Tag Archives: sleep disorders

“What We Leave Behind is Not as Important as How We Lived: Reflecting on My 2019

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

T. S. Elliott wrote:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

It is the eve of New Year’s Eve and I have been reflecting on the year past and thinking about the future, and trying to put the past year into words. The good thing is that I write a decent amount about my experiences as they occur on this site, so in addition to it being a wealth of historical, biographical, religious, and political thinking, it also serves as kind of a public diary.

The past year has been full of difficulties, surprises, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. But for the most part we are ending the year on a high note. Judy is now pretty much recovered from both of her knee replacement surgeries as well as hernia surgery which was necessary due to the hysterectomy associated with endometrial cancer surgery in 2015. My knees as well as sleep disorders and PTSD continue to be problematic.

The knee issue kept me from retiring as planned on September 1st of this year. I had a failed surgery on the meniscus of my left knee, and failed cortisone, platelet rich plasma, and gel injections in my right knee. My pain level was a constant 7 to 10 on the pain scale. Eventually my physical therapy doctor referred me to aquatic physical therapy, and my former Executive Officer at the Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital got me an appointment with the Orthopedic department head at the Naval Medical Center who ordered new MRIs, determined that I was not a candidate for knee replacement therapy and proscribed a new series of gel injections done by a different provider. Normally it takes a couple of weeks before one experiences pain relief, I certain did not experience that the first time. However, I experienced almost immediate relief following the first set of injections. The pain levels went down, the aquatic physical therapy helped and soon I no longer needed crutches or a cane to assist me walking, and I lost 28 pounds between June and October. I continue to get the gel injection treatments, and my pain level seldom goes beyond a 4 or 5, most of the time it is under three. I should get another series beginning in February, but again I digress…

With my knees so screwed up and my retirement request being voluntary, the Navy moved the date to what they had calculated to be my statuary retirement date based on years of commissioned service to April 1st 2020, and then when it came time to issue my retirement orders they realized they had made a mistake and counted four months of active National Guard enlisted service as part of the 28 years commissioned service, so they pushed my retirement date to August 1st 2020. That was unexpected, and involved a lot of consternation and work, to move all of my books and memorabilia to my home and storage space and create a room for my library, all while trying to transfer, which on short notice is complicated enough.

On another subject, we were once again able to make our pilgrimage to Germany, in September and October, see old friends and decompress for a while. Judy was able to visit another five or six towns from where her family emigrated, first to Russia and then to the United States. As usual I made pilgrimages to various Holocaust and German resistance movements. However, I was most happy to get Judy to those places. Hopefully we can do more this year, but I digress…

The change in my retirement dates led to some consternation and stress as the local command and region tried to figure out what to do with my as my relief was already in place and I was excess, but it turned out well. So they worked out a deal for me to serve at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, since the shipyard has not had a chaplain since 2009. The chapels , a historic building is condemned due to serious structural issues, black mold, asbestos, and a major termite infestation. I don’t have an assistant, a budget, and I work out of the administration department offices. But the command welcomed me with open arms and the ministry there plays to my strengths, getting out with people and being there for them, regardless of their status as active duty, Navy civilian employees, or contractors.

I like walking about the shipyard and visiting people where they work. I go to where they take their smoke breaks, their office or other work spaces, and let them know that I am there for them. I did a holiday greeting letter and got a huge response of people wanting me to visit, as well as people wanting to talk. I think I will start doing a “thought of the day” to send out as well as a monthly letter on topics that could encompass secular and religious holidays.

I am happier at work than I have been for over two and a half years, and people can tell the difference. So I expect to end my Navy and military career on a high note. I have been up, and down, and now I’m not just trying, but I have that feeling again, I feel renewed. Though the year did not go the way that I planned or imagined, I have been blessed.

The coming year will have its own stressors as I get ready to retire, process my VA claim, get through all of the Navy wickets I need to check off, then arrange my retirement ceremony and prepare for life as a civilian, which includes preparing our townhome to sell or rent so we can get a one floor ranch style house. There are some employment possibilities that may make the transition fairly smooth. So you can pray for me on that.

