Tag Archives: medical service corps

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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Pinning on the Gold Bars: 28 Years Later

On June 19th 1983 I was sworn in as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army at the University of California Los Angeles.  I was a history major in college and had actually completed my degree the year prior and played around with Masters level classes as I took my last year of ROTC. I was commissioned into the Medical Service Corps and would report for active duty 22 days later at Fort Sam Houston Texas where I would complete the Army Medical Department Officer Basic Course for Medical Service Corps officers, go on to Fort Know Kentucky for the Junior Officer’s Maintenance Course and then in January 1984 head to Germany where I was assigned to the 557th Medical Company Ambulance in a little Kasserne on the Nahe River called Neubrücke.  The rest is history.

Looking back at what the world was like in 1983 is rather interesting. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and George Herbert Walker Bush his Vice President. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was Speaker of the House.  The internet and the TCP/IP was beginning to take flight as a program of the Department of Defense, Sally Ride had just become the first female Astronaut and the United States sent the Marines into Lebanon as part as a peacekeeping force.  The Soviets were deeply embroiled in Afghanistan while Jedi returned, destroyed the new Death Star, killed the Emperor and Darth Vader while redeeming Anakin Skywalker.

The Cold War was reaching its zenith as the United States using its great economic power built up its military and developed technologies that the Soviets went broke trying to keep up with.

We still wore Olive Green fatigues; the BDUs were just being introduced and the Army still worn Greens sans jaunty Black Beret.

The Billboard Top Singles were led by Michael Jackson who released Billie Jean http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBIfLxi5dLo, Culture Club with Karma Chameleon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmcA9LIIXWw, Irene Cara joined in with Flashdance What a Feeling http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILWSp0m9G2U, David Bowie came out with Let’s Dance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyVjdQXNs9sand the Police had Every Breath You Take http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOGaugKpzs.

The Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series taking down the Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games, Rick Dempsey was the MVP hitting .385 in the series and having a .923 slugging percentage. Dempsey who played across 4 decades as a catcher only hit .233 for his career.  Cal Ripken Jr. made the final putout of the series which was the last that the Orioles have won since then.  In the NFL the Washington Redskins defeated the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Larry Nelson edged out Tom Watson in the PGA U.S. Open while Jimmy Conners won the U.S Open Men’s Singles championship.

Terrorism, nuclear crises, political scandals and Tsunami in Japan were all part in the news.  AIDS was rearing its ugly head and by 1987 I was working with AIDS patients and dealing with personnel policy for HIV infected Soldiers.

Since that day I can only quote Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead that my life and career has been “a long strange trip.” I continue to serve in the military only having switched services to the Navy and going from being in the Medical Service Corps where I was a platoon leader, company XO and company commander as well as Brigade Adjutant to being a Chaplain.

Back in 1983 I had no intention of going into the ministry but somehow the Deity somehow worked that out much to my surprise.

Finally a mere six days after being commissioned I would marry the love of my life Judy Keiser and well somehow she has put up with me 28 years and hasn’t killed me yet, not that she didn’t want to a few times. Now we deal with a geographic separation due to my assignment after missing far more wedding anniversaries and birthdays than we have been together in our 28 year marriage.

Anyway, the future is still to be written and this long strange trip promises to go on. As Captain Kirk said in Star Trek VI “People think the future means the end of history, well, we haven’t run out of history just yet.” I don’t think that I have either.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Yet Another Blast from the Past and Padre Steve and House MD experience a bit of healing, but Have a Long Way to Go

It happened again.  No not a PTSD meltdown or anything similar to that but another one of those circumstances where you have to scratch your head and say to yourself “I didn’t see that coming.”  If you have read this site for any time at all you probably have noticed that I tend to bump into people from my past with some regularity, sometimes in unlikely places.  When I run into people it just gets plain unusual.  In fact if I was a Vegas odds maker and I gave odds at some of the people that I met in some of the places I met them I would be one broke odds maker.   Like I’ve met a guy I sat next to in Navy Junior ROTC at Edison High School, Stockton California in West Berlin hadn’t seen each other in years and he recognized me.  I met an Army Major in early August 2007 my transitional tent after arriving in Iraq who had been a 2nd Lieutenant and platoon leader in the last National Guard battalion that I served in 1995.  When presenting the flag at the funeral of a retired Army Master Sergeant in 1989 I was greeted by his daughter who had been in a church singles group that Judy and I worked with.  I’ve bumped across people from my Chaplain Officer Basic course in Iraq, Okinawa and even in the local area. Today was not any different as far as being to unusual for me.

