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For Me It’s Personal: Veteran’s Day 2019


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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day, which actually falls on The anniversary of Armistice Day. 

It is a strange feeling. I don’t really advertise that I am a veteran out in public, even though I have quite a few ball caps, sweat shirts, Polo shirts, hoodies, and fleeces that I could wear. To do that. I certainly am not ashamed of my service, but much of it has been hard, and I spend the time thinking about those who I served alongside, or set an example for me, living and dead. Unless something really unusual happens it will be my last on active duty.

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

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

As I said, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 38 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

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

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

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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

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

With My trusty Bodyguard and assistant RP1 Nelson LeBron, Habbinyah Iraq, January 2008. 

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

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

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

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

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

That is still my hope.

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

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

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

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

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

Judy were out with friends today, some military, retired, maybe some still active, as well as civilian friends, many of whom have military relations at Gordon Biersch, the brewer brewed a special Veterans IPA, proceeds from tonight which went to Virginia Veterans.

To my friends there I am Steve or the Padre. They all know me and know that I still serve, but that’s because they know me, not because I advertise. They also represent the span of political views in the country at large, but we are friends.

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, News and current events, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, Veterans and friends

Days Seem to Dawn: Reflections on 9-11-2001 & War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Fourteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had been back from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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boarding team

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

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I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.”  I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. In a couple of years I hope to retire with 36 years of service, knowing that those who I have worked with will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end.

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Today there will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared a day of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq. 

I will quietly reflect at the office today as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. Afterward I will go get a beer and dinner with Judy and our friends at Gordon Biersch after catching to remainder of the Norfolk Tides vs. Columbus Clippers International League playoff game which was postponed due to rain last night. I guess that is fitting to as it was baseball that helped begin the healing in Nee York in the days after the attack. 

Have a good day, and do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Maybe things will get better… Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

The Long and Winding Road of 31 Years of Commissioned Service

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Today marks another milestone in my life and career, at least in terms of longevity. Thirty-one years ago today I was with my soon to be wife Judy, as well as my dad and brother at UCLA where I was being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Six days later I married Judy who has over the past 31 years seen me go my down the long and winding road of my military career. Truthfully the long and winding road has been to use the words of Jerry Garcia a “long strange trip” and usually not the Yellow Brink Road.

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Let’s see…service as a Medical Service Corps Officer, platoon, leader, company executive officer, maintenance officer, NBC officer, and company commander, and brigade adjutant. Texas Army National Guard, Armor officer, Chaplain Candidate (Staff Specialist Branch) and Chaplain serving with Combat Engineers, and Chaplain in the Virginia National Guard with the Light Infantry. Army Reserve Chaplain, drilling and mobilized to support Bosnia mission, Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania.

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The Army, Cold War Germany, the Fulda Gap and the Berlin Wall, supporting the Bosnia mission, exercises, and active duty for training, even doing an exchange program with the German Bundeswehr.

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Then the path took a different direction. After 17 1/2 years in the Army Judy was looking forward to the day that I would retire from the reserves and she would have me back. Instead, I took off my rank as an Army Reserve Major and became a Navy Chaplain. Two tours with the Marine Corps, Second Marine Division and Marine Security Forces, Sea Duty on the USS Hue City, a tour with EOD, interspersed with an individual augmentee in Iraq followed by 5 years working in Medical Naval Centers or hospitals and finally serving as Chaplain and doing teaching in military ethics and military history at the Joint Forces Staff College.

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Lots of field exercises and underway periods at sea, travel around the world to support deployed Marines, a Marine Deployment to Okinawa, mainland Japan and Korea including the DMZ. Then along came the 9-11-2001 attacks and war. A deployment to the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Oman and the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch aboard the Hue City, served as a member of a boarding team making 75 missions to detained Iraqi Oil Smugglers and helping keep peace on those miserable ships. Traveling to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Guantanamo Bay Cuba with the Marine Security Forces, standing at Gitmo’s Northeast Gate, and completing the “Commie Trifeca” of Cold War German, Korea and Cuba.

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Then there was EOD, serving with some of the most amazing men and women I have ever met, a tour in Iraq with my trusty assistant, bodyguard and friend Nelson Lebron. Of course as any reader of this site knows the time in Iraq changed me forever, the aftereffects of that tour remain with me every day, the battle with PTSD, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression and the shattering effect of seeing that my government leaders had lied about the reasons for war and by their actions devastated a country and helped throw a region into chaos. I saw the suffering of Americans as well as Iraqis in Al Anbar Province, death, badly injured Marines, soldiers and Iraqis, poorly treated third world nationals working for Halliburton and other contractors. After coming home dealing with all of my shit while trying to care for others in back to back tours at two different Naval Medical centers or hospitals. The ongoing violence in Iraq and the fact that that unfortunate country and its people are going to suffer more haunts me. I miss Iraq, I would go back not because I love war, but because I care about the Iraqi people.

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Now I minister, celebrate Eucharist in my little chapel, care for people and teach. The highlight of my life is leading our institution’s Gettysburg Staff Ride and being able to research, read, ponder, analyze and write about that campaign, the Civil War and relate it to what we teach at our institution.

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Throughout my career there have been two constants, my long suffering wife Judy who has spent close to ten of the last 17 or 18 years without me and those who I served alongside, many of who I am still in contact with through Facebook. I am amazed at the quality of men and women who have served alongside of me since 1981. The funny thing is that even though I probably still have another five to six years until I finally retire to civilian life, that I am watching men and women who entered the military 10-13 years after me retiring from the military.

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Thankfully I still love what I do and serve in a great place. To those who have served alongside me all these years in any capacity I thank you. You don’t get to where I am in life without a good deal of help, sage advice from men and women not afraid to speak the truth and without a bit of good luck and fortune and maybe a bit of the grace and mercy of God.

Yes it has been a long strange trip down a long and winding road, but it has been more than I could ever imagine.

Have a great night and thanks for reading,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, Military, ministry

Transitions in the Military: New Assignments

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In the Navy, as well as most military branches in the United States the officer community regardless of their specialty have branch, corps or specialty managers. These men and women work with the services and the individual officers to fill assignments. In the Navy these men and women are called “Detailers” and the process of assignments called detailing.

This afternoon I received a call from my detailer. I am coming up on my “projected Rotation Date” or PRD in October and have been negotiating for orders. The process was disrupted by some other changes in the system and I have been waiting a bit longer than normal to find out what I would be doing next.

In my last two assignments I had no choice. In 2006 the assignment that I thought I had was changed and in 2008 I was requested by name for an assignment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and in 2010, a year before I expected to rotate and less than a week after I had been selected for promotion to the rank of Commander I was informed that I would be assigned as the Command Chaplain at the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune North Carolina. I have now completed most of that tour and was awaiting word.

What I wanted to do was to teach and be the Chaplain at the Joint Forces Staff college in Norfolk. It has been an assignment that I have wanted for a number of years. It combines being an instructor in Ethics for students from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and foreign officers attending the courses at the college, as well as having chapel responsibilities. However I was told a couple of months ago that the assignment was going to another chaplain. I was disappointed because it was a billet that I thought that I was uniquely qualified.

I had spent 17 1/2 years in the Army, been a company commander as well as battalion, group and brigade staff officer before becoming a chaplain. Additionally my military and civilian education which include the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a Masters Degree in military history and some rather unusual assignments including a joint tour in Iraq as chaplain to American advisors in Al Anbar province as a member of the Iraq Assistance Group, made me, at least in my opinion an ideal choice.

However as of a couple of months ago the billet was already filled. Thus I had no idea what assignment that I would get and since there were very few assignments available in my detailing “window.”

I was expecting a call in the next week or so, but I did not expect the detailer to tell me that I would get the Joint Forces Staff College job. I am happy to get it. It will mean that I will return to the Norfolk area in the September-October time frame. The position will allow me to teach in a very interesting setting as well as pastor the chapel congregation.   It will also allow me to continue my academic education and writing. It will also allow me to be at home after a three year tour away from my wife Judy. For that I am most grateful.

Since it is a non-deploying billet it probably will not help my chances too much to make Captain in a view years, but that is not my goal. My goal is to be at the place where I can do the most good, take advantage of my skills and experience and which will challenge me to continue to grow as a human being, priest, chaplain and Naval officer.

It is good news and I am happy that the detailers and senior leadership honored my request for the assignment. The timing allows me to finish well where I currently serve and contribute the the continuing mission of healing the minds, bodies and spirits of Marines and Sailors, including those wounded, ill or injured in war at Camp LeJeune.

It is a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, US Navy

I Left My Heart in Al Anbar…Visions of Iraq 5 Years Later

I left Iraq in early 2008. My experience of Iraq was with various teams of advisors in Al Anbar Province. I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs and in tightly packed aircraft to get to these far flung teams of 12-30 Americans in places from the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various COPs on the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, occasionally taking fire and most of the time isolated, and sometimes alone and unarmed except for the presence of my Religious Programs Specialist and Bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron.

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ar Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It is a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members.

It was to Al Anbar Province that I deployed in 2007. I was assigned to the Iraq Assistance Group with duties to serve the advisor teams assigned to the Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police. While there I also served members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately as I have been having to recount my experiences as I get ready for EMDR and Biofeedback therapy to treat my PTSD. I have been surprised by how strong the memories are of my time there.

Today I was talking with my therapist and the discussion came to one of my experiences at a base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as COP Snake Pit. It is a base included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility an Iraqi Military and Police forces, an Advisor of Marines woking with the Iraqi Army 7th Division and an Iraqi Detention Facility. Surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls not far from a number of high speed avenues of approach an easy target for any attacker. In fact since the United States left Iraq the detention facility and Operations center have been attacked by Al Qaida linked insurgents.

When we visited there Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within the base. For me the memories of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison as well as the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. As I talked with my therapist those memories were so strong. I talked about things today that I have not shared with anyone and which are still hard to write about. Eventually I will, but not tonight, it will be hard enough to sleep as it is.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

Since I am all verklempt right now I think I will stop for the night. But as I told my therapist today to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

I Just Want to Thank Everyone that made this Night Necessary

I think that Yogi Berra said it the best when thanking people inSt. Louis when the city decided to honor him when the Yankees came into town in 1947.  He meant to say “I just want to thank everyone that made this night possible” but it came out “I just want to thank everyone that made this night necessary.”

Last night I was promoted to the rank of Commander in the United States Navy.  I’ve been in the military 30 years and this is the first rank that I have not held twice since March 1987.  Since March 1st 1987 I served as an Army Captain and Major and then took a reduction in rank to enter the Navy serve as a Navy Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander.

Swearing the Oath of Office

It was a special night. The management of the Norfolk Tides was happy to indulge my desire to do the oath behind home plate and throw out the first pitch.  Dave Rosenfield the General Manager approved it early in the season and his staff led by the Director of Community Relations, Heather McKeating made it happen and Linda Waisanen the Box Office Manager helped get the tickets for my guests in the same section.  It was good to see and talk with some of my friends from the Tides that I haven’t seen for a while, pitchers Chris Tillman and Chris George and catcher Adam Donachie.   Of course there were also my friends Elliott, Chip and Audrey the Ushers, concessionaires and members of the Tide Watchers Booster club.

RP1 Nelson Lebron, me and Judy

I had the honor of having my old commanding officer from Marine Security Force Battalion, Colonel Mike Paulovich USMC (Retired) come down from Washington DC to administer the Oath of Office.  Likewise I had my wife Judy, who has seen me through my entire career and endured many separations due to deployments, field exercises and schools at my side.  For those that have not served in the military the stress that our spouses go through is tremendous and many marriages do not survive.  There is a reason that around many military bases you will see bumper stickers that say “Navy wife, the toughest job in the military” or Marine or Army wife.  I was also honored to have my former assistant from EOD Group Two RP1 Nelson Lebron there. Nelson and I went to Iraq together and he is an amazing Sailor and I count him as a close friend.  He was my trusted body guard and I would go to war with him again any day of the week.  Judy and Nelson switched out my shoulder boards before I took the oath.

I also had some very special friends in attendance at the game, people that I really wanted to be there; LCDR Greg Ostrander USN (Retired), Randy and Sandy Smith, Jerry Channell, Denise Denise Özdemir and Karen Johnson and their significant others.  There were some people that because of military duty or other commitments that could not make it, however I know they were there in spirit due to the notes, messages and phone calls.

With Advisers in Iraq

One problem of living on the opposite coast from your family is that it is difficult to have them with you on occasions like this.  My mom, my brother and his family in California could not be here but hopefully if I make Captain in a few years or when I retire they will be able to come.  My dad passed away the day after the selection list was announced in June of 2010 but I know that he was here in spirit.

Me and RP1 Nelson Lebron in Iraq, there is no better body guard

There are people that were there for me at many points in my career that helped “make this day necessary.”  The late Master Sergeant Harry Zilkan from the UCLA ROTC detachment and Sergeant First Class Harry Ball who broke me down and built me up during my ROTC pre-commissioning “Advanced Camp at Fort Lewis in 1982 were early influences.  SFC Ball a crusty Special Forces type with a lot of Vietnam tours had me blubbering “I got nowhere else to go” like Lewis Gossett Jr. did to Richard Gere in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Lawson my ROTC advisor at UCLA was also helpful during those two formative years.  First Sergeant Jim Koenig at 557th Medical Company taught me a lot about enlisted leadership and helped mentor me as a young Lieutenant while Colonel Donald A. Johnson the commander of the 68th Medical Group showed me how to get the most out of people and the importance of knowing the details of an operation without getting in the way of people doing the mission.  Master Sergeant (Retired) Cynthia Carter was my Platoon Sergeant at 557th and went through a lot of deep waters with me there.  She was at my promotion to Captain at Fort Sam Houston in 1987.  I am still in contact with a good number of my soldiers from the 557th and each of them was helpful in my career.

LTC Ike Adams and me 1987

When I started down the road to becoming a chaplain back in 1987, Lieutenant Colonel Ike Adams, my Executive Officer at the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences was very important in helping me down that road. He is now a professor at Asbury College in Wilmore Kentucky.  Chaplain, Major Wayne Lura (USA Retired) gave me advice that has kept me out of trouble talking to me about the pitfalls of ministry and chaplaincy even before I even went to seminary.  Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Rich Whaley saved my ass a number of times at the Army Chaplain school during the Basic and Advanced courses.  I have stayed in contact with Rich, who I believe is one of the finest chaplains that I have ever met and he now is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints working with LDS Chaplains in both the Military and other Federal Chaplain programs.  Chaplain, Colonel John Price was an Episcopal Priest and the State Chaplain for the Texas Army National Guard and taught me a lot about how to be there for people, especially leaders going through difficult times.  Chaplain, Colonel Paul Howe who I served with in Germany during the Bosnia Operation helped me as a young mobilized Army Reserve Major learn to be a good supervisory Chaplain and look out for the junior chaplains and assistants under my care. He also taught me something important about caring for the sacramental needs of a diverse Christian community.

Army Chaplain School 1990 with Chaplain Bill Blackie (L) and Rich Whaley (Center)

There also was my congregation at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania, where I served from 1997-1998.  My Commanding Officer, Colonel Tom Allmon, his family and my Parish Council including the late Major General Frank Smoker USAF/PAAirNG, Colonel Ray Hawthorne, USA Retired, the late Major Scotty Jenkes (USAF Retired), CWO4 Herman Bolt, (USA Retired), and Sergeant Bill Ward, and my assistant SSG, now Army Chaplain, Major Steve Cantrell were all instrumental in my success there while General Smoker, Colonel Hawthorne and Colonel Allmon wrote letters to help get me into the Navy.

When I came into the Navy I was helped by Captain John Kaul CHC USN, who served as my Division and MEF Chaplain at Camp LeJeune. He became a model for my Chaplain ministry and has been a great encouragement over the years.  Captain Fred Elkin CHC USN, was my first detailer and set me up for success by sending me to the Second Marine Division figuring that my Army background would help me there.  Fred and I later served at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Captain, Chaplain Deborah McGuire, CHC USN, was great to work with at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.  Captain Mike Langston the II MEF Forward Chaplain who I served with in Iraq set me up for success there and Captain Jesse Tate CHC USN was really good in helping me get through the toughest time of my life after I returned to Iraq and was assigned to Portsmouth.  My fellow Chaplains there, Commander Jeff Seiler, Commander Derek Ross, Commander Kevin Anderson, Lieutenant Albert Cross, Fr. Fred Elkin and Chaplain, Captain Jerry Shields USN (Retired) were amazing in helping me get through that painful time.  Then there is my current staff, Lieutenant Shauna Sanders, Captain, Chaplain Vince Arnold, USN (Retired) and Chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Duke Quarles USN (Retired).  I have had a number of great assistants and Religious Program specialists during my time as a chaplain.  Of course there have been others who have along the way been there for me to give advice, encouragement and assistance that are too numerous to name.

USS HUE CITY Boarding Party

My commanding officers that I have served with in Marine Corps and Navy units have been awesome including Marine Lieutenant Colonel T. D. Anderson, Colonel Louis Rachel,Major General Richard Lake, Colonel Mike Paulovich and Colonel Dan Rogers.  Sergeant Major Kim Davis USMC was an outstanding Sergeant Major to work with, the grandson of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, the first African American General in the U.S. Army, he taught me much in caring for Marines and gave me really helpful advice a number of times.  Captain Rick Hoffman my first skipper on the USS HUE CITY and his Command Master Chief, CMDCM Mark Dubiel were awesome to work for with as are my current Commanding Officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune Captain Dan Zinder, MC USN and my current Command Master Chief CMDCM Terry Prince.  Command Master Chief Gerry Pierce, (USN Retired) has been like family since we served together on HUE CITY.

Soul Vikes

Then there are my fellow officers in the Navy, Army and Marine Corps, my shipmates from the HUE CITY and the Sailors, Soldiers and Marines too numerous to mention that have been part of my life for the last 30 years.  Likewise my teachers and professors, LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness from the Edison High Navy Junior ROTC program, Gloria Nomura, Coach Duke Pasquini, Dr. Delmar McComb at San Joaquin Delta College, Dr Helmut Heussler at California State University Northridge, Dr. Doyle Young and Doug Dickens at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. Steve Ivy at Parkland Memorial Hospital. All of these men and women were amazing in my education and formation as an academic and Priest.

Last but certainly not least are those friends that have been there for me for years going back to my “Soul Vikes” from Edison High School and Stockton Junior High. Those that I went to Army ROTC at UCLA, and those that I have served with over the years in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as seminary classmates, and my colleagues in the clergy from my old church and the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church where I serve today.  Thank you Bishop Diana Dale, and my old friends Fr Greg Schluter from the Navy and the Charismatic Episcopal Church, Major Marty Grossman who I have known since my first day on active duty, Dr. Rick Herrera, Gary Vassar and Becky Munoz-Smith who were with me at UCLA and so many more friends, shipmates and comrades that I cannot name them all.

Finally there are my readers on this site that have encouraged me with their comments since I started this site in February 2009.

If as Hillary Clinton said it takes a village, I have good sized town that has stood by my side over the years and I am blessed.

Again I just want to thank everyone that made this night necessary.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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August 2007: My Beginnings in Iraq

I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect today.  I woke up about 0430 in pain from my broken leg.  I was in enough pain to warrant a Vicodin which was the second that I had had since going to bed.  It knocked me out and after making a call to my staff to let them know that I was out of action I woke up aboutnoonto the sound of a MH-53E flying over my place toward the Marine Auxiliary Airfield a few miles from my place.  Vicodin makes my leg feel better but pretty much puts me out of action.

The memories invoked by the sound of the helicopter caused my period of reflection.  I haven’t written about my time in Iraqin a long time.  The memories of my time in Iraqstill evoke intense emotions which sometimes lead me into a depressed funk and can be brought on by many things.  However since I am doing better than the last time that I attempted to write them down I figure that I might as well start over and attempt to complete what I began in 2009.  Today marks the 4th anniversary of my arrival in Fallujah, the next to last stop before we arrived at Taqaddum and began our operations supporting the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

I arrived in Iraq with my assistant, RP1 Nelson Lebron.  We had detached from EOD Group Two in early July and after stops for processing and training in Norfolk, Fort Jackson South Carolina and Kuwait we arrived in Iraq on the 5th of August.  Our first stop was at the headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group atCampVictory inBaghdad.  We remained there several days getting briefings on our mission and awaiting a flight to Fallujah.  Our last night at Camp Victory was an interesting night where for the first time I was in the line of fire of a hostile rocket which whooshed over my head to explode harmlessly about a kilometer away.

107mm Rocket on improvised launcher

We had a very late flight, about 0200.  Since you normally need to manifest for a flight two hours prior it means that you back up at least a hour before the manifest time.  This particular evening there was not much cooling going on and there was little illumination which meant in most places it was very dark. Especially in troop the billeting areas.  We dragged our gear to the entrance to the billeting area.  Nelson went back to his tent and I plopped my ass down on my bags.  About 2300 I heard and felt a rush over my head.  It was a rocket, probably a 107 mm rocket which is one of the most popular indirect fire weapon used by the insurgents or possibly a 122 mm rocket.  Both are former Soviet systems produced in Iran and supplied to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They are not very accurate but still the fact that a rocket had buzzed me was disconcerting.  A few seconds later I heard an explosion.  I later heard the rocket had continued on and hit an uninhabited area of the camp.  Soon after it went over my head a very young looking soldier came running up to me in his PT gear with an M-16 at the ready.  He shouted “Sir, what was that?”  The young man appeared to be a bit scared to I simply quipped “Only a rocket son didn’t hit us.”  He seemed to relax just a bit and I said “You okay son?” the good thing about being as old as I am that you can get away with calling the young guys “son” because in most cases they I’m old enough to be their father.  I stay in game too much longer and the new kids could be grandchildren.  This young soldier said, “Well sir I’m on the quick reaction force and that sounded close.” In the background to the east machine gun and small arms fire could be heard.  A pair of gunships buzzed us going the general direction of the gunfire.Baghdadwas definitely not a violence free school zone.  I replied to the young soldier. “Son, if I were you I’d report to where you need to go, better grab your helmet and flak.”  The young man looked at me in the dark, assuming I was a Marine officer since I was in myMarineDesertdigital cammies, saluted and said “Yes sir” to which I replied “be safe soldier and God bless, keep up the good work.”  Once again he thanked me and hurried off into the night.

A few minutes later, Nelson who has been in some pretty sporty situations in Afghanistan including once where he took out a knife wielding assailant at a checkpoint in Kabul with his fists, came up to me.  “Hey Chaps, did you hear that rocket? Sounded like a 107.”  I said to him, “Shit brother, it felt like it went right over my head. “  He responded quickly “Boss I think we’re in a war here.”  And I said “sounds like it partner, definitely sounds like it.”  Then he said “Chaps, you wouldn’t believe what I just saw.”  I said “Really, what?”  And he told me the story. “I was over looking for our boy when I needed to go to the head, so I opened one of the port-a johns and when I opened it saw this guy and girl having sex in it, like they didn’t have the door closed and you know how nasty those things are.”  I said “Partner you’ve got to be kidding me” and Nelson said “Chaps I wouldn’t do that to you, those people looked at me like I was stupid when I opened the door and I just said excuse me and closed the door. That place stank sir; I don’t know how they were doing it in there.”  I replied “Partner, I guess after a year of more here some folks will take whatever they can get.” “But, you’d think that they would find some dark spot rather that a port-a-john,” replied a thoroughly disgusted Nelson.  As I laughed at the misfortune of my little buddy, bodyguard and protector I simply said “There’s no accounting for taste my friend, no accounting for taste.”

We sat on our gear and waited, and waited.  The time when we should have been picked up went by and after about 15 minutes of chatter about not being picked up on time, Nelson said. “Boss you want e to go find our ride?”  I responded that I wanted him to as it was so dark that he might not know where to find us. A few vehicles had come and gone but none were our assigned wheels.  Finally after about 45 minutes our ride showed up, Nelson had found him on the other side of the compound in his truck listening to AFN radio.  He had come to the wrong side of the billeting area and was chastising me for not being there.  I said, “Sergeant, I said to meet us over here and I’ll be damned f we have to lug our gear a couple hundred yards to make you happy.”  I paused as he started to interrupt and then cut him off “Sergeant, don’t go there, you’re talking to a field grade officer who wasn’t always a chaplain, you went to the wrong place and you didn’t take the initiative to try to find us. We had to find you so don’t push your luck.”  He replied, almost dejectedly, “Yes sir” and I said, “consider this matter ended, get us to the airfield, we have a flight to catch.”  Nelson and I piled our gear into the back of the truck, got in and rode the airfield.

CH-46’s landing

In 2007 the Camp Liberty airfield, which deals exclusively in rotor wing aircraft, was one of the busiest heliports in the world.  Hundreds of flights went through it every day.  They were primarily Army, but a fair amount of Marine aircraft pass through as well.  We were flying Marine air tonight.  When we got to the heliport our chauffer had a difficult time finding a place to park.  Eventually we sort of double parked and Nelson and I and Nelson and I unloaded our gear with a bit of help from our chastened chauffer got up to the manifest desk where we were greeted by a civilian. He took our names and our mission number and then took out a marking pen and wrote it on the back of our hands.  I found that that at each place this was the primary way to identify who was getting off where or if you should even be on the aircraft. I found a seat and then because I couldn’t get comfortable walked outside for a while.  Nelson on the other hand, ground his gear, threw himself upon it pulled his cover over his eyes and took a power nap. He can sleep almost anywhere.

With about 10 minutes to go I woke up Nelson, and I find it amazing how he can wake back up the way he does.  When I take a nap I am useless for about 30 minutes after I wake up as my body tries to figure out what time it is. We both took turns guarding our gear as the other hit the head, once again a darkened port-a-john that stank to low hell.  When done we staged our gear near the lineup point.  Our mission was called and we lined up with about 30 others, a mixture of Marines, Sailors, contractors and a few soldiers.  We geared up, securing helmets, flaks, our packs as well as our massive EOD issue sea-bags.  Nelson helped me with mine as we got ready to walk, once was over my back and the second strapped across my chest, actually going from my chin to just above my knees.  Many of our fellow passengers had very little gear, and one fairly large contractor offered to help me with my gear.  I took him up on it about half of the 100 yards to where our bird had landed.

Watching our aircraft come in, a flight of 2 Marine CH-46s which date back toVietnamservice I was amazed at how surreal they looked coming in out of the night, their haze gray fuselages almost having a ghostly appearance as they set down.  Of course we had the bird that was farthest from the line up point and I was really glad for the help of this generous contractor.  As we loaded our bags onto the aircraft, stacking it in the center of the deck with everyone else’s gear, we each took one of the jump seats along the side and strapped ourselves in.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt totally winded, no amount of running, pull ups, pushups and crunches had prepared me to lug our heavy and ungainly gear around.  The dimly lit troop compartment was hot and I looked around the aircraft.  I noted the machine gunners in the front doors and the crewman in the back who took a seat with a 240 series machine gun mounted on a swivel.  It reminded me of the films I saw of the inside of World War Two B-17s, except that the flight suits were different.  The crew gave the let the pilots know that we were ready, and I wondered what we were heading into.  Nelson got my attention and gave me a “thumbs up” and I returned it as the lights went out that our flight lifted off.

Banking around to the left the 46 gained altitude and flew back across the camp as it did so I got my first view of Iraq after dark.  As we flew into the city ofBaghdadthere were lights and sometimes lit streets. In a few places I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.  We soon began to descend into the city surrounded by tall buildings, mainly hotels and government buildings and I knew that we were in the “Green Zone.” We sat down on a small landing pad, the dim lights came back on and a couple of passengers got out of our bird which a couple of more boarded the flight. The scene fromCampLibertywas repeated and gear was off and on loaded, passengers boarded and debarked from the flight and the lights went off and the bird lifted off.  Gunners took their positions and chatted on their headsets obviously scanning for threats and assessing what was going on, or they could have been talking about the new video game one of them had bought at the exchange.

Banking left we gained altitude heading east, with Baghdad fading into the night the lights of the communities along the Euphrates came into view as we flew on toward Fallujah.  For me it was a fascinating experience, surreal and a bit of anxiety making but interesting as I thought of the history of the ancient civilizations who had settled here. As a historian I thought about the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and the fact that the faith of the Christian Church through Abraham and later the people ofIsraelbegan inIraqwith Abraham’s obedience to the Lord in theLandofUrof the Chaldees.

The flight only took about 16-18 minutes and we flew into Fallujah.  The bird sat down on a large tarmac and the crew motioned us to get up grab our gear and get off of the aircraft.  I was praying desperately that it would not be a long walk to the terminal from the helicopter pad.  As we hauled our gear off the 46 to get to the terminal I was about tapped out.  The 46 had landed about 100 yards from the terminal where our ride waited.  It might as well have been 100 miles.  I loaded one bag on my back and commenced to drag the other.  Nelson was ahead of me and realized that his old Padre was not doing well.  I was about halfway to the terminal when Nelson showed up with a Marine on a John Deere Gator. My gear was loaded aboard the Gator; I gave a hearty thank you to Nelson, the Marine and to the Deity Herself as I dragged my sorry ass to the terminal.

The Fallujah terminal like most terminals at heliports in Iraqwas a plywood building constructed by the Seabees.  It was well lit inside, had air conditioning which I sucked up and a large refrigerator with bottled water stashed in it.  Once inside I took off my helmet as we checked in at the desk.  By now it was about 0245, I had been up since 0530 the previous day, done PT a Camp Victory, had a rocket fly directly above me and dragged 200 pounds of gear more places than I wanted to in 100 degree heat and I was a spent round.  War is a young man’s game and even though I am in good shape for someone my age, the key is that I am in good shape for someone my age, not a young guy.  Sweating profusely I found a liter bottle of water and downed it.  About that time a large African American 1st Class Petty Officer came in the door.  RP1 Donnie Roland was the LPO of the II MEF Forward Chaplain’s office and worked for Mike Langston.

Donnie, who is now retired from the Navy, is a guy that you definitely want on your side.  He hooked us up.  Normally personnel in a transient status in Fallujah are housed in tents with cots in varying degrees of disrepair.  Donnie got us rooms in the VIP quarters, nicknamed by the Marines the “Ramadan Inn.”  The place had once been the haunt of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddaam’s sons.  It had a pond in the center of the court yard and was reputedly a place where they would entertain senior members of the Ba’ath Party amid scenes of debauchery.  We were given a small room that had a desk and two small Iraqi beds, both of which had thin concave mattresses which had little support but were a definite step up from a cot.  Sheets, pillows and a blanket were included.  Our gear took up the majority of the room but it didn’t matter.  After a shower I crashed hard.  The bed might have been from a 5 star hotel; all that mattered at 0330 was that I could get to sleep.  RP1 Roland told us that Chaplain Langston said that we should get some sleep and come in when we could.  With outgoing artillery fire going off in the background I laid my worn out body down on the waiting mattress, I thought about the day and it came to me that the rocket that had went over my head could have killed me and a chill went down my tired spine.  Another salvo of artillery lashed out at the enemy, and my mind drifted back to the present.  I was now in Fallujah.  One more stop on the way to my war, Nelson was already asleep; I am amazed at his ability to go from 0-60 and 60-0 so fast.  More artillery fire boomed and as a former forward observer I found outgoing artillery fire to be comforting, amid it’s lullaby I went to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve

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