There are other challenges that we face, which I shall not mention here but we do  appreciate your thoughts, kind words, encouragement and prayers. For those who read this blog regularly, thank you, because many of my articles do take some time to read and are quite serious in nature.

But I leave you with this final thought.

In the movie Star Trek: Generations, Captain Jean Luc Picard tells Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

So as I close out the old year I wish you all the best, although I’m only mortal, and that’s probably a good thing.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Waiting for First Light at Slaughterhouse Five: PTSD and a Coda to te end of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am checking out of my current command to finish my career attached to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth Virginia. I am struggling. Not feeling appreciated and feeling like a cast off. This isn’t new, shortly after I was promoted to Commander, the newly appointed Deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me like a potted plant while making her rounds of the Generals and Major Commands. As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Slaughterhouse Five “and so it goes.”  My Problems in the Navy Chaplain Corps began when I went public with my struggles with PTSD. Somehow it seems that Chaplains can care for the wounded and those traumatized by war but if we admit that we are wounded we are expendable.

I read General Romeo Dallaire’s latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Struggle with PTSD a couple of years ago. General Dallaire had been the commander of the UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, men and women who were prevented from stopping genocide, and people who have been forever haunted by what they witnessed.

General Dallaire recounts a story of horror that never ended for him, and he details how difficult and traumatic coming home that neither appreciate nor understood what he had been through, including people in the military. I found so much in his story that was analogous to my own and in light of that I am going to begin writing my PTSD memoir.

It will be hard because I will have to write about things that are deeply traumatic and upsetting, especially how I was received and continue to be received by most of my fellow chaplains. Because I came and publicly discussed my issues with PTSD, the shattering of my faith in so many things, my wilderness experience of being an agnostic for two years, and the change in my faith since then, I experienced the rejection of my former church and many of my peers.

To many of my peers and Chaplain Corps superiors I am simply a broken Chaplain; and broken chaplains or for that matter broken ministers have no place and very few people who they can talk with. I remember my old Commodore at EOD Group Two, the late Captain Tom Sitsch ask me bluntly “Where does a chaplain go for help?”My answer to him was “not to other chaplains.” Sadly, he too was going through his own personal PTSD hell and with his life falling apart he committed suicide in January 2014.

General Dallaire recounts a similar experience, as like Chaplains, Generals and other senior leaders have no place to go, they like us are not supposed to break. General Dallaire wrote: “I received little support from my colleagues and peers; I received only a few messages from my sixty or so fellow generals – a couple of phone calls, and an e-mail from one old friend. The others appeared to be in two camps: those who were too busy to get in touch, and those who didn’t know what to say.” But I would also add, that there are those that do not want to know and others who actually turn their backs on men and women whose injury lies inside their brain, as well as some chaplains and ministers who seem to take a certain perverse joy in inflicting pain.

I still struggle with nightmares, night terrors, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. After more than a decade I cannot imagine life without them. Like General Dallaire, I still wait for first light.

So pray for me if you do that, if not send some positive thoughts my direction.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq, mental health, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Perchance to Dream: A Sleep Study and the Paths Not Chosen


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After about a week of writing about politics, history, and the very disturbing presidency of Donald Trump, I need to take a break, not that there isn’t a lot of politics, foreign policy, and other serious subjects I could write about. But honestly I need to take a break from that, at least for tonight because I am already hooked up and waiting for my official bedtime in the Sleep Lab at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.

I will be hooked up to a CPAP because I am already diagnosed with pretty severe sleep apnea, but tonight it different, they are going to observe my REM sleep disorder, where in my dreams, nightmares, and night terrors my body acts out those dreams. This condition has sent me to the ER or the medical clinic on more than one occasion and I have a concussion in 2014 and a broken nose in 2016 to show for it. Things get a bit sporting in my hi-definition nightmares and night terrors. My dreams have still been pretty vivid as of late but a combination of medicines seem to have lessened the physical acting out in them, according to my wife Judy. However, tonight, in a strange bed and with none of the medicines I get to try to sleep. It should be interesting. I cannot even take my customary shot of single malt Scotch or Irish Whiskey for my knee pain.

So today I write something a bit more introspective, which I think is a good question for all of us who seek the truth and take the time to examine our lives in light of all that happens to us. Since I am stuck here this is as good of time as any to do so.

In the series the X-Files, Agent Dana Scully played by Gillian Anderson made this observation: 

“Time passes in moments… moments which, rushing past, define the path of a life, just as surely as they lead towards its end. How rarely do we stop to examine that path, to see the reasons why all things happen, to consider whether the path we take in life is our own making, or simply one into which we drift with eyes closed. But what if we could stop, pause to take stock of each precious moment before it passes? Might we then see the endless forks in the road that have shaped a life? And, seeing those choices, choose another path?”

I actually think that it is a very good question and truthfully I wonder. I wonder what my life might have been had I, or others made different decisions. How would my life be different? Or would it? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care.

One thing I do know is that whatever my alternate paths might have taken that I am happy. I have been able to fulfill many dreams and I do take the time to ponder all the forks in the road that have shaped my life. When I do I realize that the alternative possibilities are almost endless. Then when I think of the possibilities of alternate universes I wonder, not that there is anything wrong with that. But even so, I don’t think I would want to be on any other path, for since I was a child all that I could imagine ever being happy doing in life was serving my country in the military.  In early 1861, Ellen Boyle Ewing Sherman, the wife of William Tecumseh Sherman told Sherman “You will never be happy in this world unless you go in the army again.”  Ellen had never approved of Sherman’s previous service and in fact hated ever moment of it, but after six years of seeing her husband in civilian life, she knew that he had to return to the army. 

Twenty years ago I made a decision to volunteer to serve as a mobilized Army reservist during the Bosnia crisis. It was a decision that changed my life. I had left active duty in 1988 to attend seminary while remaining in the National Guard and the Reserves, and when I was mobilized I lost my civilian employment, and two and a half years later when I was offered the chance to go on active duty in the Navy, even though it meant a reduction in rank, I did it. 

When I think of all the things that transpired to get me when I am today I really am astounded, and for the life of me I don’t see how I could have chosen another path. It has been twenty years since I volunteered to support the Bosnia operation, and almost thirty-five years since I first enlisted in the army, and like Sherman, I cannot have imagined doing anything different. As for my wife Judy, she, like Ellen Sherman was with her husband has been long suffering in staying with me all these years, and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone. April 1 of 2020 I will be retiring from the Navy, unless the President gets us into a war and the military declares a “stop loss.” One never knows these days, I have known people in 1990 and again in 2001 and 2003 who got caught in such events, or were extended after their mandatory retirements.

But, when I look at my life in total, there are many things that I might have wanted to change or do differently, but if I had, or for that matter,mad someone else made a different decision concerning my life, the tapestry that has been my life would be very different and I might not even recognize me if any of those paths had been chosen, by me, or by others. 

Agent Scully’s words got me thinking and pondering, and that my friends is a good thing. 

So until the next fork in the road….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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There Are Still Nightmares: Reliving the Inner Terror of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It was a good but exhausting weekend and yesterday at work was very busy and challenging. So this I am posting just a note today.

Saturday night, or rather early Sunday morning I had another of my high definition Iraq nightmares. Very realistic and terrifying. Once again I found myself being attacked while in a HUMMV and being thrown out of the vehicle with enemy gunmen closing in. During the nightmare I threw myself out of bed and looked up to see a gunman dressed in black with an AK pointed at me, so I tried to tackle him and when I awoke in a very groggy state I found that I was wrestling my television to the ground. All of this in my sleep. It took about thirty minutes to calm down. Minnie, Izzy and Pierre all came in to check on me and the left. Izzy gave me a short snuggle and I finally got back to sleep in enough time to get back up, go to breakfast and finish my sermon preparation. 

I find it amazing that ten years after I departed for Iraq that I still relive my greatest fears from when I was over there, traveling with small groups of American advisors and Iraqi troops throughout the badlands of Al Anbar. I was always afraid that our tiny convoys, usually just two or three HUMMVs and maybe an Iraqi vehicle or two would get ambushed by an IED and attacked. Being so small and mostly away from big concentrations of American troops with significant firepower we were very vulnerable. We got shot at from a distance a few times, mostly in Ramadi, and couldn’t return fire because we couldn’t see who was shooting at us. 

While we were there I seldom slept, even when we were back at our home base at Ta Qaddum to plan our next mission. That base was relatively secure but it had taken rocket and mortar fire before we got there. Thankfully that had ended but it was always in the back of our minds when we heard gunfire coming from the nearby town of Habbinyah. I remember doing a run around the airfield one day when I heard gunfire coming from the town with me in plain view of it. I ran faster than I think I ever have before to get out of the line of sight. T. E. Lawrence wrote of his time with the Arabs in the First World War “We lived always in the stretch or sag of nerves, either on the crest or in the trough of waves of feeling.” Those words well describe my time in Iraq. 

My nightmares include fragments of what happened as well as my fears that thankfully never materialized. Over the past three years I have ended up in the emergency room twice, once with a broken nose from these episodes. I suppose if I had been sleeping in my own bed, which I am not because my snoring has gotten so loud that Judy, who is profoundly deaf could not sleep even wearing ear plugs that took another 30 decibels off her hearing, that I would have gone to the ER again. In the guest room I didn’t run into my nightstand with my face. Even so it is not fun. 

In the past I have quoted James Spader’s character Raymond Reddington from the television series The Blacklist. Reddington told an FBI agent who had seen his fiancée murdered: “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing that you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” 

That being said I am not depressed or in a funk and life is relative good. I am rather fortunate, despite the often terrifying reality of living with my PTSD and these bloody nightmares, things could be a lot worse. I do have nightmares but at least at the moment they are not dominating my waking hours.

Tonight I plan on watch the Major League Baseball All Star Game. I’ll write about that for tomorrow before moving on to other things. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Whirlwind Trips

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Houston and my denominational chaplain training symposium. It was good to see my bishop and colleagues but the trip was exhausting and my time there too short because of how the trip coincided with my transfer just eight days before my departure and the scheduled Gettysburg Staff Ride this week. Thankfully I only had to deal with one time zone and I had no flight delays or glitches with anything along the way. Even so the schedule of the trip meant that I missed the first day and a half and the last day, in all I was in Houston for forty hours before I came home.

Over the past few days I have had little sleep and some really crazy dreams and nightmares, including one at about 1:30 in the morning on Saturday in which I thought that it was 5:15 Sunday morning and that I was going to miss my flight home. I ran to get packed then realized something was wrong. Looking at the hotel room clock I noticed the time and realized that it was not Sunday but Saturday. The adrenaline was pumping so hard that it took forever to get back to sleep, but I digress.

We discussed issues related to ethics, priestly vocation, grief and loss, as well as issues that we face in our various types of chaplaincy. It was definitely worth going but hopefully knowing the dates of next year’s conference and assuming that I am still in my current job I will be able to succeed in making this a less hectic trip.

Anyway, it has been a whirlwind weekend and the new week has begun.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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PTSD Dreams and Stranger Things

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I didn’t get much sleep last night. For some reason I was back in Iraq.

Last night’s dream world was about every fear I had when I was in Iraq on steroids. I woke up almost every hour in terror of IED attacks, ambushes and attacks on the small groups of advisers on Iraq bases with whom I served.

It is important to note that none of these events happened to me. I was shot at on a number of occasions but none of the terrifying instances that were part of my nightmares last night happened to me. In fact there were people in them who I know now who served in Iraq but not with me. That being said, they were terrifying and all too real in my mind. Though I never actually experienced any of them they were a part of my life and my fears that I lived with on a daily basis as I operated in Al Anbar Province during 2007 and 2008 with small groups of advisers to the Iraqi Army and Security Forces.

Nightmares and dreams are surreal. They are real, but they are not. They blend elements of our lives and our subconscious into visions that can be pleasant or terrifying. Last night was for the most part terrifying but at one point pointed to hope. That being said, I didn’t get much sleep. When I got up for a very busy yet productive day at the final day of my denominational clergy-chaplain training symposium I looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and I looked terrible.

I remembered a quote by Guy Sager, the author of the classic book of war The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.

Since I have to wake up very early for my flight back home tomorrow I do hope that my sleep is sound and my dreams for once pleasant. However, I know that such thoughts are an illusion and that like me countless thousands of other combat veterans live what I live. So my hope an prayer is that we will all be able to get at least one good night of sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sweet Dreams: The Desire of Those that Return Traumatized by War

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Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree?

I travel the world and the seven seas

Everybody’s looking for something… (Sweet Dreams- Eurythmics) 

The night before last Judy woke me up as I was screaming. For her it was very real, her husband was screaming in his sleep. For me, I do remember her waking me, and I remember parts of the ream. I was being attacked in a small space and somehow it related to my time in Iraq. Unfortunately it was not an isolated occurrence. It is

My dreams are strange, parts are logical, other parts disjointed and disturbing, while other parts are frightening. My dreams and nightmares, the two are frequently indistinguishable have increased in intensity since I returned from Iraq in 2008. Sleep at best is fitful. Some nights I get a few hours of decent sleep, but most nights that is not the case.

The night before last the dreams, or as they might better be described as nightmares dealt with Iraq. They were not logical, parts of my tour blended into others but in my dreams, in my subconscious I was back in Iraq, with people familiar and unfamiliar. When Judy woke me I was screaming a a woman dressed in a hajib. The last place I encountered women dressed in such apparel I was at the border crossing between Iraq and Syria at Al Waleed.

Actually I don’t know why that incident and memory triggered my nightmare. At Waleed the scariest thing occurred when I was in a meeting where the senior Iraqi Officer and senior American officer. They had to confront and relieve of his duties the Iraqi senior logistics officer who had been selling coalition and Iraqi military fuel to the insurgents who were killing Americans and Iraqis in great numbers. No women were at that meeting, but many were at the crossing point. However, I was at the meeting and was the only unarmed man in a room which resembled a Mafia meeting more than anything I hand been trained to do or experienced before that time.

It was an interesting experience. I was one of three Americans in the room along with an interpreter. There were Iraqi officers and soldiers, most believed to be allies, but also the man who was playing both sides of the street and others that might or might have not been his confederates. The really scary thing that I remember to this day was the accused officer’s appeal to me as the Chaplain, Priest and Imam. It was the first time in my life where someone who was doing something so wrong appealed to me as a representative of God to defend him. I felt soiled, dirty and dishonored. How could a man involved in criminal activity appeal to an representative of God to defend his actions?

I did my best to to deflect the conversation back to the Iraqi Commander and his American, but to this day the incident haunts me. I am disturbed by how the man appealed to me as a representative of God to vouch for his malfeasance. That still frightens me because of how often I see religious people from every tradition and faith appeal to any representative of God to justify their misdeeds. It almost felt like I was a new Priest stuck in the middle of a meeting of Mafia types, each appealing to me as the representative of God. It makes me distrust all who would do the same to this day.

Sweet dreams would be so nice. A full night sleep without being woken up screaming would be incredible. Unfortunately it seems that my brain has been re-wired by PTSD. I know that there are studies that suggest that PTSD is both a psychological as well as physical condition, the physical being the changes wrought in the brain of the afflicted.

How often I long for a good night sleep. Unfortunately no matter what I do I do not think that I will ever enjoy sweet dreams again. That is something that I wold never want to contemplate, but six years after returning from Iraq I see little reason to thing that things will change. Nonetheless I will do my best.

Maybe the upcoming baseball season will help soothe my demons and allow me to sleep again.

At least I can hope…can’t I?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq