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Padre Steve’s Reasons for Thanksgiving in 2013

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“Be thankful for what you have. Your life, no matter how bad you think it is, is someone else’s fairy tale.” Wale Ayeni 

Judy and I celebrated a wonderful Thanksgiving today with some dear friends. We had it easy, our job was to bring the growlers of Gordon Biersch Beer, which is a lot easier than having to cook. Our friends prepared a wonderful meal and as we talked, ate drank and watched football we were reminded that Thanksgiving really is about being thankful for all things in life.

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We have a lot to be thankful for and no matter how hard we have had it at times over the years we have it pretty good. Today was a nice day. Had we not gone over to our friends we probably would have invited people without family in the local area over. We have done that before. The past few years with me being either deployed or stationed away from Judy when we had thanksgiving together we would either cook a small traditional meal at home or go out. When we got home we watched a movie and hung out with our dogs Molly and Minnie.

At least though what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving has changed over the years. Mark Twain described the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Twain as opposed to those who mythologize the Pilgrims and those who followed them was actually a pretty fair summation:

“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.” 

I think my most memorable Thanksgiving in the past decade is Thanksgiving in Iraq back in 2007. At that time we had just come in from a mission in the far reaches of Anbar Province, a mission which had to be curtailed because visiting congressmen had sucked up most of the air assets. It was interesting to be in cold tents and air terminals sleeping on cots with several hundred others in the same boat. So after three days of being marooned at an intermediary stop we got a flight back to our home base.

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When we got back I was one of the servers, working alongside the vastly underpaid and overworked contract workers from India and Sri Lanka employed by an company affiliated with KBR-Halliburton in the DFAC or Dinning Facility. Those guys worked for 2 years 6 days a week, 12 hour days for about $8000 of which half was paid to the agent that hired them. I developed a healthy appreciation for these wonderful people who always kept a good attitude even when some Americans treated them rudely over things that they often had no control. Many were Catholic or Anglican Christians who were incredibly gracious despite their situation. My friend Fr Jose Bautista made sure that he celebrated Mass at their compound which was away from the main areas of the base.

Despite being exhausted from the trip worked the line for a couple of hours cracking jokes with our Marines, Sailors, Soldiers Airmen and civilians as well as the DFAC employees. It is a Thanksgiving that I will always remember, especially because of the people and being away from home and knowing that I would be going out again soon to the far reaches of the province.

Thus I always remember my brothers and sisters deployed in harm’s way and those deployed or stationed away from their families and friends at home.

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Today was wonderful and tomorrow will be spent around the house helping Judy do some cleaning and getting ready to put up our Christmas decorations over the weekend. Since I am not a fan of the craziness of Black Friday this will be a fairly relaxing day.

I do wish you and yours a blessed weekend and pray that your Thanksgiving went well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fiscal Cliff Notes: There are Always Results

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I am not a fan of heights. I find cliffs, bridges and tall buildings frightening. As a result unless there is like a high wall that I cannot be thrown over I stay far away for the edge. I think the correct term for this is ohnosplataphobia. This is the fear of what you say when you realize that you are going over the cliff and the last words that you say before you hear the sickening sound your body makes when it reaches the bottom. “Oh no”…splat.  There are several derivatives of this, there is “Our Father which art in…” splataphobia, the “Oh shit”…splataphobia, the “Did I remember to lock the car door…” splataphobia and my favorite the “Fuck it all you assholes….” splataphobia.

When we visited New York a few years back we went to the top of the Empire State Building and 30 Rock. Both gave us very good views of the New York skyline and no I did not come even close to looking down.

Sometimes I watch movies where there are scenes where a character dives off a cliff or some other really tall place. We were watching the 3D version of Men In Black 3 the other night and the scene where Will Smith has to dive from the top of the Chrysler Building was enough for me to hold onto the couch for dear life.

But now our nation is at what everyone is calling the “Fiscal Cliff” which if you ask me would be a terrifying horror movie if it wasn’t real. In fact in term for the phobia of people like me to the Fiscal Cliff is the “Fuck it all assholes…” splat. Of course the assholes are all the idiots in Congress who a year and a half ago passed a law on the extension of the nation’s debt ceiling in 2011 to keep the nation from defaulting on its debts. It was called the Budget Control Act of 2011 and basically it was caused when the Republicans  decided, believing that anyone that they ran against Obama in 2012 would win, forced a showdown on the usually innocuous measure of extending the debt limit. So to get the deal done all parties joined together to pass this bill, which is such bad legislation that it will screw everyone in the country if our elected leaders don’t do something about it.

Back when it was passed people pretty much figured that with a year and a half before the big mandatory across the board cuts, quaintly called “sequestration” which I think is similar to what happens when you castrate the cast of Sea Quest, except that it happens to all of us.

Since we are not a dictatorship and Mussolini is still dead and magically make things happen we have to depend on both houses of Congress and the President to figure this out. Now in the past we did these things. Politicians frequently compromised to get things done for the benefit of the country even if they did not get everything that they, or their supporters wanted and for the most part we were all better for it.

What I think needs to be done now is drastic. I am really pissed off that the House of Representatives, led by the Orangeman himself John “I need a smoke” Boehner didn’t even show up to work today. I mean that is really responsible. I think that all the members of Congress, House Members and Senators of all parties need to be forced at bayonet point into chambers and not allowed off of the House or Senate floor until they get a deal done. No office visits, no runs to the coffee shop, no ordering pizza for everyone, no conjugal visits and no smoke breaks.

Now I am not completely inhuman. They would get to go to the shitter, except that instead of going to one of the nice ones that our tax dollars pay for we would bring shitters to them. Yes it would break up the decorum of the place but we could put an inadequate number port-a-johns around the wall of the chambers and not empty them until the deal was done. This would be kind of like what happens when KBR-Halliburton contractors run Forward Operating Bases.

We should give them MREs to eat and all the Pabst Blue Ribbon and Busch beer needed to get the deal done even if that means that the port-a-johns overflow. The C-SPAN cameras should be going live the whole time Then maybe these assholes would do something, and if they don’t they should be allowed to leave, at the point of a bayonet. This may seem rather harsh and undemocratic but these men and women, of both parties are failing the country and seem more attuned to those that through their massive campaign contributions help keep them in office.

Will this happen? Probably not, but back when the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed I knew that it would come down to this. I remembered and wrote about this on August 2nd of 2011 (The Deal is Done and are We? There are Always Results )and I quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words about the Missouri Compromise:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” 

God help us all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under News and current events, Political Commentary

The Disdain of American Business for Military Personnel and their Benefits

“What are you going to trade off — a rich entitlements program, or boots and bullets for the troops?” Richard Spencer Defense Business Review Board (quoted in the Navy Times 2 May 2011 print and internet edition)

The Federal Government is looking for ways to slash funding any way that it can. In light of the seriousness of the nation’s financial crisis previously sacrosanct areas are probably going to be cut.  Military pay and pension portion of the Defense Department budget continues to increase. For the active force due to inflation and medical care costs are the culprits and due to the fact that the pesky retirees just aren’t dying off fast enough.  Obviously something needs to be done otherwise we won’t be able to afford the “bullets” or rather the weapons systems that we use to fight our wars with.

But for a man who has made his money on Wall Street using other people’s money including government bailouts every time our financial, banking and real estate industries due their best to destroy the economy to call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” is simply obscene. If there is anything that has broken the back of the military budgets it is a series of wars that won’t end that somehow make contractors and defense industries rich.  Every day they find new ways to overbill the military for weapons systems that they cannot field on time, or are such money pits that the Defense Department tries to cancel them while our fiscally minded Congress makes the military buy them anyway.

Billions of dollars have been paid to defense contractors that employ a wide scope of companies many foreign owned to provide basic services at overseas bases such as food, transportation and even security supposedly because they can do it more efficiently than the military. The truth is that over the past 20 years the military personnel that would have performed these missions were cut from the force so much so that when we went into Iraq we didn’t have the forces to do all that was needed. Yes we could slap the snot out of the Iraqi or any other military that got in our way but we couldn’t sustain the force without employing and enriching companies like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and dare I say Blackwater.  Additionally our defense contractors have ensured that nearly major weapons system produced in the past 20 years is plagued with problems and cannot be produced on time, are horribly over budget and due to their cost cannot be produced in the numbers needed by the military.  Then there are some projects that are so Rube Goldbergish that the technology needed to make them work isn’t attainable so compromises are made just to keep the programs alive.  Money is spent and weapons are produced that never meet the hype of their supporters in Congress, the defense industries and the army of lobbyists which I think number more than the actual Army. Then there are the weapons systems that are not only money pits but also never are deployed.  Congress and successive Presidential Administrations have made these countries wealthy while killing the defense budget and adding to the massive Federal Debt, which before the wars was actually shrinking, God bless you Bill Clinton.

But now we have a crisis and it is not the corporate welfare queens of the defense industry or the contracting vampires like Halliburton who will feel the pinch it is those who serve.  Yes my friends rather than these blood suckers it is the Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who since 1990 have been deployed who if more that any generation of our military for a great length of time than any force in the history of our country. Count the places Panama, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo just to name a few. Then through in things like Operation Southern Watch, no-fly zones, humanitarian missions around the world that we have conducted over the same period.  By the way since these things are expensive and there is not enough money we are told to “work smarter not harder” and “leverage our synergies” so we can cut the force and still do the mission.  We look where that got us. We decided the get involved in massive ground combat operations without the manpower to do them effectively resulting in longer campaigns costing more lives and more money that the wise “smarter synergy” people ever estimated.

And now we have one of these barons of modern American-Global Capitalism which if I can remind you are the same people that have created the financial crises that enveloped the world that had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.  By the way most of these barons of business received exorbitant and obscene bonuses sometimes with the taxpayer’s bail-out money, the very people who brought the house financial house down now call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” while embracing tax cuts for themselves.

Well doesn’t that beat all? Is there anyone but me that has a problem with this? But let’s look at some facts.

Let’s see.  If someone retires at 20 years they get 50% of their high-three or basically the average of their last three years pay, not 50% of their highest pay but the last three years of pay. That was changed back in the late 1970s to save money by pretending to say that you got 50% of your base pay but really a bit less. If you serve 30 years you get 75% of you high three, of course by then you better be set for retirement because most military personnel with skills that are not directly transferrable to the civilian world will not be hired by anyone because they are too old. Mind you the retirement percentage is just from the base pay of the individual, not the housing allowance or other pays that you get for deployments or hazardous duty.  Likewise all those little perks from active duty disappear like state tax breaks for being in the military and by the way the health care costs they go up too. Military retirement is taxable and the Feds, the States and local taxing authorities are quite good at making sure they get their “fare share” of something that they never earned.

Speaking of healthcare what really interesting is that military personnel also pay into Social Security and Medicare. In fact when we are 65 our TRICARE health insurance is supposed to be secondary to Medicare or other insurance that we might have.  Since most of us currently serving are under 55 year old cut off that Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed in ending Medicare we lose that too.  So much for Medical Care unless a veteran is qualified to receive treatment in a Veteran’s Administration hospital.  But those hospitals face an increasing number of patients and a decreasing budget.  Who knows maybe they just give us the Soylent Green option.

Look out if Congressman Ryan and his band have their way as Social Security will go by the wayside too.  That is really a good deal isn’t it? Spend 20-30 years getting busted up for your country and put your family through hell as you constantly deploy to combat zones or on regular operational deployments or training exercises and then get told that the benefits that you worked hard to get are simply a “rich entitlement.” Then to top it all off find out all the money that you have paid into other people’s retirement and health care won’t be there for you.

But let’s take a look at why some of the cost of these “entitlements” is rising. It’s the wars stupid. A lot of money is now being paid to combat-wounded veterans that are medically retired from the service.  No one begrudges them this and I certainly don’t because they have paid their pound of flesh for it. They deserve it and most go through a lot of shit in the medical board and with the Veteran’s Administration to get that.  However, if you add up the tens of thousands of these pensions provided to these men and women that might have only served one or two tours it is a lot of money. This is an increase because in normal times many would have left the military without retirement benefits after they were done with their enlistments. Then there is the cost of paying the survivor pensions to the wives, husbands, children or parents of those that gave the last full measure and died while on active duty.

Some entitlement program huh? An entitlement program that often involves multiple tours in combat zones, separation from family, injuries that build-up simply because we are expected to stay physically active in physically and emotionally environments that wear people down.  Yet Mr. Spencer who served as a Marine Corps Aviator from 1976-1981 a period when we were not at war has the nerve to call this a “rich entitlement program.”  However a one term Congressman gets a retirement and benefits for life. We grind it out for 20 or more years and get told that we are leaches in so many words. Mr. Spencer didn’t use that word but that is exactly what he meant.  In the great World War Two film The Caine Mutiny LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer chastised the members of the Caine’s Wardroom following the acquittal of the Executive Officer on the charge of mutiny.

“You know something… When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.”

I don’t want to question the honor of Mr. Spencer but I will. Wait maybe I really want to question his honor so what the hell here it goes. According to his bio on the DOD website Mr. Spencer graduated from private college with a business degree in the middle of a really nasty economy. Gerald Ford was President and since the Vietnam War was over and a strong anti-war feeling lingered there was not much chance of seeing action.  So Mr. Spencer took his business degree and went in the Marines, not the grunts but as a Naval Aviator.   As soon as he finished his obligation and the Reagan boom began he left the service. After all he knew that you couldn’t make any money in the military.  I enlisted in 1981 and when I was commissioned as an Army officer in 1983 I had a base pay of $900.00 a month.  I didn’t do it for the money I did it because of what had happened in Iran and the Soviet moves all over the world.  Back then there was no GI Bill and limited tuition assistance or money for college when you got out of the service. I was not alone there were thousands maybe even hundreds of thousands that joined for similar reasons despite the low pay and benefits. We did it out of good old fashioned patriotism.

I resent the term “Entitlement program.” It is pejorative. It is a wonderful big business and fiscal conservative code word for “unearned and undeserving welfare program.”  Now there are programs that could legitimate targets of such a pejorative term especially corporate welfare but for Mr. Spencer and others of his ilk to lump the retirement pay of career military men and women is reprehensible.

How many military personnel and their families lose money every few years due to moving costs, changing the kid’s schools having spouse have to quit work to move to new locations? Let me see, almost all of us who serve a full career that’s who. But to Mr. Spencer we are the welfare queens and leaches. Again those are my words not his even though that is exactly what Mr. Spencer meant. We who serve and go into harm’s way so Mr. Spencer’s cronies on Wall Street can make the big bucks are the problem.  When a military officer fails his or her career is over and he or she suffers scorn, when the executives that Mr. Spencer rubs shoulders with destroy a company or defraud the public they get big bonuses multi-million dollar buyouts and move on to new hunting grounds.

So now we are on the chopping block. All the services are shedding personnel even as the mission demands have not gone down in order to save money.  In the Navy as we speak there are boards being held at almost every rank to send people home, including junior enlisted personnel.

It is a shame that we have come to this. A nation at war for 10 years and engaged all over the world in war and peacekeeping operations the 10 years prior to this using a smaller force percentage wise than we have had than at any time since the 1920s and 1930s.  Less than 1% closer to half a percent of Americans currently serve in the active or reserve components of the military and many have served one or more combat tours.  Meanwhile nearly 90% of people military age cannot meet entry standards to join.

This, my friends makes military personnel an easy target for bean counters. We don’t have a lot of votes and if people like Mr. Spencer and some in Congress have their way we will be thrown under the budget bus. They will throw us into wars that are unwinnable because we don’t have the resources to successfully prosecute them or the strategy and goals don’t match the forces that are there to accomplish them.  Meanwhile the defense industries and the big war contractors like Halliburton will continue to make money hand over fist. The late Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler was absolutely correct when he said “War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” 

In the past month another 50 or so American military personnel have died in Afghanistan nine in the latest attack on advisors to the Afghan Air Force just this week. The total losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are now over 6000 dead and almost 43,000 wounded not counting those suffering from mild to moderate Traumatic Brain Injury and the tens of thousands of others that suffer from PTSD.  Of course this does not count those that have died on their return to the United States due to suicide risky behaviors caused by their experience in combat.  Neither do the numbers count those that succumbed to their wounds after their return to civilian life or in the Veteran’s Administration system.  God knows how many of these uncounted casualties of war there are but remember this is just another “entitlement program” according to Mr. Spencer.

Meanwhile as Rome burns the Legions continue to serve while the world that the politicians, diplomats and business leaders put together falls apart. Wars and crises abounding into which they will gladly send us. The Middle East is threatening to explode and Mr. Spencer and those like him would call us parasites leaches and welfare queens, again my words not theirs even though that is exactly what they mean and call the benefits that we have sacrificed for over 20 or more years of service a “rich entitlement program.”

In fact as this drumbeat from the business leaders advising the Pentagon continues people will begin to believe it. Already polls are showing the American people think that the military budget needs to be slashed in order to pay for their entitlements.  We know that the defense industry, the lobbyists and the contracting Giants will suffer the least in this, as always it will be the men and women that have volunteered to do the job that no one else wants to do that will feel the brunt of the cuts.

We have been at war for 10 years with an 11 year lead up to it. In a sense we have been at war or heavily engaged in peacekeeping, humanitarian or actual war for 20 years. Your Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are remarkable. In spite of an unending war, deployments that never seem to end and being forgotten by a population more caught up in the problems of Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen, their own financial worries or trying to demonize their political opponents in our perpetual election cycle. Even so they serve selflessly and with distinction.  They don’t deserve to have their retirement called a “rich entitlement program.”

When I see the son’s of the wealthy that inhabit Wall Street and other financial centers say this I become incensed.  Many were born into wealth and all make themselves wealthy on other people’s money usually while exporting the industrial base of the United States overseas because they say that American workers are overpaid. Many simply see the military as the government arm which guards their overseas operations but really hold us in contempt and for the past 40 years have thrown the servicemen and women of the country under the bus if there is a possibility of them having to pay more taxes.

To read about such comments from businessmen and politicians I am reminded of a quote of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott from the movie Gettysburg:

“Meade will finally attack… Straight up the hillside, out in the open, in that gorgeous field of fire. We will charge valiantly, and be butchered, valiantly! And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was…I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this.”

Yes we will continue to serve and many will continue to die as the vampires of Wall Street consider those of us who serve as leaches and characterize military retirement programs as a “rich entitlement program.” They will thump their chests and say how much they support the troops but such words will only come from their marketing departments hoping to gain the military market share.

The attitude of Mr. Spencer and those like him needs to be confronted and challenged at every turn or they will dishonor those that serve so selflessly.  We need more men like Smedley Butler.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Going to War: Life at TQ, Chuck Norris Visits and Mass Casualties

While we prepared for our first mission we adjusted to what life was like on a large airbase and logistics hub. Ta Qaddum is one of the larger Iraq Air Force bases from Saddam’s time but has a history going back to the old Royal Air Force base at Habbinyah which is just down the hill.  In 1941 the Iraqi Army laid siege to the British forces in Habbinyah from the escarpment that overlooks the town from what is now the northern edge of TQ.  One only has to imagine the feelings of the Iraqi soldiers short on supply and exposed to air attack on the escarpment while waiting for German intervention only to be driven off by the British when their relief force arrived from Jordan.

iraqi bomber at tqWrecked Iraqi Bomber at TQ

The Iraqi legacy on the base looms in some of the infrastructure as well as the hulks of Soviet made Iraqi Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft near the edge of the airfield.  When I was there in 2007-2008 the base was under the command of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group or 2nd MLG.  The MLG is a command and control headquarters for logistics support units of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.  It is tailored to support the Ground Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Division and the Air Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Air Wing and attached units.  Its function is similar to an Army Corps Support Command or whatever the Army calls them now.  TQ was also the home of several helicopter squadrons Marine and Army as well as a local defense force at the time made up of the 1st Battalion 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton. 1/11 was an artillery battalion but was being primarily used as a security and convoy protection force.  Other units including Navy Seabees and Army logistics units operated from TQ.  A Marine Infantry Battalion was stationed in Habbinyah while elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were operating in the area as part of the surge.

The base is about mid-range on the amenity scale for troop comfort. At the time we were there the only non-DFAC/ Chow Hall was the Green Beans Coffee trailer as opposed to places like Al Asad and Camp Victory which had a multiplicity of fast food places for the troops.  The Marines are tougher on communication security than the Army and many websites which troops could use on other bases were unavailable unless one went to the Iraqi internet café or the MWR computer and phone center.  The Iraqi run shop had the fastest internet on the base but you had to contend with huge amounts of second hand smoke and pay a nominal charge to use it.  The MWR facility often had broken machines, had a waiting list to use them and the connections were very poor with pages slower to load that the old dial up days.  On the plus side TQ did have a relatively decent Marine Corps exchange, not as big as Al Asad or Camp Victory, but one of the larger exchanges in Iraq and second only to Al Asad in the West.  Most places including Ramadi had pretty small and not well stocked exchanges.  TQ had nice fitness center facilities which I used a lot being coached by Nelson.

060Chaplains and RPs with Chuck Norris

The base MWR worked with the USO and other agencies to bring sports stars or celebrities to the base.  Just before we left on our first mission Chuck Norris came through.  Chuck was made an “Honorary Marine” a few years back and has made it his task to try to meet every Marine deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaking the hand of each one he met.  The chapel was the host facility for the visit which last about 2 hours in which Chuck pressed the flesh and had his picture taken with probably close to 5000 Marines and other personnel, maybe more.  The Chaplains were drafted to be the photographers and I lost count of how many different types of digital cameras that I took pictures with.  Chuck enjoyed the heck out of Nelson and was impressed with his fighting resume.  I think that Nelson got more face time with Chuck than anyone on the base and he deserved it.  Chuck was accompanied by Chaplain Langston and RP1 Roland our friend from Fallujah.  After they were done he had to get on the waiting helo and fly out to his next stop.

058Chuck and Nelson

The chow halls, of which there were two, were large and usually had a pretty good menu.  I especially came to like the Indian nights where Indian specialties were served.  Since many of the cooks employed by Gulf Catering who had the contract were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Ceylon so it generally was pretty good unless they had to scrounge for suitable ingredients.  I like the curry chicken, but occasionally it was made with chicken nuggets when the real chicken was in short supply.  It almost reminded me of the Spam Lamb in the TV series M*A*S*H or the great quote out of the movie Meatballs: “Attention. Here’s an update on tonight’s dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight’s mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed “some kind of beef.”   I think that there were a number of times when I really wondered what the meat was.  They usually had a pretty good salad bar unless resupply convoys were interrupted and fresh vegetables had run out.  There were a number of times where the pickins were slim and Nelson and I had to get creative.  Breakfast was usually good with a good choice of food choices, some even healthy.  The workers were great, always friendly despite working 12 hour days 6 days a week for $300 a month.  Many had signed up through agencies which cost them $4000 so the first year that many worked was for nothing.  It was in my opinion a case of a KBR/ Halliburton subcontractor using them in effect as indentured servants and pretty well damned close to slaves, all legal by the US Government.  I thought that it was pretty immoral and certainly a case of a company contracted by the government reducing labor costs on the back of some of the poorest people in the world. Back at the end of the Cold War the military downsized and eliminated most of the Army and Marine mess specialists which paved the way for the contracting industry, led by the former Secretary of Defense and his Halliburton team to begin their massive contracting operations with the Bosnia deployments back in 1995.  They were limited to their own compound far away from anything and were always the last to eat.  They were polite and really tried to accommodate sometimes rude and condescending Americans, the local management did the best they could to give them good accommodations but were limited by their parent company.  Many of the workers were Roman Catholic or Anglican Christians  and Fr Jose had a great ministry that he took on to support them by going to their camp a couple of times a week to celebrate Mass.  His masses were packed and what a source of life and the love of God he was to so many people at TQ, Americans and non-Americans alike.

988Fr Jose on the bank of the Euphrates at Habbinyah

About a week after we got to TQ Marines from the battalion in Habbinyah were hit in an IED complex ambush while on patrol.  A couple of vehicles were hit, Jose was across the base celebrating Mass and Pat was in Fallujah.  A chaplain was needed in the Shock Surgical Trauma Unit or SSTP.  Wounded were being brought in, the platoon had been hit hard, 14 wounded and a couple killed.  I figured that since I was a pretty experienced trauma and critical care chaplain who had dealt with over 500 deaths, many traumatic with bullet wounds, burns and the host of other types of trauma, and tended to probably twice that many who did not die that I could handle this.  When I got to the SSTP I was greeted by a couple of nurses and docs and briefed as to what was going on.  Within a few minutes the casualties were beginning to roll in as the UH-60 Dust-off MEDIVAC helicopters landed and teams went out to meet them.  Some were ambulatory, or walking wounded bandaged with lacerations and burns on their faces and upper bodies, other were brought in on stretchers and ushered into the treatment beds in the area outside the OR.  It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H as the well honed surgical teams, surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and corpsmen went to work.  I now work with a number of these fine people. I was able to make my way about to the wounded Marines, praying with some, holding hands as and with a couple performing the sacrament of healing, or the anointing of the sick.  As I listen to Marines, prayed with them or anointed them there was a tremendous sense that this was different than what I did at Parkland or Cabell-Huntington.  These young men wore the same uniform that I wore, served the same country that I served and travelled the same roads that I would soon be on.  As each was assessed and moved off to surgery, prepared for further evacuation or treated and sent to a ward I noticed the little things about each of them.  The wounds, the torn uniforms, the burns and even the tattoos, these were our guys, they weren’t gang bangers or criminals but young Americans fighting a brutal war against a enemy that had terrorized Iraqis and found devastating ways to kill Americans.  Some of the Marines asked if they would be okay, others asked about friends and in those moments I learned what it was to care and be with men traumatized by the violence and brutality of war against an enemy that would not fight by our rules, much as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to fight our war.  The enemy was clever and determined and his weapons were deadly.

Stars and Stripes sstpTQ Surgical During Mass Casualty Event (Stars and Stripes Photo)

The teams did their work quickly and soon the event in the ER was done as the Marines were moved off to OR, the ward or further evacuation. I spent some time talking with unit Corpsmen and less wounded Marines and learned about the attack. They were in a convoy heading back to Habbinyah when the there was an enemy contact ahead of them.  As they moved forward to engage a primary and secondary IED hit the convoy heavily damaging two trucks with an ensuing firefight.  The Marines fought off their attackers, the wounded were treated and security set up as Dust-off came in to evacuate the wounded.  I thought back to my days as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and remembered my friends who had elected to apply for flight school to become Dust-off pilots.  I remembered learning to call in MEDIVAC missions and some of the Army MSC aviators that I knew; some had flown in Vietnam, being a Dustoff pilot can be a sporty occupation.  They fly an unarmed bird into hot landing zones and get badly wounded troops to medical facilities in 100 degree plus weather without killing them enroute, those guys are good. As the crowd dissipated I spend so time with some of the staff.  Eventually with night having fallen I began the walk back to my office in the Chapel.  I looked up at the night sky, in the darkness a another UH-60 sat down to pick up others being evacuated on to Baghdad or Balad.  I looked up at the sky and saw more stars than I had seen at any time since I was at sea on the USS HUE CITY.  It was amazing; it looked like you could almost walk across them from horizon to horizon. When I got to my office I checked on my our mission status, I had submitted our first Air Support Request earlier in the day, of course it had not moved yet, but at least it gave me something to do.  I checked my unclassified e-mail and knew that there was nothing that I could share with anyone so I looked at baseball scores, checked a couple of news sites and headed off to my “can.”

medivacPackaging a Casualty for Further Evacuation on the TQ Surgical Pad

That night I did not sleep well, the images of the wounded Marines were burned into my mind; I could see their faces, their wounds and their tattoos.  I prayed the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer using Psalm 91 and the prayer “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” I took some comfort in this, walked out again into the night to see illumination rounds in the vicinity of Habbinyah and the distant sound of automatic weapons fire.   For once my insomnia was not related to jet lag or exhausting night flights, it was instead a realization that what happened to these Marines could well happen to me as I we launched later in the week.

The next morning another eight or ten Marines from the same company came in, this time I went to the SSTP with Jose and we did a tag team match, we tried to determine religious affiliation of the wounded Marines with him taking the Roman Catholics to provide sacramental needs and me taking the rest.  Once again the images were vivid; these Marines were on a mission to recover the damaged vehicles and were hit by IEDs on their way back to base.  This time one Marine was killed.  I walked to the graves registration and mortuary affairs team with the battalion surgeon and a corpsman who were to identify the body.  I listened to their frustration and heartache as they described what they had been through the past two days.  The company had taken over 20 casualties including 3 dead.  A high percentage of casualties for a unit that probably numbered about 120 men.  Once again I walked back, this time in the hot mid-morning sun with Jose to the Chapel.  We talked for a while about the past two days, he knew the battalion that had been hit well as he supported them as well.  The surgeon was one of his parishioners.  After we went our separate ways I did my morning prayer and settled in to study more about where we were going.  Nelson and I got PT later in the evening and I spent a restless night in my “can” playing computer Maj-Jong and Chess on my laptop deep into the morning.  Once again I spent time walking in the dark looking at the vast sea of stars above me.

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