Tag Archives: military life
Forgiveness Will Not Change the Past, but It Could Change the Future: Dealing with the Aftermath of a Painful Experience
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
In the Star Trek Film Generations Captain Jean Luc Picard told Commander William Riker:
“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.”
Today was like any other Saturday for me except that I made the decision to put in my retirement papers from the Navy. Lord willing about this time next year I will be “piped ashore” in a retirement ceremony.
When that day comes it will be the end of a thirty-eight year military career in which I have served as an enlisted man, then an officer. I have served in the active duty Army, the Army Reserve, and California, Texas, and Virginia Army National Guard. Then in February of 1999 after 17 1/2 years in the Army I declared free agency so to speak and joined the Navy. On February 8th I was a Major in the Army Reserve and on the 9th I was taking the oath of office as a Navy Lieutenant. My wife and my paternal grandmother were there when I took the oath in a humble, and now abandoned Naval Reserve Center in Huntington West Virginia.
So now, some 19 years and 8 months later I have made the decision to put in my retirement papers. For me it is a time for reflecting and realizing that it is the right time to do this. The last number of months in my assignment have been difficult and brought me little joy. I have sought to serve my congregations and to mentor, help, and protect the personnel assigned to me.
I have grown weary of the frustrations of dealing with a moribund bureaucracy, decaying facilities with no money to fix them, the prospect of losing most of my experienced enlisted personnel with no experienced personnel coming in, and dealing with Protestant and Catholic congregations that try my very soul. When one of my Protestant parishioners attempted to have me tried by court martial because he disagreed with my sermon content and then wrote a lying letter to my commander forcing an investigation in which I had to spend money on a lawyer to defend myself I crossed the Rubicon. I knew that I was going to retire at the end of my current tour.
Then this week I hit the culminating point when the faith group leader of my Catholic congregation and my new contract Priest raised such a ruckus and problems for my enlisted personnel and one of my Chaplains that I had to intervene despite being on leave and in the middle of massive work on my house. I spent Friday evening texting that lay leader and it only made me more upset. I realized that no matter what I did that had done to keep them going in the absence of a priest and how I fought for them that they had no loyalty of concern for me or my personnel. Gratefulness to others is not a virtue for most American Christians today, I knew that but learned it again.
This morning I read a Navy Message announcing a Selective Early Retirement Board for Captains and Commanders. I am in the zone and if chosen to be retired I would have little lead time to plan my retirement and do all the things that I would need to do medically, administratively, and personally to retire and have a decent chance of landing on me feet. Honestly, I would have rather spent the last year in a combat zone in Iraq like I did in 2007 and 2008 than deal with the bullshit that I have been dealing with lately.
I know that did the best that I could and I can say that the team of chaplains and Religious Program Specialists whose work I help direct and support are some of the finest people I have ever served with. Their honesty and likewise their care for me has been about the only thing that got me through. Honestly, I am so grateful for them and I treasure them all, just as I have so many of my other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians employed by the military for the last thirty-seven years.
I am at peace, and I am going to spent the time leading up to my retirement to cherish every moment. Now I know that my situation at work is not going to change but I am going to cherish the moments with the people that I care for and do my best to serve without getting to stressed out because I know now that I my future is only beginning. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:
“Christian hope does not promise successful days to the rich and the strong, but resurrection and life to those who must exist in the shadows of death. Success is no name of God. Righteousness is.”
The past couple of weeks have been very trying, emotionally exhausting, yet spiritually have been good for me. It has been a difficult Holy Week, a week when I lived under the shadows of death. For 18 of the 19 years I had spent in the Navy as a Chaplain I had successfully been able to avoid assignment as a base chaplain of any kind. The last time I had such a duty was back in 1996-1998 in Germany and Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when I was still in the Army. The assignment I have now as a base chaplain places me in a situation when I confront situations every day where death lurks, and not in the same way as when I was deployed and under enemy fire.
It is Holy Week and in addition to all of the normal observances of the Christian faith I have had to deal with a number of chapel issues involving people, contracts, and other day to day issues, as well as a funeral, and the unexpected death of our Army Deputy Commander who I also consider a friend. It has been exhausting.
Tomorrow I will conduct a Good Friday Liturgy, engage in some planning for the memorial service that will take place for my friend, and prepare myself for the Easter Sunrise service even as I do my regular duties, get in what I hope will be a long run, and get some long needed medical tests. Thankfully I have a new provider who has ordered them and noted that he was in disbelief that my previous providers had never ordered them over the past 6 years.
So I am hoping that despite all that I will have to do that Good Friday will be good from a different point of view, that being not too crazy or tragic. Thankfully, unlike past years, despite everything I am in much better shape emotionally and spiritually to deal with what comes and I do believe that in addition to being Good Friday that it will be a good Friday.
So until tomorrow,
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The past couple of days have been pretty hectic as I transfer from the Staff College to be the base chaplain at another base in the local area. I’ll still remain as an adjunct at the Staff College to do the Gettysburg Staff Ride which is a good thing. Now truthfully, I did everything I could think of to get a different assignment. I wanted to do something in the Joint world or at least semi-operationally. My qualifications are many, so being assigned to a base chapel makes me feel like I’m being bumped back to the minor leagues, not because caring for people is not important, but because for promotion it’s not highly valued. Of course since I was passed over for promotion last year it is what I get. In today’s military once you are passed over you’re pretty much done, so I’m still lucky to get to do what I have loved doing for decades. Not many people get that chance, so I am lucky, Like Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, I still get to keep going to the ballpark and getting paid for it.
I spent the last couple of days signing out of all the places that I need to, getting my medical records transferred, taking and passing my latest body composition assessment and physical readiness test, and taking care of last minute things needed to transfer. Then yesterday morning I donned my Service Dress Blues to officially sign in at the new command.
It is interesting because unless something unusual and unexpected happens this will be my last ride and the three or four years I spend in the job will take me to retirement with somewhere between 39 and 40 years of cumulative service in the Army and the Navy. I’ll have a good staff and my goal at this point in my career is to take care of them, and help them to succeed while caring for those committed to our care. I’m an old guy now, there aren’t that many people in the military who have served as long as I have, and most of them are admirals or generals.
I’m kind of reminded of the scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis gets sent from AAA down to single A Durham to help mentor a young pitcher. In frustration he tells the manager: I’m too old for this shit. Why the hell am I back in A ball?
Joe Reardon: ‘Cause of Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. Big club’s got a hundred grand in him.
Larry: He’s got a million dollar arm, and a five cent head.
Joe Reardon: Had a gun on him tonight. The last five pitched he threw were faster that the first five, He has the best young arm I’ve seen in 30 years. You’ve been around. You’re smart, professional. We want you to mature the kid. We want you to room with him on the road, stay on his case all year. He could go all the way.
Crash Davis: Where can I go?
Joe Reardon: You can keep going to the ballpark, and keep getting paid to do it. Beats the hell out of working at Sears.
Larry: Sears sucks, Crash. Boy, I worked there once. Sold Lady Kenmores. Nasty, whoa, nasty.
So anyway, there are a lot worse alternatives. Until tomorrow,
April 1978, Navy Junior ROTC Cruise: I’m on the Right
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Yesterday I wrote about the Navy Birthday and I have been reflecting on life as so much of my life is connected to the Navy. It’s funny, for all the difficulties that I have experienced in life, the difficult times and even coming back a changed man from war, I am a very fortunate man, for I have been able to pursue my entire adult life my childhood dream of serving in the military, but even more specifically serving in the Navy.
I grew up in a Navy family, my brother and I were both born in Navy hospitals, and the first fourteen years of my life were spent following my dad around from duty station to duty station, up and down the West Coast and in the Philippines. I still recall the magical feeling of going to sea for the first time when I was about four years old on the USS John C. Breckenridge, a transport ship converted to carry military personnel and their families to and from the Far East. It was exhilarating and I never forgot it.
As a kid I spent countless hours reading history and military history, but my favorite books were about all things navy. Biographies of the great naval leaders, not just Americans caused me to dream, as did books about naval battles, and the courage of the men who fought them. Then there were the books about ships, ship design and development that inspired me to build more models ships than I can count, and which cause me to still read up on the great ships of history, but also new developments in ship design and construction.
In high school I was in Navy Junior ROTC and was able to spend over 70 days at sea on six different ships, even sailing to Hawaii and back. I wanted to enlist but my parents suggested that I try college for a semester to see what I thought of it and it was a good thing that I did.
I went to college and I met Judy and toward the end of college ended up in the Army because I didn’t want to change my major in my senior year to enter Navy ROTC. Of course I need to mention that Judy said that she wouldn’t marry me if I joined the navy, but even in the Army my heart was all Navy. In fact when it was time for the Army-Navy Game I would wear by “Go Navy” button on the inside of my uniform shirt and flash it to get people going.
After 17 ½ years in the Army I was serving as a Major in the Army Reserve and because of my rank was unable to go back on active duty, unless I was mobilized to serve in war. I wanted to go back on active duty, I was still under forty years old, and without consulting Judy, in retrospect I should have done that as she would have supported my decision, but I’m a guy, and sometimes not very smart or sensitive.
Judy getting to help promote me to Lieutenant Commander 2006
Even so it was the right decision. One day I was an Army Reserve Major and the next day I was a Navy Lieutenant. My parents were proud, as was Judy but she was going to pay a price for my decision, years of separation due to deployments and the hardships that went along with them. Since entering the Navy I have served over six years with the Marines, five years in Navy Medicine, two years aboard ship, two years with Navy EOD and another couple of years in Joint assignments working with other military services. My current assignment is amazing, I get to teach, both military history and ethics to senior officers, some of whom will become Admirals and Generals. I can understand what Randy Pausch said in “The Last Lecture” “It’s a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.”
USS Hue City 2002
Mark Twain once wrote, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I am so fortunate. I got the second chance to fulfill my dream of serving in the Navy, and I still dream, I still want to discover, and as Denny Crane (William Shatner – Boston Legal) said to “live big.”
The past couple of years have been very trying, many challenges and much discouragement. Judy had a cancer scare and in the summer of 2014 I dropped into an emotional abyss that I wondered if I would ever emerge. But recently I have felt that spark again, and the spark that wants to ignite an inferno of creativity. T. E. Lawrence once wrote, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
To explore the unknown possibilities of existence…
I still have dreams, I still want to explore and I want to explore deeper things, the unknown possibilities of existence. To quote the character Q (John de Lancie) in the final episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, where he tells Captain Picard “That is the exploration that awaits you; not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”
Have a great day and never let your dreams die.
“Armistead at Gettysburg” by Keith Rocco
The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere. For American military professionals those bonds are formed in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military. They are formed in war and peace, and are marked by years of deployments, isolated duty and combat. They are part of a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society. That is the case now as it was in 1860.
When the Southern States seceded from the Union men who had spent much of their adult lives serving together discovered had to say goodbye and prepare to fight each other. Most did so with a heavy heart even though many had strong convictions about the rightness of their region’s cause. Those who left the army to serve the Confederate states were often torn by doubt and questions of where their loyalty lay. They wrestled with their oath of office and the costs of perhaps having to face their dearest friends on future battlefields.
They were different from the mass levies of civilian volunteers who rallied to the flags of the Union and Confederacy in 1861. The volunteers, most of whom did not have the deep and abiding friendships of the professionals were often motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred of the other and went to war with great aplomb.
The American Civil War has many such tales. One of the most remembered is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. It was key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.
Hancock was from Pennsylvania. He was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions. In 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston. One of his fellow officers was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command. Hancock and his wife Almira became fast friends with the widowed Virginian.
Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812. Armistead had academic and personal difficulties at West Point including an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head. Between his academic difficulties and the fight with Early he resigned from the Academy. However, his father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer in 1839. Armistead’s career from that point on was similar to many other officers of his day. He served with distinction in Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.
As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers from the South were torn between their oath, their friendships and their deep loyalty to their home states and families. In the end most Southern officers resigned their commissions, many with mixed feelings and quite often sadness. A minority of southern born officers remained loyal to the Union. The most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Likewise Union Brigadier General John Buford’s family in Kentucky supported the Confederacy.
For those southern officers who remained loyal to the Union to was often at a great personal cost. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. He and others were pilloried and demonized in the basest ways by many in the South. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when they were captured. George Pickett, who called for his fellow Virginian Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians who he captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina to be executed and he was not alone.
Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA
However, for most it was different. As talk of secession and war heated up officers stationed on the frontier debated the issues and asked each other what they would do if war came. In California Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat and not openly hostile to the South, advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided”
The parting came in 1861. When it was apparent that many officers would be resigning and heading home to join their state’s forces the Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends. Almira Hancock wrote of the party that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.” Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s wife Eliza went to a piano and sang the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen:
“Mavourneen, mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, To think that from Erin and thee I must part!
It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?…”
The parting was especially emotional for Armistead who had been a friend of the Hancock’s for 17 years. They had helped in following the death of both of his wives and children. He was tearful. He put his arm on his friend’s shoulder as he said: “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.”
Armistead led his brigade during the Peninsula campaign and battles around Richmond and his brigade was decimated in Lee’s failed assault on prepared Federal positions at Malvern Hill. Armistead did not endear himself to many of the volunteer officers who served in the Confederate ranks. One of his Colonels resigned over Armistead’s supposedly harsh treatment to which Armistead replied: “I have felt obliged to speak to him as one military man would to another and as I have passed nearly all my life in camps my manner may not be understood or appreciated by one who has been all his life a civilian.” Armistead’s words can easily be understood by military professionals whose lives have been shaped in a different manner than their civilian counterparts.
At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears to his comrades. One was Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of Armistead and Hancock’s comrades from the California days on the night of July 2nd. The next afternoon Armistead and Garnett led their brigades of Pickett’s Division against Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.
During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, lead the remnants of his decimated brigade to the Stone Wall, near the Copse of Trees. He rallied his troops fearing that some were faltering calling out: “Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?”
His troops breached the Union line and his black hat atop his sword led his troops forward. It was then that he met more Federal troops who unleashed a volley of musket fire that cut down many of the survivors. Armistead was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.
As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff. Bingham, a Mason noticed that Armistead was making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” The meaning of those words is debated, especially by Southerners who cherish the myth of the Lost Cause. However, based on Armistead’s conduct and behavior in the time before he left California, it is not unreasonable to assume that as he lay dying he truly regretted what he had done. He gave Bingham a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to give to Almira Hancock, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.”
“Minnesota Forward” Hancock directing the Defense by Dale Gallon
Armistead died from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. A Union surgeon described him as: “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited.”
Hancock’s injuries were severe, but he recovered. He would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war.
In 1880 Hancock was the Democratic nominee for President. He lost a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by fewer than 40,000 votes. It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures viewed favorably for his integrity. Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said:
“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”
A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:
“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”
The story of Hancock and Armistead is one that reminds us of the depth of friendships that many military professionals develop and cherish. It is also a story that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and uses their ideology to slander, demean or even enslave and brutalize their political opponents.
The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the tragedy of war, especially war that forces the dearest of friends to fight and even kill one another.
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I have been working on an update to my Gettysburg text dealing with Pickett’s Charge, in particular focusing a lot of attention on the life of the man whose name is forever linked to that calamitous attack, Major General George Pickett. Like what I have written recently about the tragic heroes of Little Round Top, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, Colonel Strong Vincent and Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren I am finding a character who is different than much of the myth surrounding him. Though not the intellectual equal of the three men mentioned above he too is a tragic figure in his own way. I expect to be publishing that update to that chapter tomorrow.
Like so much of what I do the pursuit of a fair treatment of this man leads me to find more and more information that like everything else that I write about must be questioned and examined in light of circumstance, the motivation of the chroniclers, as well as what we now know about psychology and sociology. When we do this we are able to see beyond the romanticized portrait of Pickett seen in the movie Gettysburg where he is played by Stephen Lang, and see a much more complex individual, a man of many contradictions and much personal tragedy, even before Gettysburg.
I will mention one thing that gave me an insight into Pickett was the fact that he was a chronic rule breaker at West Point, almost always on the edge of being expelled for behavior demerits. He was also a man who had no problem in bucking the system, especially in school and at West Point. One might find that trait inconstant for a man who became a career Army officer, but I can relate to it in many ways. While I identify more with men like Warren and Chamberlain in terms of their intellectual interests and often contradictory personalities, I find in Pickett’s antics at West Point a kindred spirit who didn’t have a problem breaking rules and pushing a system that he thought was dehumanizing and arbitrary. I have been that way through much of my military career when it comes to breaking or bending rules when it appeared that they made no sense. Many people who know me are often perplexed that someone who has served as a commissioned officer for over thirty years can be such a rebel.
I think that is part of the attraction of looking at the lives of leaders and not isolating their actions at any one particular event. We are all products of our entire life experience, our family background and often owe our place in life not just to our own achievements but to the actions of others who work to give us the opportunity to succeed, sometimes in spite of ourselves. We also have the benefit of friends who remain friends in spite of circumstances; for George Pickett one of these lifelong friends was another misfit, Ulysses S. Grant. Pickett also gained enemies, often people who did not appreciate his lightness or humor, and those like Robert E. Lee who could not abide his honesty after the battle of Gettysburg and for what can be deciphered from the available records held it against him until he died.
Pickett was also a men who felt betrayed by some leaders, especially Lee. The disaster that afflicted his division during the great charge took something from him. He was a true believer in the “cause” but saw his division and later his own reputation destroyed by the man who became the heart and soul of the lost cause, Robert E. Lee.
History is never easy to put together especially when we examine the often contradictory lives of the individuals involved, their sometimes unusual motivations, strange personalities and their quirky behaviors. Much as it is with ourselves. We often learn too that we don’t make our way alone, we all have the help of others in getting us where we go and quite often the faithful companionship of friends. These are all part of examining history and life and things that matter…at least to me.
So anyway my friends, until tomorrow I am yours.