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“They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary” Coming Home From Iraq 12 Years Later

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am a bit tired and going to post something that basically is a rerun with a few edits. Twelve years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t home, the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD”. While I am doing much better now than even two years ago, in large part due to a change in duties when I was informed that the Navy had miscalculated my retirement date, moving it four months further out. I love my new billet and I am enjoying the ministry of caring for people without pretense, regardless of their faith, or if they don’t believe at all.

Now I still deal and suffer from PTSD, but, the fact that I am a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of men who I never met, have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”  By the way I see my sleep doctor next week.

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from Iraq. I didn’t get a chance to re-read it today, but a while back I read a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary, which he wrote in the time shortly after the First World War. The title is a reference to the song It’s a Long, Long Way, to Tipperary which was written by Henry James “Harry Williams and co-credited to his partner Jack Judge as a music hall song in 1912. It became very popular before the war, but became a world wide hit when George Curnock, a correspondent for the Daily Mail saw the Irish Connaught Rangers  Regiment singing it as they marched through the Belgian port of Boulogne on August 13th 1914 on their way to face the German Army. Curnock made his report several days later, and soon many units in the British Army adopted it. It became a worldwide hit when Irish Tenor John McCormack recorded it in November 1914.

Interestingly enough the song, like the German song Lili Marlene is that it is a call back to home, not a call to battle.

I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano. In a number of later comic strips, Charles Schulz, had Snoopy refer to it a number of times, in one strip, exhausted by his march, a tired Snoopy lays down and notes: “They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary.” I do understand that.

But, back to Santayana’s soliloquy, he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the current American President make wild threats of war, and the cavalier attitude of his predominantly Evangelical Christian sycophants toward it, I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war. As a historian I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past dozen years, when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself. Likewise, I still deal with terribly physical nightmares and night terrors, more than one a month.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. In a sense I have been reprieved, although I observe things every day that take me back to Iraq. The news from that unfortunate country, the indifference of a government and President that talk much about the military, but in their actions often demean military personnel and have no problems with gutting the medical and mental health systems of the military and the Veterans Administration, but that is an article for another time. In fact I spent this evening writing this and watching anything but the State of the Union Address, I cannot bear the lies. When I see and hear them I remember the words of T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia:

“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.” 

But as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go,” as do I, for it really is a long, long, way to Tipperary.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Gettysburg, History, Military, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq, world war one

They are Not Just Names: September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In Star Trek Deep Space Nine there is a scene where the deputy commander of the Space Station, Major Kira Nerys gives a casualty report to Captain Benjamin Sisko. It resonates with me every time that I see it and especially on the anniversary of September 11th.

KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Today marks the seventeenth year since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and we do have to remember those who lost their lives that day, all those Americans and our coalition partners who died, and all the innocents lost, even to those of American military action. None of them are just names, they are real men and women, as well as children cut down by terrorism and unending war.

When we were attacked on September 11th 2001 I had already passed twenty years of service, though about half of them were service in the reserves and National Guard. Now I am over 37 years of service and by this time next year I should be on the retired list unless something very unexpected happens.

My base will be marking it with the dedication of a nature trail that now has plaques commemorating over 80 eighty men and women from our base who have died in action, on deployment, or training to go to combat since that occasion. While this ceremony is taking place I will be driving out to a Veteran’s Cemetery an hour or so away to perform the internment of a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer whose family requested me by name.

Thus I will be turning over the big high profile ceremony to my deputy chaplain. It will give him a chance to be on the big stage and get recognized for his own talents and abilities while I do something less visible but very meaningful to that Navy Chief’s family and to me as the son of a Navy Chief. In addition to conducting the service I will have the honor of presenting the colors of the nation to his daughter.

For me it is a chance to pay back the goodness shown to my dad and family when he passed away in 2010. The base ceremony and the internment were pretty close together time wise. My Commanding Officer and I talked about it decided and decided that since I am now in pretty much constant pain with knee and hip injuries since I fell down my stairs last month that I shouldn’t be doing back to back ceremonies with a long drive in between.

But anyway. Since September 11th 2001 I have lost count of the number of friends and comrades who died during the attack and the subsequent wars. This includes those that died by their own hand during or after their service due to the effects of combat trauma, PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Injury,  or the never ending pain of physical wounds and injuries. I often see their faces when I think about the past 17 years, their names are forever etched in my memory, but they are not just names and we cannot forget them. I cannot and I will not.

