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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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Filed under Military, shipmates and veterans

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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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Moslem Allies and Friends

I posted a piece that I’m sure that some will find controversial yesterday.  Entitled “A Christian Defense of the Rights of Moslems in a Democracy (or Constitutional Republic) it dealt with comments and demands made by some that Moslems be removed from the military, security services and government positions simply because of religion or ethnicity.  You an see the post here:

https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/a-christian-defense-of-the-rights-of-moslems-and-others-in-a-democracy-or-constitutional-republic/

It generated some heated debate and I am sure that more will come. However I am just going to show a photo montage of the Iraqi military, US employed interpreters and former Iraqi officers helping the Iraqi government and US Forces.  The people of Iraq and much of the Middle East are not a monolithic bloc or extremists as many in this country are prone to believe.  Moslems fight every day against terrorists and are killed by the same kind of extremists who took down the Trade Center Towers and inspired Major Hasan in his shooting at Fort Hood.  They are friends and allies in the war against Moslem terrorists.  I post this article to put a human face on those that are often lumped together as the “enemy” simply because of their religion.

074Dinner with Brigadier General Sabah of 1st Brigade of 7th Iraqi Division in Ramadi. A professional soldier and Shia he sees himself as an Iraqi and ally of the US. The Last time we met in January 2008 in passing at the helo terminal in Ramadi he greeted me with a hug in front of his staff and many American soldiers and Marines calling me a friend.

079Group Shot with General Sabah, his youngest son, our interpreter, the American Brigade Senior Adviser and my Assistant RP2 Lebron

176RP2 Lebron with one of the “Terps” interpreters named “Shaun” originally from Palestine but a Green Bay Packer fan living in Minnesota

237Iraqi Children Greeting us in a town along the Euphrates

227Iraqi man in traditional garb happy to see us because Americans helped clean out the terrorists from his village

258With Iraqi Officers of 7th Division and Marine Advisers at the 2007 Marine Corps Birthday Cake Cutting at Camp Blue Diamond. Trained by the Marines the 7th and the 1st Iraqi Divisions helped turn the Tide in Al Anbar and the 1st went on to liberate Basra and then to Diyala Province

372Blessing Advisers of 7th Division as they prepared to go with Iraqis to guard a fuel convoy. Following this the Iraqis asked if I would bless them and their vehicles too, it seems they have some kind of Holy Water too and were willing to take the Christian kind as well.

291A man with a Dangerous Job. Iraqi Policeman Escorting Civilians across Route Michigan in Ramadi. Shortly after we took small arms fire and Iraqi Police engaged the target

866With the Leaders of an Iraqi Border Force Company a kilometer from Syria, they like all the Iraqis we dealt with were hospitable offering us Ch’ai as well as food on our visit with the adviser team

880With a Bedouin Family near the Syrian border on Christmas Eve 2007

867Iraqi Border Troops at Border Fort Five near Syria

882Proud Bedouin Father and his son

883The Bedouin Father serves us Ch’ai and cakes

934Iraqi Troops of 7th Division coming back from Patrol on Christmas Day at COP North an isolated post near Syria. While we celebrated they worked and trained.

911One of the Iraqi vehicles in one of our convoy’s near Al Qaim pulling security for us to pass. Our convoys generally had about 3 American and 2-3 Iraqi trucks transiting dangerous areas with very few soldiers, nothing more than 240 series or .50 cal machine guns and far away from any big reinforcements should we have been hit

969New Iraqi Army Soldiers in Basic Training at Habbiniya. Imagine being far away from your family and know that they are in danger just because you serve in the Army

971Chaplains and our Assistants with General  Ali and his staff of the Training and Support Center at Habbinyah. He proudly showed us his well worn Arabic-English Bible. A Moslem he liked it because it had information not in the Koran

973Bakers at the Iraqi Army Bakery in Habbinyah the fresh bread is great

Dundas and FallahWith General Falah Hasan..driven from Iraq by Saddam under threat of death he returned from the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and advise the Iraq Assistance Group.When asked what branch of Islam he said “My mother was Sunni, my father Shia I don’t know I am an Iraqi”

Of course I had many more interactions with the Iraqis than just these photos.  There was the G-3 Officer at 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who said that he wished that the Iraqis had Christian Priests to serve as Imams because he knew that they would care for the soldiers and families and were not compromised like many Sunni and Shia clergy.  The Iraqi military, Sunni and Shia distrusts most Moslem clergy because of their political militancy and divisiveness during the worst part of the civil war.  At one time they had Imams during the Saddam era but many commanders refused to appoint Imams.  Then there was the Iraqi Company commander at out in the west who tracked me down to meet the “American Imam and thank him” for serving our Marines and for praying for Iraq and its people. He also said to let people know that if something ever happened between the US and “Persia” that most Iraqis would support us. I could go on but needless to say there are millions of Moslems who fight along side of us as well as the American Moslems who serve in our ranks without being traitors like Major Hasan.   

Peace and blessings,

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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