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Veteran’s Day: Goodbye to 666 Lake of Fire Circle, a Golf Outing and Remembering the Veterans in my Life

veteransday2009

Today was Veteran’s Day. Amid the solemnity of the day I am still in California where I came this week to try to help my mom with my dad’s affairs and to also see my dad who is definitely in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  This has been the hardest trip home in my life.  I knew I had to come, although the Abbess was against it fearing for my emotional health and perhaps she was right.  Tonight I sit in a hotel room self medicating and trying to regain some sense of sanity.

Me and last last picDad and Me back in May…He Still knew Me then

The past few days have been hell.  My dad does not know me anymore; he has almost no response to anything and stares straight ahead.  The hardest part is when I realized that he didn’t know me.  So I asked if he had seen my mother who I had taken to visit him the day before and my brother.  He said that he had seen them, and even seen my mom the morning I asked him the question.  However she had not been there that day.  So I asked if “Steve had visited yesterday.”  He got agitated and said “I don’t know any Steve yesterday.”  Today was much the same, I asked if he knew who Steve was, and he said “yes” and I asked if he had seen him and he said “no he hasn’t been here.”  This whole trip he has probably spoken under 50 words in 4 visits.  There is nothing left. For all practical purposes he is dead in a body that won’t die.  If that was not bad enough my mother has not skipped any opportunity to attack and pick at me until I broke.  I begged her to lay off, told her that I was not up to fighting with her and tried to keep my cool but she wouldn’t let up.   I cannot deal with constant conflict and a mother who calls me “a weak, politically correct pansy.”  I’m a combat veteran and went to war unarmed into hostile territory with little groups of Americans far away from the big battalions with all the heavy weapons and the women called me a “weak, politically correct pansy.  She has put me down, belittled my education, vocation and career and insulted my wife for the last time. When I told her that “everything in her life that was wrong was somebody else’s fault and not hers” she agreed.  I knew it was over at that point. This may sound un-Christian but I will not go see her again.   Tomorrow I will see my dad for what it is worth, see my brother and his family and then early Friday I will get the hell out of Dodge.  She had offered to pay for my trip out but I can’t prostitute myself for that kind of abuse.    The next time I come back it will be for my father’s funeral.  I love my brother and his family.  He and his wife are saints.  I couldn’t live that near my mother without ending up in a psychotic state, something that I came perilously close to this week.  God bless Jeff, Mel and their kids.

Me and Jeff at mickey groveWith my Brother back in May

I went golfing with my brother and nephews today.  For much of the day I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of the damned boat.  My mind was so gooned up and upset by the events of the week I couldn’t concentrate worth a shit.  Even my well hit shots were mainly slicing to the right and I embarked on a tree killing expedition.  I hit 7 trees solidly, took down a couple of decent sized branches, grazed three other trees and nailed an outhouse.  However it was really good to be out with Jeff, Darren and Nate.  Nate can really hit the ball for an 8 year old; he has the potential to be a really good golfer.  Darren doesn’t really care and is out to have fun.  He enjoyed my sarcasm as I commented on my shots and helped keep track of the number of trees that I hit and I told him that I would see how many I could try to kill before the day was out.  By the end of the round I was hitting the ball a lot better and it was going more often than not where I wanted it to go, but the first 7 holes were hell.  It makes me think of Robin Williams’ golf routine. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDQd49rEF_0

As I mentioned today was Veteran’s day.  After I got my hotel I went to a local Applebee’s where I had a sirloin steak and potatoes and a couple beers on their Veterans’ day salute.  I sat at the bar with a couple about 10 years older than me; he had served on a Navy Minesweeper in Vietnam.  They were nice; I think that is why I like sitting at the bar when I go out to eat, there is a sense of community that you don’t find a lot of other places.

As it is Veteran’s day I think I will take some time to remember some of the Veterans in my life who have helped my through my life and career.  This is taken from a post that I did around Memorial Day.

I’ve been in the military for almost 28 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back in 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  He retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.

breedlove-ness2LCDR Breedlove and Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along. They have both passed away in the past year and a half.  I will never forget them.  A post dedicated to them is on this blog. Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted at UCLA.  He served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was also Special Forces and a Ranger and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during a ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut. It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died a few years back of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

MVC-023SMe with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (Ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon 2005

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him.  Henry Boyd who I buried was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died. Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support. Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972.  CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

051Ray and his Crew from The Vietnam Veterans of America at Harbor Park

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 John who man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis 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.

boarding teamUSS HUE CITY Boarding Team 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq 3 times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.

307With 1st Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Advisers in East Ramadi January 2008

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. God bless all of you guys. Please honor the Veterans that you know not only on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day but every day.   Honor also those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Today as I write many of my friends serve in harm’s way.  I hope that my recovery, spiritually, emotionally and physically goes well enough that I can go back with them.  For now I need to recover. My boss is right about that, if this week is any indication I’m in no shape to go back to a combat zone, bit Lord willing I will be so I can be with those I care for and serve alongside.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Post Script: I do pray that no one takes offense at my words regarding my dealings with my mother. If someone thinks that I am wrong, or out of line they can contact me privately.  However, I have to protect me now.  I can’t help her or save her so I’m done.

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Padre Steve’s Highs and Lows of 28 Years Service

Ooops, this should have posted the 25th…all references in the post though it posted today are for the 25th.  The meltdown was the 24th, not my duty night.

Note: I think that I have pretty much recovered from last night’s mini-meltdown, though tired have has a good day working some stuff that is pretty cool that could be a positive thing for Navy and VA Chaplains.  I think success does help mitigate some of the effects of a meltdown.  If today had been crappy and I hadn’t had a good talk with Elmer the Shrink it might have continued.  Now with some sleep I could be cooking with gas even though my house is all electric.

On to the Post:

Soldier Once and YoungEnlisted in National Guard 1982

“So we’re all dogfaces, we’re all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years!” Bill Murray as John Winger in “Stripes” 1981

Well sports fans I am at the hospital tonight celebrating 28 years of service in the military. It really doesn’t seem like any more than 27 ½ but who’s counting right? And when I look back at the Army I joined I am reminded of Stripes.

I think that I have pretty much recovered from last night’s mini-meltdown, though tired have has a good day working some stuff that is pretty cool that could be a positive thing for Navy and VA Chaplains.  I think success does help mitigate some of the effects of a meltdown.  If today had been crappy and I hadn’t had a good talk with Elmer the Shrink it might have continued.  Now with some sleep I could be cooking with gas even though my house is all electric.

So 28 years ago today I went down and signed my name on the dotted line.  It was August 25th 1981 two months after the release of the movie Stripes and two months before I saw it with Judy at the $1 movie theater.  On that end of summer day I went down and signed my contract with the Army ROTC program at UCLA with the Chief Lord of Discipline himself, the Captain Bruce Lawson swearing me in.  He had just finished PT and though still in his PT clothes administered the Oath of Enlistment.  It was not much on ceremony but it was a start.  In fact most of my promotions in either the Army of the Navy have not come with much fanfare and I’m actually pretty okay with that so long as I get paid and get to do what I love doing which is being a Priest and getting to serve now as a Navy Chaplain.  So I followed with a trip down to the National Guard Armory on Victory Blvd in Van Nuys to enlist in the National Guard. Since I was not a scholarship student I was allowed to simultaneously enter the Guard.  So the 25th was kind of like a double header for me, I did the oath for the Guard later in the afternoon. It’s like Tommy Lasorda once said: “I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.”

So I went in to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and met the Company Commander, Captain J.J. Kramer, now a retired Colonel I believe and Major Charles Armagost, the Full Time Unit Administrator and Adjutant.  Wearing his green fatigues the good Major administered the Oath for the California National Guard, which differed from the Federal Oath in that it also included words about obeying the Governor of the State and the Laws of California etc…Following that I was walked down to the supply room where a rather rotund Sergeant began issuing me uniforms and field gear.  I got my first gift of US Military designer clothing and was told to report the Thursday after Labor Day for a “Battery Dark Night.”  So began my rather auspicious career.

I remember being in uniform in those early days without a single ribbon or medal to my name.  I’d look around and see all the guys who had served in Vietnam and some in Korea as well with all kinds of ribbons, medals, unit citations and qualification badges.  I would look at them and once I remarked to Judy that I wish that I would have a lot someday.  She accused me of whining, something that I feel is a mischaracterization of my attitude about not having anything and something that now with a full chest of ribbons, medals and qualification pins that she is not hesitant to remind me of and tell others about.

2LT Dundas 1983Look Mom One Ribbon

So what has transpired in 28 years?  Here are some of the highlights and a few lowlights of the of this adventure.

In 1981 it all began and things happened fast, within two weeks of enlisting I was driving an M-151A1 Jeep to Ft Irwin CA as part of battalion advance party and then spending the weekend learning to call in artillery fire. After going through hell and being destroyed and rebuilt by SFC Harry Ball, Drill Sergeant US Army like Richard Gere was in An Officer and a Gentleman I somehow got commissioned in part due to the forbearance of Major Lawson, the former Captain Lawson who has sworn me in.  Judy asks if I had my own “Puget Sound Deb” when she sees the movie with me that winter. However just prior to getting commissioned during my last annual training period at Camp Roberts I led team of Ersatz East German Kommando’s on raids against battalion rear area as the opposing forces.  I was almost run over in may M-151A1 by an M-548 Ammo Carrier during a strafing run coming down hills firing blanks from machine guns like the Rat Patrol and dropping Smoke and CS grenades in the vehicle’s path.  Later we captured the battery Operations Center during a firing mission. None of this made them happy but the Forward Observers and I had a blast.

After I got commissioned I attended the Medical Department Officer Basic Course at Ft Sam Houston TX and suffered for Jesus for 9 weeks in the Riverwalk Marriott hotel in downtown San Antonio. After this I spent 11 glorious weeks at Ft Knox Kentucky which by the way is in a “dry county” or at least it was back then  going through a 6 week course after being bumped by Saudi Arabian exchange officers.

557th comany command 1985Company Commander

From January 1984 through late December 1986 we were stationed with the 557th Medical Company Neubrucke and later Wiesbaden. Was a platoon leader and became company XO when our XO checked into a psych ward before Winter REFORGER. While in the field was promoted but o one realized that fact until we came out of the field in mid- February. In a late night hastily arranged ceremony which I had to drag Judy in from bed to see I was promoted and got my first real medal. In September I became a “relief pitcher” Company Commander when my new CO got fired. I was told “Lieutenant; clean up that Company.” After 7 months, and having to adjudicate close to 50 Article 15’s, and kicking a bunch of drug users out of the Army I was relieved by a Captain and I had my first and last Change of Command ceremony. Became a personnel officer at our group, pissed off the boss and had a miserable last couple months in Germany. However I completed my first row of ribbons made some really good lifelong German friends and learned to drive really fast and really good and developed a fine appreciation of good beer.

In 1987 I attended the Military Personnel Officer Course at Ft Benjamin Harrison which is in Indianapolis and continued on to Fort Sam Houston where I was assigned as the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences.  I got promoted right after I got there and since Judy had not arrived I had the world’s best platoon sergeant, SFC Cynthia Carter help pin on my new Captain bars. Judy was quite happy that Cindy got to do this as she really liked her.  My Brigade Commander wondered what was up with that, but it was an honor to have her do the pinning. While there I worked on AIDS/HIV personnel policy and became “CINC AIDS” at the Academy. While there I collected my second Army Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal.

Berlin WallBerlin Wall 1986

In 1988 I left Active Army to attend Seminary and was appointed as an Armor officer in Texas Army National Guard.  I was told by my boss LTC Jim Wigger that I was moving from the “frying pan into the fire as the chaplains were a cutthroat bunch” and that the “Medical Department was not even in the same league as the Chaplains.” When the Division Chaplain found out that a seminarian was getting ready to drive tanks he pitched a fit and had me enter the Chaplain Candidate program.  In seminary I attended  the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth NJ. As Deputy Course leader and Company “First Sergeant” pissed off lots of chaplains and seminarians. Thankfully I was backed up by LTC Rich Whaley who saved my ass for the first time and not the last time.  I met my friend Fr Jim Bowman who kept me from doing anything really stupid. In 1992 I graduated from seminary was ordained and become a chaplain and assigned to 111th Engineer Battalion in Abilene. That year I got thrown out of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course when school changed a policy on Chaplain Candidates awaiting final approval to be chaplains to enter course. After Billy Martin style tantrum Rich Whaley saves my ass a second time.

In 1993 I went back to Chaplain Officer Advanced Course, made amends and did the appropriate penance.  Meet up with Fr Jim Bowman again. In the fall of 1994 finished the final phase of the Chaplain Officer Advance Course.  Happiness is Ft Monmouth in your rear view mirror. In the summer of 1984 I viewed the O.J. Chase live on miniature TV in M-577 Command Track with Lakers playoff game in split screen while at Fort Hood.

In January 1995 I moved to Huntington WV to take a job as a contract ER Chaplain.  I transferred from one former Confederate Unit to another going from the Texas to the Virginia Army National Guard.  In December I was promoted to Major and transferred to the Army Reserve and got rid of the 410 mile one way trip for a drill.

New MajorNew Major December 1995

In July of 1996 I got mobilized and sent to Germany to support Bosnia mission, lose job. While in Germany get to do a lot of cool stuff, got a bunch of medals and though the Chaplains there wanted me to be brought on regular active duty get told I am too senior to transfer to Regular Army. I actually think that the guy who made the decision remembered me from Chaplain School and did not want someone like me in “his” Chaplain Corps. Upon my return from Bosnia support the Reserves assigned to Ft Indiantown Gap PA as Installation Command Chaplain where in September 1998 I got to close down help close down the Federal side of things and transfer chapel and congregation to National Guard care. In October I returned to the reserves like a journeyman ball-player being sent back to AAA from the Majors. In December the Navy offered me a deal to play “in the show” on active duty and I took it, went from being an Army Reserve Major to Navy Lieutenant. My friend Father Fred Elkin was my first detailer and offered me a choice of East Coast or West Coast Marines when I asked for a ship.  We now serve together and get a good laugh about that now. It did turn out to be a good thing for me. One of the cool things about my time in the Navy has been since I have blown myself up enough in the Army and seen others do likewise that I know where the career “land mines” are and how not to step on them. This has been a great benefit to me.  It was like changing from one league to another in the middle of a baseball season.  The old stats don’t count for or against you when you start playing in the new league.

After Navy Chaplain School I was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJuene NC. From then on my life has been going non-stop.  I was chaplain for 4 different battalions in the Division where Father John Kaul used me as a “relief pitcher” in situations where chaplains had either been fired for doing illegal or immoral things or replacing people who had to move on short notice orders. Did CAX at 29 Palms on multiple occasions and did a deployment to the Far East, Okinawa, Japan and Korea.  Collected more medals got my “old” version Fleet Marine Force Qualification. I was assigned to HQ BN 2nd MARDIV. 9-11 -01 attack happened. A couple of months later I reported to USS HUE CITY CG-66 in Mayport.

Dundas of the DesertDundas of the Desert 29 Palms 2000-2001

Not long after reporting went on the final work up exercises prior to deployment, deployed to the Horn of Africa, Northern Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Mediterranean.  Was an advisor for a boarding team in Northern Arabian Gulf and made 75 boardings of detained smugglers.  We almost got to see the Indians and Pakistanis get in a nuclear war, that was a bit sporty and we supported air operations in Afghanistan. After a period in the yards during following deployment as well as work with the great Marines who served in the Battle of Hue City I checked off the ship in October 2003, again collecting more medals and ribbons.

Boarding partyBoarding Party 2002

I went to Norfolk where I was assigned to the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion and my Commanding Officers, Colonel Mike Paulovich and Colonel Donald Rogers sent me about the world to care for our Marines.  Over that time I probably averaged 2 trips a month out of the area, many overseas to Japan, Hawaii, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Bahrain, others to places far and wide in the Continental United States.  Colonel Paulovich and I probably worked more closely together than any commander that I have ever worked with and we went through many difficult times in that assignment. We are still friends to this day.  One of the cool things is the people that we work with. I was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in April 2006.  This meant that I had spent almost 16 years of my career wearing Captain or Lieutenant bars.  I again collected more ribbons and medals for the time with the Marines and was one of the first Navy Officers to get the Fleet Marine Force Officer Qualification pin while completing Marine Command and Staff College.

Belleau woodBelleau Wood France 2004

I then went to Navy EOD Group Two in Little Creek where I was the first chaplain assigned to EOD.  While there I got to go to Jordan to the Jordanian Army/UN Peace Operations Training Center and to Sicily.  I was snatched up to go to Iraq in July 2007 and served the most meaningful operational deployment of my career serving our Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Justice and Homeland Security advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police and Border Forces in Al Anbar Province.  I came back from Iraq with a great case of PTSD, a gift that keeps on giving.  I checked out of EOD in September 2007 again with more medals and ribbons to my current assignment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where I get to do what I am passionate about as a Priest and Navy Chaplain serving in a teaching hospital.

My Tom Clancy lookIraq 2008

Looking back it has been a long and strange trip and it is still an ongoing journey.  People ask me how I keep going even with the PTSD and it’s like Tommy Lasorda says “Guys ask me, don’t I get burned out? How can you get burned out doing something you love? I ask you, have you ever got tired of kissing a pretty girl?” Speaking of which now that I am on the way home after 31 or so hours at work I probably need to do with Judy when I see her.

Steve Summer Whites 2008July 2008, Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy?

Peace,  Steve+

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