It seems like every week or so we lose another soldier, sailor, marine, or airman in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa. I loom at their names, where they are from, and the number of deployments that they have made. Some entered service well after me but because of their specialities and assignments made far more deployments that I can imagine. One soldier who was killed in action serving in Iraq had made 13 deployments, 9 of which were combat deployments in a 16 year career, and for the most part they are forgotten by all but their family, friends, and comrades, most barely get a mention elsewhere.

Sadly at this point in my career I believe that for many Americans, especially the faux patriots of the Fox News set, the political preachers of the Christian Right, and the President himself, that the troops are merely a prop to place in the background to promote their political causes and slam other Americans for not being patriotic enough.

Today I will continue to serve and I will mourn in my own way the friends, comrades, and shipmates that I have lost over these past 17 years. For me they are not just numbers or names, they are real people and no amount of flag waving will bring them back. No amount of corporate sponsored “patriotism” will make up for the lost lives, and the destruction of these wars. We can remember and honor the lost, and those who still suffer, including the wounded in body, mind, and spirit, and of the widows and children of the men and women who never came home or were never the same. I came home, but I am not the same.

They are not just names.

So as you go about your activities today take time to remember the victims of war, terrorism, and as I do the men and women who I knew who never came home, couldn’t make the transition back from war, or who still suffer in mind, body or spirit.

Never forget, they are not just names.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

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Filed under History, middle east, Military, ministry, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, star trek, terrorism, Tour in Iraq

Finding Tipperary 10 Years After Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ten years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t and over the next decade the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD” and while I am doing much better now than even two years ago I still suffer from it. But being a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of those men have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from it. Today I was reading a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary which he wrote in the time shortly after the war. I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw a Charlie Brown special where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano.

In Santayana’s soliloquy he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the American President make wild threats of war and the cavalier attitude of his sycophants toward it I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war and I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past decade when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. I have been reprieved, at least temporarily,  but as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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

PTSD Dreams and Stranger Things

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I didn’t get much sleep last night. For some reason I was back in Iraq.

Last night’s dream world was about every fear I had when I was in Iraq on steroids. I woke up almost every hour in terror of IED attacks, ambushes and attacks on the small groups of advisers on Iraq bases with whom I served.

It is important to note that none of these events happened to me. I was shot at on a number of occasions but none of the terrifying instances that were part of my nightmares last night happened to me. In fact there were people in them who I know now who served in Iraq but not with me. That being said, they were terrifying and all too real in my mind. Though I never actually experienced any of them they were a part of my life and my fears that I lived with on a daily basis as I operated in Al Anbar Province during 2007 and 2008 with small groups of advisers to the Iraqi Army and Security Forces.

Nightmares and dreams are surreal. They are real, but they are not. They blend elements of our lives and our subconscious into visions that can be pleasant or terrifying. Last night was for the most part terrifying but at one point pointed to hope. That being said, I didn’t get much sleep. When I got up for a very busy yet productive day at the final day of my denominational clergy-chaplain training symposium I looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and I looked terrible.

I remembered a quote by Guy Sager, the author of the classic book of war 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.

Since I have to wake up very early for my flight back home tomorrow I do hope that my sleep is sound and my dreams for once pleasant. However, I know that such thoughts are an illusion and that like me countless thousands of other combat veterans live what I live. So my hope an prayer is that we will all be able to get at least one good night of sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Living the Nightmares: PTSD and Iraq Six Years Later

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

Last week I woke up screaming thanks to some nightmare brought to me in high definition by PTSD. It woke Judy and both of the dogs up and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Unfortunately this happens more often than I would like it to. When I was stationed away from home in North Carolina it was only Molly my faithfully dog who was disturbed by this, now I wake up Judy and our younger Papillon Minnie, or Minnie Scule as is her full name.

This afternoon I read a story of a Marine veteran who lost his battle with PTSD, taking his own life. I see a lot of these stories and each one makes me wonder what s going on and gives me pause when I think just how bad I was doing not too long ago.

It is hard for me to believe that nearly six years after I returned from Iraq that I still have a lot of trouble sleeping, though less trouble than a couple of years ago and that my nightmares associated with war still return with more regularity than I would like. Likewise it is hard for me to believe how much my life is impacted by this. I still experience a fair amount of hyper-vigilance, crowds of people are difficult and the craziness of traffic on the local freeways causes me a fair amount of distress.

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Despite that I am doing a lot better than I was even a year or so ago when I was still struggling a lot more than I am now and let’s say 4 years ago when there were times I wondered why I was still alive. Of course the time from 2008-2010 was probably the worst time of my life when it seemed that everything that I had believed in had melted away. I didn’t know if God existed, I felt abandoned by my former Church and even by many peers. The only thing that kept me going was a deep sense of call and vocation as a Priest and Chaplain, even though I was for all practical purposes an agnostic who was praying that maybe God still might exist.

Those who have been with me on this blog over the years know how central that struggle has been. I have written about it many times.

Though I am doing much better than I was I still have my times of doubt, times of fear and times of absolute panic. I do what I can to manage but once in a while something will trigger a response. The biggest problem still is sleep and vivid dreams and nightmares. Once I finish the course I am in I am going to get back into therapy a couple of times a month. Thankfully my new job after I complete the school will be more academic with a small chapel where I serve the Students of the Joint Forces Staff College.

Physically I am doing much better, in terms of overall health and physical fitness. I am playing softball again and my PT regimen is much better. Spiritually I can say that being active in having a Chapel where I celebrate Eucharist in a small setting has been good for me. Having to preach again from the lectionary readings is a good thing. Likewise getting a break from five years of hospital ministry, dealing with death, suffering and psychological issues is good. After Iraq I threw myself into the most difficult areas of hospital ministry, the critical care Intensive Care Units hoping that such work would help bring me out of my own issues. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult.

Being at home again is good. I just wish that my nightmares would not cause distress to the rest of my little family. However, it is nice when after they look at me like I am nuts one or both dogs come to me and help calm me down.

I quoted Guy Sajer, the author of the classic book The Forgotten Soldier. If anyone wants to understand something about what war does to a person and see PTSD in non-clinical terms I think it is possibly the best book to read.

Forgotten_Soldier

Since I have gone to war and experienced fear on a daily basis out in the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province with small groups of American Marines and Soldiers and Iraqi troops I understand a bit of what Sajer writes. My war was different, out with advisors on small Iraqi basis, traveling in dangerous areas far from any big American units, occasionally being shot at and seeing the devastation of war in that unfortunate country,  though my experience of war pales in comparison with what Sager describes.

That being said I do understand in ways that I never did before. Sajer makes a comment which I think is incredibly appropriate for those that read of war without having ever experienced it. too often is the case in the United States and Western Europe where very few ever put on a uniform and even fewer experience war. Sager wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. 

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

This weekend I will visit the Gettysburg Battlefield as part of a staff ride. I have been there a good number of times but not since I returned from Iraq. Thus in a sense it will take on new meaning, especially when I walk those hallowed fields of battle where so many died and so many more were maimed in our own terrible Civil War.

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That being said I wonder if the solution to my nightmares is to go back to Iraq someday like so many WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans have done to the places that they served. That has to remain in the future, but hopefully I will get the chance and maybe by then Iraq will at last be at peace.

Tonight I will attempt to sleep and hopefully what dreams I have, though they be high definition will at least not be nightmares that disturb Judy or the dogs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Never Forget, They are Not Just Names… Reflections on War, Loss and Change: Iraq, Afghanistan and Deep Space Nine

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KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

I have had trouble sleeping the past couple of weeks and I think that late last night or early this morning I figured it out.

I am remembering.

It was about this time of year six years ago I was getting ready to celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary with Judy knowing that about a week and a half later I would be leaving for Iraq for duty in Al Anbar Province with our advisors and wondering, if at the height of the war I would come back.

Of course I did come back and the following year in 2008 we celebrated our 25th anniversary as I melted down, collapsing due to PTSD. I was home but I wasn’t.

