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Reading and Reflecting amid the Maladies of Age

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mickey Mantle once quipped: “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

But 50 plus years of athletics and military service have take their toll. Not long ago I was walking and running 5 to 12 miles a day. Today on the way out of my subdivision to see one of my orthopedic, sports medicine surgeons I saw a man running, I was jealous, and I mused upon the signal sent by the elderly HMS Rodney sent to new HMS King George V during the chase for the German Battleship Bismarck: “I think your 22 knots is faster than mine.”

But, there are blessings as well. While today was a day of doctors appointments and waiting in pharmacies, I got a chance to read. Days like this allow me to energize my reading. Of course I followed the news of the day, but I was able to finish historian Eric Foner’s collection of essays; Battles for Freedom: the Use and Abuse Of American History, as well as re-read in its entirety the late Eric Hoffer’s Classic The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature Of Mass Movements.

I have read many of Foner’s books dealing with American Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement in my own studies. He is one of the best at dealing with those subjects and if you are a serious student of that period, you need to read his works.

Likewise, Hoffer’s book is a classic and sadly people often quote him out of context, knowing nothing of him, his times, or his life. The True Believer is often quoted in order to justify hatreds against others, be they foreigners, the establishment, racial or religious minorities, or simply whatever political order they despise. This can be from the Left or the Right. Hoffer understood it well, he had lived through the World Wars and the Cold War. He had seen dictatorships arise from different points of the political spectrum, but each shared common characteristics.

The True Believer is an uncomfortable read for those who are not simply trying to find quotes to support their ideology. I think that I was much more uncomfortable with it today than I ever was in the past.

When I first read the book I was trying to understand religious fanaticism, hatred, and terrorism. It was quite good for that purpose but I did not go back and look at how I could in Hoffer’s book. That came to me today as I read it with a different eye in a different time. So I wrote a review of it on Amazon and Goodreads and my takeaway is that any of us can become A True Believer.

Last week I finished reading Peter Hart’s book on the Somme Campaign of 1916. It is a massive book that in addition to explaining the strategy and tactics behind this brutal and bloody battle, contains many first hand accounts of the soldiers who fought in it. If you have been to war, if you have seen its devastation, the vivid written accounts of these soldiers, who describe carnage that few, if any modern soldiers have ever experienced are terrifying. If you haven’t been to war, just read it and think about the battle scenes in movies like Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Gallipoli, Stalingrad (the German Version), or series like Band Of Brothers or The Pacific; the more graphic the better. Unfortunately, you won’t experience the olfactory ambiance of death, or experience any discomforts of heat, cold, mud, swarms of flies, and physical and mental exhaustion,which complete the experience. The Alsatian German Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary.

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

But I digress…

I have not done nearly as much interaction on social media over the past couple of days. I find reading or watching films or series that make me think or laugh, or maybe both, or discussing the matters with Judy or my dogs. Minnie is quite the conversationalist, and Pierre is becoming one too. Izzy, remains the incredibly sweet but somewhat serious security officer. For her it’s just the facts.

Anyway, my life will be filled with various medical appointments, surgical procedures, physical therapy, sleep management, orthopedic and dermatology consults or follow ups. It’s kind of like the old children’s song Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Eyes and Ears, and Mouth and Nose; except that my teeth and toes are fine, all the rest has gone to shit. Besides waiting on two knee procedures, hip and shoulder evaluations, having to walk with a cane, carrying my wallet, phone, iPad, and keys in my old replica German Medical bag, which is kind of a man purse. All the while I am recovering from a treatment to burn off pre-cancerous cells off of my scalp and face which have left me looking like the rusted wreck of the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, but apart from that I am just fine.

Now I will get through this, unless one of my physically active dreams or nightmares results in another injury. My veteran readers know that I have had two emergency room visits when I crashed into my nightstand breaking my nose, or the floor, as like happened last week when I landed on the kneecap of the knee that I am to have platelet rich plasma treatments two weeks from now. Thankfully, I didn’t fracture it, or at least I assume that I didn’t because the surgeon hasn’t called me about it.

So, I persevere with the ear worms of the theme from Rocky III, The Eye Of the Tiger, and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive blending into the constant ringing of my Tinnitus ravaged ears while walking like Dr. House, without the Vicodin.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Minor Disasters and Moderate Headaches

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been an exhausting week. Last week my air conditioning system’s condensation pan overflowed due to insulation that clogged the drain pipes. Water poured through my ceiling saturated a good part of my library and my wife’s art supply storage room, and our upstairs hallway and landing. Water soaked the carpet and laminated floors, walls and a door frame. It also soaked the subfloor and my living room ceiling. We now have carpeting and flooring that has been ripped out as well as dry way that has been torn out to help dry things out.

Since then we have been trying to dig out with the assistance of our USAA and Servpro which they contracted to do the drying out process. The company which put in the insulation sent out a manager to assist and see if they could cover my deductible and some extra for the massive inconvenience of it all. Hopefully their national office will be as good as the local and regional managers. I am grateful for their help, but the amount of work that we have sorting through all we had in that room is exhausting.

That being said since Tuesday my house sounds like we live in the engine room of a warship, very loud, but thankfully without the heat. We have dehumidifiers and fans upstairs and downstairs and while the noise doesn’t bother our unflappable Papillon dogs, it is exhausting. But on the plus side when I am near the fans I don’t notice the chronic tinnitus that I have endured since my tour in Iraq.

Saturday will be busy, I will be participating in a Mass for the first communion of some children of our German NATO contingent at one of my chapels and of course the Mass will be in German. That is not hard because I have celebrated Mass in German before, but it has been a while, even so it will be fun and my German is good enough to get by pretty well. In the afternoon Judy and I have separate parties to attend because both need to be attended and so she will do one while I do the other. It is nice to be wanted.

Next week will busy as we continue to deal with drying the house out, sorting through stuff, and then with the contractor who will be putting things back together, as well as balancing out stuff at work that cannot be ignored. I figure we have at least three weeks of pain ahead, but again I won’t complain because stuff will get fixed, it will be better than when it started, and I have a supportive command and great staff.

That being said this is exhausting and there is so much going on in the world. Of course when I get a chance I will try to get some time to write. So until tomorrow or whenever, pray for me a sinner…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Muddling Through PTSD Recovery: A Chaplain’s Story of Return from War

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“Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again” Counselor Troi to Captain Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation after his encounter with the Borg.

Coming home from war can be harder than going. At least it was for me. I have always been a hard charger. When I was at war in Iraq I was at the top of my game but when I came back I was broken. I experienced things there that changed me forever and it has taken a long time to find myself again.

I came home with chronic, severe PTSD, anxiety and depression. I suffer severe Tinnitus and pathetic speech comprehension. The ringing in my ears is non-stop and in any kind of group setting or conference I struggle to understand what is going on even though my hearing loss measured in decibels is minimal. The loss is neurological and when tested I measured in the third percentile of people, meaning that 97% of people understand speech better than me.

I still suffer from chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares and night terrors. I still struggle with agoraphobia, hyper-vigilance and occasional road rage. Thankfully none of them are as bad as they used to be but they are ever present. I have had my ups and downs with prescription medications that were used by my doctors to manage my PTSD symptoms and sleep disorders.  For a while drank too much just to help me make it through the nights. I am told that this is common for many who return from war.

When I came home I felt abandoned, especially by church leaders and many chaplains, many who I had thought were my friends. That is understandable as I was radioactive.  My faith had collapsed and for two years I was an agnostic desperately hoping to find God. As such I have a certain bond with those that struggle with God or even those that do not believe. This makes a lot of religious people uncomfortable, especially ministers. I think the reason for this is that is scares the hell out of people to think that they too might have a crisis of faith because they too have doubts. 

The first person who asked me about how I was doing spiritually was not anyone from my church or a chaplain, but rather my first shrink, Elmer Maggard. When faith returned around Christmas 2009 it was different and so was I. I tried to express it and began to write about it. For my openness I got in trouble with my old denomination and asked to leave because I was “too liberal.” Thankfully a bishop from the Episcopal Church who knew me recommend that I seek out Bishop Diana Dale of the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. Thanks to that I have a loving new denomination and since we do not have a local parish of the ACOC I have found  St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Virginia as a place of refuge. It is the historically African American parish in the area and I love the people there. They helped me when I was in my deepest times of struggle. 

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My struggle was really hard on my wife Judy. Before I deployed I was the strong one. Afterward my contribution to our marriage was minimal and I was often a complete ass. I was in survival mode and and barely making it. I couldn’t reach out to her, I was collapsing on myself and she felt it as rejection. Our marriage suffered terribly and both of us thought that it might not survive. But over the past 18 months or so it has been getting better. I can share with her again and she has become a source of added strength. We enjoy being together again and we recently celebrated our 30th anniversary with many of the friends who helped us make it through the hard times. 

