Tag Archives: Military

Back in the Fight

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

So, it has been just over 50 hours since I returned from our trip to Germany and I am back in the game and ready to fight.

My travel overseas gave me time to clear my head and take stock of my life right now, personally and professionally. It was what I needed.

I have many challenges where I work. I won’t go into details here but they do not involve my staff. In 10 and 1/2 months I will be retired from the Navy after a combined 38 years of enlisted and officer service, active and reserve in the Army, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, and the Navy.

That being said for the past year I have been depressed about work, so much so that I hated to get up in the morning to go there. The work I did to support the congregations of my chapels despite lack of funding, loss of personnel, and other factors that I cannot go into now made things almost unbearable had it not been for the support of my staff. I can only be thankful for them.

Likewise, I came to realize again that actions mean more than words in many if not most aspects of life. Standing at the graves of Sophie and Hans Scholl, the site where Clause Con Stauffenberg, General Ludwig Beck and others were executed, and were Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis’s to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg gave me new life to fight for what I believe in.

Anyway, I will write more about this tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under christian life, faith, History, holocaust, Military, Political Commentary

All Good Things: My Decision to Retiree from the Military

img_4376

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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

17 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, History, iraq, leadership, life, Military, ministry

The Hidden Side of the Hero: Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain, Military Marriage

fannychamberlain1

Fannie and Joshua Chamberlain (Dale Gallon) 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few days I have posted articles from my still untitled text on the Battle of Gettysburg dealing with the lives of three of the men who were immortalized during the battle of Little Round Top. Today is A follow up to those articles dealing with an American icon with feet of clay. The impact of war on those who go to war and the loved ones that they return to is often incredibly difficult, I know from experience. I am lucky, first I survived war, then I at least until now have survived its aftermath, finally, I have a wife who survived it with me and in spite of all the trauma our marriage not only survived but has become better. I hope that you appreciate this account of the post-war life of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Chamberlain’s accolades were certainly earned but others on that hill have been all too often overlooked by most people. This list includes Gouverneur Warren who was humiliated by Phillip Sheridan at Five Forks, Strong Vincent who died on of wounds suffered on Little Round Top and Paddy O’Rorke, the commander of the 140th New York of Weed’s Brigade on Vincent’s right who was mortally wounded that day.

After the war like most citizen soldiers, Chamberlain returned to civilian life, and a marriage that was in crisis in which neither Joshua nor Fannie seemed able to communicate well enough to mend.  The troubled couple “celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary on December 7, 1865. He gave her a double banded gold-and-diamond bracelet from Tiffany’s, an extravagant gift that only temporarily relieved the stresses at work just below the surface of their bland marriage. Wartime separation had perhaps damaged it more than Chamberlain knew.”  [1]

When he came home Chamberlain was unsettled. Fannie quite obviously hoped that his return would reunite them and bring about “peaceful hours and the sweet communion of uninterrupted days with the husband that had miraculously survived the slaughter” [2] and who had returned home, but it was not to be. Army life had given him a sense of purpose and meaning that he struggled to find in the civilian world. He was haunted by a prediction made by one of his professors. A prediction that “he would return from war “shattered” & “good for nothing,” [3] Chamberlain began to search for something to give his life meaning. He began to write a history of V Corps and give speeches around the northeast, and “these engagements buoyed his spirit, helping him submerge his tribulations and uncertainties in a warm sea of shared experience. [4] In his travels he remained apart from Fannie, who remained with the children, seldom including her in those efforts. She expressed her heart in a letter in early 1866:

“I have no idea when you will go back to Philadelphia, why dont you let me know about things dear?….I think I will be going towards home soon, but I want to hear from you. What are you doing dear? are you writing for your book? and how was it with your lecture in Brunswick- was it the one at Gettysburg? I look at your picture when ever I am in my room, and I am lonely for you. After all, every thing that is beautiful must be enjoyed with one you love, or it is nothing to you. Dear, dear Lawrence write me one of the old letters…hoping to hear from you soon…I am as in the old times gone bye Your Fannie.” [5]

In those events he poured out his heart in ways that seemed impossible for him to do with Fannie. He accounted those wives, parents, sons and daughters at home who had lost those that they loved, not only to death:

“…the worn and wasted and wounded may recover a measure of their strength, or blessed by your cherishing care live neither useless nor unhappy….A lost limb is not like a brother, an empty sleeve is not like an empty home, a scarred breast is not like a broken heart. No, the world may smile again and repair its losses, but who shall give you back again a father? What husband can replace the chosen of your youth? Who shall restore a son? Where will you find a lover like the high hearted boy you shall see no more?” [6]

Chamberlain set his sights on politics, goal that he saw as important in championing the rights of soldiers and their well treatment by a society, but a life that again interrupted his marriage to Fannie and brought frequent separation. Instead of the one term that Fannie expected, Chamberlain ended up serving four consecutive one year terms as Governor of Maine, and was considered for other political offices. However, the marriage continued to suffer and Fannie’s “protracted absence from the capital bespoke her attitude toward his political ambitions.” [7]  Eventually Chamberlain returned home and. “For twelve years following his last term as governor, he served as president of Bowdoin College, his alma mater. [8]

He became a champion of national reconciliation admired by friend and former foe alike, but he returned with bitterness towards some in the Union who he did not believe cared for his comrades or their families, especially those who had lost loved ones in the war. While saluting those who had served in the Christian and Sanitary Commissions during the war, praising veterans, soldiers and their families he noted that they were different than:

Those who can see no good in the soldier of the Union who took upon his breast the blow struck at the Nation’s and only look to our antagonists for examples of heroism- those over magnanimous Christians, who are so anxious to love their enemies that they are willing to hate their friends….I have no patience with the prejudice or the perversity that will not accord justice to the men who have fought and fallen on behalf of us all, but must go round by the way of Fort Pillow, Andersonville and Belle Isle to find a chivalry worthy of praise.” [9]

Chamberlain’s post-war life, save for the times that he was able to revisit the scenes of glory and be with his former comrades was marred by deep personal and professional struggles and much suffering. He struggled with the adjustment to civilian life, which for him was profoundly difficult. He “returned to Bowdoin and the college life which he had sworn he would not again endure. Three years of hard campaigning however, had made a career of college teaching seem less undesirable, while his physical condition made a permanent army career impossible.” [10] The adjustment was more than even he could anticipate, and the return to the sleepy college town and monotony of teaching left much to be desired.

These are not uncommon situations for combat veterans to experience, and Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top who was well acquainted with the carnage of war, suffered immensely. His wounds never fully healed and he was forced to wear what would be considered an early form of a catheter and bag. In 1868 he was awarded a pension of thirty dollars a month for his Petersburg wound which was described as “Bladder very painful and irritable; whole lower part of abdomen tender and sensitive; large urinal fistula at base of penis; suffers constant pain in both hips.” [11] Chamberlain struggled to climb out of “an emotional abyss” in the years after the war. Part was caused by his wounds which included wounds to his sexual organs, shattering his sexuality and caused his marriage to deteriorate.

He wrote to Fannie in 1867 about the “widening gulf between them, one created at least in part by his physical limitations: “There is not much left in me to love. I feel that all too well.” [12] Chamberlain’s inability to readjust to civilian life following the war, and Fanny’s inability to understand what he had gone through during it caused great troubles in their marriage. Chamberlain “felt like hell a lot of the time, morose in mood and racked with pain.” [13] His wounds would require more surgeries, and in “April 1883 he was forced to have extensive surgery on his war wounds, and through the rest of the decade and well into the next he was severely ill on several occasions and close to death once.” [14]

By 1868 the issues were so deep that Fannie threatened him with divorce and was accusing Joshua of domestic abuse, not in court, but among her friends and in town; a charge which he contested. It is unknown if the abuse actually occurred and given Chamberlain’s poor physical condition it is unlikely that he could have done what she claimed, it is actually much more likely, based on her correspondence as well as Fannie’s:

“chronic depression, her sense of being neglected of not abandoned, and her status as an unappreciated appendage to her husband’s celebrated public career caused her to retaliate in a manner calculated to get her husband’s attention while visiting on him some of the misery she had long endured.” [15]

The bitterness in their relationship at the time was shown in his offer to her of a divorce; a condition very similar to what many combat veterans and their families experience today. After he received news of the allegations that Fannie was spreading among their friends around town, Chamberlain wrote to her:

“If it is true (as Mr. Johnson seems to think there is a chance of its being) that you are preparing for an action against me, you need not give yourself all this trouble. I should think we had skill enough to adjust the terms of a separation without the wretchedness to all our family which these low people to whom it would seem that you confide your grievances & plans will certainly bring about.

You never take my advice, I am aware.

But if you do not stop this at once it will end in hell.” [16]

His words certainly seem harsh, especially in our time where divorce, be it contested or uncontested does not have the same social stigma it did then. Willard Wallace writes that the letter “reflects bewilderment, anger, even reproof, but not recrimination; and implicit throughout is an acute concern for Fanny, who did not seem to realize the implications of legal action. The lot of a divorcee in that era in a conservative part of the country was not likely to be a happy one.” [17]This could well be the case, but we do not know for sure his intent. We can say that it speaks to the mutual distress, anger and pain that both Joshua and Fannie were suffering at the time.

The marriage endured a separation which lasted until 1871 when his final term of office expired they reconciled, and the marriage did survive, for nearly forty more years. “Whatever differences may have once occasionally existed between Chamberlain and Fanny, the two had been very close for many years.” [18] The reconciliation could have been for any number of reasons, from simple political expedience, in that he had been rejected by his party to be appointed as Senator, and the realization that “that politics, unlike war, could never stir his soul.” [19] Perhaps he finally recognized just how badly he had hurt her over all the years of his neglect of her needs. But it is just as likely that deep in his heart he really did love her despite his chronic inability for so many years to demonstrate it in a way she could feel. Fannie died in 1905 and Chamberlain, who despite all of their conflicts loved her and grieved her, a grief “tinged with remorse and perhaps also with guilt.” [20] The anguished widower wrote after her death:

“You in my soul I see, faithful watcher, by my cot-side long days and nights together, through the delirium of mortal anguish – steadfast, calm, and sweet as eternal love. We pass now quickly from each other’s sight, but I know full well that where beyond these passing scenes you shall be, there will be heaven!”

Chamberlain made a final trip to Gettysburg in May of 1913. He felt well enough to give a tour to a delegation of federal judges. “One evening, an hour or so before sunset, he trudged, alone, up the overgrown slope of Little Round Top and sat down among the crags. Now in his Gothic imagination, the ghosts of the Little Round Top dead rose up around him….he lingered up the hillside, an old man lost in the sepia world of memory.” [21] He was alone.

Chamberlain died on a bitterly cold day, February 24th 1914 of complications from complications of the ghastly wound that he received at Petersburg in 1864. The Confederate minié ball that had struck him at the Rives’ Salient finally claimed his life just four months shy of 50 years since the Confederate marksman found his target.

Sadly, the story of the marriage of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain is all too typical of many military marriages and relationships where a spouse returns home changed by their experience of war and struggles to readjust to civilian life. This is something that we need to remember when we encounter those changed by war and the struggles of soldiers as well as their families; for if we have learned nothing from our recent wars it is that the wounds of war extend far beyond the battlefield, often scarring veterans and their families for decades after the last shot of the war has been fired.

The Battle for Little Round Top which is so legendary in our collective history and myth was in the end something more than a decisive engagement in a decisive battle. It was something greater and larger than that, it is the terribly heart wrenching story of ordinary, yet heroic men like Vincent, Chamberlain and O’Rorke and their families who on that day were changed forever. As Chamberlain, ever the romantic, spoke about that day when dedicating the Maine Monument in 1888; about the men who fought that day and what they accomplished:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” [22]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.282

[2] Ibid. Smith Fanny and Joshua p.182

[3] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180

[4] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.260

[5] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua pp.178-179

[6] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.181

[7] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.

