 pilot, Colonel Walt Swank who served at Normandy and SSG Henry Boyd one of the 101st Airborne Troopers epitomized by “Band of Brothers.” There were the Vietnam Vets in the congregation, Colonel Ray Hawthorne an artillery officer who served several tours in country including an advisor tour.  Charlie Kosko a helicopter pilot and Major Scotty Jenkes who served as a USAF pilot flying close air support in Vietnam.  Then there was Colonel Tom Allmon the Garrison Commander who served in the Gulf War as well as Iraq.

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey Cartilage” Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and Charlie who used man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park until health issues kept them from continuing all mean a lot to me.  Likewise my friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis both Iraq Vets mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends.

There are those that I served with at Navy EOD Group II that performed amazing feats in Iraq and Afghanistan and retired Command Master Chief Bill “Two Feathers” Tyrell an EOD tech that I came to know well working family issues and PTSD issues for our EOD sailors.  Bill was a tremendous help as I struggled with PTSD.  Likewise there are my shipmates and friends from the USS HUE CITY that I served with deployed to the Northern Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa in 2002 including the men of the boarding team that I served as an advisor to on 75 boarding missions aboard impounded Iraqi Oil Smugglers.  Then there are the men that I served with in Iraq especially my assistant and body guard RP2 Nelson Lebron who is getting ready for his 10th deployment this time another trip to Afghanistan.  There are my friends that served in various locations with the Iraqi security forces that I was able to travel to, serve alongside and serve as a chaplain in remote areas of Iraq with the Iraqis. In my current assignment I have had many friends and colleagues deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in some very “hot” zones caring for our wounded as well as local nationals and allied soldiers.  This is not stopping anytime soon.

These are my brothers and sisters and I remember all of them with fondness.  My thoughts are much the same as Henry V at Agincourt as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

See the Kenneth Branagh’s rendition here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NA3gOST4Pc8&feature=player_embedded

With crucial battles ahead in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the storm clouds of war gathering over Korea and the threat of terrorism and attacks around the world and at home it is indeed a dangerous world that our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen serve in.  Never before in our country have so many owed so much to so few.   Unfortunately there are those of us, men and women that have served our country from before Pearl Harbor to the present who who struggle and will spend this day alone and uncared for in isolation, anonymous to nearly everyone. Please, if you see such a man or woman do not let the opportunity pass to thank them and if need be do something to encourage or thank them for their service. Please remember and thank a Veteran this weekend and if somehow the spirit moves you to do more and you are capable of serving and join this new “Band of Brothers” please see a recruiter.  It is a noble profession that we, we happy few are proud to serve despite the cost.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

Fort Hood Memorial and Veteran’s Day…The War Comes Home via a Traitor to His Oath

fort hood memorialSoldiers rendering Honors to Fallen Comrades at Fort Hood (MSNBC Photo)

The killings of 13 Americans and wounding of 30 others by Major Nidal Malik Hasan has left a bitter taste in many American’s mouth.  It was an act of treason by a man who apparently became a “self-radicalized home grown terrorist.”  Influenced by his religious beliefs which even some of his Moslem Imam’s thought were troubling and for which they would not approve him to serve as a volunteer lay leader for other Moslem soldiers, Major Hasan attacked his fellow soldiers.  He walked into a processing center for soldiers and opened fire allegedly shouting “Allah Akbar!” as he began his 4 minute rampage firing over 100 rounds from two weapons, one a “cop killer” type of pistol.  It appears that in the year prior to this terrorist act that Major Hasan not only made statements approving of suicide bombing, statements against U.S. Service Members of the Moslem faith fighting other Moslems and vehemently opposing the U.S. involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Many of these statements were around other Army personnel and evidently Army investigators had been watching him.  As an officer who at one time was a company commander and also helped the administrative oversight of various criminal investigations I wonder how Major Hasan was not fully investigated and called into account for his statements which were in direct contravention to his oath as an Army Officer, his Commission which as a Regular Army Field Grade Officer was actually approved by the Senate, and his Hippocratic Oath as a Physician to “do no harm.”  Major Hasan is not the first soldier, Moslem or otherwise to kill his fellow soldiers.  What makes his case unique is that he is an officer and a physician.  I personally think that is why he was never called to account for his words by others in the Army.  The fact is that no one ever assumes that an officer or a physician could or would actually commit such an act.  This was one of the hardest things for me in comprehending Major Hasan’s crime, simply put “officers do not do such things.” Maybe I’m old fashioned and my sense of honor as an officer borders on archaic but how such a man could swear the oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic “ could kill his fellow soldiers is beyond me.  I read his power point presentation given to his class last year which is posted here:

