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There Lies a Gulf: Reflecting on 9-11-2001 Nineteen Years Later

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I have decided to take the time tonight to share that day and what followed in my life and with the people that I served, including those who died.

I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, Medical Service Corps, US Army

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Nineteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines.

Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, US Army, former US Marine, KIA, Afghanistan 26 May 2011

One of the Marines I got to know well at 3/8 was Corporal Ergin Osman. He eventually left the Marines enlisted in the Army and was serving with the 101st Airborne Division when he and 6 members of his platoon were killed on May 26th 2011 by an Improvised Explosive Device, while hunting down a Taliban leader.

Father (Chaplain) Tim Vakoc

Another man I knew was Father Timothy Vakoc, an Army Chaplain I knew when he was a seminarian going through the Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with in 1990. He was horribly wounded by an IED when traveling in a HUMMV to say mass for his troops near Mosul, Iraq in 2004. At the time he was a Major in the Chaplain Corps. He never made a full recovery from his wounds but was inspirational to all he met and served until he died in 2009 after having eithe been dropped, or fallen in a nursing home.

On the morning of 9-11-2001 I was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida, to deploy in January 2002 to support operations against the Taliban and take part in the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq.

 


At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.


Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent pilot had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items.

When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

 

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next. One thing that I do remember that for a brief moment in time we were united as Americans. Say what you want about him now and some of his later decisions, but President George W. Bush was inspirational in the days after the attack. He provided both rallied us and led us in our grief in a way the current President, who lied about what he saw and did that day, never could.

hue city boarding party

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq.

 


I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States.


In 2008 I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

 

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front who wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book 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.”General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 39 years of service, and unless something incredibly strange occurs I will retire on December 31st and this will be my last year, and last observance of 9-11 on active duty.

But that being said there are still U.S. Military personnel in harm’s way in many places around the world. I wish I could say that they will be safe and that there will be no more killed or wounded, but I know that will not be the case. Now we have young men and women serving in wars that began before they were born.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting.  Today I provided the invocation at our Navy Shipyard’s ceremony marking that day. As I gave them I could feel the emotions, see the faces, and remember all the people I knew and served alongside who died that day or in the following wars.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world, and even more importantly that amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic and the damnable political division and violence in our country, much of it brought on by the President and some of his White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi followers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Christian theocrats whose message and goal is little different than the people who attacked us nineteen years ago.

On the good news side my wife Judy was pronounced cancer free and cured on her five year follow-exam today. Every exam, after her surgery was a anxiety laden exercise, now she doesn’t have to go back for a year.

Hopefully next year this time I will be teaching and writing, and we will have made the transition to civilian life with our three Papillon babies, Izzy, Pierre, and Maddy Lyn.

Peace, Shalom, and blessings,

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, iraq,afghanistan, national security, Photo Montages, Political Commentary, terrorism, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, War on Terrorism

A Memorial Service as Tragedy Strikes Camp Lejeune on the 10th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Iraq War

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“God didn’t put us here for that pat on the back. He created us so he could be here himself. So he could exist in the lives of those he created, in his image.” Chaplain (Captain) Fr Francis Mulcahy M*A*S*H 

The past week has been difficult at Camp LeJeune. We lost a sailor, a hospital corpsman who died by his own hand last Monday. He was a veteran of Afghanistan and his death came as a surprise to his friends, family and shipmates. Today we conducted his memorial service. It was a full house. His family travelled to be here and his friends, those that served with him while he was assigned to the Marines as well as his current shipmates were there in abundance.

It was a time to grieve. The young man was beloved by his friends, respected and cared for. However something that none of us will ever know or understand overwhelmed him. It may have been the trauma of war, maybe something else, but he maintained a facade that kept his friends, family and shipmates away from whatever despair drove him to take his life.

It was a time for all of us to grieve. It was as William Shakespeare wrote in McBeth a time to “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”

But even as we grieved the news filtered to the base that 7 Marines assigned to the Second Marine Division were killed, and a number of others injured when a mishap occurred where they were training in Nevada. Evidently either a mortar round either exploded in the tube or as it was being handled during a live fire exercise. They join the thousands of men and women who have died or been wounded in preparation for, the conduct of or the aftermath of their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The death of each one leaves a void in the heart of a loved one, friend or shipmate.

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Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman KIA Afghanistan

I have lost friends and shipmates in all phases of both wars and their aftermath. Some have died in combat, others while supporting combat operations of natural causes or accidents, some have committed suicide, including a Priest and Chaplain who served in both Vietnam and Iraq. Still countless others endure injuries or illnesses that will eventually kill them.

Likewise there are far too many more who have sustained terrible injuries to their minds, bodies and spirits that time will never heal. The young men and women that I see every day, those with the physical wounds of war and those with the unseen but sometimes even more disabling injuries such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury or Moral Injury remain in the fight, sometimes with the sole mission of recover or remaining alive.

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Ten years after the war in Iraq began and twelve and a half years after 9-11 and the invasion of Afghanistan the costs continue to build in lives and treasure. In Iraq almost 4500 American and over 300 other coalition casualties, more than 500 contractors and nearly 10,000 Iraqi Soldiers and Police and countless thousands of Iraqi civilians have died. US wounded alone number almost 35,000 in Iraq. In Afghanistan there are over 2100 US dead and about 1100 NATO and Coalition dead, hundreds of contractors, and thousands of Afghans with over 17,000 more American military wounded. Every day nearly 20 veterans take their lives while thousands of others struggle with physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war, wounds that don’t heal even as they find that they no longer fit in the country that went shopping when they went to war. The costs of both wars now are building into trillions of dollars, costs that will continue to grow even after the wars wind down.

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Two time Congressional Medal of Honor Winner Major General Smedley Butler, US Marine Corps wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….” (See War is a Racket: Remembering Major General Smedley Butler USMC and Why He Matters

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Likewise Lieutenant General (US Army Retired) Hal Moore, who is immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers and book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young told West Point Cadets in 2005:

The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

Needless to say, Moore, a West Point graduate has not been asked back.

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Thousands of young Americans, as well as NATO or other Allied nation soldiers, including Iraqi soldiers that I knew and Afghans that I have not worked with have died or been mangled by these wars. Yet too many Americans, Europeans and others that have sent young men and women to these wars have no stake in the game.  Most people continue with the mundane aspects of peacetime life while their political, religious and business leaders plot even more war. Syria, Mali, North Korea, Iran…where will it end?

Today we mourned a shipmate and friend at Camp LeJeune even as we wait to see who else that we know have been killed or injured in this latest training accident. I was honored to be a part of the memorial and happy to be of help to the families and friends of my sailor. At the same time I too grieve and wonder just how many more will have to die before the madness ends.

I left the base after the ceremony, and saw the massed trucks of the local and national news networks parked outside the gate like vultures. When I got home I hugged my dog Molly, I love that little dog, she has helped save my life after my time in Iraq. I then went for a four mile run on the beach and then had a couple of beers with my dinner while at the bar with my friends at my local watering hole.

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The old regulars there have nicknamed me “Father Mulcahy” a name that some people at the hospital have also given me. Maybe it is that I ear round steel rimmed glasses. Maybe it is because I will join in the occasional poker game , football, basketball or NASCAR pool, which by the way I won the NASCAR pool this week. Or maybe it is just because they didn’t know I was a Chaplain or Priest until a mutual friend and co-worker told one of them. Until then I was just Steve, the guy that wore the Orioles and Giants baseball gear. Now I have become their Priest and Chaplain, funny how that works. Regardless, it is a nickname that I cherish, because when I was growing up Fr Mulcahy symbolized so much of what I thought was good in a Priest and Chaplain. The writers of M*A*S*H made him very human. But I digress…

As we mourned today I was reminded of something that Helen Keller said, something that I think no matter what any of us grieve is true. “We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world–the company of those who have known suffering.”

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD

Stunned Silence and Tears: The Death of a Marine, Soldier and Comrade

Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, US Army, former USMC Rest in Peace

I am stunned right now as the cost of war and sacrifices made by our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen became personal yet again. I was writing something rather cheeky when I saw a Facebook message that Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman who I served with when he was a Marine. I met him when he was in the S-1 section of 3rd Battalion 8th Marines in my relief pitcher tour with the Second Marine Division. The Chaplain section fell under the S-1 for administrative purposes so I got to know him fairly well. Since I had served in the Army he would come to me to talk about his father who served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. His family was Turkish immigrants to the United States and he was thoroughly an American, and a hero. He was funny, witty, friendly and always helpful. My assistant was a criminal and without the help of Ergin as well as Marines like 2nd Lieutenant, now Major Jodie Moser and Lance Corporal, now Gunnery Sergeant Bory Chan and others in that section and our Logistics section my job would have been even more difficult as we deployed to 29 Palms, Okinawa, Japan and Korea in 2000 and 2001.

I don’t know what to say. I have trouble compartmentalizing the deaths of young Americans, especially those that I have served with in wars that most people don’t seem to give a damn about.  I really can’t say more right now except to ask prayer for his family and friends. I am holding back the tears right now so I will sign off.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends