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Thoughts on the Occasion of getting ready to Transfer

Two years ago I was preparing to leave EOD Group Two and getting ready to move over to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.  At that point in my life I was falling apart. The ravages of PTSD, depression and chronic pain from shoulder, knee and ankle injuries sustained in Iraq had taken their toll. Chronic anxiety, flashbacks, night terrors, vivid and disturbing dreams of Iraq, nearly uncontrollable emotions that ranged from intense sadness complete with that girl thing of crying to intense anger and rage, especially in traffic were a daily staple of life. Fear of large crowds, noise and light sensitivity panic in airports and fear of new places brought me more isolation and pain.  I went to the new assignment with trepidation but with a desire to make an impact.

When I got to Portsmouth I did my best to cover up the affects of PTSD and everything else that I mentioned in my life for the sake of work. I threw myself into the job; especially the patient and staff care aspect of it.  I worked painfully long hours usually due to my own need to know that I was still of some use despite all that was wrong with me and I ended up getting worse and not better.  I was in therapy and most of my colleagues and my boss tried to take care of me although I’m sure that they probably wondered if I was salvageable at times. I am thankful for their support as it was needed and vital to getting me through but I still sunk down deeper into the abyss.  Nothing was getting better and I even doubted if God was even around, or if he was around if he even gave a damn about me. I was experiencing what I am now not afraid to call, not just PTSD but let me call it what it is, mental illness.  In addition I was in a full-fledged crisis of faith. During the year I had experienced the loss of a number of friends and colleagues and each one deeply affected me plunging me deeper into depression. Christmas of 2008 was the worst that I had ever experienced from a spiritual point of view. I left the Christmas Eve Mass at my wife’s church before the Mass began into the night for an hour before I got home. I looked up at the sky and cried much of the time wondering if God was there and if he was wondered if he had abandoned me.  As I got worse I stopped doing the things that I needed to do to take care of myself, good nutrition and exercise was out the door and I gained 25 pounds in 6 months and ended up on the fat boy program.  By late August I was in worse shape than I had been the previous September and it was in mind, body and spirit.

For someone like me this was almost more than I could handle and my boss, recognizing that I was not doing well pulled me kicking and screaming out of the ICU and PICU and pushed me to take care of myself and get help.  I began to do this but if you have been as down as I was you understand that recovery doesn’t happen in a day, or even a week.  It is a continuous and often painful process mixed with times where you begin to see occasional fleeting glimpses of hope.  I struggled for the next three months until a couple of weeks before Christmas I was called to the ER and in a moment of grace in the midst of my own despair I was called upon to perform Last Rites for a retired physician that was Episcopalian. As I performed the Sacrament he breathed his last, his wife and son said it was like he was waiting to receive that before he died.  Something happened that night and things began to turn around, unfortunately the young Intern physician that called me to the scene and with whom I took remedial PT tests and nutrition classes died a little over a month later.

However, Christmas of 2009 was different, for the first time since I was in Iraq I felt joy, and slowly things began to turn around.  The first part was spiritual, the next physical and psychological.  Each month I got a bit better and it was if a thick blanket of California Central Valley Thule fog was dissipating with the sun beginning to peek through.  In February I was felled by a kidney stone for a month, my physical recover was slowed but didn’t stop. Spiritually things were getting better, on the psychological side of the house my PTSD symptoms were evening out, panic attacks were going away and for the first time since before Iraq I was beginning to sleep.

In June I had three events that converged to change my life.  I was selected for promotion for Commander on June 22nd, or at least that was when the message was released.  The next day my dad who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly 7 years passed away and two days after his memorial service I found that I was being transferred to be the Command Chaplain of the Naval Hospital at Camp LeJeune North Carolina.

As far as promotion I am grateful to my boss because I showed up damaged and was not fully functional he chose to grade me on my potential for service on my fitness reports and made sure that what went to the promotion board was something that would help my selection.  I would guess based on my knowledge of the system that not many senior chaplains or for that matter senior officers would do the same thing.  I would have been dealt with like I was a broken piece of equipment and allowed to serve out my career but never rising to anything more than that.  This leads me into the transfer which will allow me to get my feet wet as the Command Chaplain of a decent sized hospital on a very busy base which is fully engaged in the war.  It will be challenging and I will supervise three chaplains and three enlisted religious program specialists.  Much of what I have learned recently will help me in that job and I hope to do well in it to serve the patients and staff in that hospital.  I want to be a good boss to the men and women that work in the department and hopefully am able to do some things that will knit pastoral care even more tightly into the interdisciplinary team for better care of patients, their families and hospital staff.

I have mixed feeling about leaving. I will really miss the people that I have worked with the past two years. I will not miss the perpetual staff shortages and having to be the go to guy so often, maybe even get to take some leave that is actually the kind for refreshment versus taking care of family emergencies.

My friends at Portsmouth will be that and I will miss them and keep up with as many as I can through e-mail and Facebook.  Some have been, are being or will be stationed in LeJuene and it will be great to be with them in North Carolina.

Today was a frustrating day that kept me going all day and with the exception of my PT test which I crushed with 100 sit ups, 70 pushups and just under 12 minutes for the 1.5 mile run, which I did on a stationary bike so the calorie count was converted to the run time. Not too bad for a 50 year old. I would have done the run as my ankle and knees are fully healed but I couldn’t do it until noon when the temperature was too hot.  When I get to LeJeune I will do the run. My interval training and PT program coupled with my diet is paying great dividends.  I have lost 4.5 inches around my belly since late November 2009, lost 16 pounds and 10% body fat, going from 32% body fat to 22%. I am not done as I want to lose 3 more inches around the belly and 10-12 more pounds of weight.  I’d like my body fat to be under 20% and keep it there, getting lower of I can.

I’ll have some more reflections over the next couple of weeks. My friends in the ICU are planning something for me and I am really blessed to have such great friends and colleagues. I am told that the pastoral care staff will have a good-bye as well, but that is kind of expected, the real joy for me comes from the people that I have gone through difficult times within the ICU in the high stress environment of live and death situations, ethical consults and pastoral care administering prayers, counsel and sacraments to our patients, their families and our staff, my friends.  That means more than almost anything to me as they have walked with me through the darkness.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, healthcare, Military, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Padre Steve’s MLB Divisional Playoff Picks

steve on top of the rockLooking Forward to the Playoffs

Well sports fans it is October and with the exception of the 163d game in the AL Central between the Twinkies and the Pussy Cats we are ready for the playoffs to begin. Tomorrow’s one game playoff in the soon to be history Hubert H Humphrey Metrosexual Dome should be a pretty good game that hopefully will go longer than the 2005 NL Divisional series game between the Braves and Astros that lasted 18 inning.  If it goes that long the winner will be the Yankees.  Wait, that’s when they play whoever wins between the Twins and the Tigers.  My guess on this is that the Twins take them down hard in the inhospitable confines of the Metro Dome and go on to the playoffs where they will lose to the Yankees in 4.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the divisional series.  First the National League:

Cardinals vs. Dodgers: Cardinals in 4

The Evil LA Dodger’s (95-67) have the best record in the National League backed into the playoffs after starting like they owned the world.  Manny has been cold as a Boston night and the starting pitching has been suspect.  I like St Joe Torre but I don’t think that the Evil Dodgers have the Schlitz this year.  They will be playing the St Louis Cardinals (91-71) skippered by St Anthony La Russa who have some awesome hitting with Matt Halliday and Albert Pujols. The Cards are stacked with great pitching and I think that they will take the Dodgers in 4.  Now to be fair under St Thomas of Lasorda the Dodgers pulled off some pretty amazing playoff wins, however I don’t think this is the year for that. If it happens I owe my nephew Joe the Dodgers fan dinner next time I’m in San Diego.

Phillies v. Rockies: Phillies in 5

The Rockies (92-70) had an amazing season, going from worst to almost first in the National League West and taking the Wild Card berth. Everything has been working for them and Manager Jim Tracy is attempting to become St James of Denver.  They could potentially win this series but I am going to go with the Phillies (93-69) because I like their offense.  When the series moves to Coors Light Field I think that Ryan Howard’s wrecking crew’s bats light up the cool Rocky Mountain High nights when they get out there.  The Phillies pitching has not been as good in the past few weeks and closer Brad Lidge is seeking redemption after a miserable season which followed last year’s phenomenal performance.  As for the Rockies I think that Cinderella departs from the ball early.

