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Memorial Day Weekend 2010: We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

On May 27th 2010 the US Military experienced the loss of its 1000th KIA in Afghanistan. The young man killed was Corporal Jacob C Leicht of Kerrville Texas.  Corporal Leicht was assigned to 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division Camp Pendleton California. Corporal Leicht had previously served in Iraq where he had been badly wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that hit the HUMMV that he was traveling in.  Pulled to safety by his Iraqi interpreter Leicht spent the two years recovering from those injuries engaged in a letter and phone call campaign to get back into the fight with his fellow Marines.  He was killed when he stepped on a land mine during that desperately sought after second tour. His younger brother Jesse Leicht who just 10 days ago enlisted in the Marines said “He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered, he didn’t want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something.”  Please keep his family and his fellow Marines in your prayers this Memorial Day.

Last year I was very melancholy during Memorial Day and stories of young Marines, Soldiers and Sailors killed in the line of duty usually cause me to reflect on the sacrifice that the young men and women who volunteer to serve our country make on a daily basis while most of the country goes about its business often oblivious to the wars being waged by our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in Afghanistan, Iraq and other lesser known fronts in this war.  Last year I was still very much in the midst of my PTSD crash and struggling with depression and faith.  At the same time I was still remembering all of the veterans who made a difference in my life.  That was covered in the posts Memorial Day 2009- Thoughts and Musings and Remembering the Veterans in My Life…Memorial Day 2009.

As we approach Memorial Day 2010 we must remember that while the war in Iraq is drawing down that the war in Afghanistan is heating up even as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to engage the Taliban in their spiritual home of Khandehar.  Likewise there is are rising tensions on the Korean peninsula where the Heavy Combat Brigade and Air Combat Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are based in support of Republic of Korea and UN forces in Korea backed up by Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Hawaii that are not currently in Afghanistan. At sea U.S. Navy forces patrol strategic choke points including the Straits of Hormuz where an ascendant Iran continues to build up for forces that could threaten the Freedom of the seas.

How am I different this year? To answer the question I can only say that I have regained some measure of faith and community that had been absent in my life after I returned from Iraq.  This has made a lot of difference however it in no way takes the place of remembering those men and women that I have served with in harm’s way as well as the veterans who made an impact in my life and still do today.

Memorial Day, initially known as Decoration Day is a somber holiday in its truest sense however it is as Paul Reikoff of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association notes is “One Country, Two Holidays.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-rieckhoff/memorial-day-one-holiday_b_592398.html For those that have served in war going back to our WWII veterans but also those of the not so popular wars, Korea, Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost friends and sacrificed spending months and even years in combat zones and the work-ups and exercises that part and parcel to deployment.  There are the wounded in body, mind and spirit and those whose physical injuries who have killed them in previous wars but now live in tortured bodies somewhere in between life and death.  Likewise there are those whose injuries are invisible, the injuries of PTSD, TBI and other psychiatric or psychological disorders related to their time in combat.  I spent almost two years in PTSD hell and though I am making a good recovery now still am reminded of the fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and an existential crisis of faith that came with my return.  I know too many Marines, Soldiers and Sailors that suffer much more than I have whose struggles pass unnoticed by most of society.  I am now working with our Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program and it is hard to see the young men and women that are in the program whose problems either came in part from their combat experience or their experience upon returning home.  Likewise we are now receiving more of our combat wounded at the medical center and thus I am reminded of the sacrifices made by veterans every day.  For those who work to help these young men and women and in many cases have served alongside them in the combat zones it is a continual reminder of the cost of war.

For those of us that have served, not just in the current conflict but our brothers and sisters that served in previous wars, especially Vietnam and Korea there is one Memorial Day.  While we do attempt to do some things with families and friends the holiday is one of sober reflection as we count the cost of war in human terms, both in our lives as well as our families, the soldiers of our Allies that serve alongside of us and the populations of lands devastated by war.

But then there is another country.  A country consumed with materialism and for whom “heroes” are reality television “stars,” actors and actresses and sports figures.  There are those who while they profess to “support the troops” are the first to want to replace military personnel with contractors such as Halliburton and the company formerly known as “Blackwater” with often disastrous results. Political operatives and lobbyists support paying astronomical sums to corporations that often embarrass the country and make the  job in the military harder in Iraq and Afghanistan having done things that alienate those populations.  Then there is the cost for services delivered and the often terrible way that these corporations treat their employees, especially the third country nationals with working hours and living conditions that would be punishable he in the United States, but also Americans who gain employment but serve driving trucks or other hazardous duties that they have little combat training to do and receive little if the are wounded in action nor for their families if they are killed or disabled. That is part of the “other country.” About 1.8 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan less than 6/10ths of 1 percent. Unlike World War II where the war was truly a national effort this war is waged by a small minority of the population.

I do not have any problems with people enjoying a holiday but hope and pray that Americans will take at least a few minutes to pay their respects to the Veterans of wars past and present the honored dead as well as the living.  Say a prayer, visit a military or veteran cemetery, and pay a visit on a living vet or the family of one of those killed. Donate to reputable veteran organizations or charities and maybe take a vet out for a bite to eat or buy them a cup of coffee, Coke or a beer.  Don’t let the day pass by simply looking at the faded yellow ribbon “I support the troops” on your car but take a few minutes to thank and remember those that have served our country regardless of race, creed or color and pray that the fallen will rest in peace and the living will recover from all wounds.

Unfortunately for the country the President will not be at the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery this year. Unlike some who are vehemently criticizing him I can only say that I am disappointed that the Commander-in-Chief will not be present because of what I feel is the tremendous symbolic importance of his presence at the event when we are at war. At the same time the President’s absence in emblematic of how much of the country “celebrates” Memorial Day.  Unfortunately as the number of men and women who have served our nation in time of war goes down in proportion to the population at large the day will become less significant to many, a curiosity that is quaint and nice but does not impact their lives.  I do not mean this in a bad way or with any malice; it is simply a statement of fact as for most the military and the war is not an everyday part of their lives. I think that the Previous President while understanding the significance of this day did not help the nation when after the September 11th attacks did not marshal the energy of the nation for a war which his administration readily acknowledged would be a “long war” but instead told people to “go shopping” to pump up the economy.  I think that was an act that has limited the personal effect of the human cost of these wars to a very limited segment of the population.

At the same time I as well as most veterans do appreciate the fact that we in the military are treated well by our countrymen even if they do not truly understand what we go through.  I for one am thankful to people who go out of their way to thank us in public places, those that take on hateful groups like the crowd at West Baptist Church that protests outside of military funerals and bases invoking God’s wrath on us.  Likewise there are the volunteers who meet returning servicemen and women at airports as the come home from war, the sports that honor the military before games or as in the case of most of Major and Minor League Baseball in the 7th inning stretch.  At the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish in Norfolk they display the photos of servicemen and women currently serving overseas.  The Raley’s grocery store near my parents’ home in Stockton California has a display of hundreds of 8 x 10 photos of military personnel in the front of their store and a wide range of people and groups try to find ways to help.  This in is stark contrast to the treatment of our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam and the attitudes and treatment of military personnel on college campuses that lingered far into the 1980s.  Thankfully the vast majority of Americans are appreciative of what we do.  At the same time most are not personally effected and as such will simply see Memorial Day as a three day weekend that kicks off the summer vacation season hardly pausing to think of the cost that has been born to ensure that Americans and people around the world have the opportunity to live in freedom.

Band of Brothers, Above Me and RP2 Nelson Lebron, below Foot Patrol Al Waleed Iraq

This weekend I pause to remember the veterans in my life, my father who remains in a nursing facility with dementia brought about by Alzheimer’s disease, men like my NJROTC instructors Senior Chief John Yarro and Buff Rambo who taught me in our FIST or Fire Support Team, SFC Harry Zilkan and CSM John Butler from my UCLA Army ROTC program and SFC Harry Ball my Drill Instructor in ROTC Advanced Camp. All were Vietnam Vets.  Then there were 1SG Jim Koenig of 557th Medical Company who was my 1st Sergeant when I was a new Lieutenant in Germany and Colonel Donald A Johnson the Commander of the 68th Medical Group and his successor Colonel Jim Truscott a high decorated Medevac or “Dustoff” helicopter pilot.  I cannot forget Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley a company commander in Vietnam who saved my ass as an aspiring Chaplain at the Chaplain School in 1990 and 1992.

