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Veterans Day 2018: I Couldn’t Forget

With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day. Despite the fact that I have been spending most of the last three days at the hospital as my wife Judy recovers from knee replacement surgery, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 37 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With Advisors of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division, COP South 2007

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

Me with RP1 Nelson LeBron, Baghdad 2008

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President , and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

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

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Please Don’t Thank Me for Serving for It is All I Have Ever Thought of Doing

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the Memorial Day Weekend I had a fascinating experience. It came about because I got fed up with what I hear a lot in so-called conservative circles that liberals, progressives, and Democrats are not patriotic or supportive of the military. The vast majority of these people have never served in the military but love to use their supposed support of endless wars as patriotism while giving lip service to those who serve as they display their ignorance of the Constitution and the military.

The fact of the matter is that the military is not monolithic, it is at the same time one of the most conservative yet progressive institutions in the United States. It and the people who serve in it are not perfect and we do have our share of scoundrels and scalawags in our ranks.

The institution itself has many faults and defects and there is much to be criticized in the way the services are managed and employed. We stand for ideals that we often fall far short of attaining. While we are integrated and making great strides that shame much of the civilian world there is still racial prejudice and discrimination. There is also a deeply ingrained culture of misogyny that shows itself all too often, and despite many changes and advances a sizable amount of homophobia. Despite all,of that I can say that much has changed for the positive since I joined in 1981.

We all join for a variety of reasons, an ideal, a challenge, a chance to prove ourselves; or a profession that has a measure of respect and offers us educational and health care benefits for us and our families that are hard to match in the civilian world. But those benefits often come with a lot of sacrifices that cannot be matched in the civilian world.

I’m old in terms of the military. I grew up in a Navy family and my dad, a career Navy Chief Petty Officer served in Vietnam. I had friends in grade school who lost their dads in that war.

I’ve served continuously first in the Army and then in the Navy since 1981. I do not recall a day since I was a child that I did not want to be in the military and serve this country. My parents tried to discourage me from joining and encouraged me to at least try college for a year. I’m glad that the did because my first semester I met my wife Judy who over all of these years has stayed with me through almost two full military careers; one of 17 1/2 years in the Army and another of almost 20 years in the Navy, and by the way I didn’t tell her I was joining the Navy until I started the process. Marriage wise this was not a smart thing to do but I wasn’t the first or last soldier or sailor to do such a thing, the great Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, who I find a lot in common with did the same to his wife when he volunteered to serve as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine in 1862.

But I digress and boy did I chase that rabbit, so anyway, this started in response to some words by a real nut case who probably the most vocal supporter of President Trump in terms of marketing and propaganda. The man, Bill Mitchell ( @mitchellvii ) is a businessman from North Carolina who has made a mini-empire for himself on Twitter and now has a radio program. He has a long history of making incendiary comments about liberals, progressives, Democrats, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who criticizes the President. His father was an Army Officer but he has never spent a day in uniform.

That is his right under the First Amendment but it doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to get away it his slander of other Americans without being called on it. something that so offended me as an American and as a career military officer and combat vet that I responded to him.

He tweeted:

Is anyone else amused when we see the Left attempting to stand up for the honor of our fallen troops?

The Left HATES our troops and stand FOR everything they died to PREVENT.

I was offended because in my service in the military that began when I was a Republican in 1981 and since I returned home from Iraq in 2008 and switched my political affiliation, I have never viewed those who I have served alongside by their political or religious affiliations. They all wear, or wore the same uniform that I do and are my brothers and sisters.

Unlike Mr. Mitchell, I do not see military service in terms of the partisan political divide. While we may have political, religious, or other differences we are all still Americans who have volunteered to serve this nation, for the past 17 years in time of war. For the most part we bury those distinctions to serve alongside each other. That has become harder over the past decade or so but even so when you go into harm’s way and get shot at by the enemy those things do not matter so much.

My reply was simple and to the point. I said:

I am a liberal, a combat vet and have served for 37 years and am still on active duty. You have no honor or decency.

I was surprised at the response of people. This man has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, but I got no attacks on my self, my views, or my character as so often happens on social media. Instead I stared getting thanked for my service by a wide variety of people. I was somewhat embarrassed by the first thank you so I responded by saying:

Appreciate it but no thanks needed, it is my honor and duty…

The responses to that Tweet were also humbling and very gracious, truthfully I really don’t know how to respond. This is who and what I am. I have volunteered to go into conflict more times thanI have been allowed and the times I did get to go I got to do things that are unusual for a Chaplain, I have put myself in harms way and on at least one occasion had to be pulled out of danger by my shipmates on an embargoed freighter coming out of Iraq under the U.N. sanctions that followed the First Gulf War. On those operations I not only was unarmed but since there were not enough body armor plates for all the members of the boarding teams I went without. In Iraq I was always the one unarmed member of any advisor team that I was with.

I came home from Iraq incredibly goofed up with chronic, severe PTSD and mild TBI. I have spent a decade trying to fight those demons and I am now doing pretty well. But I came home and there are men and women who are far braver than I ever dared to be, men and women who gave all and didn’t come home. There are others who not only bear the unseen wounds of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury, but who have also suffered terrible physical wounds. There are also others who could not defeat the emotional and physical costs of war who either died or took their own lives after returning from war, or after leaving the service. I know too many who suffer or have lost their lives to consider someone as flawed as I am to admire, I just do what I am called to do, they have given all. They are the real heroes to me and I try to use my voice to speak for them.

Likewise, all the men and women that I served with, especially in combat operations are my brothers and sisters. We are to use William Shakespeare’s words, my band of brothers. As Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V:

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.

I am an idealist when it comes to military service and serving my county. I have tried to do my best to follow the words of Joshua Chamberlain, a flawed but great man. He said:

“It is something great and greatening to cherish an ideal; to act in the light of truth that is far-away and far above; to set aside the near advantage, the momentary pleasure; the snatching of seeming good to self; and to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.”

So I while I do appreciate the kind words of everyone I am just following what I believe has been a calling for all of these years. I cannot imagine doing anything different except to teach and write when I finally retire from the Navy in the next two to three years. I could retire today, and it would be easier on me, but I still feel the call to serve. I just pray that the man that Mr. Mitchell has turned into his god does not take us in to any disastrous wars or destroy our Constitution and system of government during that time.

I do not believe in the old adage “my country right or wrong,” I know that as much good as has been done by the United States that our leaders, and people have done many wrongs, on our own continent and abroad. Today I am terrified by things that I see the President and administration doing, actions that threaten the Constitution, civil rights, and peace. So in my closing years of military service I keep the words of the German General Ludwig Beck, who did in the attempt to kill Hitler and end Nazi rule close to my heart:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

I hope that this all makes sense, so until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, iraq,afghanistan, mental health, Military, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

Retirement Honors

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V:

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.

Today I have the honor or participating in the retirement ceremony of my friend Vince Miller at Naval Station Norfolk. He is retiring from the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Commander after 24 years of service. He is a dear friend and a man of great integrity and one of the conscientious men that I know in the Chaplain Corps. He has served with the Marines, as well as at sea, and with the SEALS. He has served in Iraq, and has done much to better the lives of people at a number of shore installations as a base Chaplain and pastor.

I appreciate Vince’s friendship and I am pleased that I will have the honor or participating in his retirement ceremony. Lord willing in not too many years I will be retiring too, but with nearly two full careers between the Army and the Navy spanning nearly 40 years when I retire in 2020 or 2021.

But for those who have never served it is hard to fully appreciate what a man like Vince, and his family, have accomplished and endured in his 24 years of service. This is not a vocation for the faint of heart, or those who are enamored with uniforms and the possibility of having power over the lives of others. To be a chaplain and a naval officer one has to really desire to put others first and be a servant leader. I know that there are officers and including a good number of chaplains who are not that, but in fact are quite toxic, I have served under a number of them in my career, so when a good chaplain like Vince retires there is always a void left.

However, Vince is, and always has been a servant leader who has likewise endured much at the hands of toxic leaders. But that being said he has always remained humble and devoted to caring for the people of God in the military, regardless of their rank, position, race, creed, color, religion, gender, or sexual preference. He sees people as people, created in the image of God who are all worthy of being cared for, respected, and loved.

We lose a fine chaplain tomorrow. I know that Vince will continue to care for and serve people as a minister in his church regardless of what he does next in life, and that he will always be my friend and care about me.

I think Vince would agree with the words of Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and the former head of U.S. Special Forces Command:

“Remember… start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the bullies, life up the downtrodden, and never, ever give up – if you do these things, then you can change your life for the better… and maybe the world!”

I am honored to have a part in his retirement ceremony today, for he is worthy of being honored for his service to God and country. It is an honor to have served with him, for he truly is my brother.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Bond

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is going to be a busy and sad day as we gather with friends to remember the life of our friend Dave Shaw. I wrote about his unexpected loss over the weekend and as such, since I am not going to have time to write anything new I am going to reach back into the archives an re-post an article that I wrote back in June of 2011 about the bond that is shared by those who go to war. Dave served as a Navy Corpsman aboard various Navy ships, hospitals, and with the Marines. He retired as a Chief Petty Officer, as did my dad. He was a friend and brother, and, like so many others he will be missed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large. You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis. But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military. That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them. This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two. Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones. And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war. At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform. In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees. Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone. The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two. In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war. While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that. This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced. So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters. They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood. However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea. All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected. For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.” I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual. Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience. All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers. We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us. Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone. Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters. When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul. PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour. I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul. These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed. There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure. The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq KIA US 4463 UK 179 Other 139 Total 4781

Afghanistan KIA US 1637 UK 374 Other 537 Total 2548

US Wounded Iraq 32227 Afghanistan 11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now. The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters. I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break. These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return. I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital. We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three years since my PTSD crash. However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat. There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so. Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience. Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions. The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s. He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us. In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.” That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound. The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Friendship Matters more than Anything 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today just a short reflection on friendship following the unexpected death of yet another friend. Today some of us gathered at our favorite watering hole who remember him, and to console each other. There were hugs, tears, and many shared memories, but there was also silence because all too often the words failed us, and all we hand was the silence, and the embrace of friends. 

I value true friendship more than most anything and I am loathe to give up friends for any reason. Sadly, all too many people are willing to toss friendship aside for extreme politics or religion. I hate to say it but I have had to separate myself from people that I presumed were friends whose extreme right or left wing ideology, or religious beliefs were so toxic and seemingly uncaring about my friendship to for them that I had to withdraw. 

Ulysses S. Grant who is one of my heroes with feet of clay remarked, “The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.” Grant’s ever mindful friend and subordinate William Tecumseh Sherman noted, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand together.”  

Having endured gloom, having been what some would call crazy, and having been drunk, I understand this. One cannot put a price on true friendship, be it the steadfast friends of many years, or newer friends who maybe do not have the benefit of th  years, but certainly have bonded with me and become my brothers or sisters. William Shakespeare wrote that Henry V said “We, we happy few, we band of brothers…” That is friendship. Maybe that is why as a career military man I find that friendship, especially the friendship borne of adversity matters more than anything. I can handle disagreement over politics or religion so long as I believe that the person still values and cares about me as much as I do them, and as long as that is the case I will do everything I can for them, in good times and bad. 

Tonight I again watched the movie Gettysburg. In it there is a scenes where the late Richard Jordan, playing Confederate General Lewis Armistead talked of his friendship with other officers just before they went their separate ways prior to the beginning of the Civil War. He recalled a song of friendship, love, and loss called Kathleen Mouvereen. The words to that Irish song are haunting, 

Mavoureen, mavoureen, my sad tears are falling, to think that from Erin and thee I must depart. It may be for years, it may be forever, then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart… 

Those words are haunting to anyone who truly loves friends in times of loss and adversity, I know that they are for me. Maybe it is just the Irish in my DNA, maybe it is also being a career military man, for truly I know little different, for being both a military officer, a priest, and a historian is what I was meant to be, honestly I cannot imagine anything else. Thus, my views and values of friendship reflect that reality. 

There are many quotes and sayings about friendship and believe me I read a lot of them today, but I always return to Grant, Sherman, and my own band of brothers. 

So have a good night. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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A Pause to Reflect on Iraq, Afghanistan and Unpopular Wars on a Sunday Night

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

Five years ago I was in the process of deploying to Iraq.  It is hard to believe that it has been that long.

For me the past few weeks have been filled with sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares, mostly related to my time in Iraq.  I have been far more hyper-vigilant and anxious than I have been for a while.  Crowds and crowded places cause me great anxiety. I guess it is sort of like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.  The experiences and places are forever in my mind. I can close my eyes and the images are fresh.

I jokingly refer to my continuing struggle with PTSD as the “Mad Cow,” somehow that takes some of the edge off for me.  But even my attempt at humor belies the fact that it does get old.

At the same time because of my service in Iraq I am part of a very special brotherhood, that brotherhood that Shakespeare’s Henry V voiced so well.

I have the wonderful opportunity to serve alongside men and women who have given much for this country, men and women who also bear the wounds of war, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral. I have the honor of serving with men and women who continue to deploy in harm’s way to Afghanistan and being stationed at one of the installations that have borne then heavy burden of this war I am reminded daily of the cost of it. I look at the casualty reports daily and last week yet another Marine Military policeman from Camp LeJeune was killed in Afghanistan. Two sailors from a Squadron based in Norfolk were killed in the crash of an MH-53 Helicopter in Oman, an aircraft sent to beef up capabilities against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This weekend at least 8 NATO troops or contractors were killed in Afghanistan, three being American contractors  killed by an Afghan policeman while training Afghan police in Herat. The war is never far away.

I am also grateful to people in the community who care to say a kind word when I am in public in uniform. Many people in the area have served in uniform, many during Vietnam as well as an ever dwindling number of World War II and Korea War vets.  I have had to make trips up to a local jail in a town up the road from us to see two of my sailors accused in a terrible crime.  I make those visits in uniform and on the way back one day I stopped to get a Coke at a store. As I walked in a man thanked me for my service.  While I was paying another man began to talk to me. He also thanked me and then went to describe his service in Vietnam.

Such encounters are humbling for me and a reminder of the very special brotherhood that I am just a part. That brotherhood for me is especially close for the that liked me served in Iraq but also Afghanistan, Vietnam and by extension the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria. We are veterans of unpopular wars that are fought by a minute segment of the population.

I saw a video of an advisor to Mitt Romney note that “real Americans don’t care about Afghanistan.” I did not take his remark personally but it did hit home. The man is a seasoned political advisor, his business is to look at numbers and polls. It was a remark that showed me what I already know, that for many Americans the war is not real.  Unfortunately as real as the war is to me and to many people that I know we are in the minority. The most recent opinion polls show that Afghanistan ranks 10th of 10 major issues that Americans are concerned about.  At the same time polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the nation.

Tonight I will try to sleep and in the morning, Inshallah, I will wake up and go back to serve the men and women who serve this country caring for the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, veterans and their families at Camp LeJeune.

The war is not over and despite what opinion polls and politicians say it is important to some of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Thoughts after a Walk on the Beach: The Tapestry of Navy Life and Relationships

I walked Molly down to the beach tonight as she insists on every night that it is not raining.  In the dark sky the stars twinkled and I pondered the events of the past few days.  The roar of the surf and the phosphorescent waves breaking on the white sands of the beach are comforting and the fact that the dog likes the walk and is funny to watch makes it most enjoyable and relaxing experiences outside of baseball that I know. I am able to do a lot of thinking, and even some praying in the stillness of these night walks. Last night was all about the tapestry of military life and relationships.

Despite its size the US Military is quite small in relationship to the rest of the population. Military life is unpredictable and the relationships that we have with each other are very interconnected in ways that are seldom duplicated in the civilian world. That is especially true of those that serve together overseas, in combat zones or deployed on ships for long periods of time.

Our lives become bound together and even though our service together may be measured in but a few years or in some cases months, the ongoing friendship and relationships go on the rest of our lives. I have seen that growing up as my parents Navy friends and the tapestry is quite amazing.

Gerry and I at his Retirement 

Gerry and I go a ways back and have been together through good times and bad, promotions and success, deployments but also difficult times. During those times we have been able to be there for each other, from the unexpected death of his wife from a heart attack to him being there for me after my return from Iraq.  He attended my promotion to Lieutenant Commander and I had the honor of officiating at his retirement ceremony.

Gerry and his family experienced another hard blow when his four year old grandson was critically injured last week. We talked about it but decided to wait for me to travel to Virginia. However late on Saturday night I received a call from the duty chaplain for the Norfolk area asking if I would come to baptize my friend’s grandson. The duty chaplain is another long time friend who responded to the situation and helped support Gerry and his family during the crisis on Saturday.

My command gave me the permission to make the trip which involved me having to pass the on call chaplain duty to one of my subordinate chaplains.  It is amazing how in the Navy more often than not commands will do whatever they can to care for their sailors and families. We tend to look out for each other. Some commands are better than others but I really don’t know any other organization that works as hard to make sure that their people and families get support in crisis situations as the Navy does. It is not perfect and sometimes thing don’t work out but more often than not the people that run the organization know the importance of taking care of the Navy family.

Gerry’s grandson appears to be making his way out of danger and the baptism service at the bedside in the Pediatric ICU was very special.  Please pray for little Evan as he continues to recover and his family as they navigate the difficult times ahead.

Before I drove back to North Carolina Monday morning I had coffee with my friend after doing some more ministry with the family.  We talked of the specialness of the Navy family and the friends that we know that will be there for us.  Having been on the both sides of this equation I can say that it is something special.

Of course I will continue to be in contact with my friend and his family and see them on the times that I visit my own dear wife Judy, who as some many other Navy wives do is spent another Valentine’s day without me.  At least the gift that I ordered got to her on time and she is happy with it even though I could not be there.  I have lost count of the number of special days that we have been apart during my career in both the Army and the Navy. But that is another subject for another time.

The subject is the relationships that our lives our part of an indelible tapestry woven together with the lives of others. The tapestry is not simply composed of the most beautiful or pleasant events, often it is woven out of the tragedy and suffering that brings us together.

On Friday I will be conducting a memorial service for one of our sailors that died just two months before he was to retire. I did not know him well, but he touched many lives and in addition to his family many sailors will be coming in for this memorial service at their own expense from all parts of the country.

With members of my boarding team on the USS Hue City in the Arabian Gulf 2002

In the Navy and for that matter in the rest of the military we share the dangers and hardships of defending our country, deploying away from our families, and going to war.  Our families share in that as well. Our lives and experiences be they be joyful, triumphal or painful are shared.  It is in reality so much like the words of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name; “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans