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To Take Increased Devotion… Pearl Harbor at 75, a Personal Reflection

uss-arizona-memorial-pearl-harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I never will forget the day that I took a Navy launch from Naval Station Pearl Harbor to the USS Arizona Memorial. It was Easter Sunday, March 26th 1978, the day before my 18th birthday and I was in Pearl Harbor as part of a Naval Junior ROTC Cadet Cruise. Cadets from my school sailed aboard the USS Frederick LST-1184 from San Diego to Pearl, and remained there for a week until returning to San Diego aboard the USS Gray FF-1054.

I honestly don’t know how many young people ever have had that kind of adventure, but for me I know that those three weeks were profoundly important in who I am today, but the one that constantly reverberates in me is the visit to the Arizona Memorial. Back then there was no visitor center on Ford Island, nor was the USS Missouri moored where the USS Oklahoma was that fateful Sunday. The day was sunny with partly cloudy skies, the sunlight reflected on the placid waters of Pearl Harbor. As the launch, manned by Sailor’s in Dress Whites neared Ford Island the bridge like white memorial loomed ahead, the rusty barbette of the battleship’s “C” turret rose slightly out of the water aft of the memorial, and the mooring quay with the USS Arizona inscribed upon it glinted in the bright morning sunlight. To our rear cruisers and destroyers lined the piers of the Naval Station.

uss-airzona-shrine-wall

Alighting from the launch I went aboard the memorial at the entry room and walked across the bridge and the assembly room before entering the shrine. As I walked slowly across the bridge I peered into the water below thinking about all the men still entombed in the wreck. Pausing in the shrine I read the names of the 1,177 men killed aboard Arizona that Sunday morning, one of those was the ship’s chaplain, Captain Thomas Kirkpatrick. It was a pivotal moment for me. I had begun to feel a call to the ministry but in that moment I was sure that I wanted to serve as a Navy Chaplain. I remember finding a post card that I had sent my grandparents from the USS Gray when we returned to San Diego, my words were “Dear Ma Maw and Pa Paw, I think I am supposed to be a Navy Chaplain.” I laughed when I saw it because I was then serving as a Chaplain in the Army Reserve. Sadly, when my grandmother died in November 1996 I was deployed, and that simple postcard, my link with that part of my past was discarded by family members who did not think enough to read it, or if they did didn’t give enough of a damn about me to save it. I should have taken it when I had the chance, but sometimes I am too sentimental. 

chaplain-thomas-kirkpatrick

It took me a while to get there, my long strange trip included a 17 ½ year detour in the U.S. Army before I became a Navy Chaplain in February 1999.

Abraham Lincoln spoke of the ground that was hallowed at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address. The wreck of the Arizona is also hallowed. Despite our best efforts we cannot consecrate it more than the men who served aboard her that day seventy-five years ago, but we can as Lincoln said so well be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For me that means to continue to serve as a Chaplain in the Navy, never forgetting that the duty of a Chaplain is with his or her Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, and Airmen, especially when they go in harm’s way.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Veteran’s Day: Goodbye to 666 Lake of Fire Circle, a Golf Outing and Remembering the Veterans in my Life

veteransday2009

Today was Veteran’s Day. Amid the solemnity of the day I am still in California where I came this week to try to help my mom with my dad’s affairs and to also see my dad who is definitely in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  This has been the hardest trip home in my life.  I knew I had to come, although the Abbess was against it fearing for my emotional health and perhaps she was right.  Tonight I sit in a hotel room self medicating and trying to regain some sense of sanity.

Me and last last picDad and Me back in May…He Still knew Me then

The past few days have been hell.  My dad does not know me anymore; he has almost no response to anything and stares straight ahead.  The hardest part is when I realized that he didn’t know me.  So I asked if he had seen my mother who I had taken to visit him the day before and my brother.  He said that he had seen them, and even seen my mom the morning I asked him the question.  However she had not been there that day.  So I asked if “Steve had visited yesterday.”  He got agitated and said “I don’t know any Steve yesterday.”  Today was much the same, I asked if he knew who Steve was, and he said “yes” and I asked if he had seen him and he said “no he hasn’t been here.”  This whole trip he has probably spoken under 50 words in 4 visits.  There is nothing left. For all practical purposes he is dead in a body that won’t die.  If that was not bad enough my mother has not skipped any opportunity to attack and pick at me until I broke.  I begged her to lay off, told her that I was not up to fighting with her and tried to keep my cool but she wouldn’t let up.   I cannot deal with constant conflict and a mother who calls me “a weak, politically correct pansy.”  I’m a combat veteran and went to war unarmed into hostile territory with little groups of Americans far away from the big battalions with all the heavy weapons and the women called me a “weak, politically correct pansy.  She has put me down, belittled my education, vocation and career and insulted my wife for the last time. When I told her that “everything in her life that was wrong was somebody else’s fault and not hers” she agreed.  I knew it was over at that point. This may sound un-Christian but I will not go see her again.   Tomorrow I will see my dad for what it is worth, see my brother and his family and then early Friday I will get the hell out of Dodge.  She had offered to pay for my trip out but I can’t prostitute myself for that kind of abuse.    The next time I come back it will be for my father’s funeral.  I love my brother and his family.  He and his wife are saints.  I couldn’t live that near my mother without ending up in a psychotic state, something that I came perilously close to this week.  God bless Jeff, Mel and their kids.

Me and Jeff at mickey groveWith my Brother back in May

I went golfing with my brother and nephews today.  For much of the day I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of the damned boat.  My mind was so gooned up and upset by the events of the week I couldn’t concentrate worth a shit.  Even my well hit shots were mainly slicing to the right and I embarked on a tree killing expedition.  I hit 7 trees solidly, took down a couple of decent sized branches, grazed three other trees and nailed an outhouse.  However it was really good to be out with Jeff, Darren and Nate.  Nate can really hit the ball for an 8 year old; he has the potential to be a really good golfer.  Darren doesn’t really care and is out to have fun.  He enjoyed my sarcasm as I commented on my shots and helped keep track of the number of trees that I hit and I told him that I would see how many I could try to kill before the day was out.  By the end of the round I was hitting the ball a lot better and it was going more often than not where I wanted it to go, but the first 7 holes were hell.  It makes me think of Robin Williams’ golf routine. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDQd49rEF_0

As I mentioned today was Veteran’s day.  After I got my hotel I went to a local Applebee’s where I had a sirloin steak and potatoes and a couple beers on their Veterans’ day salute.  I sat at the bar with a couple about 10 years older than me; he had served on a Navy Minesweeper in Vietnam.  They were nice; I think that is why I like sitting at the bar when I go out to eat, there is a sense of community that you don’t find a lot of other places.

As it is Veteran’s day I think I will take some time to remember some of the Veterans in my life who have helped my through my life and career.  This is taken from a post that I did around Memorial Day.

I’ve been in the military for almost 28 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back in 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  He retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.

breedlove-ness2LCDR Breedlove and Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along. They have both passed away in the past year and a half.  I will never forget them.  A post dedicated to them is on this blog. Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted at UCLA.  He served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was also Special Forces and a Ranger and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during a ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut. It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died a few years back of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

MVC-023SMe with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (Ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon 2005

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him.  Henry Boyd who I buried was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died. Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support. Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972.  CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

051Ray and his Crew from The Vietnam Veterans of America at Harbor Park

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes,  Tony “Limey Cartilage ” Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends.

boarding teamUSS HUE CITY Boarding Team 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq 3 times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.

307With 1st Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Advisers in East Ramadi January 2008

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. God bless all of you guys. Please honor the Veterans that you know not only on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day but every day.   Honor also those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Today as I write many of my friends serve in harm’s way.  I hope that my recovery, spiritually, emotionally and physically goes well enough that I can go back with them.  For now I need to recover. My boss is right about that, if this week is any indication I’m in no shape to go back to a combat zone, bit Lord willing I will be so I can be with those I care for and serve alongside.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Post Script: I do pray that no one takes offense at my words regarding my dealings with my mother. If someone thinks that I am wrong, or out of line they can contact me privately.  However, I have to protect me now.  I can’t help her or save her so I’m done.

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, golf, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

A Navy Brat Grows Up…Sort of

NJROTC USS Gray 1978Edison NJROTC on USS Gray FF-1054

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. I have to admit I rather enjoyed the life.  I think that Navy Brats and other military brats either love it or hate it.  I haven’t seen a lot of in-between reactions; those that love it seem to keep coming back for more.  That was me.

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.

constitution-poster-lgThis Recruiting Poster was My Favorite

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.  When we visited dad at work in the squadrons or ships that he served on I was in awe.  The summer of 2008 I made a trip to Charleston South Carolina and went aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10, CVS-11), a sister ship of dad’s last ship the USS Hancock (CV-19, CVA-19).  The trip came a few months after my return from Iraq and as I went aboard my mind was taken back to visits to the Hancock and the wonder I had waling up the brow and through the hangar deck as 11 to 14 year old.  After Yorktown I went to the USS Laffey a Allen M Sumner class destroyer.  On the Laffey there was a display of a DASH helicopter.  The DASH program was way ahead of its time; it was a drone anti-submarine helicopter that could be flown off of smaller ships with small flight decks such as the modernized WWII era destroyers.  My dad worked a number of years in that program.  It was a primitive rotary wing UAV.  It is amazing how memories come back when you see, touch and smell old ships.

hancockUSS Hancock CVA-19, my dad’s last ship

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 is a harder job than the deployed sailor.

NAS ChapelChapel at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station where My Brother was Baptized

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.

Deception Pass BridgeDecption Pass Bridge

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 fiancée, 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.

Our Old House 186 Queets StOur Old House in Oak Harbor 37 years later

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, she is the love of my life, and somehow she has survived 26 years of marriage with me.  Since I can be a bit of a pain in the ass this has been no easy feat for her.

My brother Jeff was born in 1966 too late for so of the adventurous tours, but not too late to see dad deployed or away from home a pretty good amount of his life.  I’m pretty sure that Jeff was pretty happy that dad retired.  As a little kid from the time he could remember anything dad was gone close to half of his life.  At the same time with dad away I grew to be pretty independent.  So when dad came back I was doing my own thing and my brother was growing into the time when he and dad would become close as I moved away.  Strange how that happens… he needed a place to be home and he has found it in the town that my dad retired from the Navy back in 1974.  I needed to explore and haven’t stopped exploring.  In a sense I love what I do so much that I am like a little kid about it.

FWU Crete 2002Underway on USS HUE CITY: The Navy Brat all Grown up but not

I now serve at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Often in the ICU I have patients who are about my parents’ age facing major health crises 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. It is interesting to compare what we have been through, the places we have been, what we have seen and done and how life was a Navy brat.  There is a kinship that I have with these families that transcends the here and now, something almost mystical 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.

Peace, Steve+

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