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After Irene: What happens the Next Time, do we feel Lucky?

Crews working to restore power aboard Camp LeJeune

Irene has left the scene and thankfully for whatever reason, divine intervention or just plain luck Irene lost her groove and didn’t get it back before coming ashore.  There was damage and loss of life but it could have been much worse.  She had weakened and hit New York at low tide had she not weakened and moved fast New Yorkand much of New Englandcould have faced a disaster of epic proportions.  Even still damages are estimated at 7 billion dollars and there were towns which most people in power don’t really give a damn about that were devastated by flooding, storm surge or wind.

In North Carolinawhen I am stationed we took the brunt of the storm.  There was a lot of damage in the communities where she came ashore, the Outer Banks and in low lying inland areas where the building codes are less stringent than on the coast but it could have been much worse.  A big part of the reason is that we have been abnormally dry and so streams and rivers were low and the ground was able to absorb the heavy rain. I have been through worse here and I’m glad that we did not have a repeat of Floyd were the storm was a high category 2 with massive rains inundating a state that had been saturated by two previous hurricanes.

My Island Hermitage is on Emerald Isle and it is better situated than many communities on the Outer Banks.  Despite this I prepared in earnest and thankfully all the damage I had was a bit of wet carpet which happens every time we get a lot of rain.  I’m told that my home inVirginia Beach came through fine although as in every tropical storm or Nor’easter the lakes in my neighborhood overflowed and flooded the streets.  In past tropical storms and Nor’easters we lot power for extended periods of time.   According to my neighbor who was looking after the house there was only a momentary outage.

For us the storm produced some anxiety. As a geographic bachelor and as a part of essential staff at the Naval Hospital I knew that I would be there for the duration. Since Irene was a massive storm I had Judy secure our home and evacuate on Thursday.  We I made the call Irene was expected to hit as a category 3 or strong category 2 storm with both the Island Hermitage and my Old Virginia Home in the crosshairs.  I veer to caution in such situations, it is far better to over prepare and get lucky than to presume upon God or nature depending on your world view.

I rode out Irene in our Naval hospital with our bare bones essential staff, some of their families, patients and families, women in their last weeks of pregnancy and pets of the staff members forced to be on duty.  We did well, my Commanding Officer told the story in this blog post http://navymedicine.navylive.dodlive.mil/archives/501 .  We lost commercial power early on and were on diesel backup generators the duration of the storm.  After the Friday dinner we were reduced to emergency rations which the main courses have an eerie resemblance to MREs and what staff had brought from home.

I ambled about on my gimpy leg the best that I could and had to resort to using my cane to make my rounds as I went about to staff, patients and family members.  Several babies were born on Friday night and Saturday.  It was a good event and thankfully nothing bad occurred.  A lot of people especially those that had never been through a hurricane or had a spouse deployed overseas found it unnerving. But we did our best. We converted the chapel to a TV room for the kids to watch movies since they had little else to do and almost every television were on non-emergency circuits.  We ran an extension cord to an “essential” plug in our section of the building which allowed this to happen and our hospital American Red Cross office supplied us with DVDs as well as coloring books and games for the kids.

As I have written in previous articles the military, particularly the Navy tends to be more of a family than any civilian employer. We are bound together by our shared experiences of deployments, danger and regular moves and family separations.  We pull together in ways that I have never seen in the civilian world.   It is an honor to serve.  I finally left the hospital late this morning since Emerald Isle did not reopen the bridge that links us to the mainland until today.

Since I have come back online I have seen some comments from various critics of Federal disaster assistance or the actions of governors or mayors of states and cities with large numbers of people in the danger zone, about 67 million Americans I think is the number.  The most critical politicians were from the House of Representatives and the biggest mockers when Irene came ashore in a weakened state and did less damage than expected were from the “new” conservative media.  Having been through more hurricanes and major earthquakes than I can count and seen the devastation of these events and the effects on the lives of people I find the comments calloused, mean spirited and simply used this as another way to push a political agenda.

Of course it is easy to be a critic when you have no direct responsibility for the lives of people.  You see those in the executive branch be it at Federal, State of City levels of government  and the agencies are each level are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  If they know of something that that could devastate their communities and the citizens in them and do too much and disaster doesn’t strike, those that hate government say that they are overreacting and an “intrusion of big government.”  If they don’t react it is held up as a failure of government.  As far as Federal assistance after an event those that say that the Federal government should let people sink or swim and states and municipalities fend for themselves even if the disaster is overwhelming the same is true.  They are always critical simply because they want to dismantle the Federal government. Well most are against it until it is their community is affected, the rare exception being Virginia Representative and House Majority Whip Eric Cantor who told people in his own district to take a hike after they were hit by an earthquake that no one ever anticipated or were prepared.

Close to 70 million people were potentially at risk from a potentially historic hurricane that only weakened at the last minute.  The President, the governors of the affect states and the mayors of major cities did what they were supposed to do.  They did not wait until it was too late as was the case in Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina.  For that they are mocked I the press, especially those that are deemed liberal I haven’t heard any criticism of the actions of Republican Governors of Virginia or New Jersey for doing what the Mayor of New York did.

We got lucky this time but some day we won’t be and if the critics have their way the result will be historic in the bad kind of way, think about the Tsunami in Japan kind of bad.  We got lucky and if we think of ourselves as gamblers we need to remember that eventually the law of averages works against us, just ask the people of New Orleans or more recently Joplin Missouri.  God or nature take your pick only gives us so many chances and it takes only one of these things to make a direct hit and wipe untold numbers of people, their communities and even the assets of major corporations and Fortune 500 companies, but then the people that are against Federal assistance to regular people would jump through their asses to help Corporate America, can you imagine what would have happened in Wall Street went under like they did back in 2008 except this time under real water?

Being prepared and taking precautions is always preferable to loss of life on a major scale.  No government or community can be prepared for all contingencies but it is foolish for them not to do so but they are damned if they do and damned if the don’t in the eyes of their critics do not have the same responsibility.

I do hope that we band together to help those most affected by Irene and other recent disasters.  Prayer is nice but action is even nicer. Thank God there are good people that lay it all out for those in need and do it well working with the government and other charitable organizations and individuals. I think a lot about the efforts of the Southern Baptist disaster response teams as well as the Salvation Army disaster relief and those like them that make such a difference.

I’m glad that Irene lost her groove and didn’t get it back, unfortunately lives were lost and millions of people have suffered some kind of loss due to her.

After the Storm

For me it was a long and exhausting event. But it was a great chance for me to have a weekend with some wonderful people, my local Navy and Marine Corps family.  Men and women that give every day and exemplify the best of America.  That makes all the difference.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under natural disasters, Political Commentary

Going to War: This isn’t Kuwait it’s Tatooine

tatooineCamp Virginia aka Tatooine

Note: This is installment eight of my series “Going to War” which chronicles my deployment to Iraq working with our advisers to the Iraqi Army and Security Forces in Al Anbar Province.  To see the others in the series go to “categories: and click on the “Tour in Iraq” link.

We flew from Leipzig to Kuwait.  Flying into Kuwait in mid- afternoon is an interesting sight.  The azure waters of the Northern Arabian, or the Persian Gulf, the terminology depends on who your Ally is, hug the coast where Kuwait City, a sits ensconced at the tip of the Gulf.  The azure waters and the almost overwhelming sand that predominate this area of the world stand in stark contrast.  The city itself, full of modern luxury hotels, home of business and oil conglomerates and resorts for those who can afford them, seems a foreign intrusion.  The brightness of the sun reflecting off of the concrete of the tarmac was nearly blinding to us and I was very thankful for my sunglasses.   The aircraft taxied to its position and as the door opened the heat rushed in.  We deplaned and walked single file in the searing heat with our covers removed to a line of white tour buses of various Asian and European manufactures.  Drivers, guest workers from India, Pakistan or elsewhere on the sub-continent or eastern Africa sat in them or stood beside them smoking or talking with one another.  Our bags were moved to waiting tractor trailers and a small shaded area was close by where liter bottles of drinking water and MREs were available for any who wanted one.

We were loaded onto the buses for the trip to our in processing station where our ID cards were scanned and we officially entered the theater.  If you have never ridden on a tour bus manufactured in a country us than the United States they are not quite designed for people of our more fully shaped asses and longer legs.  This means that unless you are short and twig like that you will be rather cozy with the person sitting next to you, especially if they are well fed.  Thankfully Nelson and I were together as usual and since neither of us are terribly large, though I might be referred to as “stocky” and we watched in almost horrified fascination as rather some rather large folks squeezed in together.  Since we were pretty hot and sticky and previous busloads of rather stinky people had left their stench on the seats before us, the odor in the buses was rather strong and vibrant.  Unfortunately my allergy medicine cocktail of Allegra and Flonase allows me to smell the stink.  15 years ago I would have not noticed the smell because of what were then severe allergic symptoms when exposed to things like…. let’s say…dust.   Lots of that in the desert, and there is plenty of dust in Kuwait.  But this time for me there was no escaping the smell.  It took a couple of hours going at what seemed to be an ungodly slow pace to get to what is known as Camp Virginia, a place which bears little resemblance to any locale in its namesake, save for the McDonald’s sign which lit the food court area since it was now night.   Tents with plywood floors were our quarters and large air conditioning units on each end of the tent were used to try to cool it down.  We got our gear off of the baggage trucks and did the “Sea Bag Drag” of our gear into our tents.  This was no easy task, we all had three sea bags or their equivalent all packed with a deployment’s worth of gear.  One thing about going to war as opposed to flying commercial is that you are often the baggage crew as well as your own “Skycap.”  The smaller and older you are the bigger more painful the load seems.  I was in better shape than many of my fellow sailors because of consecutive tours with the Marines and EOD, but three  massive bags, a 3 day pack and case for the computer that I had been issued by EOD for the trip combined with the heat and the effects of our extended trip to get across the pond had kicked my ass.

camp virginiaCamp Virginia

The time we spent in Kuwait accomplished a number of things.  It allowed us to get acclimatized to the region. It also was a place where we completed various administrative and training evolutions including a couple of days on a place in the middle of the fricking desert called the Buehring Range complex and specifically an inhospitable site known as the Udari Range..   I think that Buerhring  is named for an Army Soldier killed during the war.  I’m sure that he was a gallant soldier, but the Navy does far better in naming things for our heroes, we name ships after them, or nice buildings, not a hellhole in the desert.  I do hope that the Army will decide to name something nice for him someday.  It kind of remeinds me of the movie The Green Berets where one of John Wayne’s sergeants asks for a latrie, or “privvy” to be named after him.

Udari  is a live fire range where more advanced weapons skills are taught as well as convoy procedures and IED drills which are as realistic as you can get outside of hte real thing.  It also forces you to realize that danger is not far off, Weapons are carried at all times, security forces man checkpoints, guard posts and patrol the area, buses and convoys are escorted by armed vehicles.  Despite the creature comforts provided on Tatooine by the US Government it is still both a harsh and inhospitable place as well as a dangerous place.  The MREs, heated by the oven like heat were more tasty than usual, a culinary delight if you may.  We only had a couple of heat related casualties while there and lost a Air Force sergeant to renal failure for which he was evactuated to the States, but apart from that the training was uneventful.

Udari Range Aug07bUdari Range August 2007, about the time I went through

I am convinced that Buerhing and Camp Virginia are actually not on this earth and that they are actually the planet Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker and his trusty droids R2D2 and C3PO.  I have seldom seen a more desolate and God forsaken place on earth, even in New Jersey.  Thus somehow we must pass through some interspatial portal while driving from Kuwait City to Virginia and Buerhing, possibly like a “wormhole” in Star Trek.   Temperatures while we were there were 130 degrees plus in the heat of the day and the lows were in the cool 90’s.  It was so hot that the air bubbles in my Nike 180’s melted and lost their bounce, becoming compleely flat.  Likewise the glue on my Blackhawk boots melted and the soul began to separate from the boot.  Thankfully it took a while for it to get really bad and my e-mail to Blackhawk netting me a new pair of boots with their apologies once I arrived in Iraq.  I wrote Nike but got no response.  Everywhere one looks there is nothing but heat and sand.  Yes, you can see the heat.  I am not making this up.  As on Tatooine, Camp Virginia hosts a remarkably diverse transient population from numerous countries.   Some of these are from former Soviet Republics such as Georgia.  There was a Georgian Brigade processing through on its way to Iraq that was like a hoard of Jawas.  2,500 Georgian soldiers including female troops who we were informed served as ‘comfort women” for the Georgian men were everywhere, the Post Exchange, Chow Hall, or as the Army calls it the DFAC as well as the gym, the MWR computer room and food court.  Of course I do not begrudge any ally a meal, a bed and a place to stay but the Georgians descended like locusts.  If you got to the PX after them it was empty. Nelson and I would almost race the 500 meters to the Chow Hall to get in line ahead of the Georgians.  They were amazing; they filled their plates higher than Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) in the movie Animal House.  Breakfast was especially amusing from my point of view.  They would have eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, topped with pancakes and waffles covered in syrup and two to three donuts stacked on top.  All of this on one plate.  I am sure that when these soldiers returned home to Georgia that its obesity rates spiked in a rather remarkable manner.  The lady that ran the internet café constantly chased them off of porn sites, even the women.  In addition to the Georgians we had Brits and Aussies, Poles, South Koreans, Brazilians and a number of other nation’s soldiers passing through on their way to various places in the Middle East, but it was the Georgians that I remember most.

The other two chaplains, Kyle and Rick and I ensured that spiritual and emotional needs were met during the stay, for me this was usually with sailors who would pull me aside informally just to talk or ask for prayer or advice.  There is something about the final stage of a journey into a combat zone that pulls at you as you think about what might be faced on the other side.  Since most places in Iraq were still pretty sporty with huge numbers of attacks and many personnel killed or wounded, even in supposedly “safe” areas.  Kyle and Rick would remain in Kuwait to run the Warrior Transition program while Nelson and I loaded our gear prepared for our flight into Iraq.

048Padre Steve at the Udari Range

Eventually we competed a very good cycle of training at Buerhring and Virginia and once again loaded our gear on trucks, made accountability checks, got our signed copies of our orders and headed off to a joint Kuwaiti and US Air Force Base for our flight to Baghdad.


Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq