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Mission Accomplished in Al Anbar: The Marines Turn Over the Mission to the Iraqis

Religious Support Team 2 MNF-W the Desert Rats at Al Waleed August 2007

There was a time not very long ago that names like Al Anbar, Fallujah and Ramadi were synonymous with futility and humiliation.  But that was before a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. In late 2007 the Marines and our Iraqi Allies aided in large part by the “Anbar Awakening” where the Sunni in the province realized that Al Qaida Iraq’s motives were not in the best interest of the people gained the upper hand in a very short time.  The success was heralded as part of the “surge” but was in large part due to the effort made by the Marines to be seen as something other than occupiers but allies in a fight against foreigners that would brutally kill Iraqis to achieve their goals.

Iraqi Children Happy to see us near Baghdadi

I arrived in Al Anbar in August of 2007 and spent my tour as the Chaplain to the Marine, Army and other advisers in the province which at the time of my arrival were still very much in play.  Within days of arriving at our base of operations I took part in a number of mass casualty situations at the Shock Surgery Trauma center at Ta Qaddum where I prayed for, anointed and looked after Marines wounded when their vehicles were destroyed by improvised explosive devices during combat missions.  My tour was the highlighter of my military career.  In my tour with the advisors as well as the Iraqis of the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army divisions, Second Border Brigade and Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol and even a reconstruction team or two.

Allies: Colonel Cottrell and General Murthi of the 7th Iraqi Division at the Marine Corps Birthday 10 November 2007

During my time there I was privileged to serve with great Marines, Soldiers and even a number of Navy, Air Force, US Border Patrol and Customs personnel and contractors working with the Iraqis.  The Iraqis in many cases were valiant men who while serving against the insurgency and Al Qaida knew that their families were in danger from retaliation as were their own lives.

Friendship: Dinner with General Sabah

While Marines and Army forces took the battle to the insurgents the Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Al Anbar suddenly turned on the insurgents and Al Qaida Iraq.  Soon Iraqi civilians who had been either hostile or neutral towards the Marines and their own Iraqi Army and Police units turned on the Al Qaida and their allies.  Suddenly violence began to subside; Iraqi civilians began to report insurgents, weapons caches and IEDs.

Near COP South waiting to clear suspected IED

By the time that I left Iraq in February 2008 the situation in the province was such that the 1st Iraqi Division was able to be dispatched to Basra and Diyala where they in conjunction they would take the lead in driving the insurgents from these regions. Just before I left an Iraqi General, General Ali in Habbinya told me that I should come back in 5 years as a tourist because everything would be alright. Another Iraqi officer told me that if anything ever happened between us and “the Persians” that the Iraqis would be on our side.  I knew when I left that Iraq would be okay in the long run and I still believe that to be true.

Me with General Ali January 2008

Thursday the Sergeant Major of what used to be Multinational Force West or MNF-West announced the Marines of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) would be conducting a transfer of authority for the American mission to the 1st Armored Division of the US Army as part of the US drawdown in Iraq without a relief in place.   For most people in the United States this will be an event of little significance Iraq is now despite the continued presence of US forces has been forgotten by most.

With Advisers and Leaders of a Company of the Iraqi 2nd Border Brigade

Concern is now focused on US military actions in Afghanistan and the humanitarian relief operations in Haiti.  However, it was in Iraq that an insurgency was defeated, the first time since the British defeated the Malayan insurgency sponsored by Chinese Communists, and the French had militarily defeated the Algerian insurgency before the French government under DeGaulle surrendered the hard fought success of the Paras and Legionnaires betraying them even as he looked after what he viewed as the future of France.

With Bedouin Family and Advsiers near Syria

In the summer of 2007 Iraq was viewed as a lost cause by much of the American body-politic, politicians of both parties and the media.  Now it is becoming a functional state, in large part due to the sacrifices of US Military personnel and the Iraqi Army and security forces.  U.S. Forces are disengaging and exiting the country. While it is likely that and advisory and support mission will remain as the Iraqis continue to rebuild and their Army and security forces continue to expand their capabilities.  The Iraqis recently showed their metal by facing down an Iranian incursion into Iraqi territory on a strategic oil field.

The text of the Sergeant Major’s message describing the transfer is posted below:

From: Carpenter SgtMaj Kiplyn (USF-W SGTMAJ)

Sent: Thursday, January 21, 2010 15:55

Subject: FAREWELL OF THE MARINES FROM IRAQ

UNCLASSIFIED

Please pass on,

SgtsMaj, MGySgts, CMDCMs, Marines and Sailors, Saturday, 23 January at 1100 will mark the end of the Marines in Iraq as an organization.  II MEF (fwd) will conduct a Transfer of Authority Ceremony with the First Armored Division without a Relief in Place from any incoming unit. USF-W (formally MNF-W) will merge with USD-C (formally MND-Baghdad) and will cease to exist.

After 6 years, over 850 Marines and Sailors killed in combat and another 8800 wounded we have completed our mission.  At our peak, we had almost 26,000 Marines and Sailors on deck, close to 200 aircraft, over 380,000 pieces of ground equipment, and were averaging close to 2000 significant events a month.  We have added a whole new generation of Heros; and names like Al Nasiriyah, Fallujah and Ramadi will be added to our History books.

Words can’t begin to explain the magnitude of effort and sacrifice our Marines and Sailors have gone through to help the Iraqi people.  Each year since the initial invasion, Marines and Sailors from all over the Corps have been a part of the revolving I MEF (fwd) and II MEF (Fwd) Commands.  Each year has been different with its own sets of unique challenges and each successive year, the incoming organization has built upon the successes of the outgoing organization.

This year was no different, we didn’t have anywhere near the level of fighting that previous MEFs have done.  However, we did conduct many operations, maintained security, continue to professionalize the Iraqi Security Forces, develop good governance and economics, assisted with the continued establishment of the Rule of Law and oversaw the peaceful transition of the provincial government.  We also had one unique mission that we can call our own. That was to finally bring the Marine Corps home. Over the past year, we have simultaneously conducted the responsible drawdown of 24,000 Personnel, over 34 COPs and FOBs, including Baharia, Rawah, and TQ and sent six years worth of equipment out of theater.

For those of you who served with me this year, thank you.  It was long and difficult at times, with our own set of challenges, but we did it.

It has been an honor to serve with you.

For those of you who have left your boot prints over here at least once during the last six years; thanks to you too. You set the stage for us to finish the job.  It has been costly, it has been challenging, it has taken a while with quite a few dark days. But, in the end, it was worth it.

All Marines and Sailors, including those who remained stateside have contributed to the overall success of the Marines and Sailors in Iraq and; all of us have known someone who didn’t make it back alive or has permanent injuries. It is up to us to ensure that those who follow never forgot their sacrifice or what we did here.

Collectively, we have added another illustrious chapter to the successful story of our Marine Corps.  One that all of us can be proud of.

Semper Fidelis,

K. Carpenter

Sergeant Major

United States Force – West, Iraq

(Previously Multi National Force – West) II Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd)

21 January 2010

UNCLASSIFIED

Iraqi Recruits going through Basic Training

I am proud today to have been part of a mission that appears to have ended in success, at least in Al Anbar Province.  Semper Fidelis to the Marine Corps and the Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen who served alongside of us in Al Anbar as well as the Iraqi Army and security forces who despite the odds set the stage for the Iraqis and US Forces in the rest of the country to begin to re-establish order and normalcy to a country that has known little but war, dictatorship and tragedy over the past 40 years. I look forward to going back to Iraq someday and maybe visit some of those Iraqis that I was privileged to serve alongside.  May God bless all those who served honorably in Iraq and the Iraqi Army, security forces and the people of Iraq.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Building Blocks for Success at TQ

Note: This is the latest chapter of my “Going to War” series which documents my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to serve as the Religious Support Team for all advisors in Al Anbar Province.  Previous posts of this series are located in the “Tour in Iraq” link in the topics section on the left hand column of the website.  If you have friends or family who are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and a little bit of an idea of what they might be experiencing or might have experienced feel free to read and share.  Peace and Blessings, Steve+

tq vew from airTQ: The Chow Hall is on the Right

It was about 0400 when I got to sleep after our flight to TQ.  About 0900 I woke up with the sun shining through the small holes in the metal shade over the window of my can.  I was still pretty groggy when I got up, went and got another shower just to try to wake up.  Even at 0900 it was close to 100 degrees and the sun beat down on me as I walked the 100-150 yards to the shower trailers in my PT gear.  After waking up and getting myself together I knocked on Nelson’s door and woke him up.  Nelson looked pretty beat as well and after this I walked over to the only non-military food outlet the “Green Beans Coffee” trailer and got me some coffee before I walked over to the Chapel.  The Green Bean is interesting; a couple of guys from California started with one store in Saudi Arabia and now is located around the world with U.S. Forces.  They have a program to buy a cup of Joe for a Joe.”  The company website is here: http://www.greenbeanscoffee.com/ now I have to admit I never got a free cup but it was good coffee.

I kind of surveyed the area.  My “can” was located not far from the chapel, the gym and MWR facilities.  A bit down the way a hundred and fifty yards or so was the Marine Corps exchange which though not bad was often like shopping in East Germany, long lines and limited quantities of merchandise.  If you needed something and waited to buy it there was a strong likelihood that the exchange would not have it on your next trip.  About 400 years past the exchange was the main chow hall which was pretty large and covered with a canopy designed to cause high explosive shells from rockets or mortars to burst before they could penetrate the roof of the actual facility.  The chow hall was staffed by contractors, mostly workers from the Indian subcontinent of Sri Lanka and like other areas inside the perimeter guarded by a contracted Ugandan security force.

I walked over to the Chapel and was met by RP1 who introduced me to Fr Jose Bautista Rojas, the Group Catholic Chaplain and the Apostle of TQ.  Jose and I instantly hit it off.  He is out of Los Angeles and really has a good way with people.  On his first tour and first deployment he was having a huge impact around the base.  His support and prayers would be greatly appreciated by me and by Judy in the coming months.  Not long afterward, Chaplain Pat McLaughlin came in after a meeting.  Pat was a fairly newly promoted Commander who was the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Chaplain and was on his second one year tour in Iraq.  He had previously served as the Chaplain at Camp David.  He immediately gave us his full support and put his staff to work helping us get settled and to link us up with all the support staff that we would need to conduct operations. Without this our tour would have never have had the success that we had.

05_Flatbed_1 - NOVEMBERSouthwest Asia Huts or SWA Huts at TQ I stayed in one of these at the end of my tour

TQ was a major air and logistics hub perfectly suited to operate from to support advisers around the entirety of the province.  We had access to rotor and fixed wing aviation assets, excellent telephone and internet, secure and non-secure access, a place to call home and excellent support.  This is critical when you are operating independently and supporting multiple organizations.   Other Army Chaplain teams had gone into areas where they were given little or no support by the Army teams that they supported.  Unfortunately from a chaplain perspective the talk that I heard had more to do with the Army Chaplains than the units that they supported.  Part of the problem was that most of the Army teams were reservists with minimal training or preparation for a mission type that they were never taught about in chaplain School.   I know of a Navy Chaplain with Marine experience who had no significant problems when he was placed with an Army division level team in Mosel. There were probably a number of reasons for this, and to be charitable I will chalk it up to lack of experience, but lack of support was something that we never had to face.

Lebron, Bautista, McLaughlin, Dundas 2A Great Team: Nelson, Jose, Pat and Me…Pat and Jose helped us tremendously

Within days we had our “operations center” set up in an office in the back of the Plywood Parish chapel. The office had a somewhat auspicious history having taken a hit by a rocket or mortar earlier in the year, a shot that had also made a mess of the drums and other musical instruments of the chapel praise team.  The chapel was kind of a ramshackle affair but had some interesting touches mostly donated by the military personnel to include doors which had been made with care and donated.  Part of getting it together was having phone and internet cables run to the office.  The communications people made this happen quickly and they also got our elderly computers set up and loaded with all that we would need to operate on the secure and non-secure side the house.  I think that we were one of the few ministry teams lower than Regiment or BCT level to have the communications suite that we had been provided.  Likewise the G-3 Air section at the MLG headquarters gave us tremendous support and quickly got us the ability to plan and submit our own air mission requests.

The information that Luke Fabiunke had provided me back at Fallujah now became a gold mine to begin operations.  It was an amazing amount of information, not all current but the situation with adviser teams was always fluid and subject to change based on operational considerations.  There were phone numbers, secure and no secure e-mail contacts for key leaders.  Once we had our communications up the communication began with teams across the province and our calendar was rapidly filled.  The only “glunk” that we had in this was with the senior adviser for one of the Military Training Teams in our local area.  Though his staff and subordinate unit team chiefs were happy for our arrival he for all intents and purposes froze us out of his area.  That did not keep me from continuing to build relationships with some of his people which paid dividends later.  I think that sometimes some chaplains are intimidated by people who rebuff their honest and well meaning efforts to provide support.  I don’t work that way and will constantly work whatever angle I need to in order to get the mission done.  In order not to burn bridges I usually use a slow and patient approach to continually work to build relationships with those in charge of the units that I serve.  It really is an indirect approach.  If I can’t get in one place I put it on the back burner without burning the bridge.  I then work with all the other teams that I can and get out among people.  As we did this “back doors” to ministry opened with teams where we had been locked out of before as they contacted us to get support.  So I did not give up on these local teams but reached out to the furthest reaches of the province with the teams of the 7th Iraqi Division and the 2nd Border Brigade with its Border units and Port of Entry teams.  The senior advisers of these units, Colonel Cottrell and Lieutenant Colonel Bien gave me absolute freedom to coordinate with their teams and opened doors that were never shut.

As we prepared for our mission the first few days were days of acclimatization to the base and to finally recover from the long road in.  One of the first things that we noticed was the pall cast over the mood of the camp by the crash of the Army CH-47 the day of our arrival.  The chapel was being rigged by the staff for the memorial service for the five Army aviators, all of who were significantly younger than me.  The Army was in charge of the service so except for the set up of the chapel and other miscellaneous administrative support.  It is a sobering thing to come into your base of operations and see the set up for five men who died in service of their country.  To look at their pictures and to read their biographies was humbling; one was on his last enlistment before retirement others at different points of their careers, all left behind families, friends and their fellow soldiers who did not know if the bird went  down to mechanical failure or hostile action.   This was in no small way lost on me as we would fly many missions with the men and women of this Army squadron.

Nelson and I worked hard that first day and thereafter to get set up for our first missions.  While I worked the big picture parts of the mission he took care of the little thinks that ensured our success.  Working with Pat, Jose and RP1 he became a key part of the team whenever we were not traveling.

That evening we went to dinner at the chow hall and took in some PT.  Following that I went back to my can where I continued to unpack and make the place somewhere that I could relax.  Though still exceptionally tired from the trip I had a difficult time getting to sleep between my own anxiety the din of UH-60 Army Medivac choppers coming in and out of the LZ for the Shock, Surgery and Trauma Platoon.  Not able to sleep I walked out of my can where I saw the sky light up to our north near Habbinyah with illumination rounds while outgoing artillery sent rounds somewhere into the night and small arms fire could be heard nearby.  A number of Marine and Navy officers gathered near me as we watched the display and talked among ourselves as we wondered what was going on.  Eventually I would get to sleep, but it was very late, that night I found the Office of Compline to be of great comfort, especially this collect.

“Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq

The Gifts of PTSD: Insomnia is a Terrible Thing to Waste and the Hidden Value of Hyper-vigilance

068On Board a 53 out near Syria

I’ve been asked by a number of people at work just how I manage to find the time to write the way that I do.  The answer, which I have said to all of them is simple…insomnia, which it turns out is not necessarily a curse, but for me in some ways is a gift.  I find that insomnia really is a terrible thing to waste.  Until I went to Iraq I went to bed at a decent hour every night and seldom did I have problems sleeping.  At the same time my life while busy pursuing work, military and professional education as well as academic degrees was full but not completely fulfilling.  I had always wanted to write on a variety of subjects to include military history, theology, ethics and baseball.  In fact someday I hope to get published.  However back then I was always too distracted to write what I wanted to write.  I could t stay on task for anything other than things that would seemingly directly affect my military career, even my marriage.

081Convoy On Route Michigan

Iraq changed that more than I thought it could.  I got back, fell apart about 90 days after returning home and despite pushing myself harder at work, ministry and academically I was not making it.  Nightmares, dreams, chronic pain and anxiety, stress reactions even in church about crippled me.  About the only place I felt some peace was at the ball park.  Somehow the sight of that great field and the infield diamond settles me. Sleep deprivation became a very real and persistent part of my life.  I guess it was the fact in Iraq that we did most of our travel at night by helicopter, usually CH-46, CH-47 or CH-53’s and had very irregular schedules.  Likewise when we came back to base there was another little issue.  The pad for the Army Medivac Choppers, or “Dustoff” was about 200 yards from my quarters so all night long I was subjected to the constant noise from these aircraft.  If I hear a UH-60 Blackhawk or SH-60 Seahawk at night I still get a startle reaction.  Outgoing artillery fire and occasional fire, explosions and sirens in the adjacent town of Habbinyah were staples of life.  When bored I would stand outside and watch illumination rounds going off the highway just outside our entry control point or wander over near the Shock Surgery Trauma Platoon facility where “Dustoff” was waiting on the pad.  I’m sure that working a number of mass casualty events and seeing our wounded Marines and Soldiers being treated as well as Iraqi civilians including kids had to affect me.  These Americans and Iraqis were out driving the same roads that we would drive on a regular basis and the sight of their shattered bodies went through my mind every time we went on a mission.

