Tag Archives: t e lawrence

Iraq at 15 Years: A Warning of Lieutenant General Hal Moore


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

My computer at work has been in the process of being remotely updated to Windows 10 for the past five days and even though I have been busy at work I have had some time to reflect on the beginning of the Iraq War on March 19th 2003. Like many in the military I was for it before I was against it. Yes you can call me a flip-flopper.

Even though I knew better at the time I had no problem being confrontational towards the courageous men and women, those in the minority who asked the hard questions about the Bush Administration’s justification for the war; which would soon be exposed as lies coated in distortions and wrapped in propaganda.

I knew people in the military who were against it and saw nothing good that would come from it. They were voices of reason, but despite my doubts I convinced myself that the President and the administration had to be right. Despite the evidence to the contrary I wanted to believe that the leaders of my country were right, even as the casualties rose and the failure of the war became apparent. It took going to war myself in 2007 in Al Anbar Province with the men who were serving as advisers to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, and police forces to make me realize how wrong that I was.

Despite the evil of Saddam Hussein and his thugs most Iraqis who I came to know were good people who had seen the United States destroy their country, set the stage for a brutal civil war and insurgency and were working with us because the alternative was worse and many still believed that United States would honor its word to help lift them out of what we had brought about. I left Iraq in 2008 hoping that the worst was over for my Iraqi friends but it wasn’t and I realized the truth of T. E. Lawrence’s words:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

It has been ten years since I left Iraq and I still feel an emptiness and try not to think about the war too much. I lost friends and comrades, and know too many others who wounded in body, broken in mind, and shattered in spirit have either ended their lives or struggled terribly as I have since leaving Iraq.

Lieutenant General (US Army Retired) Hal Moore, who commanded a battalion at the Battle of the Ia Drang, the first major battle between the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese regulars in 1965, and was 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 was never asked back. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 94, just a few days before his 95th birthday.

I think that all of us could stand to heed General Moore’s words but I don’t think that we will.  In 2016 we elected a man as President who can’t even think and speak in sixty-second sound bites and who threatens nuclear war abroad. We elected a man that openly praises authoritarian dictators; and attempts like Saddam Hussein to silence, intimidate, and destroy opponents at home while enriching himself and his family from the spoils of his political victory.

Sadly Americans are still dying in Iraq as Iraqis, divided by their tribes or variation of Islam, and played as pawns between the United States, Iran, and Turkey, suffer and struggle to rebuild their shattered country.

I will finish for now and I think unless something really more out of the ordinary than usual happens in regards to the travails of Trump, I will do some more writing and reflecting about my time in Iraq and my post war experiences and reflections.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+




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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq, Military, national security, Political Commentary

The Courageous Versus the Ideologues


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is a bit of a detour following my last two articles dealing with the Reichstag Fire and Reichstag Fire Decree, but it does have some ties to them and I will pick up on the Reichstag Fire theme tomorrow.

Being an ideologue of any kind is easy, you adopt an ideology and then use it to interpret the world. That is why there are so many of them of so many different varieties: right wing, left wing, religious and so many more. In fact if you take a look at the most strident supporters of any ideology, politician, or religious leader you can see that they are little different from one another. But in terms of the ideologies they espouse the most enduring of them, and the only to have ever been the foundation of state power or those dealing with economics such as the Soviet Union; or race such as Nazi Germany or the American Southern Confederacy. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” 

The fact is that there is a difference between people who lean a certain way politically or religiously, and the people Eric Hoffer called, the “true believers,” the people who chose a side and never wrestle with the hard choices of life. They simply declare all who oppose their ideology or theology to be unworthy of life.

I am a liberal and a progressive, but I often find left-wing ideologues to be as off putting as militant right wingers. I guess that is because despite everything I am a realist. I wake up every day to try to do the hard thing of deciding what is right and what to believe.

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing. I see examples of this every day, especially in my Twitter feed and on Facebook.

While I’m sure that many, if not most of these people are good and well meaning people, they seldom display any originality of thought or true character. I had one left wing Twitter follower attack repeatedly me because to her I was supposedly a sellout. I have had right wing religious friends and followers on social media do the same.  While they attack me and each other from different ends of the political spectrum, the intellectual commonality they share is the fact that they are ideologues and zealots; and while they espouse different beliefs they are almost indistinguishable from each other in their inability to think critically and that wears me out.

I guess that is one of the things that bothers me the most about so much of what I see going on in the United States today. Too many ideologues, not enough critical thinkers. Too many people who value absolute consistently of thought without asking if what they preach is still true today, or if it might be tomorrow.

One thing that I have learned over the past eight years or so is that I have to ask what is right today, and make a choice of when to stand up, or to stand down. Sometimes, I don’t like those choices, but I make them.

I guess that is why I like reading about the lives of complicated and often conflicted people; men like T.E. Lawrence, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the fictional Raymond Reddington. I find much to admire and to criticize in all of them even as I empathize and understand each one of them. Interestingly, each of my heroes all have feet of clay. As Reddington said, “We become who we are. We can’t judge a book by its cover… But you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last.” 

Have a great day, until tomorrow.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Long Road: Nine Years of Padre Steve’s World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect on the 9th anniversary of Padre Steve’s World, especially for my new readers who might not know how this blog came about.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.



I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it.

But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote 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.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love about writing history.  I completed my second Master’s degree in military history a year after I started this blog.

My historical writings have been both educational because of the vast amount of research required, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My immersion in history was further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College for three and a half years. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 3,225 posts, and three draft books later I got to this point. Hopefully my first book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Civil War Era get published sometime in the next year.

While I still suffer symptoms of PTSD I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillons Izzy and Pierre who are both therapy dogs in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I still suffer from a lot of crazy dreams, nightmares, and occasional night terrors which are so physically violent that I trash around or even throw myself out of bed. Thankfully I haven’t physically hurt myself lately, or had to go to the emergency room as a result as I have on two occasions. I also remain somewhat hyper-vigilant, get anxious in crowded or confined spaces, and there are just some places that I avoid if at all possible. But that is life with PTSD.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,


Padre Steve+


Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I preached at my chapel. The message was one that had it not been for a snow event that closed our base would have been delivered last week. Now if it was up to me I would have simply moved along to this week’s lectionary readings, but my soon to be deputy command chaplain who I had the opportunity to promote to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and administer the oath of office to is not nearly the liturgical fanatic that I am so we stayed with the readings for the Epiphany. Truthfully I would have done this weeks readings because I am such a slut for liturgical correctness but since the bulletins were already done and it meant a lot to my young Padawan. Actually he’s not that young but he is a good deal younger than me but I digress.

In the Christian tradition the Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Jesus the Christ to the gentiles, usually represented by three Magi, or wise men, actually astrologers from somewhere in Persia. Now I personally would like to think of them being three Wise Guys from East Jersey and name them Guido, Fredo, and Giuseppe bringing who were bringing gifts of gold, non-sequentially numbered $100s, and untraceable bonds, but I digress…

Following a star they came to Jerusalem where they went to see the corrupt, corpulent, and paranoid King Herod to ask him about the whereabouts of the Messiah.

Now Herod, there’s a character for you. He was a gentile appointed by the Roman Senate to run Judea. By some accounts converted to Judaism without really embracing the moral tenets or beliefs of the religion, but he did his best to placate his religious base by building a splendid temple while building massive palaces, stables, and a state of the art seaport at Caesarea to enrich himself and his Roman overlords and because he wasn’t afraid to tax his people unmercifully he never went bankrupt.

To make a long story short, Herod wanted the Magi to tell him where Jesus might be. After Herod secured their promise to do so the Magi went on their way and made their visit to Mary, Joseph, and the now nearly two year old Jesus.

Now I know that a two year old Jesus plays hell with our beautiful nativity displays. My goodness a two year old Jesus would be in the terrible twos and we all have seen how that works out when important guests come over, but again I digress…

So after delivering their gifts to Jesus the Magi got word, supposedly in a dream, but maybe from an informer of some kind that Herod wanted to kill Jesus, so they hauled ass out of Judea. Herod got pissed off and according to the Christian tradition had his goons kill all the male toddlers in Bethlehem since he didn’t have a Twitter account. Meanwhile Joseph and Mary took Jesus off to Egypt to sojourn as refugees for a couple of years, but again I digress, there are far better Bible scholars and theologians who can do much better with the material than me so I am going to leave the Biblical account and Christian tradition for them to explain.

So, today I am writing less about the Epiphany, than the epiphanies that many of us experience in our spiritual or life journeys. Epiphanies surprise us, they come when we are neither looking for them or expecting them.

I have had my own epiphanies at various times in my life, some spiritual and well, some less than spiritual; but they were all important. One of the most important was what I discovered when I was serving in Iraq; that in war truth is one of the first casualties. Since then my eyes have been opened to many other things and my life has changed, in the long run for the better, but not without much difficulty and turmoil dealing with chronic PTSD, TBI, moral injury and all of their excruciating consequences, but I am doing better now for the most part and what I have learned has become invaluable in my spiritual journey.

The German Lutheran theologian Juergen Moltmann discussed his personal epiphany in his book The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life:

“The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: `My God, where are you?’ And the question `Why am I not dead too?’ has haunted me ever since. Why are you alive? What gives your life meaning? Life is good, but to be a survivor is hard. One has to bear the weight of grief. It was probably in that night that my theology began, for I came from a secular family and knew nothing of faith. The people who escaped probably all saw their survival not just as a gift but as a charge too.”

Moltmann was a teenager and not yet eligible for military service and like thousands of others of his generation was enlisted as a Flakhilfer a conscript that manned anti-aircraft batteries in order to free up soldiers for duties at the front. In that capacity he experienced war, death, and eventually was taken prisoner when the allies overran Germany. He spent a number of years in a British POW Camp in Scotland where he came to faith.

There are times that I wonder why I am alive and others, including friends and men that I served with are not. I wonder what happened if the rocket that passed over my head in Baghdad had just Jharel a slightly lower trajectory, if allies of the crooked Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel who we confronted at Al Waleed had opened fire in the new Iraqi commander’s office, or if the fire that our helicopter took over Ramadi had been more accurate. I wonder about all of those things and more. Like Moltmann I now find my experiences to be both a gift and a charge to keep.

T. E. Lawrence wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…”

That is what getting one’s eyes opened by war will do to you.

So until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, ministry

Padre Steve’s Reading Rainbow: Some of the Most Important Books in my Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I think that it important to read, and read, and did I say read?

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

Since I write about a lot of topics and because I am a historian as well as a stand up theologian, I read a lot and I frequently quote from other people in anything that I write. Sometimes I find that those who have gone before me have said things I want to say much better than I could on my own. Thus I am not afraid or ashamed to give attribution to them, after all, it is only fair.

But today I want to share some of the books that I think are important for anyone seeking to understand our world. In a sense, this is my Reading Rainbow moment.

Most of my picks deal with history, military, diplomacy, civil rights, politics, as well as baseball. Despite the fact that I am a priest I don’t have many books on theology, religion, or faith on my list, but then the fact is that I don’t see a lot, including many of the so called classics that hold up over time. So today just some of my reading rainbow.

Here they are in no particular order:

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Nanking Massacre by Iris Chang

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

Hero: A Life of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen

A Soldier Once… and Always by Hal Moore

To Kill an Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

The Past that Would Not Die by Walter Lord

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

The Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George Will

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Why Don’t We Learn from History? By B.H. Liddell-Hart

They Thought they Were Free by Milton Mayer

Once an Eagle by Anton Meyer

Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military by Randy Shilts

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Boenhoffer

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Forever Free: the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen

Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial by Joseph Perisco

In the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore

On Being a Christian by Hans Kung

The Crucified God by Juergen Moltmann

The Mystery of the Cross by Alister McGrath

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

War is a Racket by Smedley Butler

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious American Civil,War General, Daniel Sickles by Thomas Keneally

Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 by Raul Hilberg

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen Sears

The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton

Sorry, no descriptions or intros included, but trust me. They are all worth the read. Anyway, those are just some of my favorites on from my Reading Rainbow. Yes, there are plenty more, but that’s all for now.

Have a great day and as always,


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy

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. 


Padre Steve+ 


Filed under iraq, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

God In the Empty Places: Remembering Iraq


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the midst of all I have been writing lately, when I recalled yesterday that I had been writing on this site for eight years, it brought back a lot of memories. Those memories kept me up a lot of last night, and I realized that many of my newer readers don’t know about some of the events that brought me to where I am today. In December of 2007 while I was in Iraq I wrote an e-mail to my former denomination that was published in the denomination newsletter.

When I wrote it I was between missions and getting ready to head out to the Syrian border of Iraq for an extended visit with five of our Military Training Teams of advisors who were working with Iraqi Army and Border troops.

This is the unedited post from that article that I posted here in early March 2009. It is amazing to me, on this day that is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Bernard Fall who I quote in the original article, that so little has changed, except possibly for the worse.

Have a great night, tomorrow my series on civil rights and African American history continues.


Padre Steve+

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished.The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different.In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernable victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.


This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

french troops indochina

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bein Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, readStreet Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

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