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To Iraq and Back: A Bus Ride to Carolina

Coach_USA_ShortLine_50889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

To Iraq and Back: A Last Night Together and a Kiss Goodbye

295_27076787058_8676_nJudy and I on the German Sail Training Ship Gorch Fock at the Norfolk Harbor Fest a couple of weeks before deployment

This is another of my “To Iraq and Back” articles about my deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 with RP1 Nelson Lebron. 

Now the time has come to leave you
One more time Let me kiss you
And close your eyes and I’ll be on my way
Dream about the days to come, When I won’t have to leave alone
About the times, That I won’t have to say

Oh, kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
Cause Im leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

From “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLBKOcUbHR0

The night before leaving on deployment and the actual day of departure are some of the hardest that any military couples or families experience. In time of war it is even more difficult. Judy and I have done this too many times in peace and war.

As I went through all of my preparations to go to Iraq in some was it was a replay of past pre-deployment situations. However, this time I was not merely deploying on a peacetime assignment or supporting a peace making operation, or even deploying on a ship and being part of a boarding team after the 9-11-2001 attacks. In that last instance  Judy did not know that I was part of the boarding team until about halfway through the deployment.

But this time going boots on ground into the most bitterly of Iraq’s contested provinces, Al Anbar. That lent at certain dark pallor to the occasion.

Our last night together was rather somber to put it mildly. Judy and I went out to dinner on Friday night. Since I knew that I would not be having a good beer for quite some time we went to the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach. For us Gordon Biersch is generally a good time kind of place, it has become over the years our version of Cheers a place where everyone knows our name.

That last Friday before the deployment to Iraq it was not a festive occasion, it was almost a wake. Judy and I were both quite subdued. In between the silence Judy talked about her fears about the deployment while I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine. I am a man who is somewhat Vulcan in my use of logic. I figured that even though things were bad in Iraq that my chances of returning were quite high, even of something happened to me. I tried to be calm and reassuring and no matter what I tried it didn’t work, human emotions are quite intense at times.

I also reasoned that since I had taken out the extra life insurance that I would be okay.  For me such logic makes sense. I kind of believe that if I don’t get it I will need it and if I do get it I won’t. It’s kind of like Yogi Berra’s logic when he said “You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”

After dinner and several half liter glasses of Gordon Biersch Märzen amber lager we went back home. Judy watched quietly while I finalized my packing. I ensured that all my field gear, uniforms and clothing were packed and rechecked my EOD issue protective gear.

I then packed my Mass kit, Bible, Prayer Book and my Marine Pattern camouflage reversible desert/woodland stole. The stole was special as Judy had made me a few years back from woodland and desert pattern shirts which were way too big for me. They are one of a kind items. I have seen similar, but what Judy made were far better than any others that I have seen. I still use that stole even when I am not deployed. It is simple but quite exquisite, adorned with an embroidered Maltese Cross in tan on the desert side and black on the woodland side it is unique and I treasure it.

The last items I packed were my books on counterinsurgency, a few DVD movies, music CDs and my hygiene items. It is funny to think that now all of this would be stored on my iPad which if I ever make such a deployment again will significantly simplify my life.

I wrestled the big bags down the stairs and put them in the back of my Honda CR-V so I wouldn’t have to fight them in the morning. That accomplished Judy and I just sat together, she was feeling pretty low, the look one of despair.

On the other hand I was a mix of conflicting emotions. I was excited by knowing that I was going to get to do what I had trained all of my life to do. However I was very cognizant of the reality that it would be tough on Judy and that it was a dangerous deployment.

My last couple of deployments had been very tough on her. When I deployed to support the Bosnia mission as a mobilized Army Reservist and newly ordained Priest three of my relatives in Huntington West Virginia where we were living died. One was my maternal grandmother “Ma Maw” who Judy had become very close to over the past couple of years. They had become buddies and Ma Maw had taken Judy in not as my wife, but as “her” granddaughter.

Ma Maw’s death hit Judy very hard and my mom and uncle in the midst of their grief over the loss of their mom they did not understood the depth of the relationship between Judy and Ma Maw. As a result, I was absent and there was much tension, misunderstanding and hurt feelings between them. In the week before Ma Maw’s death Judy tried repeatedly to get her to go to the doctor only to be ignored. The morning Ma Maw died Judy called me in Germany. She was frantic that I call Ma Maw and insist that she go to the doctor. I made the call and insisted that she go to the Emergency Room but she refused and said she would call her doctor. That night she died. I had lost my grandmother and could not go back to help and Judy had lost a woman who had become closer to her than her own grandmothers ever had been.

In 2001 during my deployment with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines to Okinawa, Japan and Korea we lost our 16 ½ year old Wire Haired Dachshund Frieda. Judy did her nest to keep Frieda alive for me, but there was nothing that could be done and finally with Judy being worn down to nothing herself, she was persuaded to have Frieda put down. The interesting thing is that after Frieda died she visited me in Okinawa and Judy about the same time in dreams. Frieda was always a weird animal and even in death has continued to find ways to remind us of her presence.

My 2002 deployment on USS HUE CITY to the Middle East and Horn of Africa came less than six months after my return from my deployment with 3/8. That deployment, coming on the heels of the 9-11-2001 attacks was also very difficult on her. In the space of 6 years we had been apart almost 4 1/2 years. Much of the time following that last deployment was spent on the road as I travelled to visit Marine Security Force and Navy EOD Mobile Units in the Middle East, Europe, the Far East and the Continental United States. In a four year period I averaged 1-3 weeks a month away from home.

With all of this in the background we spent our last night together. That night neither of us slept very well. When we got up I had a light breakfast and then accompanied by a friend from Judy’s Church choir we drove to the base.

Saturday morning traffic is generally not too bad so our trip was uneventful, but tense.  You could cut the tension between us by now with a knife.  It was about the time that we were nearing the base Judy said something about our relationship that I took really wrong. I sarcastically snapped back “Well I’ll just get blown up by an IED then.”

That sarcastic comment really hit her hard and I knew immediately that I had blown myself up with it. The words were harsh and devastating. I should have known better and should have kept my moth shut. After all I’d deployed a lot and taught pre-deployment classes talking about the emotional cycle of deployments. I was supposed to be an expert at this sort of thing, but instead my comment was very cruel.

To be sure the stress on both of us the preceding weeks had taken its toll and both of us were on edge.  For two months we had each in our own way imagined the deployment, me as a great adventure and her as a threat to our mutual existence. I wondered just what I would face when I got to Iraq and those were unanswerable questions. Judy’s great fear that something might happen to me and that she would be alone, not just for the time of the deployment but for the rest of her life.

That is one of the tensions in a military marriage that many people who have not lived it fail to understand. It is not just the wartime deployments it is the cumulative effects of multiple short and long term separations on the health of a relationship.

We got to the base pretty quick, maybe 15-20 minutes but the tension made me feel that the trip was three times as long. As we pulled up in a parking spot near the baggage drop off area we sat there for a few minutes. I got out of the car as did Judy.  I asked if she wanted to wait a while with me and with tears in her eyes said that she couldn’t handle the wait.

I unloaded my gear with the help of Nelson. He looked at Judy and said, “Don’t you worry ma’am we’ll do good and I’ll keep him safe.” Judy gave a soft “thanks” and gave him a hug.

With my gear unloaded I went back to Judy.  We looked at each other, embraced and kissed each other, each of us wondering if it was possibly the last time. We parted our embrace, and she the turned and walked back to the car, handed her friend the keys and they drove off.  It was a moment that I will not forget as long as I live. As she left I said a prayer under my breath and asked God to keep her safe while I was gone.  Then I turned to Nelson and said, “Okay partner, let’s get this done.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, marriage and relationships, Military, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

The Brotherhood: Veterans Day 2013

I am always a bit on the melancholy side on Veterans Day.  This year is no different but is a bit different because for the United States the war in Iraq is over, at least for now while the war in Afghanistan grinds on as we prepare to transition.

For me our wars are more about the incredibly small number of Americans who for the past 12 years have borne the burden of these wars.  They are my brothers and sisters, the 0.45% of Americans that serve in the military.  While this is a terribly low number it is only marginally lower than most of our previous wars.

In fact for most of our history it has always been a small minority of Americans that have fought our wars.  Kind of funny when you think about how much our culture worships militarism. World War II was an anomaly as just over 16.1 million people or 9% of the population served in the military then.  That number while large pales in comparison with percentages of those that served in other nations involved in the Second World War. The reason that I point this out is just to say that as a nation it has always been the few that have borne the cost of war. We are “the few.”

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. The real fact of the matter is that these ill advised wars have harmed us as a military and as a nation, our superpower status which was uncontested before 9-11-2001 is challenged because our military is hollowed out, economy weakened and our moral authority questioned by those wars, war crimes and spy scandals.

I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most Americans 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 have become a society apart from the society.

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 many of the 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, most who were drafted, 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  4483       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4801

Afghanistan     KIA  US  2290         UK 446     Other 659        Total  3395

US Wounded   Iraq  32224      Afghanistan   17674

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 six years since I served in Iraq and five 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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Filed under History, Military, shipmates and veterans

Veterans Day 2011: Giving Thanks for the Veterans in my Life

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA 19 around 1971 or 1972

I always become a bit more thoughtful around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 30 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way.

I come from a Navy family. My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was an adventure for me and that Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after.  My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.”

My dad retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return fromVietnamand saw howVietnamveterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated with scorn.  Instead of being depicted a Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.  That was also my introduction to war; the numbers shown in the nightly news “body count” segment were flesh and blood human beings.

LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraqshook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN )

Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours inVietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA andFortLewishad a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group inVietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted advisor at UCLA.  An infantryman he served with the 173rd Airborne inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours inVietnam.  Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called “Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut.” It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number ofVietnamtours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

Me with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon US Army at Colonel Allmon’s Change of Command at Ft Myer Virginia 2005 

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

Me with my boarding team on USS HUE CITY CG-66 2002

My life more recently has been impacted by others. Since coming into the Navy I have been blessed to serve with the Marines and Sailors of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, 1st Battalion 8th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Desroches, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines and Colonel Lou Rachal and Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake.   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 inIraq. They and all theVietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at HarborPark all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis 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, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

With advisers to 1st Brigade 1st Iraq Army Division, Ramadi Iraq 2007

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has doneIraq3 times,Afghanistan,Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day.  Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

The Bond

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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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans, Tour in Iraq

Memorial Day 2011: Counting the Cost of War and Remembering its Brotherhood

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” William Shakespeare “Henry V”

“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Monday is Memorial Day, the ninth that we have observed during our current series of wars which officially began on September 11th 2001.  One could argue that they had begun sooner with attacks on U.S. Forces and installations overseas and even the attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  But we really did not go to war until that fateful Tuesday in September 2001.  As we come to Memorial Day I am a bit melancholy as the war continues, force reductions loom, threats abound and I observe my first Memorial Day without my father, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam who died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in June 2010.

Iraq Military Training Team in West Al Anbar

We did go to war but it was not like wars past where we relied on a true national effort to win the wars. The wars have been fought by a force profession force of Active and Reserve Component Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen that hovers a bit above a half a percent of the total population. Of those eligible for service most do not meet the entrance requirements for military service meaning that the prosecution of the war has been the task of a miniscule portion of the population.  Shortly after the 9-11 attacks President George Bush urged Americans to do their civic duty “go shopping” to get the economy moving.  As a career military officer I was aghast at his words. While he praised the military at every turn and increased military budgets, much of which went to defense contactors the actual heavy lifting was and continues to be done by men and women who volunteer to keep going back.  While the military fights the war Wall Street does business in a manner that is good for it and the vast majority of Americans are totally immersed in self-entertainment, the latest video gaming system or imbibing on a constant diet of “reality TV.”  Others on both sides of the political spectrum elect to shred their political opponents to itty bitty sheds and maneuver to gain political advantage and power without really caring what is happing to the country despite their proclamations of doing what is right for America.  In regard to the troops most of the political classes only seem to care when it affects their state, district or party.

Advisors in Afghanistan 

This Thursday 9 more Americans were killed in Afghanistan, eight in an IED blast while on a mission to root the Taliban out of a suspected strongpoint and another in a helicopter crash.  In Afghanistan we have lost 1514 military personnel killed in action or died of wounds. Another 11191 have been wounded. Additionally or NATO Allies have lost 889 military personnel listed as killed or died of wounds. In Iraq 4454 U.S troops have been killed and another 32227 troops have been wounded.  Additionally 318 Coalition troops have been killed in Iraq.  None of these figures include the high number of personnel with PTSD, mild to moderate TBI or other psychological and spiritual wounds.  5968 Americans have been listed as killed or died of wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan while another 43,418 have been officially listed as wounded.

Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen.  It is a day to reflect on the sacrifice of those that have died in the service of our country.  Originally established as Decoration Day and its roots stretch back to the Civil War.  Other nations have similar remembrances for their war dead.  Unfortunately because our military is such a small part of our population and now concentrated into a few major bases often out of sight and out of mind of most Americans the observance has become a kick off to the summer for most Americans who are blissfully unaware of the real costs of war.  In a way I can’t really fault them because when the war began with an attack on our shores our President did not call the nation to make sacrifices to win the war he told people to go shopping while “the few” would take the war to the enemy and avenge the devastation of September 11th 2001.  It turned the vast majority of the country into cheerleaders or bystanders.  History shows time after time that nations that wage war this way seldom achieve their goals.

As Clausewitz so aptly observed that war the nature or the “remarkable trinity of war” violent emotion, chance and rational policy which are balanced with the social trinity of the people, the commander and the army and the government (or in the case of non-nation state actors tribal, social or revolutionary leaders) necessitates that the people have to be part of the equation if one is to successfully conduct a war.  While it is possible to win short wars without much support of the people any long conflict necessitates that the people be engaged as much as the military and the government policy makers, especially in a democracy. Vietnam was a classic example of the social trinity gone bad. Policy makers failed to set goals for the prosecution of the war, military leaders attempted to fight the war with operational theories and forces that were not adapted to the type of war being fought and ignored the lessons of history regarding the type of war and eventually the people turned on the policy makers and the military as the war ground on with no apparent victory in sight.  The same can be seen in the current conflict in Afghanistan with the government pushing a policy that seems to have little strategic benefit or chance of success.  A military that can inflict punishing losses on the Taliban without destroying them or due to limited resources hold onto areas that they drove the enemy and a public that is divided between cheerleaders, critics and bystanders.  Few of the latter have any personal stake in the war other than bearing some of the financial cost and having to it occasionally referred to in the news cycle.  Our “trinity” is dysfunctional and will be our undoing despite the heroic efforts of those who give their “last full measure” on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

While we can discuss ways bring functionality back to our social trinity and the “remarkable trinity” or essence of war we must understand that our enemies, even non state actors often have a much more congruent view of war than we do and how to connect their strategic goals, military strategy and leverage the energy of the people against the United States and our Western allies.  They do not have our military power and wherever we meet them on the battlefield where we can employ our tactical superiority in weapons and training we have success but we have been unable to translate battlefield success into victory because we do not understand the nature of the conflict, the heart and will of our enemy and are dysfunctional in our own social, military, policy and political understanding of this war and how to win it.

What does this mean to those that have given their “last full measure” and those “happy few” that bear the burden of prosecuting the war? It means that their sacrifices may not be enough and will like the veterans of Vietnam come home without victory despite never losing a battle.  After Vietnam the force was cut back, military personnel who gave all they had on the battlefield were turned out of the service and even officers reverted to enlisted status to remain in the Army and Marine Corps.  Today even as the war rages cuts are being made to the force and those cuts will only get bigger as time goes on. Like Vietnam we already have a substantial number of veterans suffering from wounds physical, psychological and spiritual unable to get adequate care or assistance from an overburdened, underfunded, under staffed and often dysfunctional or even worse uncaring Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Others that have served most of their careers at war and are approaching retirement are seeing the benefits that they earned with their flesh and blood and the long sacrifice of themselves and their families being termed “a rich entitlement program” targeted for reductions in pensions and medical care.  People that make these decisions if they served in the military at all often served only in peacetime or in times of short military conflicts and thus really do not understand the terrible cost and burdens placed on those that serve and continue to serve in this “war without end.”

Since Monday is Memorial Day and I simply ask that people take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices of those that served in this war, wars past or those that continue to volunteer and serve in harm’s way far from home in a cause that the government does not understand and the public no longer supports.  Yes people treat military personnel better than in times past, there is little hostility to the military but at the same time has little social connection to or understanding of, thus we are a small brotherhood forged by a war that most of our fellow citizens can comprehend.

One of my Brothers: RP2 Nelson Lebron in Iraq

As for all who served we are part of a Band of Brothers.  As William Shakespeare so well wrote in Henry V:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. 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.

Kenneth Branagh Henry V: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM

At the same time I cannot count the number of men and women that have come to me and expressed their regret at never having served when they had the chance. By and large they are wonderful people that live with this regret. In a sense they know well the last part of the Henry V speech “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.” For such men and women I can bear no hostility because the regrets that they live with are more than I would want to live with. When spending time with people living in regret I simply to do what they do in an honorable manner, take care of their families and support the troops in any way that they can.

One of my Band of Brothers MTT with 3rd Battalion 3rd Brigade 7th Iraqi Division

As for me I continue to serve affected by war in ways that I never imagined when I enlisted nearly 30 years ago. All those who have served, past present and future are my brothers and sisters and it matters not their social status, race, religion or politics as Shakespeare noted  “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….”

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier” about his return home from war, society and that brotherhood, something that many who have served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can share:

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

I had looked everywhere for Hals, but hadn’t been able to find him. He filled my thoughts, and only my acquired ability to hide my feelings kept me from weeping. He was attached to me by all the terrible memories of the war, which still rang in my ears. He was my only friend in this hostile world, the man who had so often carried my load when my strength was failing, I would never be able to forget him, or the experiences we had shared, or our fellow soldiers, whose lives would always be linked to mine.”

Most of us that have served in combat zones have memories like that and like the people in the train most people don’t understand.  One thing that I do know is that I am part of a brotherhood that extends from time in memoriam to the consummation of time when war will be no more, death will be swallowed up in victory and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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