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Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Last Troops Leave as Sunnis Quit Iraqi Parliament

The final contingent of American Soldiers except those assigned to the US Embassy.  The last US military installation in Iraq, Camp Adder near Nasiriya during the cover of night to avoid traffic jams and for their security. As the 500 soldier 110 vehicle convoy of Special Troops Battalion 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood made its way to the Kuwait border the Sunni Block Iraqiya quit the Iraqi Parliament.  The Americans crossed the fortified border of Kuwait joining their comrades at Camp Virginia marking the end of our  war in Iraq today.

Iraqiya is one of the largest political parties in the country and had entered the government on a power sharing basis with the majority Shia coalition.  Iraqiya is protesting Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s consolation of power in himself and Ma his failure to fill the key Defense Minister and Interior Minister vacancies.  One of the party’s leaders warned of a Maliki dictatorship and the possibility of civil war and the division of the country.

It will be a dangerous time for Iraq and the region. Should their be a civil war the possibility of the intervention of Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Turkey to secure their interests in the country. Such would be a disaster for Iraq and its people.  Somehow the Shia and Sunni will have to find a way to share power or face even more war and destruction.

I pray for my Iraqi friends and that they will find a way to rebuild and unify their country.  Too many American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen as well as Iraqi security forces and civilians have died over the course of this war to do anything else.

Our war in Iraq is over and I hope that Iraq and its people will truly unite prosper and become a friend to the United States. Likewise I pray for all of us that served in Iraq and our families that time will also heal the wounds of war.  But only time will tell.  God willing, Inshallah.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Front Page: Padre Steve talks about a Newspaper Interview on His Battle with PTSD

“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I was interviewed about a week and a half ago by Hope Hodge a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News. The paper had discovered me through an article I wrote last September entitled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? The editor assigned Hope to the project. After thinking about the request a number of days I knew that I needed to do the interview and had Hope contact our Public Affairs Officer, Raymond Applewhite. When he secured the permission of my Commanding Officer Captain Daniel Zinder he set up the interview with Hope and photographer Chuck Beckley.  

The interview was a very healing experience and the article was well done and I have nothing but thanks to Hope and those that arranged this. While I have talked extensively about my tour in Iraq and subsequent battles with PTSD, loss of faith and my slow recovery on this site as well as with individuals but I have carefully avoided media until now.  While I write a lot tend to be somewhat reclusive in real life especially since coming home from Iraq with my safe places being Harbor Park in Norfolk and Gordon Biersch Virginia Beach.

I knew that the interview would trigger some memories and I knew that once the article was out in public that there would be varied reactions including some that I knew would be negative.  At the same time the negative has been far outweighed by the positive reactions, especially among those that have gone through similar dark times. As I read the comments I knew despite that any negative reactions or attacks on me that the interview was the right thing to do. I read the stories of those who told about their battles with PTSD, experiences with military and VA healthcare as well as their crisis’s of faith posted in comments section and was touched.  They were telling things that are hard to talk about, especially in a public forum of a local newspaper where people can be quite vicious.  I know that even in that forum when most remain anonymous there is a risk and an emotional cost in posting experiences that in a sense are holy to the people sharing them and should be respected so I am glad to see that for some the article was helpful and encouraging. I was also blessed and even comforted by those that spoke well of me.  The kindness, support and comradeship that one has with such people is amazing, there is a brotherhood of war and we will support each other.

There was one man that was particularly nasty and I do need to deal with his comment here, not because I am upset but rather because I know how war, especially was like Vietnam and the current wars can do to a person.  The man who is an anonymous poster to this and other articles on the Daily News website claims to be a veteran of Vietnam in 1969-1970. I have no reason to doubt him as there are a lot of Vietnam Era combat vets in the local area and since I am a child of a Vietnam combat veteran and remember the shameful way that these men were treated when they returned I would never disrespect his service or even his feelings about how he was treated and the abuses that he saw when he came home.  I am very close to the Marine veterans of the Battle of Hue City and still maintain correspondence with these men who I count as friends.

At the same time I think that this man’s comments need to be addressed, not because of his service or experience following his return but because of the use of character assassination that is so common in our national discourse now days. The last time I experienced an attack on this site of similar invective was when a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist from East Tennessee went so far as to physically threaten me. That man claimed to be a former paratroop officer. I really don’t know what brings people to launch such attacks on people that they never have even met but it is part of life and I knew that I might get something like this so it is what it is.  This is what this man said:

“This man should never have been in the military as he is too weak-minded. And/or, he, like a surprising number of his fellow officers have found it is best to get out under a disability as it’s a tax free cream puff ride to the bank each month. Imagine if he was one of the thousands of trigger pullers afield and try to pull this off? Pathetic!!” Comment by Your62 on Jacksonville Daily News (This and other posts by this man was removed by the newspaper sometime today 3/30/11)

Needless to say he was pretty nasty to others who commented on the article as well so I cannot take it personally and some of them gave it back to him in spades. As for me I hope that this man finds peace someday.

As for me I figure that since I have been in the military, not only as a Navy chaplain but also an Army Officer for nearly 29 years and that I have volunteered for every combat, humanitarian or contingency mission that I could over the course of my career, much to the chagrin of my wife, family and friends that I am by no means weak or lack courage. I know that I didn’t volunteer to go to Iraq to come out of it with PTSD and all that I have gone through since and what I have put my wife through.

Much to the surprise of this veteran I am not looking for a “tax free crème puff” as I figure that 5-10 years from now when I actually retire that I will have maxed out about every pay scale that there is and probably will have another deployment or two in me before I am done.  I figure that the way things are going in the world I will get a shot in Afghanistan or North Africa before all is said and done.

I certainly do not claim to be anywhere or done anything that I did not do or experience and never claim that I experienced what many other veterans of our current wars or past wars have in any of their wounds.  I see too many young men and women who have suffered grievous wounds to body and soul as a result of war to do such a thing. Likewise the many veterans of previous wars that I know who still suffer their wounds I would never dishonor. I consider it an honor to have served alongside such fine men and women or to met them long after their service in Vietnam, Korea or the Second World War or at the end of their careers when I was a young and idealistic know nothing officer in the early 1980s.

My war was different than others. It was in a lot of places where many never went serving alongside small units of 15-20 American advisers stationed with Iraqi units.  These men were remarkable because they were incredibly exposed to danger and often far from big units that could help them if they ran into trouble. They were the men that help organize and train the Iraqi Army to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 as much as anyone they were responsible for helping build friendships with Iraqi military officers that will be a cornerstone of our friendship with Iraq in the future.

As for me I did not shrink from danger. I went on foot patrols, night convoys in the badlands and was in a helicopter that was shot at and returned fire. I have had rockets fly over my head and being on a convoy that took some fire. Thankfully I was never in a convoy hit by an IED or big coordinated ambush. Since the convoys that I travelled with usually had three HUMMVs with nothing heavier than a single .50 cal or 240 series machine gun that any such action would have been a battle for life and death and I know what I would have done had such a situation occurred. Since Al Qaeda Iraq had Chaplains as a high value target and since our Iraqis new that I was the “American Imam” and that such word would filter out of the camps the men that I served with took good care of me even in very exposed locations. Likewise even Iraqi officers sought my counsel and asked me to bless or to pray for their soldiers.  I will never forget the Iraqi soldiers that asked me to bless their vehicles on one of our convoys with Holy Water as I did for our advisers as we set off on Route Uranium west of Ramadi.

Through it all I can now say that I am grateful for what I have been through. It still is not easy as even though I continue to see improvement I still on occasion have flashbacks, nightmares and have to make the effort to go into places where I don’t feel safe.  At the same time I would gladly go back to Iraq or to Afghanistan or anywhere else to serve the men and women of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force that I love and respect so much.  There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about serving in combat again, much to the chagrin of my wife and family.  I am not a proponent of war, in fact the more I see I am against it.  I fully agree with General Robert E. Lee who said “It is good that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” However, I know my place until the day that I retire from the Navy is when my Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen are in harm’s way.

For those who are silently suffering the ravages of PTSD and moral injury related to their service I know the pressure. I didn’t seek help until the EOD Diving Medical Officer saw me falling apart and got me into the medical system.  Unfortunately there can be and often is a stigma attached to PTSD and for some to suffer in silence is preferable to the stigma of seeking help and being called weak.  I made the choice to get help when I couldn’t do it on my own any longer but have seen others be traumatized by other servicemen and women for seeking help, that whole thing about being “weak.” I got lucky when I was sent for help, not everyone has my experience.

Despite that I encourage those suffering from such injuries to seek help because there are a lot of us out here that really care because we know what it is like. I admit that it is not easy to seek help and sometimes getting it can be problematic simply because of the stress on the medical system, but help is there.

Blessings and Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Mission Accomplished in Al Anbar: The Marines Turn Over the Mission to the Iraqis

Religious Support Team 2 MNF-W the Desert Rats at Al Waleed August 2007

There was a time not very long ago that names like Al Anbar, Fallujah and Ramadi were synonymous with futility and humiliation.  But that was before a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. In late 2007 the Marines and our Iraqi Allies aided in large part by the “Anbar Awakening” where the Sunni in the province realized that Al Qaida Iraq’s motives were not in the best interest of the people gained the upper hand in a very short time.  The success was heralded as part of the “surge” but was in large part due to the effort made by the Marines to be seen as something other than occupiers but allies in a fight against foreigners that would brutally kill Iraqis to achieve their goals.

Iraqi Children Happy to see us near Baghdadi

I arrived in Al Anbar in August of 2007 and spent my tour as the Chaplain to the Marine, Army and other advisers in the province which at the time of my arrival were still very much in play.  Within days of arriving at our base of operations I took part in a number of mass casualty situations at the Shock Surgery Trauma center at Ta Qaddum where I prayed for, anointed and looked after Marines wounded when their vehicles were destroyed by improvised explosive devices during combat missions.  My tour was the highlighter of my military career.  In my tour with the advisors as well as the Iraqis of the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army divisions, Second Border Brigade and Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol and even a reconstruction team or two.

Allies: Colonel Cottrell and General Murthi of the 7th Iraqi Division at the Marine Corps Birthday 10 November 2007

During my time there I was privileged to serve with great Marines, Soldiers and even a number of Navy, Air Force, US Border Patrol and Customs personnel and contractors working with the Iraqis.  The Iraqis in many cases were valiant men who while serving against the insurgency and Al Qaida knew that their families were in danger from retaliation as were their own lives.

Friendship: Dinner with General Sabah

While Marines and Army forces took the battle to the insurgents the Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Al Anbar suddenly turned on the insurgents and Al Qaida Iraq.  Soon Iraqi civilians who had been either hostile or neutral towards the Marines and their own Iraqi Army and Police units turned on the Al Qaida and their allies.  Suddenly violence began to subside; Iraqi civilians began to report insurgents, weapons caches and IEDs.

Near COP South waiting to clear suspected IED

By the time that I left Iraq in February 2008 the situation in the province was such that the 1st Iraqi Division was able to be dispatched to Basra and Diyala where they in conjunction they would take the lead in driving the insurgents from these regions. Just before I left an Iraqi General, General Ali in Habbinya told me that I should come back in 5 years as a tourist because everything would be alright. Another Iraqi officer told me that if anything ever happened between us and “the Persians” that the Iraqis would be on our side.  I knew when I left that Iraq would be okay in the long run and I still believe that to be true.

Me with General Ali January 2008

Thursday the Sergeant Major of what used to be Multinational Force West or MNF-West announced the Marines of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) would be conducting a transfer of authority for the American mission to the 1st Armored Division of the US Army as part of the US drawdown in Iraq without a relief in place.   For most people in the United States this will be an event of little significance Iraq is now despite the continued presence of US forces has been forgotten by most.

With Advisers and Leaders of a Company of the Iraqi 2nd Border Brigade

Concern is now focused on US military actions in Afghanistan and the humanitarian relief operations in Haiti.  However, it was in Iraq that an insurgency was defeated, the first time since the British defeated the Malayan insurgency sponsored by Chinese Communists, and the French had militarily defeated the Algerian insurgency before the French government under DeGaulle surrendered the hard fought success of the Paras and Legionnaires betraying them even as he looked after what he viewed as the future of France.

With Bedouin Family and Advsiers near Syria

In the summer of 2007 Iraq was viewed as a lost cause by much of the American body-politic, politicians of both parties and the media.  Now it is becoming a functional state, in large part due to the sacrifices of US Military personnel and the Iraqi Army and security forces.  U.S. Forces are disengaging and exiting the country. While it is likely that and advisory and support mission will remain as the Iraqis continue to rebuild and their Army and security forces continue to expand their capabilities.  The Iraqis recently showed their metal by facing down an Iranian incursion into Iraqi territory on a strategic oil field.

The text of the Sergeant Major’s message describing the transfer is posted below:

From: Carpenter SgtMaj Kiplyn (USF-W SGTMAJ)

Sent: Thursday, January 21, 2010 15:55

Subject: FAREWELL OF THE MARINES FROM IRAQ

UNCLASSIFIED

Please pass on,

SgtsMaj, MGySgts, CMDCMs, Marines and Sailors, Saturday, 23 January at 1100 will mark the end of the Marines in Iraq as an organization.  II MEF (fwd) will conduct a Transfer of Authority Ceremony with the First Armored Division without a Relief in Place from any incoming unit. USF-W (formally MNF-W) will merge with USD-C (formally MND-Baghdad) and will cease to exist.

After 6 years, over 850 Marines and Sailors killed in combat and another 8800 wounded we have completed our mission.  At our peak, we had almost 26,000 Marines and Sailors on deck, close to 200 aircraft, over 380,000 pieces of ground equipment, and were averaging close to 2000 significant events a month.  We have added a whole new generation of Heros; and names like Al Nasiriyah, Fallujah and Ramadi will be added to our History books.

Words can’t begin to explain the magnitude of effort and sacrifice our Marines and Sailors have gone through to help the Iraqi people.  Each year since the initial invasion, Marines and Sailors from all over the Corps have been a part of the revolving I MEF (fwd) and II MEF (Fwd) Commands.  Each year has been different with its own sets of unique challenges and each successive year, the incoming organization has built upon the successes of the outgoing organization.

This year was no different, we didn’t have anywhere near the level of fighting that previous MEFs have done.  However, we did conduct many operations, maintained security, continue to professionalize the Iraqi Security Forces, develop good governance and economics, assisted with the continued establishment of the Rule of Law and oversaw the peaceful transition of the provincial government.  We also had one unique mission that we can call our own. That was to finally bring the Marine Corps home. Over the past year, we have simultaneously conducted the responsible drawdown of 24,000 Personnel, over 34 COPs and FOBs, including Baharia, Rawah, and TQ and sent six years worth of equipment out of theater.

For those of you who served with me this year, thank you.  It was long and difficult at times, with our own set of challenges, but we did it.

It has been an honor to serve with you.

For those of you who have left your boot prints over here at least once during the last six years; thanks to you too. You set the stage for us to finish the job.  It has been costly, it has been challenging, it has taken a while with quite a few dark days. But, in the end, it was worth it.

All Marines and Sailors, including those who remained stateside have contributed to the overall success of the Marines and Sailors in Iraq and; all of us have known someone who didn’t make it back alive or has permanent injuries. It is up to us to ensure that those who follow never forgot their sacrifice or what we did here.

