Tag Archives: the greatest generation

God in the Empty Places: Four Years Later

Four years ago I was leaving Iraq for Kuwait, the first stop in the process of coming home.  At that point I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to go either. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time. I am reposting article here tonight.  

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me.  I feel s special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there.  

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

There are no new edits to the article. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days. Today was a day of reflection.  As I walked my little dog Molly down the street tonight to the beach I looked up at the moonlit sky and I was as I have been thinking lately about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow that sight now comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run there.  

Anyway. Here is is.

God in the Empty Places. 

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.

French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu

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, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible 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 Indochina, 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.

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 Indochina 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 Indochina 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 Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street 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 Nuremberg 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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The Brotherhood: Veterans Day 2013

I am always a bit on the melancholy side on Veterans Day.  This year is no different but is a bit different because for the United States the war in Iraq is over, at least for now while the war in Afghanistan grinds on as we prepare to transition.

For me our wars are more about the incredibly small number of Americans who for the past 12 years have borne the burden of these wars.  They are my brothers and sisters, the 0.45% of Americans that serve in the military.  While this is a terribly low number it is only marginally lower than most of our previous wars.

In fact for most of our history it has always been a small minority of Americans that have fought our wars.  Kind of funny when you think about how much our culture worships militarism. World War II was an anomaly as just over 16.1 million people or 9% of the population served in the military then.  That number while large pales in comparison with percentages of those that served in other nations involved in the Second World War. The reason that I point this out is just to say that as a nation it has always been the few that have borne the cost of war. We are “the few.”

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large.  You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. The real fact of the matter is that these ill advised wars have harmed us as a military and as a nation, our superpower status which was uncontested before 9-11-2001 is challenged because our military is hollowed out, economy weakened and our moral authority questioned by those wars, war crimes and spy scandals.

I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most Americans because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We have become a society apart from the society.

We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis.  But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military.  That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this many of the new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, most who were drafted, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war.

At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform.  In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees.  Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone.  The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.

In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience.  All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure.  The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq                   KIA    US  4483       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4801

Afghanistan     KIA  US  2290         UK 446     Other 659        Total  3395

US Wounded   Iraq  32224      Afghanistan   17674

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now six years since I served in Iraq and five years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies.

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, shipmates and veterans

The Bond

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large.  You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis.  But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military.  That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war.  At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform.  In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees.  Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone.  The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.  In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience.  All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure.  The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq                   KIA    US  4463       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4781

Afghanistan     KIA  US  1637         UK 374     Other 537        Total  2548

US Wounded   Iraq  32227      Afghanistan   11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies.  I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans, Tour in Iraq

A Return to God in the Empty Places

Three years and some change have passed since I returned from Iraq. I originally wrote this article for my former church immediately after returning home. At the time that I wrote it I was well on the way to my psychological and spiritual crash due to PTSD which at the time of writing this I clueless about despite lots of warning signs. Now well into recovery of my life and faith albeit in a different faith community as I was asked to leave my former church last September because I was now “too liberal” I have decided to repost it without any new edits or additions. I do this because for me it is a touch point in relation to being a chaplain serving with military professionals, volunteers fighting a series of unpopular wars. My problem and I think why I keep ending up here is that I was not always a Chaplain. I was not always a Chaplain but I am also a historian and more specifically a military historian and to some degree theorist. Additionally I have served as an enlisted man in the Army National Guard and as a line officer in the Army in command and staff positions before I became a Chaplain first in the Army and then in the Navy, taking a reduction in rank from a senior Army Major to a no time in grade Navy Lieutenant to enter the Navy in February 1999. As such a lot of what I study is military history and the social-political dimension of it.  I graduated from Marine Corps Command and Staff College and was about halfway through my Masters in Military History program of study when I was alerted that I was to be sent to Iraq in the Spring of 2007. As part of both the Command and Staff College and the degree program I spent a lot of time studying counterinsurgency campaigns, especially those of the French in Indo-China and Algeria and I saw many parallels between the professional French soldiers and officers who served in the Paratroops, Foreign Legion and Colonials (Marines) and our military in relation to society and politics in both countries As I point out in the article professional our all volunteer professional military is far different than the men of the Greatest Generation who were for the most part draftees as well as the military that fought in Vietnam the bulk of which were draftees.  This comment is in no way to cast dispersion on the brave men who fought so bravely in both wars, it is just a statement of fact as our military culture is different than it was then as is our political culture. In the middle of this are we happy few, we band of brothers who serve together in very unpopular wars. Tonight I post it again after my first public interview dealing with my struggles to acknowledge all of those that serve today as well as our brothers of the Vietnam era, French Indo-China and Algeria, and the British soldiers who served in so many crummy wars.

Today our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen are engaged in three wars in the Middle East, are providing humanitarian relief to the people of Japan as well as other nations and are deployed in many other hot spots that could easily become war zones.  I don’t want anyone to forget them or their sacrifices. Anyway I digress; this is my return to God in the Empty Places.

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.

French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu

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.

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 Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street 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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Tour in Iraq

A Previous Generation of Sailor Insults the Current Generation of Sailors

A Different Kind of Navy

Today I received an e-mail forwarded by a retired Navy Chief and actually a dear friend of my family.  However the e-mail was so insulting to the present generation of sailors that I sent a very blunt response back to him and everyone in else by replying to all recipients.

As readers of this site know I constantly go out of my way to make sure that the sacrifices of the previous generations of military personnel are recognized, honored and not forgotten.  In fact I am not alone in this, many like me have been touched by these veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Shield and Storm and the Balkans and honor their service in thought word and deed. In fact I and thousands like me are deeply appreciative of the service and sacrifice of those who have gone before us.  However with the exception of the Vietnam vets I don’t think that this honor and appreciation is shown much to the current generation.

We have been at war coming up on 9 years. This is nearly three times as long as the US involvement in World War II and will certainly go well beyond that.  Unlike that war where the whole nation was mobilized and millions of men and women served in all components of the armed forces all over the world in the current war only a tiny minority of the population has served. In fact if you look around the country we are a nation that doesn’t even act like we are at war unless it benefits someone’s political agenda.  While various individuals and organizations, especially professional sports take time to publicly acknowledge the service of the current generation for most people the war is something abstract that really doesn’t affect them or change how they live in any appreciable manner.

What is even more insulting is getting e-mail and hearing some of the older generation demean those who serve now, while saying “Support our Troops” they then spread horse manure like this:

Then – If you smoked, you had an ashtray on your desk.
Now – If you smoke, you get sent outside and treated like a leper, if you’re lucky.

Then – Mail took weeks to come to the ship.
Now – Every time you get near land, there’s a mob topside to see if their cell phones work.

Then – If you left the ship it was in Blues or Whites, even in home port.
Now – The only time you wear Blues or Whites is for ceremonies..

Then – You wore bell-bottoms everywhere on the ship.
Now – Bell-bottoms are gone and 14 year-old girls wear them everywhere.

Then – You wore a Dixie cup all day, with every uniform.
Now – It’s not required and you have a choice of different hats..

Then – If you said “damn,” people knew you were annoyed and avoided you.
Now – If you say “damn” you’d better be talking about a hydroelectric plant.

Then -The Ships Office Yeoman had a typewriter on his desk for doing daily reports.
Now – Everyone has a computer with Internet access and they wonder why no work is getting done.

Then – We painted pictures of pretty girls on airplanes to remind us of home.
Now – We put the real thing in the cockpit.

Then – Your girlfriend was at home, praying you would return alive.
Now – She is on the same ship, praying your condom worked.

Then – If you got drunk off duty, your buddies would take you back to the ship so you could sleep it off.
Now – If you get drunk off duty, they slap you in rehab and ruin your career.

Then – Canteens were made out of steel and you could heat coffee or hot chocolate in them.
Now – Canteens are made of plastic, you can’t heat them because they’ll melt, and anything inside always tastes like plastic.

Then – Our top officers were professional sailors first.  They commanded respect.
Now – Our top officers are politicians first.  They beg not to be given a wedgie.

Then – They collected enemy intelligence and analyzed it.
Now – They collect our pee and analyze it.

Then – If you didn’t act right, they’d put you on extra duty until you straightened up.
Now – If you don’t act right, they start a paper trail that follows you forever.

Then – Medals were awarded to heroes who saved lives at the risk of their own.
Now – Medals are awarded to people who show up for work most of the time.

Then – You slept in a barracks, like a soldier.
Now – You sleep in a dormitory, like a college kid.

Then – You ate in a Mess Hall or Galley.  It was free and you could have all the food you wanted.
Now – You eat in a Dining Facility.  Every slice of bread or pat of butter costs, and you can only have one.

Then – If you wanted to relax, you went to the Rec Center, played pool, smoked and drank beer.
Now – You go to the Community Center and can still play pool, maybe.

Then – If you wanted a quarter beer and conversation, you could go to the Chief’s or Officers’ Club.
Now – The beer will cost you three dollars and someone is watching to see how much you drink.

Then – The Exchange had bargains for sailors who didn’t make much money.
Now – You can get better merchandise and cheaper at Wal-Mart.

Then – If an Admiral wanted to make a presentation, he scribbled down some notes and a YN3 spent an hour preparing a bunch of charts.
Now – The Admiral has his entire staff spending days preparing a PowerPoint presentation.

Then – We called the enemy things like “Commie Bastards” and “Reds” because we didn’t like them.
Now – We call the enemy things like “Opposing Forces” and “Aggressors” or “Insurgents” so we won’t offend them.

Then – We declared victory when the enemy was dead and all his things were broken.
Now – We declare victory when the enemy says he is sorry and won’t do it again.

Then – A commander would put his butt on the line to protect his people.
Now – A commander will put his people on the line to protect his butt.

ALOHA!

“IN GOD WE TRUST”

Now there are some elements of truth in the e-mail there is also a lot of fiction and patent falsehoods which are cobbled together to insult and put down those who serve now.  Maybe this is done because a lot of the “greatest generation” never got into combat, maybe they resent the changes in society and culture, and maybe the only paradigm of war that they know is World War Two and the Cold War.  In fact if you look at history the Vietnam vets didn’t get the support or respect of the World War II generation.

I don’t want to sound like an ass or ungrateful but my generation has honored and respected those that have gone before us as “the greatest generation” while some who served in that war and during the 1950s and early 1960s run us down.  In fact I imagine that this was written by someone who did little but sit on their ass and complain when they were in the Navy and pretty sure that they didn’t serve in World War II, or see anything more than a hostile coast when they served.

Maybe I should re-write this in this manner, of course just like what was in the e-mail above it is filled with half-truths, it makes the point of what it feels like to have your service made light of by another generation.  Please know that I write this not to put down those who served before us but to show that such ad hominem attacks can go both directions, so let’s try it:

Then: Physical fitness meant if you got to fat you purchased a new uniform to waddle down a passage way.

Now: Physical Fitness standards are such that if you don’t stay in good physical condition and stay within weight standards that your career will be over.

Then: Physical abuse of sailors and hazing was acceptable and even encouraged.

Now: We don’t tolerate assault and battery.

Then: If you didn’t smoke you were forced to inhale the smoke of others in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces ensuring that you had an equal opportunity at sharing in the joys of lung cancer.

Now: If you don’t smoke you can breathe in peace and if you do smoke you still can just not whenever and wherever you want.

Then: Senior leaders both officer and enlisted who did criminal things were quietly removed and allowed to continue in service or retire as if nothing happened.

Now: Senior leaders, especially Commanding Officers and Command Master Chiefs are held to a higher standard and when relieved for cause it is public and the offense is not swept under the rug.

Then: Only a minority of sailors were married.

Now: The majority are married.

Then: Intelligence collection was pretty straight forward; you monitored Soviet communications and movements.

Now:  The bad guys use a multitude of means to communicate that were undreamed of in years past.

Then: Drug abuse was not a big problem in society at large and there was little need to test for them.

Now: The proliferation of drugs throughout society presents risks to our sailors, our security and mission that it is necessary to test for them.

Then: Women had little opportunity in the service and were regulated to support jobs.

Now: Women serve honorably in almost every Navy community at sea, in the air or ashore.

Then: Racial prejudice was pervasive and individual and institutional racism tolerated.

Now: For the most part racism is a thing of the past and sailors of all races have the opportunity not only to serve but to rise to the highest ranks.

Then: Being drunk on duty was okay if your Chief or Divo liked you and your buddies covered it up.

Now: Being drunk on duty is recognized for what it is, endangerment of your shipmates and the mission.

Then: Going on deployment meant being on a ship with regular deployment schedules and plenty for port calls and being on shore duty meant just that.

Now:  Sailors can be deployed at a moment’s notice from shore assignments and rotate from deployment to deployment to deployment with little time in between and up serving with boots on the ground where people are trying to kill you.

Then: Pay was low but since you weren’t married and lived on ship or the barracks you had plenty of disposable income.

Now: Pay is better but since you are married you have to support them and subject them to the uncertain life of being a sailor at war.

Then: Pay and benefits were so low that many in the civilian world believed that “only losers joined the military.”

Now: Pay and benefits are better so we get so of the best professionals in their fields.

Then: Medical care for life was a given and you never paid out of pocket for it for you or your family.

Now: Even with the most affordable health coverage sailors pay something out of pocket for their family’s medical care and sometimes their own.

Then: Navy housing was usually old, dilapidated and substandard and Navy families frequently lived in worse conditions than civilians lived in.

Now: Navy housing is being built to comparable standards of homes and apartments in the civilian community.

Then: There was no “Wal-Mart” or any other discount stores so the Exchange was your best option.

Now: Competition in the civilian world often makes the Exchange less attractive an option.

Then: The Navy was stingy with awards figuring that your paycheck was your award.

Now: Hard work deployed and non-deployed is better recognized and no sailors don’t get personal awards for showing up to work on time.

Then: War was different, we fought actual countries and professional militaries who played by the rules.

Now: War is fought against shadowy groups that use terrorism and other asymmetric means to fight and have no government to end the war and do not follow the rules of conventional warfare.

Then: Education was not encouraged.

Now: Education both military and civilian is encouraged to make better sailors.

Then: A sailor’s only interactions with Soldiers, Airmen or Marines were at bar fights.

Now: Now we serve alongside Soldiers, Marines and Airmen on small isolated outposts in dangerous combat zones.

Need I go on?

Now I am not saying any of this to demean or put down those who served before this generation. However I put it out here to show just how insulting the referenced e-mail was.  My gut reaction is that people who put out stuff like this didn’t do much in their own career and maybe were embarrassed by others of their generation who did. Perhaps the only way they can value their service is to put down others.  If so they are a pitiful and bitter bunch.  Now as I said up front there are plenty of veterans from past wars who honor us who serve today, however the vocal minority who put out crap like this need to be called on it.  If you see such e-mails please register your objection to them by replying to all and maybe, just maybe this will stop.  If you want past my “then and now” into your e-mail to throw it back at them.

Finally as always I thank all who served before us, men and women, especially the Korea and Vietnam vets who had their service ignored or put down by fellow vets as well as society in general. I do not want their service to be forgotten or dishonored and if anyone interprets this essay in that manner they have missed my point entirely.  But moreover I want to thank the new “greatest generation” who though small in number volunteer to serve knowing that they will see action likely in a ground combat zone serving alongside Soldiers, Marines and Airmen in places that would have been impossible for previous generations to imagine serving. It is us, we few, we happy few who fight together that hold the line, not the pundits, not the politicians and not those who sit back under the protection that we provide demean our service and criticize how we do that job.  Such people can kiss my ass, otherwise they can sign up, pick up a weapon, put on a pack or shut the hell up.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, philosophy

War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true 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. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. 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 but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible 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, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often 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 change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were 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.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One 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) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

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.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

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.  Nor was it fully appreciated 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.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers 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 the “Greatest Generation” was 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 fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. 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. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

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. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops 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 may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

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 Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street 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.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Brothers to the End…the Bond between those Who Serve Together in Unpopular Wars

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

We have a new Greatest Generation whose accomplishments will likely go unheralded by history and unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  The brothers, and for that matter sisters as well who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again; I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

With MTT near SyriaAdvisers out on the Badlands of Al Anbar

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen are volunteers, as are the members of the Reserves and National Guard.  Likewise this generation has for the most part fought the war alone as the vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.  In the Second World War there was a sharing of the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

Dynamic DuoBrothers

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about their families being targeted by terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular, had little support on the home front and often left returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices either ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

advisers convoy prepGetting Ready for A Mission

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have the common shared experience of fighting people who don’t necessarily like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

374Prayer Before a Mission

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz by you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

helos at nightA Familiar Sight to Me, Flying at Night AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

As a result we do not only have men and women with physical wounds, but wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are many idealistic and patriotic military personnel who because of what they have seen question God, their National Leadership and even themselves.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Sadaam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them.

237Iraqi Kids in War Torn Village on the Euphrates

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my ICU staff deployed this year with more getting ready to go.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in our ICU.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now two years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and a year since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies.  I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Sadaam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

136A Chance Meeting with our EOD Mobile Uniit 2 Brothers

May God bless all of especially my brothers who served in with me in Iraq or have served or are serving in Afghanistan; as well as my brothers who fought in Vietnam, Indochina and Algeria.  We may never get a victory parade, but we have each other.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, vietnam