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“I Imagined it Would Be Different” Passing the Baton on my Last 9-11 on Active Duty and Reflecting on All We Have Lost

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong. my friend Fregattenkapitäne Micheal Hufnagel, then the  First Officer Of the German Guided Missile Destroyer Lutjens was among the first to express support for the United States. Steaming next to the USS Winston Churchill helped put up a banner that said We Stand By You. It was an iconic moment. Eight months later I met Michael and we became fast friends, to this day.

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

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Honestly, I didn’t expect the war to go on for more than a few months, but months became years, and years became decades. I guess I was a lot like the German military officers who in the wake of the dramatic success of the Wehrmacht in the west and the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa  the German victory was so certain that resistance was futile and the best course was to follow orders, believing that victory over the subhuman Taliban and Al Qaeda was just around the corner. In the beginning I was little different than your average Wehrmacht officer, but by the time I left Iraq I realized just how wrong I was in supporting that misbegotten invasion.

I was so spellbound by Operation Desert Storm and operations in the Balkans that I ignored history. I knew the results of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the British, Indian, and Macedonian adventures there, but we were the United States. We would win. Then the Bush Administration forgot Afghanistan and went into a war with Iraq, which was doomed from the start, and which met every standard of the war crimes that we tried the Nazis for at Nuremberg. As the American Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson noted before those trials:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 38 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire, despite the efforts of President Trump to make a deal with the Taliban.

Tomorrow there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting, Lest We forget. However, I don’t think any should be used as platform to promote war without end. We will be conducting a 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony in the morning. I am having my brand new junior chaplain do invocation and benediction. I have helped him and given him guidance, but he has produced a good result that didn’t need much of my guidance to be something that honored the victims of 9-11, the U.S. military, and our allies since, as well as the innocent victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and so many other places this unending war has touched. It is time for me to step aside and let the young men and women who were children when this began to be up front. My goal now is to help the young folks get recognized for good work and train them to represent the best in the Chaplaincy and to be guardians of the First Amendment, not religious theocrats.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“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.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the 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.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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“Nothing that We Despise”

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General Allenby: [leafing through Lawrence’s dossier] “Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… you’re an interesting man there’s no doubt about it.” 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I noted yesterday I have been in a more reflective mood thinking about so many things, and some of my own inner conflicts and doubts. When I do that I tend to turn to history and muse about the lives of other people who seem to have shared to some degree my struggles.

Character is a terrible thing to judge. Mostly because those doing the judging also suffer from flaws in their own character and truthfully I don’t think that any of us are exempt from doing this at least sometimes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves.” I think is somewhat freeing to realize that.

Yet somehow the temptation is for us to stand as judge, jury and character executioner on those that we find wanting. As a culture we like tearing down those that we at one time built up, in fact we have industries that exist in order to build up and then destroy people.

It is a rather perverse proclivity that we have as human beings, especially if we can find some kind of religious justification for it.

I think that is part of the complexity of the human condition. As a historian I find that the most exalted heroes, men and women of often great courage both moral and physical, intellect, creativity, humanity and even compassion have feet of clay.

I find that I am attracted to those characters who find themselves off the beaten track. Visionaries often at odds with their superiors, institutions, and sometimes their faith and traditions. Men and women who discovered in themselves visions for what might be and pursued those visions, sometimes at the costs of their families, friends, and in quite a few cases their lives.

Throughout my studies I have been attracted to men as diverse as Peter the Apostle, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erwin Rommel, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Teresa of Avila, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Emir Feisal Hussein of the Arab Revolt. All had flaws and the list could go on and on and on.

Some of these men and women, saints and sinners alike had fits of temper and violence, others sexual escapades, mistresses, affairs, greed, avarice, and a host of other unseemly characteristics.  Some of them stretched law and morality in their quest to achieve their goals. But all are considered great men and women.

Feet of clay. Who doesn’t have them? But then I think that I would rather have feet of clay than a heart of stone, unchallenged mind, or a lack of courage to do the right thing even when it does not directly benefit me.

I love the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence in a most remarkable manner, showing his brilliance, courage, diplomatic ability and understanding of the Arabs with whom he served.

There are many people, leaders and others that we encounter in life or that we study. Even the best of the best are flawed and there is no such thing as a Saint who never sinned. But we love destroying them and their memory when to our “surprise” when we find that their hagiographers built them into an idol.

I am a great believer in redemption and the weight of the whole of a person’s life. Thus I try to put the flaws as they are called in perspective and their impact both positive and negative in history. Studying in this way gives me a greater perspective on what it is to be human and to place my own clay feet in appropriate perspective.

As Lawrence said: “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Paths Taken and Not: The Tapestry of Life, Authenticity and Wisdom Passed Down

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Nearly 32 years ago I was getting ready to embark on a military career. It was  the fall of 1980 and I was a junior at California State University Northridge. Within the year I was beginning my first furtive steps in my career by enlisting in the California National Guard and enrolling in the Army ROTC program at UCLA.

It was an interesting time. My imagination of the military back in the days of the Cold War was quite orthodox and founded on what a “normal” Army career should look like. I would get commissioned, serve as a platoon leader, company executive officer, battalion staff officer and company commander. I would attend the appropriate military schools, the officer basic course, the advanced course, specialized courses and Command and General Staff College and then hopefully be promoted to the field grade ranks and after serving 20-30 years would retire as a Major, Lieutenant Colonel or maybe even a Colonel.

If that had been the case I would have had a very different life than I have today. Certainly a good life, but not what I have today. I would be me, but a different me. I would have probably played everything safe and been the perfect servant of the institution while ensuring my own success.

Instead the tapestry of my life and choices have produced something different than I could have ever imagined 32 years ago. Those choices have resulted in successes and failures, blessings and great difficulties as well as trials that honestly I would never want to go through again. However all of those things have helped make me what and who I am today.

I look back at the people in my life who have influenced me at different points, as well as critical junctures where I made decisions I see a tapestry that I could never have thought possible, a tapestry much richer and diverse than I could have thought of back then. It has not been without pain but it has been worth it.

One of the things that I discovered early was that as hard as I tried to fit the mould of the Army, I was a non-comformistby nature.  I thought outside of the box and that in attempting to fit in I was not happy. I had one rater  in his evaluation of me offer the criticism that thought too much of my abilities that “lent me to criticism.” That may have been true to some extent, and my rather blunt and outspoken opinions to criticize higher ranking officers and to take liberties with orders got me in trouble at times.

However I did survive some of my more stupid escapades such as telling my Medical Group Commander that he had embarrassed our command as a very junior Army 1st Lieutenant and in another case banned the two local CID investigators from running amok on a fishing expedition in my barracks without probable cause or a warrant for their investigation. They never returned with probable cause or a warrant. Another time I told the the senior personnel officer in the command I was stationed as a Captain that he could take his spies out of my command, as well as getting thrown out of the Army Chaplain Officer Advanced Course in 1992. It would take too long to explain the details of these incidents here but assuredly they were the fault of a young, opinionated and outside the box thinking officer who dared to voice his opinion to men who were institutional careerists, they were not bad people, just people conformed to and servants of institutional norms. That being said my troubles were troubles brought on me by my own actions because I did not understand what the institution, any institution can do to otherwise well meaning and honorable people.

Despite some black eyes I did make Major in the Army Reserve and finally to get back on active duty reduced in rank to enter the Navy back in 1999. The good thing was that I learned from my experiences and have been able to use them to learn, survive and succeed in my Navy-Marine Corps career.

In the process there were men and women who at various times in my life and career passed along wisdom, not just advice, not just knowledge, but wisdom. It is to them that I owe my successes. Without their sage advice, authentic leadership and honesty I would have certainly crashed and burned a long time ago, a prisoner of my own limited insight and unlimited ambition.

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But more than succeeding in my career I have learned that it is okay to be me, to be authentic and to be honest about who I am and what I do. My goal now as a relatively senior chaplain is to care for, mentor and allow those men and women who work directly for me to succeed, even as well as those that I serve.  It is no longer about my career. I am on the backside of my career regardless of my next assignment or even if I get promoted to Captain in the Navy several years from now when I am eligible. But promotion is not an end to itself, if I have learned anything it is that many times promotion to a higher office can be a prison that some men never escape.

The fact is that I have far fewer years left to serve than I have served to this point. Thus it is far more important to do right for the people that I serve and help them take lessons that I have learned into their futures and if they remain in the military pass them along to others as they become authentic leaders. Johann_von_Staupitz

Johann Von Staupitz

My study of history and more practically in my case military history and to some extent church history and theory shows me quite those who don’t achieve the highest levels of command or institutional power often have a greater influence in the long term than those who do. Without Johann von Stauptiz it is doubtful if the young Martin Luther would have began to study the Bible and hence bring about the Protestant Reformation.

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Carl Von Clausewitz

As the foremost interpreter of Napoleon, a relatively unknown Prussian General Staff Officer, Carl von Clausewitz had a greater impact on warfare and military theory than did Napoleon himself. There are many other examples of such individuals in history, men and women, many times of far lesser estate than Clausewitz or Staupitz who have by their wisdom helped those that eventually held power or influence in thinking outside the bounds of tradition to accomplish things that were not possible to their teachers.

Wisdom comes slowly to most of us, especially people like me. The problematic thing is that is, for the most part wisdom is a commodity that is not highly treasured in a society built upon expediency and crass materialism. It is certainly not something the most men and women that seek power are gifted with, despite their intellectual gifts and often well earned knowledge. But learned knowledge and raw intelligence are different than wisdom. Knowledge and intelligence are quite wonderful but ungoverned by wisdom the ambition that they breed is often the undoing of those that rely on them as well as their physical, economic or even military power.

The key thing is that wisdom, experience and learning was passed along to men and women who, God willing, will be serving long after I retire from the Navy. Today I was approached by one of our wounded warriors stationed at our hospital because of his injuries. He engaged me in a conversation and he said that he would like to spend some time with me, to listen to some of my stories about my life in the military and experience. Evidently a couple of his young friends have told him a bit about me. That meant a lot to me, just as the times that young people have come to me not because of my position, or rank, but because they see me as a real person, approachable and available.  The nice thing for me is that there are many times that I learn from them, for many times it is young people that can see the greatest problems and offer ideas and solutions that elude older and more experienced people in every walk of life.

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B. H. Liddell-Hart

I recently read B.H. Liddell-Hart’s biography of T.E. Lawrence, perhaps one of the most gifted military commanders, philosophers and men of the 20th Century. Lawrence and to some extent Liddell-Hart understood something about wisdom that most of their contemporaries and even students miss. Liddell-Hart himself, though a medically retired as a Captain due to wounds suffered in World War One was one of the more influential thinkers of his day. His works had a profound impact on the most successful commanders of the Second World War. He understood that the key to wisdom is self understanding and a recognition of their own knowledge as well as limitations. Liddell-Hart wrote of Lawrence, wisdom and humanity in 1937:

“A study of history, past and in the making, seems to suggest that most of mankind’s troubles are man-made, and arise from the compound effect of decisions taken without knowledge, ambitions uncontrolled by wisdom and judgements that lack understanding.  Their ceaseless repetition is the grimmest jest that destiny plays on the human race. Men are helped to authority by their knowledge continually make decisions on questions beyond their knowledge. Ambition to maintain their authority forbids them from admitting the limits of their knowledge and calling upon the knowledge that is available in other men. Ambition to extend the bounds of their authority leads them to a frustration of others opportunity and interference with others’ liberty that, with monotonous persistency, injures themselves or their successors on the rebound.  

The fate of mankind in all ages has ben the plaything of petty personal ambitions. The blend of wisdom with knowledge would restrain men from contributing to this endless cycle of folly, but understanding can guide them toward progress.” B.H. Liddell-Hart “Lawrence of Arabia” DeCapo Press, Reprint, originally published as “The Man Behind the Legend” Halcyon House 1937 

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T. E. Lawrence

It is my hope that no matter what my next assignment is and no matter how long I have left in the military as well as in life that I will be able to be one of those wise old sages who helps the next generations do things that were impossible for my generation, to succeed where we failed and who like Staupitz, Clausewitz, Liddell-Hart and Lawrence inspired others to greatness far beyond their own.

