Tag Archives: night terrors

The Black Hole of Sleep and Nightmares: PTSD, Iraq, and my Continuing Struggle

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier these words:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” 

I am exhausted tonight and I will be going to bed early for me. Hopefully I will get some restful sleep. I will be posting this article to post shortly after midnight by which time I hope not only to be in bed but asleep.

Last night was a night of violent nightmares taking me back to my worst fears when I was serving in the badlands of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008 supporting U.S. Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol, and Provincial Reconstruction teams.

I do not often write about it because I have been doing better, but I suffer from severe and chronic PTSD related to my experiences at war. The images are seared into my brain and sometimes the memories, and my deepest fears from my time there as an unarmed Chaplain working for the most part with very small groups of Americans and our Iraqis far away from the help of the big battalions if we got into serious trouble. I have written about those experiences and my struggles after my return many times on this blog. Likewise, I have had my story told on the front pages of the Jacksonville Daily News and the Washington Times. A video of my story is on the Department of Defense Real Warriors Campaign website, and is a large part of a chapter of Pulitzer Prize winning War Correspondent David Wood’s book  What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of America’s Longest Wars.  

Since Iraq, my nightmares are very vivid and often involve much physical acting out. The physical acting out is unusual and I have actually injured myself badly enough to require trips to the emergency room after crashing hard throwing myself out of bed combatting imaginary enemies. Likewise, other have been violent and physical enough to wake Judy up.

Last night was one of those nights but very different. In the nightmare I was being attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. Our advisor team had been attacked as we were stopped in the dark to determine if an Improvised Explosive Device had been laid in the road in front of us. This was just a few miles from the Iraq-Syrian border between Al Qaim and COP South, the base of the advisor team which was working with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi 7th Division.

The part about being stopped in the desert in the dark while examining a potential IED actually happened. The attack did not happen but at the time I fully expected something like it to happen. We were sitting ducks on a two lane highway in the middle of the desert. But the attack never happened and we continued to COP South, which would become a part of many of my future missions.

But in my nightmare it happened and as the fighting devolved into close quarters hand to hand combat I found myself grappling an insurgent who was attacking me with a large knife. I managed to roll on top of him and knock the knife from his hand when I was awakened. I was on top of Judy and she was afraid that I was going to strangle her. My hands had not gotten to her throat but she woke me and told me what had happen. I dropped back to my side of the bed in a cold sweat. I could not believe what had happened and that terrifies me. I have set up an appointment prior to my regularly scheduled one with my shrink to talk about this.

Since I my day had been quite good and I have been much more relaxed at work since putting in my retirement papers the event came as a huge surprise. In trying to figure out what triggered it I was at loss until I remembered that I had had dinner last night with a retired Navy EOD Captain who had been my Chief Staff Officer at EOD Group Two and running partner before I went to Iraq. He was sent there not long after me and we met at Camp Victory in Baghdad not long before I left Iraq on the way to Kuwait and home in 2008. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night and we did talk about all manner of things including our time in Iraq and those men that we had served alongside.

But to try to explain nightmares is not really helpful. I think that Stephen King said it best:

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” 

Yes I can try to logically deduce my nightmares and night terrors, but the poetry of fear as Stephen King so rightly calls it cannot be fully explained. For those of us who deal with the memories of combat, of having been shot at and have seen the human cost of war, the dead, the wounded, the destruction, and the aftermath of war, they are all too real and they never completely leave us.

Christmas on the Syrian border

Over ten years after I returned from Iraq I still find that much of me is still there. In fact, deep down I miss Iraq and the Iraqis that I was honored to know and to serve alongside and I still pray for them and for their future. Maybe someday I will get back.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq, Military, PTSD, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

The Long Road: Nine Years of Padre Steve’s World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect on the 9th anniversary of Padre Steve’s World, especially for my new readers who might not know how this blog came about.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.

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I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it.

But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote a friend: “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love about writing history.  I completed my second Master’s degree in military history a year after I started this blog.

My historical writings have been both educational because of the vast amount of research required, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My immersion in history was further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College for three and a half years. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 3,225 posts, and three draft books later I got to this point. Hopefully my first book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Civil War Era get published sometime in the next year.

While I still suffer symptoms of PTSD I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillons Izzy and Pierre who are both therapy dogs in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I still suffer from a lot of crazy dreams, nightmares, and occasional night terrors which are so physically violent that I trash around or even throw myself out of bed. Thankfully I haven’t physically hurt myself lately, or had to go to the emergency room as a result as I have on two occasions. I also remain somewhat hyper-vigilant, get anxious in crowded or confined spaces, and there are just some places that I avoid if at all possible. But that is life with PTSD.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

There Are Still Nightmares: Reliving the Inner Terror of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It was a good but exhausting weekend and yesterday at work was very busy and challenging. So this I am posting just a note today.

Saturday night, or rather early Sunday morning I had another of my high definition Iraq nightmares. Very realistic and terrifying. Once again I found myself being attacked while in a HUMMV and being thrown out of the vehicle with enemy gunmen closing in. During the nightmare I threw myself out of bed and looked up to see a gunman dressed in black with an AK pointed at me, so I tried to tackle him and when I awoke in a very groggy state I found that I was wrestling my television to the ground. All of this in my sleep. It took about thirty minutes to calm down. Minnie, Izzy and Pierre all came in to check on me and the left. Izzy gave me a short snuggle and I finally got back to sleep in enough time to get back up, go to breakfast and finish my sermon preparation. 

I find it amazing that ten years after I departed for Iraq that I still relive my greatest fears from when I was over there, traveling with small groups of American advisors and Iraqi troops throughout the badlands of Al Anbar. I was always afraid that our tiny convoys, usually just two or three HUMMVs and maybe an Iraqi vehicle or two would get ambushed by an IED and attacked. Being so small and mostly away from big concentrations of American troops with significant firepower we were very vulnerable. We got shot at from a distance a few times, mostly in Ramadi, and couldn’t return fire because we couldn’t see who was shooting at us. 

While we were there I seldom slept, even when we were back at our home base at Ta Qaddum to plan our next mission. That base was relatively secure but it had taken rocket and mortar fire before we got there. Thankfully that had ended but it was always in the back of our minds when we heard gunfire coming from the nearby town of Habbinyah. I remember doing a run around the airfield one day when I heard gunfire coming from the town with me in plain view of it. I ran faster than I think I ever have before to get out of the line of sight. T. E. Lawrence wrote of his time with the Arabs in the First World War “We lived always in the stretch or sag of nerves, either on the crest or in the trough of waves of feeling.” Those words well describe my time in Iraq. 

My nightmares include fragments of what happened as well as my fears that thankfully never materialized. Over the past three years I have ended up in the emergency room twice, once with a broken nose from these episodes. I suppose if I had been sleeping in my own bed, which I am not because my snoring has gotten so loud that Judy, who is profoundly deaf could not sleep even wearing ear plugs that took another 30 decibels off her hearing, that I would have gone to the ER again. In the guest room I didn’t run into my nightstand with my face. Even so it is not fun. 

In the past I have quoted James Spader’s character Raymond Reddington from the television series The Blacklist. Reddington told an FBI agent who had seen his fiancée murdered: “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing that you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” 

That being said I am not depressed or in a funk and life is relative good. I am rather fortunate, despite the often terrifying reality of living with my PTSD and these bloody nightmares, things could be a lot worse. I do have nightmares but at least at the moment they are not dominating my waking hours.

Tonight I plan on watch the Major League Baseball All Star Game. I’ll write about that for tomorrow before moving on to other things. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under iraq, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Padre Steve’s World at Eight Years: I’m Still Standing

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect. I was reminded by my WordPress, the company that hosts my site that I began this blog eight years ago today.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.

iraq-2007

bedouin

I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it. But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains. Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote a friend: “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love, writing history, which I completed my second Master’s degree in a year after I started this blog.

The latter which has been both educational, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My historical writings been further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 2,862 posts, and three draft books, I got to this point. I still do suffer symptoms of PTSD but I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillon Izzy, who is a therapy dog in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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There Will be Nightmares: PTSD & Memories of War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I’m really very tired today so another short post. I haven’t slept well in several weeks, part of this of course was the worry I had regarding my wife Judy and her cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery. As she has gotten better I have been dealing with stuff from my own closet of anxieties. Those who have been reading my articles here know that I deal with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and moral injury from my time in Iraq, and my return home.

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Last year I went through a very difficult time dealing with the military mental health system that I never want to repeat again. I hope I don’t have to, but I may. My therapist who I have had since last summer took a new job thousands of miles away and now I am going to have to find another therapist. I am hoping the man I see for my medication management can get me referred to someone good, because I do not want to be thrust back into the system and take the luck of the draw. That scares me to death, and since I found out my therapist was leaving and that I will not see her again I have been trying to keep my anxiety under control and not to panic. Awake I do pretty well with this, but when I try to sleep, all my Iraq stuff, plus all the very real and bad experiences that I had with the military mental health system last year flood my psyche. The night terrors are back, the terrible dreams and fears. It is not fun waking up in the middle of the night in a state of terror. Last year, after dealing with a number of providers and administrators I was nearly suicidal. It took the intervention of a former commanding officer who had been recently selected for promotion to Admiral in the Medical Corps to get me listened to and to get me the help that I sought.

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But I know that I am not alone, I will get the professional help that I still need and I do have some friends I can talk to about these issues. Likewise I know many combat who veterans deal with similar issues related to their service, as well what happened to them when they returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan. The return from war is often worse than actually being over there, few people really understand, unless they too have been there.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

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I am a realist about this. I know that there is no magic wand which will make it all go away and I don’t expect any therapist, or even God to cure me. I can understand why Alexander Dumas in the Count of Monte Cristo wrote, “Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is true and I know to some people that may sound like I have given up, especially because it runs counter to the snake oil salesmen who write self-help books which promise to heal you in whatever number of steps or exercises; especially the ones written by preachers. But that is not the case, despite everything I still have a love of life and lust for learning. Except that now I just have moved to a new level of understanding concerning my own dark places, and that pain that manifests at night as I try to sleep. Since nothing will take it away I need to live with it and realize that it won’t always be the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. That my friends is the essence of hope. 

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One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

I think that is why I can continue and at the same time seek to be available to those who suffer similar afflictions, and thankfully, I do still have those opportunities and as the late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Anyway, have a nice night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Living with Dark Places and Pain

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“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And everyday when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” Raymond “Red Reddington (James Spader) The Blacklist

I am haunted by many things, unlike many people who have little self-awareness I might have just a bit too much. I have talked about the nightmares, night terrors and insomnia that I have many times following my return from Iraq. I used to believe, at least back in the first year or so after I returned that I thought that eventually I would get over it. I don’t believe that anymore, now I just believe that I will find a way to live with them.

I guess that is the secret to life. Instead of wishing that something would miraculously take way the pain, I guess that it is better to find a way to live with it because one day something  else will replace it.

Is that an ideal way to deal with life? Probably not, but I know that I am an idealist anymore. I used to be, but that was a while back. It took time, but war and the lies of men that I voted for, men who I trusted because they professed my faith, my love of country, and some who even shared my vocation as a priest and chaplain took that from me.

Experts call this “moral injury.” For me it is connected with my tour in Iraq, PTSD and what I experience when I came home from colleagues, and people in my former church. Betrayal and abandonment is a terrible thing, but I am learning to live with it. It is not pretty but I am learning with every passing night and morning. Alexander Dumas wrote in The Count of Monte Cristo:

“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

My life is full again, there is meaning and purpose, but it is tempered by realism and the expectation that every day I will wake up and still think about those painful memories until finally something else takes their place. 

I guess that the secret to living with darkness and pain is simply to live with it because the saying that “time heals all wounds” is a lie, it is the fabrication of people that don’t want to deal with the real world. God might heal, but then God may not. So I will live with it and in doing so I will continue on and in the process hopefully be there for others that also struggle with pain that does not want to go away and nightmares that never seem to end. As Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Padre Steve’s War and Return

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“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” ― T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

It is hard to believe that six years ago I was almost ready to deploy to Iraq with my bodyguard and assistant Religious Program Specialist First Class Nelson Lebron. I had been in the military 26 years, 17 1/2 in the Army and at that time almost eight in the Navy. Our mission was to support the American advisors to the Iraq 1st and 7th Divisions, the 2nd Border Brigade, Port of Entry Police, Highway Patrol and Police forces in Al Anbar Province.

I was to be a life changing experience for both of us, no strangers to deployment or danger. In 2008 we returned to the United States changed by our experiences. It was also to test my marriage and even my career in the Navy. Both of which I thought might be lost within a year or two of my return.

To quote Charles Dickens “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I came back diagnosed with a case of severe and chronic PTSD as well as chronic Tinnitus and and severely impaired ability to understand speech. Nightmares, and night terrors chronic insomnia, flashbacks, hyper vigilance, panic attacks and claustrophobia have all been part of my life since then.

The experience left me severely depressed, at times feeling the pain of despair and hopelessness, a loss of faith and it’s restoration.

Despite all of that I consider my time in Iraq to be the high point of my military career. It was a place that I was able to use every gift, talent and skill at my disposal to do a job that took me to places and allowed me to work with people that I could not have imagined. My tour in Iraq, though painful and life changing was also the best of times, it opened my eyes to things that I never thought possible, relationships unimagined and ministry unbound by the constraints of the terrible model of contemporary American Christianity.

Over the next six or seven months I am going to clean up and republish articles about our deployment and then add additional articles that back when I started to write back in 2009 was unable to do because the memories even then were still to fresh and painful to relive.

It is hard to believe just how vivid the memories still are. I found my notebook from my time there and hope that it as well as my memories don’t fail me. Of course I will take time to write about the post-Iraq experience as well.

Hopefully when they are complete I can get them published as a book. The goal, I hope is that others who have been through what I have been through, and those who have been through much worse will be able to know that what happened to them can happen to anyone that goes to war, including Chaplains and other care givers who are by nature of or calling and training supposed to be immune from such experiences.

I will place these articles under a new page tab at the top of the website called To Iraq and Back.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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