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Why Aren’t Any Politicians Talking About the War and Why don’t Voters Care?

“The military is at war and the country is not.” Former US Representative Patrick Murphy

Seven more American Soldiers were killed in Afghanistan when their UH-60 Blackhawk was either shot down or crashed due to other reasons yesterday. 41 were killed in July and 10 last week. But who cares? The news of each incident went across the ticker on the bottom of the cable TV news feed and the obligatory 15 second spot on the headlines of the hour before it is subsumed by the latest political lie-fest or celebrity scandal. Have we no shame?

It seems that nobody really gives a damn about the war in Afghanistan or for that matter anywhere else that the United States and its allies are fighting. I mean really. Think about it.  The war constantly ranks among the lowest of issues that American voters rank as important and it certainly doesn’t seem to register as important among most political candidates unless hey can be photographic hugging a tank so they can show that they support the troops.

From what I see it looks like the only person in the Washington DC political sewer who even thinks about the war is Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta in frustration said Tuesday:

“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country…. I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”

84,000 U.S. Military personnel are currently serving in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of DOD civilians, contractors as well as FBI, CIA, NSA, DHS, and State Department employees are also in harms way. Likewise another 30,000 or so troops from NATO or other coalition allies are risking their lives serving alongside of our personnel.

In July the Army recorded a record number of suicides. We don’t hear about the numbers of wounded because frankly aside from those directly affected and their friends or families most people would just prefer to ignore the war.

But then they can. Liberals have been accused of being anti-military and some are. But even the supposedly conservative God-fearing , military loving and Islam-Facist, Commie bombing Republican Presidential team of Romney-Ryan refuses to acknowledge the war when speaking in front of the World War II era battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk. No one of either party seems to have a plan for actually successfully ending the war and all seem to be content to let the war fester. I found that reprehensible. Whatever happened to Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman? Oh wait they’re dead.

But there is no real shared sacrifice in this country when it comes to national defense. There is no draft, no taxes have been levied to support the wars and many Defense contractors responsible for producing the weapons of war needed to fight the current war and prepare for future wars seem only to care about their bottom line. Future weapons systems are over-budget, long-delayed and fail to meet the expectations of either the services or the nation. Name the system. The F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightening, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Army Future Combat System and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. All either truncated, delayed or cancelled. Billions of dollars spent and little to show for the expenditure of the nation’s treasure.

I think that national leaders of both parties need to be held responsible. I think that American citizens and political leaders who lamely put bumper stickers on their cars saying “I support the troops” should put up or shut up.

If we are going to keep fighting wars without end let’s at least do it together. Let’s re-start the draft and levee special taxes. Let’s sell war bonds, let’s plant Victory Gardens and donate our scrap metal, plastics and electronics to be recycled to build weapons like we did in World War II. Let’s find new energy sources to better power our weapons systems since no one cares about renewable energy for anything else.

But then let’s not inconvenience anyone, after all the troops all volunteered for this.

I hate to sound cynical but when the military has been at war for going on 11 years and it the lowest priority of voters and politicians then something is terrible askew.

Don’t you think? Or am I just pissing in the wind?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Going to War: Life at TQ, Chuck Norris Visits and Mass Casualties

While we prepared for our first mission we adjusted to what life was like on a large airbase and logistics hub. Ta Qaddum is one of the larger Iraq Air Force bases from Saddam’s time but has a history going back to the old Royal Air Force base at Habbinyah which is just down the hill.  In 1941 the Iraqi Army laid siege to the British forces in Habbinyah from the escarpment that overlooks the town from what is now the northern edge of TQ.  One only has to imagine the feelings of the Iraqi soldiers short on supply and exposed to air attack on the escarpment while waiting for German intervention only to be driven off by the British when their relief force arrived from Jordan.

iraqi bomber at tqWrecked Iraqi Bomber at TQ

The Iraqi legacy on the base looms in some of the infrastructure as well as the hulks of Soviet made Iraqi Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft near the edge of the airfield.  When I was there in 2007-2008 the base was under the command of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group or 2nd MLG.  The MLG is a command and control headquarters for logistics support units of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.  It is tailored to support the Ground Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Division and the Air Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Air Wing and attached units.  Its function is similar to an Army Corps Support Command or whatever the Army calls them now.  TQ was also the home of several helicopter squadrons Marine and Army as well as a local defense force at the time made up of the 1st Battalion 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton. 1/11 was an artillery battalion but was being primarily used as a security and convoy protection force.  Other units including Navy Seabees and Army logistics units operated from TQ.  A Marine Infantry Battalion was stationed in Habbinyah while elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were operating in the area as part of the surge.

The base is about mid-range on the amenity scale for troop comfort. At the time we were there the only non-DFAC/ Chow Hall was the Green Beans Coffee trailer as opposed to places like Al Asad and Camp Victory which had a multiplicity of fast food places for the troops.  The Marines are tougher on communication security than the Army and many websites which troops could use on other bases were unavailable unless one went to the Iraqi internet café or the MWR computer and phone center.  The Iraqi run shop had the fastest internet on the base but you had to contend with huge amounts of second hand smoke and pay a nominal charge to use it.  The MWR facility often had broken machines, had a waiting list to use them and the connections were very poor with pages slower to load that the old dial up days.  On the plus side TQ did have a relatively decent Marine Corps exchange, not as big as Al Asad or Camp Victory, but one of the larger exchanges in Iraq and second only to Al Asad in the West.  Most places including Ramadi had pretty small and not well stocked exchanges.  TQ had nice fitness center facilities which I used a lot being coached by Nelson.

060Chaplains and RPs with Chuck Norris

The base MWR worked with the USO and other agencies to bring sports stars or celebrities to the base.  Just before we left on our first mission Chuck Norris came through.  Chuck was made an “Honorary Marine” a few years back and has made it his task to try to meet every Marine deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaking the hand of each one he met.  The chapel was the host facility for the visit which last about 2 hours in which Chuck pressed the flesh and had his picture taken with probably close to 5000 Marines and other personnel, maybe more.  The Chaplains were drafted to be the photographers and I lost count of how many different types of digital cameras that I took pictures with.  Chuck enjoyed the heck out of Nelson and was impressed with his fighting resume.  I think that Nelson got more face time with Chuck than anyone on the base and he deserved it.  Chuck was accompanied by Chaplain Langston and RP1 Roland our friend from Fallujah.  After they were done he had to get on the waiting helo and fly out to his next stop.

058Chuck and Nelson

The chow halls, of which there were two, were large and usually had a pretty good menu.  I especially came to like the Indian nights where Indian specialties were served.  Since many of the cooks employed by Gulf Catering who had the contract were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Ceylon so it generally was pretty good unless they had to scrounge for suitable ingredients.  I like the curry chicken, but occasionally it was made with chicken nuggets when the real chicken was in short supply.  It almost reminded me of the Spam Lamb in the TV series M*A*S*H or the great quote out of the movie Meatballs: “Attention. Here’s an update on tonight’s dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight’s mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed “some kind of beef.”   I think that there were a number of times when I really wondered what the meat was.  They usually had a pretty good salad bar unless resupply convoys were interrupted and fresh vegetables had run out.  There were a number of times where the pickins were slim and Nelson and I had to get creative.  Breakfast was usually good with a good choice of food choices, some even healthy.  The workers were great, always friendly despite working 12 hour days 6 days a week for $300 a month.  Many had signed up through agencies which cost them $4000 so the first year that many worked was for nothing.  It was in my opinion a case of a KBR/ Halliburton subcontractor using them in effect as indentured servants and pretty well damned close to slaves, all legal by the US Government.  I thought that it was pretty immoral and certainly a case of a company contracted by the government reducing labor costs on the back of some of the poorest people in the world. Back at the end of the Cold War the military downsized and eliminated most of the Army and Marine mess specialists which paved the way for the contracting industry, led by the former Secretary of Defense and his Halliburton team to begin their massive contracting operations with the Bosnia deployments back in 1995.  They were limited to their own compound far away from anything and were always the last to eat.  They were polite and really tried to accommodate sometimes rude and condescending Americans, the local management did the best they could to give them good accommodations but were limited by their parent company.  Many of the workers were Roman Catholic or Anglican Christians  and Fr Jose had a great ministry that he took on to support them by going to their camp a couple of times a week to celebrate Mass.  His masses were packed and what a source of life and the love of God he was to so many people at TQ, Americans and non-Americans alike.

