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For Me It’s Personal: Veteran’s Day 2019


With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day, which actually falls on The anniversary of Armistice Day. 

It is a strange feeling. I don’t really advertise that I am a veteran out in public, even though I have quite a few ball caps, sweat shirts, Polo shirts, hoodies, and fleeces that I could wear. To do that. I certainly am not ashamed of my service, but much of it has been hard, and I spend the time thinking about those who I served alongside, or set an example for me, living and dead. Unless something really unusual happens it will be my last on active duty.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t forget.”

As I said, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 38 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With My trusty Bodyguard and assistant RP1 Nelson LeBron, Habbinyah Iraq, January 2008. 

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President, and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

Judy were out with friends today, some military, retired, maybe some still active, as well as civilian friends, many of whom have military relations at Gordon Biersch, the brewer brewed a special Veterans IPA, proceeds from tonight which went to Virginia Veterans.

To my friends there I am Steve or the Padre. They all know me and know that I still serve, but that’s because they know me, not because I advertise. They also represent the span of political views in the country at large, but we are friends.

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, News and current events, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, Veterans and friends

National Teacher’s Day: Let’s Actually Start Valuing Our Teachers Again

What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today is National Teacher’s Day and not a moment too soon. However most people probably don’t know or care that it is. Teachers are not valued highly in our society. They used to be but not anymore. Ask a teacher how they feel about classroom conditions, support from the elected officials on school boards that use their office to attack the institutions that they have been elected to serve. Ask any teacher about the effects of the “No Child Left Behind” on their ability to teach and be able to reach out to students that learn differently from the rote memory exercises needed to pass a standardized test.

Higher education likewise is being gutted the formerly amazing California State University System, and the California Junior College system which I attended is being decimated. Professors have not competitive wages in years, programs are being cut while tuition is increased. I attended San Joaquin Delta College and paid $5 a semester plus books. I averaged $200 a year at Cal State Northridge. Programs were amazing, class sizes good, professors and instructors, excellent. That system and many others are in crisis.

You see teachers, especially those in Public Schools have for the last 30 years or so, ever since Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 passed in California and gutted educational spending the target of right wing pundits, politicians and preachers. They are blamed by some people for almost every ill in the educational system. If teachers complain or take their case to the media they are made the villain. In most States they don’t make a lot of money for all the education, training and certifications that they are required to have to teach.  They have few protections and those that they do have, mainly in the protections that they gained through their participation in organized labor are being stripped away in state after state.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s my dad was in the Navy. It was a turbulent time for our family. Due my dad’s transfers as well as a school boundary change in one district I ended up attending six different elementary schools in three states, three schools in three states in 4th grade alone. During that time our lives were in a constant state of flux and as a grade school student it was my teachers that helped me get through that time. Because of the transfers I didn’t get to have the opportunity to remain in a community long enough to get established until Junior High School. I was always “the new kid in town.” Not that that is bad or that I have any bad memories of that childhood. I found the new places, people and schools to be a grand adventure. In fact when my dad retired from the Navy I was not happy. I wanted him to stay in because I liked the adventure.

I remember every one of my elementary school teachers names, save one in 4th grade where were we not at the school long. There was the strict Kindergarten teacher, Mrs Brandenburg who made sure that she write with my right hand.  To this day my handwriting is illegible but who cares now when I type everything. Then there was my 1st Grade Teacher at Oak Harbor Elementary School, Mrs Christian. She was a sweetheart her husband was an airline pilot and in 1st grade, probably because of my handwriting I was tested for some learning difficulties. I guess that there was nothing wrong because that didn’t last long. In Second Grade I had Mrs Jackson. Then in 3rd grade a new school was opened and I attended Olympic View Elementary School.  My 3rd Grade Teacher was Mrs King.  It was in 3rd grade that I really began my adventure in reading. I devoured every book in the biography and history section that I could find in the Library, especially those dealing with military and political leaders, sports figures (especially baseball players) and military history.

I began 4th Grade at Olympic View but my dad was transferred to a travel intensive assignment in Long Beach California in the fall of 1968. I had my first male teacher at Olympic View, Mr Alguire who I really liked. We moved to Long Beach and it was a difficult move. there were a number of deaths and serious illnesses in the extended family and I attended Robert E Lee Elementary in Long Beach for just a few weeks before my dad had my mom, brother and I go live with my Grandparents in Huntington West Virginia. We arrived there in early December and I found that I was out of my element. My teacher at Miller Elementary was Mrs Gates. She was very tough and I was hammered with more homework than I had ever seen. I was also the “new kid” and since we had just moved from Long Beach a “city slicker” and was challenged to a fight in my first week. It was a draw. However Mrs Gates was a great teacher and I continued to read, write well but illegibly and learn to speak in front of the class.

When the school year was done we moved back to Long Beach when in a different neighborhood just across the cement lined San Gabriel River from Orange County I attended Hawaiian Gardens Elementary School where I met my friend Chris Brockel who I have managed to stay in contact over the years. That was probably my most fun year in school. I was asked if I wanted to skip 5th grade but I told the principle that I wanted to remain in my 5th Grade Class. My teacher was another gem, Mr Oliver. It was a great school year combined with the fact that my dad was always taking us to California Angeles baseball games.  But dad received orders to the elderly Aircraft Carrier USS Hancock CVA-19 home ported in Alameda California at the end of that school year which made another move necessary and initially thought had ruined my life. heck I had baseball, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, the Queen Mary and Sea World. I saw my first professional hockey and basketball games and it was a dream life.

Since it was the early 1970s and the Bay Area was in turmoil and I had a great Aunt in Stockton  we moved to Stockton just down the street from her. In Stockton I attended Grover Cleveland Elementary School and had the woman that I think was my best teacher of elementary school Mrs Dietrich. My dad was underway or deployed most of the time between 1971 and 1974 when he retired. That first year was hard and like my other teachers Mrs Dietrich was a rock of stability who encouraged me to learn and think for myself.

I attended Stockton Junior High and Edison High School and there are were teachers at every grade level who I remember fondly. My French Teacher from 7th-9th Grade was Mrs Milhousen who was very patient with me. My history teacher was Mr Silvaggio who my brother would later teach on the same faculty in his first teaching assignment. I remember my Printing Shop and Wood Shop teachers, back then you had to become familiar with trade skills as well as academics. I learned to play the French Horn in band class which was taught by Mr Hull.

At Edison I still remember great teachers like Gloria Nomura, Mr Riley, Mr Oji, all who taught History or Social Studies, Donovan Cummings my Speech teacher, Coaches Charlie Washington, Vick Berg, Duke Pasquini.  There were others but two of the most important were my Naval Junior ROTC instructors LCDR James Breedlove and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.  I could go on and on about teacher.

That continued in college and seminary. I am indebted to the wonderful, gifted and dedicated men and women that were my teachers.  My mom was a teacher’s aid when life settled down in Stockton when dad left the Navy and retired from the school district. Likewise my brother Jeff is a teacher and in administration at an alternative school in the district, his wife is an elementary school teacher.  I now have a BA and three graduate degrees. I am indebted to my teachers and cannot forget them. Teaching is hard. I have taught a couple of undergraduate level Western Civilization classes and the amount of work is enormous.

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Right Wing Politicians, Pundits and Preachers that beat up public school teachers at every opportunity. School Board members who seem to be more interested in political careers than education and those that hack away at programs that cater to the whole person I am disgusted. When I went to school those things that made me what I am today, the library, the gym classes, athletic programs, the foreign languages, art, music, speech, and things like shop were required. They helped give me an appreciation for the world and for people in general. They helped make me a more rounded person. From what I see now those kind of programs are being decimated and our kids will be poorer for it. This is not the fault of the teachers. They work with the crap being forced on them by politicians in Congress, statehouses and on school boards with ever shrinking resources and always increasing requirements.

We need to actually care about our teachers and educational systems. Policy and budget priorities set by politicians coupled with parents that are either bullies or absentee are the reason our schools are in trouble.

I hate to lecture but teachers matter. Education policy matters. Educational funding matters. If we want to be competitive in the world we need to make education a priority again and start giving teachers some measure of respect and stop using them as a straw man to divert attention from the real causes of our educational crisis.

Today is National Teacher’s Day. Admittedly it is after hours but take some time in the next few days to thank a teacher.  If you don’t have kids, go back and thank one of your own.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under economics and financial policy, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

Veteran’s Day: Goodbye to 666 Lake of Fire Circle, a Golf Outing and Remembering the Veterans in my Life

veteransday2009

Today was Veteran’s Day. Amid the solemnity of the day I am still in California where I came this week to try to help my mom with my dad’s affairs and to also see my dad who is definitely in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  This has been the hardest trip home in my life.  I knew I had to come, although the Abbess was against it fearing for my emotional health and perhaps she was right.  Tonight I sit in a hotel room self medicating and trying to regain some sense of sanity.

