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To Iraq and Back: Living Wills, Immunizations Gone Bad and More Sleepless Nights

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series which tells of my deployment to Iraq with RP1 Nelson Lebron in 2007 and 2008.

One of the sobering things as you get ready to go to war are administrative issues that deal directly with your mortality. They are mundane actions when we do them in peacetime but chilling when you put them in context of going to war.

In our society in which people do all they can to push back even thinking about death discussing the issues that deal with your possible dismemberment, disability or your death are taboo. The month before I deployed  Iraq Judy had me take out an additional life insurance policy that doubled what the military would provide in the event of my demise.  At that point Iraq was a cauldron, hundreds of casualties each month and I was going to the heart of the action in Al Anbar province.

Part of our processing to go to combat was a will and power of attorney update.  We had not updated our wills since well before coming to the Hampton Roads area so I took advantage of this time to get it done.  The will itself was pretty easy since we have no children and have not been married to anyone else.  That was the easy part.

The next part was dealing with various powers of attorney, a general power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. The medical power of attorney is something that I routinely deal with at the hospital. I have dealt with them before in other places.  At the same time they become somewhat disconcerting when you are getting to go into a combat zone where there is heavy fighting going on. For most that is disconcerting enough, but chaplains go into action unarmed.

Sometimes when I fill out one of these I pray that I don’t end up like Karen Anne Quinlan or Terri Shaivo.  When I did it this time all I could think about was me being so badly wounded that it would be like the movie The Naked Gun.  I someone telling Judy “Doctors say that Dundas has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.” While this is going on I could just see me unable to respond trying to say “give me one more at bat skip, just one more chance…please.”  This may not seem like the most spiritual thing for a Priest to be saying but I don’t want to be in the afterlife before my time. It would be bad form.

Legal matters finished we had to get our immunizations. When you deploy the military always ensures that you are vaccinated against about everything imaginable. These include typhoid, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, certain regional diseases and probably others that I have forgotten.

I had received many of these before at various times. This included my first Anthrax vaccine. On this second occasion something happened and ti had a reaction to it.  My bicep felt like someone had shoved a baseball in it and the sucker hurt like hell. By the next morning I knew that my reaction was not “normal” because the first one I had did not do this.

I thought back to the Anthrax scare right after September 11th 2001 and I didn’t want to take any chances regarding something that the media said could be dangerous. What if they had messed up and given me a bad batch of the vaccine. Hell, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get me. Besides if I was going to die for my country I didn’t want it to be from a reaction to a vaccine and not something heroic.

So I went back to the immunization section. Like a typical officer I simply “excused” my way past the queue of sailors waiting to get PPDs read and went to the desk. I figured that I wasn’t going to wait in line behind people with routine stuff when things looked like they were getting sporty for me.I call it “self-triage.”

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The Corpsman at the desk was polite and asked what he could do.  I told him that “I think I’m having a reaction to the Anthrax vaccine.”  He gave me a funny look and asked which one in the series this shot was. It was the second and since I figured that the next question would be “did you have a reaction the first time?” I continued “This didn’t happen the first time.”

The Corpsman looked at my arm and said “Obviously sir the first time you had no antibodies to Anthrax so it had nothing to react to….”  I was thinking “no shit Sherlock” when the young man went to get his Chief. The Chief came in, looked at my arm and said: “Gee sir it looks like you are having a reaction to the shot.”

I was thinking well no shit but didn’t say it. So the Chief took me back to his office and started having me checked to make sure that I didn’t have a fever or a number of other things, like if I was dizzy or was having trouble breathing. No I was neither dizzy nor experiencing breathing difficulties but was simply in pain, a bit scared and really pissed.

After his battery of questions and a couple of phone calls asked me “do you think that you are safe to drive?”

At that point I would have said anything to get the hell out of there and get on with what I needed to do to make sure that I wasn’t going to die.  So I said “of course I am.”

He asked if I was sure and I reaffirmed this to him in a convincing enough manner for him to send me over to Portsmouth by ambulance.