988Fr Jose on the bank of the Euphrates at Habbinyah

About a week after we got to TQ Marines from the battalion in Habbinyah were hit in an IED complex ambush while on patrol.  A couple of vehicles were hit, Jose was across the base celebrating Mass and Pat was in Fallujah.  A chaplain was needed in the Shock Surgical Trauma Unit or SSTP.  Wounded were being brought in, the platoon had been hit hard, 14 wounded and a couple killed.  I figured that since I was a pretty experienced trauma and critical care chaplain who had dealt with over 500 deaths, many traumatic with bullet wounds, burns and the host of other types of trauma, and tended to probably twice that many who did not die that I could handle this.  When I got to the SSTP I was greeted by a couple of nurses and docs and briefed as to what was going on.  Within a few minutes the casualties were beginning to roll in as the UH-60 Dust-off MEDIVAC helicopters landed and teams went out to meet them.  Some were ambulatory, or walking wounded bandaged with lacerations and burns on their faces and upper bodies, other were brought in on stretchers and ushered into the treatment beds in the area outside the OR.  It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H as the well honed surgical teams, surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and corpsmen went to work.  I now work with a number of these fine people. I was able to make my way about to the wounded Marines, praying with some, holding hands as and with a couple performing the sacrament of healing, or the anointing of the sick.  As I listen to Marines, prayed with them or anointed them there was a tremendous sense that this was different than what I did at Parkland or Cabell-Huntington.  These young men wore the same uniform that I wore, served the same country that I served and travelled the same roads that I would soon be on.  As each was assessed and moved off to surgery, prepared for further evacuation or treated and sent to a ward I noticed the little things about each of them.  The wounds, the torn uniforms, the burns and even the tattoos, these were our guys, they weren’t gang bangers or criminals but young Americans fighting a brutal war against a enemy that had terrorized Iraqis and found devastating ways to kill Americans.  Some of the Marines asked if they would be okay, others asked about friends and in those moments I learned what it was to care and be with men traumatized by the violence and brutality of war against an enemy that would not fight by our rules, much as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to fight our war.  The enemy was clever and determined and his weapons were deadly.

Stars and Stripes sstpTQ Surgical During Mass Casualty Event (Stars and Stripes Photo)

The teams did their work quickly and soon the event in the ER was done as the Marines were moved off to OR, the ward or further evacuation. I spent some time talking with unit Corpsmen and less wounded Marines and learned about the attack. They were in a convoy heading back to Habbinyah when the there was an enemy contact ahead of them.  As they moved forward to engage a primary and secondary IED hit the convoy heavily damaging two trucks with an ensuing firefight.  The Marines fought off their attackers, the wounded were treated and security set up as Dust-off came in to evacuate the wounded.  I thought back to my days as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and remembered my friends who had elected to apply for flight school to become Dust-off pilots.  I remembered learning to call in MEDIVAC missions and some of the Army MSC aviators that I knew; some had flown in Vietnam, being a Dustoff pilot can be a sporty occupation.  They fly an unarmed bird into hot landing zones and get badly wounded troops to medical facilities in 100 degree plus weather without killing them enroute, those guys are good. As the crowd dissipated I spend so time with some of the staff.  Eventually with night having fallen I began the walk back to my office in the Chapel.  I looked up at the night sky, in the darkness a another UH-60 sat down to pick up others being evacuated on to Baghdad or Balad.  I looked up at the sky and saw more stars than I had seen at any time since I was at sea on the USS HUE CITY.  It was amazing; it looked like you could almost walk across them from horizon to horizon. When I got to my office I checked on my our mission status, I had submitted our first Air Support Request earlier in the day, of course it had not moved yet, but at least it gave me something to do.  I checked my unclassified e-mail and knew that there was nothing that I could share with anyone so I looked at baseball scores, checked a couple of news sites and headed off to my “can.”

medivacPackaging a Casualty for Further Evacuation on the TQ Surgical Pad

That night I did not sleep well, the images of the wounded Marines were burned into my mind; I could see their faces, their wounds and their tattoos.  I prayed the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer using Psalm 91 and the prayer “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” I took some comfort in this, walked out again into the night to see illumination rounds in the vicinity of Habbinyah and the distant sound of automatic weapons fire.   For once my insomnia was not related to jet lag or exhausting night flights, it was instead a realization that what happened to these Marines could well happen to me as I we launched later in the week.

The next morning another eight or ten Marines from the same company came in, this time I went to the SSTP with Jose and we did a tag team match, we tried to determine religious affiliation of the wounded Marines with him taking the Roman Catholics to provide sacramental needs and me taking the rest.  Once again the images were vivid; these Marines were on a mission to recover the damaged vehicles and were hit by IEDs on their way back to base.  This time one Marine was killed.  I walked to the graves registration and mortuary affairs team with the battalion surgeon and a corpsman who were to identify the body.  I listened to their frustration and heartache as they described what they had been through the past two days.  The company had taken over 20 casualties including 3 dead.  A high percentage of casualties for a unit that probably numbered about 120 men.  Once again I walked back, this time in the hot mid-morning sun with Jose to the Chapel.  We talked for a while about the past two days, he knew the battalion that had been hit well as he supported them as well.  The surgeon was one of his parishioners.  After we went our separate ways I did my morning prayer and settled in to study more about where we were going.  Nelson and I got PT later in the evening and I spent a restless night in my “can” playing computer Maj-Jong and Chess on my laptop deep into the morning.  Once again I spent time walking in the dark looking at the vast sea of stars above me.

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Going to War: Building Blocks for Success at TQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going to War: Tripping into Ta Qaddum

helos at nightCH-53s and CH-47s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gifts of PTSD: Insomnia is a Terrible Thing to Waste and the Hidden Value of Hyper-vigilance

068On Board a 53 out near Syria

I’ve been asked by a number of people at work just how I manage to find the time to write the way that I do.  The answer, which I have said to all of them is simple…insomnia, which it turns out is not necessarily a curse, but for me in some ways is a gift.  I find that insomnia really is a terrible thing to waste.  Until I went to Iraq I went to bed at a decent hour every night and seldom did I have problems sleeping.  At the same time my life while busy pursuing work, military and professional education as well as academic degrees was full but not completely fulfilling.  I had always wanted to write on a variety of subjects to include military history, theology, ethics and baseball.  In fact someday I hope to get published.  However back then I was always too distracted to write what I wanted to write.  I could t stay on task for anything other than things that would seemingly directly affect my military career, even my marriage.

081Convoy On Route Michigan

Iraq changed that more than I thought it could.  I got back, fell apart about 90 days after returning home and despite pushing myself harder at work, ministry and academically I was not making it.  Nightmares, dreams, chronic pain and anxiety, stress reactions even in church about crippled me.  About the only place I felt some peace was at the ball park.  Somehow the sight of that great field and the infield diamond settles me. Sleep deprivation became a very real and persistent part of my life.  I guess it was the fact in Iraq that we did most of our travel at night by helicopter, usually CH-46, CH-47 or CH-53’s and had very irregular schedules.  Likewise when we came back to base there was another little issue.  The pad for the Army Medivac Choppers, or “Dustoff” was about 200 yards from my quarters so all night long I was subjected to the constant noise from these aircraft.  If I hear a UH-60 Blackhawk or SH-60 Seahawk at night I still get a startle reaction.  Outgoing artillery fire and occasional fire, explosions and sirens in the adjacent town of Habbinyah were staples of life.  When bored I would stand outside and watch illumination rounds going off the highway just outside our entry control point or wander over near the Shock Surgery Trauma Platoon facility where “Dustoff” was waiting on the pad.  I’m sure that working a number of mass casualty events and seeing our wounded Marines and Soldiers being treated as well as Iraqi civilians including kids had to affect me.  These Americans and Iraqis were out driving the same roads that we would drive on a regular basis and the sight of their shattered bodies went through my mind every time we went on a mission.

As I got deeper into my tour I found that no matter how tired that I was I had great difficulty getting to sleep.   I’m sure this was due to our operational tempo, odd hours, demanding travel, sleeping conditions which varied at every location and occasionally getting shot at.  The most cool of those were when our Army CH-47D talking off from Ramadi , took fire from the ground and proceeded to pop flares, take evasive action while the tail gunner opened fire with his M240 series machine gun.  Since I was sitting two seats from the tail gunner and saw, heard and smelled the gun as it fired I’m pretty sure that it happened.  However, when I called the Army squadron to see what happened they denied that the event happened.  I hear that was not an uncommon occurrence.    So anyway by the mid-point of my tour I was no longer sleeping so I would sit up and play games on my computer, such as chess and Ma-jong.  It is amazing how good you can get at stuff like that through sheer repetition.  It was playing these games that I would wear myself our enough to sleep since I usually did an hour or two of PT during the day or late evening when not on the road.  It is comforting when you are running near the perimeter on a cool Saturday morning and hear explosions and exchanges of automatic weapons fire going off about 2 km to your right.

So now despite my cool concoction of meds I still have difficulty getting to sleep.  In order to sleep I have to wear myself out and when I am done I take my meds and crash.  If I take them before I am exhausted I see little effect and I am not about to start mixing them with the good beer that I enjoy so much.  I do not drink crappy beer thank you.  Maybe it will be time to go back to the doctor when my provider’s relief arrives in August or September.  I probably need to talk to my buddy Elmer the shrink again soon.  Elmer is great but my schedule has not lined up well to see him the past couple of weeks between leave, call schedule and the emergency root canal.  I probably have to go back in on that sooner than my appointment as I still am having some pain and wonder if there is an infection there.

Since I don’t believe in wasting time I have decided to be productive when I can’t sleep.  I started writing as I finished my class requirements for my latest Masters Degree.  I still need to do the comprehensive exams but will wait until September so as not to mess with any home games the Tides have left.  I began writing as a means of both helping me and disciplining myself to write regularly.  I have several book ideas but have never been able to get any off the ground because I could not stay focused.  This website helps me do that and has got me thinking creatively again.  So my answer to how I can find the time to write is simple, if I have 20 or so extra hours in the week late at night that are going to be there no matter what I do, then I shouldn’t waste them.  So my point is that insomnia is a terrible thing to waste.   It could be worse. I know of other vets who can’t sleep either due to war experiences and some have fallen off the deep end with self destructive behaviors at least I am not doing online gambling, porn or other distractions that have helped continue to ravage some of my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  I have found in a strange way that the chronic insomnia has been a gift which has enabled me to gain insights on life and experience that I had never been able to put down before.  It has forced me to take advantage of time that I would otherwise waste web or channel surfing until I fell asleep.  It is interesting to see what comes out of your computer when you are trying to write while falling asleep.

Here is an example that I found and saved a few weeks ago:  “Manages not only check their the firduk about what they fell than…”

I have no earthly idea what it means or what a “firduk” is or what “manages would “not only check their the firduk” means and I don’t want to find out.  God only knows what it means but it reminds me where a half-asleep Jerry Seinfeld wrote down something that he saw on TV that he thought was funny.  He spent the show trying to see what he wrote and then finally saw what he actually heard.  He discovered that it was not nearly as funny as he thought.

Another gift I have been given with my PTSD is that of hyper-vigilance.  I am much more alert and observant than I ever was.  This is on the road, in crowds or even as I do my job in the hospital.  I have begun to notice the little odd things that are clues to other possibly more significant issues.  This probably has saved my life on the road on several occasions since I returned as I have a much great “feel” for what is going on around me than I have ever had while driving.  There have been at least three times where I “felt” the danger of another vehicle and took evasive action to avoid a collision before I heard or saw it.  Of course the colorful euphemisms which poured out of me on these occasions were quite memorable, I think the best being “You Oedipal Mother F—-r!” when some asshole almost plowed over me in a grocery store parking lot not far from home.

So, despite the inherent problems that PTSD, insomnia and the other maladies I have incurred have caused me, the Deity Herself has also given them to me as a gift.  For which I am strangely grateful. Even a few months back I saw them as a curse, but now they have become a source of blessing.  Like Commander Spock might say to Captain Kirk after observing a human idiosyncrasy “fascinating Captain, fascinating.”

pub1It’s a Gift…Enjoy

I’m back on duty tomorrow for another overnight.  This will be a long week, 3 duty nights out of 5 work days.  Thankfully I will not have duty again for two weeks after Friday.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy, PTSD, star trek