Tag Archives: nelson lebron

To Iraq and Back: A Bus Ride to Carolina

Coach_USA_ShortLine_50889

This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series.

My CRV with Judy in it pulled away and Nelson and I went about our business. We staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment.  As we talked other sailors arrived and soon the gear of over 100 sailors was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.

Nelson’s parents, brother and sister had come to see him off.  His brother is a Navy First Class Petty Officer. His dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone.  They were really nice folks. Over the years I had heard much about them. They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.

Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter. He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally.  During his previous deployment to Afghanistan he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. A couple of months before this deployment he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family.  Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other.  For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy.  No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs.

When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal. Many times media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. We are going in as a unit.

In such times families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together.  When you deploy as a unit there is familiar support system for the families we leave behind. This is not so when you deploy individually.  Those leaving on this day were very much strangers. We would train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.

If you are a ship or unit chaplain and deploy with your people there is a relationship. Generally you know each other, in this case we were strangers.  I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors we were with today when we got to Iraq. This was also the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, mostly working with the Army in support roles. Some would serve in specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs.

As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network. I was right about her being down for a while but this deployment would be harder on her than others and the support network proved woefully inadequate. So much for assumptions.

I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in large and rectangular bags of coyote or sand color. Most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.”  We already had our personal protective equipment of the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive Army issue at Fort Jackson. There are pros and cons to such a arrangement.  The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater. The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war.  This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.

Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders.  After this we loaded our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. These were the first of many buses we would ride and the first of many roll calls and gear load outs in the coming months.

Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front.  I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat.  It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer they don’t know and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.

Many of the sailors had ever darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or religious people.  I have found that many times, even those with a vibrant faith are hesitant to approach a chaplain that they do not know. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them be judgmental about of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I try to be cognizant of this and be friendly and caring without scaring them away.  Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus ride I was still an unknown quantity to them.

Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep.  For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable.  Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable. Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe.  Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.

When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining. Part of course is a generational thing. I grew up and came of age the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The majority of these sailors from the 90’s and 2000’s.

The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching.  Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.  As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war take inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta.   Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and hundreds more wounded I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.

The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolina League. Our journey reminded me of the bus rides in the movie Bull Durham.  The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other,  We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places.  About half the sailors went to the McDonalds while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell. Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate.

When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway.  We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base. I wondered where the hell we were. Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year.  Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.

Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready.  It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.

Our welcome that first night was simple.  We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants.  We were met at the DFAC by a civilian.  I can’t remember his name but this guy was most congenial and he put the RED in “Redneck.” He joked with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did.  When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter. As such nearly every meal would be entertaining.

As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other.  He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.”  I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.”  The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.

Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready.  More sailors from NMPS San Diego were due in later. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and engaged in some rather surface pleasantries. When lights out was called lay down on the same type of Army bunk bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington.  I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage.

Much was still on my mind when I laid down and my mind was still thinking about the trip to base with Judy and the final kiss goodbye. I was troubled by it and how I had handed things. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly. It had been a long day and coupled with the lack of sleep and stress of the previous couple of days I was tired.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Veterans Day 2011: Giving Thanks for the Veterans in my Life

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA 19 around 1971 or 1972

I always become a bit more thoughtful around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 30 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way.

I come from a Navy family. My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was an adventure for me and that Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after.  My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.”

My dad 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.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return fromVietnamand saw howVietnamveterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated with scorn.  Instead of being depicted a Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.  That was also my introduction to war; the numbers shown in the nightly news “body count” segment were flesh and blood human beings.

LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John 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.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraqshook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN )

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 inVietnam.  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.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA andFortLewishad a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group inVietnam.  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 advisor at UCLA.  An infantryman he served with the 173rd Airborne inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours inVietnam.  Though he only had me for a summer 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 an 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 ofVietnamtours.  He died 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.

Me with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon US Army at Colonel Allmon’s Change of Command at Ft Myer Virginia 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 and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd 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 and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while 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.

Me with my boarding team on USS HUE CITY CG-66 2002

My life more recently has been impacted by others. Since coming into the Navy I have been blessed to serve with the Marines and Sailors of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, 1st Battalion 8th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Desroches, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines and Colonel Lou Rachal and Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake.   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 inIraq. They and all theVietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at HarborPark 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, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

With advisers to 1st Brigade 1st Iraq Army Division, Ramadi Iraq 2007

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 doneIraq3 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.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day.  Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

August 2007: My Beginnings in Iraq

I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect today.  I woke up about 0430 in pain from my broken leg.  I was in enough pain to warrant a Vicodin which was the second that I had had since going to bed.  It knocked me out and after making a call to my staff to let them know that I was out of action I woke up aboutnoonto the sound of a MH-53E flying over my place toward the Marine Auxiliary Airfield a few miles from my place.  Vicodin makes my leg feel better but pretty much puts me out of action.

The memories invoked by the sound of the helicopter caused my period of reflection.  I haven’t written about my time in Iraqin a long time.  The memories of my time in Iraqstill evoke intense emotions which sometimes lead me into a depressed funk and can be brought on by many things.  However since I am doing better than the last time that I attempted to write them down I figure that I might as well start over and attempt to complete what I began in 2009.  Today marks the 4th anniversary of my arrival in Fallujah, the next to last stop before we arrived at Taqaddum and began our operations supporting the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

I arrived in Iraq with my assistant, RP1 Nelson Lebron.  We had detached from EOD Group Two in early July and after stops for processing and training in Norfolk, Fort Jackson South Carolina and Kuwait we arrived in Iraq on the 5th of August.  Our first stop was at the headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group atCampVictory inBaghdad.  We remained there several days getting briefings on our mission and awaiting a flight to Fallujah.  Our last night at Camp Victory was an interesting night where for the first time I was in the line of fire of a hostile rocket which whooshed over my head to explode harmlessly about a kilometer away.

107mm Rocket on improvised launcher

We had a very late flight, about 0200.  Since you normally need to manifest for a flight two hours prior it means that you back up at least a hour before the manifest time.  This particular evening there was not much cooling going on and there was little illumination which meant in most places it was very dark. Especially in troop the billeting areas.  We dragged our gear to the entrance to the billeting area.  Nelson went back to his tent and I plopped my ass down on my bags.  About 2300 I heard and felt a rush over my head.  It was a rocket, probably a 107 mm rocket which is one of the most popular indirect fire weapon used by the insurgents or possibly a 122 mm rocket.  Both are former Soviet systems produced in Iran and supplied to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They are not very accurate but still the fact that a rocket had buzzed me was disconcerting.  A few seconds later I heard an explosion.  I later heard the rocket had continued on and hit an uninhabited area of the camp.  Soon after it went over my head a very young looking soldier came running up to me in his PT gear with an M-16 at the ready.  He shouted “Sir, what was that?”  The young man appeared to be a bit scared to I simply quipped “Only a rocket son didn’t hit us.”  He seemed to relax just a bit and I said “You okay son?” the good thing about being as old as I am that you can get away with calling the young guys “son” because in most cases they I’m old enough to be their father.  I stay in game too much longer and the new kids could be grandchildren.  This young soldier said, “Well sir I’m on the quick reaction force and that sounded close.” In the background to the east machine gun and small arms fire could be heard.  A pair of gunships buzzed us going the general direction of the gunfire.Baghdadwas definitely not a violence free school zone.  I replied to the young soldier. “Son, if I were you I’d report to where you need to go, better grab your helmet and flak.”  The young man looked at me in the dark, assuming I was a Marine officer since I was in myMarineDesertdigital cammies, saluted and said “Yes sir” to which I replied “be safe soldier and God bless, keep up the good work.”  Once again he thanked me and hurried off into the night.

A few minutes later, Nelson who has been in some pretty sporty situations in Afghanistan including once where he took out a knife wielding assailant at a checkpoint in Kabul with his fists, came up to me.  “Hey Chaps, did you hear that rocket? Sounded like a 107.”  I said to him, “Shit brother, it felt like it went right over my head. “  He responded quickly “Boss I think we’re in a war here.”  And I said “sounds like it partner, definitely sounds like it.”  Then he said “Chaps, you wouldn’t believe what I just saw.”  I said “Really, what?”  And he told me the story. “I was over looking for our boy when I needed to go to the head, so I opened one of the port-a johns and when I opened it saw this guy and girl having sex in it, like they didn’t have the door closed and you know how nasty those things are.”  I said “Partner you’ve got to be kidding me” and Nelson said “Chaps I wouldn’t do that to you, those people looked at me like I was stupid when I opened the door and I just said excuse me and closed the door. That place stank sir; I don’t know how they were doing it in there.”  I replied “Partner, I guess after a year of more here some folks will take whatever they can get.” “But, you’d think that they would find some dark spot rather that a port-a-john,” replied a thoroughly disgusted Nelson.  As I laughed at the misfortune of my little buddy, bodyguard and protector I simply said “There’s no accounting for taste my friend, no accounting for taste.”

We sat on our gear and waited, and waited.  The time when we should have been picked up went by and after about 15 minutes of chatter about not being picked up on time, Nelson said. “Boss you want e to go find our ride?”  I responded that I wanted him to as it was so dark that he might not know where to find us. A few vehicles had come and gone but none were our assigned wheels.  Finally after about 45 minutes our ride showed up, Nelson had found him on the other side of the compound in his truck listening to AFN radio.  He had come to the wrong side of the billeting area and was chastising me for not being there.  I said, “Sergeant, I said to meet us over here and I’ll be damned f we have to lug our gear a couple hundred yards to make you happy.”  I paused as he started to interrupt and then cut him off “Sergeant, don’t go there, you’re talking to a field grade officer who wasn’t always a chaplain, you went to the wrong place and you didn’t take the initiative to try to find us. We had to find you so don’t push your luck.”  He replied, almost dejectedly, “Yes sir” and I said, “consider this matter ended, get us to the airfield, we have a flight to catch.”  Nelson and I piled our gear into the back of the truck, got in and rode the airfield.

CH-46’s landing

In 2007 the Camp Liberty airfield, which deals exclusively in rotor wing aircraft, was one of the busiest heliports in the world.  Hundreds of flights went through it every day.  They were primarily Army, but a fair amount of Marine aircraft pass through as well.  We were flying Marine air tonight.  When we got to the heliport our chauffer had a difficult time finding a place to park.  Eventually we sort of double parked and Nelson and I and Nelson and I unloaded our gear with a bit of help from our chastened chauffer got up to the manifest desk where we were greeted by a civilian. He took our names and our mission number and then took out a marking pen and wrote it on the back of our hands.  I found that that at each place this was the primary way to identify who was getting off where or if you should even be on the aircraft. I found a seat and then because I couldn’t get comfortable walked outside for a while.  Nelson on the other hand, ground his gear, threw himself upon it pulled his cover over his eyes and took a power nap. He can sleep almost anywhere.

With about 10 minutes to go I woke up Nelson, and I find it amazing how he can wake back up the way he does.  When I take a nap I am useless for about 30 minutes after I wake up as my body tries to figure out what time it is. We both took turns guarding our gear as the other hit the head, once again a darkened port-a-john that stank to low hell.  When done we staged our gear near the lineup point.  Our mission was called and we lined up with about 30 others, a mixture of Marines, Sailors, contractors and a few soldiers.  We geared up, securing helmets, flaks, our packs as well as our massive EOD issue sea-bags.  Nelson helped me with mine as we got ready to walk, once was over my back and the second strapped across my chest, actually going from my chin to just above my knees.  Many of our fellow passengers had very little gear, and one fairly large contractor offered to help me with my gear.  I took him up on it about half of the 100 yards to where our bird had landed.

Watching our aircraft come in, a flight of 2 Marine CH-46s which date back toVietnamservice I was amazed at how surreal they looked coming in out of the night, their haze gray fuselages almost having a ghostly appearance as they set down.  Of course we had the bird that was farthest from the line up point and I was really glad for the help of this generous contractor.  As we loaded our bags onto the aircraft, stacking it in the center of the deck with everyone else’s gear, we each took one of the jump seats along the side and strapped ourselves in.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt totally winded, no amount of running, pull ups, pushups and crunches had prepared me to lug our heavy and ungainly gear around.  The dimly lit troop compartment was hot and I looked around the aircraft.  I noted the machine gunners in the front doors and the crewman in the back who took a seat with a 240 series machine gun mounted on a swivel.  It reminded me of the films I saw of the inside of World War Two B-17s, except that the flight suits were different.  The crew gave the let the pilots know that we were ready, and I wondered what we were heading into.  Nelson got my attention and gave me a “thumbs up” and I returned it as the lights went out that our flight lifted off.

Banking around to the left the 46 gained altitude and flew back across the camp as it did so I got my first view of Iraq after dark.  As we flew into the city ofBaghdadthere were lights and sometimes lit streets. In a few places I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.  We soon began to descend into the city surrounded by tall buildings, mainly hotels and government buildings and I knew that we were in the “Green Zone.” We sat down on a small landing pad, the dim lights came back on and a couple of passengers got out of our bird which a couple of more boarded the flight. The scene fromCampLibertywas repeated and gear was off and on loaded, passengers boarded and debarked from the flight and the lights went off and the bird lifted off.  Gunners took their positions and chatted on their headsets obviously scanning for threats and assessing what was going on, or they could have been talking about the new video game one of them had bought at the exchange.

Banking left we gained altitude heading east, with Baghdad fading into the night the lights of the communities along the Euphrates came into view as we flew on toward Fallujah.  For me it was a fascinating experience, surreal and a bit of anxiety making but interesting as I thought of the history of the ancient civilizations who had settled here. As a historian I thought about the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and the fact that the faith of the Christian Church through Abraham and later the people ofIsraelbegan inIraqwith Abraham’s obedience to the Lord in theLandofUrof the Chaldees.

The flight only took about 16-18 minutes and we flew into Fallujah.  The bird sat down on a large tarmac and the crew motioned us to get up grab our gear and get off of the aircraft.  I was praying desperately that it would not be a long walk to the terminal from the helicopter pad.  As we hauled our gear off the 46 to get to the terminal I was about tapped out.  The 46 had landed about 100 yards from the terminal where our ride waited.  It might as well have been 100 miles.  I loaded one bag on my back and commenced to drag the other.  Nelson was ahead of me and realized that his old Padre was not doing well.  I was about halfway to the terminal when Nelson showed up with a Marine on a John Deere Gator. My gear was loaded aboard the Gator; I gave a hearty thank you to Nelson, the Marine and to the Deity Herself as I dragged my sorry ass to the terminal.

The Fallujah terminal like most terminals at heliports in Iraqwas a plywood building constructed by the Seabees.  It was well lit inside, had air conditioning which I sucked up and a large refrigerator with bottled water stashed in it.  Once inside I took off my helmet as we checked in at the desk.  By now it was about 0245, I had been up since 0530 the previous day, done PT a Camp Victory, had a rocket fly directly above me and dragged 200 pounds of gear more places than I wanted to in 100 degree heat and I was a spent round.  War is a young man’s game and even though I am in good shape for someone my age, the key is that I am in good shape for someone my age, not a young guy.  Sweating profusely I found a liter bottle of water and downed it.  About that time a large African American 1st Class Petty Officer came in the door.  RP1 Donnie Roland was the LPO of the II MEF Forward Chaplain’s office and worked for Mike Langston.

Donnie, who is now retired from the Navy, is a guy that you definitely want on your side.  He hooked us up.  Normally personnel in a transient status in Fallujah are housed in tents with cots in varying degrees of disrepair.  Donnie got us rooms in the VIP quarters, nicknamed by the Marines the “Ramadan Inn.”  The place had once been the haunt of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddaam’s sons.  It had a pond in the center of the court yard and was reputedly a place where they would entertain senior members of the Ba’ath Party amid scenes of debauchery.  We were given a small room that had a desk and two small Iraqi beds, both of which had thin concave mattresses which had little support but were a definite step up from a cot.  Sheets, pillows and a blanket were included.  Our gear took up the majority of the room but it didn’t matter.  After a shower I crashed hard.  The bed might have been from a 5 star hotel; all that mattered at 0330 was that I could get to sleep.  RP1 Roland told us that Chaplain Langston said that we should get some sleep and come in when we could.  With outgoing artillery fire going off in the background I laid my worn out body down on the waiting mattress, I thought about the day and it came to me that the rocket that had went over my head could have killed me and a chill went down my tired spine.  Another salvo of artillery lashed out at the enemy, and my mind drifted back to the present.  I was now in Fallujah.  One more stop on the way to my war, Nelson was already asleep; I am amazed at his ability to go from 0-60 and 60-0 so fast.  More artillery fire boomed and as a former forward observer I found outgoing artillery fire to be comforting, amid it’s lullaby I went to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve

1 Comment

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Changes of Plans: It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

Dinner as a Guest of Brigadier General Sabah of 7th Iraqi Division

Today I was planning on traveling about an hour from here up to Kinston to see the Kinston Indians play the Winston-Salem Dash. That did not happen as I was called out of the “bullpen” so to speak to see a lady in our ICU.  I got the word as I was celebrating Mass and when I was done went to the hospital to make the visit which was delightful. The lady was one of those indefatigable people that despite a serious medical condition exuded grace, confidence and life and who up to the day she came to us was taking care of people worse off than her, taking them to the store, the doctor, preparing meals and making quilts for young mothers. The visit lasted about an hour with her doing most of the talking as if I was a neighbor who had dropped by for a chat.  We prayed and she shared a couple of poems that were actually touching.  I do pray that the specialist that we send her to will be able to correct the problems that brought her to us as we need as many people like her as we can get.

So anyway with my well laid plans disrupted I have been doing some thinking and if you know me that can be a dangerous thing because I never know exactly what the muse will inspire.  It began early even before I got out of bed when I saw a Facebook chat message from an Army Chaplain of my denomination serving with an infantry unit in Afghanistan.  He asked if I had read a story in the Christian Science Monitor about an Army National Guard Chaplain who had been convicted of fraudulently awards for valor including the Bronze Star with the “V” device for valor, the Purple Heart and the Ranger Tab denoting his completion of the arduous Ranger School.  He added those awards to his recorded after Operation Desert Storm where he served as a clerk and saw no action and he carried the charade on into the time where he was commissioned as a Chaplain.

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2011/0403/Did-a-chaplain-s-fake-Purple-Heart-erase-good-deeds

He was tripped up after he returned from a tour in Afghanistan and was tried and convicted under the provisions of the Stolen Valor Act.  If he wasn’t a Chaplain it would have been bad enough.  However as a Chaplain his falsification discredited all the good work that he did in Afghanistan. What really did him in with his former soldiers was lying about his experiences to them point of wearing fraudulent awards for valor. His deception has caused many of the soldiers that he counseled to be angry and wonder if he was lying about other things.  When a Chaplain loses his or her credibility for an integrity issue it undermines their ministry, damages relationships with the people that they serve as well as their colleagues.  Their actions if married also negatively impact their families who suffer for their actions. The man in question received an Other Than Honorable Discharge which means that he receives none of the benefits that he would have received as a veteran including retirement. He is now getting help but the damage is done.

He certainly is not the first Chaplain to fall and won’t be the last.  I have spent a decent amount of my career being a “relief pitcher” for line officers and chaplains who have been relieved of their duties and been assigned to try to help rehabilitate others who have merely messed up without committing any crimes.  I have been fortunate in my long career to have men that have looked after me and protected me when I screwed up, sometimes with great aplomb.  My screw ups always seemed to be to being cocky and sometimes arrogant thinking that I was the greatest thing since micro-brewed beer.

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.  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, 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 tend to blow themselves up and hopefully there will be someone to save their sorry ass.

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 the young pitcher Ebby Clavin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham in wanting to do what I wanted to do and it got me in trouble.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie has this dialogue.

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. [Ebby throws a fastball which is hit out of the park and Crash comes to the mound]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: You told him didn’t you?
Crash Davis: Yup.

That was me as a young officer.  You would think that I would have learned, but after I became an 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 older Chaplains 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, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Wigger before I left active duty for seminary.  Colonel Wigger pulled me aside one day shortly before I left active duty and said “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.”   He was right and I would have been wise to listen to him.  There are some Chaplains that have no problem taking down or destroying a young chaplain sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for less than noble reasons. Anyone that has served as an Active Duty Chaplain probably knows about or has experienced such an encounter up close and personal.  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.  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. That was not one of my finer moments; I left the school like former Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox would when he got tossed from games.

While Rich was not quite like Crash Davis he knew how to handle me when I got stupid. There is another scene in Bull Durham where Ebby ignored Crash and paid the price.  

[Mechanized bull noises in background after ball hits the Bull over the Right Field wall]
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 pretty much 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 without crossing the line.  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.  A lot of people have asked me why I did this but 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. By doing this I took the time to learn the nuances that make the work of a chaplain different in the Sea Services than in the Army.  While there are similarities that are common to all Chaplains even the similarities are often different depending on the service and even the type of unit you serve in or platform that you serve aboard.  These different similarities can kill you if you think that you’re smarter than everyone else.

Christmas at COP South

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.  Now I try to make sure the young chaplains and other Sailors, Marines or Soldiers don’t get themselves in unnecessary trouble by assuming that they know more than they do.  I know from bitter experience the price that any service member and especially Chaplains can pay for screwing up. I had some OERs in the Army that were less than stellar when seniors tried to torpedo me.  Thankfully like baseball statistics they don’t follow you when you get traded to or sign with a team in another league mid season. They are there for posterity but you get a clean start in the new service.  I am blessed because my Navy and Marine Corps stats are far better than my Army stats.

The Chaplain in question now suffers the ignominy of being put out of the service for his actions.  From the article it seemed that he had a need to appear more than he was failing to realize that there is honor in simply serving be it as a clerk or a Chaplain.  Military awards tell a story about a person, those that earn them for valor or for wounds suffered should have earned them. I see many young men and women that wear Purple Hearts and awards for valor in combat. While I have many awards and service medals, even for service in a combat zone I cannot dishonor the brave men and women that have paid with their lives by wearing something that I didn’t earn and find it hard to fathom others doing this.

Receiving the Defense Meritorious Service Medal on my way out of Iraq from Colonel David Abramowitz Chief of Staff Iraq Assistance Group on 31 January 2008. RP2 Nelson Lebron my assistant is to the right

There are other ways that chaplains can get in trouble and I have seen them all I think. Moral issues, alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, misappropriating or even stealing government funds and doing things in combat zones that cross the line such as actually engaging the enemy.  There was a Chaplain back during Operation Iraqi Freedom that displayed photos of him in combat carrying an M-16 and I have heard of others in previous wars that have crossed that line. That last offense violates the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions and the consequences are greater than the individual chaplain as a Chaplain that does such surrenders his status as a non-combatant and exposes himself to potential war crimes charges. Likewise in the current war with much media coverage and an enemy that would exploit such actions to incite further violence and embarrass the United States it would be criminal for a Chaplain to take part as a combatant. It would harm the war effort, make him a potential target and endanger all other chaplains in the combat zone.

Chaplains are already a high priority target for Al Qaeda as our capture would be of great propaganda value. I had a number of Iraqi officers express their admiration for my service and care for American and Iraqi soldiers and the fact that they recognized that I was in constant danger and was unarmed.  I felt that it was high praise. Chaplains don’t need to be anything except what they are, servants of God and servants of the men and women that they serve. Being recognized with awards and promotion is cool but at the same time if that becomes the focus then we have somehow forgotten why we are in uniform and probably shouldn’t be.

Anyway, my mission now is to help the young guys and gals along and hopefully keep them from stepping on the land mines that I stepped on in my career.  I also know and am very aware that even as smart as I think that I am that I don’t know nearly as much as I did when I entered the military.  It’s like Earl Weaver said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

1 Comment

Filed under Baseball, christian life, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, Pastoral Care

PT and Bumping into Old Friends at Camp Swampy and Getting Carded at Applebee’s

The Main Gate at Camp Swampy

One nickname that Camp LeJeune North Carolina bears is “Camp Swampy.” This is because of the marsh like conditions of some of the base, the normally abundant rainfall and the propensity of said rainfall to accumulate wherever it falls. It is somewhat like the Tidewater, a polite name for “swamp” is in Virginia, only with more rain and in the spring and summer the humidity, mosquitoes and other vermin that love the conditions.  However, because it is a Marine Corps base one can find people doing PT at any time of the day or night in a variety of forms.  Of course the Marines at Camp LeJeune PT in any weather and Chaplains assigned here, even those with the Navy are kind of expected to do the same. Of course each Chaplain does so within his or her physical constraints. Despite being 50 years old I am still in pretty good shape and have the psychological need to try to keep up with people 20 to 30 years my junior so when I do my PT I am serious about it.  In fact when I was stationed with Navy EOD I did so well on the physical readiness test that an EOD tech asked my assistant Nelson Lebron “what kind of ‘roids is the Chaplain on?”  I found this funny since I don’t do this but I can tell you at the age of 50 and being subject to all sorts of minor bumps, dings and nagging injuries I can understand why some professional athletes would use substances such as HGH, but like the rest of the Navy-Marine Corps team I survive on “Vitamin M” or as it is commonly known to laypersons as 800 mg Motrin.

My normal or abnormal regimen is to do what I call “distance interval training.” Interval training usually entails combining some kind of cardio with exercises that work various muscle groups interspersed throughout. I first did interval type training in high school football practice, back then we called them “grass drills” where we ran in place and whenever the coach blew his whistle we would drop for pushups, sit-ups, flutter kicks or any other exercise that could put us on the ground.  I saw a variation with the Marines early in my Navy career that entailed sprinting and then dropping for whatever kind of punishment the leader determined.  Back then I preferred to run long distances up to 20 miles in training for half-marathons and marathons.

However a series of nagging overuse injuries took me down to 5-8 miles a run before I went to Iraq. In Iraq I picked up a few more injuries and it took me a while to recover so after I was assigned to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I built my runs back up to 3-5 miles but I didn’t find that this was working for me anymore. So I went back to something that I hadn’t done since high school, interval training but I didn’t want to give up running.  I devised a plan that works for me and what I need it to accomplish.  I am now adding the P90X fitness program to fit in on alternate days.

Now I run about 3 miles but every 100-200 yards I drop for a set of 15-25 pushups get up and then do one of 5 different sets of abdominal exercises, 15-30 regular crunches, 40 oblique’s, 15-20 crunches with legs up at a 90 degree angle, 60-100 bicycle crunches and 50-100 flutter kicks with sets of pushups between each of them.