Portsmouth Naval Medical has a small office manned by a couple of nurses whose job it is to report bad vaccine reactions up to the FDA and God only knows who else. These ladies were very pleasant and when they got a look at my arm they were impressed.  Once again I heard “Yes sir you are having a reaction.”

I got to answer yet another battery of questions and they took a couple of pictures of the baseball sized knot on my left bicep.  One of them made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later I was told that I would be okay. The explanation was that the subcutaneous injection had caused the vaccine to be encapsulated in my arm rather than doing what it needed to be doing. I was told to inform whoever gave me my next shot in the series to make sure that they got in the muscle. I was told to take some Motrin for the pain and swelling and do a lot of push-ups, pull-ups and massage the bicep to help the swelling dissipate faster. My fears eased and I left the hospital and reported back to the processing site where all of my fellow sailors had already left for the day.

I spent another tense and sleepless night with Judy, the emotional distance still there.  We talked about various things but nothing serious. I don’t think that either of us was able to vocalize well what we were feeling.

Even Molly seemed differed, I’m sure that she sensed that something was going on as I had continued to pack and re-pack my gear from EOD. Molly does not like it when either of us pack as it usually means that one or both of us is leaving.

The next morning I repeated my “Groundhog Day” trek back to Norfolk Naval Station fighting the idiots driving to work on the I-264, I-64 and I-564 battle zone where matching wits with the witless I safely picked my way through traffic while drinking my black coffee.

This was our next to last day of processing and we checked and re-checked paperwork, received our signed wills, living wills and powers of attorney. That morning I met with Father Pat Finn a mobilized reservist and Episcopal Priest from South Carolina and we had a nice chat where we were joined by Fr Steve Powers a retired Navy Chaplain and Rector of St. Brides Episcopal Church in Chesapeake.

Following that I was asked to assist with a sailor who was having some personal difficulties getting ready for the deployment.  These tasks completed I went back to muster with the others and sat down next to Nelson. Following this we went out where the Storekeepers and other supply staff had our gear.

We gathered outside where we lined up and given a sea bag in which to put our issue.  There were boxes of stuff everywhere and a couple of civilians and sailors stood by to ensure that we got what we were going to get.  Uniforms with all of our name tapes rank insignia and qualification pins sewn on were there as well as more socks, t-shirts and other assorted gear.

Our stash was a bit lighter than the others as we already had much of what was being issued. When this was done and we were released. I told Nelson to go home as his family was coming into town from New York.  Taking the newly issued gear home I again went about packing and repacking and took Judy out to dinner after which we spent our time alone together pondering the future.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, ministry, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Steve+

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Going to War: Wills, Living Wills, Immunizations Gone Bad and Christmas in July

This is part three in my “Going to War” series. Previous parts are noted here:

Part One:Going to War: Reflections on My Journey to Iraq and Back- Part One

Past Two: Going to War: Interlude July 4th 2007

One of the sobering things as you get ready to go to war is issues that deal with your possible dismemberment, disability or yes even your death.  In the month or so before going to Iraq Judy had me take out an additional life insurance policy that doubled what the military would provide in the event of my demise.  Part of our processing to go to combat was a will and power of attorney update.  We had not updated our wills since well before coming to the Hampton Roads area so I took advantage of this time to get it done.  The will itself was pretty easy since we have no children and have not been married to anyone else.  That was the easy part. The next part was dealing with power of attorney.  We did a couple of them, a General for most stuff and a couple of specific POAs for various things.  I also had to do a medical power of attorney.  The medical power of attorney is something that I routinely deal with at the hospital.  I have dealt with them before in other places.  At the same time they become somewhat disconcerting when you are getting to go into a combat zone where there is heavy fighting going on and that you know that you will be in places that the enemy likes to attack and by the way, you are as a chaplain unarmed.

When doing a Medical Power of Attorney I am always reminded of the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer sees part of a movie called The Other Side of Darkness which supposedly is about a lady who ends up in a coma.  Since Kramer doesn’t want to be in a coma he makes his own Power of Attorney for Jerry to be his representative.  Jerry refuses and Kramer gets Elaine to go to a lawyer played by Ben Stein to get his “living will” done.  Without going into too much detail the interview with the Ben Stein is funny as hell as in his monotone voice he asks Kramer what he would want to do if….and Kramer turns to Elaine and asks “what should I do?”  Of course after Kramer makes this out he sees the rest of the movie only to find out that the lady in the coma comes out of it.

I digress, but anyway sometimes when you fill one of these out you pray that you get it right so no one offs you before your time, but also so you don’t end up like Karen Anne Quinlan or Terri Shaivo.  All I could think of when doing this was me being so badly wounded that people were telling Judy that there was only a fifty- fifty chance of me living but only a ten percent chance of that and did she want to pull the plug.  While this is going on I could just see me unable to respond trying to say “give me one more at bat skip, just one more chance…please.”  This may not seem like the most spiritual thing for a Priest to be saying but I don’t want to be with Jesus or in Purgatory before my time.

Legal matters finished we had matters of health and preventive medicine to accomplish.  As always when you deploy the military ensures that you are vaccinated against about everything imaginable including typhoid, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, certain regional diseases and probably some that I have forgotten.  Many I had received at different times, including my first Anthrax vaccine which I  injection was done into my muscle. This time the corpsmen given the shot did it sub-cutaneous which means just below the skin.  Well something happened and the little reaction area became a big one that night.  My bicep felt like someone had shoved a baseball in it and the sucker hurt like hell.   By the next morning I knew that my reaction was not “normal” being that the first one I had did not do this. I thought back to the Anthrax scare right after September 11th 2001 and I didn’t want to take any chances regarding something that the media said could be dangerous.  Who knows, what if they had messed up and given me a bad batch or even a weaponized form of the vaccine.  Hell, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get me.  If I was going to die for my country I didn’t want it to be from a reaction to a vaccine and not something heroic that would actually matter to someone and maybe even get a ship named after me.  So I went back to the immunization section, excusing my way past the queue of sailors waiting to get PPD’s read I went to the desk.  I figured that I wasn’t going to wait in line behind people with routine stuff when things looked like they were getting sporty for me. It’s called triage. The Corpsman at the desk was polite and asked what he could do.  I told him that “I think I’m having a reaction to the Anthrax vaccine.”  He gave me a funny look and asked whoch one in the series this shot was.  It was the second and I said.  “This didn’t happen the first time.”  He told e to show him my arm and then with a look of surprise on his face said: “Obviously sir the first time you had no antibodies to Anthrax so it had nothing to react to….”  I was thinking “no shit Sherlock” when the young man went to get his Chief.  The Chief came in, looked at my arm and said: “Gee sir it looks like you are having a reaction to the shot.” Wow, he could have floored me with that bit of news.  So he took me back to his office and started having me checked to make sure that I didn’t have a fever or a number of other things, like if I was dizzy or was having trouble breathing.   No I was neither dizzy nor experiencing breathing difficulties but was simply in pain, a bit scared and a lot pissed.   After his battery of questions and the phone calls asked me “do you think that you are safe to drive?”   At that point I would have said anything to get the hell out of there and get on with what I needed to do to make sure that I wasn’t going to die.  So I said “of course I am.”  He asked if I was sure and I reaffirmed this to him in a convincing enough manner for him to send me over to Portsmouth.  Now Portsmouth Naval Medical has a small office manned by a couple of nurses whose job it is to report bad vaccine reactions up to the FDA and God only knows who else.  These ladies were very pleasant and when they got a look at my arm they were impressed.  Once again I heard Yes sir you are having a reaction.”  Once and I got another battery of questions and they took a couple of pictures of the baseball sized knot on my left bicep.  Another couple of phone calls later I was told that I would be okay.  I was told by the ladies that he next shot of the series would have to go into the muscle as this batch had encapsulated itself in my arm instead of going to the rest of my body.  I was then told to take some Motrin for the pain and swelling and do a lot of push-ups, pull-ups and massage to help the area dissipate faster. My fears eased and I left the hospital and reported back to the processing site where all of my fellow sailors had already left for the day.

Another tense and sleepless night was spent with Judy and I with the emotional distance still there.  We talked about various things but nothing serious as I don’t think that either of us was able to vocalize well what we were feeling.  Even Molly seemed differed, I’m sure that she sensed that something was going on as I had continued to pack and re-pack my gear from EOD.  Molly does not like it when either of us pack as it usually means that one or both of us is leaving her employee for a time, we being the well treated and loved hired help.  So the next morning I repeated my “Groundhog Day” trek back to Norfolk Naval Station fighting the idiots driving to work on the I-264, I-64 and I-564 battle zone where matching wits with the witless I safely picked my way through traffic while drinking my black coffee.

Arriving for our next to last day of processing we checked and re-checked paperwork, received our signed wills, living wills and powers of attorney.  That morning I met with Father Pat Finn a mobilized reservist and Episcopal Priest from South Carolina and we had a nice chat where we were joined by Fr Steve Powers retired Navy Chaplain and Rector of St. Brides Episcopal Church in Chesapeake.   Following that I was asked to assist with a sailor who was having some personal difficulties getting ready for the deployment.  These tasks completed I went back to muster with the others and sat down next to Nelson my ever faithful assistant and body guard extraordinaire.  We were then told that we would collect the gear that we were being issued.  We gathered outside where we lined up and were given a sea bag in which to put our issue.  There were boxes of stuff everywhere and a couple of civilians and sailors stood by to ensure that we got what we were going to get.  Uniforms with all of our name tapes rank insignia and qualification pins sewn on as well as more socks, t-shirts and other assorted gear.  Our stash was a bit lighter than the others as we already had much of what was being issued and did not need the issue boots having already been issued non-issue boots courtesy of EOD.  When this was done and we were released I told Nelson to go home as his family was coming into town from New York.  Taking the newly issued gear home I again went to packing and repacking and took Judy out to dinner after which we spent our time alone together pondering the future.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq

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

2LT Dundas 1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bull-durham after home run

You having fun yet?

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, philosophy

The Call

Note:  To clear up some confusion my references to “The Deity Herself.”  God is neither male nor female and Scripture records that God made Man and Woman in his image, not just Man.  Likewise there are both male and female images used in the Hebrew which refer to God.  I am not turning to “goddess worship” if anyone is concerned. I patently, as anyone who knows me well, understand God within the accepted bounds of the Trinity.  My use of the female imagery is for the most part to get people to think and maybe actually notice that I am referring to God. Maybe too it will encourage women who have been hurt or victimized by men, especially abusive fathers to see that the Christian message is not something that excludes them.  While some may not approve, or even think that I have succumbed to “political correctness,”  I see this as legitimate use of the language, which because of its limited nature can never fully show us the glory of God. Peace and Blessings, Steve+

I’ve been asked by some how I was “called” into the ministry or my vocation as a Priest and Chaplain.  I have done a lot, I mean really a lot of reflecting on this over the years.  Honestly, I don’t really know how it happened.  I mean I like sort of know, but the “how it happened” is pretty much a God thing I guess.  Looking back I think I get it, but am still amazed that I get to do what I get to do.  To use the words of Elton John “I’m still standing after all these years.” The reason I say this is because I’m NOT the greatest theologian, preacher, pastor, or even chaplain around.  Likewise, I know that I am certainly not among the most “spiritual.”  For me the Christian life takes work, really hard work.  There are guys and gals around who who can do circles around me in most of these facets of the Christian life and ministry.   Now on the other hand I don’t think that I drag up the rear, but I’m not going to over play my hand.  There are things that I think that I do pretty well, but I consider myself kind of a journeyman.

General George Patton recounted in his memoirs that “he prayed that he would never get ‘the Call’ because he knew that he would have to leave the Army.”  In some ways I think I can understand that.  Now I know that I was called.  In fact that call probably goes back to a pretty early age.  I found among things grandmother had saved a short paper I had written in the 4th Grade about Easter.  It was not about the Easter Bunny but it was about the Resurrection of Jesus.  So I guess that I had some kind of faith stuff going on back that far.  I think that the first inkling of a call came when I was 11 or 12. At the time the Roman Catholic Chaplain at our base took care of my Protestant family when a local church Sunday School teacher told me that my dad was a baby killer.  Toward the end of high I felt  that call during a NJROTC cadet cruise from San Diego to Pearl Harbor and back.  I wrote my grand parents that I felt that I was being called to be a Navy Chaplain.  I did a short term mission with a Christian Singing group called the Continental Singers and Orchestra in the summer of 1979.  By the way I was the spotlight tech, I did not sing, the Deity Herself was wise enough not to inflict my “joyful noise” on our audiences.  That trip was remarkable, but when I was getting ready for it my local church had a nasty split.  As a result I got caught in the middle of it.  I was in military parlance “collateral damage.” To tell the truth, that experience was kind of sucky.

That was rough, in fact my reaction was to withdraw.  I left that church when I returned and started attending the church of my girlfriend. Patently she is now my ever patient and long suffering wife.  The poor girl should have realized what she was getting into with me when about a month into our dating relationship I left for three months.   Yet she has persevered.

What I figured during this time was that the Deity and I would make a deal.  I would stay in church.  I would even teach Sunday School, and that I would go in the military as a “good Christian officer.” She being the Deity of course would agree to that deal, everything would be copasetic and we would cooperate on my terms.  Pretty arrogant for a 20 year old, but hey, like most young people I had my really dumb moments.  She of course had other plans….

So I went in the Army because Judy forbade me to join the Navy.  She had good reason. Her two sisters married knuckle-headed sailors who were always deployed.  Neither of course were good husbands.  She however let me go into the Army.  I said “cool beans” and I thought I was on my way to fulfilling the deal I had made with the Deity.  As I made my way through my young Army career it seemed that She used very unfair and devious means to rub the call in my face.  Chapel friends would tell me that I needed to stop running from God.  A good friend left the Army for seminary.  In fact the good Deity ensured that I was miserable even though I loved being an Army officer.  Finally in 1987 She used my Brigade XO, LTC Ike Adams to kick me in the teeth. We would run together at lunch. One day while running he asked: “Hey Captain, what do you think your doing with the rest of your life?”  I responded in typical junior Army officer fashion: “Well, I’m going to the Advanced Course, take another Company and after that get promoted to Major.”  I mean I had this planned out, and then he cut me off…”Well I don’t think that’s what God has in mind, you were called to the ministry and are running from it.”

If there was ever an “oh crap” moment, this was it.  People had been pinging on me for five or six years about this, but nobody, ever ever  dropped the bomb like that.  I could have died.  I had never mentioned anything about this to the man. Yet here he was, or God was, reading my mail.  This was not fun.  So I asked him: “How do you know?”  I was stunned by the reply.  “Well the Holy Spirit revealed it to me.”  Now Ike was not and is not a flake.  He was a Social Worker and career Army officer.  He retired from the Army and went to Asbury Seminary where he got his M.Div and University of Kentucky where he picked up his Ph.D.  He’s now the Chair of the Social Work Department at Asbury College.  Shaken by the incident I took myself home.  I told the long suffering Judy what had happened.  She told me “Well I could have told you that.”

So a year and some change later I left the Army to go to seminary.  I was accepted at Asbury, Austin Presbyterian and Southwestern Baptist.  I chose Southwestern for the simple reason that it was cheaper.  Back in those days before the Fundamentalist takeover of the seminaries, the Southern Baptist “Cooperative Fund” underwrote the majority of even non-Southern Baptist students tuition.  What would have been a $5,000 per semester or so bill was reduced to $1,000 a semester give or take a bit depending on the semester.  It was a good thing, because seminary was hell on earth.  How we made it through that ordeal is beyond me. It was like going through the gauntlet of Klingon Pain Sticks in the Rite of Ascension.

First Judy got sick and had to leave her job, a crummy one working for the government in an office rife with sexual harassment.  I left active duty during the Texas Oil bust of 1988.  I couldn’t get a job.  Seminary students without a technical skill were a dime a dozen, and the attitude of many employers was that they didn’t need you and if they did, they would not pay you much.  We lost everything, I mean almost everything but our books and our dogs.  We lost our house, our cars, and were pretty much poverty stricken despite working  full time in social service agencies, night shelters, pizza parlors and part time as a janitor.  Finally I had to take a semester off just to try to get back on our feet.

About that time I was accepted into the Chaplain Candidate program in the National Guard.  I got back in school, but once again came to a point were my job was drying up and with it the money I needed to go to seminary.  I had been given my two week notice.  I was the highest paid hourly worker, expenses had to be cut and I was gone.  At that point I thought stick a fork in me, I’m done.  I took my last finals that semester in absolute despair thinking that all had gone for naught.  Walking down the hallway in tears I met a couple of my Professors, my Church history and Missiology professors. They saw me.  Both simply let me cry and then prayed for me.  I got home that afternoon, ready to quit. I figured that it was over and that I had failed. I was going to find a regular job and start over, maybe go back in the Army.  As I walked in the door the phone rang and I got a call from a Christian ministry that Judy forced me to apply to. They offered me a job doing counseling.  It paid better than anything I had since the Army and even had, get this, tuition assistance and medical benefits.   Now we still had some more rough times but somehow God got us through this incredibly difficult but formative time in our lives.  I think that She was ensuring that I would be able to care for those going through similar circumstances and never let me forget Her care and assistance as I slogged my way through seminary.  The weird thing about seminary was that this independent evangelical guy came out on the Anglican and Catholic side of life.  I had my Baptist and Assembly of God friends ask me if I was a “closet Catholic or Anglican.” Believe me, that was not a cool thing to be asked in a Southern Baptist Seminary that was getting hit hard by a Fundamentalist assault.

I finished seminary and was ordained in 1992, at which time I also became a National Guard Chaplain.  I did a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas from 1993-94.  That was an experience that helped me continue my education, formation and discernment at I continued to track in this Anglican-Catholic manner.  On top of this Judy became Catholic in 1994 and we moved to West Virginia where I took my first post CPE Chaplain job. This was a contract position at a hospital in the town where my parents were from and where my both of my grand mothers lived.  Unfortunately I worked bad hours and spent weekends on call at the hospital or with the National Guard or Reserves.  I had no fellowship, pretty much no life outside the hospital.  I was isolated and I knew that I did not fit in many of the churches in the town.  At a chaplain conference I met a Priest from a Anglican “Continuing Church” who told me about the Charismatic Episcopal Church in 1995.  My friend told me that he thought that it would be a good place for me.  I met with the local bishop and in July 1996 I was ordained as a Priest.  It should have been September, but the time-line was moved forward when I was mobilized for the Bosnia operation.  The day before my ordination my bishop made a comment to me.  He said that this was no longer about simply “doing ministry.”  He said it was about a Sacramental Grace that was ontological in nature.   In other words, it was something that God would do to change me in that Sacrament.

When I was mobilized I lost my contract job.  Thankfully, the Army managed to find ways to keep me employed as a base chaplain when I returned from Europe. This let to a string of events which eventually led me to the Navy Chaplain Corps.  I know that my call is that of a Priest.  That now is my identity, though I function as a Chaplain within that vocation.  I have been blessed in every assignment with wonderful people and almost in every place a supportive atmosphere.  My long military and Chaplain experience has helped me not screw up a lot since coming to the Navy.  I had made plenty of mistakes in the Army. The cool thing is that like changing services is like going from the National League to the American League in mid-season. All of your stats start over.  Kind of like the Bible says, “old things passed away, behold all things become new.”

I am a proud journeyman. I love what I do and the people that I work with and serve.  At the same time one day I will retire from the Navy.  I am sure that the Deity Herself will patently guide me into whatever She has for me as a Priest in her Church. I cannot imagine anything else.  I love being a mentor to young people, especially young ministers and seminarians.  If I have my way I hope to be serving as a Priest until the day that I’m really finished.  This is not about preaching, it is about serving God’s people, in Word and in Sacrament in whatever capacity the church decides to use me until I am done. I figure that since Jesus and the Holy Spirit and a whole lot of persistence  have gotten me this far that it must be right.

I hope that this somewhat explains my call and vocation as a Priest.  It has been to use the words of Jerry Garcia: “A long strange trip.”

Peace, Steve+

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Navy “Brats”

I grew up in a Navy family. I was born in a Navy hospital, and my brother was baptized in a Navy Chapel. I went to 6 elementary schools in three states in 6 years. As a result I learned to adapt to change, make friends and at an early age, move on when we moved to our next duty station.

We grew up in the anti-military maelstrom of the 1960s and 1970s. A Sunday School teacher told me that my dad was a baby killer when he was in Vietnam,. It was a Roman Catholic Navy Chaplain that helped me keep some faith in God, and it is to him I owe my vocation as a priest and chaplain.

When Dad retired from the Navy I was not happy because I wasn’t ready for the adventure to end. I liked the new places, people and travel. Dad was really good about making sure that we got to experience something unique everywhere we went, from Corregidor in the Philippines, the outdoor life of the Puget Sound, Major League Baseball in California, and Hockey. Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm were regular attractions in Southern California. From Dad, presents from the Far East including a 10 speed bike and a pachinko machine for me.

They were good times. We took trips across country by train to visit family in the days before Amtrak, riding every major route from the West Coast to Chicago, the Great Northern-Burlington Northern “Empire Builder,” the Western Pacific “Zephyr” Southern Pacific “Daylight”, Santa Fe “Super Chief” and “El Capitan.” As we were coming home from the Philippines on a Military Transport ship, the USS John C Breckenridge, we were allowed to explore the ship and for the first time I got a sense of the sea.  Something about that voyage caused me to love the sea and ships. Growing up we were allowed to take risks, we had the chance to succeed, but also to learn about life by occasionally failing.  When dad was deployed mom took on the burden of caring for us.  That was difficult for her, but she did well.  The Navy wife and mother actually has a harder job than the deployed sailor.

There is something about being a Navy “brat.” I have been blessed to see our best friends’ boys, Jack and Alex grow up. We’ve known them since they were 4 and 8, respectively and now they are 17 and 13, or something like that. They have great senses of humor and are great to be around. Like me, the life of being a Navy brat is all they know. My first memories of being a Navy brat begin with living in the Philippines. Their dad’s first Navy assignment was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jack may remember life before the Navy, but Alex is too young to remember anything but the Navy.

My life has remained closely tied to the military. After dad retired I did three years of Navy Junior ROTC in High School getting to travel up and down the West Coast and to Hawaii aboard 6 different ships for about 70 days at sea. My parents hoped beyond hope that I would settle down, but I was not deterred. I joined the Army National Guard just prior to entering the UCLA Army ROTC program. I didn’t do the Navy because my fiancé, now my wife Judy, said that she would not marry me if I joined the Navy. Her oldest sister’s husband was on a ship during Viet Nam and was never home. Judy witnessed the pain and hardship her sister went through, and then a couple of decades later, her other sister married navy men while she herself was in the Navy.

So I spent 17 and a half years in the active Army, National Guard and Reserves before finally getting the chance to come in the Navy in February 1999, as I turned in my gold Army Major’s oak leaf for the twin bars of a Navy Lieutenant. Judy wasn’t happy at first, because she had been looking forward to me retiring from the Army Reserve so we would no longer have so many separations. Judy was also less than thrilled because remembering her words about the Navy when we were dating, I didn’t consult her. I just signed on the dotted line. It took her a while to come to terms with this decision. I’ve also learned not to make major decisions without consulting her Oh well…It has all been good.

I now serve at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Often in the ICU I have patients who are about my parents’ age facing major health crisis’s and sometimes end of life issues. Their kids are often my contemporaries. We have shared a similar life and cultural experience as Navy “Brats” of our era. There is a kinship that I have with these families that transcends the here and now, something that binds Navy families together. I have no idea when this grand adventure will end, but one thing is for sure, and for this I will always be grateful, to be a Navy Brat.

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