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I Don’t Have the Answers but You Might as Well Live: Thoughts on Suicide

Suicide-Hotline

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a hard article to write because it takes me back to points in my life after my return from Iraq that all I wanted to do was die and even had plans of how I would kill myself. The worst period was between 2010 and 2013 when I was stationed away from my wife Judy on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to subject my dog Molly to me not coming home, she helped save my life, as did thoughts of Judy and the friends I had at a local bar who cared for me during that time.

It wasn’t my faith or for that matter most of the people I knew in the Chaplain Corps or my former Church that kept me from it, it was a dog, my wife, and regular guys that I ate and drank with regularly: Mike and New York Mike, Walt, Eddie, Felicia, Bill, “Judge Ito”, Billy, and other regulars at Rucker Johns in Emerald Isle made sure that I lived. So did friends at Granger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina where I would drive an hour to and back to watch minor league baseball games two or three times a week: Toni and Jerry, Anne, Cara, and Negro League Hall of Fame player Carl Long. Sadly, New York Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, Cara, and Carl have all passed away since I came back to Virginia.

During those dark times I had friends including men and women that I had served with in the military or their family members kill themselves. I can visualize their faces as I write this. They ranged in age from barely twenty years old to nearly sixty, all at different stages of life and their career. Quite a few were combat vets of multiple deployments and in one case both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. They were real heroes but they defeat the figurative demons within them. I also have had a great grandfather and great uncle who afflicted with terminal cancer killed themselves.

I still struggle with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Moral Injury. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, thankfully not nearly as bad as it used to be. I still avoid most crowded places unless they are very familiar to me. I am still hyper-vigilant and on guard. I plot escape routes or have memorized what I as an unarmed person would do to neutralize a threat in a public place because I don’t plan on going down without a fight or let innocent people get killed.  I also suffer from frequent flashbacks and terrible nightmares and night terrors. I threw myself off the bed in the middle of one again Thursday night. Thankfully I didn’t get a concussion or break my nose leading to emergency room visits like happened in 2014 and 2016.

Suicide is something I try not even to think about because it takes me back to very bad times that I don’t want to experience again. At the same time when I have to deal with suicides at work or read about high profile suicides, such as those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade I feel all of the anguish that I went through during the worst times, but without any desire to kill myself, I think that is a good thing.

At the same time when I deal with or hear about a suicide my mind starts playing the them song from M*A*S*H; Suicide is Painless, which was written for the movie by the fourteen year old son of director Robert Altman. Altman wanted the song for a specific scene in the film and he wanted it to be named Suicide is Painless, he also wanted it to be the stupidest song ever written. He couldn’t wrap himself around that and his son wrote it in about 15 minutes. It’s a strange song for me. I grew up with the movie and the TV show and I started my career as a commissioned office as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army. The song was the official song of the Army Medical Department and the instrumental version was played at every graduation or function that we had. Two decades later in the trauma hall of a Navy Trauma platoon in Iraq I felt like Father Mulcahy

I have a deep sense of empathy for those who suffer from deep depression and feel that sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and god-forsakenness that often lead to suicide. When I see people who complete a suicide condemned as weak, selfish, or even worse as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment I do get angry, especially when the accusers are Christians. I believe than nobody is outside the mercy and love of God, even those who commit suicide. At the same time it is hard for me to know what to say anymore without sounding trite because I know how deeply someone has to be hurting to consider suicide, and words cannot go there, there is a profound hollowness to them. The last verse of Suicide is Painless note something that I feel when dealing with a suicide situation because I just don’t have the answers:

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied oh why ask me…

That being said I do believe that help can be found and that even in the midst of struggle people can get help and find meaning in life, and I want them to find whatever they need to help them live, thrive, and survive. I don’t believe that life is without struggle, many of my personal heroes dealt with terrible depression at various times of their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Gouverneur Warren, and T.E. Lawrence among them.

As opposed to the thought that suicide is painless, I think that the great American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker said it well, suicide is not painless, she wrote:

“Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.”

So please, if you or someone that you know are struggling with issues in life that are so bad that suicide has become an option, please reach out and get help. Getting help is worth it, I know, I wouldn’t still be here without it. As Seneca said: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Midweek Musings


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dean Koonz wrote, “Never leave a friend behind. Friends are all we have to get us through this life – and they are the only thinks in the world that could hope to see in the next.” 

I was on the road much of the last two days in order to attend a memorial for one of my friends in Emerald Isle North Carolina. I lived there for three years on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeuene, and a number of really good people there took me in and became my home away from home community. I got to know them at bar the one of the local restaurants, a place called Rucker John’s. It was like my Carolina version of what I have hear in Virginia, a place like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. 

Last year a couple of the guys, Dave, or as we called him “Judge Ito” because he looked just like the real Judge Ito, and Walt, a retired history professor passed away. I wasn’t able to get down for those memorial, both were sudden. However, I was able to get down to be with my friends as we remembered “New York Mike.” Mike was a retiree who had come south for his health and had lived on the island over 20 years. He was one of the people that invited me into their lives, poker games at his condo, get together soon on the beach, times at the bar. 

For me that was a hard tour because I was in some of the hardest and deepest struggles with PTSD. But Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, and others including our other Mike, Eddie, Phyllis, Wild Bill, Santa Claus Niel, Bill, and others helped hold me together. I think that is one of the most important things, having people that care about you. 

So this was a special time, to be back with those friends remembering New York Mike. About 25 people showed up as Mike’s kids who live in New York had his services up there. What we did was to remember aa friend at a place where all of us hung out. We were the 4 O’clock Club, and Mike was one of the founding members over 20 years ago. 

At 5 we all raised a glass and toasted his memory. My friends ask me as “Father Steve” to offer a prayer, and we shared stories about Mike. It was really touching. A place was set for Mike, a glass filled with his favorite Merlot at an empty seat. At the end of that we released a bunch of balloons onto the crystal clear blue skies. It was nice, and I think that it was good for all of us. 

Anyone, a lot going on in politics but I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about those thoughts, as well as getting back to write some more history, as well as a could articles on lighter topics, I’m thinking doing something with some of my favorite story songs from the 70’s and 80’s. 

Have a great day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Last Night at Rucker Johns: The Place Where Everyone Knows My Name

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Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7U3lo80YrQ

Yesterday I did my final check out at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune and today the movers came. It was too hot and humid. with the door open to allow their access while doing cleaning I felt sick by the time that they left. After resting a while I went to the bar at Rucker Johns restaurant. It has become over the past year and a half my local version of “Cheers.” A place that everyone knows my name.

Cheers

I have written about leaving my duties at the hospital recently and I will miss the people there. I will stay in contact with quite a few. They are friends and colleagues, some who have walked through difficult times with me and I with them.

That being said for many years my life has been centered on work, and quite often when done with work I would withdraw to be alone. This was the case more often after Iraq, especially when I took up my assignment at Camp LeJeune. I would go to work and then go home. The only time that didn’t happen is when I would drive the 50 mile one way trip to Kinston to see the Kinston Indians baseball team. I met wonderful friends there, a number of whom have remained in contact, and one couple, Jerry and Toni Brophy have become like family.

Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name.

Having a place where people know you and care about you matters.

Apart from that the isolation for the first year and a half was at times maddening and even dehabilitating. When I did see Judy it was as if we were miles away from each other. By the summer of 2011 both of us wondered if our marriage would survive.

cheers-1007

In December of 2011 Judy and I spend a month together after she had surgery on her Achilles Tendon. It forced us together and when she went back to Virginia our dog Molly decided that she wanted to live with me. In that month and over a couple of other visits Molly had discovered the joys of chasing deer and going to the beach and like any kid she decided that she wanted to be where it was really interesting.

Molly brought me back to humanity and in the process I began to seek contact with actual humans again. Since Judy and I have a place like the bar in the television show “Cheers” in Virginia Beach I sought something similar here. I found it at the Rucker Johns bar. There I met some wonderful people, Mike, New York Mike, Eddie, Dave (Ito), Wild Bill, Bill the future mayor, Lisa, Hancock, Felicia, Brian, Ron, Terry, and the bartenders, Billy, Christi, Tara, Caitlin, Grace, Michelle and Lexi and managers, Mark, Chris, Jeff, Wallace and Mark. There were others as well. They all welcomed me. We bought drinks for each other and this week I don’t think that I paid for a meal or a drink.

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What I loved about this group, especially the core “4 O’Clock Club” was that they were real. In fact it was funny for the first couple of months they didn’t know that I was a Navy Chaplain or Priest. I find that advertising such things often puts a distance in relationships. especially in light of how many clergy treat people that don’t go to their churches or those that hang out at bars. Sad because Jesus seemed to hang out with the very people that many clergy have treat shamefully.

So initially the folks at Rucker Johns got to me as “Steve” the guy who wears Baltimore Orioles hats, jerseys, jackets and t-shirts every day. I think I can were something different every day for a month without breaking my Orioles habit. Soon I was going every day that I was in town, I found that I wanted to be around them, they were real, refreshing and fun.

They found out inadvertently that I was a Chaplain because New York Mike knew the secretary of our Legal Officer. She broke the news to him that I was not only a Chaplain and Priest but a Commander too. My cover was blown. Soon some began to call me Father Steve, Padre Steve or still just Steve. But our relationships grew. I was in the various NASCAR and Football pools, threw my money in on the Powerball lottery and played cards with them.

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Tonight they gave me a t-shirt signed by all of them. The picture speaks more about it than I can write. I have received many going away gifts in my career, but this is something specially, because it had nothing to do with my position in the military. It was about friendship and still is. I plan of framing it.

Almost everyone I knew was there tonight. It was a wonderful time. I will miss these people and this place, a place were everybody knows my name.

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It is so much like Cheers and I will miss it. The theme song to that show speaks to me in so many ways. The last verse of the song, which did not air on television said:

Be glad there’s one place in the world
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to go where people know,
People are all the same;
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

I found that with the 4 O’Clock Club at Rucker Johns. In the morning I pack my car and drive home to be with Judy and my friends in Virginia Beach. But I will miss my friends here and I do plan on coming back whenever I can to this place, where everybody knows my name.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Cavity and a Visit to the Dentist: The Miracles of Modern Technology

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Happiness is your dentist telling you it won’t hurt and then having him catch his hand in the drill. —Johnny Carson, Yes that is Padre Steve in this Picture

Today was my first visit to the dentist to repair a new cavity in well over a decade. When I found out last week that I had a cavity I was taken by surprise. I was less surprised that a couple of old fillings were deteriorating and needed to be replaced. So I set up an appointment with my colleague and occasional drinking buddy George at our hospital dental clinic.

stooges-dentist-2

Open Wide

Now those people that know me know the trepidation that I approach visits to the dentist. My first dentist in Oak Harbor Washington was a bit of a sadist, something like an old, balding and bespectacled version of Steve Martin’s dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. It was decades before I began to go to the dentist without the feeling of absolute dread and terror, despite the fact that I never had to suffer a dentist like him ever again.

steve-martin-dentist Because I am Your Dentist

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOtMizMQ6oM

 Today I went to get my new cavity fixed and one of the two old fillings replaced. George and his crew were good. It was not an unpleasant experience, despite the fact I would rather be almost anywhere than in the dentist chair. This was really an important event for me because I used to be an Anti-Dentite.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV7m6IIN_tI

 I used to be an Anti-Dentite

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lW6R9kSGV2Q

They worked so well that I didn’t have time to play with the chair controls as is my custom. I tend to want to play with the chair and other equipment if they are not attentive. However I was able to take out my I-Phone, play a few games of Angry Birds as they worked and even take some pictures of the work in progress.

I think that the young technicians figured that something must be seriously wrong with me, and they are right. In a sense I am not right, but one of the ways that I cope with going to the dentist, or any other unpleasant experience is to use humor and absurdity to make light of the experience and to keep my mind off of the pain. Thankfully, George who knows me made no complaint. Thank God for modern technology.

Such was the case today. When I showed the picture to friends at my local hang out, Rucker John’s on Emerald Isle, I was told that “you are just not right, and that is why we like you.”

So anyway may your night be good and your teeth free of pain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thinking About Community: A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Cheers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMNVNRybluQ

Some years ago the theme song of the television show “Cheers!” struck a chord with people, because it expressed the desire of many people. I have talked about it before and the song is a favorite of mine.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. 
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

We live in an increasingly disconnected world despite the proliferation of devices designed to make communication easier. Our dependence on these devices often serves to disconnect us from community because we use them to accomplish things without any human contact.  I mean really, what percentage of our Facebook “friends” really know us and how many can we go to when the chips are down.

We shop in massive stores, attend mega-churches, exist on fast food bought at a drive through and we don’t know our neighbors. To most organizations we are not real life human beings but statistics whose only value is in profit and market share.  And we wonder why so many people are depressed, lonely and even despair of life.

Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name.

Having a place where people know you and care about you matters.

In a time where many people feel alone and disconnected community really matters because as Americans we are all in this together. Today, as they have for the past few years large numbers of American cities and towns are enduring great hardship, and this disconnect between people, evidenced by the fact that we often don’t even know our neighbors has created a social isolation that only breeds hatred and discontent.  With this true lack of community we should be surprised with increasing crime, violence, discrimination and prejudice.

The sad thing to me as a religious leader, a Navy Chaplain is that for many people that I encounter the Church is not a place of love, safety, community or acceptance. Many have suffered greatly at the hands of religious people and institutions and some though raised in devoutly Christian homes across the denominational spectrum have not only left the church, for some other church but no longer believe.

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Community doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes illusion of perpetual prosperity only serves to drive us apart.  However, sometimes communities are reborn when facing crisis, people begin to look out for one another again and the welcome sign means that you really are welcome.

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I have found that in a number of places, in Virginia I have my friends that the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant,  Harbor Park in Norfolk and St James Episcopal Church inPortsmouth. In North Carolina I have found that community at Rucker John’s in Emerald Isle and with my friends from Kinston, from when that town still had a Minor League team. Those friends have remained and I am grateful, especially because of how broken I was when I returned from Iraq. I don’t think that until one experiences that kind of brokenness that one really appreciates a place where people care for you, accept you and make you feel like you belong.

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But, what has been neat for me and what is true for others is when we do find that special place for ourselves it is a beautiful thing. Likewise, when we can provide that kind of home to others we can really understand the last stanza of the song from Cheers which never aired on television.

Be glad there’s one place in the world
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to go where people know,

People are all the same;
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Juiced and Loving It

Former Major League Baseball slugger Jose Canseco wrote a book in which he described his use of performance enhancing drugs, or steroids. The book not only detailed his use but made accusations that many players were using such substances helped to reveal a culture in MLB that saw many players using while owners and management turned a blind eye. My version of being “juiced” to borrow Canseco’s book title is far different. I prefer citrus and other fruits run trough a blender to anything that I might have to inject with a needle. I don’t like needles or shots. 10 years of allergy shots  given 1-2 times a week as a kid cured me of that.

For 30 years in the military I have struggled with being in my weight standards. My problem is that I am undertall. just a bit about 5 and a half feet tall with a barrel chest and thick body build.  But in the military which is ruled by tall skinny people with the exception of Army Chief of Staff Ray Odinero defines undertall as overweight, even if you are in otherwise excellent physical condition and can kick ass on the Physical Fitness Test. The older you are the harder it gets, especially when the services are downsizing, no pun intended.

Since I entered the Army in 1981 until now the standards for physical readiness have increased. In fact to score an equivalent score to what I needed to get a maximum score in the Army in the 1980s I have to do as much or more. My weight limit is basically what I had to meet when I was in my 20s. Now I don’t know about you but not many people in their 50s are anywhere close to their physical condition when they were in their 20s and most civilian employers don’t care so long as you can do the job.  As a 52 year old in the Navy I have to meet weight, body fat and physical standards that are little different from when I first entered the Army over 30 years ago. I am not complaining but that is the way life is, as some say in the Navy “choose your rate choose your fate.” I chose to continue to serve as an old person in an organization which is designed for young people. The men and women that I entered the military back in 1981 are almost all retired or have otherwise left the military. I am now a dinosaur. When I entered the Army if you were over 50 you were exempt from the standards. the same in the Navy. It is not that way now. Fat people are easy targets when ranks need to be thinned, no pun intended.

My body type is a prime target. I am for all practical matters a fireplug. Depending on my height on a given day I can be 66” or 67” tall, which in the Navy is a difference f 5 pounds. Thus if I go beyond the maximum weight on the weigh for my height in I am subjected to a Body Fat Composition determined by a highly subjective measurement of my abdomen and neck.  In the year following my tour in Iraq when I was physically, emotionally and spiritually a wreck I tipped the scales a bit too heavy and was taped. I passed the physical fitness test with aplomb both times but because I was over my body fat I failed both times. In the Navy if you fail 3 times (weight/body fat/PT test) in 4 years you are out.