The American League looks like a whole lot of the same with the exception of the Central.  What I would do to see the Orioles and the A’s back in the series like in the 1970s and 1980s.  The teams in the American League playoffs, at least the ones currently in and not the Central Division Champs regardless of who that is, are outstanding teams all with a decent shot of advancing to the ALCS.  First I’ll look out to Anaheim.

Angels vs. Red Sox: Angels in 5

Most experts are picking the Red Sox to once again knock the Angels out in the first round. The “Wild Card” Red Sox (95-67) have owned the Angels every year in recent memory that they have matched up in the ALDS.  However that being said this year’s team is not the Red Sox we have known the past few years.  They still have a lot of good players but they are showing signs of age and just don’t seem to have the same ability they did in past years despite their great record.  They were eaten up by the Yankees in their last two series with them and took a while to secure the Wild Card.   The Angels (97-65) played in a weaker division but still have done very well.  Unfortunately with the exception of 2002 they have regularly choked in the playoffs.  This year there seems to be something different about the Halo’s and I think it is related to the commitment of the team and dedication of the season to rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart who was killed by a drunk driver after pitching his first Major League start.  I think it will be a tight series but the Angles end the Red Sox dominance of this series.  I go Angels in 5.

Yankees vs. Central Division Champs: Yankees in 4 (Twins) or 3 (Tigers)

The Yankees (103-59) are my odds on pick to win it all.  This team is deep at every level and playing with an attitude after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995.  They will face either the Twins or the Tigers either of which will be 87-76 when they win Tuesday night.  The Twins are the hotter of the two teams and their playoff run has been outstanding but helped by the ineptitude of the Tigers.  However I do not think that either does well against the Yankees who seem to be healthy and hitting on all cylinders.  Yankee haters may not like it but the Yankees are a solid team and a middle relief corps that is home grown and not bought.  I think the Twins might steal one game but expect that the Tigers should they win Tuesday will go down faster than Apollo Creed in Rocky 4.

So we’ll see how I do as compared to guys who make a living at this.

Odds and Ends

A couple of notes on the personal side my job focus is shifting more to our Pastoral Care Residency program and out of the ICU.  I will be functioning in some manner like an attending pnhysician for our residents on all of their wards.  Likewise I will be working more on training for the entire department and more work with the ethics committee and the Special Psychiatric Response Intervention Team (SPRINT).  I will be moving my office back to the main pastoral care department offices this week.  I still have the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

I started the preparations for my comprehensive exams for my Military History Masters at American Military University.  It is an eight week course which is finished off with the actual exam.  I want to finish with the highest marks on the exam “Passed with Distinction” to cap my perfect record in my classes.

I had the undead tooth show its ugly face again.  Well not the tooth itself, it is dead but it still haunts me.  I was notified on Friday that I was on what we call a “Dink” list for Dental.  This is not good, the Naval Dental Corps is like the Gestapo in tracking down Sailors and Marines who miss appointments or regular screenings. When you get “dink’d” you are skylined, an open target with you name hanging out for the command to see.  You don’t want to be a “dink.” Those who have been reading this website since the summer know all about The Undead Tooth of Terror. See my post Killing off the Undead Tooth of Terror https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/killing-off-the-undead-tooth/

As a result of the Undead Tooth of Terror I spent much of the summer in the Dental Department or with the Oral Surgeons who I get to see again tomorrow.  I was told that I needed to take care of the problem with personnel.  After several perplexed looks by disbelieving personnel specialists I was directed to a back office and the young corpsman there looked me up and was able to tell me that I was “dink’d” but couldn’t say why.  So I went to Dental after another meeting where a young corpsman and I think that they are all young assisted me.  He told me that the computer said that I was delinquent on a root canal. Well, not only had I had the root canal, but when it failed I lost the tooth as well.  Informing the polite young man that said tooth was no longer in my head he looked for an explanation.  When I mentioned that I was being evaluated for an implant he told me that he would be right back.  He came back quickly with my record which had never been returned to records and was sitting on the Oral Surgeon’s desk.  He removed the “dink” from my records and the world is right again.

Tomorrow I have a couple of ideas as I have been working on an article about the first US Navy Aircraft Carriers, one on the Congregation of the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park and some reflections on the 2009 baseball season.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings

Sometimes You Wanna go Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The hit long running comedy Cheers set in Boston Bar is something that I have grown to appreciate more and more throughout the years.  It comes from the community of disparate people who find refuge in that bar each with their own lives and stories which all intersect at Cheers.  The lyrics to the theme song from the show sum up where I sometimes find myself in life, especially coming back from Iraq.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

The last verse to the song “Where Everybody knows Your Name” never aired on the show and continue….

Be glad there’s one place in the world
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to go where people know,
People are all the same;
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

The need for community is something that I didn’t think that I really needed for most of my life.  It took a huge amount of time isolated in the military as well as coming back from Iraq with a nice case of PTSD to realize that I could not exist without some kind of local connection.  This is something that when I returned from Iraq I knew that I did not have.  For a good amount of time this didn’t matter because I was always on the road or deployed.  It is easy to cover up the need for local relationships and community when you aren’t around.

For me this isolation really began when we moved to the Hampton Roads area back in 2003.  I was assigned to a command where I was on the road a lot.  However I sought to make build relationships with the local mission of my church in our area as well as other local clergy.  After a clash with the local idiot masquerading as a priest I was forbidden by the bishop to have any contact with any of his priests or parishes.  I guess since that bishop didn’t get my tithe that I didn’t matter. A couple of years later both the bishop and the idiot priest had left our church for happier hunting grounds.  So when I came back from Iraq in 2008 I was isolated.  I had transferred in October 2006 from a Marine Command where I felt absolutely comfortable to a different command where I was new and about everyone else was going about 95 different directions.   The command chaplain who I had come on board under in the larger command had transferred during my deployment, while the one officer that I had developed a relationship with at my new command was deployed a couple of months after me.  When I returned from Iraq even my office had been packed up and I had no-where to work from for over a month.  My belongings, including many military mementos and awards were crammed into a trailer and it took almost a year to find the majority of them.  A couple of items were not recovered.  So on the military side I was pretty isolated and feeling pretty down.   As I said I had no church ties from my denomination anywhere near me and had not, due to my own pathology and hectic travel and deployment schedule did not establish a relationship with another church until this year.   Other friends had transferred over the years and I had one other chaplain in the area that I can call a friend.  We have known each other since 1999 and our wives are best friends.  Apart from that I was about as isolated and alone as I could get.  It was then with my PTSD kicking my ass that I knew after all these years that I needed to be in community and in relationships with people locally.  It was no longer good enough to simply check in with guys that I had known for years but who lived far away.

It took a while to get from knowing that I needed something until I was able to get established in a number of places and begin to build my local ties.  The first two places were Harbor Park where I see the Norfolk Tides play and the local Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.  Harbor Park was something that I went to before Iraq as I love baseball.  I was no stranger there, I’ve been around long enough to get to know staff, vendors and ushers and have met the General Manager Dave Rosenfield on a good number of occasions as he walks the concourse among the Harbor Park faithful.  However something happened when I came back from Iraq.  In most places I could not handle crowds, even going to church at the fairly large Catholic Church where I occasionally attend with Judy who is a member there.  It is large and rather busy and since I only know a few people there I get a bit anxious, even though I love the Pastor, Deacons and the few people that I know.  However every time I would step onto the concourse at Harbor Park and the lush green field came into view I could feel stress and anxiety leaving my body.  Somehow almost magically I am at peace when at a ball game.  I felt the same thing even in crowded Major League Parks at San Diego and San Francisco when I made trips to the west coast.  When the season ended last year it was terribly difficult as the PTSD and Anxiety, nightmares and chronic pain were still raging.  When this season came around and with Harbor Park now on my way home from work I knew that I needed to get a season ticket.  I cleared with Judy and for the first time in my life I had a season ticket.  Since the season began in April the Park has become more of a place of refuge and place of fellowship with some great people.  Seeing Elliott the Usher, Ray and John the Vietnam Vets at the Beer Stand behind the plate, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Skip the Usher in the section above me, Mandy up in the Tides Store my next seat over neighbor Barry, Barry’s daughter Julie, Tina and her husband, the Judge and others has given me a sense of community that is like a comfortable pub.

The same has been true at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant has become another place where I feel at home.  I think this began with Kira, the choir child from Judy’s Church as well as guys like Mike, John and girls like Kai Ly who been incedible.  We began by being frequenters of the dining room but have over the past several months moved to the bar as it is a bit more laid back and we get to know more people.  Now the noise can occasionally be a bit much, but the kids who work there are really great to be around.  I was just recently inducted into the Stein Club.  Both Harbor Park and Biersch were important because even though the people that I met were those in the intersection they were places and people that began to get me back in touch with community.

Another really key part of building community for me is my work at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Somehow I am at home in the surreal environment of the ICU and PICU and the great folks who work on those floors. On call I am beginning to feel the same way about our NICU.    The relationships formed in these areas as well as with my fellow chaplains have become especially important.  My boss and some of our other chaplains have really helped me through some really rough times since I got here as I have dealt with the PTSD and other issues from Iraq. As I have made the adjustment to being back in the hospital setting I realized just how much I enjoyed the challenge of Critical Care chaplaincy, the care for patients, families and especially the staff and residents.  I am at home here.

The final piece fell into place a few months ago, that was beginning to worship at St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.  I had met the Rector (Pastor) of the Parish, Fr John at the hospital as he visited two of his parishioners who were patients in my ICU.  We not only met but we became friends and he invited me to St James.  Now Fr John is from Nigeria and the parish is predominantly African American, West Indies or Nigerian.  The church reminds me a lot of East Side Presbyterian Church in Stockton CA which I attended with Judy.  The liturgy while Episcopal is punctuated with familiar hymns and Old Negro Spirituals.  The Church itself was founded in the 1890s as a place for African American Episcopalians to worship, Jim Crow being quite strong in those days.  When I first went there I wondered about the wisdom of it but I knew that I needed a place to worship outside my little guestroom altar.  I didn’t know what to expect, but the folks at St James love worship, music and have enfolded me, a Priest from a different communion into their community and for the first time since I came in the Navy, and certainly since I came back from Iraq I feel a sense of connection with a local parish.  One thing that I believe is quite significant is that prior to the Civil War my familyowned slaves in what was then the western part of Virginia.  I even met a man from Liberia who has my last name. His family went from the United States, to Canada, back to the UK and then on to Liberia before his family came back to the United States.   His brother even serves in the US Navy.  I’m sure at one point Cecil Dundas’s ancestors once were owned by some part of my family in Virginia.  But we are both of the Dundas family and I think that is pretty cool.  Small world.

I don’t necessarily think that I am alone in the search for community.  I think for a lot of people they would want to find such a community in church, but from what I am seeing across the denominational spectrum and the move to large churches or mega-churches I am seeing more lonely people who attend church regularly but never feel a sense of family or community.  Some of the things I hear from these lonely and disconnected Christians remind me of the lyrics to Abba’s hit Super Trouper:

Facing twenty thousand of your friends
How can anyone be so lonely
Part of a success that never ends
Still I’m thinking about you only

Part of this I think is that many churches have places more value on “Church growth” and programs than they have on people.  There has been a shift, especially in larger churches to proliferate programs which take up a lot of time, but don’t foster relationships.  Often the senior pastor is unreachable and untouchable in large churches.  Someone may get contact with a staff pastor, but often this is even driven down to minimally trained small group or home group leaders.  The churches themselves are so large it takes a long time for a new person to get to know anyone.  Now large church can do a lot of good, but I do think what they lack is intimacy.  Some home groups have this but others are train wrecks full of pretty bad juju.  So I wonder if this is a part of the isolation and disconnection of people.  Just a thought….

It has take me about five years to get connected in this area.  The cool thing now is that there are a number of places where I can go where just about everybody knows my name.  Slowly but surely I’m getting better as I get more connected.  I now have the beginnings of a community which is rich and diverse, military and civilian and have the blessing of friendship with so many people that that make up the communities of which I have become part. The Deity has a wry sense of humor to take this introverted rugged individualist to put me into community with such a great bunch of people.  She had to about throw me under the bus to do it, but I am glad that she did.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under philosophy, PTSD, Religion