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The Continuing Journey: Reflections of 6 Years Dealing with PTSD Faith and Life

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“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.” T. E. Lawrence, Letter 1935

It has been six full years since I descended into the hell of the abyss that is PTSD. Back in the late spring and early summer of 2008 just a few months after my return from what I still consider my best tour of duty in over 30 years of military service with US advisors and Iraq Army and Security forces in Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008 I was in a state of emotional and spiritual collapse.

I really couldn’t believe then what was happening to me or they way that it would end up shaping my life to the present day. In retrospect my return from Iraq marked a beginning of a personal hell that for a number of years seemed like that it would never end. It was painful, it was isolating and it marked a profound change in the way that I saw God, faith, politics and social justice. It changed me in ways that I never could have imagined when I got on a bus heading for Fort Jackson South Carolina following the July 4th holiday of 2007.

Those brave souls that have followed me on this website as well as those that are still my friends despite occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, those that may not understand me but still are my friends have seen this.

So six years later what is it like?

I still have trouble sleeping, not as much as I used to but enough to impact my life. I don’t take heavy doses of sleep meds anymore, just some Melatonin as well as a mild dosage of an anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressant. A far better combination than medications that made me feel like I was hung over without that benefit of sharing too many drinks with friends at the local watering hole.

As opposed to the years immediately following my time in Iraq I have to say that I am no longer self medicating with alcohol. I remember in 2009 going out for dinner, having a few beers, then going to a ball game and drinking a few more and coming home with Krispy Kreme donuts and drinking more beer on a regular basis and usually taking a couple of shots or Jaegermeister or glasses of Spanish Brandy just to get to sleep so I could go back to facing life and death situations the next day in our ICUs. I don’t need that anymore, even though sleep can be problematic and dreams and nightmares rivaling anything I can watch on my HD TV…

I still love to pony up to the bar and share a couple of pints with friends but I don’t need it to numb myself into feeling no pain. Talking with many other vets who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or even Vietnam I know that I wasn’t alone in those dark days.

I have become a bit less hyper-vigilant though when I come home to Virginia Beach than I was just three years ago and most certainly five years ago in May of 2008. However, that being said I do notice that I am more on guard on the roads and that little things, sirens, emergency vehicles, loud noises and traffic still set me off more than when I lived in rural North Carolina while stationed at Camp LeJeune from 2010 until August of 2013.

I absolutely hate air travel. I don’t like the crowds, the stress of security or the constant delays, changes and overcrowding. Truthfully I felt more comfortable flying the skies of Iraq on Marine, Army and Air Force fixed and rotor wing aircraft and on occasion being shot at in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province than I do on any airline today in this country.

I have become exceptionally sensitive to tragedy, death and suffering. The loss of friends or major incidents where military personnel are killed in combat, training missions or just doing their job hits me hard. The worst times are when friends, or others that I know die by their own hand. When they are veterans who suffer from PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury it is like a dagger plunging into me.

Physical fitness matters more than it did before, even though I was in very good shape before and during my time in Iraq. But when I came home from that I was not only wounded in mind and spirit, but my body was beaten up. Chronic nagging injuries and chronic pain kept me from doing what I liked doing and what helped me keep my physical-spiritual and emotional balance. Those nagging injuries took a long time to heal, and they took some adjustments on my part which took me several years to adapt to and compensate in my physical regimen.  I can say now that I am in as good or better shape than I was before I left for Iraq in 2007. Maybe I’ll write a best selling book and do an exercise video like Jane Fonda…

Whereas in 2008 through 2010 and even until 2011 I was exceptionally sensitive to criticism to the changes that were occurring in my life including my move to the “left” both theologically and politically I have gotten to the point that I realize that it is more important to be honest and authentic as to who I am and what I believe. I have found that those that really matter to me don’t care so much about those things and that relationships maintained with people who don’t always agree with each other where all remain their personal integrity are far more rewarding than relationships that are first and foremost decided by allegiance to political or religious orthodoxy no matter what side of the spectrum it is from. I hate group think. Thus though I have to now consider me to be on the “liberal” side of the political and theological divide I still have to be considered a moderate simply because I refuse to make people my enemy simply because I disagree with them or they with me.

When I began this site in the spring of 2009 I named it Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate. I think I did that because it actually described me then, and now, even though I am pretty passionately liberal about some things and that doesn’t bother me in any way because it comes from my wrestling with God and faith and realizing that integrity matters more than about anything else. I have toyed with changing the title of the site but have decided against that because I am a moderate liberal committed to a Christian faith that speaks for the oppressed and is willing to confront those that would use faith, political or economic power to oppress the weak or those different from us.

Since I returned from Iraq in 2008 I discovered what it was to really question faith and God. To become for a couple of years a man who was for all practical purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed and cared. I discovered that in doing so that faith returned, different but more real than I had ever experienced in a life spent in the Christian faith and ministry.

My agnostic period gave me an immense empathy and appreciation for those who have lost faith, struggle with faith or reject any concept of God. I value reason as much, maybe if not more than faith now, not that reason is infallible or perfect, but it does allow me to evaluate my faith, and appreciate the amazing mysteries of the universe that our science and technology continue to reveal in ever more complex detail.

That brought change because my rediscovered faith brought me into conflict with people in the church denomination and faith community where I had been ordained as a priest. I was asked to leave and found a new home church and denomination that fit my life, faith experience and where I could live and minister in complete integrity. In the church that took me in during the fall of 2010 I can be faithful to the Gospel and care for the lost, the least and the lonely, especially those who have been abused by churches and ministries that have sold their soul to right wing political ideologues whose only concern is their political power and influence and would use churches and Christians to do their evil bidding. I guess that I learned that just because someone wraps the Bible in an American Flag, believes that Jesus brought us the Constitution and says that they “support the troops” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they care a whit about the Bible, the Flag, the Constitution or the Troops. I hope that isn’t too harsh….

Oh well, I feel that I am beginning to ramble so I will say good night and “God Bless,” no matter what God that you profess or for that matter don’t profess.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Back from the Abyss: Padre Steve’s Reflections of 5 Years Dealing with PTSD Faith and Life

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“God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars.” Elbert Hubbard

It has been five full years since I descended into the hell of the abyss that is PTSD. Back in the late spring and early summer of 2008 just a few months after my return from what I still consider my best tour of duty in over 30 years of military service with US advisors and Iraq Army and Security forces in Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008 I was in a state of emotional and spiritual collapse.

I really couldn’t believe then what was happening to me or they way that it would end up shaping my life to the present day. In retrospect my return from Iraq marked a beginning of a personal hell that for a number of years seemed like that it would never end. It was painful, it was isolating and it marked a profound change in the way that I saw God, faith, politics and social justice. It changed me in ways that I never could have imagined when I got on a bus heading for Fort Jackson South Carolina following the July 4th holiday of 2007.

Those brave souls that have followed me on this website as well as those that are still my friends despite occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, those that may not understand me but still are my friends have seen this.

So five years later what is it like?

I still have trouble sleeping, not as much as I used to but enough to impact my life. I don’t take heavy doses of sleep meds anymore, just some Melatonin as well as a mild dosage of an anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressant. A far better combination than medications that made me feel like I was hung over without that benefit of sharing too many drinks with friends at the local watering hole.

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As opposed to the years immediately following my time in Iraq I have to say that I am no longer self medicating with alcohol. I remember in 2009 going out for dinner, having a few beers, then going to a ball game and drinking a few more and coming home with Krispy Kreme donuts and drinking more beer on a regular basis and usually taking a couple of shots or Jaegermeister or glasses of Spanish Brandy just to get to sleep so I could go back to facing life and death situations the next day in our ICUs. I don’t need that anymore, even though sleep can be problematic and dreams and nightmares rivaling anything I can watch on my HD TV…

I still love to pony up to the bar and share a couple of pints with friends but I don’t need it to numb myself into feeling no pain. Talking with many other vets who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or even Vietnam I know that I wasn’t alone in those dark days.

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I have become a bit less hyper-vigilant though when I come home to Virginia Beach than I was just three years ago and most certainly five years ago in May of 2008. However, that being said I do notice that I am more on guard on the roads and that little things, sirens, emergency vehicles, loud noises and traffic still set me off more than when I am in rural North Carolina. This week I have been home because my wife Judy had some surgery and I have had to readjust to the traffic, noises and other things that I haven’t really had to deal with the past few years. That has been both interesting and enlightening.

I absolutely hate air travel. I don’t like the crowds, the stress of security or the constant delays, changes and overcrowding. Truthfully I felt more comfortable flying the skies of Iraq on Marine, Army and Air Force fixed and rotor wing aircraft and on occasion being shot at in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province than I do on any airline today in this country.

Physical fitness matters more than it did before, even though I was in very good shape before and during my time in Iraq. But when I came home from that I was not only wounded in mind and spirit, but my body was beaten up. Chronic nagging injuries and chronic pain kept me from doing what I liked doing and what helped me keep my physical-spiritual and emotional balance. Those nagging injuries took a long time to heal, and they took some adjustments on my part which took me several years to adapt to and compensate in my physical regimen.  I can say now that I am in as good or better shape than I was before I left for Iraq in 2007. Maybe I’ll write a best selling book and do an exercise video like Jane Fonda…

flight-to-baghdad-4-me

Whereas in 2008 through 2010 and even until 2011 I was exceptionally sensitive to criticism to the changes that were occurring in my life including my move to the “left” both theologically and politically I have gotten to the point that I realize that it is more important to be honest and authentic as to who I am and what I believe. I have found that those that really matter to me don’t care so much about those things and that relationships maintained with people who don’t always agree with each other where all remain their personal integrity are far more rewarding than relationships that are first and foremost decided by allegiance to political or religious orthodoxy no matter what side of the spectrum it is from. I hate group think. Thus though I have to now consider me to be on the “liberal” side of the political and theological divide I still have to be considered a moderate simply because I refuse to make people my enemy simply because I disagree with them or they with me.

When I began this site in the spring of 2009 I named it Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate. I think I did that because it actually described me then, and now, even though I am pretty passionately liberal about some things and that doesn’t bother me in any way because it comes from my wrestling with God and faith and realizing that integrity matters more than about anything else. I have toyed with changing the title of the site but have decided against that because I am a moderate liberal committed to a Christian faith that speaks for the oppressed and is willing to confront those that would use faith, political or economic power to oppress the weak or those different from us.

Since I returned from Iraq in 2008 I discovered what it was to really question faith and God. To become for a couple of years a man who was for all practical purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed and cared. I discovered that in doing so that faith returned, different but more real than I had ever experienced in a life spent in the Christian faith and ministry.

fatherpippy

That brought change because my rediscovered faith brought me into conflict with people in the church denomination and faith community where I had been ordained as a priest. I was asked to leave and found a new home church and denomination that fit my life, faith experience and where I could live and minister in complete integrity. In the church that took me in during the fall of 2010 I can be faithful to the Gospel and care for the lost, the least and the lonely, especially those who have been abused by churches and ministries that have sold their soul to right wing political ideologues whose only concern is their political power and influence and would use churches and Christians to do their evil bidding. I guess that I learned that just because someone wraps the Bible in an American Flag, believes that Jesus brought us the Constitution and says that they “support the troops” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they care a whit about the Bible, the Flag, the Constitution or the Troops. I hope that isn’t too harsh….

Oh well, I feel that I am beginning to ramble so I will say good night and “God Bless,” no matter what God that you profess or for that matter don’t profess.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Dad’s Gift of Baseball to Me…a New Season Begins

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Harbor Park

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal and as Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) said in Bull Durham “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was in 1970-1971 when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted long before watching games on a black and white TV and having my dad play catch, teach me to throw, field and run the bases.  In 1967 we even saw the Seattle Pilots in person while stationed in Washington State. While my dad thrived on all sports but baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen masters love, but which is not to be compared with baseball.  Golf it is an interior and individual game whereas baseball is a game where individuals depend upon one another in community much as in an ideal world Christians depend upon one another in the Church.

Me with Angels Manager Left Phillips 1970

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine not having done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  I cannot remember a time that I did not have a ball, glove and bat as well as at least one baseball hat. It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teaching me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May of 2009 I thanked him for teaching me to love the game. I told him that I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls but complained that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”  Obviously he understood that I would never hit much above the Mendoza Line and stuck to teaching me defense and pitching.

Oak Park Little League Rams Stockton CA, the Team Sponsor was San Diego Chargers Owner Alex Spanos

Back in the days at Anaheim Stadium when it was still called “the Big A” I really did fall in love with the game.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  I met so many of the players on that team and those of opposing teams and it was that personal connection of ballplayers giving a 5th grade kid the time of day that endeared me to the game. Players like Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, Andy Messersmith, Sandy Alomar and Ken McMullen as well as coaches and managers gave me some of the best memories of childhood.

Billy Hebert Field

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  Seeing the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome.  However our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days because of the inhospitable location and added distance from home.   If you have ever seen a baseball game at Candlestick you will know that it is a perfectly miserable place to see a game as in that if nothing else that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.  One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California where we lived. In the summer she would let me see the Stockton Ports several times a week. Back then the Ports were the California League Single “A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun, chasing balls down and chomping down peanuts that cost a quarter a bag.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor league player in the 1960s.

Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star Game

http://mlb.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=5766041

In high school and college due to other diversions I stopped playing baseball and did not have as much contact with it.  However the call of baseball never completely left me and I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game. I think that the biggest mistakes that I ever made were taking on hockey for a couple of seasons and an ill-fated one year career in high school football. It was like I sold out baseball for games that seemed more exciting but were not me.  I have dreams of what it would be like to get the chance to play at my advanced age for one inning in a minor league game.

Moonlight Graham

I feel in a sense like Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams when he tells Ray Kinsella:

“Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?” I can totally relate.

Other major sports do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is a spiritual dimension that the game has which makes it timeless.  Other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks there are no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock.  If a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that the game will be over.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games has different rules than regulation time making them seem somewhat hypocritical to me.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock. Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Jeff Fiorentino Going Yard at Harbor Park

Baseball is not like that.  In order to win you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. The nine innings could in theory go on for eternity, as they nearly do in W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, A story which is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner.  Foul lines in theory go on for eternity, only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that outfields are a lot more spacious and have a wonderful playing surface in heaven.

I love baseball parks. I like their individuality and savor their differences and save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable to play football on, baseball parks have kept their individuality.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity. Although the ivy of Wrigley Field, the Green Monster of Fenway are about all that are left of the great old ballparks however the new ballparks have returned to what makes every ballpark special in its own way.  Gone are the ugly drab oval stadiums with their fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf with only a small cut out for the bases.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble or retired to serve in other capacities and replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

Oak Harbor Little League where I played my first organized baseball

Last year for the first time in my life I bought season tickets for my local AAA team, the Norfolk Tides who are the AAA Affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I also went Norfolk’s Harbor Park to see the Commonwealth Classic an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.  The ballpark is a place of solace for me that was after I returned from Iraq one of the few places that I could have peace, even church was a dangerous place but walking onto the concourse and taking in the lush green diamond and immaculately trimmed infield there was a place of peace.  I found that watching the young players striving to reach or get back to the majors to stay helped motivate me as I recovered from PTSD, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and a crisis of faith that scared the hell out of me.  I appreciate the young pitchers that I have met behind home plate as the chart the game following their starts, and my hope and prayer for them is that they will see their dreams fulfilled and eventually make it to the show and stay there.  So Jim, Andy, Chris, Ross, David This year I look forward to again taking me seats in Section 102 Row B seats 1 and 2.  Opening day is the 8th of April and the Weather Channel’s 10 day forecast says that the weather should be good.  However this is Hampton Roads, opening day was rained out last year and in 2005 the temperature at game time was 38 degrees with winds of 25-40 knots coming out of center field.

Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house.  My seats in Section 102 row 2 are right behind home plate and offer a field level view of all the action. I love the people in the section, Elliott and Skip the Ushers, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Marty the Card Dealer, Ray, John and the Vietnam Veterans of America at the beer stand and of course legendary General Manager Dave Rosenfield and President Ken Johnson as well as Linda, Heather and the rest of the staff.

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolds again as I gaze in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different than last year but similar my dad is still in a nursing home in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the disease is taking its time and now has robbed him of everything that he once was. In November I saw him and he did not know me.  It is so sad to see.  A year and a half to two years ago he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants and bad mouth the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  I never shared that opinion or the fact that I have been a closet Baltimore Orioles fan for years as he could barely handle my liking the Oakland Athletics.  He did not like Earl Weaver one bit but was a lot like him in his approach to the game and life…however he did admire Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

Dad told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he made sure that there were books of baseball stories around the house.  I learned to read with books about Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Rogers HornsbyJackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. Dad was an avid fan of Pete Rose; he loved “Charlie Hustle’s” high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall dad yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard at second base to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era where players who were Hall of Fame caliber sacrificed their reputations by doing steroids.

My Dad and I May 2009

I don’t know how long my dad will live. He has outlived his doctor’s expectations by well over a year maybe even a year and a half. He doesn’t know what is going on for the most part but somewhere in his Alzheimer’s ravaged brain he must still be there.  Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Play Ball!

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, PTSD