As I got deeper into my tour I found that no matter how tired that I was I had great difficulty getting to sleep.   I’m sure this was due to our operational tempo, odd hours, demanding travel, sleeping conditions which varied at every location and occasionally getting shot at.  The most cool of those were when our Army CH-47D talking off from Ramadi , took fire from the ground and proceeded to pop flares, take evasive action while the tail gunner opened fire with his M240 series machine gun.  Since I was sitting two seats from the tail gunner and saw, heard and smelled the gun as it fired I’m pretty sure that it happened.  However, when I called the Army squadron to see what happened they denied that the event happened.  I hear that was not an uncommon occurrence.    So anyway by the mid-point of my tour I was no longer sleeping so I would sit up and play games on my computer, such as chess and Ma-jong.  It is amazing how good you can get at stuff like that through sheer repetition.  It was playing these games that I would wear myself our enough to sleep since I usually did an hour or two of PT during the day or late evening when not on the road.  It is comforting when you are running near the perimeter on a cool Saturday morning and hear explosions and exchanges of automatic weapons fire going off about 2 km to your right.

So now despite my cool concoction of meds I still have difficulty getting to sleep.  In order to sleep I have to wear myself out and when I am done I take my meds and crash.  If I take them before I am exhausted I see little effect and I am not about to start mixing them with the good beer that I enjoy so much.  I do not drink crappy beer thank you.  Maybe it will be time to go back to the doctor when my provider’s relief arrives in August or September.  I probably need to talk to my buddy Elmer the shrink again soon.  Elmer is great but my schedule has not lined up well to see him the past couple of weeks between leave, call schedule and the emergency root canal.  I probably have to go back in on that sooner than my appointment as I still am having some pain and wonder if there is an infection there.

Since I don’t believe in wasting time I have decided to be productive when I can’t sleep.  I started writing as I finished my class requirements for my latest Masters Degree.  I still need to do the comprehensive exams but will wait until September so as not to mess with any home games the Tides have left.  I began writing as a means of both helping me and disciplining myself to write regularly.  I have several book ideas but have never been able to get any off the ground because I could not stay focused.  This website helps me do that and has got me thinking creatively again.  So my answer to how I can find the time to write is simple, if I have 20 or so extra hours in the week late at night that are going to be there no matter what I do, then I shouldn’t waste them.  So my point is that insomnia is a terrible thing to waste.   It could be worse. I know of other vets who can’t sleep either due to war experiences and some have fallen off the deep end with self destructive behaviors at least I am not doing online gambling, porn or other distractions that have helped continue to ravage some of my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  I have found in a strange way that the chronic insomnia has been a gift which has enabled me to gain insights on life and experience that I had never been able to put down before.  It has forced me to take advantage of time that I would otherwise waste web or channel surfing until I fell asleep.  It is interesting to see what comes out of your computer when you are trying to write while falling asleep.

Here is an example that I found and saved a few weeks ago:  “Manages not only check their the firduk about what they fell than…”

I have no earthly idea what it means or what a “firduk” is or what “manages would “not only check their the firduk” means and I don’t want to find out.  God only knows what it means but it reminds me where a half-asleep Jerry Seinfeld wrote down something that he saw on TV that he thought was funny.  He spent the show trying to see what he wrote and then finally saw what he actually heard.  He discovered that it was not nearly as funny as he thought.

Another gift I have been given with my PTSD is that of hyper-vigilance.  I am much more alert and observant than I ever was.  This is on the road, in crowds or even as I do my job in the hospital.  I have begun to notice the little odd things that are clues to other possibly more significant issues.  This probably has saved my life on the road on several occasions since I returned as I have a much great “feel” for what is going on around me than I have ever had while driving.  There have been at least three times where I “felt” the danger of another vehicle and took evasive action to avoid a collision before I heard or saw it.  Of course the colorful euphemisms which poured out of me on these occasions were quite memorable, I think the best being “You Oedipal Mother F—-r!” when some asshole almost plowed over me in a grocery store parking lot not far from home.

So, despite the inherent problems that PTSD, insomnia and the other maladies I have incurred have caused me, the Deity Herself has also given them to me as a gift.  For which I am strangely grateful. Even a few months back I saw them as a curse, but now they have become a source of blessing.  Like Commander Spock might say to Captain Kirk after observing a human idiosyncrasy “fascinating Captain, fascinating.”

pub1It’s a Gift…Enjoy

I’m back on duty tomorrow for another overnight.  This will be a long week, 3 duty nights out of 5 work days.  Thankfully I will not have duty again for two weeks after Friday.

Peace, Steve+

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