I am coming up for orders soon, order that will take me to my next assignment. I have spent the past two years as a geographic bachelor, apart from my wife, by the time I leave this assignment it will be close to three years. I have been assured that my next assignment will be in the area where our home is, however I do not know what it will be. I know what I want to do but do not know if it is possible based on the needs of the Navy. However, that being said I do know enough that no matter where I am assigned the mission is the same, as well as the pay. That mission is to care for, guide and assist those that work for me as well as those that I have the honor of serving, or possibly simply be the wise old sage.

I think I like that idea.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Epiphanies: PTSD, Life, Leadership, Lawrence of Arabia and the Gospel

I have been going through a process lately in preparation for some treatment of my chronic insomnia, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms which has caused me to have to be very deliberate and reflective in examining the various parts of the often tattered tapestry of my life.

Part of this has involved my experiences in military, religious and civilian institutional settings and how those experiences have helped shaped me as a Priest as well as a Naval Officer. Today was one of those days where a convergence of thoughts came together in a number of encounters juxtaposed with some reading of B.H. Liddell Hart’s book about T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

While I was waiting for my doctor late this afternoon I was reading the book on my Kindle and as he came into the waiting room I had just finished marking this passage.

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Somehow this little passage in a book that I am about halfway through reading and which I have already made numerous other annotations really struck me as profound. It encapsulated close to 20 years of experience as a military chaplain and over 30 years in the military as well as civilian professional work, and it struck me especially in regard to my experiences both in Iraq and after my return. Before, during and after my time in Iraq I had come to see Lawrence as a kindred spirit, someone that thought outside the box and went to places that no one else wanted to go. My job in Iraq to me to those places that few Americans and almost no other chaplains went or had the chance to experience with Iraqi Arabs and the Bedouin.

Those that read my posts regularly know that the impetus for my writing came about during my time in Iraq around Christmas of 2007 in the western Iraqi Al Anbar Province while on the Syrian border. At that time I wrote a short article for my former denomination’s website and a little more than a year after my return to the United States  I began this site I modified that article and published it here under the title of God in the Empty Places. It was a catharsis for me because I going though a tremendously ark period of my life where I had for all practical purposes become an Agnostic struggling to believe in God again. It was published a couple of months after I walked out of a church on Christmas Eve 2008 and walked an hour home in the dark and cold of that night.

During the interregnum of returning from Iraq and now I experienced a number of additional traumatic life events, both personal and professional. Following my assignment to my current post where I supervise a number of chaplains, pastoral counselors and support personnel I made it my goal in life not to let things that happened to me at the hands of some senior chaplains happen to others, especially those struggling with life, health, spiritual or emotional issues.

I have been asked by a number of people in the past couple of weeks, how in light of things that could leave me embittered and cynical could I embody grace to others. I admit that I still hurt and have issues of anger and some bitterness towards some people who I thought used me and betrayed me both in my old denomination as well as some senior chaplains. That is a given, though I try to live in a state of forgiveness toward them there are times that I do get upset the things that happened during that time. It is something that I deal with and I don’t always do well. I have my bad moments in which that grace doesn’t come out well,  but my path to healing has involved a conscious effort to see the good in people and to embody something different than I experienced.

A couple of people made the comment as we discussed these experiences as well as their own that “you do the Gospel it by living it.” I think that is what Jesus did, he taught yes and he did miracles, but the biggest miracles were those that he did when he rocked the religious-political establishment of his day by hanging out and caring for the people it despised. In fact Jesus surmised the entire law in two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Malachi noted what God required “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Those two passages have been tremendously important as faith returned after what I refer to as Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle faith began to return in a way that I never expected.

So the past few weeks have served as an epiphany to me about wisdom can evade leaders whose “eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…” My eyes are opening in more ways to the bigness of God, the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God. My ambition is simply to care for the people that God allows me to care for and show that grace, love and mercy to those who some would attempt to destroy because they themselves have become prisoners of the institutions and their offices and ambitions.  I have resolved in daily life to do all I can to avoid becoming a prisoner of my office or ambitions and simply to be real. One of the senior leaders of the hospital that I work noted that he saw me as not just as the senior chaplain but a “real person.” I can live with that.

Well that is enough for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Tour in Iraq