Every time I see or read a casualty report I still feel a chill, knowing how easily my life could have ended. I saw a report yesterday that four American troops were killed by indirect fire at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. Reading it I remembered the rocket the flew over my head the night I was flying out of Camp Victory for Anbar and how nonchalant I was when a young soldier ran up to me in his PT gear nearly in a panic asking me “what was that?” and my response, “oh it was just a rocket.” We were not far from the eastern perimeter of the base in an area of tents set out as transient quarters gunship helicopters flew over the camp and the city beyond the walls, machine guns rattled in the distance as explosions echoed in the distance as American soldiers and Iraqi security forces battled insurgents not very far from where we sat.

This past week a number of things have been triggering me. The Marines have been conducting exercises at Camp LeJeune and I have heard artillery in the distance and aircraft have been taking off and landing at the auxiliary airfield across the sound a couple miles away.

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Even though it is still two weeks until July 4th the tourists and summer rental types are already shooting off fireworks in the neighborhood near the beach. Last night I barely slept and tonight the tourist insurgents have been going mad with the fireworks. I was out walking Molly when some rather large commercial type fireworks went off a couple hundred yards away on the next street over. I nearly went to ground until I realized that they were only fireworks. I thought about July 4th 2011 when Judy brought Molly down and we went down to the beach to watch the fireworks. That night I was terrified and only the unflappable calm of Molly sitting beside me barking at the fireworks to protect me kept me together. Tonight Molly was as unflappable as ever, not bothered by the explosions. That made me laugh despite the near panic that I found myself. It is amazing what a little dog, now blind but still very relevant can do for someone like me dealing with the PTSD Mad Cow. I hate July 4th now, not what it means but all the explosions.

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Molly supervising my writing in 2008 or 2009

Tonight I was watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on DVD and the end of the season seven episode The Siege of AR-558 got me a bit. At the end of the episode Captain Sisko and Colonel Kira are discussing the latest casualty lists, which Sisko posts each week for his crew. I quoted it at the beginning of the article and it really spoke to me.

Some 6700 American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen have died in Iraq or Afghanistan close to 50,000 more wounded and probably a couple hundred thousand afflicted with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. Hundreds, if not thousands more, active duty, reserve and former service members have taken their own lives after returning. Of course those numbers don’t count the troops from NATO or the Iraq Coalition Forces, the Iraqi and Afghan troops that have fought and died alongside us or the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been killed, wounded or driven from their homes.

But they are more than numbers. Every one has a name, the dead and those who have come back in some way forever changed by war. It is important that we never forget that. They cannot be just numbers, otherwise we dehumanize them and avoid the real cost of war, especially the human costs. I think that Smedley Butler said it the best:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

As I write the situation in Afghanistan is still dangerous and this week I saw another friend, a surgeon from my hospital depart for duty there. Likewise there is much debate about the US and NATO role in the Syrian Civil War, something that seems to me will eventually involve US forces in yet another war.

I guess that is why I can’t sleep and why some of my dreams have been so disturbing lately. I know that I will get through this as I have been through much worse over the past six years.

Another episode of Deep Space Nine entitled Paper Moon that I watched tonight dealt with the young Ferengi officer Nog who was wounded at AR-558, losing a leg and his struggles after returning to the station dealing with the trauma of war, loss and change.

10

Nog tells his holographic friend the lounge singer Vic Fontaine played by James Darren When the war began…I was eager. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to prove I had what it took to be a soldier. And I saw a lot of combat. I saw a lot of people get hurt. I saw a lot of people die, but I didn’t think anything was going to happen to me.” I didn’t think that anything would happen to me either, I thought that I was immune from trauma and PTSD, I was an expert in dealing with trauma but I came back changed.

At the end of the episode as he comes to terms with his loss and the change he is asked by his father’s new wife “Are you okay?” and he replies “No. But I will be.”

I will be too. Tonight I hope to sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Pause to Reflect on Iraq, Afghanistan and Unpopular Wars on a Sunday Night

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

Five years ago I was in the process of deploying to Iraq.  It is hard to believe that it has been that long.

For me the past few weeks have been filled with sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares, mostly related to my time in Iraq.  I have been far more hyper-vigilant and anxious than I have been for a while.  Crowds and crowded places cause me great anxiety. I guess it is sort of like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.  The experiences and places are forever in my mind. I can close my eyes and the images are fresh.

I jokingly refer to my continuing struggle with PTSD as the “Mad Cow,” somehow that takes some of the edge off for me.  But even my attempt at humor belies the fact that it does get old.

At the same time because of my service in Iraq I am part of a very special brotherhood, that brotherhood that Shakespeare’s Henry V voiced so well.

I have the wonderful opportunity to serve alongside men and women who have given much for this country, men and women who also bear the wounds of war, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral. I have the honor of serving with men and women who continue to deploy in harm’s way to Afghanistan and being stationed at one of the installations that have borne then heavy burden of this war I am reminded daily of the cost of it. I look at the casualty reports daily and last week yet another Marine Military policeman from Camp LeJeune was killed in Afghanistan. Two sailors from a Squadron based in Norfolk were killed in the crash of an MH-53 Helicopter in Oman, an aircraft sent to beef up capabilities against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This weekend at least 8 NATO troops or contractors were killed in Afghanistan, three being American contractors  killed by an Afghan policeman while training Afghan police in Herat. The war is never far away.

I am also grateful to people in the community who care to say a kind word when I am in public in uniform. Many people in the area have served in uniform, many during Vietnam as well as an ever dwindling number of World War II and Korea War vets.  I have had to make trips up to a local jail in a town up the road from us to see two of my sailors accused in a terrible crime.  I make those visits in uniform and on the way back one day I stopped to get a Coke at a store. As I walked in a man thanked me for my service.  While I was paying another man began to talk to me. He also thanked me and then went to describe his service in Vietnam.

Such encounters are humbling for me and a reminder of the very special brotherhood that I am just a part. That brotherhood for me is especially close for the that liked me served in Iraq but also Afghanistan, Vietnam and by extension the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria. We are veterans of unpopular wars that are fought by a minute segment of the population.

I saw a video of an advisor to Mitt Romney note that “real Americans don’t care about Afghanistan.” I did not take his remark personally but it did hit home. The man is a seasoned political advisor, his business is to look at numbers and polls. It was a remark that showed me what I already know, that for many Americans the war is not real.  Unfortunately as real as the war is to me and to many people that I know we are in the minority. The most recent opinion polls show that Afghanistan ranks 10th of 10 major issues that Americans are concerned about.  At the same time polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the nation.

Tonight I will try to sleep and in the morning, Inshallah, I will wake up and go back to serve the men and women who serve this country caring for the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, veterans and their families at Camp LeJeune.

The war is not over and despite what opinion polls and politicians say it is important to some of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Night Terrors: Padre Steve’s Closet of Anxieties

There are times that I know that I still have issues.  One of those times is when I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.  It is a reminder that there are dark recesses in my mind that I do not and may not ever understand. While I may find some of the meaning of these dreams and images through symbols and remembrance of things that have happened in my life they are on the whole rather outside of the world that I try to live in.

Most of the time I do not sleep well.  Ever since Iraq my sleep has been mostly troubled and seldom good.  However with that being said it is only on rare occasions when images become so disturbingly lifelike that it seems that I am actually in the middle of a real fight and wake up screaming as I attack imaginary intruders.  When I am at home this is no comfort to Judy and Molly who are awakened by me attacking the lamp on my side of the bed or some object.  When I am away and wake alone up in a cold sweat with my heart pounding I long to be able to feel Judy alongside of me or have our dog Molly come to me and try to make things better.

This was one of those weeks. My sleep has not been good and on Monday I had one of those less frequent but most terrifying of dreams where I was fighting to defend my family against a hostile and malevolent intruder.  It is always a similar dream and has haunted me since we were held up at gunpoint outside of Arroyo’s Cafe when it was still on South Center Street in Stockton California back in 1979.  It began to surface much more frequently in Iraq and since I returned home in 2008.  I love how one traumatic experience can be amplified by new traumatic experiences and how the anxiety related to my experience in Iraq is increased by things that I see happening in this country and around the world.  PTSD is such a joy to live with as almost every hour I wake up scanning for the enemy.

I understand from reading that I am not alone in this struggle and veterans that I spend time with often have terrible sleep disturbances related to wartime experience or other trauma.  Nearly four years after returning from Iraq I still experience flashbacks during waking hours and sometimes relive my experiences when others tell me of theirs. That is easier to process than what occurs at night.

Thankfully the prayers from the office of Compline do help when the terrors come as does the Prayer of Saint Michael and Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, but even still it is a battle to have restful sleep.

* Save us, Lord, while we are awake,

guard us while we are asleep;

that, awake, we may watch with Christ

and, asleep, may rest in His peace.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Tapestry of Life: How PTSD and Combat Stress is a Part of Who and What We Are

I have been dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress over 3 ½ years.  In that time I have had my struggles going ranging from falling into the abyss to a measure of recovery and occasional relapses.  It has been a difficult time which has stretched me in ways that I never dreamed and given me perspective on what it is to live, to have faith and to experience life in ways that I could not have imagined before I deployed toIraq.

Within a few weeks of beginning therapy I was asked by my therapist what I wanted to do with my experience.  I really didn’t know, I was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown and crisis of faith.  When my therapist asked me “well Padre how are you with the Big Guy” I could only answer “I don’t know if God exists anymore or if he does if he cares about me.”  My therapist was the first person that asked me about my spiritual life after I returned.  No clergy of any kind asked that question.  I guess that they assumed quite wrongly that I hadn’t really changed.  There is a tendency among clergy to ignore the obvious when a colleague begins to fall apart.

In fact it is really a cultural problem.  Often the advice to someone dealing with trauma and the experience of grief which often compounds traumatic experience is to “forget about it” or “put it behind you and move forward.”  Some therapists and pastors seem to have burying the experience, reliving it time and time again until you are numb or simply try to expunge it from memory as their goal.

The problem with all of these “methods” is that they label the person who has been traumatized and the complex grief that they experience as a result of the trauma as ill, damaged or broken.  But it the opposite is true, people that have experienced trauma especially in a combat zone are simply having a normal reaction to experiences that are not normal.

We adapt to war and the experience becomes part of who we are.  It is a survival tool that humans have had ever since the first skirmishes between primitive tribes.  However primitives actually have an advantage over the modern human.  They went to war to defend their families and homes.  The warriors would be sent out with fanfare, religious ceremonies and ritual. When they returned they would be brought back into the tribe, new warriors who had distinguished themselves would be noted, sometimes marked in some physical manner.  Rituals marked the re-entry of the warriors and they would be reincorporated into the community. Some societies would incorporate rituals for individuals to do as they re-entered the community. Their stories would become part of the tribe’s oral tradition and passed down to successive generations.

Today’s modern American warrior doesn’t go to war with his neighbors.  These warriors go to war with men and women that come from many parts of the country, US territories or immigrants and when they leave service they often return to neighbors, friends and families that care about them but do not understand them or their experience. The reactions that they developed in combat and their response to perceived threats are considered dangerous or abnormal.  People tell them that they need to go back to what they were before the war experience but they can’t because they have been changed by their experiences.

We live in a culture of denial. All too often it seems that society simply wants the traumatized and grieving veteran just be quiet, see a shrink, go to a PTSD group and “get well.”  Many times churches and religious institutions treat the problem as some kind of spiritual shortcoming.  Many Christian veterans come home and find that they are shunned because they have doubts or because they don’t “get better” after people pray for them.  I was reading a faux news article which was more like an infomercial for a CD that promotes a method as “Be still and know….”  It was developed by a reserve Army Chaplain and Christian therapist. It is designed to make it all go away.  Do the method right and you get better, God heals you and you live happily ever after until something breaks the cycle of denial and you crash.  I do believe that God heals but I don’t believe that God makes everything magically go away like it never happened.  Such a belief is not supported in Scripture, the testimony of the early Church or for that matter most of the Christian tradition.

This week I was being filmed for a Department of Defense program called The Real Warriors Campaign   http://www.realwarriors.net/which is designed to de-stigmatize Combat Stress injuries including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.  They picked up the article that was written about me in the Jacksonville Daily News in April of this year and asked if I would be willing to participate.   http://www.enctoday.com/articles/cmdr-89433-jdn-stephen-military.html

It was a hard week for me. I went to a functioned hosted by our hospital Wardroom at the base Officer’s Club Saturday night and while I enjoyed myself I hit sensory overload. When I got hope I was pretty edgy and to add to the situation we had some Marine helicopters flying in the area I live that night. As I tried to calm down I realized that I was going to be interviewed Tuesday and the thought scared the shit out of me.  Yes I had agreed to do it and yes I thought I needed to do it but my heavily introverted and relatively anti-social personality type now seasoned with reactivated PTSD symptoms couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t sleep and had the firstIraqrelated dreams I have had in many months. I did not even open the front door of my place on Sunday.  I couldn’t sleep Sunday night and got permission of my boss to get some assistance.  Since I couldn’t get a no-notice appointment with my current psychiatrist I called my first therapist and he was helpful. I went to a ball game and that helped calm me down.  I was still anxious but functional.

The two days of filming went pretty well for me, although I know with the possible exception of “COPS” there is no such thing as reality television.  This was not “reality television” but the goal was to try to show how I live life, work and relate to people after deployment.  The crew was really good and handled things professionally but even so it was packaged and things had to be have lighting, have different camera angles and required me to repeat things sometimes because of the privacy issues of patients in the hospital.  But it is what it is.  By the end of the two days I was pretty wiped out and simply rested last night.

However on Monday night before the interview I had an epiphany.  That simple illumination came from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Tapestry I won’t ruin it for you but the final segment of the episode is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZeGzaJiP6g&feature=related

The epiphany was very simple.  All of our life, the good, the bad, the enjoyable and even the traumatic are part of a rich tapestry.  Those painful threads, the ones that we cause ourselves or the ones that are the result of trauma, grief and loss are part of who we are as human beings.  If we try to remove them we damage the tapestry and if we try or are persuaded by those that deny the reality of pain and suffering to remove the really painful and deep hurts, those which are the most tightly wound into the fabric of our lives, especially for the combat veteran we risk long lasting damage to our very soul.

The challenge is not to be “healed” or to compartmentalize the trauma and put it in some deep closet in our brain.  Nor is it to deny the trauma or for that matter keep trying to relive the trauma so that we are desensitized to the pain.  The real challenge is to allow our experiences of war, grief, loss and trauma to have their place in our lives knowing that without them we are not who we are.

I’m not saying that I have any real answer to what all of us that experience combat stress injuries deal with.  All I know is that I just want to be real and there are risks in opening up to people and reaching out to get help.  At the same time it is important to find a way to get help so we can adapt to our new reality.

As for me I went through some terrible times that still affect me.  Yes I went through a period of profound spiritual crisis and even a loss of faith and when I began to recover faith people that had been okay with me being broken ended up asking me to leave my church because the faith that I have now didn’t fit the narrow box that defined that church.

All that being said I am glad that my therapists or my supervisors allowed me and continue to allow me to work through the issues that still impact me and my ability to function in society, deal with others and even effect my marriage.  I wish every combat vet and survivor of trauma had that support.  I just hope that I can be worthy of the trust that they have place in me and that I will care for those entrusted to me with the same care and compassion that I was and am being shown.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” Andrew A Greeley 

Three years ago I had an emotional physical and spiritual breakdown as the life and faith that I had known for many years came apart at the seams as I was overcome with the full blown effects of PTSD a bit over four months after my return from Iraq.  I should have seen the collapse coming as a vainly struggled to maintain control of my emotions, thoughts and faith.  Nothing made sense as I drifted in and out of flashbacks, night terrors and sunk into depression isolated from my faith community which by and large did not understand and other clergy who didn’t seem to care enough to listen.

I tried; I maintained the discipline of praying the Daily Office and reading the Scriptures, I tried to attend church but it was too much. Church with all the people and crowded noisy space with lots of light and sound was too much. I was hyper-vigilant and didn’t feel safe in crowds except at the ballpark where somehow the sight of that magical diamond brought me peace.

June 16th 2008 was the day that the wheels came off. The nightmares, night terrors and flashbacks came together with fires in the Great Dismal Swamp which shrouded the Tidewater in a thick brown haze which looked and smelled like Iraq and a seminar on battlefield trauma.  At the end of the day when the seminar was over my unit Medical Officer looked at me and said “Chaplain are you okay?” I replied in a broken voice “no, I’m not.” I briefly explained what I was going through and he asked if I was safe to go home. When I assured him that I thought that I could make it to the next day he agreed to let me leave and saw me the next morning. After his evaluation he set me up to see a Psychologist at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Deployment Health Center.

Looking back he made the right choice. I was very apprehensive as I had never been to a shrink before though I had referred many service members and their families to shrinks when I knew that I was in over my head.  I was lucky because I got Dr. Elmer Maggard from Hazard County Kentucky. I soon developed a rapport with him because I knew that he was real. What convinced me was when he asked me “Well there Padre how are you doing with the Big Guy?” I hadn’t expected that question because no ministers, Priests or chaplains had ever broached the subject.  I was falling apart and when I brought things up to ministerial colleagues about what I was going through including my assessment of my spiritual life I was ignored.  It was like I was radioactive.  I simply told Elmer that “I didn’t even know if the Big Guy even cared about me or existed anymore.”  He didn’t flinch and he walked with me through the darkness until and after what I call my “Christmas Miracle” in December of 2009.

During that painful and lonely time where I was for all intents an agnostic struggling with faith and even the existence of God it seemed that contact with the Divine was sporadic at best and either came through baseball or the Fr. Andrew Greeley Bishop Blackie Ryan murder mysteries. I had started reading them in Iraq because I was somewhat familiar with Greeley’s writing although I had never read any of the Blackie Ryan series. The first book that I read was The Bishop Goes to the University and others rapidly followed as I rummaged through the giveaway paperbacks in the small MWR library at Al Taqaddum in between missions to the hinterland of Al Anbar Province.

It was the grace and love of God in those books that even in the worst of times gave me a fragment of hope as my life collapsed.  I found in Bishop Blackie a kindred though fictional spirit who embodied what I thought the Priesthood should be.  In those books I came to understand that the grace of God along with the practical expressions of compassion, mercy and love were much more compelling than pounding people into submission with my rather rich knowledge of theology, philosophy and Church history. I also found that they were necessary for me to be healed.

My recovery of faith came unexpectedly much like how it happens to the characters in the Bishop Blackie mysteries.  It came in the middle of giving the last rites to a patient in our Emergency Department at Portsmouth.  The man a physician was a veritable saint whose life and faith had touched his community for over 50 years.  As I prayed the commendation prayers at the close of the rite following the anointing he breathed his last and it was almost if the cloud of unbelief melted away and the realization that God indeed was a God of love and that Jesus was actually to quote the Gospel exactly what his opponents called him “a friend of sinners.” In that moment it was if I had been reborn.

Now since then my faith has been evolving, not that I have surrendered the faith proclaimed in the Gospel or the Creeds but in the way that faith works itself out in relationship to others.  I have to say that it hasn’t been easy and I still have times where I doubt but not like when I was falling apart. I think that the doubt is there to remind me not to become arrogant or exude a toxic triumphalism in my faith or proclamation.  I read something that Greeley wrote which perfectly expressed my understanding of Christian witness going back to the persecuted Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.  “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good-Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice” or as Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” It is amazing the diverse people, many hurt and wounded by war, abuse or even the Church and its ministers wander into my life at work and here on Padre Steve’s World. It doesn’t matter if they are conservative or liberal, Christian or not they tell me that “you’re different” and “I know that you will listen to me.” These people have become my parish. Greeley said it well “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.” 

I used this site to work through many of the things that I struggled with during the process and eventually that ran me afoul of my former Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church which through my Bishop asked me to leave in September 2010 because I was “too liberal.”  I knew that it had been coming for some time and had been making preparations and had been working with the local Episcopal diocese but the transition to that church could not be accomplished for at least a year and a half.

I was referred to my present Church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church an Old Catholic denomination by the Episcopal Church which once again seemed to be a miracle. Though small the Church embodies the faithfulness to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith with an inclusiveness and love of God for people that was exactly what I had become during my “dark night of the soul” and rebirth.  There are still things that I am working out both in the personal aspects of my faith and how it works itself out in life.

But I do have faith again; faith in Jesus the Christ and the Triune God reveled in Scripture, Tradition and Reason and in the lives of the faithful.  This belief is that God is love and is present and active in the world.  This love of God is seen in the Sacraments, the Eucharist and in the lives of those dear to us, our families, friends, neighbors and those that we seem to randomly encounter.  It is shown in the care of people who will sit with us in our pain and doubt, listen, care and lovingly put their arms around us or hold our hand.  It is shown in the faith that others show to us when others are willing to cast us aside, those that see the potential of God’s creation in each of us in a rediscovered love that God is there.

Yes my faith is still evolving but I think that is what Paul meant when he said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:10-12)

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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