With Paul Rumery in Sicily, he has the hair

It has taken me a while to get settled at Camp LeJeune and begin to plan safe routes to run this and I am just getting back into the groove. Today I went out at lunch amid threatening rain. About a third of the way into the workout the rain came down and I continued to run, the rain was actually quite refreshing and by the two third point of the run I was soaked, my orange Baltimore Orioles t-shirt and gray running shorts must have weighed 5-6 pounds.  As I got up from a set of crunches I wiped off my sunglasses, no I didn’t need them I just like to look cool and as I wiped them off on my previously mentioned soaked Orioles t-shirt I started to run and a car pulled alongside where I was running, the window rolled down and I heard a familiar voice, LCDR Paul Rumery, the Chaplain who had relieved me on USS Hue City in 2003 and who had taken me to dinner the last time I was in Sicily with EOD called out “Hey Steve wild man I knew that it had to be you!” I pulled up and went over to the car, we had a brief talk. Paul had a brand new Chaplain with him who he told that I was a “wild man.” Paul let me know that he didn’t know that I was aboard Camp LeJeune and said that we needed to get together.  It was good to see him and I hope that we do get together soon. I picked up the run again and took it back in to the hospital where my now squishy running shoes and waterlogged clothing dripped of my mud stained body. A Marine Staff Sergeant came up to me and said that I had leaves on the back of my head. I laughed, said “I’m not surprised” and commented “if it ain’t raining we ain’t training.” The Staff Sergeant asked about my workout and was suitably impressed. I then ran into a Corpsman who had been assigned with me at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines back in 2000-2001.  He and I talked for a while. It’s funny what a small world it is when you are stationed in a place like Camp LeJeune.

After work I stopped by the local Applebee’s for a beer and a burger and I was carded by the server. I thanked the server who told me that they and to card anyone that looked under 30 and when he saw my ID and age he was surprised. I must say that since there are so many Marines and Sailors here it is not uncommon to be carded and since I don’t dress my age I can see why I get carded. I must say that it appeals to my vanity.  I guess part of this must be due to good genes as well. Whatever it is I will take it.

Tomorrow I will drive up to Virginia as I have a specialty appointment and assessment to figure out what might be causing my auditory processing disorder.  I haven’t understood speech well since returning from Iraq and the additional Tinnitus is at times deafening.  Hopefully they will figure it out and find something that will make it better.

So anyway, until tomorrow….

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

2 Comments

Filed under Military, sports and life

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Going to War: The First Mission Flying West in a C-130

Workhorses: C-130s at an US Base in Iraq

This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year.  In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I started this article in the spring but again put it on hold.  I have reached the point that I can again write about this. I will post follow up articles about our operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in Al Anbar province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: https://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/

Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north .  Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence known as Korean Village or simply KV. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien.  Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.

Nothing in Iraq is easy.  The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed.  Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad.  Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request.  For this mission I had to submit two Air Force and three Marine Air Support requests.    Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission.  Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change.  The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved.  This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website.  Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in.  It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930.  This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.

I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare.  Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep.  I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep.  I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep.  I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out.  I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel.  The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel.  I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.

The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors.  All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft.  When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft.  This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling.  We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed.  As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft.  As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed Wiley-X ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD.  Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center.  The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry.  Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985.  Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over.  Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded.  As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.

As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish.  With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off.  Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude.  The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.

The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read.  Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo.  Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind.  When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach.  As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft.  The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats.  Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.

Passengers disembark from a C-130 at Al Asad

After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts.  Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal.  After being accounted for we got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal.  The tents were large and poorly lit with plywood floors and several air conditioners built into the sides of the tent.  The bunks were in very poor condition, many broken and even more with dirty worn out mattresses sagging in the middle.  Nelson and I looked at each other and Nelson made some comments about the accommodations and we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit in order to clean up before trying to go get some chow.

Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar: the California Line.

Leave a comment

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq