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To Iraq and Back: Days at the Deployment Processing Center

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Me Aboard an Iraqi Oil Smuggler in 2002

This is another installment of my account of my account of mine and RP1 Nelson Lebron’s deployment to Iraq in 2007.

By the time the first day had ended there were nearly 120 of us being processed to serve in individual augment positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djibouti. Most of us were going to Iraq at this time since the “surge” was at its peak.

NMPS was just the first stop on the way to Iraq, for us it was the initial administrative processing that we would receive on the to Iraq. Most of our compatriots, save a few Seabees or Medical types who had served with the Marines had neither been on a deployment like this, been trained for land warfare of had served in a combat zone except aboard ship. After Norfolk we would receive more specific training and equipment at Fort Jackson South Carolina and then Kuwait.

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Nelson with an Afghani child in 2005

When compared to many of our fellow sailors Nelson and I had a lot of experience. I had served in the Army and both of us had served in infantry units of the Fleet Marine Force. Additionally Nelson had served with Naval Special Warfare Group Two, and the Marine 3rd Recon Battalion. He had previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. I had much field experience with the Army and Marines and had been a part of a boarding team from the USS HUE CITY which conducted boarding operations supporting the UN Oil Embargo on Iraq in 2002. Likewise, Nelson is an accomplished martial artist, boxer, kick boxer and MMA fighter who has competed at many levels, while I am a military historian and theoretician  with much advanced education in both on top of my theological and pastoral care training and experience.

Our mobilization processing proceeded the next couple of days as we received our immunizations, were issued DCUs and other clothing needed for the deployment.  Nelson and I of course were already well outfitted by our unit, EOD Group Two, much more so than our counterparts reporting from other fleet units or the reserves.

In spite of this we drew additional DCU uniforms, brown t-shirts, socks and a host of miscellaneous gear. Thankfully as I have mentioned, EOD had outfitted us well including boots of our choosing, not the standard uncomfortable Army issue desert boots being provided to the rest of the sailors. I had a pair of Blackhawks and a pair of Magnum 5.11’s, both much more comfortable than those being issued. As far as other gear we already had much of it, and because it was EOD issue it was superior quality to  much of what was being issued.

Wills and powers of attorneys were drawn up by JAG officers. We updated our “page 2s” the record of who we wanted notified in the event of our demise were verified. Additionally new dog tags ordered and a myriad of forms were filled out, in typical military fashion often for the second or third time.

Of course even before we reported to NMPS we had we had completed numerous online pre-deployment courses on Navy Knowledge Online or NKO to orient us to operations, health and safety issues and for Nelson classes on the M-16A2 and M9 Pistol. Some were good but many were of dubious value especially in the online format.I could have taught many of them. Obviously some contractor got rich selling them to the Navy, but such is war and the activities of war profiteers who make their living inferior products to the military.

Both of us had the additional advantage of living in the Norfolk area so we could spend times with friends or family.

At the end of each day we were able to go home while our companions who had come from other locations were staying in transient quarters on base.

Since we had the 4th of July off we would both take advantage of it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Reporting for Duty

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In July 2007 my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP1 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is one of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story.  While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis.  Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands.  This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.

July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk.  As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find.  It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute.  I transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served from 2003 to October 2006 and had not made the trip since. Thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.

As I looked for a parking space I really missed my designated parking spot back at Security Forces. I drove around for a while and finally found a spot, then after wandering around a found the NMPS offices.

I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members.  I reported there in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two. They are an older type uniform similar to the old BDUs and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear. I still have a few sets in my deployment bag but figure that if I every get deployed to such a situation again that I will be wearing whatever Army or Marine Corps uniform the Navy sailors are wearing unless serving with the Seabees, Naval Special Warfare or an actual Navy command.

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Camp Zarqa Jordan March 2007

I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language. Until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services. Now in 2013 I think there are 10 different camouflage uniforms in use among the armed forces and Congress is about to force us in the military to find a common uniform again. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a huge amount of paperwork.  I found a seat which is not hard to do with so many to empty seats choose from and sat down. I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.

Shortly thereafter other people began to arrive in twos and threes, most enlisted dressed in utilities (the successor to dungarees) while most of the Chiefs and officers were dressed in khakis. A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox.  RP1 Lebron, then an RP2 then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving.  We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.

What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us.  Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner.  Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and a Corpsman or two.

The sailors spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating. There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders, Surface Warfare, Aviators, Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps and Medical Officers.  The highest ranking officer was a Navy Captain. I was the only Chaplain.

The enlisted sailors also spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists.  They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others.  Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold. The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war and not with the Navy or our shipmates. We were strangers to each other and would be strangers to Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors that we would serve with overseas.

Nelson and I have deployed a lot. We had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the RP detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero. I think he has deployed about 10 times in his 20 year career from which he will retire this fall.

The year and a half prior to our deployment Nelson had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.  On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut.

I think to some extent his frequent deployments actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam. Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study. That would happen again during the coming deployment and lead to a pretty funny incident on one of our trips in Iraq, but that story will be told later.

Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact  kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won the 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.   He is the real deal.  Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions.  Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.

As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention and the processing site Commanding Officer came. He spoke with us a few minutes and then led us in the Sailors Creed. With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Failing to Learn from History: The Lesson of the First Anglo-Afghan War and Questions about the US-NATO Campaign

“The Americans in Afghanistan are Demons. They claim they burned Korans by mistake, but really those were “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.” Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai

It seems that we in the West seldom learn from history nor do certain Afghan leaders like Hamid Karzai. The situation in Afghanistan has taken on a more ominous tone as the situation continues to spiral downward with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s demand for the US and NATO to redeploy their troops to large bases and leave the countryside to Afghan control. Even more ominously he said that the Afghan-NATO relationship was “at the end of the rope.”  Karzai alluded that he did not believe that US and NATO account of the killing of 16 Afghan villagers near Kandahar.

This should come as no surprise to any observer of Afghanistan or anyone familiar with the relationship of Afghan leaders with western occupiers.  Karzai knows that the US-NATO era is coming to an end and even though he rules only because he is buttressed by western military power he is now trying to ensure his political and literal survival when we leave be it in 2013 or 2014.  The one thing that Karzai needs to keep in mind is that like his predecessors who turned on their western supporters be they British or Soviet he will be dangling from the end of the rope when we leave. He and his corrupt band of thieves who have alienated and plundered their own people will not survive their wrath once the protective cordon of American and NATO troops is withdrawn.

Karzai’s anti-American stance is further reinforced by the growing number of killings of US and NATO troops by Afghan police, soldiers and other personnel. Even this week an attack was made by an interpreter who drove a stolen pickup truck at a Marine Corps General and his British Brigadier assistant commander at Kandahar while awaiting the arrival of Secretary of Defense Panetta. Likewise the death of a Marine in February was officially announced as being at the hand of an Afghan soldier. The death occurred before the Afghan reaction to the burning of the Koran and was the 7th NATO service member who died at the hands of Afghan forces in February.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales at the National Training Center in 2011 (US Army/DoD Photo)

The final nail in the coffin for the campaign occurred last week when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales for unknown reasons went on a shooting rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians including 9 children when they were asleep in their homes.  Bales actions whether attributable to a psychological breakdown, being drunk or if he was simply a cold blooded killer have effectively destroyed any chance of the United States and NATO recovering the situation in Afghanistan. It is already said that Bales attorney plans to use the case to also put the US war effort on trial. Since Bales reportedly has a Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI and possibly PTSD who allegedly was told that he would not be deployed again expect that the Army Medical Department and Madigan Army Medical Center will be raked over the coals. Those institutions and the Commanders of Joint-Base Lewis McChord are already being investigated for downgrading PTSD diagnosis to other mental illnesses that do not qualify for medical disability payments.

Staff Sergeant Bales appears to be a man who appeared until this incident to be an honorable and professional soldier with a distinguished combat record. However he had a number of potentially troubling legal and personal situations occur over the past number of years and had not been selected for promotion. How those events play into this and what may have happened to push him over the edge or to unleash an evil in him that no one knew was there will be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks.  None of it will be good for the United States.

At the same time the question will have to be asked how and why a soldier with injuries of PTSD and TBI was deployed as part of a small team supporting Special Forces troops instead of with his own unit even after allegedly being told that he would not redeploy.  That is a question that must be answered.  Why would the Army deploy a soldier with known PTSD and TBI as an Individual Augment with different unit than which he was assigned? In this environment he would not be in a place to have the same camaraderie of being part of his own unit probably suffer much more isolation with the inherent dangers of such a situation. Having served on small bases in Iraq with the small teams of advisors and having worked with Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Airmen assigned to commands as Individual Augments (IAs) and having been one myself I can say that these assignments are often much more dangerous for those with preexisting trauma.

The result of this latest incident coming on the heels of the burning of the Koran and other religious texts at Bagram Air Base, the release of a You Tube video of a US Marine Scout Sniper team urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters and the revelation of the “Kill team” in 2010 has for all practical purposes ended any chance of making a successful transition in Afghanistan.

Last Stand of the 44th Regiment of Foot 1842

Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war” and for a couple of years that is what it was. US forces had taken down the Taliban regime with minimal effort in 2001 and appeared to be well on their way to finishing off Al Qaeda and banishing the Taliban from Afghanistan. However in 2003 the US took its focus off of Afghanistan by invading Iraq. We also had placed our trust in Hamid Karzai to guide Afghanistan into a new and democratic era. Karzai has proven to be much like Sujah Shah Durrani who the British imposed on Afghanistan in 1838 when they could not get Emir Dost Mohammed Khan to do their bidding in trying to keep Russia and Persia from dominating Afghanistan. That was a mistake of epic proportions that led to one of the greatest British military, diplomatic and political disasters of the Empire.

A survivor to the First Anglo-Afghan War Chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote about that war something that may be said about our campaign there in years to come:

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” 

We can pray that it doesn’t happen that way. What started as an attempt to find and kill Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan in October of 2001 has turned into a long term occupation that serves no strategic interest of the United States.  Nearly 100,000 US troops are tied down in a country where they can do little conduct local operations against an intractable enemy to support a corrupt government that the people of Afghanistan loathe.  It is so similar to the British experience that it makes one wonder if anyone has ever read a book about the country before invading it.

Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is still reeling from continued strikes on its leadership. The goal of the war was achieved. Afghanistan is Afghanistan. It will not change and any threats brought by terrorists that may try to use it as a base can be defended so long as we are able and willing to whack a mole whenever they raise their head up, just as we are in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and even Pakistan. That does not require 100,000 tied down in Afghanistan where they are exposed to local threats as well as the possibility of being cut off from supplies should Pakistan or the Russian Federation cut supply lines or should hostilities break out with Iran.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Goodbyes and Prayers: Sending Friends off to War

My little war within the war, Christmas with the Bedouin

Yesterday I was honored to be at a pre-deployment ceremony for a number of my shipmates from Portsmouth Naval Medical Center about half of I know fairly well.  There were physicians, nurses and hospital corpsmen in the group, some going to Afghanistan with the Marines, NATO or the Army while others were going to Guantanamo Bay or Djibouti, the country rejected by both Eritrea and Ethiopia. I already have seen a good number of friends and colleagues from our Medical Center deploy and in some cases return and I know of one corpsman that came back wounded while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.

COP South

I have done many of these send offs since coming to Portsmouth but I think that today I knew a higher percentage of the personnel deploying than normally is the case.  At these ceremonies it is customary for the chaplain to pray for our shipmates as well as their family members.  This deployment comes in the midst of monthly casualties reaching their highest point in the war and shortly after two US Navy sailors being killed when for whatever reason they left their base in Kabul in an up armored Toyota Land Cruiser and proceeded to drive alone to one of the most dangerous areas of the country.  With that in mind the safety of our shipmates is something that I and those that serve are ever mindful of when we send our people to deploy.  Yesterday I spent more time with the deploying sailors before and following the ceremony because so many were friends or close colleagues. The goodbyes from me this time were different as I will not be at Portsmouth when my friends return. My assignment as the Command Chaplain at Naval Hospital Camp LeJuene means that I won’t be there but I will continue to keep them in my prayers and stay in contact with as many as I can through e-mail or Facebook.  At LeJuene I will meet old friends from Portsmouth as well as from my Marine tours.  I will also get to deal with a lot more Marines and Sailors dealing with physical as well as psychological injuries resulting from their time in harm’s way in either Iraq or Afghanistan or in many cases both countries.

Pause for possible IED

It has been three years since I deployed to Iraq, in fact three years to the day yesterday that I arrived in Kuwait to complete final training before going into country.  When I was over in Iraq I was blessed my many expressions of support of many people, churches, schools and veterans groups.  At the same time I did not sense the overwhelming support of the people for our troops and that included many members of the political establishment that seemed more interested in using the war to advance their political objectives and unfortunately that was truly a bi-partisan endeavor.  Since we are an all volunteer force it seems to me that the only people really paying attention are people with sons, daughters, mothers or fathers or other family members or friends in harm’s way.  For others supporting the troops is little more than a bumper sticker affirmation, which I appreciate as at least most people aren’t damning us as so many did in Vietnam, a war that my dad served in and which as a Navy dependant experienced in the way that military families were treated by the protest set.

On Syrian Border with Iraqi Border Troops

Today I saw an article about an Army Lieutenant one Christopher Babcock http://gen-reading.blogspot.com/ at a tiny base in Afghanistan.  I often felt this way when in Iraq, especially those times that I came back into the large base that I operated from and saw various news channels on AFN including Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.  Much of what I saw coming out of the mouths of reporters or politicians, showed me just how out of touch and how little our leaders on both sides of the political divide, the media and the American public understood this war.

Convoy in Ramadi shortly before we took fire

My war experience was different. The places I went were the places most people never heard of or will ever hear about.  My assistant and I travelled thousands of miles in fixed and rotor wing aircraft as well as in many tiny poorly armed convoys in the badlands of Al Anbar Province to the small Iraqi bases where our advisors to the Iraqi Army and security forces worked.  In the assignment I got to know a decent number of Iraqi officers and even spoke to the first class of female Iraqi Police officers in training at Ramadi.  I believed then and now that Iraq will do well in the long run.  Back in 2007 very few people believed that, but having gotten to know many fine Iraqis I know that they will repair their country and move on with life. They have been at war in some way shape or form since 1980 and are war weary and most want to move on to live in peace and raise their children.

Guests of Major General Sabah of 7th Iraqi Division

I do not believe this to be the case in Afghanistan. History tells me that we will have no better outcome than the Soviets.  We lost our opportunity when we let up on the pressure in Afghanistan to concentrate on Iraq. The Taliban were able to rebuild and regain control of much of the country between the Iraq invasion and 2010.  I honestly don’t know if we as a nation have the wherewithal to win this war or the resources to do so.  Many outstanding Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen as well as personnel from the CIA perform heroic work on a daily basis but they do not have the numbers or resources to fight a successful counter-insurgency campaign when the Afghan people by and large hate the Karzai regime and cast their lot with the Taliban despite their miserable life under that brutal, medieval fundamentalist Islamic regime.

But we go on with each service sacrificing needed equipment and personnel to fund the war. Even now the Navy is going to be cut maybe up to 25,000 sailors without any mission decrease. Likewise there will be no let up of the use of Navy personnel as Individual Augments to Marine, Army or NATO forces in the Middle East and in other locations.  As it is the force seems to be stretched beyond belief with many sailors not only deploying in traditional at seas, Fleet Marine Force, Seabee or Special Operations billets but when they are supposedly on the downhill side in a shore billet are pulled to serve as an Individual Augment.   The Army and the Marines are worn down by constant deployments with no end in sight.  There are no new drafts of personnel, end strength is limited and the same people go back time and time again.  If I was told I needed to head to Afghanistan I would because that is where many of my friends are and as a Priest and Chaplain I could do no other, but I would go with no illusions about the mission, the risk or the likely outcome of the war. It would be the place to care for God’s people serving in harm’s way.

Brotherhood of War

While this is going on there is the ever present threat of war on the Korean Peninsula or with Iran. A war in either location would open yet another front in a worldwide conflict, when we are already stretched to the breaking point elsewhere.  Any conflict in those areas could generate more casualties in a short period of time than all the personnel that we have lost in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Goodbyes and prayers… I am sure that there will be more of both in my future.  I just ask my readers to keep their head in the game when it comes to the wars that we are in.  Don’t leave the troops on a bumper sticker but keep them in your hearts and prayers and serve them through your actions.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The most dangerous assignment: 4 More Advisers Die In Afghanistan

training team baseIsolated Embedded Training Team Base

Once know and relatively unglamorous group of American military men have suffered multiple casualties in a single engagement.  These men belong to are small units that do not have a lot of organic firepower.  They usually operate in remote areas far from immediate assistance if they get in trouble.  When one of these units suffers casualties, especially where they lose 3-5 men in one engagement they might have lost 20-25% of their unit.

On September 8th a team of these men was ambushed while on foot going to an Afghan with Afghan soldiers to meet tribal leaders with the intent of establishing a government presence in a hostile area.  In the ambush four were killed, three U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to them.  On Tuesday the 8th Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson Jr., 31, of Columbus, Ga., 1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson, 25, of Virginia Beach, Va., Staff Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga. and Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif., were while working as trainers to Afghan soldiers on a mission to search for weapons and then meet village elders under an agreement to establish government authority there.  They were killed in “a complex attack according to a U.S. Military spokesman.  According to McClatchy news service who had a reporter that accompanied the mission, insurgents had set up positions in the village and in the mountains on both sides and apparently attacked as the men neared the village. 1st LT Johnson was wounded and while being attended Navy Hospital Corpsman Third Class James R. Layton when they both came under attack.  Both were killed.  Another Marine told the McClatchy reporter that they’d found the wrappings of bandages and other medical gear strewn around Layton and Johnson.  Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander’s Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around the remote hamlet of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Advisers with Afghan Counterparts

The McClatchy reporter said: “We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.”  The reporter said that “U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.”

The battle must have been intense.  I have been on foot patrols in areas crowded with Iraqis far away from significant support where if an insurgent group had attacked us we would have easily been overwhelmed. This is part of the world of the U.S. Military in the embedded training teams which work closely with Afghan and Iraqi soldiers.  I spent a lot of time with the advisers to Iraqi Army. Border and Port of Entry troops, Police and Highway Patrol spread across the entirety of Al Anbar Province.  These men and women are seldom thought of or mentioned by the press or even the military. . They come from all branches of the military and serve as advisers, trainers and mentors to these nations’ security forces.  The duty is dangerous.  The advisers, be they to the military, police, or civil administrations often work in the most isolated places in these countries and are stationed in small teams with the Iraqis and Afghans that they advise.  They are often far from the “big battalions” that have lots of firepower available and often operate out of larger and more secure bases with air support close at hand. Earlier in the year there were a number of incidents where advisers were killed by renegade soldiers or police, or by infiltrators posing as security personnel.  Two soldiers were working with an Iraqi unit in doing humanitarian work in a village when attacked and killed by someone who had infiltrated the Iraqi security forces.  . On March 27th Navy LT Florence Choe and LTJG Francis Toner IV were killed by an Afghan insurgent posing as an Afghan Army soldier. All of these events triggered anxiety in me as I remembered how many times I was incredibly exposed to danger conducting similar operations.

This incident was especially chilling as I read the reporter’s account of the ambush.  “Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away.”  According to the reporter Marine Maj. Kevin Williams” the commander of the team said: “We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today, through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter’s repeated demands for helicopters.”  When I read this my mind flashed back to being in the middle of a massive crowd at the border crossing of Waleed on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.  There were about nine of us, of which only 8 were armed as I am not allowed by the U.S. interpretation of the law of war to carry a weapon.  There were thousands of Iraqis and others around us, very few border troops or port-of-entry police anywhere near us.  The port of entry had been the scene of numerous attempts to smuggle weapons, materials, and other supplies, drugs and to Iraq insurgents and Al Qaida.  Very few US troops were stationed there and many of these were dispatched off of the base at any given time.

The advisers are drawn from all services.  They are all Individual Augments that come from both the Active and Reserve components.  They do not deploy with their own units, which means that they go to war with people that they might have trained alongside getting ready for the mission, but otherwise have not served with.  When they come home they go back to their old assignments or new orders and are separated from the men and women that they served alongside for 7 to 15 months.  In other words they are isolated when they return home and go back to places where the majority of personnel, even those who have been “in country” have no earthly idea or appreciation of the conditions that they served in and dangers that they faced.  This happened to me when I returned and I went through an emotional collapse as the PTSD that I did not know I had kicked my ass.  Sights, smells, noises, crowds, airports and in fact almost everything but baseball diamonds caused me to melt down as they all brought the danger back to me. Don’t get me wrong, my tour in Iraq was the highlight of 27 plus years in the military, the part of which I am the most proud.

I have a special place for these men and women.  I served with them in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province as the first Navy Chaplain, and one of the first chaplains of any service to be assigned to cover these teams since Vietnam.  My assistant, RP2 Nelson Lebron and I deployed together from out unit.  I had prepared well.  I had been on the bubble to deploy for months.  My background in military history and past service with both the Army and Marines helped me. Likewise my military and civilian education helped me.  Shortly before we were notified of the deployment I went to the Jordanian Army Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi culture, religion and society.  I had served as a chaplain in the trauma department of one of the largest trauma centers in the country.  RP2 Lebron had deployed multiple times to Iraq, Beirut and Afghanistan where he was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal (no small feat for an E-5).  He is also an incredibly gifted boxer, kick boxer and martial artist who has fought on Team USA and holds more title belts than I can count.  He most recently won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. I had served with him before and he knew that his mission was to keep me safe.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the Chief of Staff of the Iraq Assistance Group said that we were “the best ministry team he had seen in 28 years in the Army.”

When we went to Al Anbar we were sent out with the Marines and Soldiers advising the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions, The Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol, the 2nd Border Forces Brigade and Port of Entry Police.  We operated in a area the size of the state of Oregon.  In some cases it would take us 2 days by air and convoy to reach isolated teams on the Syrian border.  When you travel by air in Iraq you are always at the mercy of the weather and aircraft availability. I had the rare privilege as a Lieutenant Commander to be able to arrange all of my own air transportation.  Most people, including people higher ranking than me had to depend on others to do this for them.  We worked with our advisers to get out to them.  We would be out 5-12 days at a time with anywhere from 4 to 7 days between missions.  In our 7 months we traveled over 4500 air miles and 1500 ground miles.  Almost all of our air travel was rotor wing. We flew in CH-46, CH-47 and MH-53s and the MV-22 Osprey.  Our convoys were usually not larger than 3 American HUMMVs and sometimes a few Iraqi vehicles.  Our biggest guns were .50 cal or M240B machine guns.

Dinner with Geneal SabahDinner with General Sabah in Ramadi

Many places we served were in places that had no large forces in position to help us if we got in trouble.  Even on the bases we were isolated.  Our teams were with the Iraqis in almost all cases.  We often ate in Iraqi chow halls and used Iraqi shower trailers.  Our advisers had us meeting their Iraqi counterparts.  We met and dined with Iraqi Generals, had ch’ai (tea) with small groups of Americans and Iraqis and got out with the Bedouins. We were in a number of particularly sensitive and dangerous situations with our advisers; one which I cannot go into great detail involved a senior advisor having to inform a new Iraqi Brigade Commander that a member of his staff was engaged in illegal activities and who had put out contracts to kill the American officer.  The bad Iraqi officer was confronted and relieved in a tense meeting where both Nelson and I were with that Colonel and two other advisors as they made the confrontation in the Iraq C.O.’s office, a confrontation that got quite heated until the Iraqi C.O. shut him up. At one point the cashiered officer appealed to the American “Imam” that he was a faithful Moslem, to whit the American Colonel and I asked him how a person who was living a good Moslem life could steal from his own countrymen and supply his county’s enemies with what they needed.

Waleed trip 006Team at Waleed on the “secure” side of the Port of Entry

It was an incredible, once in a lifetime tour serving with some of the greatest Americans and Iraqis around. Iraqi soldiers in with our convoys would ask me to bless their trucks with Holy Water like I was doing with the American trucks.  I came to admire many of the professional Iraqi officers that I came to know and pray for the people of Iraq, that God would grant them peace. They are wonderfully hospitable and gracious.  We were often treated to food and tea by Iraqi soldiers, and civilians.  After nearly 30 years of nearly continuous war, dictatorship and terrorism, they deserve peace and security.

Me BTT CO and Iraqi LeadersAdvisers and Iraqi Border Troops near Syria

I had one Iraqi operations officer, a Sunni Muslim tell me that he wished that his Army had Christian priests because they would take care of his soldiers and had no political axe to grind. He said that the Army did not trust most Imams or Mullahs because they had compromised themselves during the civil war.  Another officer, a Shia Muslim came to me to thank me for being there to take care of our Marines.  He said that he, an Iraqi Shia Arab, hoped that if they had any problems from the Persians (Iranians), that we would help them.  These is little truth to what is floated that Iraqi and Iranian Shia like each other.  The memories of the past die hard in the Middle East.  When Persia ruled Iraq they treated the Arabs like dirt. Likewise the memories of the Iran-Iraq war are still alive.  Iraqi Arabs, Sunni, Shia and even Christian have little love for the “Persians.”  General Sabah of the 7th Division had us to his quarters for dinner. We had a wonderful and friendly discussion about similarities and differences in Christianity and Islam. We departed friends. The last time I saw him ws in the Ramadi heliport.  He saw me, ran up to me in from of his staff and Americans in the little terminal and gave me a bear hug, telling all that I was his friend. Another Iraqi General told me just before we left to come back as a tourist in 5 years because everything would be better.  I honestly think that he is right.  I hope to go back someday.  It would be a privilege to see my Iraqi friends again.

Me and BTT with Bedouin KidsWith a Bedouin Family

At the same time Afghanistan is a different animal. Iraq was not as easy of place for Al Qaida to work in and the Iraqis have a much more developed national identity which they trace back to the Babylonians and Chaldeans.  They also have adopted a lot of western ways.  Insurgents there once they had lost the confidence of the Iraqis lost traction.  In Afghanistan there is no real collective national identity and the form of Islam is much more severe than almost all Iraqi variants.  The Afghans insurgents have also due to the terrain; climate and inability of invaders to gain the confidence of the population have used the inability of invaders against them as they bring the population back under their control, sometimes quite peacefully.  The Taliban have secure bases on the Pakistani side of the border as did the North Vietnamese and they have the support of much of the population due to the unpopularity and corruption of the Afghan government.  The Taliban have begun to operate in larger better organized units and last year a battalion sized element attempted to overrun a small NATO base.  They did this with the Russians as well.  One troubling comment was reported about something overhead on the Taliban radio: “We will do to you what we did to the Russians,” the insurgent’s leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.”  They also have outlasted or defeated a host of powerful empires.  The war in Afghanistan has much more in common with Vietnam than it does with Iraq. Counter Insurgency techniques learned in Iraq will be helpful but because of the terrain, climate and nature of the opposition will be tougher to execute and in order to have any chance of getting out of Afghanistan having accomplished the mission we will end of taking more casualties, especially in the teams of advisers.  Iraq was different, despite the problems and having to be rebuilt the Iraqi Army has a long history and tradition dating back to the Ottoman Empire, they led the way to westernizing Iraq and helping build an Iraqi identity, this is not the case in Afghanistan.  What happened to this team could easily happen to others and it looks to me like someone set them up to be hit, probably a Taliban sympathizer in the Afghan security forces or government. Afghanistan is much more treacherous than Iraq and in my view will be much more difficult.

What happened at Ganjgal is being investigated and in our area it is front page news as 1st Lt Johnson was from Virginia Beach.  The Taliban want to use events like this to break down the American home front and 8 years after the attacks of 9-11 2001 with that a fading memory they may well do this.  If they do Afghanistan will become Vietnam in the mountains.  We will be forced to withdraw and and the NATO alliance will be severely tested.  A defeat would have wide ranging consequences beginning in Afghanistan as it would fall back into the medieval world of Taliban rule, and would likely spread to Pakistan which which is already under severe strain.  This could threaten the Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Our advisers build bridges between peoples of different history and culture.  They are the unsung heroes of these wars and will likely never get credit for all that they have done.  Operating in isolation they are exposed to more danger that the average unit. They have my highest admiration and I hope that if you know one of these men or women that you will thank them.  I pray that they will all come home safe and be blessed with success.  I would certainly serve with them again at any time and in any place.

Please keep the families of the most recent casualties in your prayers. Peace, Steve+

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Revisiting the Demons of PTSD: Returning to Iraq in Virginia a Year and a Half Later

Today I am attending a conference on Caregiver Operational Stress Control.  This brought out my “demons” as I was faced with the stories of others who had been to the same places that I have been in Iraq, and experienced similar things that I experienced on my return.  This is a re-posting of something that I wrote in March at the very beginning of this blog.  At that time I had very few readers.

I am glad to be at this training today.  I needed to take a Xanax when I arrived because I don’t do well with these kind of events anymore.  The intial session and a video of Dr Heidi Kraft talking about her expereinces at Al Taqaduum where I was based out of.  I was scheduled for another meeting but I knew that I needed to be here.  So I asked my Department Head who was going to the meeting if I could stay and he allowed me to do so. God bless him.

I received a note from a new friend in another country’s military, a physician with multiple tours in Afghanistan.  He is dealing with many of the things that I discuss in this essay and had a bad day that took him back to Afghanistan.  I am sure that he is not alone as I deal with many people in my Medical Center who have similar experiences.  Yesterday I was walking down a hallway near our Operating Room and I saw a pretty good sized blood spill on the floor. I was surprised at my reaction as I kept seeing it in my mind the rest of the day and flashbacks to Iraq and the TQ Shock Surgery Trauma platoon where I was pulled into a couple of the last major mass casualty events where 10-15 Marines or soldiers came in at a time. I began to see those wounder Marines on the tables and can visibly see those Marines, their wounds, even tattoos… I hope this helps break the code of silence.  I wrote this on a particularly rough day and will repost some of those early essays as they are still very relevant.  Peace, Steve+

964Trying not to Show my Stress and Exhaustion after 2 weeks out while in between flights at Al Asad

The feeling of abandonment and aloneness, separation and disconnection run deep for those returning from unpopular wars in which the majority of the citizens take no part.  The effects are devastating.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their lives in the years after that war.  Last year the Army had its highest number of active duty suicides ever recorded, January and February of 2009 have been banner months for Army suicides.  Of course as I noted in my previous post these numbers don’t include reservists and Guardsmen who have left active duty or veterans dischaged from the service.  Neither do they include the host of service men and women who died from causes undetermined.

Many veterans attempted to return to “normal life” and family following the war. Many only to have marriages fall apart, continue or leave untreated alcohol and drug addictions acquired in country which often follow them back destroying lives, families and careers.  Most felt cast aside and abandoned by the goverment and society. Many got through and return to life with few visible effects, but the scars live on.  My dad would never talk about his experience in the city of An Loc in 1972 where he as a Navy Chief Petty Officer was among a small group of Americans operating an emergency airstrip in the city which was besieged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for 80 days.  I do know that it affected him, he wasn’t the same when he returned, he was a lot more tense and had some problems initially with alcohol.  He never talked about his time there.

I have seen the effects of this in so many lives,  I remember a Vietnam vet who attempted to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chin in Dallas during my hospital residency.  He forgot to factor in recoil and blew off his face without hitting his brain or any major arteries.  He survived…talk about having something to be depressed about later.  I have seen the tears as veterans rejected by the country during and after than war begin to seek community with their wartime brothers, men who had experienced the same trauma followed by rejection and abandonment by the people that sent them to Southeast Asia.  One only has to talk to veterans of the Ia Drang, Khe Sahn, Hue City, the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta or read their stories to know what they have gone through.  LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once..and Young and We are Soldiers Still have deeply penatrating and soul searching views of Vietnam as does Bing West in The Village. Bernard Fall does the same from a French perspective in Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy. Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace discusses and tells the story of many French soldiers in Algeria, who fought a war, won it militarily and had their government abandon them, bringing out a mutiny and coup atempt by French Soldiers who had fought in Indochina, were almost immediately back in action in Algeria with little thanks or notice from thier countrymen.  Abandonment is an ever present reality and “demon” for many of us who have served regardless of our nationality, French, Canadien or American who have fought in wars that have not engaged the bulk of our fellow citizens. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and tocuh it, trace the outline of a name, look upon the makeshift memorials and tokens of remembrance left by comrades who came home and understand the sorrow and the sacrifice.

Unfortunately we would like to think that this is something out of history that we have learned from and applied the lessons and in doing so no longer have an issue.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  There are many, depending on the study anywhere from8-20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from some type of PTSD, Combat Stress reaction or other psychological malady incurred during their tour. Similar numbers are reported by the Israeli Armed Forces in from the 1973 War forward.   The British are seeing the same now as their veterans return from war.  Canadian Forces assigned to the UN command during the Rwanda genocide suffer horribly from PTSD. The mission commander, LTG Romeo Dalliare now a Senator in the Canadian Parliament is a leading spokesman for those who suffer from PTSD. His book Shake Hands with the Devil is a study of how military professionals were exposed to atrocities that they either were forbidden to stop or lacked the combat power to do so even if they wanted to.  These men and women tell their story in a video put out by Canadian Armed Forces.

105Convoy along Route Uranium

I am not going to rehash stories that I have recounted in my other posts dealing with PTSD here, but both I and many men and women that I know are scarred by the unseen wounds of this war.  We gladly recognize, and rightfully so, those who suffer physical wounds.  At the same time those who are dying inside are often ignored by their commands or if they come out are shunted into programs designed to “fix” them.  In other words make them ready for the next deployment.  I am not saying here that there is an intentional neglect of our service men and women who suffer from PTSD and other issues.  I do not think that is the case, but it is a fact of life. The military is shorthanded and stretched to the breaking point. Many Army Soldiers and US Marines have made 3-5 deployments since 2003. The Navy has sent over 50,000 sailors, not including those assigned with the Marines into “Individual Augmentation” billets in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other fronts in this war.  The Navy personnel, as well as Air Force personnel who perform similar missions often do not have the luxury of going to war and coming home with a particular unit.  We serve often in isolation and incredibly disconnected from our commands, our service is often misunderstood.  Now there are efforts by the services and some commands to do things better to support our sailors, some of these at my own hospital.  However as an institution the military has not fully made the adjustment yet.

Many sailors feel abandoned by the country and sometimes, especially when deployed by the Navy itself.  I have debriefed hundreds of these men and women.  Almost all report anger and use terms such as being abandon, cut off and thrown away by the service and the country.  Those from all services who work in unusual joint billets such as advisers to local military and police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq feel a sense of kinship with each other, often feel a connection to the Iraqis and Afghans but are often not promoted or advanced at the same rate as others who have served in conventional forces in traditional jobs.  There was a film called Go tell the Spartans staring Burt Lancaster about Army advisers in the early stages of Vietnam.  If you see it and have been to Iraq with our advisers you can see some of the same dynamics at work.

At this point we are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars divided the nation and the veterans, though better treated and appreciated by society than most of thier Vietnam counterparts have no memorial.  Words of thanks uttered by politicans and punits abound, our Vietnam era and other fellow veterans in their latter years come to the airports that we fly in and out of to say thank you, but our numbers are rising, the war rages on both in country and in our minds and lives are being lost long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

not a happy camperNot Doing Well on Leave about 5 months After my Return from Iraq

We have to do a better job of ensuring that those who sacrifice so much do not feel that they have been cut off and abandoned while they are in theater and especially when they return. When it is time we need a memorial on the Capitol Mall for those who served in these wars.  I don’t know when that will be, but I do hope to see it in my day.  Sure it’s only symbolic, but symbols can be healing too, just look at the black granite wall rising up from the ground and going back down into it, filled with the names of those who gave their lives and made the supreme sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  Simply known by most as “the Wall” it has become a place of healing and rememberance.  A place to say thank you, goodbye and amen.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Going to War: Reflections on My Journey to Iraq and Back- Part One

Two years ago today my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP2 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is the first of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story.  While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis.  Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands.  This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.

July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk.  As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find.  It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute having transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served the past three years but thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.  At that point I really missed my designated parking spot back at the battalion.

I looked around and finally found a spot and then after wandering around a bit found the NMPS offices.  I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members.  I reported in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two.   They are an older type uniform and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear.  I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language.  In fact until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services.  I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a butt-load of paperwork.  I found a spot, not hard to do with so many to choose from and sat down.  I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.

Shortly thereafter others began to arrive in twos and threes, most dressed in utilities or officers in khakis.  A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox.  RP2 Lebron, who I will now refer to as Nelson from this point forward then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving.  We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.

What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us.  Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner.  Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and maybe a Corpsman or two.  They spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating.  There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders.  We also had one Captain.  These officers were Line Officers including Surface Warfare Officers and Aviators as well as a number of Doctors and Medical Service Corps Officers and some other Staff Corps officers.  The enlisted likewise spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists.  They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others.  Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold.  The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war, not with the shipmates that we had served with, but with strangers, well except for me and Nelson.

Now Nelson and I have deployed a lot and had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero, in the year and a half prior to our deployment he had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.  On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut. I think that he has done about nine or ten deployments now.  Unfortunately this has actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam.  Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study.  Even if he had them it would have been difficult since we were always on the road, just as he was in his last four or five deployments.

Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact  kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won last year’s Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.   He is the real deal.  Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions.  Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.

As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention, the processing site Commanding Officer came in and spoke with us and then led us in the Sailors Creed.  With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.

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