[8] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.245

[9] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180 It is interesting to note that Chamberlain’s commentary is directed at Northerners who were even just a few years after the war were glorifying Confederate leader’s exploits. Chamberlain instead directs the attention of his audience, and those covering the speech to the atrocities committed at the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864 and to the hellish conditions at the Andersonville and Belle Isle prisoner of war camps run by the Confederacy.

[10] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.203

[11] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.289

[12] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.259

[13] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.288

[14] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.285

[15] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.268

[16] Chamberlain, Joshua L. Letter Joshua L. Chamberlain to “Dear Fanny” [Fanny Chamberlain], Augusta, November 20, 1868 retrieved from Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Documents http://learn.bowdoin.edu/joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/documents/1868-11-20.html 8 November 2014

[17] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.227

[18] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.297

[19] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.290

[20] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.290

[21] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond PPP.342-343

[22] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Chamberlain’s Address at the dedication of the Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3rd 1888 retrieved from http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/maineatgettysburg.php 4 June 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, faith, Gettysburg, History, leadership, marriage and relationships, Military, PTSD, us army

I had a Comrade: Farewell LTC John Penree

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today marks a solemn occasion at our base. We will be saying our farewell at a memorial service for our Army Deputy Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Penree. He passed away late last Monday night. He was beloved by many and had served our country in the New York Army National Guard and the United States Army for 42 years.

He will receive full military honors in the ceremony which is a collaboration between the Army and the Navy. His wife Patty and his six children will be in attendance along with a number of high ranking officers and other dignitaries. I only knew and worked with him for a year but came to love him and consider him a friend. We had worked together the Saturday before he died at a ceremony marking opening day for the Little League the meets on our base. Not long before that we had enjoyed a day working and playing with the German contingent from NATO and their families. He was a good man and a good comrade in arms. In the words of the old German military funeral march Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden “Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden, Einen bessern findest du nit…” I had a comrade, you will find none better.

Today I will include that thought in my meditation at the service and will,close the service with the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McRea, a Canadian Soldier, physician, and poet in the First World War. His poem, In Flanders Fields is a classic and it speaks to soldiers as few poems can:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

    Between the crosses, row on row,

  That mark our place; and in the sky

  The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.   Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

  Loved and were loved, and now we lie

      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

  The torch; be yours to hold it high.

  If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

      In Flanders fields.

I will leave you with that and ask you to pray for John, his family, and those that he leaves behind.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under faith, Military, ministry, shipmates and veterans

A Happy Yet Sad Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wrote late Monday night and early Tuesday morning about some of my thoughts on turning 58 years old. When I went to bed the article was about halfway completed. I was tired but I was troubled. I had a hard time getting to sleep, so I got up and finished the article a bit after 2:30 AM amid a sense of foreboding. about the coming day. I posted it about 3:00 AM and tried to get to sleep but I couldn’t. So I read. Finally about 4:30 was startled when my iPad fell to the floor by out bed. It woke me up and I put on my C-Pap and really tried to get to sleep.

Even so my sleep was troubled with strange and disturbing dreams and I was awakened by our oldest dog Minnie before my alarm rang complaining about something; she is quite vocal and talks much like Scooby-Doo. So I just laid awake in bed until my phone rang. It was then that I found out that our Army Deputy Base Commander, a friend who I had just worked with on Saturday had died of a massive heart-attack. He was just six months away from retirement.

I spent most of the day at his quarters with his daughters, neighbors, and my Commanding Officer trying to help care for his family and coordinate care for them between the Army, Navy, and our support agencies as NCIS and Army CID did their investigations. One thing they asked was for an Orthodox Priest to come and do the prayers that are an important part of their faith when someone had died and before their body is removed from their home.

My friend and colleague was a Greek Orthodox Christian but there were no military chaplains of that faith closer than Washington D.C. or Fort Bragg North Carolina; too far to be of assistance. So I reached out to a local Greek Orthodox Church and although their priest was out of town they scoured the area to see if they could find one who could support us. They did find one and had him call me but his schedule was such that he could not come to the quarters until long after my colleague’s body was transported to a local military medical center for autopsy. Knowing that it was important to the family to ensure that the prayers were done before his body was removed I asked the priest if it was permissible for me to conduct the prayers. Knowing that I was I priest he told me that it was permissible and so when it the mortuary personnel arrived I went with his oldest daughter to pray the Trisagion liturgy at his body.

It was hard to see my friend laying in his bed as if asleep. The cardiac event had obviously been so sudden and severe that he never awoke. I wished him goodbye and told him that I would miss him and then did the prayers. I am fortunate to have a number of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Byzantine Catholic priest friends. As such I have been with them as they have celebrated various liturgies. For those of Evangelical, other Protestant, or Roman Catholic traditions the Orthodox prayers and liturgies are long and repetitive, but there is a difference in the way Eastern and Western Christians understand faith.

We in the West regardless of whether we are Catholic or Protestant tend to be more concerned about time than our Eastern brothers and sisters. Likewise we tend towards a certain amount of expediency and concreteness in what we believe. we just want “the facts” and by doing this deprive ourselves of the sacred mystery that is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the eastern liturgies the repetition in threes of phrases like “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” coupled with the “Our Father,” and “Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen” are actually much closer to the way the ancient Hebrews worshipped in the Temple than most Western liturgies, and certainly more so than the reductionistic faith of most Protestants, especially Evangelicals, but I digress. What is more important was that my friend and colleague lived his faith in an authentic manner and tonight I am sure that he is part of that timeless heavenly liturgy depicted in the book of Revelation that is reflected so well in the Eastern Rites of Christianity.

When I finally returned to my office I spent time with my staff who had taken the time to get and sign a birthday card for me as well as get me a nice box of Lindt chocolates. Then I busied myself to take care of the other pressing matters of the day before finally leaving the office to meet Judy and quite a few of my friends at Gordon Biersch. Our executive chef, Mamadou Diallo prepared a wonderful cake which I meant more as a gift to friends and the staff more than for us. I had a light dinner and a small piece of cake and did not have to pay for any of my beers. When we got home I had some day and puppy time with Izzy and Pierre which was also helpful.

Today was spent preparing for Good Friday and making final preparations for the funeral of a retired Navy Chief which I conducted this afternoon. Hopefully tomorrow will be uneventful and I will be able to finish preparing for Good Friday and for the Easter Sunrise service, and begin to plan the memorial service for our Deputy Commander, maybe get in a seven to eight mile run and catch up on some administrative tasks.

So until tomorrow, pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Loose thoughts and musings, Military

The Long Road: Nine Years of Padre Steve’s World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect on the 9th anniversary of Padre Steve’s World, especially for my new readers who might not know how this blog came about.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.

iraq-2007

bedouin

I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it.

But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote a friend: “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love about writing history.  I completed my second Master’s degree in military history a year after I started this blog.

My historical writings have been both educational because of the vast amount of research required, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My immersion in history was further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College for three and a half years. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 3,225 posts, and three draft books later I got to this point. Hopefully my first book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Civil War Era get published sometime in the next year.

While I still suffer symptoms of PTSD I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillons Izzy and Pierre who are both therapy dogs in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I still suffer from a lot of crazy dreams, nightmares, and occasional night terrors which are so physically violent that I trash around or even throw myself out of bed. Thankfully I haven’t physically hurt myself lately, or had to go to the emergency room as a result as I have on two occasions. I also remain somewhat hyper-vigilant, get anxious in crowded or confined spaces, and there are just some places that I avoid if at all possible. But that is life with PTSD.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

9 Comments

Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

An Unexpected Encounter in a Bar: a Divine or a Chance Meeting?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been in the military almost 36 1/2 Years and a chaplain for about 25 1/2 of them. I remember when I was in the Texas Army National Guard, our State Chaplain, Colonel John Price pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice any chaplain has ever given me. He told me that in his experience that chaplains who were not afraid to sit at the bar at the officer’s club or go to other bars often had the opportunity to care for people who would never darken the door of a church or chapel. Over the years I have found that to be true all too often.

This afternoon I went with Judy to our favorite German restaurant, the Bier Garden. We had been working around the house most of the day and the weather was cold a dreary, cloudy with rain and temperatures in the high 30s. When we got there there were only two seats available at the end of the bar and I asked the young man sitting next to them if they were free. He said yes and we sat down. The Army-Navy game was on the televisions and I was settling in to watch the game when the young man struck up a conversation with me. He had obviously had too much to drink and he was struggling to stay awake.

That being said he seemed lonely and depressed, so as I watched the game I occasionally engaged him in conversation and listened to what he was saying. Then he passed out and the bartender woke him up and cut him off. That is when I really got concerned for him. I asked if he was okay, if he needed help and if he was local. He said that he was from California and stationed on board one of the many ships based in our area. He also said that he had walked to the restaurant. So we continued to talk and as we did I could see that he was crying. So I let him talk. He had been in the navy less than a year and he was on his first ship and away from his family for the first time. He was depressed and struggling and I realized that for whatever reason I needed to be there for this kid.

I introduced myself and let him know that I was a chaplain, but even more than importantly that I was a fellow sailor, a shipmate who cared for him. I’m not going to go into details of the conversation but I asked him what ship he was stationed aboard and took the time to encourage him, care for him, and even more importantly decided to find out how he was going to get back to his ship. He told me that he planned on walking back to it, which I realized that since he had had a couple too many drinks, was tired, and it was both dark, cold and beginning to snow that I couldn’t let that happened. I asked him to call his ship and have someone come and get him, but he was hesitant. However he did have a card from his ship that would help him with a cab ride, so I asked the bartender to call a cab. I stayed with the young sailor encouraging him the best that I could for the next half hour and then stood with him waiting for the cab to come outside the restaurant where we continued to talk until the cab came. I talked with the cab driver and found that his company didn’t have the agreement with the Navy to honor it, so I paid the driver more than twice the fare to get him back to his ship.

During our time together I listened a lot and I shared a lot of life experience, I also gave him my business card so he could look me up. But the one thing that I kept letting him know was that he was a sailor, that he was one of my shipmates, and that he wears the same uniform that I do, and that he matters to me. Truthfully that is not bullshit, it’s what I have been taught by every decent non-commissioned officer, Petty Officer, Chief, or commissioned officer in my career. You care for the sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen that come into your life no matter what their rank or situation. It’s who we are, and why after all these year I still serve.

While we were standing outside waiting for his cab we were talking about the weather and how cold it was and at that point I pointed out that I was wearing short pants, as I don’t go to long pants until the high temperature is under 40 degrees. He looked down and exclaimed: “Chaps, you,re crazy sir!” I told him that he was right.

My hope is that this young man will remember the crazy chaplain who stood with him in cold weather, wind, rain and snow in short pants who helped him get back to his ship, and that when he has attained any kind of rank that he will take care of other sailors in the same way.

Some might say that the encounter was an act of God or simply a coincidence and I could argue for either point of view. But that being, whichever it was, I know that I couldn’t have done any other. I wanted him to get back to his ship safely and I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his chain of command.

He asked me questions about God and church and I encouraged him to seek out his chaplain or to contact me and so I hope that our encounter will help in get through his hard times and to succeed in life.

But that is why I am here. I’m going to finish my career in the next few years, this young man is just getting started. He is part of the future and no matter how young I still look, act, and behave, my time in the Navy and military is coming to an end. Whether that is in two and a half, three and a half, or four and a half years, with somewhere between 39 and 42 years of combined service between the Army and Navy, I am closer to the end of my career than this young man.

So I encourage all of my readers to look out for those young men and women who come into your lives.

So until tomorrow and whatever unexpected encounters come our way I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Military, Pastoral Care