Me and last last picDad and Me back in May…He Still knew Me then

The past few days have been hell.  My dad does not know me anymore; he has almost no response to anything and stares straight ahead.  The hardest part is when I realized that he didn’t know me.  So I asked if he had seen my mother who I had taken to visit him the day before and my brother.  He said that he had seen them, and even seen my mom the morning I asked him the question.  However she had not been there that day.  So I asked if “Steve had visited yesterday.”  He got agitated and said “I don’t know any Steve yesterday.”  Today was much the same, I asked if he knew who Steve was, and he said “yes” and I asked if he had seen him and he said “no he hasn’t been here.”  This whole trip he has probably spoken under 50 words in 4 visits.  There is nothing left. For all practical purposes he is dead in a body that won’t die.  If that was not bad enough my mother has not skipped any opportunity to attack and pick at me until I broke.  I begged her to lay off, told her that I was not up to fighting with her and tried to keep my cool but she wouldn’t let up.   I cannot deal with constant conflict and a mother who calls me “a weak, politically correct pansy.”  I’m a combat veteran and went to war unarmed into hostile territory with little groups of Americans far away from the big battalions with all the heavy weapons and the women called me a “weak, politically correct pansy.  She has put me down, belittled my education, vocation and career and insulted my wife for the last time. When I told her that “everything in her life that was wrong was somebody else’s fault and not hers” she agreed.  I knew it was over at that point. This may sound un-Christian but I will not go see her again.   Tomorrow I will see my dad for what it is worth, see my brother and his family and then early Friday I will get the hell out of Dodge.  She had offered to pay for my trip out but I can’t prostitute myself for that kind of abuse.    The next time I come back it will be for my father’s funeral.  I love my brother and his family.  He and his wife are saints.  I couldn’t live that near my mother without ending up in a psychotic state, something that I came perilously close to this week.  God bless Jeff, Mel and their kids.

Me and Jeff at mickey groveWith my Brother back in May

I went golfing with my brother and nephews today.  For much of the day I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of the damned boat.  My mind was so gooned up and upset by the events of the week I couldn’t concentrate worth a shit.  Even my well hit shots were mainly slicing to the right and I embarked on a tree killing expedition.  I hit 7 trees solidly, took down a couple of decent sized branches, grazed three other trees and nailed an outhouse.  However it was really good to be out with Jeff, Darren and Nate.  Nate can really hit the ball for an 8 year old; he has the potential to be a really good golfer.  Darren doesn’t really care and is out to have fun.  He enjoyed my sarcasm as I commented on my shots and helped keep track of the number of trees that I hit and I told him that I would see how many I could try to kill before the day was out.  By the end of the round I was hitting the ball a lot better and it was going more often than not where I wanted it to go, but the first 7 holes were hell.  It makes me think of Robin Williams’ golf routine. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDQd49rEF_0

As I mentioned today was Veteran’s day.  After I got my hotel I went to a local Applebee’s where I had a sirloin steak and potatoes and a couple beers on their Veterans’ day salute.  I sat at the bar with a couple about 10 years older than me; he had served on a Navy Minesweeper in Vietnam.  They were nice; I think that is why I like sitting at the bar when I go out to eat, there is a sense of community that you don’t find a lot of other places.

As it is Veteran’s day I think I will take some time to remember some of the Veterans in my life who have helped my through my life and career.  This is taken from a post that I did around Memorial Day.

I’ve been in the military for almost 28 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back in 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  He retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.

breedlove-ness2LCDR Breedlove and Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along. They have both passed away in the past year and a half.  I will never forget them.  A post dedicated to them is on this blog. Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted at UCLA.  He served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was also Special Forces and a Ranger and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during a ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut. It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died a few years back of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

MVC-023SMe with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (Ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon 2005

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him.  Henry Boyd who I buried was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died. Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support. Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972.  CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

051Ray and his Crew from The Vietnam Veterans of America at Harbor Park

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes,  Tony “Limey Cartilage ” Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends.

boarding teamUSS HUE CITY Boarding Team 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq 3 times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.

307With 1st Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Advisers in East Ramadi January 2008

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. God bless all of you guys. Please honor the Veterans that you know not only on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day but every day.   Honor also those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Today as I write many of my friends serve in harm’s way.  I hope that my recovery, spiritually, emotionally and physically goes well enough that I can go back with them.  For now I need to recover. My boss is right about that, if this week is any indication I’m in no shape to go back to a combat zone, bit Lord willing I will be so I can be with those I care for and serve alongside.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Post Script: I do pray that no one takes offense at my words regarding my dealings with my mother. If someone thinks that I am wrong, or out of line they can contact me privately.  However, I have to protect me now.  I can’t help her or save her so I’m done.

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, golf, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN

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LCDR Jim Breedlove (Left) and Senior Chief John Ness 1975-76 Edison High School NJROTC

I have found that as I get older I find there are moments where eras end.  Today was one of those days. I came home from my overnight on call at the Medical Center I checked my e-mail and found a message from Maggie Ness.  She was the wife of my1st year NJROTC at Edison High School, Stockton California, Chief Petty Officer John Ness. She wrote to inform us that John had passed away on Good Friday after a long illness.

The death of “Chief” was expected.  As I said he had been sick for many years and had come back home in hospice care. His death followed that of our Senior Instructor and Detachment OIC, LCDR Jim Breedlove by about 14 months.  LCDR Breedlove died unexpectedly after a short illness shortly before I returned from Iraq last January.  Both of these men had a profound influence on me and taught me many lessons.  From them I learned a lot about responsibility, honor and commitment.

They had founded the detachment in the early 1970s which was not when you think about it a great time to begin any military activity on any campus as Vietnam was winding  down.  Both men had recently retired from the Navy.  LCDR Breedlove was  what we would now call a Surface Warfare Officer who spent a lot of his career in ship’s Engineering Departments serving often as the Chief Engineer.  Chief was a Cryptologic Technician.  In short, a codebreaker.  Chief has spent a lot of his career working in the intelligence side of the house.

These men were the glue that helped guide me through high school.  Their efforts expanded my world.  My world had become much smaller when my dad retired from the Navy in 1974 and I was miserable.  Yet because of these men  my world expanded, in fact the world again became a place of wonder.  During the fall of my sophomore year I was able to go to San Diego and ride the USS Agerholm DD-826 up the coast and home.  Later in the fall we went to Mare Island to spend time with the “Riverine” forces of Coastal River Division XI.  That spring I went to a “mini-boot camp” at NTC San Diego.  The next summer I spent a couple of weeks on the USS Coral Sea CV-43 and get some “on the job training” in the ship’s Medical Department.  On Coral Sea I was able to see the intricate workings of flight operations on a aircraft carrier. Coming back to school we got a ride on the USS Pyro AE-25 a ammunition ship based out of Alameda California.  On Pyro I met a Navy Chaplain and talked with him about the chaplaincy.  I also saw my first burial at sea.  The next winter we traveled to Portland Oregon to board the USS Mount Vernon LST-39 coming out of the yards and going back to California.  My senior year was the highlight of my time in High School.  A group of us went down to San Diego and took USS Frederick LST-1184 from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. We spent a week at Pearl seeing the history of the base, the USS Arizona and USS Utah memorials and spent Easter Sunday there.  While there I spent a day snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and came out with the sunburn from Hell.  One of my friends, Jeff Vanover still remembers me as the “Lobster man” after that experience.  We rode the USS Gray FF-1054 back to San Diego and again learned a lot. On Gray I met with a destroyer squadron chaplain and learned more about the Chaplaincy.  I sent a post card to my grandparents from the Gray.   I found it when visiting my grandmother in 1995.  It said: “Dear Ma Maw and Pa Paw, I think that God is calling me to be a Navy Chaplain.”  At the time I was a civilian hospital and Army Reserve Chaplain,. I chucked and to her that “At least I got the chaplain part right.”  I had no idea that the Deity herself would lead me into the Navy a few short years later.  Other Cadets went on other cruises.  Several rode the USS Blue Ridge LCC-19 to Acuploco Mexico.  Others went on a Coast Guard cutter for 60 days in the summer on Alsakan fisheries patrol.

There are several things to note about the Hawaii trip.  It was over three weeks long, which because part of the time was Easter break (yes it was still Easter back then) we missed two weeks of school.  Some people would say that this would hurt students academicly, but I think not.  Sometimes I think that kids need to get out and see the world under the care and supervision of mature people. You can always catch up on academics, but to experience the world is something most kids miss out on. Commander Breedlove and Chief Ness gave us the chance to explore and see things that other kids would never see.  For me the more important facets were that the trip put in my heart a love of the sea, and the call to be a Navy Chaplain while on Frederick, something that was driven home at Pearl Harbor and coming back on the Gray.  Even more interesting was that in April 2001, about 23 years after that I celebrated my first  Holy Eucharist underway on Frederick. She was then the last LST on active service in the US Navy when she picked my Marine unit up in Pohang South Korea.  The Eucharist happened to be on Easter Sunday.  Talk about almost impossible occurrences. If there is such a thing as confirmation of where you are supposed to be, I think that this qualifies.

Anyway, those are experiences that these two men allowed us to experience.  I don’t know of many high school students who got to spend about 70 days underway on Navy ships and have all the other experiences that these emn allowed us to have.

Now it is time for some “Sea Stories.”  Chief Ness was a colorful man, as many Chiefs of his era were.  If you have seen the movie Men of Honor you can get to understand a little bit of the Navy culture that shaped Chief Ness.  He was not profane like Robert DeNiro’s character, Master Chief Billy Sunday, but he was a man who pushed us.  He was to often blunt and to the point. At the same time he was caring while not taking any crap from anyone.  He taught us to were the uniform correctly, close order drill, basic seamanship and other subjects that would be common to any new sailor.  As far as academics, he was a good teacher.  Like I said he didn’t take any crap.  We had a couple of guys who cheated on a test that sophomore year, both scoring an “A.”  Chief caught them, it’s hard to fool a codebreaker.  He brought them to the front of the class and told them that they would each get half on an “A.”  They both thought that meant a “C.”  Instead chief drew an “A” on the chalkboard and erased the right half of the letter, leaving the figure of an “F.”  He also taught us to be on time. Something that in my later years I have become almost pathological about.  We were getting on a bus to go to NTC San Diego.  There was one Cadet who was late.  At the appointed hour Chief directed the bus to start moving although a car was pulling into the parking lot and the cadet was getting out.  The Cadet did not make an effort to flag down or chase the bus, so Chief left him.  He then told us if the young man had made an effort that he would have stopped the bus, but the Navy would not delay a ship’s departure for one person and that we needed to see the consequences of being “UA.”  He also had an award that he gave to Cadets who had problems goofing things up.  It was a 10 pound shot put mounted on a plaque.  He called it the “Iron Ball” award for people who could “foul up an iron ball.”  He let us settle our class grades.  He used a “Bell curve” to do our final grade.  A the end of the quarter he would put every student’s cumulative point total on the board with no names shown.  He would then ask us to figure out who should get what grades using the Bell curve as our standard.  Thus we selected 10% for “A’s” 20% for “B’s” 40% for “C’s” 20% for “D’s” and 10% for “F’s.”  Now he allowed some room for maneuver if there were natural big breaks between scores, but he made us make the decision. He did because he knew that we would all have to make hard decisions that impacted other people later in life and that we had to learn that lesson early.  Chief almost always had his ever-present cup of black coffee, with a ceramic frog inside of it eyes looking up.  We used to joke that his forefinger was permanently molded ino the shape of a coffee mug handle. Chief had a heart of gold. He had nicknames for us, and he gave us a hard time, but when we were down he wouldn’t kick us.  He taught leadership lessons that I will not forget.

LCDR Breedlove was my mentor and later in life friend.  He taught us more advanced Naval subjects including Naval History, Law and customs.  He also taught us navigation, damage control, weapons systems and combat systems. He arranged for all of our trips and went with us on many of them.  In short he began to teach us to be Naval Officers. After I graduated I staying in contact with Jim.  He was always excited to hear what was going on in my life. Whenever I went home to visit my family I always set aside time to meet him for lunch and have a couple of beers together.  He was a gentleman, a family man and a Christian. His death, coming at the end of my time in Iraq was devastating.  We had stayed in contact during the deployment and his sudden death shook me.  I have been looking forward to once again sharing a meal and a beer or two together.

I have gone on a little long, but these two men meant a lot to me.  They were fine men, loved their families and cared enough for us to let us hard lessons before they became lessons that would kill us later in life.  A fair number of us went into the military, some for just an enlistment and others for full careers.  I’m the last of our class on active duty.  I even met one of my classmates when I was an Army Lieutenant going through West Berlin back in late 1986.  We had been in Chief’s class that first year and he happened to recognize me.

Tomorrow is Easter and I know that John and Jim are present with God.  Pray for their families, especially Maggie. May their souls and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace.

Peace, Steve+

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