http://a.abcnews.go.com/images/Blotter/Hasan_2007.pdf

The presentation is troubling because of the more fundamentalist understanding that Major Hasan shows even in relationship to Moslems that he considers “moderate.”  “Muslims may be seen as moderate (compromising) but God is not.”  And “We love death more than you love life!” Having attended the Jordanian Army Peace Operations Training Center and gotten to know senior Iraq officers while serving with our advisors I can say that Major Hasan has a different take on this than many Islamic officers in the armies of Arab nations.  How Hasan was able to present this and have had documented contact with known radicals without being at least questioned shows an incredible lack of forsight by the FBI and Army investigators.

http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/official-nidal-hasan-unexplained-connections/story?

I pray that he faces justice and of there are any accomplices that they will also be cause and pay for this.  At the same time I pray that the xenophobic ramblings of some who see all Moslems as the enemy are curbed and that they will not incite violence against the innocent in the name of revenge.

Fort Hood conducted a memorial service today for the fallen.  I listened to a lot of it on the radio as I was out.  I was impressed by the remarks of General Cone, General Casey and President Obama.   I think that given the circumstances that the words were fitting and appropriate especially since tomorrow is Veteran’s Day.  The link to the text of the President’s speech is here:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-memorial-service-fort-hood

However I do think that a couple of parts of the speech stand out enough to post here:

This is a time of war.  Yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle.  They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great state and the heart of this great American community.  This is the fact that makes the tragedy even more painful, even more incomprehensible.

For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that’s been left.  We knew these men and women as soldiers and caregivers.  You knew them as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.

But here is what you must also know:  Your loved ones endure through the life of our nation.  Their memory will be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched.  Their life’s work is our security, and the freedom that we all too often take for granted.  Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy…

These are trying times for our country.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same extremists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans continue to endanger America, our allies, and innocent Afghans and Pakistanis.  In Iraq, we’re working to bring a war to a successful end, as there are still those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much for.

As we face these challenges, the stories of those at Fort Hood reaffirm the core values that we are fighting for, and the strength that we must draw upon.  Theirs are the tales of American men and women answering an extraordinary call — the call to serve their comrades, their communities, and their country.  In an age of selfishness, they embody responsibility.  In an era of division, they call upon us to come together.  In a time of cynicism, they remind us of who we are as Americans.

We are a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it.  We saw that valor in those who braved bullets here at Fort Hood, just as surely as we see it in those who signed up knowing that they would serve in harm’s way.

We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes.

We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses.  And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln’s words, and always pray to be on the side of God.

We’re a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.  We live that truth within our military, and see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today.  We defend that truth at home and abroad, and we know that Americans will always be found on the side of liberty and equality.  That’s who we are as a people.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  It’s a chance to pause, and to pay tribute — for students to learn the struggles that preceded them; for families to honor the service of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the sacrifices that have been made in pursuit of a more perfect union.

For history is filled with heroes.  You may remember the stories of a grandfather who marched across Europe; an uncle who fought in Vietnam; a sister who served in the Gulf.  But as we honor the many generations who have served, all of us — every single American — must acknowledge that this generation has more than proved itself the equal of those who’ve come before.

We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes.

This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have volunteered in the time of certain danger. They are part of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.  They have served tour after tour of duty in distant, different and difficult places.  They have stood watch in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains.  They have extended the opportunity of self-government to peoples that have suffered tyranny and war.  They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and all stations — all Americans, serving together to protect our people, while giving others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.

In today’s wars, there’s not always a simple ceremony that signals our troops’ success — no surrender papers to be signed, or capital to be claimed.  But the measure of the impact of these young men and women is no less great — in a world of threats that no know borders, their legacy will be marked in the safety of our cities and towns, and the security and opportunity that’s extended abroad.  It will serve as testimony to the character of those who served, and the example that all of you in uniform set for America and for the world…

Long after they are laid to rest — when the fighting has finished, and our nation has endured; when today’s servicemen and women are veterans, and their children have grown — it will be said that this generation believed under the most trying of tests; believed in perseverance — not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, and stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples.

