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Monday Musings: The War at Home

me contemplative

Last week was quite challenging at work with sequester and other things going on. Needless to say I was busy but it was at the same time quite rewarding, though not without pain of seeing a number of people that I know, respect, care for and even love go through their own various hell on earth. That I guess is part of ministry, being connected to people in good times and in bad and even when you have no answers, can provide no healing or effectively change their situation. All I could do in each case was to be there for them, with them and where possible provide assistance however limited.

The events of the week coupled with my own impending transfer to a new duty assignment have left me even more introspective than usual. I have been thinking about those times in my life where things were happening that I had little control of, or where maybe even my my choices or decisions brought about difficult times.

I began to think about the time just before I reported to my current billet. I was still struggling with PTSD and though faith had returned it was still quite fragile. I was selected for promotion on the 22nd of June, my dad died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease on the 23rd, we had his memorial in California on the 26th and the day before I returned to Virginia I was told that I was coming to Camp LeJeune and that I had no choice in the matter. Promotion sometimes brings unexpected change.

At the time I really didn’t want to come. I wanted to finish my last year at the old billet and move on to a ship or possibly something that would get me to Afghanistan, where I believed that I would be “back in the fight.” Instead I went from one hospital serving as a staff chaplain to another serving as the director of Pastoral Care. It was a move up, but not the one that I wanted.

However I was in the front lines, just in a different way. Camp LeJeune and the Marines and Sailors who serve aboard it has been part of the war since the beginning. We have many wounded warriors, men and women, wounded in mind, body and spirit. To see the young men and women with prosthetic limbs, walking in pain with canes or crutches, others with facial disfigurement, blindness, massive scars from burns is humbling. To see these young men and women wearing the Purple Heart Medal, or awards with a “V” device for valor in combat action is truly humbling. To see others suffering in mind and spirit, many struggling with PTSD, TBI, and dealing with various forms of depression, despair and sometimes succumbing to alcohol or drug abuse, including prescription pain medications for chronic pain and even attempting or completing suicide has shown me that the effects of war extend far beyond the battlefield and that this war will go on far longer than the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Major General Smedley Butler wrote in 1932:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.

If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.” 

Yes this will be with us a very long time.

In a sense I was again in the front lines, this time seeing a part of war that will need to be addressed for a very long time. It has made me much more sensitive to the victims of war and suspicious of people who have no “skin in the game” who constantly advocate war as first response. This will be with me and influence my life and ministry for the rest of my life even after I retire from the Navy in a few years.

I am down to a few weeks left in this assignment before I go to teach mid-grade and senior officers going on to important Joint billets, men and women who have been likewise in the fight for the past dozen years and many of whom will rise to senior leadership before their careers are over. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I hope to make the most of it.

Anyway, I have an earlier than normal day tomorrow I shall close for the night.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army back in 1983 I knew that I was quite possibly the smartest new Lieutenant in the Army.  I graduated from my Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course fairly high in my class without really trying too hard, had a pretty easy time at the Junior Officer Maintenance Course.   However, real life has a tendency to take the smartest of the book smart people and kick their ass.  Sometimes it takes a while but young guys in the military who think they know more than old dudes who have served on all kinds of places and been to combat tend to blow themselves up and hopefully there will be someone to save their sorry ass.

When I got to Germany I can say that there were a number of occasions where as a young officer I had my ass handed to me, even when I was right.  I’m not going to go into ugly details but it suffices to say that a good number of those times I got what I deserved because I was arrogant and not nearly as smart as I thought I was.  I was like a rookie pitcher thinking that my stuff was unhittable and finding out that guys who had played in the show for a long time had seen it all before.  It was in Germany that I found that while I had good stuff that I wasn’t savvy enough to know when to change my stuff up or when to take the hint not to keep pushing my luck.  I was kind of like the young pitcher Ebby Clavin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham in wanting to do what I wanted to do and it got me in trouble.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie has this dialogue.

Crash calls for a curve ball, Ebby shakes off the pitch twice]
Crash Davis: [stands up] Hey! HEY!
[walks to meet Ebby at the mound]
Crash Davis: Why are you shaking me off?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh:
[Gets in Crash’s face] I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!
Crash Davis: Announce your f***ing presence with authority? This guy is a first ball, fast ball hitter!
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well he hasn’t seen my heat!
Crash Davis:
[pauses] Allright meat, show him your heat.
[Walks back towards the box]
Crash Davis: [to the batter] Fast ball. [Ebby throws a fastball which is hit out of the park and Crash comes to the mound]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: You told him didn’t you?
Crash Davis: Yup.

That was me as a young officer.  You would think that I would have learned, but after I became an Army Chaplain I did the same damned thing.  Now admittedly it was not in the units that I served in, but my hotheadedness still got me in trouble especially when I decided to challenge older Chaplains who had been around a long longer than me and who were a lot more savvy than me.  I had no idea how cunning and brutal some chaplains could be despite having good warning from my XO and Brigade commander at the Academy of Health Sciences, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Wigger before I left active duty for seminary.  Colonel Wigger pulled me aside one day shortly before I left active duty and said “Steve, I know that you think that the Medical Service Corps can be political and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”   He was right and I would have been wise to listen to him.  There are some Chaplains that have no problem taking down or destroying a young chaplain sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for less than noble reasons. Anyone that has served as an Active Duty Chaplain probably knows about or has experienced such an encounter up close and personal.  I got whacked pretty hard a number of times as a young Army Chaplain, but was fortunate that people who knew me and saw potential in me gave me some top cover and protection.  Not everyone gets this.  Chaplain Rich Whaley did this for me at the Chaplain school on a number of occasions even the time that I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course. That was not one of my finer moments; I left the school like former Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox would when he got tossed from games.

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

[Mechanized bull noises in background after ball hits the Bull over the Right Field wall]
Crash Davis: Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?
[laughs]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [softly, infuriated] I held it like an egg.
Crash Davis: Yeah, and he scrambled the son of a bitch. Look at that, he hit the f***ing bull! Guy gets a free steak!
[laughs]
Crash Davis: You having fun yet?
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh
: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
Crash Davis: Good.
[pause]
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Crash Davis: He did know.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How?
Crash Davis: I told him.

Thankfully by the time I had spent 17 ½ years in the Army I had pretty much learned my lessons.  By the time I got to the Navy I had pretty much discovered when and under what circumstances that I could push things without crossing the line.  I had learned the hard way in the Army.  I finally learned that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.  In fact when I went to the Navy I came in at a lower rank that my Army rank and took no constructive credit to try to get promoted sooner.  A lot of people have asked me why I did this but I went in with no time in grade to make sure that I got the experience that I needed on the Navy and Marine side. By doing this I took the time to learn the nuances that make the work of a chaplain different in the Sea Services than in the Army.  While there are similarities that are common to all Chaplains even the similarities are often different depending on the service and even the type of unit you serve in or platform that you serve aboard.  These different similarities can kill you if you think that you’re smarter than everyone else.

Christmas at COP South

I’m now coming up to 26 years of commissioned service and soon to 28 total years of service.  I’m now a lot more like Crash Davis than Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.  Now I try to make sure the young chaplains and other Sailors, Marines or Soldiers don’t get themselves in unnecessary trouble by assuming that they know more than they do.  I know from bitter experience the price that any service member and especially Chaplains can pay for screwing up. I had some OERs in the Army that were less than stellar when seniors tried to torpedo me.  Thankfully like baseball statistics they don’t follow you when you get traded to or sign with a team in another league mid season. They are there for posterity but you get a clean start in the new service.  I am blessed because my Navy and Marine Corps stats are far better than my Army stats.

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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

Veterans Day 2010: Counting the Cost of War

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” General Robert E. Lee

Veterans Day had become a rather somber occasion for me over the past decade and since returning from Iraq in 2008 has taken on added personal significance.  I have noticed that I have become much more reflective about the sacrifices made by our military and the terrible coasts of war on our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and their families in this age of the all volunteer military.  The military which has about 2,225,000 members including the Reserves and National Guard is just 0.7% of the total population, the lowest percentage of military personnel compared to total population during any war in our history.  As a result this force has borne the brunt of a war that no politicians or bureaucrats figured would last half as long as it has.  As a result the “few” have been asked to do more for longer than and military that this nation has ever fielded during a war.

Thus for me Veterans Day has become a rather somber and reflective occasion as I ponder all the sacrifices made by our military and their families. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military has lost 1378 killed and our allies another 825.  In Iraq 4427 U.S. Military personnel have died along with 318 allied soldiers, not including the Iraqi military losses.  For each of the killed there are about 8 more wounded a total of over 38,000 wounded.  Of course the wounded numbers do not include 170,000+ cases of hearing damage; 130,000+ cases of mild traumatic brain injuries; and 200,000+ cases of serious mental health problems, over 30,000 serious disease cases, including a disfiguring, parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which results from bites of sand flies; thousands of cases of respiratory disease linked to exposure to toxic burn pit smoke and hundreds of suicides.  Then there are the injuries related to road and aviation accidents not in direct combat.  In my recent assignments in Iraq and Naval Medical facilities I have seen the human cost of the war.  I have friends who suffer as the result of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and Pulmonary diseases as well as those that have been wounded as the result enemy action.  I have a dear friend with a rare and irreversible pulmonary condition from two tours in Iraq. He is 41 his lungs are those of a 70 year old man.  My best friend, a senior Naval Officer is still suffering from the effects of TBI and PTSD incurred while serving with the Marines in Al Anbar Province.

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA-19 off Vietnam circa 1971-72

A year ago on Veterans Day I was at with my parents in Stockton California to visit my mom and my dad who was then in a nursing facility due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a terrible visit conflict with my mother due to witches’ brew of my PTSD and grief for my dad and my mother’s struggles with my dad’s condition and her own physical condition.  I visited my dad every day when in two and unfortunately he did not know who I was, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of everything that made him my dad.  He died on June 23rd of this year a day after I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander.  My dad was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam on a beach detachment manning an emergency airfield in the besieged city of An Loc in 1972.  He never talked about that tour or what happened there except to tell me that he saw the Communists executing civilians in the city from his observation point.  He came home a changed man.  Thankfully he is now out of his suffering and our family is beginning to find its way back from the abyss of his illness.

I have served for over 29 years in the Army and the Navy and have witnessed many things and been blessed to have my life enriched by many veterans.  Unfortunately many of these brave men have since passed away, some having lived many years and others that have died far too young as a result of service connected injuries.

With advisors to the 3rd Bn, 3rd Brigade 7th Iraq Division COP South 2008

In my current work I see many young men that wear the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I see those that need assistance to walk, amputees, men with obvious scars from burns and others suffering blindness from their injuries. Our hospital’s Medical Board sees 40-60 Marines and Sailors a day, quite a few of whom that will be medically retired due to their injuries.  There are also those that have died by their own hand suffering from psychological and spiritual injuries too deep to fathom, we had one of our own Corpsman suicide last week.

The cost of war is terrible, as General William Tecumseh Sherman so eloquently put it: “War is Hell.”

Despite this our brave men and women that serve in all branches of the military as well as those that have gone before us in the 235 year history of our military have shouldered the load, for most of that history depending on volunteers who often served in obscurity often derided by their fellow Americans who believed that the military was a place to go if you could not be successful in the civilian world. The pay was low, the duty arduous and benefits few. In the Civil War, the World Wars and up until 1974 the professionals were augmented by draftees who outnumbered the professionals by a huge margin.  Since 1974 the force has been an all volunteer force.

Health and Comfort Board Team USS Hue City, Northern Arabian Gulf May 2002

Regardless of whether our Veterans were draftees or volunteers they have served this country well and on the whole to use the current Navy description are “A Global Force for Good.” The countries liberated from oppressors and helped in humanitarian operations by American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are many and varied.  They have represented the spectrum of our society and represent the best the country has to offer.  Unfortunately they have not always been honored by some of their our countrymen and women and sometimes the children and grandchildren of the peoples that they liberated from Nazi, Fascist or Communist oppressors who often use the wrongdoing of a few military personnel or the decisions or actions of American politicians or businessmen to label American military personnel as criminals.

Unfortunately since the military is such a small part of our population and concentrated in a few large bases it is invisible to most Americans as they live their daily lives. Often in isolated from the bulk of America such as Killeen Texas home of the U.S. III Corps and Jacksonville North Carolina the home of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and Second Marine Division are quintessential military towns but neither are near major population centers and thus the sacrifice of these Soldiers, Marines and Sailors goes unnoticed by most of the nation.  In a sense the human cost of the war falls inordinately upon these military communities where there are few strangers.

In spite of this the current men and women of the American Military train, deploy, fight and return every day as they have since the 9-11-2001 attacks, many if not most have made multiple combat tours.  I have been pleased to see more support of the military in the media, especially sports media and leagues.  Many businesses are taking time to offer things of value to servicemen and women and those businesses should be commended and patronized.  I was touched by many stories that I saw about our veterans on ESPN over the past few days.  http://www.espnmediazone3.com/us/2010/11/espn%E2%80%99s-weeklong-salute-to-veterans-day/

Many of our Reserve component personnel give up civilian employment and chances for promotion to serve in the military, particularly when they are mobilized for service. When they return home most return to towns and cities that have little of the support afforded to active duty members when they return.  I pray that our political leaders in the future will exercise discernment and wisdom before committing us to another war. Otto Von Bismarck said: “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the current members of the House, Senate and Executive branch have little connection to the military as very few have served and I wonder if any really comprehend this maxim.  In the 111th Congress 120 members had some form of military service.  The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).  Those who have served a full military career are far fewer; the number of congressmen with military careers will remain relatively constant for the 112th Congress. In the Senate there will be one (as compared with two in 2006 and one in 2008) and in the House there will be eight (as compared with four in 2006 and six in 2008).  Some of these Congressional Veterans have been vilified by some broadcasters and pundits of the extreme right wing media most of whom who have never served in the military.  On the positive side nine members of the new Congress will have served in the current wars which hopefully will help promote the sacrifice of our current Veterans and help with programs that will help returning Veterans.

I have seen the cost of war up close and personal in Iraq and back here in the States. I suffer some the afflictions described as a result of my service and see the young men and women many of whom were not yet born when I enlisted in the Army, or when I was commissioned as an Army Officer, when I was a Company Commander or when I was a senior Captain in the Army. These young men and women are heroes.

Please take a moment to thank a Veteran.  If you have time volunteers are always welcome at organizations such as the USO and American Red Cross working with our troops, join or support organizations which promote the causes of Veterans including the Iraq Afghanistan Veteran’s Association www.iava.org the Veterans of Foreign Wars http://www.vfw.org/, American Legion http://www.legion.org/ , Marine Corps League http://www.mcleague.org/, the Fleet Reserve Association http://www.fra.org/, the Association of the U.S. Army http://www.ausa.org and the Disabled American Veterans http://www.dav.org/. There are also many charitable organizations that provide assistance to Veterans and their families’ one of the best being the Fisher House Foundation http://www.fisherhouse.org/ which provides comfortable and free lodging to the families of wounded, injured or sick military personnel on bases adjacent to military hospitals. I found these ten ways that you can help on Yahoo.com:

1. At 11 a.m., observe a moment of silence for those who’ve fought and died while in service to the country

2. Display an American flag

3. Attend a Veterans Day parade

4. Thank a vet for his/her service

5. Send a letter to troops through the U.S. Department of Defense Website

6. Work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen

7. Visit a veteran’s grave or pick up trash at a veterans cemetery

8. Visit with the family of a veteran who’s serving overseas

9. Visit with a wounded vet at a local VA facility

10. Donate to the USO, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars USA or other organizations that honor and assist vets

Keep us all in your prayers and please when Veterans Day is past do not forget those of us that serve and our families, especially those men and women serving in harm’s way.  To my friends and comrades I echo the words of the German commander to his troops in captivity at the end of the Band of Brother’s mini-series:

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans