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


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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

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

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

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

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

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

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

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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

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

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

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

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

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

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

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

That is still my hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Loose Thoughts on a December Saturday: I’m not a Nurse, the Great Cain Wreck, the End at Camp Victory, LSU went to Georgia and Padre Steve Discovers Twitter….

Sitting on Saddam Hussein’s throne at Al Faw Palace Camp Victory Iraq 2007

Well it has been a week hasn’t it?  I mean really so much has happened and things just keep happening whether we want them to happen or not as the old adage goes “shit happens….”

For me it has been a hard week although in terms of hardness it has been Judy that has to endure more than me. Judy had surgery this week to remove a bone spur that had grown into her Achilles tendon. Remove of said bone spur a partial resection of the Achilles and she has not had a fun week. Especially with the nursing care available to her…me.

I admire and respect nurses beyond belief and now more than ever.  I don’t have a nursing temperament. When the TV show House MD began I was watching it with Judy and remarked that House was “me without Jesus” to which she responded “honey House is you with Jesus.”  I am a Myers-Briggs INTJ  which basically means that I am not the most warm and cuddly person in the world and I lack the qualities that make for a good and compassionate nurse.

Now I am very competent at doing things to help people including medical things, but that does not mean that I am good at the hands on work that nurses do with great skill and care. Unfortunately for Judy I am her nurse.  A few years back she had a surgical procedure and I did so bad that she said that I had went to the “Leave Them on the Ice Flow to Die School of Nursing.”  Now because of Global Warming there are no ice flows in our area so I have worked hard to help Judy. Having endured a broken leg last summer I have more patience and even empathy than I would have before.  However it has been hard on her and trying on me.  This week has made me more appreciative of nurses than I was before because I would last about a half a shift if I was a real nurse. Personally I am much more like House in that I like to be alone, come up with answers save the day and not get too attached to anything.  How Judy has dealt with me for all of these years is beyond me God bless her and for her sake I hope that her recovery goes really well.

But even as I have done my pitiful best to help and comfort Judy other things are going on in the world without considering that I have been too busy to write about them.  It is not right, the world should stop letting important things happen when I don’t have the time or am too tired to write about them.

I guess the biggest domestic news was that the “Herman Cain Train” became the new Great Cain Wreck as in yet another surreal news conference Cain suspended his campaign.  I don’t know if any of what Cain’s accusers stories have any validity.   However Cain’s responses to each accusation caused me to question his credibility.  I think that having a criminal lawyer introduce him at a press conference after the first accuser went public was part of this but not all. It took more than that. Likewise Cain’s plethora of inept interviews and answers to questions that serious Presidential candidates need to have answers have made me doubt his credibility as a candidate. This was echoed in the polls in which Cain had taken the lead and then saw it melt away as Newt, the new “Bob Dole” Gingrich has vaulted over his competition in many key states, no doubt helped by the Great Cain Wreck. I have no idea who will win the GOP nomination but if they want to defeat the most vulnerable Presidential incumbent that I have ever seen they need to do better.  My scientific polling at the Gordon Biersch bar is that most people are not thrilled with another four years of President Obama, and that many really don’t like him, but almost all view the current GOP field as “unexciting” “uninspiring” and “unprepared” and “un-presidential” bunch that they have ever seen. Jimmy Carter would have been so lucky to have had this bunch to run against rather than Ronald Reagan.  One of them may beat this very beatable President but none of them are Ronald Reagan, heck they make Bob Dole look inspired by comparison.

Across the ocean in the Land of Ur the U.S. Military handed over the massive base complex at Cap Victory over the the Iraqi government.  Camp Victory and the U.S. Air Base connected to it at the Baghdad International Airport was the great gateway in and out of Iraq for many US and coalition soldiers.  It was at one time a complex of palaces built by Saddam and from it U.S. commanders prosecuted the war in Iraq.  I went through it on the way in and out of Iraq. At the time it was a virtual city.  You went to bed with the sounds of combat and rockets and mortar rounds would land in the base even as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled insurgents not far from the perimeter of the base.  Despite this the base had the largest PX facility in country as well as many amenities that seemed like a different world when I went out to Al Anbar province and travelled among our advisors with Iraqi forces.  It had a myriad of fast food outlets, coffee houses and things that you might find on a base in the United States.  While there I did get the obligatory tour of the Al Faw Palace which served as the main headquarters building for Multi-National Corps Iraq and and sat in the throne presented to Saddam by Yasser Afafat.  At the end of my tour I travelled back through and was amazed at the amenities on the base.  Since it was only a stop over I never had any attachment positive or negative to it but just the same it is strange to imagine that this base which some imagined would be the hub of U.S. operations in the Middle East for decades is back in Iraqi hands. I sincerely hope and pray for the best for Iraq and all of its people.

Finally today back in Georgia where Herman Cain surprised no one by suspending his campaign the LSU Tigers surprised no one by whipping up on the Georgia Bulldogs in the Georgia Bowl.  The Tigers fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter but scored 42 unanswered points to remain undefeated and to play for the BCS National Championship.  As Bobby “Waterboy” Boucher would say the Tigers “put a can of whip-ass” on the Bulldogs.

Finally I have discovered the joy of Twitter.  Yes though I haven’t had time to put long coherent thoughts together this week I have discovered that I can put rich and pithy comments into 144 character tweets.  I said that I would never do this and I won’t demean anyone that subscribes to my Twitter account @padresteve by calling them “peeps” as I believe that no one besides little marshmallow chicks that proliferate at Easter should be called.

So with all of that said and more serious things to write about I bid you goodnight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Political Commentary

The Minstrel Boy: The Song of Souls Changed by War

Fr Corby gives absolution to the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

Three years ago I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisors that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisors with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I had done anything.”

On the Syrian Border with members of a Border Team and Bedouin family

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the distain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the telvision mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=un_AVYB-GI8&feature=player_embedded

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned. I don’t regret that and do believe that it is a good thing. If we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJudJ9S579A

This is dedicated to all those who have served who have gone through the pain of war and return until war shall be no more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, film, History, iraq,afghanistan, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

PTSD in the Danger Zone and Blue Lights in the Rear View Mirror…Caught in the HOV damn!

Today I was able to have a pleasant chat with one of Virginia’s finest State Troopers.  The man was doing his duty and found me in violation of using the HOV-2 lane on I-264 West as I headed into work this morning. I didn’t get upset and was polite to this officer and did not make excuses to him to try to weasel out of the ticket even though I could have.  However I know that such excuse hold no weight with the officer writing the ticket, unless you are a good looking girl which I am not and I can say from past experiences that lady cops don’t take BS stories from guys they just glare at us and write the ticket, but I digress….

Any long term reader of this site knows that I am an Iraq veteran and have dealt with a pretty serious case of PTSD since my return from deployment in February of 2008, a condition that got a lot worse before it started getting better.  If you are curious my journey since that time please click the “PTSD” button on the subject list.  It has affected a considerable amount of my life, emotional, physical and spiritual and I am only really beginning to emerge from the nightmare.  However it still has an effect on me in crowded or unfamiliar places, airports and in bad traffic where I feel boxed in and vulnerable. My problems with nightmares, flashbacks and sleep problems are not as bad as they were and my life is on the uptick again, however bad traffic is a trigger.

I got started a bit late to work this morning, not real late to be late for work late, but late in the sense that the traffic was heavier than I normally deal with on my commute.  As I got on the highway the first thing that happened was that I got cut off and almost runoff the road by some idiot and once I got out into traffic things did not get better as people cut me off and boxed me in.  Anyone who has been on a lot of convoys in Iraq or Afghanistan can understand, congested areas are dangerous and for me and a good number of other veterans that I know when we get in a congested area it triggers the same hyper vigilance and need to get to a safe place or defend ourselves as similar situations in the combat zone. There are times on the road here if I had a turret gunner I would have him put a couple of rounds from the .50 cal or M240 series machine through the offending vehicle’s engine.  My hyper vigilance is keen on the road, it is among the places that I never relax and I can almost sense when someone is going to do something dangerous.

This morning was one of those kings of mornings, I had barely gone a mile down the road and I was looking for safety in an open space where I can get out of danger.  I found this today in the HOV lane and just as I thought I had gotten out of the danger zone I noticed a blue unmarked police car to my right. I immediate slowed down and moved back into the regular traffic lanes and moved toward the right anticipating that he would come and get me.  Once again I was right, he slowed down and worked his way behind me and just before the I-264 and I-64 interchange the pretty blue lights mounted in the pretty blue unmarked Chevy Impala came on and I pulled over.  The trooper asked if I knew why he had pulled me over and I acknowledged that I was in the HOV lane.  He took my license, registration and insurance paperwork as well as my military ID and about 7-8 minutes later came back with a ticket which is more like a sheet of paper and gave me the pink carbon copy.  He explained that signing was not an admission of guilt and informed me of a court date as well as how I could pay the fine early.

Was I guilty of driving in the HOV-2 without another passenger in the car?  Yes.  So by the letter of the law I am guilty.  However I do believe that I had mitigating circumstances so I will go to court not to claim that I was not where I was but to explain the danger that I felt that I was in and how I needed to get out of the danger zone.  I thought that the “Danger Stay Back” convoy sign sticker, the Multi-National Corps Iraq and “IRQ-I Served” bumper stickers would adequately identify me as someone who might be vulnerable but alas this was not the case.  The trooper was professional, polite and businesslike.  I could not find fault in anything that he did. I felt stupid that I had let myself get into the situation but at the same time knew that I was basically acting on instinct from my time in Iraq.

I will go to court to explain the mitigating circumstances and if I need to either bring a letter from or drag along Elmer the Shrink to explain this.  Who knows maybe the judge will have mercy on me, if not I pay the fine and until the state legislature passes an exemption for military personnel to use the HOV, which they are debating I will have to get blow up doll to inflate if I feel like I am in a danger zone and have to jump into the HOV.  On the way home I was able to hold it together.

So there it is, guilty as charged but with mitigating circumstances.  I know that I am not alone. I have heard countless stories of Iraq and Afghanistan vets doing the same thing in traffic.  It is no fun to feel danger.  I am an excellent driver, have driven thousands of miles on the German Autobahnen and in crazy traffic in a lot of countries as well as some of the worst traffic areas in this country, but that was before Iraq and PTSD.  I’m glad that I’m getting better but days like today show me that I still show the wear and tear from my time in Iraq and PTSD.  At least I did not have an emotional crash or anger rage that well could have happened just a few months ago.  The grace of God is good.

If you know any veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan or even those from Vietnam who suffer from stuff like this feel free to share this with them.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Going to War: Baghdad, Briefings, Coordination and Connections

This is the 10th installment of my “Going to War” series which Chronicles my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to Iraq in 2007-2008.  This installment deals with our time at Camp Victory in Baghdad as were prepared to go west. For other segments go to the “Tour in Iraq” link on the sidebar.

051Sitting on Saddam’s Throne

Following our arrival at Camp Victory Nelson and I continued to get our bearings. We went to the Iraq assistance Group where we checked in and began to meet the people who were going to be assisting us as we got ready to do our mission where we met with the Chaplain, Major Peter Dissmore, the Chief of staff, Colonel David Abramowitz and the Commanding General.  We received briefing and coordinating assistance from a number of the G-Shops in the IAG, the Chaplain and the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.

The visits with all were cordial and my long Army career as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Chaplain allowed me to have a edge in working with the Army because I knew the system, the language and the culture.  Now the IAG was run by the Army but was a joint command with Navy, Air Force and Marine staff in addition to the Army.  The IAG at least then was the coordinating office for the teams of Advisors and trainers working with the Iraqi Army, Border Forces and National Police.  Another command worked with the Provincial Police and other security forces throughout the country.

While we had an idea where we would be working before we deployed that we would work with the Marine and Army advisors in Multi-National Force West, we received the word that we would be going there.  MNF-West operates in Al Anbar Province which at that time was still a very dangerous place, although there were signs that things might be beginning to turn around.  It was funny as during our pre-deployment preparation and training took place almost everyone who heard that Nelson and I were going to Anbar expressed concern as the battle there had been very difficult since the U.S. led invasion.

The actual briefings and preparations did not take long, but the important part was building relationships that would assist us in our mission as it developed.  The two key people at IAG for our mission were Chaplain Dissmore and Colonel Abramowitz.  Chaplain Dissmore a chaplain of the Assemblies of God denomination, graduate of Princeton and ethics instructor at the Army Engineer school had been deployed like us as an individual augment as had Colonel Abramowitz.  We got along with both very well as we got details of the mission.  Colonel Abramowitz took a liking to us, especially Nelson, a fellow New Yorker.  Abramowitz is an Army Aviator and the son of an Army Infantry Colonel.  He is a big man, about 6′ 6′ or maybe taller and reminds me of a Jewish version of Patton.  When he found out that Nelson was a fighter and had multiple championship belts he had to “Google” him.  Nelson told him to “Google Nelson Lebron, kick boxer.”  When Colonel Abramowitz did he was amazed that Nelson was the real deal.  He became one of our strongest advocates in Baghdad.  We talked baseball of course the good Colonel being a Yankees fan. Another group of men who were invaluable to us were two former Iraqi Army and Air Force Generals who had fled the country during the reign of Saddaam after the the Gulf war.  Both helped us considerably as we gt to know more about the make up of the new Iraqi Army which after a couple of years had been purged of many of the opportunists and political hacks who had come in after it was re-established.  Many of the officers replacing the problem children were career military men, secular in outlook who had served since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s are well as in the First Gulf War.  These men wanted the chance to get the Iraqi Army back in shape as a fighting force, but faced opposition from certain political and religious groups in the country not to mention the insurgents who desired to undermine the effectiveness of this force from the beginning.

Almost immediately after meeting with the IAG staff we were on the phone with Navy Captain Mike Langston the Chaplain for MNF-W and II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward and his deputy Commander J. Hedges.  They were excited to have us coming to their area.  When Chaplain Dissmore informed them that they had the choice of a Navy team or an Army team they of course picked us.  This was also the intent of the IAG who realized that a Navy team would understand the more Marine oriented advisors and chain of command out west.  When Chaplain Langston heard that the team was composed of Nelson and me he expressed great pleasure as Nelson had served with him in Afghanistan and I had served with him at Second Marine Division.  As a result we had a great amount of trust placed in us because of prior service together as we were both known quantities.  Relationships matter in the military and this time they were a great help to us.

Dundas and FallahMeeting with General Falah

One of the things pointed out to us was that we were the first Navy team assigned to doing this type of mission since Vietnam.  Most of the Army teams doing the mission were reservists and according to the information that we were given were struggling.  A team that had been dispatched out west prior to us had been sent back early because of their ineffectiveness.  I had already known that we were the first Navy team to do this mission since Vietnam and had taken the time to read the histories of the chaplains who served in this “niche” role in that war.  Likewise being a history major and working on a second Masters in Military History I had been doing a lot of study on counter-insurgency and revolutionary warfare.  Not long prior to our deployment the Army and Marine Corps had issued a new manual on the subject.  When I read it I was surprised to find that I had already read many of the primary sources used in its compilation.  These are things that while not directly related o being a chaplain are things that help give a chaplain “street cred” and an ability to adapt to the culture and understand the language of the men that he serves with.  I did not stop being a Priest in this, but I knew where we fit and understood what the advisers on the MiTT  Military Transition teams, mission was and challenges that they faced.  This again put us ahead of the power curve going into the mission.  I do not think that any Religious Ministry or Army Unit Ministry Team has been as well prepared for this kind of mission than we were.

While at Camp Victory I met several old friends and acquaintances from Army and Navy service, as well as a Marine Corps Officer with who I had attended Command and Staff College.  One, LCDR Andy Wade who I had served with at 2nd MARDIV was completing a tour with the MNC-I Chaplain Office. Two of the Army Chaplains had been in my officer basic course and one, an Orthodox Priest was a friend from the Army Chaplain Officer basic course at Fort Monmouth NJ in 1990.  Peter Batkis was a newly commissioned 1LT when I went to the basic course and was the room mate of my good friend Fr Jim Bowman.  He was  now a Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain for the 18th MP Brigade.  The other former classmate had been with an advisory team elsewhere in country and not had a good experience.  I was shocked to see how he had aged and how badly he wanted to get out of country.