I noted in a recent post I had given the invocation at the kick off for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  This prayer sets the stage for a reunion that ranks up with all of the above, maybe even higher because of the sheer improbability of it all. I had an e-mail in my inbox from a man who works as the director of our hospital military blood bank.  I recognized the name as I read the e-mail.  I knew him 23-24 years ago in Germany.  I was the very young company commander of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Wiesbaden Germany.  I was a total rookie at the command game and the unit was in a time of transition. I was a interim commander as the Group figured out what it was going to do on a permanent commander.  A month or so after taking command I received the first of three new Second Lieutenant Platoon leaders, all fresh out of the Officer Basic Course.  The first on deck was 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Peters.  Ralph was a brainy guy but eager to do well.  When I turned over command he remained and when I went stateside he was still with 557th.  I occasionally think about the officers, NCOs and Soldiers of the company, especially my old Platoon, the Second Platoon. I have stayed in contact with my first XO, Pat Bradley who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel a few years back and still works for the Army as a civilian.  Likewise I have kept in contact with a number of others from our sister units as well as some of the enlisted through Classmates.com and Facebook.  However I was unprepared for today.

I got an e-mail from Ralph; he had seen me at the CFC kickoff.  He let me know that he occasionally thought about me and prayed for me over the years and was pleased to see me as serving as a Navy Chaplain.  I hope to see him sometime tomorrow.  The strange thing is I know I have seen him in the hallway never seeing his name badge.  I occasionally thought when I passed him that he had an uncanny resemblance to Ralph, which considering that he is Ralph this is quite fitting.

Today was also a time of some healing.  I can’t go into any details except it was a good resolution and new start in a relationship that has been troubled lately.  Surprisingly I seemed that God was involved too.  To those who pray for me even without me asking thank you.  This happened to coincide with Doctor House getting thrown in a State Psychiatric hospital.  There have been a few times since I returned from Iraq where I thought that I might be better off locked up so it kind of struck a chord. The turning point was where House decided that he wanted to cooperate and get better something that I badly want. The sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety and fear of certain situations is draining and now there is no local baseball to see that the minor league season is over I do not have that place of refuge.  I don’t like the feeling of vulnerability that I have is unnerving.  I just want to be better but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon and sometimes that creates a sense of despair and weariness.  At the same time as the Deity Herself seems to show me improbable and even miraculous things sometimes happen.  So until then I will continue to throw myself into my work, try to catch a little baseball on TV do some writing and register for my comprehensive exams to finish the Masters Degree in Military History before Christmas. If nothing else I’ll stay active to cover what I can’t fix.  Someone reminded me today that I am no longer in Iraq, but was quick enough to add that part of me still was there.  I hate being in two places at once.  Pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Highs and Lows of 28 Years Service

Ooops, this should have posted the 25th…all references in the post though it posted today are for the 25th.  The meltdown was the 24th, not my duty night.

Note: I think that I have pretty much recovered from last night’s mini-meltdown, though tired have has a good day working some stuff that is pretty cool that could be a positive thing for Navy and VA Chaplains.  I think success does help mitigate some of the effects of a meltdown.  If today had been crappy and I hadn’t had a good talk with Elmer the Shrink it might have continued.  Now with some sleep I could be cooking with gas even though my house is all electric.

On to the Post:

Soldier Once and YoungEnlisted in National Guard 1982

“So we’re all dogfaces, we’re all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years!” Bill Murray as John Winger in “Stripes” 1981

Well sports fans I am at the hospital tonight celebrating 28 years of service in the military. It really doesn’t seem like any more than 27 ½ but who’s counting right? And when I look back at the Army I joined I am reminded of Stripes.