The speech which I heard on radio moved me.  A president acknowledged what I have believed about our current military.  We serve because we believe in the ideals of this nation and unlike wars past, the “Good Wars” where there were homecoming parades after surrender ceremonies we come home to a nation which mostly has not been at war, a nation that we have protected and served in harm’s way when most Americans were told to be patriotic after 9-11 by President Bush by “going shopping.”  In the midst of all we serve, many of us volunteering for more, not because we like war, but because we believe in our country and in helping others come to know freedom.  I know that amid the political cynicism that is so rampant that such idealism is derided by those who only see America as a force for evil, but such is not the case.  By and large our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coastguardsmen serve not for college money or to simply have a job, but because we care about the country and know that by serving now that we will likely end up in a combat zone.

We serve in unpopular wars and our sacrifice is to many people just a news bite in between economic, entertainment and sports stories.  There are those on the left who despise us as much as they did those who served in Vietnam. Likewise there are those on the right who have no compunction about using us in the military until we are spent without sharing a whit in our sacrifice, without ever having put on a uniform much less seeing combat.  Some are politicians seeking a way to increase their power; others are people that I used to listen to on the radio all the time whose answer is to automatically suggest bombing or invading another country.  They say many kind words about us who serve and occasionally sponsor events to “help” military families, but none suggest any real shared sacrifice on the part of the nation.  In fact sometimes they have a negative effect on those who serve because their words are believed as gospel by many and if a combat veteran disagrees with a popular radio talk show host he can be told that that he is “politically correct” “weak” or even a “pansy” by people who shop till they drop under the protection provided by we who serve.  Having had this happen to me recently I know it is the case and the blowhards who drive goad people into such idiocy can go to hell.

So we fight the wars alone while contractors such as Halliburton and the company formerly known as Blackwater get rich lining their pockets with tax dollars doing jobs that at one time were done by the military in an era when much of the nation had a personal interest in the outcome of the war.  We fight the wars and deal with the trauma while others beat the war drums without regard to cost and for the first six years of the war continued to reduce the size of the military.  The previous administration had to be forced by congress into increasing the size of the active Army and Marine Corps and to stop cutting the Navy and the Air Force.

I am glad that unlike Vietnam that the majority of people seem to care about the military and our servicemen and women, even if they disagree with the national policy regarding the present wars.  For that I am grateful and blessed for the outward show of support by many stands in stark contrast what our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam faced.

This has been and will continue to be a long war.  We have been at war over 8 years since 9-11 as opposed to under 4 years of American involvement in World War II.  The overwhelming burden of the war has been on the backs of an incredibly small segment of the American population.   If you look at the numbers it is well under one percent of the population of the United States that has served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  This is not a shared sacrifice.

Today is Veteran’s Day.  Take the time to recognize the sacrifices of not just those who fought in the big popular wars, but for those who have endured the unpopular and unglamorous wars such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have made two combat deployments as well as numerous trips in and out of theater. When the time comes and my boss thinks I’m ready to go again I will go to serve alongside my friends and comrades many of whom are serving in harm’s way now.

I ask readers of this website to remember the fallen in Iraq, Afghanistan and the other fronts in this ongoing war including the home front which felt the effect of the war when Major Hasan attacked his fellow soldiers.  Remember the fallen, care for the wounded and the families of those who have lost their lives, being wounded in mind body or spirit and those who have served in wars past as well as this war.  Our brothers and sisters who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are growing fewer in number daily and “we, we happy few” who continue this fight need all the support that we can get.

I have been in California this week helping with my parents affairs.  My dad is in a nursing facility here with Alzheimer’s disease.  During my last visit he still recognized me and for a few minutes I had him back. Now he no longer knows who I am.  He is a retired Navy Chief and toward the end of his career served at An Loc where he endured that siege in the spring of 1972.  I thank God for my dad’s service and example that helped lead me to chose serving in the military, something for me that has lasted more than 28 years in service with the Army and the Navy.  I pray for God’s peace and mercy on him as he lives what little life that he has left.

God bless all of our veterans, the living and the dead as well as all of those who serve in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Pray for our country and the military.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, Political Commentary, traumatic national events