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“A Clear and Present Danger” The Problem of Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Military

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Over the past number of weeks the incessant number of stories regarding incidents of sexual assault and harassment by military members against other military members has reached levels that I have not seen in years. Since I have served in the military continuously in one capacity or another for almost 32 years I have seen this phenomena develop and reach a point that I did not think was possible, which endangers the morale and mission of the military and the trust of our society in our military institutions.

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When I first entered the military in 1981, enlisting in the California Army National Guard and in the Army ROTC program at UCLA had no idea what would transpire over my career and how I as a man would see the problem of sexual assault. I entered the military not a few years after the changeover from a military built on conscription to an all volunteer force and the integration of women into units, which while not “combat arms” units would certainly be in the fight should we ever go to war.

I guess that the first places that I saw what would now certainly be prohibited behaviors were in my National Guard unit, a Field Artillery Battalion in Southern California which though not authorized any females, had an administrative support section of females who worked for the personnel officer and Command Sergeant Major. When we went to the field they would accompany us and the stories of what went on with them and members of the leadership were infamous. When I attended my ROTC Advanced Pre-Commissioning Camp at Fort Lewis Washington we had three female cadets in my platoon. They lived in a separate barracks with other women but trained with us. They were subjected to some of the most despicable treatment that I had seen in my life. Their looks, motivations and morals were scrutinized in ways that the editors of the National Enquirer would be proud. They had senior instructors appear to give them unwanted favor and for that they ended up being derided by their fellow male cadets.

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Me early in my career as a Platoon Leader in Germany

After I was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps Officer in 1983 and assigned to a Medical Ambulance Company in Germany I saw the problem grow as more women were assigned to such field units because of the indiscriminate nature of the Army assignment system. My unit eventually had 63% of its assigned strength as females, about 85% of our medics were female. Our sister company was just that, they peaked at 73% female strength. While I was in the unit I served as a Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer and eventually the Company Commander when our Company Commander, who actively spoke in racist and sexist terms referring to blacks as “the seed of Cain” and women as “unequal to men” using his religion as justification was relieved of command.

I was privileged to serve with some of the finest women soldiers that I have every served alongside while in that unit. My XO retired as a Lieutenant Colonel and my Platoon Sergeant retired as a First Sergeant. Both were hard chargers and as competent or more than most of the men that I served with but were often, usually behind their backs treated with distain for their competence and ability to serve in what until that point had been pretty much a “men’s club.”

While I was serving as a company commander I worked hard, I had only been an officer a little over two years, a very junior First Lieutenant when I took command following the relief of the previous commander. I found though that some things were not simply a matter of individuals but problems in the very institution that since I was a child had idolized.

One of those situations came out when I attempted to prosecute a Sergeant for forcing a very junior female soldier into a sex act in her barrack room after duty hours. His wife was 8 months pregnant and also a Sergeant but at the base medical clinic. He was caught by her and soon the barracks had every member of the chain of command as well as a copious amount of Military Police and CID agents swarming in it. The poor girl was found half undressed under her bed and had to be taken by my former platoon sergeant out of harm’s way after all was said and done while the Sergeant was being read his rights.  As the Company commander I had the primary responsibility to file charges. Since the man was a Sergeant and under I could not reduce him in rank using the Article 15 Non-Judicial Proceedings process and he was to leave the Army in a couple of months so a court martial would have only kept him in the unit longer. So I referred the case to the Group Commander, a full Colonel and decorated Vietnam veteran and aviator.

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The Colonel had been our senior instructor when I was at the Academy of Health Sciences and he was a man that I admired. However, when the case got to him he did less that I would have been authorized to do and in addition did not revoke the award of the Army Commendation Medal which the Sergeant was being given for the end of his service as he got ready to leave the Army. When I found out I stormed to the Colonel’s office and told him that he, the Colonel had embarrassed the entire Medical Group and my Company in particular because the case was the talk of the entire base. It could not easily be covered up. I was told by him “I have done what I have done.” He then turned his back on me and from that moment on I was treated with contempt by him and his closest staff members. I learned the hard way that honesty can get you in trouble.

My next assignment was as the Adjutant of the Academy of Health Sciences. I was a newly promoted Captain and worked closely with the Brigade Legal Officer who served as the prosecutor. While I was assigned there three major incidents come to mind all of which involved significant sexual assault, harassment or treatment of students or junior enlisted staff members.

One of those was an aggravated rape of a 18 year old female trainee who was raped by a male trainee over concertina wire in a dark area near her barracks when she was walking back from the trainee PX and Snack Bar on a Saturday Night. It was a brutal case and we sent the young soldier to a General Court Martial when he was convicted of assault, battery, rape and a number of other charges and sentenced to 40 years in Leavenworth prison.

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The second was the first trial of a soldier that was having unprotected sex with other soldiers while knowingly being HIV positive. He was a player, a good looking man who easily picked up young women. He worked as a personnel sergeant in one of the training battalions and used his looks, his rank and influence to have unprotected sex with a number of the young female clerks that worked in that personnel center without letting them know of his HIV status. He was found out when the Battalion Commander who was walking through the office overheard one of the females talking with another about her date with him and the sex. Since the commander had personally counseled the sergeant of his legal responsibilities being HIV positive, which included informing sexual partners and ensuring that any sex he had was “safe sex” the commander brought him up on charges. Eventually he was tried and convicted at General Court Martial and since he was beginning to show the outward symptoms of the opportunistic infections of fell blown AIDS was sentenced to 6 months confinement and a Dishonorable Discharge. One of the women that he had sex with, a junior soldier as well eventually tested HIV positive.

The last of the major events at the Academy was a Christmas break, sex for grades scandal that eventually encompassed 17 instructors who had a rather large orgy and party at one of the instructor’s off base home. The San Antonio Express News picked up the story and ran with of course and it made front page news. Unfortunately, most of what they reported, with the exception of the use of “whipped creme” at the orgy was contained in police and CID reports. The whipped creme was certainly an interesting twist and needless to say a good number of instructors were disciplined or their actions.

I left active duty in the fall of 1988 to return to the National Guard while attending seminary. While in the Guard I served in all male units that unlike my unit in California did not have its own assigned female administrative detachment and harem. However that doesn’t mean that I still didn’t see cases of sexual indiscretion, but most of what I saw happened happened outside of my command.

Since I go back a long time I do remember the effects of the Navy’s 1991 Tailhook scandal that eventually ended the careers of some 300 officers, including a number of admirals. I was promoted to the rank of Major in December 1995 and transferred to the Army Reserve and was mobilized in July 1996 to support the Bosnia intervention. About that time a major sexual assault and harassment scandal took place at the Army Training Center at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. It like Tailhook was all over the news and the Army tried to respond by getting tough on offenders and by sending teams around to emphasize what was right and what was wrong. One of these teams showed up at our base in Germany and about 60 chaplains were gathered together to get the training.

Now I was a mobilized reservist who had not only been a chaplain but had seen and or help prosecute these kinds of issues before as a Company Commander and Brigade Adjutant. I was somewhat jaded by what I had seen and during the lecture I raised my hand into the air and uttered something that many of my colleagues were thinking. One of our instructors, acknowledged my upraised hand so I asked the question. I said “Ms so and so, my name is Chaplain Dundas and unlike most of these gentlemen and women I am a mobilized reservist.” She she asked me what my comment was and I said “Ma’am, it seems to me if people would simply treat people as they would want to be treated or have their wives or daughters treated by others none of this training would be necessary.” You could hear the air being sucked out of the room as my active duty colleagues looked in shock to see who uttered such heresy. Even the instructor seemed stunned. I continued “It seems to me that if we took a hard line and punished the offenders severely and stopped treating this like it was a joke as an institution then we wouldn’t need to have this kind of collective training.” My comment was rapidly passed over and after the training a number of more senior chaplains came to me and thanked me for being honest. Not a few months later the Command Sergeant Major of the Army was relieved of his duties for alleged sexual harassment, yet another scandal.

In 2003 there was a major scandal at the Air Force Academy which very few people were ever punished for, despite a massive number of substantiated complaints of unwanted sexual harassment by female cadets. I have lost count of the number of commanders and other senior officers relieved of duties for inappropriate behaviors with junior subordinates many times of the sexual harassment or assault variety. Any casual reader of the Navy, Army, Air Force or Marine Corps Times can testify to how many of these instances happen and unfortunately they are but the tip of the iceberg I am afraid.

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Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air ForceSexual Assault Prevention and Response program

Just in the past month the program director of the Air Force Sexual Assault and Prevention program, a Lieutenant Colonel was arrested for drunkenly accosting a women in a parking lot, the director of the Army program at Fort Campbell Kentucky, also a Lieutenant Colonel was charged with violating a protective order put in place by his estranged wife and a Sergeant First Class, the director of a unit Sexual Assault and Prevention program at Fort Hood Texas was charged with running a prostitution ring using of course, junior female soldiers. Brigadier General Jeffery Sinclair, the former Deputy Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division is being prosecuted for is accused of having an illicit affair and engaging in wrongful sexual conduct with several women who were under his command.

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General David Petreus and his “biographer mistress” Paula Broadwell

These instances of course do not take into account of the scandal involving former Iraq and Afghanistan Commander and former CIA Director General David Petreus and his relationship with his biographer an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. To make matters worse some General Officers who are the convening authorities for Courts Martial offenses have given clemency or set aside punishments of senior officers convicted by General Court Martial proceedings of sexual assault or harassment crimes.

I could go on and on and on but will not because frankly it is nauseating and is bringing so much discredit to the services that it cannot be joked about. Almost all of these cases involved some form of undo command influence or other criminal behavior. Although the crimes sometimes are committed by male homosexuals or lesbians, the vast majority are heterosexual and often involve high ranking career service men and women who are married heterosexuals both male and female.

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When I look at this situation and ask myself what is going on I have to agree that it is a massive problem. You don’t get so many instances involving so many individuals of high rank without it being something systemic in the military culture. While we can point to the fact that the military is composed of people of the broader society we are a very small segment of that society and percentage wise very few people even qualify to enlist in the military. We are very selective as to who we take in and who we keep. Yet we still have these problems at every level of the chain of command in every branch of the Armed Forces. These are magnified in the eyes of the broader society because of our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and because we are entrusted by the larger society of representing the best of what the country stands for and which we are supposed to defend. Our mission, especially in a military where men and women serve together in combat, often enduring the same hardships and separations that previous generations of military personnel did not have to face becomes compromised when men or women abuse their rank, privilege and office to take advantage of other men or women, heterosexual or homosexual in the conduct of those duties. It compromises the chain of command, it compromises the mission and it destroys the trust needed to be mission ready. We cannot use the excuse that it happens in the civilian world so we shouldn’t be surprised by it in the military.

All the services have implemented training designed to get this problem under control. However, it will not change until people in the military decide that such acts are not just senseless, tasteless or offensive but often an violent assault on another person. I was reading an article in the Military Law Review today written about the Tailhook scandal. The author wrote something very profound with which I completely agree:

“The heart of the problem in redressing sexual harassment in the armed forces has not been Congress’s failure to expand the traditional coverage of the UCMJ so that it directly criminalizes specific forms of hostile environment conduct such as sexist remarks, tasteless jokes, and other offensive gestures. Instead, the problem has been the military leadership’s failure to recognize that in many cases, like those arising in Tailhook, sexual mistreatment actually constitutes a serious assaultive crime that must be prosecuted accordingly. Arresting “Tailhook: The Prosecution ofSexual Harassment in the Military. Lieutenant Commander J. Richard Chema MILITARY LAW REVIEW Volume 140 Spring 1993 p.63

The fact is that the law is established, training is conducted at all levels and this still happens far to often. What it demonstrates to me is that like my first attempt to deal with a sexual assault as a Company Commander in 1986 that the military culture itself is to blame. Despite our best attempts there are many who figure that boys will be boys and girls will be girls and it is not a big deal. Well maybe not, until rape, murder occurs, or a baby is born out of wedlock, or a young man or woman commits suicide because of the trauma and shame that they endure from a senior NCO or officer that has great influence over their career and life.

I know that we can do better because I know a lot of good men and women, officers and senior enlisted that are committed to changing the culture. That being said it takes the commitment of everyone to do this right. Since it doesn’t look like we in the military are capable of handling this ourselves it is that members of Congress will change the UCMJ and maybe take these cases out of the hands of military commanders. That could well be the case. You can only give excuses so many times over so many decades as to why you don’t do better as an institution before those that have the civilian oversight decide that you are incapable of change. We just may have reached that point in our military justice system.

Folks, this might be interesting as a lawyer or ethicist, but it is not going to be something that we in the military will enjoy.

Someone did a You Tube video using footage from the German language film Downfall where Hitler takes his commanders to task in the last days of the war. The subtitles have been changed to deal with the recent sexual assault scandals. It is very pointed satire and maybe, just maybe we in the military should take it seriously.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, national security, News and current events

The Last Troops Leave as Sunnis Quit Iraqi Parliament

The final contingent of American Soldiers except those assigned to the US Embassy.  The last US military installation in Iraq, Camp Adder near Nasiriya during the cover of night to avoid traffic jams and for their security. As the 500 soldier 110 vehicle convoy of Special Troops Battalion 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood made its way to the Kuwait border the Sunni Block Iraqiya quit the Iraqi Parliament.  The Americans crossed the fortified border of Kuwait joining their comrades at Camp Virginia marking the end of our  war in Iraq today.

Iraqiya is one of the largest political parties in the country and had entered the government on a power sharing basis with the majority Shia coalition.  Iraqiya is protesting Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s consolation of power in himself and Ma his failure to fill the key Defense Minister and Interior Minister vacancies.  One of the party’s leaders warned of a Maliki dictatorship and the possibility of civil war and the division of the country.

It will be a dangerous time for Iraq and the region. Should their be a civil war the possibility of the intervention of Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Turkey to secure their interests in the country. Such would be a disaster for Iraq and its people.  Somehow the Shia and Sunni will have to find a way to share power or face even more war and destruction.

I pray for my Iraqi friends and that they will find a way to rebuild and unify their country.  Too many American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen as well as Iraqi security forces and civilians have died over the course of this war to do anything else.

Our war in Iraq is over and I hope that Iraq and its people will truly unite prosper and become a friend to the United States. Likewise I pray for all of us that served in Iraq and our families that time will also heal the wounds of war.  But only time will tell.  God willing, Inshallah.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military

Veterans Day 2011: Giving Thanks for the Veterans in my Life

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA 19 around 1971 or 1972

I always become a bit more thoughtful around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 30 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way.

I come from a Navy family. My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was an adventure for me and that Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after.  My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.”

My dad retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return fromVietnamand saw howVietnamveterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated with scorn.  Instead of being depicted a Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.  That was also my introduction to war; the numbers shown in the nightly news “body count” segment were flesh and blood human beings.

LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraqshook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN )

Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours inVietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA andFortLewishad a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group inVietnam.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted advisor at UCLA.  An infantryman he served with the 173rd Airborne inVietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours inVietnam.  Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.   He was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called “Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut.” It was a classic.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put them first. Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen in 28 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number ofVietnamtours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.  Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

Me with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon US Army at Colonel Allmon’s Change of Command at Ft Myer Virginia 2005 

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways.

Me with my boarding team on USS HUE CITY CG-66 2002

My life more recently has been impacted by others. Since coming into the Navy I have been blessed to serve with the Marines and Sailors of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, 1st Battalion 8th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Desroches, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines and Colonel Lou Rachal and Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake.   My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time inIraq. They and all theVietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at HarborPark all mean a lot to me.  My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

With advisers to 1st Brigade 1st Iraq Army Division, Ramadi Iraq 2007

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has doneIraq3 times,Afghanistan,Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  The men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day.  Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

The “Comfortable” Experts and the Real Soldiers

“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 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!” 

Guy Sajer “The Forgotten Soldier”

Currently well under one percent of Americans are serving in any branch of the military and of these not all have served with boots on the ground.  There is no shame for those that have not as land war is the prevue of the Army and Marines though a significant number of Sailors and some Air Force personnel have served alongside their Soldier and Marine comrades in arms.

Of those that serve there is not one who has not enlisted, reenlisted or renewed their Officer Oath of Office at least once since September 11th 2001.  There are those of us who have been in far longer but even we have made the commitment to continue in the service of our country knowing that anyone can be sent into harm’s way at any time.

Those that serve especially those that have served at the point of the spear in the remote badlands, or dangerous cities of Iraq and Afghanistan are a true minority group. We are a minority group composed of the best our nation has to offer. We represent every state and territory; we are citizens or in the case of many immigrants’ men and women seeking citizenship by risking their lives for a country that often despises their relatives based on their race, nationality or religion.  In fact this is not new; men have come to this country since our revolution from far countries because of the ideals that this nation represents.

This is a minority group composed of all races and whose families helped colonize this nation, came here in the following centuries and those that were here before the Europeans landed on this continent. We represent almost every religion and creed known to human kind. We come from cities, small towns, rural areas and island territories.  We are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents.  We are Americans and we know war not from books, though many of us study military history, strategy and the lives of those great Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen that have gone before us. We know war because we have seen it. We have lost friends and seen others maimed or injured in mind, body or spirit. We have seen the wounded and the destruction which war inflicts on often innocent people who have the misfortune of living in a combat zone.

We do not make policy we carry out the orders of our national leaders and obey the laws passed by Congress. We are professionals.  We are not perfect but we serve.  In a sense we embody what the character of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine said at Gettysburg in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and its film adaptation Gettysburg.

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other. Sorry. Didn’t mean to preach.” 

We serve at a time that our nation has been engaged in two very costly wars in terms of lives and treasure. We never thought that they would last as long as they have after all we were promised that and even told that the mission was “completed.” But the wars didn’t end and now our nation is involved in one, maybe two more in Libya and possibly Yemen.

We are told in spite of what we know from experience that the wars are going well and that we have turned a corner in Afghanistan even as the situation on the ground tells us otherwise.  We have the professional military experts in the think tanks telling us that the wars have to continue. Of course these men have never served in combat and what they know is gleaned from their interpretation of history and often dictated by their ideology and sometimes even worse by their connections to the defense industry, that which President and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower so charmingly called “the military industrial complex.” Of course now we can and the media and elected officials who promote war to sustain their political power and enrich the powerful in their home districts.

Then there are those, especially the young that grow up with war as a series of video games and since very few meet the standards to serve in the military for a wide variety of reasons think that war is cool.  Look at the top selling games, almost all deal with virtual close combat, without any cost to those that play them.

Marines in Afghanistan under attack

Such men and in some cases women need to learn about war in the uncomfortable manner described by Sajer, a Frenchman that served in the German Army on the Eastern Front because one of his parents was German.  The problem is that those that promote war as a business and those that sell war to kids via the entertainment industry really don’t care about the real human beings, the men and women who serve knowing that these wars are unlikely to end anytime soon.  Even more frightening are people of strong religious convictions who promote war in order to see their views, especially about the Middle East vindicated.

Such are the comfortable experts who debate in comfort and write with a detached certitude that they alone have the correct view of the world.  There is a good case to be made that such people be held accountable for the wars that they advocate and the lives lost because of their hubris.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, Political Commentary

Memorial Day 2011: Counting the Cost of War and Remembering its Brotherhood

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” William Shakespeare “Henry V”

“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Monday is Memorial Day, the ninth that we have observed during our current series of wars which officially began on September 11th 2001.  One could argue that they had begun sooner with attacks on U.S. Forces and installations overseas and even the attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  But we really did not go to war until that fateful Tuesday in September 2001.  As we come to Memorial Day I am a bit melancholy as the war continues, force reductions loom, threats abound and I observe my first Memorial Day without my father, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam who died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in June 2010.

Iraq Military Training Team in West Al Anbar

We did go to war but it was not like wars past where we relied on a true national effort to win the wars. The wars have been fought by a force profession force of Active and Reserve Component Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen that hovers a bit above a half a percent of the total population. Of those eligible for service most do not meet the entrance requirements for military service meaning that the prosecution of the war has been the task of a miniscule portion of the population.  Shortly after the 9-11 attacks President George Bush urged Americans to do their civic duty “go shopping” to get the economy moving.  As a career military officer I was aghast at his words. While he praised the military at every turn and increased military budgets, much of which went to defense contactors the actual heavy lifting was and continues to be done by men and women who volunteer to keep going back.  While the military fights the war Wall Street does business in a manner that is good for it and the vast majority of Americans are totally immersed in self-entertainment, the latest video gaming system or imbibing on a constant diet of “reality TV.”  Others on both sides of the political spectrum elect to shred their political opponents to itty bitty sheds and maneuver to gain political advantage and power without really caring what is happing to the country despite their proclamations of doing what is right for America.  In regard to the troops most of the political classes only seem to care when it affects their state, district or party.

Advisors in Afghanistan 

This Thursday 9 more Americans were killed in Afghanistan, eight in an IED blast while on a mission to root the Taliban out of a suspected strongpoint and another in a helicopter crash.  In Afghanistan we have lost 1514 military personnel killed in action or died of wounds. Another 11191 have been wounded. Additionally or NATO Allies have lost 889 military personnel listed as killed or died of wounds. In Iraq 4454 U.S troops have been killed and another 32227 troops have been wounded.  Additionally 318 Coalition troops have been killed in Iraq.  None of these figures include the high number of personnel with PTSD, mild to moderate TBI or other psychological and spiritual wounds.  5968 Americans have been listed as killed or died of wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan while another 43,418 have been officially listed as wounded.

Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen.  It is a day to reflect on the sacrifice of those that have died in the service of our country.  Originally established as Decoration Day and its roots stretch back to the Civil War.  Other nations have similar remembrances for their war dead.  Unfortunately because our military is such a small part of our population and now concentrated into a few major bases often out of sight and out of mind of most Americans the observance has become a kick off to the summer for most Americans who are blissfully unaware of the real costs of war.  In a way I can’t really fault them because when the war began with an attack on our shores our President did not call the nation to make sacrifices to win the war he told people to go shopping while “the few” would take the war to the enemy and avenge the devastation of September 11th 2001.  It turned the vast majority of the country into cheerleaders or bystanders.  History shows time after time that nations that wage war this way seldom achieve their goals.

As Clausewitz so aptly observed that war the nature or the “remarkable trinity of war” violent emotion, chance and rational policy which are balanced with the social trinity of the people, the commander and the army and the government (or in the case of non-nation state actors tribal, social or revolutionary leaders) necessitates that the people have to be part of the equation if one is to successfully conduct a war.  While it is possible to win short wars without much support of the people any long conflict necessitates that the people be engaged as much as the military and the government policy makers, especially in a democracy. Vietnam was a classic example of the social trinity gone bad. Policy makers failed to set goals for the prosecution of the war, military leaders attempted to fight the war with operational theories and forces that were not adapted to the type of war being fought and ignored the lessons of history regarding the type of war and eventually the people turned on the policy makers and the military as the war ground on with no apparent victory in sight.  The same can be seen in the current conflict in Afghanistan with the government pushing a policy that seems to have little strategic benefit or chance of success.  A military that can inflict punishing losses on the Taliban without destroying them or due to limited resources hold onto areas that they drove the enemy and a public that is divided between cheerleaders, critics and bystanders.  Few of the latter have any personal stake in the war other than bearing some of the financial cost and having to it occasionally referred to in the news cycle.  Our “trinity” is dysfunctional and will be our undoing despite the heroic efforts of those who give their “last full measure” on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

While we can discuss ways bring functionality back to our social trinity and the “remarkable trinity” or essence of war we must understand that our enemies, even non state actors often have a much more congruent view of war than we do and how to connect their strategic goals, military strategy and leverage the energy of the people against the United States and our Western allies.  They do not have our military power and wherever we meet them on the battlefield where we can employ our tactical superiority in weapons and training we have success but we have been unable to translate battlefield success into victory because we do not understand the nature of the conflict, the heart and will of our enemy and are dysfunctional in our own social, military, policy and political understanding of this war and how to win it.

What does this mean to those that have given their “last full measure” and those “happy few” that bear the burden of prosecuting the war? It means that their sacrifices may not be enough and will like the veterans of Vietnam come home without victory despite never losing a battle.  After Vietnam the force was cut back, military personnel who gave all they had on the battlefield were turned out of the service and even officers reverted to enlisted status to remain in the Army and Marine Corps.  Today even as the war rages cuts are being made to the force and those cuts will only get bigger as time goes on. Like Vietnam we already have a substantial number of veterans suffering from wounds physical, psychological and spiritual unable to get adequate care or assistance from an overburdened, underfunded, under staffed and often dysfunctional or even worse uncaring Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Others that have served most of their careers at war and are approaching retirement are seeing the benefits that they earned with their flesh and blood and the long sacrifice of themselves and their families being termed “a rich entitlement program” targeted for reductions in pensions and medical care.  People that make these decisions if they served in the military at all often served only in peacetime or in times of short military conflicts and thus really do not understand the terrible cost and burdens placed on those that serve and continue to serve in this “war without end.”

Since Monday is Memorial Day and I simply ask that people take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices of those that served in this war, wars past or those that continue to volunteer and serve in harm’s way far from home in a cause that the government does not understand and the public no longer supports.  Yes people treat military personnel better than in times past, there is little hostility to the military but at the same time has little social connection to or understanding of, thus we are a small brotherhood forged by a war that most of our fellow citizens can comprehend.

One of my Brothers: RP2 Nelson Lebron in Iraq

As for all who served we are part of a Band of Brothers.  As William Shakespeare so well wrote in Henry V:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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.

Kenneth Branagh Henry V: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM

At the same time I cannot count the number of men and women that have come to me and expressed their regret at never having served when they had the chance. By and large they are wonderful people that live with this regret. In a sense they know well the last part of the Henry V speech “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.” For such men and women I can bear no hostility because the regrets that they live with are more than I would want to live with. When spending time with people living in regret I simply to do what they do in an honorable manner, take care of their families and support the troops in any way that they can.

One of my Band of Brothers MTT with 3rd Battalion 3rd Brigade 7th Iraqi Division

As for me I continue to serve affected by war in ways that I never imagined when I enlisted nearly 30 years ago. All those who have served, past present and future are my brothers and sisters and it matters not their social status, race, religion or politics as Shakespeare noted  “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….”

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier” about his return home from war, society and that brotherhood, something that many who have served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can share:

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

I had looked everywhere for Hals, but hadn’t been able to find him. He filled my thoughts, and only my acquired ability to hide my feelings kept me from weeping. He was attached to me by all the terrible memories of the war, which still rang in my ears. He was my only friend in this hostile world, the man who had so often carried my load when my strength was failing, I would never be able to forget him, or the experiences we had shared, or our fellow soldiers, whose lives would always be linked to mine.”

Most of us that have served in combat zones have memories like that and like the people in the train most people don’t understand.  One thing that I do know is that I am part of a brotherhood that extends from time in memoriam to the consummation of time when war will be no more, death will be swallowed up in victory and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Week before Armed Forces Day 2011

Armed Forces Day is a holiday, sort of.  It is an official holiday but no-one gets a day of work off for it. It is a holiday where we as a nation honor those serving in the Armed Forces. Other nations also have Armed Forces Day commemorations.  Ours was established in 1949 after the establishment of the Department of Defense and replaced individual days for each of the five armed services.  Each service maintains its own celebration and some are marked with great fanfare particularly those of the Marine Corps and to a lesser extent the Navy.  It is celebrated the third Saturday in May and this year will occur May 21st.

It is different than Memorial Day where we pay homage to the fallen and Veteran’s Day where we remember all who have served because it really focuses on those currently serving.  When it occurs during a war as it has for the past nine years it tends to be more significant at least for those of us currently serving.

Many local and state governments as well as private organizations and businesses do special things to honor the Armed Forces.  There are parades, ceremonies at historic locations and even at baseball games. Fireworks and cookouts as well as discounts at various retailers are common.  At the same time in many places the day goes by without fanfare. This is in part due to the fact that we have had a volunteer military which due to force cutbacks since the end of the Cold War is smaller and based in fewer locations, generally concentrated on bigger bases as many smaller and mid-sized bases were closed or consolidated under the various iterations of the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC).

As a result for many Americans the military is an institution set apart, a closed profession and community with its own culture and worldview.  Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military today. That number includes active and reserve forces. The lack of a draft or some other type of compulsorily military service ensures that those who do not want to serve in the military, those that prefer stability and the chance to make a lot of money don’t have to sully themselves with serving in the military.  As a result a pitiful few politicians and business leaders have any real understanding of the military, much to our detriment as a nation.  We lack the cultural cross leveling that the draft brought.  Personally I don’t think we would have a Red State-Blue State divide if more people served together in the military.  When you serve together in war it is much easier to treat your fellow veterans with respect when you get out.

At the same time our military has become a tremendously professional organization that had it not been an all volunteer force would probably not survived the wars that we have been in for the past 10 years.  Conversely our politicians may have been more prudent in committing us to major ground wars after 2001.

Thus as a profession the military is often misunderstood and what it does overseas often shrouded in mystery as very few news organizations take the time anymore to live with the troops and those reporters that do are few and far between.  The lack of a significant number of political, business, academic and religious leaders with military experience only serves to worsen the situation simply because those leaders are ignorant of the cost that our military members and their families bear.  World War Two was a war that made us Americans because so many people had to serve in the military and serve alongside of people from different parts of the country and economic classes.  Thus the men and women that served in that war had a bond that transcended politics, religion and with the desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948 race which had divided the country since its inception.

Today the military is one of the most trusted institutions in the country.  It bears a special place in our society and even though many have not served there is an appreciation by many people of the sacrifice of those who serve at the present time.  I am glad for that because I remember when my father came home from Vietnam and the years following that war where the military was scorned and often vilified.

My plea is that as we approach Armed Forces Day that people will take the time to thank the serving Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen that they know or meet.  For those that do not serve there are ways to demonstrate your care by volunteering with the Red Cross or USO or donate to any of the military relief societies (Army Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief, Air Force Relief) or the Fisher House Foundation which helps the families of military personnel suffering from war wounds or life threatening conditions in hospital at military medical facilities.

It is a profound honor to continue to serve the Constitution and the people of the country. I have serve alongside the best America has to offer and as we continue to serve in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the War on Terrorism and elsewhere around the world please remember us.

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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North Korea Tensions: One Misstep could mean War what the US can deploy to the Theater

The USS George Washington

The tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North Korean sinking of the South Korean Corvette Cheonan on March 26th and the North’s continued bellicose actions are now the highest in years.  Since the United States and South Korea announced naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan the North has gone on a propaganda offensive condemn the exercises as a threat to peace and “nothing but outright provocations aimed to stifle the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea] by force of arms.” North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il claimed that the exercise “is a grave threat to the Korean peninsula and also to the region of Asia as a whole,” and “another example of a hostile policy” toward North Korea.

One of a number of Naval Clashes between South and North Korean Navy vessels

The North Koreans announced also that “The army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” and while threats of war are common from the DPRK the situation is now so tense that any miscue from either side could spark a war.

The US State Department dismissed the North Korean threats spokesman P J Crowley stated “North Korea has a habit of trying to deflect, you know, responsibility onto others.”  He noted that some U.S. officials were concerned that North Korea might use the heightened tensions and exercises to make further provocations against the South and US Forces.  Some speculate that such measures might include missile tests or nuclear tests or other military measures.  In response to questions that North Korea might take aggressive steps Crowley noted:  “Are they capable of these kinds of steps? Tragically, the answer is yes….And the very kind of actions that we’ve announced in recent days, including military exercises that will be conducted in the near future, are expressly to demonstrate that we will be prepared to act in response to future North Korea provocations. We hope it won’t come to that.”

South Korean Navy LHD Dokdo

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked at a conference regarding the South China Sea in Vietnam that “an isolated and belligerent North Korea has embarked on a campaign of provocative, dangerous behavior…”

The US Forces Korea Commander General Walter Sharp stated:  “These defensive, combined training exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that the ROK and U.S. are committed to enhancing our combined defensive capabilities.”

The Exercise “Invincible Spirit” will include the USS George Washington carrier battle group including the Guided Missile Destroyers USS McCampbell, USS John S. McCain and USS Lassen, as well as South Korean Navy assets including the largest ship in the South Korean Navy the Landing Ship Dokdo. A total of 20 ships 200 aircraft and 8,000 sailors will take part in the exercise which according to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo “will consist of an electronic warfare simulation with members of the US Cyber Command, an aerial refueling and bombing exercise by the Air Force, command control training by the Marines, and a navy anti-submarine exercise.”  It is also likely that the converted former Trident Missile submarines USS Ohio, USS Michigan and possibly the USS Florida are in the area each armed with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.  The 4th of these submarines USS Georgia is also deployed and its whereabouts are not known. It is the first time that all 4 subs have been deployed at the same time.   The US Air Force has deployed the F-22 Raptor for the first time to Korea and elements of the 7th Air Force will take part in the exercise.  Invincible Spirit is the first in a series of scheduled summer exercises between the US and South Korea. Admiral Robert F Willard commander of the 7th Fleet said that at the end of the exercise, there will be a counter special-forces exercise. He added “These occur with some frequency in both the East and West Seas, conducted by the [South Korea] and U.S. Navy.” North Korea has a large special-forces establishment and capability.

North Korean YJ-62 Anti-Ship Missile on mobile launcher

The US Navy has additional assets that could be deployed in the event of a major crisis on the peninsula as the USS Ronald Reagan is involved with the RIMPAC 2010 exercises in the Pacific and the carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln are underway off the west coast involved in exercises or deployment work ups.  At this time 123 (43%) of the navy’s 289 ships are deployed and a total of 184 (64%) are underway away from their homeport. Of the submarine force 23 (43%) are deployed and 30 (55%) are underway.  This is a sizable amount of the fleet and represents a significant surge potential should a conflict break out.  In the midst of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan many forget that a significant amount of our national military power can be deployed quickly from the sea to danger spots like Korea where their assets based on history can have a decisive affect.

The USS Ohio and her sisters USS Michigan and USS Florida could play a deterrent role

Ground forces are more spares, the major component of land based forces are those of South Korea, the US now has just a Brigade Combat Team stationed in South Korea although other assets not engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom could be deployed from the 25th Division in Hawaii and Alaska and the 2nd Division based at Ft Lewis Washington.  As of now 1 brigade the 4th BCT of 25th Infantry Division is deployed to Afghanistan as well as the 5th BCT of 2nd Division which also has its 4th BCT deployed to Iraq. The 2nd BCT of 25th Division is schedule for deployment and may already be deployed this summer. The 3rd BCT of the 25th Division is now in a post-deployment cycle after having just returned from Iraq. The deployment of uncommitted assets would take time and the only immediate reinforcements could be a limited number of Marine units from the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF in Okinawa and Kaneohe Bay Hawaii that are not currently engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The North Korean threat of a “retaliatory sacred war” may be the usual propaganda hyperbole used by the North or it may be their “line in the sand.”  It also could be more bellicose than usual because of internal tensions in the North regarding potential successors to the ailing Kim Jong Il. US and South Korea operational planning has contingencies should there be unrest in the North following Kim’s death but a conflict brought on by one of the rival factions the North could plunge Northeast Asia into a regional war. We don’t know what it is but the week ahead could become rather sporty.   China has warned that the exercise could make matters worse on the peninsula and the US apparently in response to China will keep the George Washington in the Sea of Japan.  There are also good tactical measures for doing so to protect the carrier by keeping it out of constricted waters in the vicinity of a good number of North Korean assets should fighting actually break out and the fact that the USS John S. McCain already is equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.

The Japanese Naval Self Defense Force (Navy) is sending 4 observers to the exercise a tacit measure of support for them and the Japanese have several ships fitted for the Aegis Ballistic Defense System.

With all of this said we now have to wait and see what happens. Will the North do something to instigate a conflict or will it back down?  We don’t know as it is a very unpredictable country with a penchant for raising the ante in the high stakes world of geopolitical dominance in Northeast Asia. The Obama administration seems to be walking a narrow line between war and appeasement, not that we would consider what we do appeasement but what the North would certainly take it to be. The stakes are high and only God knows what will happen in the next several days. An actual conflict could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people; especially should the North successfully deploy and use a nuclear weapon. Thousands of American lives are at stake should a conflict break out and besides our Soldiers, Sailors Marines and Airmen standing in harm’s way many of them are non-military citizens that live and work in South Korea and Japan.

That is all for now, pray for peas.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Memorial Day Weekend 2010: We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

On May 27th 2010 the US Military experienced the loss of its 1000th KIA in Afghanistan. The young man killed was Corporal Jacob C Leicht of Kerrville Texas.  Corporal Leicht was assigned to 1st Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division Camp Pendleton California. Corporal Leicht had previously served in Iraq where he had been badly wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that hit the HUMMV that he was traveling in.  Pulled to safety by his Iraqi interpreter Leicht spent the two years recovering from those injuries engaged in a letter and phone call campaign to get back into the fight with his fellow Marines.  He was killed when he stepped on a land mine during that desperately sought after second tour. His younger brother Jesse Leicht who just 10 days ago enlisted in the Marines said “He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered, he didn’t want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something.”  Please keep his family and his fellow Marines in your prayers this Memorial Day.

Last year I was very melancholy during Memorial Day and stories of young Marines, Soldiers and Sailors killed in the line of duty usually cause me to reflect on the sacrifice that the young men and women who volunteer to serve our country make on a daily basis while most of the country goes about its business often oblivious to the wars being waged by our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in Afghanistan, Iraq and other lesser known fronts in this war.  Last year I was still very much in the midst of my PTSD crash and struggling with depression and faith.  At the same time I was still remembering all of the veterans who made a difference in my life.  That was covered in the posts Memorial Day 2009- Thoughts and Musings and Remembering the Veterans in My Life…Memorial Day 2009.

As we approach Memorial Day 2010 we must remember that while the war in Iraq is drawing down that the war in Afghanistan is heating up even as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to engage the Taliban in their spiritual home of Khandehar.  Likewise there is are rising tensions on the Korean peninsula where the Heavy Combat Brigade and Air Combat Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are based in support of Republic of Korea and UN forces in Korea backed up by Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Hawaii that are not currently in Afghanistan. At sea U.S. Navy forces patrol strategic choke points including the Straits of Hormuz where an ascendant Iran continues to build up for forces that could threaten the Freedom of the seas.

How am I different this year? To answer the question I can only say that I have regained some measure of faith and community that had been absent in my life after I returned from Iraq.  This has made a lot of difference however it in no way takes the place of remembering those men and women that I have served with in harm’s way as well as the veterans who made an impact in my life and still do today.

Memorial Day, initially known as Decoration Day is a somber holiday in its truest sense however it is as Paul Reikoff of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association notes is “One Country, Two Holidays.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-rieckhoff/memorial-day-one-holiday_b_592398.html For those that have served in war going back to our WWII veterans but also those of the not so popular wars, Korea, Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost friends and sacrificed spending months and even years in combat zones and the work-ups and exercises that part and parcel to deployment.  There are the wounded in body, mind and spirit and those whose physical injuries who have killed them in previous wars but now live in tortured bodies somewhere in between life and death.  Likewise there are those whose injuries are invisible, the injuries of PTSD, TBI and other psychiatric or psychological disorders related to their time in combat.  I spent almost two years in PTSD hell and though I am making a good recovery now still am reminded of the fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and an existential crisis of faith that came with my return.  I know too many Marines, Soldiers and Sailors that suffer much more than I have whose struggles pass unnoticed by most of society.  I am now working with our Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program and it is hard to see the young men and women that are in the program whose problems either came in part from their combat experience or their experience upon returning home.  Likewise we are now receiving more of our combat wounded at the medical center and thus I am reminded of the sacrifices made by veterans every day.  For those who work to help these young men and women and in many cases have served alongside them in the combat zones it is a continual reminder of the cost of war.

For those of us that have served, not just in the current conflict but our brothers and sisters that served in previous wars, especially Vietnam and Korea there is one Memorial Day.  While we do attempt to do some things with families and friends the holiday is one of sober reflection as we count the cost of war in human terms, both in our lives as well as our families, the soldiers of our Allies that serve alongside of us and the populations of lands devastated by war.

But then there is another country.  A country consumed with materialism and for whom “heroes” are reality television “stars,” actors and actresses and sports figures.  There are those who while they profess to “support the troops” are the first to want to replace military personnel with contractors such as Halliburton and the company formerly known as “Blackwater” with often disastrous results. Political operatives and lobbyists support paying astronomical sums to corporations that often embarrass the country and make the  job in the military harder in Iraq and Afghanistan having done things that alienate those populations.  Then there is the cost for services delivered and the often terrible way that these corporations treat their employees, especially the third country nationals with working hours and living conditions that would be punishable he in the United States, but also Americans who gain employment but serve driving trucks or other hazardous duties that they have little combat training to do and receive little if the are wounded in action nor for their families if they are killed or disabled. That is part of the “other country.” About 1.8 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan less than 6/10ths of 1 percent. Unlike World War II where the war was truly a national effort this war is waged by a small minority of the population.

I do not have any problems with people enjoying a holiday but hope and pray that Americans will take at least a few minutes to pay their respects to the Veterans of wars past and present the honored dead as well as the living.  Say a prayer, visit a military or veteran cemetery, and pay a visit on a living vet or the family of one of those killed. Donate to reputable veteran organizations or charities and maybe take a vet out for a bite to eat or buy them a cup of coffee, Coke or a beer.  Don’t let the day pass by simply looking at the faded yellow ribbon “I support the troops” on your car but take a few minutes to thank and remember those that have served our country regardless of race, creed or color and pray that the fallen will rest in peace and the living will recover from all wounds.

Unfortunately for the country the President will not be at the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery this year. Unlike some who are vehemently criticizing him I can only say that I am disappointed that the Commander-in-Chief will not be present because of what I feel is the tremendous symbolic importance of his presence at the event when we are at war. At the same time the President’s absence in emblematic of how much of the country “celebrates” Memorial Day.  Unfortunately as the number of men and women who have served our nation in time of war goes down in proportion to the population at large the day will become less significant to many, a curiosity that is quaint and nice but does not impact their lives.  I do not mean this in a bad way or with any malice; it is simply a statement of fact as for most the military and the war is not an everyday part of their lives. I think that the Previous President while understanding the significance of this day did not help the nation when after the September 11th attacks did not marshal the energy of the nation for a war which his administration readily acknowledged would be a “long war” but instead told people to “go shopping” to pump up the economy.  I think that was an act that has limited the personal effect of the human cost of these wars to a very limited segment of the population.

At the same time I as well as most veterans do appreciate the fact that we in the military are treated well by our countrymen even if they do not truly understand what we go through.  I for one am thankful to people who go out of their way to thank us in public places, those that take on hateful groups like the crowd at West Baptist Church that protests outside of military funerals and bases invoking God’s wrath on us.  Likewise there are the volunteers who meet returning servicemen and women at airports as the come home from war, the sports that honor the military before games or as in the case of most of Major and Minor League Baseball in the 7th inning stretch.  At the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish in Norfolk they display the photos of servicemen and women currently serving overseas.  The Raley’s grocery store near my parents’ home in Stockton California has a display of hundreds of 8 x 10 photos of military personnel in the front of their store and a wide range of people and groups try to find ways to help.  This in is stark contrast to the treatment of our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam and the attitudes and treatment of military personnel on college campuses that lingered far into the 1980s.  Thankfully the vast majority of Americans are appreciative of what we do.  At the same time most are not personally effected and as such will simply see Memorial Day as a three day weekend that kicks off the summer vacation season hardly pausing to think of the cost that has been born to ensure that Americans and people around the world have the opportunity to live in freedom.

Band of Brothers, Above Me and RP2 Nelson Lebron, below Foot Patrol Al Waleed Iraq

This weekend I pause to remember the veterans in my life, my father who remains in a nursing facility with dementia brought about by Alzheimer’s disease, men like my NJROTC instructors Senior Chief John Yarro and Buff Rambo who taught me in our FIST or Fire Support Team, SFC Harry Zilkan and CSM John Butler from my UCLA Army ROTC program and SFC Harry Ball my Drill Instructor in ROTC Advanced Camp. All were Vietnam Vets.  Then there were 1SG Jim Koenig of 557th Medical Company who was my 1st Sergeant when I was a new Lieutenant in Germany and Colonel Donald A Johnson the Commander of the 68th Medical Group and his successor Colonel Jim Truscott a high decorated Medevac or “Dustoff” helicopter pilot.  I cannot forget Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley a company commander in Vietnam who saved my ass as an aspiring Chaplain at the Chaplain School in 1990 and 1992.

Then there were the WWII and Vietnam Vets in my Chapel at Fort Indiantown Gap PA. USAF Major General Frank Smoker a B-17 pilot, Colonel Walt Swank who served at Normandy and SSG Henry Boyd one of the 101st Airborne Troopers epitomized by “Band of Brothers.” There were the Vietnam Vets in the congregation, Colonel Ray Hawthorne an artillery officer who served several tours in country including an advisor tour.  Charlie Kosko a helicopter pilot and Major Scotty Jenkes who served as a USAF pilot flying close air support in Vietnam.  Then there was Colonel Tom Allmon the Garrison Commander who served in the Gulf War as well as Iraq.

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey Cartilage” Sergeant Major Thomas and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and Charlie who used man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park until health issues kept them from continuing all mean a lot to me.  Likewise my friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis both Iraq Vets mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends.

There are those that I served with at Navy EOD Group II that performed amazing feats in Iraq and Afghanistan and retired Command Master Chief Bill “Two Feathers” Tyrell an EOD tech that I came to know well working family issues and PTSD issues for our EOD sailors.  Bill was a tremendous help as I struggled with PTSD.  Likewise there are my shipmates and friends from the USS HUE CITY that I served with deployed to the Northern Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa in 2002 including the men of the boarding team that I served as an advisor to on 75 boarding missions aboard impounded Iraqi Oil Smugglers.  Then there are the men that I served with in Iraq especially my assistant and body guard RP2 Nelson Lebron who is getting ready for his 10th deployment this time another trip to Afghanistan.  There are my friends that served in various locations with the Iraqi security forces that I was able to travel to, serve alongside and serve as a chaplain in remote areas of Iraq with the Iraqis. In my current assignment I have had many friends and colleagues deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in some very “hot” zones caring for our wounded as well as local nationals and allied soldiers.  This is not stopping anytime soon.

These are my brothers and sisters and I remember all of them with fondness.  My thoughts are much the same as Henry V at Agincourt as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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.

See the Kenneth Branagh’s rendition here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NA3gOST4Pc8&feature=player_embedded

With crucial battles ahead in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the storm clouds of war gathering over Korea and the threat of terrorism and attacks around the world and at home it is indeed a dangerous world that our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen serve in.  Never before in our country have so many owed so much to so few.   Unfortunately there are those of us, men and women that have served our country from before Pearl Harbor to the present who who struggle and will spend this day alone and uncared for in isolation, anonymous to nearly everyone. Please, if you see such a man or woman do not let the opportunity pass to thank them and if need be do something to encourage or thank them for their service. Please remember and thank a Veteran this weekend and if somehow the spirit moves you to do more and you are capable of serving and join this new “Band of Brothers” please see a recruiter.  It is a noble profession that we, we happy few are proud to serve despite the cost.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: Baghdad, Briefings, Coordination and Connections

This is the 10th installment of my “Going to War” series which Chronicles my deployment with RP2 Nelson Lebron to Iraq in 2007-2008.  This installment deals with our time at Camp Victory in Baghdad as were prepared to go west. For other segments go to the “Tour in Iraq” link on the sidebar.

051Sitting on Saddam’s Throne

Following our arrival at Camp Victory Nelson and I continued to get our bearings. We went to the Iraq assistance Group where we checked in and began to meet the people who were going to be assisting us as we got ready to do our mission where we met with the Chaplain, Major Peter Dissmore, the Chief of staff, Colonel David Abramowitz and the Commanding General.  We received briefing and coordinating assistance from a number of the G-Shops in the IAG, the Chaplain and the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.

The visits with all were cordial and my long Army career as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Chaplain allowed me to have a edge in working with the Army because I knew the system, the language and the culture.  Now the IAG was run by the Army but was a joint command with Navy, Air Force and Marine staff in addition to the Army.  The IAG at least then was the coordinating office for the teams of Advisors and trainers working with the Iraqi Army, Border Forces and National Police.  Another command worked with the Provincial Police and other security forces throughout the country.

While we had an idea where we would be working before we deployed that we would work with the Marine and Army advisors in Multi-National Force West, we received the word that we would be going there.  MNF-West operates in Al Anbar Province which at that time was still a very dangerous place, although there were signs that things might be beginning to turn around.  It was funny as during our pre-deployment preparation and training took place almost everyone who heard that Nelson and I were going to Anbar expressed concern as the battle there had been very difficult since the U.S. led invasion.

The actual briefings and preparations did not take long, but the important part was building relationships that would assist us in our mission as it developed.  The two key people at IAG for our mission were Chaplain Dissmore and Colonel Abramowitz.  Chaplain Dissmore a chaplain of the Assemblies of God denomination, graduate of Princeton and ethics instructor at the Army Engineer school had been deployed like us as an individual augment as had Colonel Abramowitz.  We got along with both very well as we got details of the mission.  Colonel Abramowitz took a liking to us, especially Nelson, a fellow New Yorker.  Abramowitz is an Army Aviator and the son of an Army Infantry Colonel.  He is a big man, about 6′ 6′ or maybe taller and reminds me of a Jewish version of Patton.  When he found out that Nelson was a fighter and had multiple championship belts he had to “Google” him.  Nelson told him to “Google Nelson Lebron, kick boxer.”  When Colonel Abramowitz did he was amazed that Nelson was the real deal.  He became one of our strongest advocates in Baghdad.  We talked baseball of course the good Colonel being a Yankees fan. Another group of men who were invaluable to us were two former Iraqi Army and Air Force Generals who had fled the country during the reign of Saddaam after the the Gulf war.  Both helped us considerably as we gt to know more about the make up of the new Iraqi Army which after a couple of years had been purged of many of the opportunists and political hacks who had come in after it was re-established.  Many of the officers replacing the problem children were career military men, secular in outlook who had served since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s are well as in the First Gulf War.  These men wanted the chance to get the Iraqi Army back in shape as a fighting force, but faced opposition from certain political and religious groups in the country not to mention the insurgents who desired to undermine the effectiveness of this force from the beginning.

Almost immediately after meeting with the IAG staff we were on the phone with Navy Captain Mike Langston the Chaplain for MNF-W and II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward and his deputy Commander J. Hedges.  They were excited to have us coming to their area.  When Chaplain Dissmore informed them that they had the choice of a Navy team or an Army team they of course picked us.  This was also the intent of the IAG who realized that a Navy team would understand the more Marine oriented advisors and chain of command out west.  When Chaplain Langston heard that the team was composed of Nelson and me he expressed great pleasure as Nelson had served with him in Afghanistan and I had served with him at Second Marine Division.  As a result we had a great amount of trust placed in us because of prior service together as we were both known quantities.  Relationships matter in the military and this time they were a great help to us.

Dundas and FallahMeeting with General Falah

One of the things pointed out to us was that we were the first Navy team assigned to doing this type of mission since Vietnam.  Most of the Army teams doing the mission were reservists and according to the information that we were given were struggling.  A team that had been dispatched out west prior to us had been sent back early because of their ineffectiveness.  I had already known that we were the first Navy team to do this mission since Vietnam and had taken the time to read the histories of the chaplains who served in this “niche” role in that war.  Likewise being a history major and working on a second Masters in Military History I had been doing a lot of study on counter-insurgency and revolutionary warfare.  Not long prior to our deployment the Army and Marine Corps had issued a new manual on the subject.  When I read it I was surprised to find that I had already read many of the primary sources used in its compilation.  These are things that while not directly related o being a chaplain are things that help give a chaplain “street cred” and an ability to adapt to the culture and understand the language of the men that he serves with.  I did not stop being a Priest in this, but I knew where we fit and understood what the advisers on the MiTT  Military Transition teams, mission was and challenges that they faced.  This again put us ahead of the power curve going into the mission.  I do not think that any Religious Ministry or Army Unit Ministry Team has been as well prepared for this kind of mission than we were.

While at Camp Victory I met several old friends and acquaintances from Army and Navy service, as well as a Marine Corps Officer with who I had attended Command and Staff College.  One, LCDR Andy Wade who I had served with at 2nd MARDIV was completing a tour with the MNC-I Chaplain Office. Two of the Army Chaplains had been in my officer basic course and one, an Orthodox Priest was a friend from the Army Chaplain Officer basic course at Fort Monmouth NJ in 1990.  Peter Batkis was a newly commissioned 1LT when I went to the basic course and was the room mate of my good friend Fr Jim Bowman.  He was  now a Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain for the 18th MP Brigade.  The other former classmate had been with an advisory team elsewhere in country and not had a good experience.  I was shocked to see how he had aged and how badly he wanted to get out of country.

While at Camp Victory we continued to get ourselves ready to go.  Our flight to Fallujah was arranged by the IAG staff and we began the process of waiting.  While waiting we were able to get some PT in and on the morning of the 8th of August (7 August in the States) while at breakfast I saw Barry Bonds hit home run #756 to break the record of Hank Aaron.  What I saw at Camp Victory amazed me.  The place was a veritable “little America” complete with the largest military exchange in country, about the size of a small Wal-Mart with a separate market for Iraqi vendors and, American fast food outlets housed in white trailers outside the exchange and a host of other exchange services found anywhere in the world, except to much of Al Anbar where we were heading.  It was kind of surreal, all of this Americana plunked down in there heart of Iraq, surrounded by blast walls and guarded with multiple check points. Parking lots were filled with a  mixture of tactical and non-tactical vehicles and every military person was armed. Helicopters overflew the area regularly, both transport aircraft and gunships, the gunships which flew what would have at one time been called a “Combat Air Patrol.” Additionally there was the ever present noise of small arms fire, distant explosions and sirens of various emergency and police vehicles.  The weather while 6-8 degrees cooler than Kuwait was still very hot and we were constantly picking up liter bottles of fresh water to stay hydrated.

Additionally we received the tour of the Al Faw Palace which was one of Saddaam Hussein’s major residences which had been taken over as the headquarters of Multi-National Force Iraq.  The palace was abuzz with the activity of the MNF-I staff.  In the lobby of the palace there is a throne given to Saddaam by Yasser Arafat in which almost everyone going through Camp Victory gets their photo taken in.

On our 4th day in country we got word that we would fly that night.  Nelson and I got ourselves packed, made final preparations and coordination with the IAG staff and waited.

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