Thus I ended up on what I call the “BCA (Body Composition Analysis) Death Watch. This means that if I fail the weight standards again before 2014 I am out. As I mentioned I am have a fireplug body build. Even way under my official weight limit I am not skinny and since my neck is not thick if I fail the weight limit I am probably going to be near, at or over my body fat limit no matter how hard I try. Thus I need to be under the weight limit.

I didn’t have a real problem with this until I came back from Iraq in 2008  Then everything went to hell. I gained a lot of weight, suffered from PTSD, severe depression, loss of faith and had a number of nagging physical injuries that I kept re-injuring. I self medicated with beer and donuts. Tasted great, made me feel better but made me fat. Nothing like 4-6 hot and fresh Krispy Kreme Glazed donuts with a couple of good amber lagers to wash them down just before bed. However as good tasting and satisfying as the combination is it is not healthy and I don’t recommend it, unless done in severe moderation which was not my habit back then.

Now it has been a couple of years since I failed a BCA. I have worked hard, but not without struggle. I gained more weight than I wanted to after I broke my leg last summer and was really afraid to do much on it. However as it healed I began to test my physical endurance and helped by a switch of running shoes, enabled me to really get back in shape. For the first time since before I deployed to Iraq in 2007 I ran over 7 miles last weekend. I have developed a really good conditioning regimen that exercises all of my body and supplement it with running on the beach near my apartment. But exercise is only part of the equation. The other part is diet.

Since I gained more weight than I wanted over the winter I had to find a way to shred it without resorting to starvation type diets. What I found was my blender. Yes most parts are edible. Actually no, it was what I put in the blender and what I am now loving. My mix which produces about a liter of juice follows:

2 medium Ruby Red Grapefruit, 1 Banana, 1 Medium Navel Orange, 2 cups Strawberries (Halved)  8 ounces water

I lover this. I drink this during the day rather than eating donuts and high fat/sodium junk foods and then follow up with a healthy dinner, low in fat but rich and balanced with appropriate amounts of proteins, carbohydrates etc…. Once in a while I will splurge and have a big burger or pizza and an occasional dessert but generally I have switched over to healthy items taken in moderation. I also did not have to stop drinking beer which I have with dinner every night. The result was that I lost weight and feel better. In fact after I passed my weigh in today I had more of my juice before going out for a big burger reward.  When I came home from dinner I made another batch of juice. I like it and plan to continue it because like I said I like it. I figure now why not? If I keep up my physical conditioning while watching my diet I will be better off and in the fall during the next Physical Readiness cycle I will not have to change habits.

For physical conditioning I alternate running on the beach with doing a type of circuit training that I designed to fit me. I have a course that is about 4/10th of a mile. I run it and at a predetermined point stop and do 25 sit-ups, 15-20 oblique sit-ups on each side, 70-100 flutter kicks and 15-25 push ups. I then stand up, start running and repeat. I try to do this for at least an hour pausing only to tie my shoes if they come undone. In an hour this means I run about 4 miles, do 150-250 push ups, 250 regular sit ups, 300-400 oblique sit-ups and 700-1000 flutter kicks during the work out. As I get in better  shape each week my number of repetitions has increased on each exercise and my running distance has increased. It is a good thing. I have to think my old assistant who was my body guard in Iraq, RP1 Nelson Lebron for helping me figure out something that would work for me. Nelson is a beast and has been on Team USA and the All Navy Team in Mixed Martial Arts and was a Gold Gloves Boxer.

My blood pressure and cholesterol always surprise my doctors because they are better than most people younger than me. Part of this has to be genetics but part is conditioning, diet and hard work.

As far as overall physical condition I am happy and pleasantly amused that at age 52 I can outdo many younger people who should by all accounts leave me in the dirt.

Reward (But in Moderation): The American Burger at Rucker John’s Emerald Isle

I am blessed that I have recovered from injury and am back in shape. It has taken a lot of work but it is worth it. I feel better and it is a good thing. Tonight I celebrated with a big burger and a couple of beers at a local restaurant. Tomorrow I will do my juice, get in a strong workout and eat a healthy dinner. However I may continue my celebration with a dinner at the local Mexican restaurant before going back to salads, soups or small pasta dishes with an occasional steak or burger.

Here’s to health.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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