Then there were the WWII and Vietnam Vets in my Chapel at Fort Indiantown Gap PA. USAF Major General Frank Smoker a B-17 pilot, Colonel Walt Swank who served at Normandy and SSG Henry Boyd one of the 101st Airborne Troopers epitomized by “Band of Brothers.” There were the Vietnam Vets in the congregation, Colonel Ray Hawthorne an artillery officer who served several tours in country including an advisor tour.  Charlie Kosko a helicopter pilot and Major Scotty Jenkes who served as a USAF pilot flying close air support in Vietnam.  Then there was Colonel Tom Allmon the Garrison Commander who served in the Gulf War as well as Iraq.

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey Cartilage” Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and Charlie who used man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park until health issues kept them from continuing all mean a lot to me.  Likewise my friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis both Iraq Vets mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends.

There are those that I served with at Navy EOD Group II that performed amazing feats in Iraq and Afghanistan and retired Command Master Chief Bill “Two Feathers” Tyrell an EOD tech that I came to know well working family issues and PTSD issues for our EOD sailors.  Bill was a tremendous help as I struggled with PTSD.  Likewise there are my shipmates and friends from the USS HUE CITY that I served with deployed to the Northern Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa in 2002 including the men of the boarding team that I served as an advisor to on 75 boarding missions aboard impounded Iraqi Oil Smugglers.  Then there are the men that I served with in Iraq especially my assistant and body guard RP2 Nelson Lebron who is getting ready for his 10th deployment this time another trip to Afghanistan.  There are my friends that served in various locations with the Iraqi security forces that I was able to travel to, serve alongside and serve as a chaplain in remote areas of Iraq with the Iraqis. In my current assignment I have had many friends and colleagues deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in some very “hot” zones caring for our wounded as well as local nationals and allied soldiers.  This is not stopping anytime soon.

These are my brothers and sisters and I remember all of them with fondness.  My thoughts are much the same as Henry V at Agincourt as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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.

See the Kenneth Branagh’s rendition here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NA3gOST4Pc8&feature=player_embedded

With crucial battles ahead in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the storm clouds of war gathering over Korea and the threat of terrorism and attacks around the world and at home it is indeed a dangerous world that our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen serve in.  Never before in our country have so many owed so much to so few.   Unfortunately there are those of us, men and women that have served our country from before Pearl Harbor to the present who who struggle and will spend this day alone and uncared for in isolation, anonymous to nearly everyone. Please, if you see such a man or woman do not let the opportunity pass to thank them and if need be do something to encourage or thank them for their service. Please remember and thank a Veteran this weekend and if somehow the spirit moves you to do more and you are capable of serving and join this new “Band of Brothers” please see a recruiter.  It is a noble profession that we, we happy few are proud to serve despite the cost.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

The Journey to Mudville

Friends: I wrote this in several parts over the day on my trip. I do thank all those who have expressed sympathy as well as voiced prayers on our behalf. Thank you. Peace, Steve+

There are those times in life where one wonders what the hell is going on.  I sat in my seat between two other gentlemen on the fully booked Southwest Airline flight to Chicago. This was the first stop on my journey home to Mudville, sometimes known as Stockton, California.  The legend is that the poem Casey at the Bat is set in Stockton, and for a couple of years the Stockton Ports were reflagged as the Mudville Nine.  So in a sense I can claim Mudville as part of my baseball lineage.

The journey had begun inauspiciously enough when my cell phone’s alarm clock went off at 0430 to the tune of John Foggarty’s Centerfield.  That’s military time for 4:30 AM, or too frickin’ early… even by my standards.  Now true this is only 15-30 minutes earlier than I normally arise, but I have never been a morning person.  If I had been able to get to sleep at a decent hour this might not have been too bad.  However, I had spent a full day trying to get my shit together on Sunday and did not get to bed until after midnight.  Thankfully my sleep meds worked and I did get to sleep.  When the alarm went off I got my sorry ass up and set the snooze for ten minutes more. Molly the dog glared at me.  Evidently this was too early for her as well.  I finally got up and out of bed, showered and went downstairs to call a cab.  Of course the cab company couldn’t promise a cab before 0600 and since my flight was scheduled for 0645 I knew that this was definitely a no go.  Molly the dog decided that it was now time to come downstairs and demand to be let out so she could do her business.  This being done she collected her payment of a Milk Bone and went back to bed.  After having paid off Molly I loaded my suitcase and backpack into my trusty 2001 Honda CR-V and started off to the airport.  After Iraq I now consider airports as the gateway to hell.

Radio tuned to ESPN Sports Radio 1310 AM I received the news that my San Francisco Giants had beaten the Evil Dodgers at Chavez Ravine 7-5 in 13 innings, taking two of three from the now Mannyless Dodgers. While the Norfolk Tides had taken 2 of three from the hapless Buffalo Bisons which in the Mets organization had once been the Tides. The Mets as usual have decided to treat their AAA farm team badly and people in Buffalo after years of competitive seasons as a Cleveland Indians affiliate are opening complaining.  With the good news I stopped by my local 7-11 for a 24 ounce coffee with 4 French Vanilla creamers and 3 packets of Splenda and zipped off to I-264.  It was then that things started to get interesting and not in a good way.  I managed to find every stoplight and get behind every timid driver who couldn’t drive anywhere near the speed limit.  I’ve driven the Autobahns of Germany and cut my teeth in L.A. and a lot of people in Hampton Roads can’t drive nails, much less cars. I put my CR-V into warp factor eight, set the cloaking device and dodged in and out of traffic and took the secret wormhole into the airport to avoid even more stoplights.  It is patently a good thing that I know such things as I would shortly discover that I would need every second.

I pulled into the parking garage and saw that there were 26 spaces available on the second deck. I drove onto the deck and discovered that there were not 26 spaces but a big fat zero spaces available. Muttering a few things about the questionable parentage of the idiot who couldn’t count the difference between 26 and zero I drove my CR-V up to the 3rd deck.  The sign here said 16 spaces available…good I thought, certainly they couldn’t screw up two floors.  Damned if I wasn’t screwed again.  Here again the parking space counter of the previously mentioned questionable parentage had miscounted.  Instead of 16 spaces there were…you guessed it, zero, nada, nicht eine, yea even nary a single space available. Now calling to mind the probable oedipal practices of the individual of questionable parentage I moved up to the 4th deck.  Here I found success; albeit at the end of a row far from the terminal, but I had my spot…at least I didn’t have to keep going up.  I looked at my watch and knew I had to run. I did the O.J. (racing through the airport, not killing my wife) and I got down to the ticketing area where I was greeted by the sight of at least 250 people in the Southwest line.   I now only had 50 minutes to my flight departed.  Normally with Southwest this is easy. They are efficient and the line, if they have one at all it tends to move fast.  Today was like something out of the hell known as the Orlando International Airport.  Some group of 100 or so people had bumped everyone else aside. Likewise one of the big TSA baggage X-rays was down, turning this into a nightmare is grumbling people stewed wondering if they would make their flights.  I uttered some more #*@#%! words under my breath and then asked the Deity Herself to give me a break. Thankfully the Deity and the good people at Southwest ensured that line moved fast.  We received some help when the group who had gooned up the line was finished.  Then the agent called for my 0645 flight.  At this point all of now very late passengers stormed the ticket booth like revolutionaries storming the Bastille. Thankfully I had good position based on my position in the line. Expert that I am I weaved through the lesser experienced travelers. I slid into a self serve kiosk that no one else had spotted like Ricky Henderson would slide into second. As I got my boarding pass a pushy woman tried to bump me out of line. I didn’t like it; she was trying to crowd me out of line when I was there first.  Thankfully she was too dense to know that she needed to check her bags despite having a boarding pass in her hand.  The Southwest agent told her to get in a different line and I got my bag checked.  That task completed I did the O.J. and flew up the steps to the TSA checkpoint.  Jumping over a bank of chairs I managed to pass about 50 people only to discover that the nefarious group of 100 was already at the TSA checkpoint.  Once again the pushy lady tried to elbow her way through the line.  Since she obviously was a narcissist with no sense of propriety I cut her off. She looked at me like I was stupid, forgetting that we had had this little discussion just a few minutes before.  I said “ma’am, most of us are on your flight and are ahead of you.” Her jaw dropped and a TSA agent told her to get back echoing my words.   She looked at me and said “Will they hold the flight for me?”  To upset her, having faith in the Deity and Southwest, I lied and said, “Probably not.” Of course I didn’t believe this with so many of us in the same predicament. Yet I kind of enjoyed the look on her face as she moved back to her rightful place at the end of the line. Not the nicest thing to do, but some things need to be done.  I’m sure it was a sin.  As I asked one priest in confession: “Is it still a sin if they deserve it?” He told me: “Yes, but there may be some mitigating circumstances, but that is still a sin.”  Well there’s some more extra innings in Purgatory for me. Thankfully I am an expert traveler now, so when I got to the screening station I flew through it. Looking at my watch I knew that I had to be screwed. I had heard the final boarding call in the TSA line and it was past time for departure.  I raced down the concourse I saw that the Deity had already spoken to the kind folks at Southwest and had them hold the aircraft for all of us…the pushy lady included, proving that the Deity even cares for pushy narcissists. I guess that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.  Somehow I got through this episode without having a PTSD meltdown despite not having either a Xanax or beer to calm down.  Lot’s of deep breathing I guess helped this time.  Had I not made the flight I might have cracked, but the Deity Herself looked after me.

We arrived at Chicago Midway a little bit late, but in plenty of time to make my connecting fight to Sacramento, the alleged capitol of the State of California.  I say alleged because though there is much in the way of a state government in it there is painfully little evidence of effectiveness, despite having the Governator. Getting to Sacramento I picked up my luggage, which thankfully despite the lateness of my check-in got through.  If I had done the same on either Divided Airlines or U.S. Scare I’m sure that the luggage would not have made it on my flight, but would have ended up God knows where.  While waiting for my bag I had an e-mail from my mom about a run in that she had with a lady from hospice.  She was pretty spun up and my brother confirmed this.  I got my rental car, a 2009 Black Nissan Altima and headed down I-5 to Mudville.

When I got to Mudville I stopped by Raley’s to pick up the flowers that I told my mother would be arriving through a special arrangement with the florist.  Since I figured I should play this up for all that it was worth I decided to call and let her know that I had gotten her message.  She immediately launched into what was wrong with the world as I sat in my car in her driveway. I assured her that my brother and I would take care of things and that everything would be okay.  I knocked on the door with my phone in hand still talking to mom.  She told me someone was at the door and I said I would call back. She looked out the blinds which cover a window by the door, and then closed them, and then in disbelief opened them again. She was floored and stared in disbelief as I stood at the door, flowers in hand. I took her to the nursing home to see dad.  Somehow my nephew’s and niece managed to keep the secret the last two weeks. The surprise was total. He was glad to see me and immediately asked where Judy was.  He was disappointed that she was in Virginia. Unfortunately he looks in a lot worse shape than he was last year.  After the visit which included talks with the nursing staff and billing office I took my mom to Chile’s.

Now the hard part really starts.  Have to go up and see my dad.  I’ll be getting mom to the funeral home as well as make arrangements with their church for the memorial service at a date to be determined.  Following this I will be helping my brother with selling my parents old grave plots back to the cemetery in Napa where they lived a few years back. Then I will work on insurance issues between the insurance company and the nursing home.  The insurance company is being stupid right now.  The first 6 months they paid and now despite no change they are claiming that the nursing home is entering the wrong billing codes and say that they have the case “under investigation.”  However, since they have set precedent they should keep paying.  If they don’t start soon my brother and I will have to sue their sorry asses for putting my mom through hell.  If dad was with it he would be pissed.

So now that I am in Mudville I have work to do.  Take care and keep us all in your prayers.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, Baseball, healthcare, PTSD, travel