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Thoughts After My Retirement Ceremony: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and Thanking all Who Were there for Me

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sorry not to have written anything the past few days but I was exhausted after dealing with medical and dental issues, getting no sleep and being stressed out getting ready for my retirement ceremony. When it was done I was happy and so tired that I had a hard time doing anything.

Monday I had my COVID-19 Era retirement ceremony. It very special. Unfortunately the live stream video got deleted by the Chapel were it was held, but I heard from a number of people that a lot of it could not be heard on the livestream. Even so the people I wanted there were there and it was an appropriate coda to my career. One of our friends present with his wife is an active Staff Sergeant in the Virginia Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division in which I served after I became an Army Chaplain in 1995.

I had my Command Master Chief from Norfolk Naval Shipyard as well the Chief Bos’ns Mate from the Shipyard to sound the bells and pipe me ashore. Having two Chiefs was awesome, as the Command Master Chief read the traditional reading The Watch, something I wanted because my late father was a Chief Petty Officer. For me that was a huge honor. Seldom do Chief’s or Senior Non-Commissioned Officers get leading roles at an officer’s retirement, especially like in reading the The Watch in the Navy. If you have never heard it read this is how it goes, only the number of years of service change.

 Like the Chiefs, few Chaplains have their RPs or Chaplain Assistants speak at their retirement ceremonies. I don’t know why? In the Army we are Unit Ministry Teams, and the Navy Religious Ministry Teams, the key word being teams. I was talking to a friend today, the only other Chaplain that I have seen have one of his enlisted men speak. He noted that during his time in the Navy that most Religious Program Specialists at the Rank of Petty Officer First Class, had worked for at least one Chaplain who treated them in such a way that they lost faith in God, other Chaplains and the church or religious institutions in general. Nelson fricking nailed it. God bless him and his wonderful daughter.

I had two former Commanding Officers who had a huge impact in my Navy speak with prerecorded remarks. Retired Medical Corps Rear Admiral David Lane who was my commanding officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune during one of the darkest points of my life. He was there for they then and in 2015 when due to the maltreatment and abuse I was getting from staff members of the Mental Health Department of the Naval Medical Center, interceded with the Admiral commanding it. That Admiral called me, spoke to me for an hour, got me the appropriate referrals and got some things changed, because I wondered if a senior officer was being treated the way I was, how were junior sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen being treated. I was suicidal, but Admiral Lane helped keep me from it. Monday, he honored me, and my wife Judy with his remarks. He is one of the good guys, he sees people not in light of their rank or job, but as human beings. His words brought tears to my eyes too.

The other was Captain Rick Hoffman, my Skipper aboard USS HUE CITY on her first combat deployment having been a test ship for new combat systems for five years. That was shortly after the attacks of September 11th 2001, and he helped put my service aboard the ship in context. He is an amazing man. He lost his wife to Cancer not long after he retired. He offered to turn down command of the ship   when she was diagnosed, but she wouldn’t let him. She survived the first bout but not the second. The Admiral who presided over the ceremony, Rear Admiral Charles Rock said that when he was a young Lieutenant Commander that Captain Hoffman was a legend. He didn’t know that he had been my Skipper on HUE CITY. Likewise, he had worked with Admiral Lane not long before Admiral Lane retired in Washington DC.

Captain Hoffman’s children are great people, and since retiring he has continued to look after his sailors and our national security. He provided me chances to do things chaplains never get to do. His comments were so good, and brought back many fond memories of my shipmates, including the ones who removed me from breaking up a fight between a disgruntled crewman and Master of a ship impounded under the UN Oil Sanctions on Iraq, for which the crew gave me the nickname “Battle Chaps.” Not only was I unarmed, but because of a shortage of Kevlar armor plates for our combat floatation vests, I was also going into danger without any protection except that of my shipmates. Thankfully, I had great shipmates. That was good living, difficult, arduous, but what you live for if you sign up to serve as a Navy Chaplain. It was such an honor to have Captain Hoffman there, even as like Admiral Lane had to do, he did so virtually.

I also had Mikey Weinstein, President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who defended me when I was facing potential Court Martial. Since then he and I have become fast friends and allies in the defense of the civil and religious rights of military personnel and their families. He echoed the words of Nelson, Admiral Lane, and Captain Hoffman said about me, and he never had met them. All understand that a Chaplain’s job is far more than preaching his or her faith, it is about caring for military personnel, their families, and our Department of Defense and Department of the Navy civilian personnel, and protecting their Constitutional rights.

As Admiral Lane noted, to preach at stateside chaplains we could hire contractors, but we needed chaplains who could be there for our military personnel and their families, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. There really are no other places someone in the military can go with complete confidentiality to reveal their hurts, pains, anxiety, worries, and even sins in complete confidence without fear of reprisal, or punishment. In some ways, good military Chaplains are to use the words of James Spader’s character in The Blacklist, are sin eaters. This is not saying that we cover up crimes, but that we are a safe place for people to cast their cares and get sound counsel on how to get whatever help they need and if need be go with them to get that help be it medical, psychological, legal, administrative, or the help best given by their chain of command. One finds as a chaplain that most of our flock’s needs are not necessarily spiritual and that they don’t need to only person with absolute confidentiality they can go to shove religion down their throats.

Mikey understands this much more than his critics give him credit. He understands the needs and religious rights of military personnel as only one who has had his life threatened by Christian theocrats, and Anti-Semites can only understand. He spoke very personal and inspiring words about my service.

My regular readers understand my understanding of religious liberty, government, and citizenship. One of my inspirations is the great Virginia Baptist, John Leland who advised Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Declaration of Religious Liberties and James Madison on the First Amendment wrote, and which I quoted Monday in my remarks:

Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be  encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.”

I also quoted James Madison said, “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Sadly, in our country today many people, including the church leaders of a majority leader of many military Chaplains hold an opposite doctrine, that of the very doctrines of a supposedly “Christian” Religious theocracy that the Framers of our Constitution so opposed. I opposed those opinions and had someone try to get me tried by Court Martial for preaching a Biblical and Christian sermon on social justice and the the racist policies of the outgoing administration. Some people think that they can use their position to condemn people whose religious and beliefs in our Constitutional rights disagree with theirs. Thank God, whatever God’s there may be or just dumb luck and fate for men like Mikey. I look forward to working with him after my official retirement date.

I also brought up my understanding of leadership which included my devotion to the West Point motto Duty, Honor, Country. I received my commission as an Army ROTC cadet, and I was not an Academy graduate. However those words  have served as a compass to my career. For me the first duty has always been to the truth be it as a Medical Service Corps officer commanding a company and later dealing with the Army’s response to soldiers infected with HIV or dying of AIDS, where I helped write the Army’s personnel policies and because no other personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences wanted to be in the same room with an HIV infected soldier, I became CINC AIDS. I got to be the person who dealt with men and women dealing with a disease that at the time was certain to kill them, and how they could still serve. That brought me a whole new perspective on life, and a great deal of compassion for those who received news that they did not have much longer to live.

The same was true when I was an Armor Officer and Battalion S-1 in a Texas Army National Guard Armor battalion and saw how racism still permeated the National Guard in Texas. As a non-Texan and former Active Officer I found that I was a foreigner, something that I experienced transferring from Texas to Virginia. It is funny how the same prejudices that permeated the Armies of the Confederate States were still existent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Likewise, honor, is about my sacred honor to my Oath of Office and my sacred vows as a husband, and Priest, and finally my Country in good times as bad.

Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation said: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military. That really didn’t take that long. It began when I was an Army Second Lieutenant and has continued until today.

Likewise I have been guided by the words of General Ludwig Beck who resigned his office rather than obey Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, and then gave up his life in the attempt to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944. Beck said:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

I reminded those present or watching online that those words were especially important in our conflicted and divided country. While I did not say it directly I implied that Officers cannot simply dedicate themselves to purely military matters when their Chief Executive violates the Constitution they swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 

While it was in the script since we were running late and I didn’t want to get any more political than I had I left out. Beck also said:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

That is exactly what I believe. I wish time had allowed me to say it, but I digress…

Then there was my dear friend and colleague, retired Navy Chaplain Vince Miller who served as both the Chaplain and Master of Ceremonies for my retirement due to COVID-19 restrictions on how many people could attend. Vince and I have had so many similar experiences, endured similar treatment in the Chaplain Corps, but hold so many values about the rights of people, their faith, and those who served under our supervision sought to uphold, regardless of their beliefs. Both of us ended up getting off-ramped from promotion because of things that happened to us or family considerations. He is a fast friend, a man of integrity and honor who like William Tecumseh Sherman understood the value of friendship. Sherman was a friend of Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman said of their friendship:

“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand together.”

That my friends is friendship.

Finally, the ceremony was maybe more about the selfless love and devotion of my wife Judy. One cannot imagine what it is to spend almost 40 years in the military with someone who remains as faithful and devoted for so long despite the separations, deployments, and everything else associated with military marriage.

My God she has been through so much and not just because of deployments, separations, and the hassles of moves, and not seeing family. But also because Chaplains spouses don’t have much support, especially from other Chaplains or their spouses, especially if they suffer from a physical disability, like being profoundly deaf while having speech as good as any hearing person. But even with the best hearing aids around which have improved her hearing and life tremendously, there are times that our facilities are not built with the disabled, especially the deaf in mind. The acoustics were so poor where we had the retirement ceremony that with the exception of me and Admiral Rock Judy had a difficult time understanding the ceremony. She was hoping to try to watch it Tuesday with her Bluetooth hearing aids synced to her iPad but the livestream had been deleted, again reminding her of how little the military values people with disabilities. At least I have the speeches of the three men who spoke saved and she will be able to listen to them when we get the chance, but it hurt.

Likewise, it used to be that when a Chaplain retired the Chief of Chaplains at least sent a “thank you” note or acknowledged their retirement regardless of their rank. A few months ago I saw an email from our current Navy Chief of Chaplains and his Deputy acknowledging the Chaplains retiring in the rank of Captains and the Religious Program Specialists retiring as Master Chief Petty Officers by name but not acknowledging anyone below those ranks. I wondered to myself what the fuck? Is it all about climbing the highest ranks of the Chaplain Corps, or about caring for those we serve and lead? Of course for me it is about those that we serve, especially those who serve under us.

Then I realized that of all people, Senior Chaplains serving as Admirals or who would crush anyone to bet their Star, don’t give a damn about those who serve and have stomped over to achieve their positions. They don’t give a damn about anyone except themselves and their power.

During my remarks I quoted Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 about the Chaplain. There is something about secular power in religious matters that transforms otherwise decent people and ministers into monsters. No wonder my ceremony disappeared off of the Chapel’s Facebook video archive. Heller wrote:

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

That being said, we were blessed by those who attended, what they did and what they said. It meant the world to us, as do the wonderful words, thoughts, prayers, and actions of people who have been there for us to be there in person or by whatever virtual means available.

I am not bitter because I leave the service knowing that I have given all that I can and that the people that matter the most to me still care, regardless of rank or station. I would rather have the well wishes of a man or women I helped when they were an E-3 or E-4 rather than the platitudes of Clergymen wearing stars or eagles who didn’t care. But what I experienced is not uncommon, but most people will never speak as openly as I do, because from the earliest days of my service I believed in telling the truth whether it pissed people off, or harmed my upward mobility.

So despite being worn out and having to deal with more medical and dental issues than I thought I would ever see in the final days of my career I am still blessed and one of the luckiest men in the world, to paraphrase Lou Gehrig when he had to retire from baseball due to ALS. I am, at least to my knowledge not dying of anything, but it doesn’t take away my sentiments towards those people who have been there for me the past 39 plus years in the military, and even those before I signed my name on the dotted line.

When I am actually completely retired at 2359 hours on 31 December I can truly embrace my inner Smedley Butler, and embrace the fullness of truth and patriotism.

So until tomorrow,

Peace and thank you,

Padtre Steve+

 

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