Collectively, we have added another illustrious chapter to the successful story of our Marine Corps.  One that all of us can be proud of.

Semper Fidelis,

K. Carpenter

Sergeant Major

United States Force – West, Iraq

(Previously Multi National Force – West) II Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd)

21 January 2010

UNCLASSIFIED

Iraqi Recruits going through Basic Training

I am proud today to have been part of a mission that appears to have ended in success, at least in Al Anbar Province.  Semper Fidelis to the Marine Corps and the Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen who served alongside of us in Al Anbar as well as the Iraqi Army and security forces who despite the odds set the stage for the Iraqis and US Forces in the rest of the country to begin to re-establish order and normalcy to a country that has known little but war, dictatorship and tragedy over the past 40 years. I look forward to going back to Iraq someday and maybe visit some of those Iraqis that I was privileged to serve alongside.  May God bless all those who served honorably in Iraq and the Iraqi Army, security forces and the people of Iraq.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Decade in Review: Up Down Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again

Happy New Year!

Well, we have killed off the first decade of the new millennium and I hate to say it but I miss the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Somehow despite the threat of double secret nuclear annihilation, disco, and bad hair those decades seemed somehow more civil, more hopeful and dare I say just a bit nicer than the current decade has been.  However this decade is what it is, or maybe was what it was.  I think that most of us could say like the Barry Manilow  song that “I’ve been up down tryin’ to get that feeling again” but like Blobdie sang “Dreaming is Free.”

Personally Padre Steve had recently embarked on another phase of military service having left the Army Reserve in February 1999 to enter the Navy. Since that time my career has been pretty good and I’m glad that I made the switch.  I have had the chance to serve with some great folks and see a lot more of the world and do a lot of cool things, including going to war. This time in 1999 I was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune North Carolina.  The big thing going on back then was the world being up in arms about the threat of something called Y2K.  Y2K was supposed to end life as we knew it as anything using computer technology was going to quit working, airplanes would fall from the sky, power plants would shut down and personal computers would stop working in the middle of trying to get a dial-up connection to AOL or Compuserve. We YTK fizzed and those that had made doomsday preparations felt pretty silly as they looked over their shoulders for Black Helicopters and hundreds of thousands of UN troops hiding out in our National Parks building detainment camps for real Americans.

Who the Hell Was this Guy Voting For?

As YTK fizzled the 2000 Presidential campaign got spun up.  Padre Steve missed a lot of it because he spent about 10 weeks in the dessert at 29 Palms with two different Marine battalions during two Combined Arms Exercises, or CAX.  He then left in December for a deployment to the Far East. Just before the election the destroyer USS Cole was attacked and heavily damaged by terrorists in an explosive laden boat while refueling in Yemen.  2000 ended without a decision in the election and the campaign culminated in January 2001 with a razor thin Electoral College victory for George W. Bush full of controversy over disputed ballots in Florida with an Army Corps of lawyers getting involved and taking the whole thing up the Supreme Court.  This process dragged on for what seemed like forever until I was in Okinawa with my battalion.  A new term was coined “the hanging chad.” Once the election nightmare was over things did not get better.  In 2000 lost some notable folks, former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach and Pro-Football Hall of Famer Tom Landry called his last play, Sir Alec Guinness crossed over the River Kwai and Montreal Canadiens Hockey legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard broke away and got his final hat trick.

9-11 Twin Towers Under Attack

As 2001 began it did seem that things were starting to settle down despite lingering hatred on both sides of the political aisle about the election.  But then there were the attacks of September 11th 2001 where terrorists flew hijacked airliners into both of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. This caused a number of congressmen and senators to break forth in song outside the Capital and for a brief time it seemed that the whole country had united in common cause.  Soon US Special Forces, Rangers and Marines were fighting in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the terror attacks and the head of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.  US forces overran Afghanistan quickly with the help of Afghan tribes known as the Northern Alliance and it looked like despite not finding Bin Laden that the US goals were being accomplished even as the President was telling Americans to “go shopping” to many in the military giving the impression that while the military was at war that the nation was not.  In December 2001 Padre Steve was transferred from the Marines to the Guided Missile Cruiser USS Hue City, CG-66. The ship would complete a couple of underway periods and exercises before departing for the Middle East in early February.  This was Padre Steve’s first tour in a war zone and the ship conducted operations off the Horn of Africa, in the Northern Arabian Gulf as part of the UN Oil Embargo on Iraq intercepting smugglers, during which time Padre Steve was with a boarding team that made 75 boarding missions of Iraqi and other smugglers.

Iconic Picture of Padre Steve on a Boarding Mission

From there Hue City operated with the USS John F Kennedy conducting operations in the Gulf of Oman where our air controllers helped direct strikes against Al Qaida and the Taliban and during which time the ship was detached to keep watch on the Indians and Pakistanis who were on the brink of having a nuclear war.  Acting great and Academy Award winner Jack Lemmon, former Beatle George Harrison and NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt all made their final lap around the planet. In Baseball the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees to win the World Series in 7 games.

2004 The Red Sox Break the Curse

2002 also saw John Allen Mohammed, the Beltway Sniper bring terror to Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland, the Congress passed a joint resolution to allow President Bush to use US Military Forces as he deemed fit in Iraq and the Iraq War Resolution.  Shortly thereafter the Department of Homeland Security was established.  The San Francisco Giants lost the World Series to the Anaheim Angels after leading in the 7th inning of game six much to the consternation of Padre Steve and the other Giants faithful.  Calls for the public water boarding of Giants Manager and former “Evil Dodger” Dusty Baker to find why he took out Russ Ortiz went unheeded. Dave Thomas the founder of Wendy’s flipped his last burger, country music legend Waylon Jennings sang his last song and Baseball immortal Ted Williams all died in 2002 with Williams and his family trying to make him a real immortal by having his remains cryogenically frozen.

The Challenger Disintigrates

For Padre Steve 2003 was relatively uneventful, the Hue City was in the yards when Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched and was just getting ready for a deployment when he was reassigned to the Marine Security Force Battalion.  In short order he was travelling around the globe and before the end of the year had visited his Marines in Bahrain, Rota Spain and Guantanamo Bay Cuba and he and the Abbess celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. The Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the big story of 2003 however there was other news. The Space Shuttle Columbia blew up on re-entry killing the 7 astronauts on board, California recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with the Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees to win the World Series. We lost some legends in 2003 comedian Bob Hope died at the age of 100 and is now doing his Christmas show for the Archangel Michael and the Armies of Heaven; US Senator Strom Thurman filibustered his last bill at the age of 100, Fred Rogers left the neighborhood and Joseph Coors brewed his last batch of really bad beer.

George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln

2004 saw yet another nasty Presidential election riddled with controversy as George W. Bush defeated Senator John Kerry to win re-election.  In Iraq Saddam Hussein was finally caught hiding in a hole in the ground by US Special Forces, the war in Iraq went south as the insurgency of former Ba’athists, disaffected Sunnis aided by Al Qaida and other foreign fighters and terrorists took up President Bush on his challenge to “bring it on.”  Facebook was founded in Cambridge Massachusetts, simultaneous suicide bombs devastated trains in Madrid in what became known as Spain’s 9-11, Lance Armstrong won his 6th consecutive Tour de France, Chechen terrorists seized a school in Beslan Russia and over 300 are killed and 700 wounded by the terrorists as the school was stormed by Russian security forces and the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series to break the curse of the Bambino after coming back to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS after being down three games to none.  Death took no holidays in 2004 as Bob Keeshan better known as Captain Kangaroo was piped over the side, Rick James dated his last Super Freaky Girl without taking her home to mother and former President Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimer’s Disease after seeing his successors destroy his coalition and “big tent” and hopeful vision of conservatism.   Padre Steve continued to travel around the world with his Marines going to Japan, France, and Spain, Bahrain and Guantanamo Bay as well as a number of trips within the United States.  In France he taught seminars at the Belleau Wood battlefield site and in Normandy.

Hurricane Katrina as a Category 5 Storm

The war in Iraq continued to heat up in 2005 with the insurgency spreading throughout the country with the focal point being Sunni stronghold Al Anbar Province.  Hurricane Katrina ravaged Gulf coast devastating New Orleans and southern Mississippi killing over 1800 and forcing millions from their homes. The ineffective and inept government response beginning with the “fly by visit” of President Bush helped the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate in 2006.  Terrorism was alive and well as a terrorist attack on London’s Underground and a bus killed 56 and injured over 700.  As for Padre Steve well he was selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander, completed the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and continued to travel around the world with his Marines going to Japan, France, Spain, Bahrain and Guantanamo Bay as well as a number of trips within the United States.  The highlight of this was being able to have the Abbess accompany him to Guantanamo Bay for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. The Chicago White Sox defeated the Houston Astros in the World Series. In Washington DC baseball stars were hauled before a Congressional committee to testify on steroids in baseball or interrogated about their possible use of steroids. This wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer money as loser Congressmen who tolerate all sorts of illegal and immoral actions of their own sought to embarrass and destroy the careers and reputations of ballplayers in a grand act of inquisitional hypocrisy. Death came knocking for comedian Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson gave his last monologue, Pope John Paul II met Saint Peter and James Doohan, Mr. Scott from Star Trek was beamed up for the last time.

Israeli Merkeva Tank Destroyed by Hezbollah

In 2006 Padre Steve was promoted the Lieutenant Commander and was transferred to EOD Group Two after completing another year of travel with the Marine Security Forces.  Within months there was talk of a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan for him and his trusty assistant and body guard Nelson Lebron. He also began a Masters Degree program in Military History at American Military University.  In the rest of the world the Republicans lost their majorities in Congress, the war in Iraq continued to grow in intensity and Israel went to war with Hezbollah forces on their northern border.  The attack was ill conceived and was a military failure revealing weaknesses in the Israeli ground forces training and tactical abilities forcing investigations of the military and the resignation of the head of the military.  Pope Benedict XVI the successor to Pope John Paul II published his first encyclical.  In the World Series Tony LaRussa’s St Louis Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers and Barry Bonds though tainted by controversy continued his march to the Baseball Home Run title.  Death paid a visit to former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, sportscaster Curt Gowdy called his last game and Don Knotts, Televisions Barney Fife gave up his bullet for the last time.

Barry Bonds the All Time Home Run Leader

The war in Iraq reached a climax in 2007 as President Bush heeded the advice of General David Petreus and initiated a “surge” of forces to help wage an actual counterinsurgency campaign.  Combined with the Al Anbar Awakening where the Sunni turned on the insurgents and allied themselves with the Americans the course of the war changed as insurgents lost support and the US and better trained and equipped Iraqi forces launched successful offensives to drive the insurgents out of key areas.  Padre Steve deployed to Iraq and served in Al Anbar Province working with US Marine and Army advisers to the Iraqi Army, Police and Border forces travelling thousands of miles in the province to go where few others went.

Padre Steve in Iraq with Bedouin on Syrian Border

Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record while track star Marion Jones surrendered 5 Olympic Gold Medals after admitting to blood doping and the Boston Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies to claim their second World Series title of the decade.  Meanwhile death came to Jerry Falwell who preached his last sermon; Tammy Faye (Baker) Messner applied her last coat of Bondo, Ike Tuner played his last guitar riff while Pavarotti exited the stage with Marcel Marceau who went rather silently I am told.

Barak Obama the 44th President

In 2008 Padre Steve returned from Iraq with a pretty good case of PTSD, chronic pain and anxiety coupled with depression and a crisis in faith.  He finished his tour at EOD and was assigned to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. He and the Abbess celebrated thier 25th wedding anniversary.  The war in Iraq was now moving in a successful direction with the Iraqis taking more control of their security and the various religious, political and ethnic factions beginning to talk and work with one another rather than shoot at each other.  However the war in Afghanistan took a nasty turn as the Taliban came back with a vengeance and the Afghan government was revealed as weak, ineffective and corrupt.  The 2008 Presidential election was waged with bitterness and the Democrats sent Senator Barak Obama, who had defeated Senator Hillary Clinton up against Senator John McCain.  Obama won the election becoming the first African American man to become president while strengthening their majorities in Congress. The world entered a major economic crisis in 2008 and the United States suffered massive losses in financial markets, housing and rising unemployment.  Bank bailouts were the order of the day as President Bush left office and Obama took over.  A massive earthquake in Sichuan China killed over 80,000 people while American swimmer Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals to set an Olympic record.  The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series defeating the surprising Tampa Bay Rays.  Death as always came along taking actors Heath Ledger and Charlton “Moses” Heston, comedian George Carlin and former Senator Jesse Helms.

Sarah Palin the New Leader of the GOP?

2009 came in with the inauguration of Barak Obama as President something that Padre Steve witnessed with a elderly African American women in her ICU room while holding her hand as she cried not believing that she would see an event of this kind in her lifetime.  The war in Iraq began to wind down as the US began to increase it’s withdraw of ground forces and turn over more security to the Iraqis.  In Afghanistan the war reached a crisis point as the military and political situation deteriorated within the country and support for the war dwindled in the US and Europe. Amid this President Obama agreed to a “surge” for Afghanistan.  The worldwide economic continued but by the end of the year some economic indicators were pointing upward again even as the US unemployment rate continued to rise. A bitter fight was waged over health care reform and economic policies while President Obama’s support and approval ratings crashed as people on both the left and right of the political spectrum criticized his leadership and policies.  Republican Vice-Presidential nominee and former Vice President Dick Cheney took the Republican lead in attacking the President while conservative talk radio delivered a daily barrage of criticism.  Some of Obama’s own actions did not help his cause especially in the manner in which he was viewed to respond to terrorist attacks including an attempted Christmas Eve bombing of a US airliner.  Tensions continued to grow between the West and Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program even as widespread demonstrations wracked that country after an election which appeared to be rigged by the Iranian government. An outbreak of H1N1 Influence reached pandemic proportions across the globe but did not reach the lethality that it had the potential to do.  The Vatican announced a historic plan to allow conservative and traditionalist Anglicans come into the Catholic Church and retain their Anglican traditions and some measure of autonomy.

The Yankees Return

In baseball a revitalized New York Yankees team dominated the American league and went on to dominate their playoff and World Series opponents defeating the Phillies in 6 games. In football a good number of teams in both the NFL and NCAA were a parody of the sport and coaching scandals plagued the sport while at the box office Star Trek came back with a vengeance and a twist. Padre Steve continued his hospital work, battled PTSD, depression, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease and his own spiritual crisis but completed the academic requirements for his Masters Degree in Military History and by the end of the year began to experience some measure of healing.  He launched this site in February of 2009 and as of this post will have made 328 posts on the site.  He also bought his first ever season tickets for a baseball team and now claims Section 102, Row B seats 1 & 2 as his pew at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.  Death prowled the earth looking for recruits finding legendary news anchorman Walter Cronkite who signed off of the last time, Pop Superstar Michael Jackson who “moon walked” the stairway to heaven or wherever, Senator Edward Kennedy who finalized his last legislation with his maker and Patrick Swayze who reprised his role in “Ghost.”

So it has been quite a decade personally for your friend Padre Steve as well as an eventual decade for the United States and the World.  The decade has been “interesting” and as the ancient Chinese curse says “may you live in interesting times.”  I hope that the next year and decade are a lot less interesting, that wars will cease and that people all over the world will join together like the old 1960’s Coca Cola commercial.

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing?

Peace and Blessings in the New Year,

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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