I think that I have pretty much recovered from last night’s mini-meltdown, though tired have has a good day working some stuff that is pretty cool that could be a positive thing for Navy and VA Chaplains.  I think success does help mitigate some of the effects of a meltdown.  If today had been crappy and I hadn’t had a good talk with Elmer the Shrink it might have continued.  Now with some sleep I could be cooking with gas even though my house is all electric.

So 28 years ago today I went down and signed my name on the dotted line.  It was August 25th 1981 two months after the release of the movie Stripes and two months before I saw it with Judy at the $1 movie theater.  On that end of summer day I went down and signed my contract with the Army ROTC program at UCLA with the Chief Lord of Discipline himself, the Captain Bruce Lawson swearing me in.  He had just finished PT and though still in his PT clothes administered the Oath of Enlistment.  It was not much on ceremony but it was a start.  In fact most of my promotions in either the Army of the Navy have not come with much fanfare and I’m actually pretty okay with that so long as I get paid and get to do what I love doing which is being a Priest and getting to serve now as a Navy Chaplain.  So I followed with a trip down to the National Guard Armory on Victory Blvd in Van Nuys to enlist in the National Guard. Since I was not a scholarship student I was allowed to simultaneously enter the Guard.  So the 25th was kind of like a double header for me, I did the oath for the Guard later in the afternoon. It’s like Tommy Lasorda once said: “I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.”

So I went in to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and met the Company Commander, Captain J.J. Kramer, now a retired Colonel I believe and Major Charles Armagost, the Full Time Unit Administrator and Adjutant.  Wearing his green fatigues the good Major administered the Oath for the California National Guard, which differed from the Federal Oath in that it also included words about obeying the Governor of the State and the Laws of California etc…Following that I was walked down to the supply room where a rather rotund Sergeant began issuing me uniforms and field gear.  I got my first gift of US Military designer clothing and was told to report the Thursday after Labor Day for a “Battery Dark Night.”  So began my rather auspicious career.

I remember being in uniform in those early days without a single ribbon or medal to my name.  I’d look around and see all the guys who had served in Vietnam and some in Korea as well with all kinds of ribbons, medals, unit citations and qualification badges.  I would look at them and once I remarked to Judy that I wish that I would have a lot someday.  She accused me of whining, something that I feel is a mischaracterization of my attitude about not having anything and something that now with a full chest of ribbons, medals and qualification pins that she is not hesitant to remind me of and tell others about.

2LT Dundas 1983Look Mom One Ribbon

So what has transpired in 28 years?  Here are some of the highlights and a few lowlights of the of this adventure.

In 1981 it all began and things happened fast, within two weeks of enlisting I was driving an M-151A1 Jeep to Ft Irwin CA as part of battalion advance party and then spending the weekend learning to call in artillery fire. After going through hell and being destroyed and rebuilt by SFC Harry Ball, Drill Sergeant US Army like Richard Gere was in An Officer and a Gentleman I somehow got commissioned in part due to the forbearance of Major Lawson, the former Captain Lawson who has sworn me in.  Judy asks if I had my own “Puget Sound Deb” when she sees the movie with me that winter. However just prior to getting commissioned during my last annual training period at Camp Roberts I led team of Ersatz East German Kommando’s on raids against battalion rear area as the opposing forces.  I was almost run over in may M-151A1 by an M-548 Ammo Carrier during a strafing run coming down hills firing blanks from machine guns like the Rat Patrol and dropping Smoke and CS grenades in the vehicle’s path.  Later we captured the battery Operations Center during a firing mission. None of this made them happy but the Forward Observers and I had a blast.

After I got commissioned I attended the Medical Department Officer Basic Course at Ft Sam Houston TX and suffered for Jesus for 9 weeks in the Riverwalk Marriott hotel in downtown San Antonio. After this I spent 11 glorious weeks at Ft Knox Kentucky which by the way is in a “dry county” or at least it was back then  going through a 6 week course after being bumped by Saudi Arabian exchange officers.

557th comany command 1985Company Commander

From January 1984 through late December 1986 we were stationed with the 557th Medical Company Neubrucke and later Wiesbaden. Was a platoon leader and became company XO when our XO checked into a psych ward before Winter REFORGER. While in the field was promoted but o one realized that fact until we came out of the field in mid- February. In a late night hastily arranged ceremony which I had to drag Judy in from bed to see I was promoted and got my first real medal. In September I became a “relief pitcher” Company Commander when my new CO got fired. I was told “Lieutenant; clean up that Company.” After 7 months, and having to adjudicate close to 50 Article 15’s, and kicking a bunch of drug users out of the Army I was relieved by a Captain and I had my first and last Change of Command ceremony. Became a personnel officer at our group, pissed off the boss and had a miserable last couple months in Germany. However I completed my first row of ribbons made some really good lifelong German friends and learned to drive really fast and really good and developed a fine appreciation of good beer.

In 1987 I attended the Military Personnel Officer Course at Ft Benjamin Harrison which is in Indianapolis and continued on to Fort Sam Houston where I was assigned as the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences.  I got promoted right after I got there and since Judy had not arrived I had the world’s best platoon sergeant, SFC Cynthia Carter help pin on my new Captain bars. Judy was quite happy that Cindy got to do this as she really liked her.  My Brigade Commander wondered what was up with that, but it was an honor to have her do the pinning. While there I worked on AIDS/HIV personnel policy and became “CINC AIDS” at the Academy. While there I collected my second Army Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal.

Berlin WallBerlin Wall 1986

In 1988 I left Active Army to attend Seminary and was appointed as an Armor officer in Texas Army National Guard.  I was told by my boss LTC Jim Wigger that I was moving from the “frying pan into the fire as the chaplains were a cutthroat bunch” and that the “Medical Department was not even in the same league as the Chaplains.” When the Division Chaplain found out that a seminarian was getting ready to drive tanks he pitched a fit and had me enter the Chaplain Candidate program.  In seminary I attended  the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth NJ. As Deputy Course leader and Company “First Sergeant” pissed off lots of chaplains and seminarians. Thankfully I was backed up by LTC Rich Whaley who saved my ass for the first time and not the last time.  I met my friend Fr Jim Bowman who kept me from doing anything really stupid. In 1992 I graduated from seminary was ordained and become a chaplain and assigned to 111th Engineer Battalion in Abilene. That year I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course when school changed a policy on Chaplain Candidates awaiting final approval to be chaplains to enter course. After Billy Martin style tantrum Rich Whaley saves my ass a second time.

In 1993 I went back to Chaplain Officer Advanced Course, made amends and did the appropriate penance.  Meet up with Fr Jim Bowman again. In the fall of 1994 finished the final phase of the Chaplain Officer Advance Course.  Happiness is Ft Monmouth in your rear view mirror. In the summer of 1984 I viewed the O.J. Chase live on miniature TV in M-577 Command Track with Lakers playoff game in split screen while at Fort Hood.

In January 1995 I moved to Huntington WV to take a job as a contract ER Chaplain.  I transferred from one former Confederate Unit to another going from the Texas to the Virginia Army National Guard.  In December I was promoted to Major and transferred to the Army Reserve and got rid of the 410 mile one way trip for a drill.

New MajorNew Major December 1995

In July of 1996 I got mobilized and sent to Germany to support Bosnia mission, lose job. While in Germany get to do a lot of cool stuff, got a bunch of medals and though the Chaplains there wanted me to be brought on regular active duty get told I am too senior to transfer to Regular Army. I actually think that the guy who made the decision remembered me from Chaplain School and did not want someone like me in “his” Chaplain Corps. Upon my return from Bosnia support the Reserves assigned to Ft Indiantown Gap PA as Installation Command Chaplain where in September 1998 I got to close down help close down the Federal side of things and transfer chapel and congregation to National Guard care. In October I returned to the reserves like a journeyman ball-player being sent back to AAA from the Majors. In December the Navy offered me a deal to play “in the show” on active duty and I took it, went from being an Army Reserve Major to Navy Lieutenant. My friend Father Fred Elkin was my first detailer and offered me a choice of East Coast or West Coast Marines when I asked for a ship.  We now serve together and get a good laugh about that now. It did turn out to be a good thing for me. One of the cool things about my time in the Navy has been since I have blown myself up enough in the Army and seen others do likewise that I know where the career “land mines” are and how not to step on them. This has been a great benefit to me.  It was like changing from one league to another in the middle of a baseball season.  The old stats don’t count for or against you when you start playing in the new league.

After Navy Chaplain School I was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJuene NC. From then on my life has been going non-stop.  I was chaplain for 4 different battalions in the Division where Father John Kaul used me as a “relief pitcher” in situations where chaplains had either been fired for doing illegal or immoral things or replacing people who had to move on short notice orders. Did CAX at 29 Palms on multiple occasions and did a deployment to the Far East, Okinawa, Japan and Korea.  Collected more medals got my “old” version Fleet Marine Force Qualification. I was assigned to HQ BN 2nd MARDIV. 9-11 -01 attack happened. A couple of months later I reported to USS HUE CITY CG-66 in Mayport.

Dundas of the DesertDundas of the Desert 29 Palms 2000-2001

Not long after reporting went on the final work up exercises prior to deployment, deployed to the Horn of Africa, Northern Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Mediterranean.  Was an advisor for a boarding team in Northern Arabian Gulf and made 75 boardings of detained smugglers.  We almost got to see the Indians and Pakistanis get in a nuclear war, that was a bit sporty and we supported air operations in Afghanistan. After a period in the yards during following deployment as well as work with the great Marines who served in the Battle of Hue City I checked off the ship in October 2003, again collecting more medals and ribbons.

Boarding partyBoarding Party 2002

I went to Norfolk where I was assigned to the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion and my Commanding Officers, Colonel Mike Paulovich and Colonel Donald Rogers sent me about the world to care for our Marines.  Over that time I probably averaged 2 trips a month out of the area, many overseas to Japan, Hawaii, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Bahrain, others to places far and wide in the Continental United States.  Colonel Paulovich and I probably worked more closely together than any commander that I have ever worked with and we went through many difficult times in that assignment. We are still friends to this day.  One of the cool things is the people that we work with. I was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in April 2006.  This meant that I had spent almost 16 years of my career wearing Captain or Lieutenant bars.  I again collected more ribbons and medals for the time with the Marines and was one of the first Navy Officers to get the Fleet Marine Force Officer Qualification pin while completing Marine Command and Staff College.

Belleau woodBelleau Wood France 2004

I then went to Navy EOD Group Two in Little Creek where I was the first chaplain assigned to EOD.  While there I got to go to Jordan to the Jordanian Army/UN Peace Operations Training Center and to Sicily.  I was snatched up to go to Iraq in July 2007 and served the most meaningful operational deployment of my career serving our Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Justice and Homeland Security advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police and Border Forces in Al Anbar Province.  I came back from Iraq with a great case of PTSD, a gift that keeps on giving.  I checked out of EOD in September 2007 again with more medals and ribbons to my current assignment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where I get to do what I am passionate about as a Priest and Navy Chaplain serving in a teaching hospital.

My Tom Clancy lookIraq 2008

Looking back it has been a long and strange trip and it is still an ongoing journey.  People ask me how I keep going even with the PTSD and it’s like Tommy Lasorda says “Guys ask me, don’t I get burned out? How can you get burned out doing something you love? I ask you, have you ever got tired of kissing a pretty girl?” Speaking of which now that I am on the way home after 31 or so hours at work I probably need to do with Judy when I see her.

Steve Summer Whites 2008July 2008, Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy?

Peace,  Steve+

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It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts-Thoughts on 26 Years of Commissioned Service

2LT Dundas 1983

When I Knew Everything: Me in August 1983 following completion of the Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Earl Weaver

When I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army back in 1983 I knew that I was quite possibly the smartest new Lieutenant in the Army.  In fact in just a few days I will celebrate the anniversary of that auspicious occasion as I do most occasions by going to Harbor Park where I will see the Tides play the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, AAA affiliate of the Phillies. But anyway, back to how smart that I thought I was back then.  I graduated from my Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course fairly high in my class without really trying too hard, had a pretty easy time at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course.  However, those were schools and anybody with half a brain can tell you that going to school is kind of like artificial real life.  Yeah, you may be doing the living and breathing stuff, sucking up food and band width, but it is not real life.  If you show up on time, read a little bit and take good notes you pass and move along.

However, real life has a tendency to take the smartest of the book smart people and kick their ass.  Sometimes it takes a while but young guys in the military who think they know more than old dudes who have served on all kinds of places and been to combat.  When I was the young guy there were still a fair amount of men who had served in Vietnam and even a few from Korea still in service.  Now these guys were a mixed bag.  Some had seen better days and were on what we referred to as the ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) program.  Others though were totally professional and absolutely committed to the Army and their soldiers, guys like SFC Harry Zilkan, 1SG Jim Koenig and Colonel Donald Johnson. These men were amazing, and even some of the ROAD program soldiers and officers still knew a lot more than I knew at that point.

When I got to Germany I can say that there were a number of occasions where as a young officer I had my ass handed to me, even when I was right.  I’m not going to go into ugly details but it suffices to say that a good number of those times I got what I deserved because I was arrogant and not nearly as smart as I thought I was.  I was like a rookie pitcher thinking that my stuff was unhittable and finding out that guys who had played in the show for a long time had seen it all before.  It was in Germany that I found that while I had good stuff that I wasn’t savvy enough to know when to change my stuff up or when to take the hint not to keep pushing my luck.  I was kind of like Ebby Clavin LaLoosh in Bull Durham in wanting to do what I wanted to do.

tim_robbins_kevin_costner_bull_durham_001I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!

Crash calls for a curve ball, Ebby shakes off the pitch twice]
Crash Davis: [stands up] Hey! HEY!
[walks to meet Ebby at the mound]
Crash Davis: Why are you shaking me off?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [Gets in Crash’s face] I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!
Crash Davis: Announce your f***ing presence with authority? This guy is a first ball, fast ball hitter!
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well he hasn’t seen my heat!
Crash Davis: [pauses] Allright meat, show him your heat.
[Walks back towards the box]
Crash Davis: [to the batter] Fast ball.

[after Ebby didn’t listen to Crash, and the ball became a home run]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: You told him didn’t you?
Crash Davis: Yup.

bull-durham after home run

You having fun yet?

That was me as a young officer.  You would think that I would have learned, but after I became a Army Chaplain I did the same damned thing.  Now admittedly it was not in the units that I served in, but my hotheadedness still got me in trouble especially when I decided to challenge guys who had been around a long longer than me and who were a lot more savvy than me.  I had no idea how cunning and brutal some chaplains could be despite having good warning from my XO and Brigade commander at the Academy of Health Sciences, LTC Jim Wigger.  LTC Wigger pulled me aside one day shortly before I left active duty to go to seminary.  He told me “Steve, I know that you think that the Medical Service Corps can be political and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”  I should have listened to him. He was right, a lot of those guys were political animals and had no problem taking down or destroying a young chaplain if they thought that they needed to do so.  I got whacked pretty hard a number of times as a young Army Chaplain, but was fortunate that people who knew me and saw potential in me gave me some top cover and protection.  Not everyone gets this.  The Deity Herself must have taken an interest in my career to ensure that there were some guys around to save me from me. Chaplain Rich Whaley did this for me at the Chaplain school on a number of occasions even the time that I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course (See one of my previous posts to read about this one.)

[Mechanized bull noises in background]
Crash Davis: Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?
[laughs]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [softly, infuriated] I held it like an egg.
Crash Davis: Yeah, and he scrambled the son of a bitch. Look at that, he hit the f***ing bull! Guy gets a free steak!
[laughs]
Crash Davis: You having fun yet?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
Crash Davis: Good.
[pause]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Crash Davis: He did know.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How?
Crash Davis: I told him.

Thankfully by the time I had spent 17 ½ years in the Army I had learned my lessons.  By the time I got to the Navy I had pretty much discovered when and under what circumstances that I could push things.  I had learned the hard way in the Army.  I finally learned that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.  In fact when I went to the Navy I came in at a lower rank that my Army rank and took no constructive credit to try to get promoted sooner.  I went in with no time in grade to make sure that I got the experience that I needed on the Navy and Marine side.  When doing this I took the time to learn the nuances that made the work of a chaplain different in the Sea Services than in the Army.  While there are similarities even the similarities are often different.  These different similarities can kill you if you think that you’re smarter than everyone else.

I’m now coming up to 26 years of commissioned service and soon to 28 total years of service.  I’m now a lot more like Crash Davis than Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.  In fact now I try to make sure the young guys chaplains and non-chaplains alike don’t get themselves in unnecessary trouble by assuming that they know more than they do.  I have a dear friend who is an Army Chaplain. In his first three years in the Army he has won two Bronze Stars in Iraq.  He will probably be medically retired soon because of a rare pulmonary and respiratory problem that he developed in Iraq.  He was initially supposed to come in the Navy, until just before his care board met a washed up ROAD program chaplain supervising him on an OJT tour decided to torpedo him.   It was crushing to my friend.  He would have been a great Navy and Marine Corps Chaplain.  I helped him recover and assisted him going to the Army.  In his formation I used to require him to watch baseball movies and read books about baseball, and like Crash Davis I would call him “Meat.”  The guy is a gem; the Army is going to lose a superstar when he is medically retired.

Anyway, my mission now is to help the young guys along and continue to keep myself both in the game and always learn something new to keep me sharp and to help others. It’s like Master Yogi once said “In baseball you don’t know nothing.”  I’m sure that the Deity Herself would agree.

Peace, Steve+

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Let’s Not Do Dumb Things

Back in the day when I was a young Army Medical Service Corps Brigade Personnel Officer, I had a Brigade Commander whose moniker was “Let’s not do dumb things.” The man was a really good commanding officer.  He was down to earth and cared about the troops being trained at our command.  He was a common sense kind of commander and was not terribly difficult to work for.  One day however my C.O. came in with stitches on his head.  It turned out that my C.O. and broken his own rule.  He was out with the Undersecretary of Defense for Health Affairs, the Army Surgeon General, a couple of other American Generals as well as a host of Colonels, hosting a bunch of Chinese Generals for a diplomatic-military dinner.  My C.O. who was a beer drinker decided to do the hard stuff that night.  He got flat assed drunk, made vulgar and derogatory comments to the Chinese guests and then went to the head (latrine, bathroom, WC, or powder room  for non-Navy types) fell, hit his head on a urinal and knocked himself out.  That mornig he was fired.  Not by our Commanding General, not by the Major Command, or even by the Army Chief of Staff.  No he was fired by then SECDEF Casper Weinberger.  When fired he was 2 months short of completing his command tour.  His reputation was destroyed and he retired quietly and without fanfare a few months later.

Now I know that we all are inclined to do dumb things at one time or another.  This is due to my doctrine of “the Total Stupidity of Man.” Sometimes the dumb things that we do are simply minor infractions which Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light will darn us to Heck as punishment.   Other times they really get us into big time serious trouble. Sometimes we do dumb things and somehow get away with them either because no-one noticed or because someone was gracious enough not to blast us out of the water for them.  Sometimes being lucky is better than being good. The key here is not to keep doing them until they are noticed and when we get blasted out of the water.

This was the case for me when I was a young Army Chaplain.  Back when I got thrown out of the Army Chaplain Officer Advanced Course, I can honestly say that I did a number of dumb things.  The consequences were relatively minor although embarrassing and I am forever grateful to Chaplain Rich Whaley for bailing my sorry ass out of the bind which I found myself.  Damn, you say.  Padre Steve got thrown out of the Chaplain advanced course.  Yes he did and it was dumb.  You see I was selected to go to the advanced course when I was still an SS Officer.  No, no, no, not Waffen-SS, but the Army Staff Specialist branch.  It is a branch set up for officers training to be Chaplains or JAG Corps.  In seminary I had already done the Chaplain Officer Basic Course where I was the assistant course leader for 159 chaplains and seminarians.  I had not come off active duty too long before this and was still very undeveloped as a clergyman.  I was however not far from being a Company Commander and Brigade Staff Officer.  My emotions often overflowed as I saw chaplains do things that in the rest of the Army that you would be crucified for doing, much like Jesus without any salvific purpose.  Once in the Basic Course I had a young seminarian tell me that he didn’t have to obey orders from the student chain of command because his class adviser, a Major in the Chaplain Corps told him so.  He snottily told me that Chaplain so and so was a Major and that I was only a Captain.  Resiting the temptation to rip the young man’s throat from his neck, I said “We’ll see about that Lieutenant.  I then went up threw my cover across the milquetoast Chaplain’s office, blasted him on the chain of command and how it worked.  I told him in pretty rough language that he was going to get people killed. As I ranted he  tried to hide behind his desk and others in the outer office dove for cover I stopped and said: “Thanks so much sir, now I have to go to confession. ”  I then went and told Rich that “I cussed out so and so.”  Rich stammered, “You did what?”  I then explained the situation that Chaplain so and so had told a Lieutenant that he didn’t have to obey orders from the student chain of command.  Rich then said “He did what?” and told me that he would handle it.  He made the incident go away. That too was a dumb thing, I should have gone to Rich in the first place, but I was young and dumb.  Anyway, moving on there was also the time in a class that another seminarian had me so pissed that I stormed out of the classroom and was in the hallway ripping my pin on rank off my collar.  My dear friend Father Jim Bowman who commiserated with me the entire length of the course, and who I still stay in contact with grabbed me.  Father Bowman asked: “What the hell do you think that you are doing?”  I “Yelled back, I’m done, this isn’t the Army that I joined!”  Jim jammed my collar devices back into my collar and said, “You can’t leave.” I said “Why?”  Jim said “Because I can’t leave and you won’t either.”  It was like Stripes where Bill Murray tried to escape boot camp and Harold Ramis tacked him and kept him from leaving.  I think that they exchanged similar words.

Boy I chased a rabbit there…going back to the Advanced course.  I was still an SS Officer, not that kind of SS Officer but the Staff Specialist like I told you before.  So anyway, I showed up orders in hand as well as a letter from the previous Director of Training signed on behalf of the previous Commandant of the School authorizing me to be there.  Unfortunately for me there was a new sheriff in town.  The new Commandant denied me entrance into the course.  His reasoning was that though my Chaplain paperwork was sitting on a desk in DC awaiting the final stamp of approval that since there was a chance that my application could be denied that he didn’t want me there.  Who knows, maybe he got wind of my previous antics.  I was pissed.  Actually I think that most of of us who attended the  Chaplain School spent the better part of our time pissed about something.  However, instead of being smart,  I threw a Billy Martin type of home plate argument and was tossed.  Thankfully they didn’t stop me from becoming a Chaplain and they allowed me to come back for the course a couple of months later.  This was likely again due to the intervention of Rich Whaley.  Rich saw in me potential to do good.  I was like “Wild Thing” in Major League. Rich helped get me straightened out.  A couple of years later I was promoted to Major.  Then I took it off to come in the Navy in 1999.  The point is that I did a number of seriously dumb things that could have gotten me punished under the UCMJ and or thrown out of the Army.  I’m grateful as hell that Rich was there to save my ass.  A lot of people don’t get that kind of support and protection and do get hammered.  I was lucky beyond belief.  I lived to tell about it.  Many don’t.  My job now is to help young guys and gals not step on the same land mines that I did.

I’m not going to go through the list of idiotic things that I have seen other Chaplains do in the Army and Navy.  I could but that would that would be unseemly.  What I will mention, based on my experience is that I had to learn a lot the hard way that I hope to keep young Chaplains and other Officers from trying them out themselves.  I don’t like to see fellow chaplains and  officers do things that embarrass them, their service  or hurt their life and careers. In the case of chaplains, God and the Church, or God and whatever religious organization that they belong.  Heck I won’t even put a Jesus Fish on the back of my car for fear that God might get the blame for something that I do on the road.

However, doing dumb things is not limited to chaplains or the clergy, though we do such things quite well thank you.  Others do them too.  Politicians, sports stars, business leaders and others do them as well.  I’ve noted a number of ways that I have done dumb things.  At the same time I hope to have learned from them.  I will and I’m sure that you my readers know that we will all do dumb things.  I’m not a fan of Calvin’s “Total Depravity of man” theology but I am pretty sure that there is a “Total Stupidity of man”  which you can make a great case for from the triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  In fact I am positive that the Deity Herself even tonight has kept me from writing some really dumb things.

So let’s not do dumb things.  Pray for me a sinner,

Peace,

Steve+

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