While at Camp Victory we continued to get ourselves ready to go.  Our flight to Fallujah was arranged by the IAG staff and we began the process of waiting.  While waiting we were able to get some PT in and on the morning of the 8th of August (7 August in the States) while at breakfast I saw Barry Bonds hit home run #756 to break the record of Hank Aaron.  What I saw at Camp Victory amazed me.  The place was a veritable “little America” complete with the largest military exchange in country, about the size of a small Wal-Mart with a separate market for Iraqi vendors and, American fast food outlets housed in white trailers outside the exchange and a host of other exchange services found anywhere in the world, except to much of Al Anbar where we were heading.  It was kind of surreal, all of this Americana plunked down in there heart of Iraq, surrounded by blast walls and guarded with multiple check points. Parking lots were filled with a  mixture of tactical and non-tactical vehicles and every military person was armed. Helicopters overflew the area regularly, both transport aircraft and gunships, the gunships which flew what would have at one time been called a “Combat Air Patrol.” Additionally there was the ever present noise of small arms fire, distant explosions and sirens of various emergency and police vehicles.  The weather while 6-8 degrees cooler than Kuwait was still very hot and we were constantly picking up liter bottles of fresh water to stay hydrated.

Additionally we received the tour of the Al Faw Palace which was one of Saddaam Hussein’s major residences which had been taken over as the headquarters of Multi-National Force Iraq.  The palace was abuzz with the activity of the MNF-I staff.  In the lobby of the palace there is a throne given to Saddaam by Yasser Arafat in which almost everyone going through Camp Victory gets their photo taken in.

On our 4th day in country we got word that we would fly that night.  Nelson and I got ourselves packed, made final preparations and coordination with the IAG staff and waited.

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Going to War: Flying Into Baghdad and a Blast from the Past

050Outside the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory the HQ of US Forces and Former Haunt of Saddam Hussein, the Palace was Named after the Victory of the Iraqis over the Iranians on the Al Faw Peninsula toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War.  The Palace sits in the middle of a lake

We made the trip from Camp Virginia to the Ali Al Salim airbase to catch our flight to Baghdad.  As usual there was the seabag drag to the waiting baggage trucks, an accountability formation in the blazing sun and the shuffle, this time in full protective gear to our buses.  Riding in a foreign tour bus in full “battle rattle” is even more uncomfortable than the regular ride.  Packed tightly into the buses the air conditioning of which did little to help after coming in out of the heat, we took our places jammed into the bus and once again with armed personnel in the bus and convoy escorts as we pulled out of the high security entry control point at Camp Virginia and drove to Ali Al Salim.  The trip was uneventful and rather boring as there is not much to see between the two bases except sand and occasional nondescript buildings.

Ali Al Salim is a large Kuwaiti and American air base and logistics hub for air movement operations in the Arabian Gulf.  We arrived there and once again formed up, went through a staging area where were we were able to pick up some water from one of the ubiquitous pallets of bottled water and waited inside the terminal.  Some folks grounded their packs and used them as pillows or recliners, others found seats in the waiting area and others looked around to see how the Air Force lived.  A couple of TVs set to AFN played as we chatted, wandered or dozed.  It was not long before we were moved to yet another staging area and began to get our aircraft briefing and manifested for the flight.  Our group that had began the trip at Fort Jackson was a lot smaller now as the sailors who had gone on to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and those assigned to Kuwait were no longer with us.  As we trundled down the tarmac we were guided into position directly behind the aircraft.  We filed into a waiting C-17 Globemaster and sat down in airline style passenger seats which can be added or subtracted by in 10 passenger pallets as needed for the particular mission.  Additional permanent seats lined the bulkhead.  Our gear was loaded at the aft end of the aircraft as we took our seats.  We pretty much filled the seating which at maximum load is 134 passengers and we waited for the aircraft to load.  A loadmaster came through to check that we all were wearing our personal protective gear and had our seat belt fastened.  The C-17 unlike many military aircraft has at least an asthmatic air conditioning capability once the cargo door is closed.   Unfortunately when the door is open it is pretty much like whatever conditions are outside, in our case 130 degree heat with the exception that the sun was not beating down on our heads and that there was no air movement.  It was just a tad hot inside the aircraft.  Eventually the cargo ramp and door were closed and the aircraft prepared for takeoff.  With the door closed we began to feel a little bit of relief from the air conditioning.

For a large cargo aircraft the C-17 has a pretty smooth take off, the four Pratt and Whitney PW2040 engines producing 40,400 pounds of thrust each pushing the hug aircraft which is capable of transporting an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank or 3 Bradley Fighting vehicles into the blue Kuwaiti sky.  In a few minutes the pilot announced that we had crossed into Iraqi Airspace and that it would take us about 45 minutes to arrive in Baghdad.  When the announcement was made there was an almost collective deep breath knowing that we were now going into the war, this was no longer in our future we were there.  I could feel the adrenalin being released into my body and can remember how quickly I became instantly aware of every noise or movement on the aircraft.

Arriving in the skies above Baghdad International Airport our aircraft circled and received permission to land.  Due to the possibility of enemy fire the approach to airports in Iraq is not like you would experience at a commercial airport in the United States, Europe or most other parts of the world.  Unlike most airports where there is a long and slow approach to the runway the descent is a steep spiral as the aircraft comes down from altitude to land.  If the airfield is under fire the aircraft will not land.  Once we were down we had been briefed to be able to move at a brisk pace in case the airfield came under fire, something that was happening on a relatively frequent basis in 2007.

The tail ramp and door opened as if they were a gigantic rearward facing mouth, or maybe like one of those weird fish that have teeth in their ass.  I think I remember some weird science show that talked about such a creature, if there isn’t one there should be.  As soon as the ass-backward maw opened a rush of hot air killed any semblance of what had been an almost bearable air conditioned compartment. Gear in hand we filed out of the aircraft heading for the ramp. Just for your information, it is easy to slip on these ramps; I came close to such an event but caught myself just in time so I didn’t go ass over tip down the ramp.  Nelson certainly would have made me pay for such a breach of protocol.  As we left the aircraft a ground crewman directed us out of the jet blast area and another led us to the terminal.  At the terminal we were greeted by Staff Sergeant Assi, the Chaplain assistant for the Iraq Assistance Group and an RP assigned to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.  Sergeant Assi was a mobilized reservist  originally from Nigeria.  At least here our gear was palletized and was brought to a gear staging area.  Once it arrived we gathered a total of 4 EOD Issue super-seabags, two regular seabags, our packs, Nelson’s rifle case and my computer bag.  We were assisted by Sergeant Assi and the RP who helped load our stuff into the back of the white Chevy SUV that they were driving.  One thing about military vehicles in Iraq that are not tactical vehicles  is that there is a strong chance that they are the color white. The white paint contractor at GM must be making a killing on vehicles destined for the Middle East.  Once we were checked off the manifest as having a ride were able to depart walking out through rows of Califonia and Jersey barriers.

The ride was interesting as we wove our way around the ever present California and Jersey Barriers as well as “HESCO’s,” which are large wire and canvas containers standing anywhere from5 to 8 feet tall filled with dirt, rock and sand.  All of these are designed to minimze the effects of incoming ordnace by preventing the explosive force of them and teh associated shrapnel from spreading outward. We transitioned through a number of checkpoints where armed soldiers kept a wary eye out on our way to Camp Victory.  Victory which is the home of Multi-National Force and Multi-National Corps Iraq lies next to  Camp Liberty.  They are on the north side of Baghdad International Airport.  As we looked across the runway the only aircraft visible were military transports and contracted cargo carriers.  Unlike a major airport its size anywhere else in the world Baghdad did not have regularly scheduled airline service from any major carrier yet.   We wound our way around the compounds which blended together almost as one, much like the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  Passing palaces and villas that ringed a lake in the center of the compound we continued on.  In the center of the lake connected by a causeway sat the massive Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s victory in retaking the Al Faw Peninsula at the close of the Iran-Iraq War, a victory that resulted in Iran deciding to cut a peace deal with the Iraqis.  Despite a Shi’te majority in Iraq there is no love lost between Iraqis and Iranians.  Iraqi Arabs refer to the Iranians almost contemptuously as the Persians. This goes back centuries to the times when Persian occupied parts of Iraq and treated the Arabs badly.

We turned down an asphalt road which quickly became a packed clay and gravel road over which a tanker truck sprayed water to keep the dust down.  into a pulled up to a wooden building near a tent city where personnel coming in and out of theater were billeted at Camp Victory.  Row upon row of tents, each surrounded by a HESCO barriers were to our right. The ground was a mixture of hardened clay and rock which when driven over or walked upon emitted a cloud of dust which Sergeant Assi told us turned to a sticky goo which is almost impossible to get off of boot when it rains. Overhead helicopter gunships patrolled the skies occasionally flying quickly to the sounds of gunfire just off the base not far from where we were. In the background we could hear the sound of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons.  Not far from our billeting area sat a Navy Manned CWIS, or as we call tehm Sea Whiz.  This is a 20mm gatling gun which directed by radar is designed to shoot down incoming missiles or rockets. Nelson and I looked at each other and almost on cue he said, “Chaps I think there might be a war going on out there.”  I looked back and said, “Don’t you know it partner.”   The area to the east of the tent city was bordered by a line or shower trailers and heads, all protected by the large 15 foot high California barriers.  To the north of the tents lay a large Dining facility or as the Army calls them, a DFAC.  After getting signed in we drew an odd mixture of linen for our beds. I ended up with a couple of sheets, pillow cases and a multi-colored comforter. If I recall Nelson got some superhero on his blanket, which suits him fine as he is a big comic fan and can tell you more than you can imagine about all the different super-heroes. Instead of being together Nelson was assigned to a tent for NCOs and I ended up further away in a tent for field grade officers.

Once we had secured our stuff we met back together and walked to the DFAC for dinner.  This DFAC was not as large as it appeared as it had a large protective roof designed to keep mortar shells and rockets from impacting the building itself.  Two Ugandan soldiers working for security on the base checked our ID’s after which we washed our hands as we entered the building.

Upon entry we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food present.  These DFAC’s were definitely feeders and the number of soldiers that should have been wearing wide-load signs across their asses was amazing.  But then who could blame them, many were on a second or third trip to Iraq of 12-15 months each. Maybe for the first time they were not in some isolated FOB with a poor quality of life, in a place which all things considered safe except for the occasional incoming rockets and mortars.  The quality of the food was better than in Kuwait as was the dinning area.

As I was finishing stuffing my gear underneath my bed a young Army Major came into the tent.  He looked at me and I looked at him as if we had met before and we greeted on another politely.  I saw his shoulder patch which identified him as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard.  We struck up a conversation and I asked to what unit he was assigned.  He replied  that he worked at the National Guard Bureau and had been attached to the Maryland unit as an operations officer for the deployment.  He remarked that I looked somewhat familiar and I asked if he had ever served in the Virginia National Guard.  He replied that he had and I asked what unit.  His response about floored me “1st Battalion 170th Infantry” located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia just south of D.C.  I told him that I too had been in the battalion and then he figured out where he knew me from.  With a look of near amazement on his face he replied “You were our Chaplain back in 1995!”   I patently acknowledged this fact  while he continued saying that he had been the TOW Anti-Tank Missile  Platoon Leader in our Headquarters Company. Our conversation meandered through old times at AP. Hill Virginia, talking about our careers, people that we knew and life in general.  After a couple of hours we both realized that we needed to take care of a few personal things to settle in for the night.  Eventually my old lieutenant fell asleep and I began what was to become a persistent pattern of insomnia which plagues me to this day.  Since I couldn’t get to sleep I walked through the darkness to the DFAC which had a late meal.  I was standing  in line amid a few Americans, some British soldiers and contractors when Nelson appeared beside me. He said “Hey boss, can’t you sleep?”  I said “nope” he said “me too, so I thought I would get some chow in this place.”  We had our meal together and when we were done picked our way through the darkness over the rough ground to our tents aided by our red lens flashlights.  After looking for about 5 minutes we found Nelson’s place and I headed off to my hooch only becoming disoriented once. Patently the Deity Herself must have kept me from tripping on a tent rope or some hole in the ground and I arrived back in my place at about 0145 and finally got to sleep.

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