Tag Archives: ta qaddum

Depression Kills: RIP Robin Williams

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Robin Williams during his 2007 USO Tour to Iraq and Afghanistan 

Tonight I found out about the unexpected death of the great Robin Williams. It was shocking and upsetting to hear that it was believed that Williams had recently suffered from severe depression and that he was believed to had committed suicide.

I guess I can say that I almost met Williams when I was in Iraq, in between missions at Ta’Qaddum airbase west of Fallujah in 2007. Williams was with a number of celebrities and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen touring Iraq and Afghanistan. I had just come in from a mission and could not see his show, but the following morning I walked by Williams as he was walking back from the dinning facility. I recognized him, but I am loathe to interrupt a person’s time alone. I simp gave him a “good morning” which he returned and both of us went on our ways. I could have stooped him and detained him, but in good conscience could not do it. My friend Fr Jose Bautista, a Navy Chaplain had Williams and Lance Armstrong sign a baseball cap for me. I treasure it.

Robin Williams was brilliant, talented and brought much you to many people. Unfortunately. like so many brilliant and caring people he was afflicted with his own personal “demons.” He struggled with depression ands substance abuse.

I understand. Since returning from Iraq in 2008 I have dealt with the effects of PTSD, including depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, nightmares and night terrors. I know why people commit suicide, and at times considered it myself. Most recently less than two weeks ago when dealing with the inhuman machine that is the Navy mental health system, something that is common to the rest of the military and VA systems.

The fact is that depression is a killer and it disproportionally afflicts the most talented, brilliant, artistic and insightful people.  Van Gogh, Hemingway, Williams and so many others, including men and women that distinguished themselves in combat, some of whom I knew, have taken their lives.

The death of Robin Williams has shaken me. I pray for his wife and children and all those who loved him, or who were touched by him.

Please, if you are suffering from anything that makes you think that suicide is the only option, please seek help. If you have no one else, contact me. I may not be able to do much but I will listen. You are not alone.

Rest in Peace Robin Williams. You brought much joy to my life and to so many others.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Inshallah Iraq (إن شاء الله) Maybe Someday things will be Better

Whenever I read about Iraq I am reminded of how much of my life has been intertwined with that country and people. As I have said on more than one occasion I left my heart in Al Anbar. Back in 2007 and 2008 things were different there. Sunni’s and Shia were at least in the Iraqi military working with Sunni tribesman cooperated with American forces to destroy or drive out the forces of Al Qaida Iraq.

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Now the group that formed out of AQI, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL has driven Iraqi government forces from the area. Because of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s determination to exclude and marginalize he Sunnis of Al Anbar who were so important in stabilizing that region after the departure of U.S. Forces that Maliki pushed for those tribes are not resisting ISIL/ISIS or in some cases allying themselves with that group, if only to drive out Maliki, who they, as well as many Shia Iraqis despise.

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When I was there I traveled the whole province from Fallujah to the border of Syria and Jordan. With our advisors I was treated with great respect and hospitality by officers of the Iraqi Army, Border forces and civilians of all Iraqi religious sects. General Sabah of the 7th Division who hosted me to dinner and met with me a number of times, General Ali of the Habbinyah base who as we shared Chai tea showed me his well worn Arabic-English Bible which he said he loved because it contained things not in the Koran. He told me that he hoped in 5-10 years that I would be able to come to Iraq as his guest. There was the Iraqi operations officer of 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who told me after dinner that he “wished that the Iraqi Army had Christian priests” because they would take care of the soldiers and families no matter what their religion, and the Army company commander at COP South who told me that Iraqis would gladly defend Iraq against the hated Persians if Iran ever attacked. Then there was the first class of female Iraqi Police recruits, who were putting their lives and their family’s safety in danger by volunteering to serve in Ramadi, I was able to spend time with that group of brave women. Of course there were the common soldiers who when they saw me blessing American HUMMVs with Holy Water before a convoy asked me to do the same for them. Then there were the Bedouin who invited us into their tents and homes and treated us to Chia, coffee, dates and other food.

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I did see the Sunni Shia division when a Shia staff officer, the Logistics chief of the 2nd Border Brigade at Al Waleed, and a crony of Maliki was accused of selling coalition fuel to insurgents in Al Anbar. I was with our senior advisor and the new Iraqi brigade commander, a Sunni who had served in the old army who had been sent to rid the brigade of those like the logistics officer fired the man. The meeting was one of the most tense I have ever been in, it was like a meeting with a crime family, where weapons were locked and loaded and fingers on the trigger because even the Iraqi commander did not know who was friend or foe. The disgraced logistics officer on finding out I was a Priest tried to curry my favor during the meeting, quite strange and very scary. I still have nightmares and flashbacks about that meeting.

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You see for me the current conflict is quite personal, I have known too many good and decent Iraqis who in many respects are not that much different than your average American. However they have had to bear the domination of the Persian, the Turk, the British and the Americans. Have a king appointed for them by a foreign power, borders drawn to fit British and French interests, been ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein who most admit now was better than Maliki because he was an equal opportunity oppressor determined to maintain a unified Iraqi state. They have also endured over thirty years of war or wartime conditions, including a civil war and now a war that has a good chance of destroying any hope of an unified Iraqi state. For them violence, disruption and for many being refugees or exiles has become a way of life.

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The Iraqis that I know were some of the most kind and hospitable people that I have ever met in my travels around the world. I grieve for what is happening to them and their once proud country. The towns, cities and bases that I served at have almost all been taken over by ISIL/ISIS and their allies. Fallujah, Ta’quadum, Habbinyah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha, Al Rutba, Rawah, Al Qaim, Al Waleed, Al Turbial and so many others. Syrian and Iranian warplanes are attacking Iraqi towns and cities, including places I have spent time.

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When I left Iraq in 2008 I had hopes that the country might survive, as did many of the Iraqis that I met. I hoped one day to go back and travel to the places that I served, and maybe had the opportunity to see the gracious people that I love again. Maybe in 15 or 20 years there might, God willing be an opportunity. I hope and pray that those I know who were so good to me are safe. Until then I can only pray and hope that for them things will one day be better.

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When I think of the Iraq war and its costs I am reminded of the words of Major General Smedley Butler in his book War is a Racket: “What is the cost of war?…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….”

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For the Iraqis and us the cost will be with us for at least a generation. But I do always hope and pray that things will be better.

Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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Contemplating the Past, Present and Future: The Third Anniversary of Leaving Iraq

 

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” Robert E. Lee

I began my flight home from the Middle East three years ago today. Three years ago I could not imagine what has transpired in my life since neither my return nor the situation that we see developing in Egypt.  It has been three years but it feels longer.  I have recounted my PTSD and psychological collapse as well as my crisis of faith which for nearly two years left me a practical agnostic numerous times so I will not say much about them in this article except to say while I still suffer from the effects of both I am doing better and faith has returned.

The war in Iraq changed me. I saw the suffering of the people of Iraq that the conservative media to which I had been wedded for years ignored or distorted.

Likewise when I came home to the nastiness of the 2008 Presidential Election I was unprepared for it. To see my countrymen tearing each other apart with increasingly violent rhetoric as well as the militancy of some was deeply unsettling and was a part of my collapse because I felt like my country was plunging into the abyss of hatred.

Since I have seen the tragic and long lasting effects of the unbridled hatred among former friends and neighbors in the Balkans as well as Iraq I know that anything is possible when we make the subtle shift from viewing fellow Americans as political opponents to mortal enemies to whom we equate every vice and evil.  What has happened to us?  Last night I responded to a dear family friend who has kept sending me e-mails of such intense anger and even hatred regarding those that he believes are destroying the country. I had to tell him that I could no longer go to those places and told him things that I have experienced after Iraq. He is older and both he and his wife have been sick and are isolated.  They are good people but I have not heard back from him.

Likewise the sense of abandonment I felt from my former church as well as many clergy and chaplains did nothing to help my faith. For the first time I realized how deeply that I needed other Christians and for the most part few were there for me, my brokenness made me radioactive to many.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”


Despite this healing came but also change which I think actually has been good for me and for the ministry that I am called to as a Priest and Chaplain.  While healing has begun I am cognizant of my own wounds and how they affect how I deal with life and others. I pray that they have made me a better vessel of the grace of God and his love.

Tonight I am somewhat contemplative. I have turned off the news and I am watching a movie called Lost Command starring Anthony Quinn.  It is an adaptation of Jean Larteguy’s novel The Centurions which is about the French Paratroops in Indo-China and Algeria.  These were men who after surviving Viet Minh prison camps after the fall of Dien Bien Phu were almost immediately redeployed to fight the insurgency in Algeria, sometimes against former Algerian comrades who were now part of the Algerian independence movement. Algeria was brutal and though the French had militarily defeated the insurgency they still lost the war, and for many soldiers part of their souls which were sacrificed for their country.

It has been three years since I stepped on the aircraft to come home and in some ways miss Iraq and my friends American and Iraqi. I watch as that nation and its people struggle.  I watch the continuing war in Afghanistan and emerging danger in Egypt and much of the Arab world I wonder what further sacrifices our Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen will have to make if the chaos spreads and if the violence will again come to our shores.  I wonder if our politicians from both parties will support us or abandon us even as we fight.

I remember my time in Iraq well. I can see the faces of my friends; remember the hospitality of the advisors that I spent my time with and the friendship of Iraqi Officers.  Sometimes the memories seem so real especially when I look into the eyes of those that served in Iraq. Fallujah, Ta-Qaddum, Habbinyah, Al Asad, Al Waleed, Al Qaim, Korean Village, Ramadi and its various neighborhoods, Hit, Baghdadi, COP North and COP South and what seems like a hundred more locations in Al Anbar Province from villages to small outposts.

I remember thousands of miles in helicopters, C-130s and in convoys, the smell of Jet Fuel, Diesel and hydraulic fluid which always seemed to find me in any helicopter I rode in.   I hear the helicopters fly overhead, some even tonight. I close my eyes and it feels like I am in Iraq again.

I am somewhat melancholy tonight, that war is never far away and unfortunately there are more to come.  But tomorrow is another day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Flying in Al Anbar on C-130s

C-130’s in Iraq

This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year.  In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more on the story of my deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I have reached the point that I can again write about this so on occasion I will post these articles which now deal with our actual operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in the province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: https://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/

Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north .  Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien.  Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.

C-130 unloading its passengers

Nothing in Iraq is easy.  The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed.  Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad.  Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request.  For this mission I had to submit 2 Air Force and 3 Marine Air Support requests.    Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission.  Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change.  The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved.  This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website.  Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in.  It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930.  This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.

I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare.  Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep.  I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep.  I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep.  I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out.  I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel.  The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel.  I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.

The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors.  All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft.  When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft.  This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling.  We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed.  As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft.  As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD.  Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center.  The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry.  Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985.  Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over.  Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded.  As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.

Interior shot of a C-130

As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish.  With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off.  Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude.  The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.

The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read.  Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo.  Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind.  When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach.  As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft.  The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats.  Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.

Padre Steve Chillin’ at Al Asad Terminal

After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts.  Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal and got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal where we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit to clean up before trying to go get some chow.

Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar the California Line.

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

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

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

Iraqi Children Happy to see us near Baghdadi

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

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

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

Friendship: Dinner with General Sabah

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

Near COP South waiting to clear suspected IED

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

Me with General Ali January 2008

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

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

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

With Bedouin Family and Advsiers near Syria

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

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

From: Carpenter SgtMaj Kiplyn (USF-W SGTMAJ)

Sent: Thursday, January 21, 2010 15:55

Subject: FAREWELL OF THE MARINES FROM IRAQ

UNCLASSIFIED

Please pass on,

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

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

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

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

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

It has been an honor to serve with you.

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

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

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

Semper Fidelis,

K. Carpenter

Sergeant Major

United States Force – West, Iraq

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

21 January 2010

UNCLASSIFIED

Iraqi Recruits going through Basic Training

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Building Blocks for Success at TQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going to War: Tripping into Ta Qaddum

helos at nightCH-53s and CH-47s

Our interlude in Fallujah over we waited in a tent outside the helicopter terminal operations building after RP1 Roland dropped us off.  Roland was good and helped hook us up with some of the Marines to get the Gator to put our ton of gear on to get it out to the helicopter.  I looked around and noted that both here and a Camp Victory most passengers had a significant amount less gear than us of course all had deployed with units and not as individuals thus the load that had to pack on their person was not exorbitant.  I thought of all we had been issued as individuals and the fact that I did not take everything that they wanted me to take and thought crap…what is wrong with this picture?  Of course whining about it does no good and if my lot was to suffer dragging all of this around then I would try to do so in good humor.  I pondered this and began to think of the movie Kelly’s Heroes and how the character played by Don Rickles Staff Sergeant “Crapgame.” I kind of chuckled as I thought of how he complained to “Kelly” played by Clint Eastwood and  Master Sergeant “Big Joe” played by Telly Savalis when after their vehicles were destroyed by American aircraft when saddled with a .30 caliber machine gun and its associated ammunition.

I looked in one tent which was full and eventually found another we a couple of open seats for us.  I sat my ass down on the wooden bench grounded the gear that I had with me, a back pack, and two briefcases now with 3 computers. My Mass kit was packed in my rucksack and all of my personal gear that could be placed on my flak vest was there including two knives…I was not allowed to pack a weapon but figured that these were simply to keep my fingernails clean and shave when I had nothing else to shave with.  Nelson of course was loaded for bear, dual armed he had an M-16A2 and a Beretta 9mm pistol and packed a significant amount of loaded clips of 5.56 and 9mm rounds in his ammo pouch. He sported two K-Bar fighting knives.  He also had his “game face on, the same look of determination that he sports when he fights.  Having an assistant who actually could kill someone to protect me was comforting.  There are some that I have met in both the Army and Navy that would have been as capable as Barney Fife if they were in a combat zone.  Of course Nelson and I knowing that we would be out in isolated areas with small teams of Americans had worked out a deal.  If were got into a bad situation he would toss me the 9 mil and we would defend ourselves and the people on our team figuring that since I was a chaplain that if I was captured that I would be used for propaganda purposes and executed on TV.  The plan was that if this happened that he would get credit for anything that I hit and no one would ever know that I did it.  I would not be like a few chaplains in the 2003 invasion of Iraq who carried and fought and then put it on their web sites, I figured that if this happened I would go to confession and ask for forgiveness rather than having to explain to Judy why I was dead.

The time passed slowly though it was only a couple of hours it felt like forever.  The tent was stuffy with a good number of people in it, Nelson found a corner and threw his gear down laid down comfortable.  I was a bit on the hyper-aroused side of life despite being tired so I got up and took a walk outside in moonlight.  The night air though still pretty warm felt better than that of the tent, as sweat dripped down my face I took a drink out of the liter bottle of water that I had pulled out of a cooler in the tent.  The airfield was busy, pairs of helicopters, 46’s, 53’s, and Army MH-60s and CH-47s landed and took off staying just long enough to disgorge their passengers and cargo and then pick up their next load before lifting off.  I watched in fascination as Marines and other passengers were led by ground crew staff to and from the aircraft, their shadowy figures blending into the illumination provided by the moon.  A couple of AH-1 attack choppers sat down for a few minutes and then took off.  I wondered if they would find targets or be called to respond to attacks on Marines or Soldiers in the area.  As I walked back to the tent I heard the boom of our artillery in the distance.

After a while they called for our flight.  We gathered up the gear that we had and Nelson got with the Marines to make sure that we were on the same flight as the “gator” was taking our gear to.  When we flew our “ticket” to get on a flight was the two letter code for our destination with the number of the flight such as 26 or 54 or whatever the mission or route number was.  In our case it was “TQ” and the number was either 54 or 56 which was from HMH 463 flying CH-53-Ds out of Al Asad.  Their flights were known as Kahuna followed by the number.  This was written on our left hand with a black marker.  As passengers we staged by our flight by young Marines with flashlights shaded by red cones.  We got in a line with about 30 other passengers, Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians and moved out for the 53 which had just landed coming in from the east.  The companion bird was forward of ours.  The Gator move alongside of us and reached the helicopter just before we did.  Amid the din of the rotor blades and engines the Marine on the Gator got off and called out “Is the Chaplain that this gear belongs to here.”  I called out that I was and Nelson and I moved to the Gator and began the off load of four “super sized” suitcase shaped canvas sea bags and two flight bags. To get an idea how big our bags were you have to think of something about a third bigger than the biggest suitcases that you can buy only soft sided with no wheels.  No they did have straps that you could try to carry them with, but they were not the greatest.  Also note that we had a full deployment worth of gear in those bags and were expected to lug them across Iraq and you can see that this was a less than fun evolution and why I thought of Staff Sergeant Crapgame.  We dragged our gear aboard the aircraft moving toward the center of the bird placing it on the deck under the rotor blades where we took our places in jump seats and strapped ourselves in.  I felt something warm dripping on me and looked up, it was hydraulic fluid coming from the transmission of the bird which was located above me.  There is an old joke among those who fly in Marine Corps helicopters:  “How do you know when a Marine Helicopter is low on hydraulic fluid?  When it stops leaking.” I thought of the joke but this time it wasn’t funny.  I’ve never been a big fan of rotary wing flight and the fact that I was exhausted, sweaty and sitting in a cramped hot, leaky, dark and heavily loaded helicopter in a combat zone made the experience less than fun.

It was about 0200 when we lifted off into the night on what we understood to be a short flight to TQ.  Admittedly it was, if you only count the flight time from Fallujah to TQ itself.  As we flew in I could see the sprawling airbase below but we flew off to what looked like the other side of the airfield.  As we flew in I thought of the Army bird that had gone down earlier in the day.  I wondered what had caused it to crash and my pucker factor went up just a bit higher as I wiped more hydraulic fluid from my face.

When we landed we told to exit the bird without our gear.  We released ourselves from our seats and stumbled over our gear and that of the rest of the passengers that was in the middle of the deck.  We exited out the rear of the aircraft down the ramp into the rotor wash.  Turning left we moved off about 70 yards from the fifty-three and looked around.  A few crew members and ground crew personnel moved in and out of the bird.  At first I wondered if we had been moved off to refuel but there was no fuel in view.  We waited for about 25 minutes in the dark as Marines moved in and out of the fifty-three.  Finally a crew member came over to us, and motioned us to follow him back into the aircraft.  Once again we negotiated the gear and found our seats.  Once we were back in the fifty-three lifted off and flew a short distance across the airfield where were instructed to exit the bird with our gear.  For most of the passengers this was a fairly easy evolution, for us it was not so easy.  We had to take one bag at a time down the ramp and get each a decent distance from the bird before returning for the others.  We got our gear off the bird and found that the rest of the passengers were already being herded the 200-300 yard hike to the paved area near the terminal.  Nelson and I each packed one of the large bags on our back and began to pull the other bags behind us as another group of Marines walked out to the fifty-three.  Eventually about a third of the way to the terminal a Marine on the ground crew came and asked if we needed assistance.  I replied that it would be appreciated.  He instructed us to wait where we were and about three minutes later a forklift with a large plywood box on the forks.  The Marine who had asked if we needed help instructed us to place the gear in the box and proceed in the direction of the terminal with another member of the ground crew.  As the birds lifted off behind us we set off for the terminal area.  When we got there we had to wait again.  A Marine collected our ID cards and walked in the building telling us to remain where we were.

About this time, our gear on the ground again with us there with our helmets off and sweat pouring down our faces a female petty officer came up to us.  It was the 2nd Marline Logistics Group senior RP.  Nelson knew her from Afghanistan so our welcome was pleasant.  The RP had a Chevy SUV in front of the terminal.  The Marine came back with our ID cards, I grabbed a bottle of water and the three of us began to move the gear to the truck which was about 50 years away via the closed route through the terminal. After loading the gear she drove us about 10 minutes to the other side of the base where the billeting area was.  She got the truck as close as she could and once again we lugged the gear about 100 yards to our new homes which were called “cans.”  These are like a storage container with a window and linoleum floors.  Unlike some of the places I had been recently this also had a small wall unit air conditioner that worked.  It was now about 0315 and I stank to low hell.  I dug through my bags, found my shower gear and towel and got a shower.  Finally about 45 days after we detached from EOD with stops in Norfolk, Fort Jackson, Kuwait, Baghdad and Fallujah we could get to work.  On my return to my new home I did the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer, laid down on the bed and passed out.

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