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Veterans Day 2010: Counting the Cost of War

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” General Robert E. Lee

Veterans Day had become a rather somber occasion for me over the past decade and since returning from Iraq in 2008 has taken on added personal significance.  I have noticed that I have become much more reflective about the sacrifices made by our military and the terrible coasts of war on our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and their families in this age of the all volunteer military.  The military which has about 2,225,000 members including the Reserves and National Guard is just 0.7% of the total population, the lowest percentage of military personnel compared to total population during any war in our history.  As a result this force has borne the brunt of a war that no politicians or bureaucrats figured would last half as long as it has.  As a result the “few” have been asked to do more for longer than and military that this nation has ever fielded during a war.

Thus for me Veterans Day has become a rather somber and reflective occasion as I ponder all the sacrifices made by our military and their families. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military has lost 1378 killed and our allies another 825.  In Iraq 4427 U.S. Military personnel have died along with 318 allied soldiers, not including the Iraqi military losses.  For each of the killed there are about 8 more wounded a total of over 38,000 wounded.  Of course the wounded numbers do not include 170,000+ cases of hearing damage; 130,000+ cases of mild traumatic brain injuries; and 200,000+ cases of serious mental health problems, over 30,000 serious disease cases, including a disfiguring, parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which results from bites of sand flies; thousands of cases of respiratory disease linked to exposure to toxic burn pit smoke and hundreds of suicides.  Then there are the injuries related to road and aviation accidents not in direct combat.  In my recent assignments in Iraq and Naval Medical facilities I have seen the human cost of the war.  I have friends who suffer as the result of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and Pulmonary diseases as well as those that have been wounded as the result enemy action.  I have a dear friend with a rare and irreversible pulmonary condition from two tours in Iraq. He is 41 his lungs are those of a 70 year old man.  My best friend, a senior Naval Officer is still suffering from the effects of TBI and PTSD incurred while serving with the Marines in Al Anbar Province.

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA-19 off Vietnam circa 1971-72

A year ago on Veterans Day I was at with my parents in Stockton California to visit my mom and my dad who was then in a nursing facility due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a terrible visit conflict with my mother due to witches’ brew of my PTSD and grief for my dad and my mother’s struggles with my dad’s condition and her own physical condition.  I visited my dad every day when in two and unfortunately he did not know who I was, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of everything that made him my dad.  He died on June 23rd of this year a day after I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander.  My dad was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam on a beach detachment manning an emergency airfield in the besieged city of An Loc in 1972.  He never talked about that tour or what happened there except to tell me that he saw the Communists executing civilians in the city from his observation point.  He came home a changed man.  Thankfully he is now out of his suffering and our family is beginning to find its way back from the abyss of his illness.

I have served for over 29 years in the Army and the Navy and have witnessed many things and been blessed to have my life enriched by many veterans.  Unfortunately many of these brave men have since passed away, some having lived many years and others that have died far too young as a result of service connected injuries.

With advisors to the 3rd Bn, 3rd Brigade 7th Iraq Division COP South 2008

In my current work I see many young men that wear the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I see those that need assistance to walk, amputees, men with obvious scars from burns and others suffering blindness from their injuries. Our hospital’s Medical Board sees 40-60 Marines and Sailors a day, quite a few of whom that will be medically retired due to their injuries.  There are also those that have died by their own hand suffering from psychological and spiritual injuries too deep to fathom, we had one of our own Corpsman suicide last week.

The cost of war is terrible, as General William Tecumseh Sherman so eloquently put it: “War is Hell.”

Despite this our brave men and women that serve in all branches of the military as well as those that have gone before us in the 235 year history of our military have shouldered the load, for most of that history depending on volunteers who often served in obscurity often derided by their fellow Americans who believed that the military was a place to go if you could not be successful in the civilian world. The pay was low, the duty arduous and benefits few. In the Civil War, the World Wars and up until 1974 the professionals were augmented by draftees who outnumbered the professionals by a huge margin.  Since 1974 the force has been an all volunteer force.

Health and Comfort Board Team USS Hue City, Northern Arabian Gulf May 2002

Regardless of whether our Veterans were draftees or volunteers they have served this country well and on the whole to use the current Navy description are “A Global Force for Good.” The countries liberated from oppressors and helped in humanitarian operations by American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are many and varied.  They have represented the spectrum of our society and represent the best the country has to offer.  Unfortunately they have not always been honored by some of their our countrymen and women and sometimes the children and grandchildren of the peoples that they liberated from Nazi, Fascist or Communist oppressors who often use the wrongdoing of a few military personnel or the decisions or actions of American politicians or businessmen to label American military personnel as criminals.

Unfortunately since the military is such a small part of our population and concentrated in a few large bases it is invisible to most Americans as they live their daily lives. Often in isolated from the bulk of America such as Killeen Texas home of the U.S. III Corps and Jacksonville North Carolina the home of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and Second Marine Division are quintessential military towns but neither are near major population centers and thus the sacrifice of these Soldiers, Marines and Sailors goes unnoticed by most of the nation.  In a sense the human cost of the war falls inordinately upon these military communities where there are few strangers.

In spite of this the current men and women of the American Military train, deploy, fight and return every day as they have since the 9-11-2001 attacks, many if not most have made multiple combat tours.  I have been pleased to see more support of the military in the media, especially sports media and leagues.  Many businesses are taking time to offer things of value to servicemen and women and those businesses should be commended and patronized.  I was touched by many stories that I saw about our veterans on ESPN over the past few days.  http://www.espnmediazone3.com/us/2010/11/espn%E2%80%99s-weeklong-salute-to-veterans-day/

Many of our Reserve component personnel give up civilian employment and chances for promotion to serve in the military, particularly when they are mobilized for service. When they return home most return to towns and cities that have little of the support afforded to active duty members when they return.  I pray that our political leaders in the future will exercise discernment and wisdom before committing us to another war. Otto Von Bismarck said: “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the current members of the House, Senate and Executive branch have little connection to the military as very few have served and I wonder if any really comprehend this maxim.  In the 111th Congress 120 members had some form of military service.  The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).  Those who have served a full military career are far fewer; the number of congressmen with military careers will remain relatively constant for the 112th Congress. In the Senate there will be one (as compared with two in 2006 and one in 2008) and in the House there will be eight (as compared with four in 2006 and six in 2008).  Some of these Congressional Veterans have been vilified by some broadcasters and pundits of the extreme right wing media most of whom who have never served in the military.  On the positive side nine members of the new Congress will have served in the current wars which hopefully will help promote the sacrifice of our current Veterans and help with programs that will help returning Veterans.

I have seen the cost of war up close and personal in Iraq and back here in the States. I suffer some the afflictions described as a result of my service and see the young men and women many of whom were not yet born when I enlisted in the Army, or when I was commissioned as an Army Officer, when I was a Company Commander or when I was a senior Captain in the Army. These young men and women are heroes.

Please take a moment to thank a Veteran.  If you have time volunteers are always welcome at organizations such as the USO and American Red Cross working with our troops, join or support organizations which promote the causes of Veterans including the Iraq Afghanistan Veteran’s Association www.iava.org the Veterans of Foreign Wars http://www.vfw.org/, American Legion http://www.legion.org/ , Marine Corps League http://www.mcleague.org/, the Fleet Reserve Association http://www.fra.org/, the Association of the U.S. Army http://www.ausa.org and the Disabled American Veterans http://www.dav.org/. There are also many charitable organizations that provide assistance to Veterans and their families’ one of the best being the Fisher House Foundation http://www.fisherhouse.org/ which provides comfortable and free lodging to the families of wounded, injured or sick military personnel on bases adjacent to military hospitals. I found these ten ways that you can help on Yahoo.com:

1. At 11 a.m., observe a moment of silence for those who’ve fought and died while in service to the country

2. Display an American flag

3. Attend a Veterans Day parade

4. Thank a vet for his/her service

5. Send a letter to troops through the U.S. Department of Defense Website

6. Work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen

7. Visit a veteran’s grave or pick up trash at a veterans cemetery

8. Visit with the family of a veteran who’s serving overseas

9. Visit with a wounded vet at a local VA facility

10. Donate to the USO, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars USA or other organizations that honor and assist vets

Keep us all in your prayers and please when Veterans Day is past do not forget those of us that serve and our families, especially those men and women serving in harm’s way.  To my friends and comrades I echo the words of the German commander to his troops in captivity at the end of the Band of Brother’s mini-series:

“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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Going to War: Interlude in Fallujah Reunions, Redirection and a Stay at the Ramadan Inn

marine 155s in fallujahUSMC 155mm Howitzer firing on Insurgents at Fallujah in 2007

Note: This is the latest installment of my “Going to War” Series.  Other postings in this series are located in the Subjects section under “Tour In Iraq.” The series chronicles the tour of Religious Support Team-2 of the Iraq Assistance Group in MNF-West from July 2007-February 2008. We were the first Navy Chaplain and Assistant to work supporting advisers since the Vietnam War.

We woke up to the sound of more outgoing artillery fire.  The sun was shining outside as I look out my window at the sky above the California Barrier that protected our “suite” in the south wing of the Ramadan Inn.  Climbing out of the decrepit Iraqi bed with the fresh sheets I stumbled over my two tons of gear to look at the time while Nelson slept like a baby in his equally decrepit Iraqi bed.   My ever trusty alarm clock showed that it was about 0830, which meant we had gotten maybe 5 hours sleep and missed breakfast. Thankfully I had stockpiled a few pop-tarts and granola bars from the Camp Victory chow-hall the day before.   Opening the door and peering out into the hallway I saw it empty and walked across the hall to the head, shower and laundry room to do my morning business.   Despite being a Baath Party playground the suites at the Ramadan Inn were not furnished with their own toilet or shower, just a small sink and mirror.

ramadan innRamadan Inn

Though the Ramadan Inn had seen better days it was certainly, despite being the playground of Uday and Qusay Hussein it was not exactly a palace like those of their father Saddam.  It was somewhat reminiscent of an old and run down motel along Route 666.  The floor was a marble type tile and the sand painted concrete building with a flat roof.  I strolled over to the head in my PT-sleep clothes and was relieved to be able to relieve myself in a facility that had actual porcelain shitters which flushed using real water.  If you have been to Iraq or Afghanistan you know that this is not always the case.  The showers were passable being a more European design and the water was hot.  I guess even the cold water was hot in Fallujah with temps in the 120s.  Once I had gotten up I awakened Nelson, the sleeping beauty. He then went through his morning ritual to make himself presentable to the world.  Those who know nelson know that if he can he will take care of his personal hygiene.  I ate one of my Strawberry Filled frosted Pop Tarts washed done with water and when Nelson was ready we walked over to the Chaplain office.  It was like a maze to get there. We walked across the way a bit, took a right, made a left and went through the normal transient quarters area, took a right went up a block or two, took a left, made another left, wound our way past a decorative lake, took a right, went past a number of buildings before passing a final bank of green porta-johns finding the MEF- Forward Chaplain Office to our right.  The sun shone brightly and though not a long walk was relatively warm and by the time we got to the Chaplain Office I was sweating.

fallujah pondPond at Fallujah

The Chaplain office was like every other facility and was protected by California Barriers or Hesco’s. We were met by RP1 Roland and the Deputy MEF-FWD Chaplain CDR J.P. Hedges.  They were most hospitable and offered us water as well as coffee, which my caffeine deprived brain needed badly.  After introductions Nelson got together with RP1 Roland and I met with Chaplain Hedges doing the usual butt-sniffing that military professionals engage in when meeting someone for the first time.  This ritual usually consists of learning who our mutual friends are, where and with whom we had served in the Navy, where we went to school, something about our families and for Chaplains our faith tradition or denominational affiliation.  This is a customary act for chaplains as it is for other communities and specialties in the Navy.  On the positive side it is a way of making connection with each other and building relationships.  It is also a way or self preservation within the system as sometime there are people that do not have your best interests at heart. However for J.P. and I the meeting was very friendly. We d a lot of shared experiences in the types of duties we had done and we had mutual friends.  While we enjoyed conversation he began to introduce me to some of the things that had been going on in country the last few months.  After about 30 minutes Chaplain Mike Langston came in.  It was Mike who had worked with Peter Dissmore and the Corps Chaplain to bring us out to the west to cover the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

Mike had a couple of orders of business to take care of before he brought Nelson and I into his office and had our reunion. Nelson and I had both worked with Chaplain Langston.  It was good to see him again.  Nelson had worked for him in Afghanistan and I had been with him at 2nd Marine Division in 2000-2001.  He and Chaplain John Kaul arranged for me to take over Headquarters Battalion upon my return to work in a quasi-regimental billet with oversight of the independent battalions Religious Ministry Teams, though not the actual supervision of them. In addition to my regular duties counseling Marines, doing suicide interventions, conducting classes and supporting field exercises they used me, because of my experience to assist and evaluate chaplains who had been fired or relieved of their duties.  I got each one for 30-60 days to see if they could be recovered for further service or not.  In a sense this transformed me from a relief pitcher to a pitching coach.  Chaplain Langston was at a school when 9-11 occurred and during this time I was used as the Deputy Division Chaplain looking at readiness, training and potential deployment of our religious ministry teams with their units.  Both Nelson and I had experienced Chaplain Langston as a tough but fair chaplain.  What he did expect was that we would be out doing our job and keeping him or his office in the loop on our operations and issues facing us.  He did not attempt to micro-manage us.

bunkers_everywhere.jpg.w300h225Bunkers to Protect Against Indirect Fire at Camp Fallujah

Mike Langston is a prior Marine Corps Infantry Officer who had been a been a Company Commander and battalion staff officer as well as instructor at “The Basic Course” which is the leveling field for all Marine Corps officers regardless of their commissioning source.  He played football in college and still has the physique of a defensive lineman.  He left active duty and went to seminary and when he was ordained and graduated from seminary entered the Navy Chaplain Corps. He had since risen to the pinnacle of a career for most chaplains having been promoted to Captain, the same as a Colonel for the other services and assigned as the 2nd Marine Division Chaplain.  He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and kind with a high level of energy and emotion.  He explained the current situation in the Province was, the locations of the various Marine Regimental Combat Teams (RCT-2 and RCT-6) as well as the one Army Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division as well as the 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion and the MEF Aviation and logistics assets were located.  He then got down to the specifics of our mission which were pretty simple and suited to our personality as a ministry team. Basically he expected us to manage our own operations in the MEF area of operations. He expected that we coordinate our operations with the teams that we would support and keep his office informed of where we were going and what our general plan of operation was.  Since he had worked with both of us and we were both known and trusted quantities he gave us a tremendous amount of operational freedom to do our job.  His expectation was that we would be active and get out to the remotest places that we had training and assistance teams of advisors.  He told us about an Army team that had been based in Ramadi to do the job with the advisors.  He confirmed what Peter Dissmore had told us about this team.   They had never left the base in 4 months and basically hung out at the Ramadi main chapel. They managed to get their orders curtailed and left theater never once having contacted or visited any advisory teams.

ega fallujahMonument in the Traffic Circle at Camp Fallujah

We were also told of a change to our projected base of operations.  Our original plan of operations had us working out of the former British and Iraqi base at Habbinyah the location of the headquarters of the 1st Iraqi Division and the Advisors assigned to it.  Instead the Colonel in charge of those teams made the call that he could not support the operations of a Chaplain from his location. He held firm on this and the plan was changed so that we would operate from Ta’Qaddum a large air and logistic  hub about equidistant between Fallujah and Ramadi.  Ta’Qaddum is adjacent to Habbinyah on the south side of the Euphrates. It sits atop an escarpment overlooking the town to the north and Lake Habbinyah in the South.  In 1941 it was the site of a siege when the Iraqi military launched a revolt against the British who occupied the country despite it being given independence at the end of World War One.  The British we besieged in Habbinyah and the Iraq forces had the high ground atop the escarpment.  Unfortunately for the Iraqis and fortunately for the British the British forces had support from the Royal Air Force and the Iraqis had no logistics ability to support their units atop the escarpment.  The Iraqi forces were pounded and eventually a relief force arrived from Jordon to break the siege.  At TQ as it is known by most Americans we would be housed and taken care of by the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain, Commander Pat McLaughlin and his team.  We were instructed to make coordination to plan work with the teams supporting the 7th Iraqi Division, the 2nd Border Brigade, Iraqi Highway Patrol and the Provincial Police forces while working to build a bridge to the teams of the 1st Iraqi Division. The change was momentarily upsetting but ultimately it opened the door to the entire province where if we had been co-located with the 1st Division we may not have gotten out of its operational area.

Following the briefing, he, J.P, RP1 Roland, Nelson and I went to lunch at one of the two major chow halls on the camp where I met up with an old friend.  The friend was Captain Luke Fabiunke with whom I had served for 2 years at Marine Security Forces Battalion.  Luke was our S-6 and the Communications officer at Security Forces.  He was always fun to hang out with and was very supportive of my work as a chaplain there.  Luke was in the G-3 Operations shop t the MEF and specifically was working with the section that dealt with the training and advisory teams in the province.  It was good to see him and he immediately upon learning our mission asked how he could help.  This hook up was one that paid off in spades in the next 6 months.  It is a lesson that Chaplains need to build relationships with other staff officers in order to be successful, not just in their current assignment but in many cases later in their careers when they need assistance the most.  For me it helped meet my mission of finding and making contact with advisory teams of all types as soon as we hit the ground rather than operating blindly trying to figure our way around the labyrinth that was the operational setting for these teams.  I think that I owe Luke a beer or two for his assistance.

Following lunch we got to work.  Helped by Chaplain Hedges and RP1 Roland we were issued flight suits and Nelson a couple of sets of Marine Pattern Camouflage uniforms and I was issued two elderly Panasonic Tough Book laptops. One was set up for regular unclassified traffic and the other for classified work dealing with intelligence reports, weather and planning and submitting air movement requests.  Despite being a highly technological military when one gets into a combat zone technology assets for oddball teams like ours are sometimes scarce.  In fact I understood from Peter back at IAG that most of the Army teams had to share assets with others just to communicate.  Chaplain Langston and his staff ensured that we had freedom to be able to do our job without having to inconvenience others to do it.  They laptops may have been elderly but they worked.  Chaplain Hedges taught me the ins and outs of planning and coordinating the air support from Marine, Army and Air Force aviation assets and helped get us set up to do this.  Once again we got what we needed to do our mission.

We spent another three days in Fallujah preparing for the mission and making coordination with staff sections and others that we might have to call upon.  We also had a number of reunions with others that both of us had served with. I met Major Andy Niebel and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ottignon who I had served with a Second Combat Engineer Battalion. They were good friends then and are men for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect.  I also met a number of Chaplain with whom I had previously served or knew from other duty stations. One of these was LT Joe Buenviaje, who had been my RP at 1st Battalion 8th Marines when I had done my relief pitching job there.  Joe had cross-rated from being a Boiler Technician to the RP rating not long before I had met him.  We had qualified for the old FMF qualification together and I was able to help him begin his journey to be a Navy Chaplain.  I was also blessed and honored to baptize his children at Camp LeJuene.  Joe has a heart of gold and did well in Iraq.  He got out with his Marines a lot, once almost getting blown up by an explosive device which blew up a highway overpass where they had just been conducting services. With them was a Catholic priest who had likewise just celebrated Mass.  They were leaving the site when the explosion hit and following the attack helped to take care of the wounded.

Having a cross on your uniform in a chow hall can lead to interesting situations as well as ministry.  Some people will automatically avoid you when they see the cross as if faith and religion was some sort of communicable disease.  I admit that there are some religious people and groups across the faith continuum that I think are toxic so I understand this.  Likewise there are people have been used, abused or burned by religious leaders or groups and thus want nothing to do with organized or even disorganized religion.   There are other people who are afraid that if they say something wrong that the chaplain might come down on them.  There are still others who when they see that you are a chaplain ensure that they get together with you and some will even pray for you. Regardless of the situation I always try to be friendly to those around me in a chow hall despite my preference for my introversion.  In fact I will attempt to start up conversations with anyone around me if nothing else to let them know that I know that they are there and that they can talk with me.

Some of the people that we supped or dined with were Religious Programs specialists like Nelson….well actually not so much like Nelson.  Nelson is one of those one of a kind animals that the Deity Herself cracked the mold when he was out of the oven.  These young men and women had been in country various lengths of time and were having as happens in almost every case good or bad experiences working with their chaplain.  There are unfortunately a few bad apples that mistreat their RPs and give the rest of us a bad name. Likewise there are bad RPs in the force.  Some actually set new lows for military conduct and discipline and give a bad name to the good sailors in the rating.  I had one that stole from the offering in Okinawa, forged offering forms, leave papers and burned up a new pickup truck to try to get the insurance money. I had another who tested positive for cocaine upon arriving to my ship and yet another who pretty much stayed one step ahead of the law.  I guess it is human nature that we get such folks and unfortunately because there are people like this who serve as Chaplains and RPs there is kind of a guilt by association.  As such RPs question the RPs that they know  as to how their chaplains treat them and are often wary of a chaplain that they do not know.  Nelson assured them that I was “cool” and we had a couple of interesting meals together.

There were a number of times in Fallujah where young sailors or Marines approached me about spiritual issues, family problems or prayer requests. There were even some young men and women who were interesting in becoming chaplains.  It was neat to be able to be there in those moments where our lives intersected, maybe for the one and only time.

We spent our last day in Fallujah getting ready for our flight, another really late flight.  During the day we heard that an Army CH-47 Chinook had crashed at TQ killing the crew and that the cause was undetermined as to whether it was due to hostile fire or a mechanical problem.  Such incidents raise your pucker factor especially when you will be flying into the same place that they crashed.  With this in mind we picked up our laundry had some chow, made some final coordination, called and e-mailed our families, did some PT and settled in for the evening waiting for RP1 Roland to pick us up. While outgoing artillery boomed in the distance we sat back in our room at the Ramadan Inn and discussed our plans, as well as wondered out loud what was in store for us.

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq