Tag Archives: spirituality

Baseball and My Spiritual Journey

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Note: I have been working hard this week with contractors in the house making repairs to the damage caused when our water heater blew out on February 3rd. Thankfully, despite being so tired I have been able to make a couple of baseball games at Harbor Park here in Norfolk. I have been too tired to make it all the way through either game despite the fact that they were good close games. Tonight I only made it to the top of the 7th inning. At the time the Tides were up 2-1 but had blown a number of opportunities to blow the game open. I got home and found they had lost 3-2. Thankfully I am beginning to see the light at the end of the rebuilding and renovation tunnel and it is not the train. Depending how I feel tomorrow I may try to take in part of the final game of this series. Unfortunately I still have much work that needs to be done around the house…but I digress… on to Baseball and my spiritual journey.

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“Baseball is a curious anomaly in American life. It seems to have been ingrained in people in their childhood…. Baseball is, after all, a boy’s game, and children are innocent of evil. So even adults who are prejudiced revert to their childhood when they encounter a baseball player and they react with the purity of little children.” Jackie Robinson Baseball Has Done It

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I feel closeness to God at the ballpark that after Iraq is hard for me to find in many other places.  For me there is a mystery, magic about a ballpark that just isn’t there for the other sports.  With the opening of baseball season I am soaking in the pleasantness of the game.  The past two nights I have had the television on with baseball games.  It is so much more peaceful and edifying than the deluge of political talk and reality shows that are the staple of entertainment now days.

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For me the other sports can grab my momentary attention but because of their nature cause them to be merely ordinary and occasionally interesting.  Baseball is another matter, it is more than a game. As George Will said “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” For me baseball is a metaphor for life, a spiritual experience and a game that mirrors life and faith in many ways. For me this goes back to childhood.

As a kid my dad made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching in the back yard or in a park, dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey, basketball and golf, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid dad was a Cincinnati Reds fan and as we moved West he became a solid San Francisco Giants fan.

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My mom went along to many games while we were in Anaheim and she lives and dies with the Giants. My mom was a Navy Wife and back then there were not nearly the support structures that we have today and Navy wives had to be wear many hats.  One of those hats was being my chauffeur and number one fan. When my dad was deployed to Vietnam when we were in Stockton she would take me to my Little League games and shuttle me and my friends to Billy Herbert Field to see the Stockton Ports.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of West Virginia was a die hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan. I still wonder how a woman from West Virginia became a Dodgers’ fan but she was incredibly independent.  My grandfather was killed in a trucking accident when my dad was a small child leaving Granny a widow with two young boys to raise.
She was a single parent and for a while lived with family as she established herself. It was the late 1930s and she went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most people in West Virginia at that time she was a Republican. This was long before West Virginia ever voted for a Republican either President or statewide office. True to form Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, fierce and independent.  I have to admire her perseverance but as a Giants fan I cannot fathom her being a fan of the Evil Dodgers. Despite having fallen under the spell of the Dark Lords of Chavez Ravine Granny was a real baseball fan. Any time you went to Granny’s house and there was a game on, the television was tuned in to it. When she visited us in Texas in the early 1990s we went to a Texas Rangers game but it was called because of tornadoes and severe thunder storms.

I can say that thanks to my dad, mom and grandmother that I was immersed in baseball from an early age and when we got to a place where dad could take us to ball games on a regular basis he did.

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Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots during their first and only season in that fair city before they went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.  In the elementary schools of those days many our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on the TV as many of those games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazing Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970. I will never forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run and the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, especially the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 20 games there in 1970 and another 25-30 in 1971 as well as a couple at Dodger stadium that year.  We met a lot of the Angel players at community events and before the games. I entered the “My Favorite Angel” contest and my entry was picked as a runner up. This netted me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  I wrote about Jim Spencer a Gold Glove First Baseball who later played for the Yankees.  I still have a hat from that team with numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, and Billy Cowan. It was a magical time for a 10 year old boy.

When we moved to Stockton California dad took us to see the A’s dynasty teams including a number of playoff games.  But he also took us across San Francisco Bay to watch the Giants.  I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In Anaheim, Oakland and San Francisco I got to see some of the greats of the era play in those stadiums, Catfish, Reggie, McCovey, Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew and so many others.

I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball when we moved to Stockton in1971. At the time the Stockton Ports were the Class A California League farm team for the Baltimore Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I became a closet Orioles fan back then and today I have a renewed interest in the Orioles because of their affiliation with the Norfolk Tides.  The retired GM of the Tides, Dave Rosenfield has told me about his young days in the California League and time at Billy Hebert Field in the 1950s.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game only deepens despite strikes and steroids and other problems that plague the game at the major league level.  I am in awe of the game and the diamond on which it is played.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers, seen a no-hitter, playoff games and met many players. I’ve watched the game in Japan, seen historic moments when deployed to combat zones in and have thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.

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I am enchanted with the nearly spiritual aspects of the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batters box.

Likewise I am enthralled with the Americanness of the game. Michael Novak wrote:

“Baseball is as close a liturgical enactment of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant myth as the nation has. It is a cerebral game, designed as geometrically as the city of Washington itself, born out of the Enlightenment and the philosophies so beloved of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. It is to games what the Federalist Papers are to books; orderly, reasoned, judiciously balanced, incorporating segments of violence and collision in a larger plan of rationality, absolutely dependent on an interiorization of public rules.”

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My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.
Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace. When I was stationed in Norfolk I had season tickets behind home plate at Harbor Park.  At the end of the 2010 season I was transferred to Camp LeJeune and was able to take in a good number of Kinston Indians games but since that team was sold and moved at the end of the 2011 season I didn’t get to see many games in the flesh. Thankfully with my return to the Hampton Roads area I have my season ticket back at Harbor Park and life is coming back into balance.

As I do that I can hear the words of James Earl Jones in the great film Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

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In a sense those word say it all to me. In the midst of war, economic crisis and deep political division they are also a prayer of hope of what once was good, and what be again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sometimes between Life and Death a Baseball often Matters as much as a Prayer

I have had a number of patients in my ICUs who have been avid baseball fans.  Likewise there are a number of physicians and nurses who are avid fans of the game, or sometimes certain teams.  Like me they were members of the Church of Baseball.  Some even attend my parish, Harbor Park.  It is funny how in the intersection of life and death that baseball finds a place more than any other sport.  Baseball has a quality and nuance that is different from most other sports, save perhaps golf.  Baseball is not bound by the constraints of time.  It has an eternal quality that somehow transcends life and death and one can see that in the stories that we tell in film in novels, histories and our own narratives.

There is a scene in The Babe Ruth Story where a critically ill child asks the Babe to hit a home run for him.  The Babe then went out and hit two.  Later in the movie when the Babe is dying of cancer he is given a Miraculous Medal.  The film was rushed to completion before Ruth died and the scene at Yankee Stadium was filmed shortly before a game and Ruth came from his death bed to be there.

In Field of Dreams the spirits of the 1919 White Sox who were forced out of baseball in the Blacksox scandal.  The Pride of the Yankees deals with the life of Lou Gehrig, baseballs original Iron Man and his battle with ALS.  His speech at Yankee Stadium when he retired from the game is classic.  It is a reflection on life well lived and thanksgiving for what he experienced.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” – July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

These are intersections of life and death.  In the ICUs I have a surprising amount of dealings with baseball.  In one ICU I had a lady that was very sick with chronic and apparently terminal heart disease.  She was a delightful woman with a wonderful husband.  I had met them and while she had struggled she looked like she was on the uptick. She was delightful to spend time with and in those pastoral conversations when I had the overnight duty we found that we shared a common passion, baseball.

We agreed that the Biblical writer’s description of heaven was inaccurate being that they were unaware of the Deity’s love of baseball. We agreed that heaven had to have not streets of gold, but the most amazing turf and most immaculate infield which one could imagine and foul lines that went into infinity. She and her husband were watching the Nationals and Astros play deep into the night but the following day she took a bad turn for the worse.

I saw her that day we visited again and she was struggling. I prayed and anointed her at her request.  And I asked her if she would like a baseball. Her eyes lit up and she nodded “yes.”  So I promised that I would get one from the stadium last night.  The game at Harbor Park was rained out that night so I went home and got a ball that I had received after throwing out the first pitch at a Kinston Indians game.  I inscribed it to her and took it to her room the next day. She was pretty heavily sedated and her sister was with her.  I spent some time with her sister to let her know that I had the baseball for her.  We then went to the bedside where I let the lady know that I had her baseball. She opened her eyes and I put the ball in her hand.  Her hand gripped it tight and I blessed her.

The lady did get better and about 8 months later following my “Christmas miracle” I was walking past the Medical Center Pharmacy and I heard a familiar voice. It was the lady’s husband and she sat beside him looking very well. It turned out that they had been able to correct the worst part of her condition through a catheterization after she had gotten out of the ICU. New medications were also helping but she was most thankful of my little visits to her and the gift of the baseball.

Her husband talked of how the ball seldom left her hand during her ICU stay.  As we visited they both told me how much what I did in the ICU meant to them, the prayer, anointing of the sick and the baseball.  She told me that the ball, an official Carolina League ball was now on her mantle.  We chatted some more and talked about all the prayer that had been made on her behalf as well as the hard work of the ICU and Cardiology teams to keep her alive and help her recover.  I mentioned that it was likely that the whole companies of baseball “saints” in heaven were praying for her as well and we all had a great laugh.  I had to leave and go to a call but we exchanged hugs and blessings.

Sometimes the miracle is not in the prayer but in the things that touch us and mean much to us. For this lady, her husband and I that was baseball.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, christian life, faith, film, movies, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Religion

The Long and Winding Road: My Journey to Life

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” Henri Nouwen

 In February 2009, about eight months after psychological physical and spiritual collapse due to the effects of PTSD and in the midst of my struggle I began to write about my experiences on this site. My psychologist at the time had suggested that I go public with my struggles using my writing as a means to do so. It was something that I had contemplated for some time. I was a mess and struggling many days to even get to work. I was depressed much of the time, continually on edge, still suffered from nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks and sometimes an angry rage which swept over me when I felt threatened.  I avoided big crowds, was afraid to even go to church and I had a hard time trusting anyone.  In that time I would listen to the Beatle’s song “The Long and Winding Road” which in some ways became a prayer for me.

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

The wild and windy night
That the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears
Crying for the day
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

And still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door


But still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t keep me waiting here
Lead me to your door

The Long And Winding Road lyrics: Songwriters: Mccartney, Paul; Lennon, John. © SONY BEATLES LTD; SONY/ATV TUNES LLC

So I began to write and find some solace even as I struggled with even the existence of God.  One thing that I found was that there were really very few people, especially ministers secure enough to enter into a healing relationship with me. I felt isolated among my peers especially those from my own church.  Since I have detailed that journey to include a restoration of faith in God in December 2009 about two years after my struggle began I won’t go into great detail in this article.  All I knew is that it seemed that most Priests and other ministers either didn’t know how to walk with me, were afraid to walk with me and were most certainly uncomfortable with a colleague, especially one with my experience dealing with the pain psychological and spiritual effects of PTSD including being from all practical purposes an agnostic.  As one psychotherapist labeled it I was “radioactive.”

Eventually some in the leadership of my former denomination which I had served faithfully as a priest for 14 years asked me to leave the church because I had become “I had changed since coming back from Iraq” and “had become too liberal.”I had known this was coming for some time and had been making preparations for it but the timing of the notice from my former Bishop came as a surprise.

I had begun to voice opinions, especially on social and political issues that rankled some, maybe many in my former church. Since only a few friends from that church remain in contact with me I presume that I rankled more than I did not.  There were times during the early part of 2010 that my wife would ask me after reading something that I had published if I was trying to get thrown out. I wasn’t trying to but I was at the point where I knew that I had to be honest and transparent about my struggle as well as how my beliefs had changed a result of war and of PTSD.  I was diplomatic and tried to say what I had to say without getting too controversial. That began to change in the summer of 2010 and reached its head on September 23rd when I published Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian. https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/faith-journey%E2%80%99s-why-i-am-still-a-christian/

I actually did not intend for the article to be too controversial, but looking back I can see how it was interpreted that way. It was for all practical purposes a declaration of independence and a severe criticism of the lack of care that I had felt from the church that I had served for most of my ministerial career. I think that the central part of that article that attracted the attention and wrath of my Bishop was this section”

“This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.  I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.”

I ended the article with this gem: “Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives….So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

My goal since faith began to return was to be available to those that feel cut off from God and the Church, to walk with people in the midst of struggle, pain and despair, especially fellow ministers and chaplains.  I don’t have all the answers, in fact I know very few, except that I know that God can use the pain, alienation, struggle and despair that I went through then, as well as the struggles that I still have in the lives of others like me that are willing to walk that lonely path to reconciliation with God and humanity.

As far as my former church and bishop are concerned I still care about them and hope for the best. There are many there that I still call friends and a very few that I can be completely honest and transparent with for they while remaining in the church think much as I do even if they do not agree with me entirely.  Since my departure a number of others have left that church for other reasons, mostly because they wanted to be in communion with a larger number of Anglican Christians.  Others have stayed in the hopes of working toward renewal.  The Bishop who asked me to leave was himself asked to leave when he attempted to secretly take the priests of the military diocese to another communion barely four months later.

It is a long, winding and often lonely road but I have found solace, community and faith upon it. Those that I have met traveling on it have become my brothers and sisters on the journey. And that my friend makes it all worth it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Thoughts on the Occasion of getting ready to Transfer

Two years ago I was preparing to leave EOD Group Two and getting ready to move over to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.  At that point in my life I was falling apart. The ravages of PTSD, depression and chronic pain from shoulder, knee and ankle injuries sustained in Iraq had taken their toll. Chronic anxiety, flashbacks, night terrors, vivid and disturbing dreams of Iraq, nearly uncontrollable emotions that ranged from intense sadness complete with that girl thing of crying to intense anger and rage, especially in traffic were a daily staple of life. Fear of large crowds, noise and light sensitivity panic in airports and fear of new places brought me more isolation and pain.  I went to the new assignment with trepidation but with a desire to make an impact.

When I got to Portsmouth I did my best to cover up the affects of PTSD and everything else that I mentioned in my life for the sake of work. I threw myself into the job; especially the patient and staff care aspect of it.  I worked painfully long hours usually due to my own need to know that I was still of some use despite all that was wrong with me and I ended up getting worse and not better.  I was in therapy and most of my colleagues and my boss tried to take care of me although I’m sure that they probably wondered if I was salvageable at times. I am thankful for their support as it was needed and vital to getting me through but I still sunk down deeper into the abyss.  Nothing was getting better and I even doubted if God was even around, or if he was around if he even gave a damn about me. I was experiencing what I am now not afraid to call, not just PTSD but let me call it what it is, mental illness.  In addition I was in a full-fledged crisis of faith. During the year I had experienced the loss of a number of friends and colleagues and each one deeply affected me plunging me deeper into depression. Christmas of 2008 was the worst that I had ever experienced from a spiritual point of view. I left the Christmas Eve Mass at my wife’s church before the Mass began into the night for an hour before I got home. I looked up at the sky and cried much of the time wondering if God was there and if he was wondered if he had abandoned me.  As I got worse I stopped doing the things that I needed to do to take care of myself, good nutrition and exercise was out the door and I gained 25 pounds in 6 months and ended up on the fat boy program.  By late August I was in worse shape than I had been the previous September and it was in mind, body and spirit.

For someone like me this was almost more than I could handle and my boss, recognizing that I was not doing well pulled me kicking and screaming out of the ICU and PICU and pushed me to take care of myself and get help.  I began to do this but if you have been as down as I was you understand that recovery doesn’t happen in a day, or even a week.  It is a continuous and often painful process mixed with times where you begin to see occasional fleeting glimpses of hope.  I struggled for the next three months until a couple of weeks before Christmas I was called to the ER and in a moment of grace in the midst of my own despair I was called upon to perform Last Rites for a retired physician that was Episcopalian. As I performed the Sacrament he breathed his last, his wife and son said it was like he was waiting to receive that before he died.  Something happened that night and things began to turn around, unfortunately the young Intern physician that called me to the scene and with whom I took remedial PT tests and nutrition classes died a little over a month later.

However, Christmas of 2009 was different, for the first time since I was in Iraq I felt joy, and slowly things began to turn around.  The first part was spiritual, the next physical and psychological.  Each month I got a bit better and it was if a thick blanket of California Central Valley Thule fog was dissipating with the sun beginning to peek through.  In February I was felled by a kidney stone for a month, my physical recover was slowed but didn’t stop. Spiritually things were getting better, on the psychological side of the house my PTSD symptoms were evening out, panic attacks were going away and for the first time since before Iraq I was beginning to sleep.

In June I had three events that converged to change my life.  I was selected for promotion for Commander on June 22nd, or at least that was when the message was released.  The next day my dad who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly 7 years passed away and two days after his memorial service I found that I was being transferred to be the Command Chaplain of the Naval Hospital at Camp LeJeune North Carolina.

As far as promotion I am grateful to my boss because I showed up damaged and was not fully functional he chose to grade me on my potential for service on my fitness reports and made sure that what went to the promotion board was something that would help my selection.  I would guess based on my knowledge of the system that not many senior chaplains or for that matter senior officers would do the same thing.  I would have been dealt with like I was a broken piece of equipment and allowed to serve out my career but never rising to anything more than that.  This leads me into the transfer which will allow me to get my feet wet as the Command Chaplain of a decent sized hospital on a very busy base which is fully engaged in the war.  It will be challenging and I will supervise three chaplains and three enlisted religious program specialists.  Much of what I have learned recently will help me in that job and I hope to do well in it to serve the patients and staff in that hospital.  I want to be a good boss to the men and women that work in the department and hopefully am able to do some things that will knit pastoral care even more tightly into the interdisciplinary team for better care of patients, their families and hospital staff.

I have mixed feeling about leaving. I will really miss the people that I have worked with the past two years. I will not miss the perpetual staff shortages and having to be the go to guy so often, maybe even get to take some leave that is actually the kind for refreshment versus taking care of family emergencies.

My friends at Portsmouth will be that and I will miss them and keep up with as many as I can through e-mail and Facebook.  Some have been, are being or will be stationed in LeJuene and it will be great to be with them in North Carolina.

Today was a frustrating day that kept me going all day and with the exception of my PT test which I crushed with 100 sit ups, 70 pushups and just under 12 minutes for the 1.5 mile run, which I did on a stationary bike so the calorie count was converted to the run time. Not too bad for a 50 year old. I would have done the run as my ankle and knees are fully healed but I couldn’t do it until noon when the temperature was too hot.  When I get to LeJeune I will do the run. My interval training and PT program coupled with my diet is paying great dividends.  I have lost 4.5 inches around my belly since late November 2009, lost 16 pounds and 10% body fat, going from 32% body fat to 22%. I am not done as I want to lose 3 more inches around the belly and 10-12 more pounds of weight.  I’d like my body fat to be under 20% and keep it there, getting lower of I can.

I’ll have some more reflections over the next couple of weeks. My friends in the ICU are planning something for me and I am really blessed to have such great friends and colleagues. I am told that the pastoral care staff will have a good-bye as well, but that is kind of expected, the real joy for me comes from the people that I have gone through difficult times within the ICU in the high stress environment of live and death situations, ethical consults and pastoral care administering prayers, counsel and sacraments to our patients, their families and our staff, my friends.  That means more than almost anything to me as they have walked with me through the darkness.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, healthcare, Military, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, US Navy