In time I gathered a support network. There are some Chaplains that I can be absolutely honest with, as well as my Command Master Chief, Ed Moreno. Likewise I have friends outside the military, including people I have known for years who still, despite all my flaws care for me. I have found other places of refuge where I have relationships with people, one is Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides Baseball team, another was Grainger Stadium, former home of the Kinston Indians. I have a couple of places as well that are like my real life version of the TV show Cheers

Baseball brings me a great deal of peace, especially when I can go to the ballpark. When I was in dire straits the management of the Tides allowed me to go wander Harbor Park during the off season, just to take it in.  Running on the beach is something that I have come to cherish here in North Carolina, I will miss the easy access that I have here when I return home to Virginia in two weeks. 

Writing on my blog has been good therapy. As an introvert I process information by taking things in. Being constantly around people wears me out. I am good at what I do but it takes a great deal of effort to do it. 

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My unflappable little dog Molly has been a life saver, she insisted on coming to stay with me about halfway through my tour. She helped me recover my humanity and her presence gave me something outside of me to care for and because of that I ended up seeking out people again instead of holing up in my apartment.

My spiritual life still has its ups and downs and I discovered that I am far from perfect, and I hate that sometimes. However, that being said I do feel more connected with God, people and at peace despite my ongoing struggles.

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Picard breaking down

It has not been an easy road, but it has been worth it. I find it interesting that the Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager series help me process many of my feelings, thoughts and emotions. I quoted part of a Next Generation episode at the beginning of this article, one where Captain Picard is recovering from the trauma of being abducted by the Borg. I find the episode compelling on many levels. Part of that episode deals with Picard trying to figure out his life again. After a tumultuous visit with his family he and his older brother engage in a fight, during which he breaks down. Picard’s brother realizing the importance of what was happening said to him “So – my brother is a human being after all. This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You have to learn to live with it…”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Padre Steve’s War and Return

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“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” ― T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

It is hard to believe that six years ago I was almost ready to deploy to Iraq with my bodyguard and assistant Religious Program Specialist First Class Nelson Lebron. I had been in the military 26 years, 17 1/2 in the Army and at that time almost eight in the Navy. Our mission was to support the American advisors to the Iraq 1st and 7th Divisions, the 2nd Border Brigade, Port of Entry Police, Highway Patrol and Police forces in Al Anbar Province.

I was to be a life changing experience for both of us, no strangers to deployment or danger. In 2008 we returned to the United States changed by our experiences. It was also to test my marriage and even my career in the Navy. Both of which I thought might be lost within a year or two of my return.

To quote Charles Dickens “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I came back diagnosed with a case of severe and chronic PTSD as well as chronic Tinnitus and and severely impaired ability to understand speech. Nightmares, and night terrors chronic insomnia, flashbacks, hyper vigilance, panic attacks and claustrophobia have all been part of my life since then.

The experience left me severely depressed, at times feeling the pain of despair and hopelessness, a loss of faith and it’s restoration.

Despite all of that I consider my time in Iraq to be the high point of my military career. It was a place that I was able to use every gift, talent and skill at my disposal to do a job that took me to places and allowed me to work with people that I could not have imagined. My tour in Iraq, though painful and life changing was also the best of times, it opened my eyes to things that I never thought possible, relationships unimagined and ministry unbound by the constraints of the terrible model of contemporary American Christianity.

Over the next six or seven months I am going to clean up and republish articles about our deployment and then add additional articles that back when I started to write back in 2009 was unable to do because the memories even then were still to fresh and painful to relive.

It is hard to believe just how vivid the memories still are. I found my notebook from my time there and hope that it as well as my memories don’t fail me. Of course I will take time to write about the post-Iraq experience as well.

Hopefully when they are complete I can get them published as a book. The goal, I hope is that others who have been through what I have been through, and those who have been through much worse will be able to know that what happened to them can happen to anyone that goes to war, including Chaplains and other care givers who are by nature of or calling and training supposed to be immune from such experiences.

I will place these articles under a new page tab at the top of the website called To Iraq and Back.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Veterans Day 2010: Counting the Cost of War

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

Veterans Day had become a rather somber occasion for me over the past decade and since returning from Iraq in 2008 has taken on added personal significance.  I have noticed that I have become much more reflective about the sacrifices made by our military and the terrible coasts of war on our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and their families in this age of the all volunteer military.  The military which has about 2,225,000 members including the Reserves and National Guard is just 0.7% of the total population, the lowest percentage of military personnel compared to total population during any war in our history.  As a result this force has borne the brunt of a war that no politicians or bureaucrats figured would last half as long as it has.  As a result the “few” have been asked to do more for longer than and military that this nation has ever fielded during a war.

Thus for me Veterans Day has become a rather somber and reflective occasion as I ponder all the sacrifices made by our military and their families. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military has lost 1378 killed and our allies another 825.  In Iraq 4427 U.S. Military personnel have died along with 318 allied soldiers, not including the Iraqi military losses.  For each of the killed there are about 8 more wounded a total of over 38,000 wounded.  Of course the wounded numbers do not include 170,000+ cases of hearing damage; 130,000+ cases of mild traumatic brain injuries; and 200,000+ cases of serious mental health problems, over 30,000 serious disease cases, including a disfiguring, parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which results from bites of sand flies; thousands of cases of respiratory disease linked to exposure to toxic burn pit smoke and hundreds of suicides.  Then there are the injuries related to road and aviation accidents not in direct combat.  In my recent assignments in Iraq and Naval Medical facilities I have seen the human cost of the war.  I have friends who suffer as the result of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and Pulmonary diseases as well as those that have been wounded as the result enemy action.  I have a dear friend with a rare and irreversible pulmonary condition from two tours in Iraq. He is 41 his lungs are those of a 70 year old man.  My best friend, a senior Naval Officer is still suffering from the effects of TBI and PTSD incurred while serving with the Marines in Al Anbar Province.

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA-19 off Vietnam circa 1971-72

A year ago on Veterans Day I was at with my parents in Stockton California to visit my mom and my dad who was then in a nursing facility due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a terrible visit conflict with my mother due to witches’ brew of my PTSD and grief for my dad and my mother’s struggles with my dad’s condition and her own physical condition.  I visited my dad every day when in two and unfortunately he did not know who I was, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of everything that made him my dad.  He died on June 23rd of this year a day after I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander.  My dad was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam on a beach detachment manning an emergency airfield in the besieged city of An Loc in 1972.  He never talked about that tour or what happened there except to tell me that he saw the Communists executing civilians in the city from his observation point.  He came home a changed man.  Thankfully he is now out of his suffering and our family is beginning to find its way back from the abyss of his illness.

I have served for over 29 years in the Army and the Navy and have witnessed many things and been blessed to have my life enriched by many veterans.  Unfortunately many of these brave men have since passed away, some having lived many years and others that have died far too young as a result of service connected injuries.

With advisors to the 3rd Bn, 3rd Brigade 7th Iraq Division COP South 2008

In my current work I see many young men that wear the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I see those that need assistance to walk, amputees, men with obvious scars from burns and others suffering blindness from their injuries. Our hospital’s Medical Board sees 40-60 Marines and Sailors a day, quite a few of whom that will be medically retired due to their injuries.  There are also those that have died by their own hand suffering from psychological and spiritual injuries too deep to fathom, we had one of our own Corpsman suicide last week.

The cost of war is terrible, as General William Tecumseh Sherman so eloquently put it: “War is Hell.”

Despite this our brave men and women that serve in all branches of the military as well as those that have gone before us in the 235 year history of our military have shouldered the load, for most of that history depending on volunteers who often served in obscurity often derided by their fellow Americans who believed that the military was a place to go if you could not be successful in the civilian world. The pay was low, the duty arduous and benefits few. In the Civil War, the World Wars and up until 1974 the professionals were augmented by draftees who outnumbered the professionals by a huge margin.  Since 1974 the force has been an all volunteer force.

Health and Comfort Board Team USS Hue City, Northern Arabian Gulf May 2002

Regardless of whether our Veterans were draftees or volunteers they have served this country well and on the whole to use the current Navy description are “A Global Force for Good.” The countries liberated from oppressors and helped in humanitarian operations by American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are many and varied.  They have represented the spectrum of our society and represent the best the country has to offer.  Unfortunately they have not always been honored by some of their our countrymen and women and sometimes the children and grandchildren of the peoples that they liberated from Nazi, Fascist or Communist oppressors who often use the wrongdoing of a few military personnel or the decisions or actions of American politicians or businessmen to label American military personnel as criminals.

Unfortunately since the military is such a small part of our population and concentrated in a few large bases it is invisible to most Americans as they live their daily lives. Often in isolated from the bulk of America such as Killeen Texas home of the U.S. III Corps and Jacksonville North Carolina the home of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and Second Marine Division are quintessential military towns but neither are near major population centers and thus the sacrifice of these Soldiers, Marines and Sailors goes unnoticed by most of the nation.  In a sense the human cost of the war falls inordinately upon these military communities where there are few strangers.

In spite of this the current men and women of the American Military train, deploy, fight and return every day as they have since the 9-11-2001 attacks, many if not most have made multiple combat tours.  I have been pleased to see more support of the military in the media, especially sports media and leagues.  Many businesses are taking time to offer things of value to servicemen and women and those businesses should be commended and patronized.  I was touched by many stories that I saw about our veterans on ESPN over the past few days.  http://www.espnmediazone3.com/us/2010/11/espn%E2%80%99s-weeklong-salute-to-veterans-day/

Many of our Reserve component personnel give up civilian employment and chances for promotion to serve in the military, particularly when they are mobilized for service. When they return home most return to towns and cities that have little of the support afforded to active duty members when they return.  I pray that our political leaders in the future will exercise discernment and wisdom before committing us to another war. Otto Von Bismarck said: “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the current members of the House, Senate and Executive branch have little connection to the military as very few have served and I wonder if any really comprehend this maxim.  In the 111th Congress 120 members had some form of military service.  The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).  Those who have served a full military career are far fewer; the number of congressmen with military careers will remain relatively constant for the 112th Congress. In the Senate there will be one (as compared with two in 2006 and one in 2008) and in the House there will be eight (as compared with four in 2006 and six in 2008).  Some of these Congressional Veterans have been vilified by some broadcasters and pundits of the extreme right wing media most of whom who have never served in the military.  On the positive side nine members of the new Congress will have served in the current wars which hopefully will help promote the sacrifice of our current Veterans and help with programs that will help returning Veterans.

I have seen the cost of war up close and personal in Iraq and back here in the States. I suffer some the afflictions described as a result of my service and see the young men and women many of whom were not yet born when I enlisted in the Army, or when I was commissioned as an Army Officer, when I was a Company Commander or when I was a senior Captain in the Army. These young men and women are heroes.

Please take a moment to thank a Veteran.  If you have time volunteers are always welcome at organizations such as the USO and American Red Cross working with our troops, join or support organizations which promote the causes of Veterans including the Iraq Afghanistan Veteran’s Association www.iava.org the Veterans of Foreign Wars http://www.vfw.org/, American Legion http://www.legion.org/ , Marine Corps League http://www.mcleague.org/, the Fleet Reserve Association http://www.fra.org/, the Association of the U.S. Army http://www.ausa.org and the Disabled American Veterans http://www.dav.org/. There are also many charitable organizations that provide assistance to Veterans and their families’ one of the best being the Fisher House Foundation http://www.fisherhouse.org/ which provides comfortable and free lodging to the families of wounded, injured or sick military personnel on bases adjacent to military hospitals. I found these ten ways that you can help on Yahoo.com:

1. At 11 a.m., observe a moment of silence for those who’ve fought and died while in service to the country

2. Display an American flag

3. Attend a Veterans Day parade

4. Thank a vet for his/her service

5. Send a letter to troops through the U.S. Department of Defense Website

6. Work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen

7. Visit a veteran’s grave or pick up trash at a veterans cemetery

8. Visit with the family of a veteran who’s serving overseas

9. Visit with a wounded vet at a local VA facility

10. Donate to the USO, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars USA or other organizations that honor and assist vets

Keep us all in your prayers and please when Veterans Day is past do not forget those of us that serve and our families, especially those men and women serving in harm’s way.  To my friends and comrades I echo the words of the German commander to his troops in captivity at the end of the Band of Brother’s mini-series:

“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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Passages: Thoughts on My Last Week at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth

“Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day. Aren’t we all?” Vin Scully

“It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between an All-Star Game and an Old-timers’ Game.” Vin Scully

“The oldest pitcher acquires confidence in his ball club – he doesn’t try to do it all himself.” Burleigh Grimes

Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”  -Bob Feller

As any of my regular readers know I relate most of life to baseball. For me it resonates more than more than almost any other part of my life.  I think by now with over 29 years in the military that I count as a seasoned veteran who has been dinged up some and had to try to recover from injuries to his body but also to his self confidence and ability to stay in the game. My assignment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth has been one of those assignments that was a lot like a rehab assignment to get me back in form for an assignment on a new team where I will be the number one starter in the rotation instead of a rehabbing pitcher making spot starts and relief appearances.

Today I finish up most of my administrative out processing from NMCP as I prepare to transfer to Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune. I have been at the command two years and it has been an eventful tour.  During the assignment I was forced to deal with the effects of my tour in Iraq, notably my PTSD and its related physical, psychological and spiritual impacts which included a loss of faith and absence of God that left me for a year and a half a practical agnostic. I also had to deal with the end stages of my father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease which culminated in his death in June of this year.  While this was going on I also dealt with a nasty Kidney stone that sidelined me from almost all human activity for over a month, a tooth that had abscessed and had to be replaced by an implant after a root canal failed and various nagging injuries to my shoulders, elbows, a knee and ankle from Iraq.  Most recently I have had to struggle with my hearing, I have something called Auditory Processing Disorder as well as some really annoying Tinnitus, I can hear lots of noise but somehow my brain is not processing it correctly. With all of this in the background and sometimes the foreground I worked and often struggled through the assignment which despite my skills as a critical care chaplain was more difficult than I could imagine.

I compare my time at Portsmouth to a baseball pitcher that goes to a new team but has injuries that he thought were manageable but which were severe enough to take him out of the game and into a rehab mode.  Of course not all teams give older pitchers that chance and that is true more often than not in the military when injuries to an officer are severe enough, especially emotional ones to keep him from functioning at top form.  I was fortunate as Chaplain Tate gave me the chance to heal and looked at my potential rather than my weaknesses when writing up my evaluation reports.  I can say that that is not the norm in much of the military where I probably would have been given reports that would have kept me from being promoted and resulted in me being placed in second tier jobs until I was able to retire.

I was fortunate however because during the assignment I was given time to recuperate and begin to heal.  That has not been easy by far but I am doing well enough now to handle things that would have sent me down the toilet of tears a few months ago. I give a lot of credit to Chaplain Jesse Tate and my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard, better known as “Elmer the Shrink.”  I couple of retired Navy Chaplains on our staff also were men that helped me through the very rough times; Monsignor Fred Elkin and Reverend Jerry Shields gave me much spiritual support and provided me the opportunity to vent as I needed to during really difficult times.   As I got better and able to handle more responsibility Chaplain Tate started putting more responsibility on me, especially after I was selected for promotion to Commander.  It was like I was done with the rehab work and being put back into the game.  He held me accountable and was like a pitching coach or manager working with me, pushing my limits and making corrections even while encouraging me.  He did this with the purpose of getting me ready for my next assignment where I will be in charge of a staff of 6 personnel.  The past couple of months were high pressure due to all the activities the department was engaged in. These including a retirement, two major conferences and the transition of our Pastoral Care Resident Chaplains as one group finished their residency and a new group went through orientation.  In that time I had to deal with a lot more pressure than I had been exposed to most of my tour. After the last conference ended I realized that I could now function at a high level again and not just in my clinical areas.  I am now sure that I can do well in my new assignment and I am looking forward to the opportunity.

As I leave NMCP I will be leaving a lot of friends in my department as well as the rest of the hospital, especially the staff of our adult, pediatric and neonatal ICUs.  Some of these staff members will continue to serve at NMCP, others are now either deployed in harm’s way, have transferred to other commands or have left the service or retired.  I have to thank them as well because each in their own way has been a part of my recovery.

Most people do not get this kind of opportunity to serve and to heal at my age, rank or time in service. Most are put out to pasture until they can retire.  To quote baseball immortal Lou Gehrig “today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” As I re-read his farewell speech a lot of it resonated with me even though I’m not to my knowledge dying and he was.  I’m blessed and somewhat lucky and I am grateful for all that I have experienced at NMCP.  I will leave many friends and if I am lucky enough hope to continue my career as a chaplain in Navy Medicine and return to Portsmouth, perhaps to finish my Navy career.  When I depart on Thursday it will be with a grateful heart and I will miss those that I worked with at NMCP. I am fortunate in one respect that my next assignment is a Naval Hospital and that I will know a good number of the staff at it from my time at NMCP or other duty stations.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, remembering friends, US Navy