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A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

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

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

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

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, ministry, PTSD, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, world war one

Smile and the World Smiles with You: PTSD, Broken Noses, Smiles, F-Bombs, and God’s Love


 Smile and the World Smiles with You: It Looks and Feels a Lot Worse in Person, the Black Eye is Awesome

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tuesday morning began with a fucking bang. I was in the middle of one of my HD PTSD nightmares and I was rudely awakened when my face smashed into my nightstand. It’s not the first time that this is happened, and it is the second time in the past two years that the incident required a visit to the ER. I have had a lot of these incidents since returning from Iraq in2008, but thankfully only two required going in for medical treatment. The last time I required medical treatment was when in a similar nightmare, I bruised my jawbone and gave me a concussion. Today, just a gash across my face and a broken nose. The incident was so violent that it scared the hell out of Judy, Minnie, and Izzy. I woke up and felt liquid on my face and realized that I was bleeding. So I rapidly put some Kleenex to keep the blood from dripping everywhere I didn’t want to clean and stumbled into the bathroom where I was confronted with my bloodied image in the mirror. I looked like an old and out of shape MMA fighter who just had his ass kicked, but thankfully I didn’t tap out. 

Judy drove me to the Naval Medical Center, and two of the nurses both related to my situation, having both dealt with the nightmares of PTSD. One female nurse said that hers lasted over five years after returning, mine have been going on over eight years. It is one of the marks of PTSD, the fucking brain matter gets scrambled, and sometimes, no matter how much therapy you get, or how good your medication management is, shit like this happens.

That my friends is life. It may not be fair. It may not fit in with a theology that says of you pray that God will heal you, but it is life, and for that matter it is much more in keeping with scripture, and reality than the bullshit put out by the mega-church and television preacher bullshit artists who call themselves pastors, who fleece their flocks by the tune of millions of dollars every fucking day of the week. So fuck them, not that I would want to, but I digress… 

That being said, with the except of the chronic insomnia and nightmares I am doing much better when it comes to dealing with PTSD. I make accommodation for it, I avoid things that I know are likely to blow me up, and So I have a choice; I can either sulk and be angry, or while realizing how serious it is I can decide to live, to smile, and to love. So fuck it, I’m going to live and smile. I might need to start wearing a catcher’s mask to bed to keep from hurting myself when I have these high definition nightmares, but then I did play catcher in both little league and softball. 

So… What now? Well for me the answer is simple, live, love, and smile, because when you smile, no matter how fucked up things are, the world smiles with you. Laugh, and no matter how fucked up things are, and the world laughs with you; and for that matter, God might even give me a grin, because the God I believe in actuality understands and cares about real human beings and is much more concerned about our happiness than he is about the occasional F-Bomb. 

As for me, no matter what life and dealing with the effects of PTSD and TBI may be, I am still going to fucking laugh, and fucking smile. Even so I do think I will go looking for a comfortable and well fitting catcher’s mask when I get back from Gettysburg. 

Have a great night, and no matter what happens, try to smile.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I will post something about the Democratic Party National Convention tomorrow and promise to soon do something on the Trump-Putin bromance and Trump’s probable treason in the coming days. 

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Filed under mental health, PTSD

The Second Thing: Living and Thriving with PTSD


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wanted to take some time to reflect on the struggle I have had with chronic PTSD following my tour in Iraq.

For years, PTSD dominated my life, in fact it almost defined who I was. The nightmares, night terrors, anxiety, depression, occasional thoughts of suicide, and so many other effects of it were often almost more than I could bear. But over the past few months, beginning with an existential crisis around Easter, I think I have turned a corner. 

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.” 

For me, my time in Iraq haunted me. It was the first thing that I thought of when I got up, when I went to bed, and so many times during the days, and through the sleepless nights. It still is there, I left part of me in Al Anbar Province and brought part of it back with me. That will not change, but it is no longer the first thing that I think about. 


That my friends is a turning point. I still suffer in many ways from the effects of PTSD and mild Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, but while they are a big part of me, they do no longer define who I am. Iraq is no longer the first thing that I think about, and that my friends is important. It has taken over eight years, and yes, I still deal with the effects, but they don’t define who I am. I am a priest, a chaplain, a historian, a theologian, a husband, and a career military officer; not to mention daddy to two very sweet and smart Papillons. 

Indeed, there is nothing that can take the pain away, but for me, it is now the second thing. For me, that is a victory. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD

The Uncounted Cost of War: Veteran Suicides

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler probably discussed the true cost of war better than anyone. Butler, a two time Medal of Honor winner wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “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….”

Mangled bodies, shattered minds. The bodies get counted, the minds do not, and when a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, Airman or former serviceman or women ends their life due to suicide their name is not included on the casualty reports.

In January 2014 the Veterans Administration released a disturbing report that male veterans under 30 years old saw a 44% increase in the rate of suicide. The rate for women veterans increased by 11%. About 22 veterans a day committed suicide in 2013. That did not count those still on active duty numbers which are still high but have dropped somewhat since 2012 and previous years.

The VA National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention, Jan Kemp said “Their rates are astronomically high and climbing…” Kemp postulated that reasons for the spike might include “the pressures of leaving military careers, readjusting to civilian life and combat injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder…”

I believe that the stigma that many felt about getting psychological help while they were in the military continues on when they enter civilian life. Unlike the military where there is still some sense of camaraderie and a chance that the chain of command might force a service member to get help, no corresponding structure or community exists in the civilian world. Young veterans are often isolated and face new stresses while they are already on edge. Many find that the military occupation specialties that they trained for have no direct civilian counterpart, leaving them struggling in the civilian job market. Combat injuries as well as injuries sustained in training often continue on, limiting what they can do and the unseen injuries of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and Moral Injury, often undiagnosed and untreated lurk in the background.

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This is a national tragedy and crisis. Many of these young men and women are among the best and brightest. They volunteered to serve in time of war and now as the military, especially the Army and Marine Corps begin to shed large numbers of troops, many more will be thrust into a world that they may be ill equipped to survive.

They will attempt to go to work or attend school, quite often alone. There they will be surrounded by people who have no idea of the issues that they face or understanding of the military world that they left, or the places that they served. I think this social isolation will be a killer for many.

My recommendation is that people who work or go to school with these young veterans, or for that matter any veteran get to know them. Help them adjust to the world and keep an eye on them. Ask them how they are doing and just show that you care. You do not have to be a veteran to do that. Likewise get to know about the resources that are available for veterans and help direct them to them. Have the courage to care.

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Resources include the Veterans Crisis Hotline which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can be reached at (800)-273-8255, press 1, or here to chat online. They also allow veterans to send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day.

Another resource is the Real Warriors Live Chat. The a trained health resource consultant is ready to talk, listen and provide guidance and resources. They can be reached by calling 866-966-1020 or going to their live chat service here http://www.realwarriors.net/livechat.

Afterdeployment.org http://afterdeployment.t2.health.mil offers wellness resources for the Military Community. Service members in transition to civilian life can contact inTransition by calling 800-424-7877 or at their website http://www.health.mil/InTransition/default.aspx

To me this is personal. I still suffer from the effects of PTSD, TBI, Moral Injury and have been to the brink of suicide. I am doing a lot better, and I love life, and I can’t imagine living it without me.

However, I have known far too many veterans who have taken their own lives, or struggle with mental health issues, physical injuries and illness, or social isolation. Last January, about the time the VA report came out a brilliant and heroic senior officer I knew, Captain Tom Sitsch who helped me when I was collapsing due to the effects of PTSD took his own life. This is something that all of us have a stake in. Please help look out for our veterans.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under leadership, mental health, Military, PTSD, suicide

There Will be Nightmares: PTSD & Memories of War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I’m really very tired today so another short post. I haven’t slept well in several weeks, part of this of course was the worry I had regarding my wife Judy and her cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery. As she has gotten better I have been dealing with stuff from my own closet of anxieties. Those who have been reading my articles here know that I deal with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and moral injury from my time in Iraq, and my return home.

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Last year I went through a very difficult time dealing with the military mental health system that I never want to repeat again. I hope I don’t have to, but I may. My therapist who I have had since last summer took a new job thousands of miles away and now I am going to have to find another therapist. I am hoping the man I see for my medication management can get me referred to someone good, because I do not want to be thrust back into the system and take the luck of the draw. That scares me to death, and since I found out my therapist was leaving and that I will not see her again I have been trying to keep my anxiety under control and not to panic. Awake I do pretty well with this, but when I try to sleep, all my Iraq stuff, plus all the very real and bad experiences that I had with the military mental health system last year flood my psyche. The night terrors are back, the terrible dreams and fears. It is not fun waking up in the middle of the night in a state of terror. Last year, after dealing with a number of providers and administrators I was nearly suicidal. It took the intervention of a former commanding officer who had been recently selected for promotion to Admiral in the Medical Corps to get me listened to and to get me the help that I sought.

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But I know that I am not alone, I will get the professional help that I still need and I do have some friends I can talk to about these issues. Likewise I know many combat who veterans deal with similar issues related to their service, as well what happened to them when they returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan. The return from war is often worse than actually being over there, few people really understand, unless they too have been there.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

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I am a realist about this. I know that there is no magic wand which will make it all go away and I don’t expect any therapist, or even God to cure me. I can understand why Alexander Dumas in the Count of Monte Cristo wrote, “Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is true and I know to some people that may sound like I have given up, especially because it runs counter to the snake oil salesmen who write self-help books which promise to heal you in whatever number of steps or exercises; especially the ones written by preachers. But that is not the case, despite everything I still have a love of life and lust for learning. Except that now I just have moved to a new level of understanding concerning my own dark places, and that pain that manifests at night as I try to sleep. Since nothing will take it away I need to live with it and realize that it won’t always be the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. That my friends is the essence of hope. 

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One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “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 you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

I think that is why I can continue and at the same time seek to be available to those who suffer similar afflictions, and thankfully, I do still have those opportunities and as the late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Anyway, have a nice night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

A Chaplain Conference and the Stomach Flu

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am in Houston for my denomination Chaplain, Pastoral Counselor and Mental Health Professional training conference. The conference has been really good, but exhausting because I am not used to spending eight-hours or more a day in presentations and case conferences. This we are focusing on various treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Moral Injury.

But tonight I am wiped out. Evidently there is a stomach flu going around Houston as well as other parts of the country and I have got it.  At first I thought that it just might be something I ate, but after nine hours and a number of trips to the great white throne I decided to see if anything is going around, and yes it is. I have even been throwing up the stuff I am taking to calm down my stomach. So I will do my best to stay hydrated and get well.

So in the hopes that my stomach calms down and that can enjoy tomorrow  with you a good night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

So Much to Write About and Too Wiped Out to Do It



Somehow I feel a bit like Danny the Donkey now. I am wiped out and I wouldn’t mind sitting around in my underwear drinking beer. sadly I am not a pretty sight in my tights whities, but then there are times when I think that I am ahead of my time. 

Today I had a day long series of tests to see how my brain is working at the Neuro-Psychology clinic at the local Naval Medical Center. If you ever have cause to go through such a series, please know, even if you don’t drink you will want to when complete them. Thankfully, this was the last battery of tests of this sort that I will need to do. On the 23rd I get my special sleep study  which in addition to checking for possible sleep apnea also studies all of my crazy dreams and night terrors. 

Last night I had a pretty bad night for sleep, lots of weird dreams and nightmares. I woke up exhausted and then went to my testing. So now I am even more wiped out. Thankfully tonight should be easy. Go home and spend time with Judy and the dogs. I think our new Papillon puppy, Izzy, is good for me. It looks like she is going to be daddy’s girl. I love playing with her and having her hang out with us. She is funny, smarter I think than any of our previous girls, and none of them were dumb dogs, very sweet, playful but totally laid back. It is like this little girl is an old soul. 

Like I said, there is a lot that I want to write about. One thing is the latest GOP outrage with their letter to Iran. As a career military officer and former Republican I could never imagine any group of American politicians doing something so stupid and ultimately undermining of of our country. Not only was a it a lame attempt to sabotage the discussions that we and our allies are involved with before any deal is finalized, in a sense they added to the legitimacy of the Iranian clerics. If the Democrats had written a letter like this to Saddam Hussein in 2002 they would have been rightfully condemned, but evidently Senator Tom Cotton and 46 others thought this was a good idea, simply because they hate all things Obama. Instead they seem to be pushing for new, unfunded wars against not only Iran, but Iran’s mortal enemy the Islamic State. Guess what, if they get there way, these new wars will end badly. But the people are less rational than the Iranian Mullahs, so what can we expect?

There is yet another shit storm brewing between the religious right and the Navy Chaplain Corps. I promise that as I sort through the facts I will give you the fairest and most comprehensive report you will see on it. But for now I will simply say that from what I am reading this appears to be another incident involving a chaplain who might have overstepped his bounds but who’s cause is now all over the conservative blogosphere. From what I read there appears to be much more to the story than what is being reported on the Daily Caller, World Net Daily, the Blaze, Fox News, tons of other Right Wing Christian “news” sites and blogs or the website of lawyers supporting the agrieved chaplain are saying. Give me some time and you will get as truthful report as you will see on this.

I do have a number of Gettysburg related articles in process. Expect one one the cavalry actions of July 3rd and one on the suprises that George Meade and Robert E Lee experienced on June 28th 1863 within the week. I have some other ideas floating around and have much more to do on my Gettysburg text, so there will be more. 

Finally there are a number of other subjects that I want to address, some dealing with history, some baseball, some military, and some current events and controversies. So my friends, please stay tuned and spread the word. 

Until tomorrow, 

Peace, love and beer,

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, News and current events, Religion