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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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From the Sea: The Absolute Need of a Strong Navy, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard and Viable National Maritime Strategy

The USS Enterprise CV-6. Ordered in 1933 she was one of the most decorated and battle proven ships ever to fly the flag of the United States

“A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” Theodore Roosevelt

“A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense; and it has always been of defense that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of Navy to build? We shall take leave to be strong upon the seas, in the future as in the past; and there will be no thought of offense or provocation in that. Our ships are our natural bulwarks.” Woodrow Wilson

As the economic crisis continues to envelop the nation there is much talk about the certain reduction in the size and capabilities of the U.S. Military components.  At the present time it seems that politicians of both parties are more interested in the immediate savings that can be derived from cuts.  Regardless of how they are done each service will see force reductions but coming at a time when we are at war those responsible for the cuts must be conscious of the effects on the capabilities that the United States has to defend itself and its interests overseas and to influence world affairs.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistanhave been ground intensive requiring the strengthening of the Army and Marine Corps to conduct counter insurgency operations. After 9-11 the Navy voluntarily reduced its fleet and personal strength in relatively dramatic fashion intending the savings be used to rebuilt the fleet.  Personnel strength was reduced by nearly 40,000 sailors and many ships were retired well before their anticipated retirement dates.  Unfortunately the Defense Department under then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shifted the savings to fund the ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Navy shipbuilding was cut and the Navy failed to help itself by investing much of the service’s budget to the development of three classes of ships and that are over budget, under performing and full of controversy, the Zumwalt Class Destroyers, the Freedom and Independence Class Littoral Combat Ships and the San Antonio Class Landing Ships.

Further cuts are already occurring or envisioned based on the planned cuts in Federal Government programs.  These cuts would reduce the Navy which is now smaller than at any time since the early 1930s following the 1922 Washington Naval Conference which limited the size of the Navies of the signatory countries.  From 1922-1932 the Republican Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations not only reduced the force but failed to lay down a single new ship to replace outdated ships and reduced maintenance funds to keep up the ships in service.  Budget cutting gutted the Navy during those years and it was only theRooseveltadministration which realized that a strong Navy was essential to national security began to rebuild the fleet in the 1930s and funded the development of the ships that would win World War Two.  The shipbuilding program had economic benefits as shipyards which had been inactive were able to employ skilled American workers which helped military preparedness, American business and American workers.  The ships that came out of that building program sustained us at the beginning of the war and those designed in the years just before the war served us for decades to come.  Even so the build up byRoosevelt, constrained by the dire economic crisis of the Great Depression could not add ships fast enough to have us fully ready for the Second World War and left us dangerously stretched by the demands of the Japanese advance in the Pacific and the German U-Boat campaign in theAtlantic.  Many good Americans died and the war was decidedly more difficult because of what was done to the Navy in the 1920s by successive short sighted Republican administrations.

The current ship production is at a level not seen in decades and bad surface ship designs and poor workmanship have hurt the Navy.  If the Navy is cut back significantly without a change in mission or corresponding shift in National Security Policy it will degrade the Navy’s ability to respond to emerging threats. Likewise if a coherent shipbuilding program is not undertaken that meets the projected threats American interests can and will be harmed as other nations gain local superiority in critical areas and sea lanes.   While the U.S. Navy currently enjoys a vast superiority over any current or potential adversary there are places that a cunning adversary could hurt American and allied interests simply because we are already spread very thin in regard to the number of ships available and the increasing number of missions and threat areas.

The challenge now is not to give in to the temptation to make indiscriminant cuts until we actually decide on a National Maritime Strategy that is not simply about the Navy but also the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.  The strategy must include the interrelationship that we have with our allies and other nations and their navies.

The necessity for this goes beyond military preparedness it goes to our economic security since the vast majority of our commerce exports and imports are by sea.  If we take the time to think through a comprehensive maritime strategy it can go a long way to strengthen American industry, labor, commerce as well as national and economic security for us and the world.  A strong Navy, Merchant Marine and Coast Guard are far more important to the United Statesthan large ground forces.

An effective and judicious use of national power: USS Hue City CG-66 passing an impounded Iraqi smuggler in 2002

This is demonstrated in our history as well as that of Great Britain.  When we are strong at sea we are strong, when we commit to long wars of attrition overseas we cause ourselves untold problems. As our first President George Washington said:

“It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”

This is something that our politicians inWashingtonand those that populate the think tanks need to learn.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Naming of a New Aircraft Carrier and the Centrality of the Navy in Future National Security Strategy

USS HUE CITY CG-66 Enforcing the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq in April 2002

“Control of the seas means security. Control of the seas means peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the sea if it is to protect our security.” —John F. Kennedy

“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.” Admiral Arleigh Burke

Over the Memorial Day weekend Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the naming of the second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier.  The name selected was significant as the ship will be named the USS John F. Kennedy CVN-79, her namesake being President John F. Kennedy who served as a junior officer in the Second World War commanding a Patrol Torpedo Boat, PT-109 in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy’s boat was rammed and split in two by the Japanese Fubuki class destroyer Amagiri in the early hours of August 2nd 1943.  Over a period of six days he made herculean efforts to save his crew and was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.

The United States has always been a seafaring nation and today the vast majority of our commerce is borne by ships from the world over. The United States learned during the Revolution and the War of 1812 the importance of sea power when the Royal Navy for all intents and purposes rules the waves. Even the land victory of Washington at Yorktown was sealed by the intervention of the French Fleet which prevented the British from evacuating the garrison.  During the Civil War the Union Navy was the deciding factor as it blockaded Southern ports and forced the Mississippi River cutting the Confederacy in two and sealing its fate even as Confederate armies battled Union forces in the bloodiest battles ever seen on this continent. The Navy was the deciding factor in the Spanish American War sweeping the Spanish Navy from the seas and dooming its garrisons around the world.  The U.S. Navy began the First World War late but by the end was the ascendant naval power in the world and was one of the major reasons that the British in spite of the superiority that they had at the time agreed to the Washington and later London Naval accords.  When the Second World War erupted the United States was in the beginning stages of a Naval build up to reinforce and replace the fleet that was still dominated by the ships built prior to the Naval treaties.   In the Pacific the Japanese Navy steamrolled its scattered and ill equipped opposition while in the Atlantic German U-Boats decimated convoys very nearly breaking the back of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. However it was the Navy initially stretched to its limits by the Two Ocean War which regained the initiative which in an unprecedented build up of Naval Power defeated its adversaries and safeguarded the vast convoys of merchant ships carrying American troops and equipment into battle and bringing American Lend Lease aid to reach Britain and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam the Navy was a flexible and mobile response force to crises around the globe military, diplomatic and humanitarian, often diffusing situations without a shot having to be fired in anger and eliminating the need for large numbers of ground forces. In the 1980s the Navy secured the Gulf of Sirte against the threats of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and kept the Persian Gulf open during the Tanker Wars initiated by Iran on merchant ships transiting the Gulf. American naval power was again on display during the Gulf War and subsequent United Nations sanctions on Iraq.  After 9-11 the Navy has been a response force around the globe in the War on Terrorism as well as numerous natural disasters and humanitarian crises. When a crisis develops which might require a military response the first questions on the mind of every Presidential administration has been where is the nearest Carrier Strike Group and Marine Expeditionary unit.  Today the Navy supports military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa and against piracy.

The vast majority of the world’s populations now live on the littorals, or the land areas adjacent to the ocean.  The bulk of world commerce is maritime commerce; the United States depends on secure sea lanes to support our economy.

While sea power is essential to American national power, diplomatic, economic and military large standing armies are not. Yes our land forces must be strong and in quality the best in the world. At the same time whenever we have committed large numbers of land forces to ill defined campaigns we have squandered national power and prestige in wars that have been at best stalemates and at worst strategic defeats. This of course excemts the two World Wars where those large land forces were engaged they had a specific mission that was directly tied to national strategy.

We have come to a place in our national life where our strategic thinking still largely influenced by the World Wars and the Cold War has to be modified.  The major land wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven incredibly costly in terms of manpower and economics and it is clear that the Obama administration and bipartisan Congress will seek to disengage sooner rather than later from those wars.  One knows that once those wars are over that land forces will shrink as plans are already on the table with cuts already beginning in some services.

Of course one has to ask what the military should be composed of in light of a coherent national security strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of threats to our nation many of which are not military in a traditional sense. To sustain large numbers of land forces on foreign territory is expensive and often fraught with peril when there are changes in the leadership of allied nations on which we depend for the basing of such forces. Even forward deployed Air Force assets are subject to these constraints.  Such basing was necessitated by the Soviet threat during the Cold War.  All previous overseas conflicts were viewed by American leaders as expeditionary in nature, land forces would go in with a specific goal for a limited time. If forces were left in place they were generally small and of a constabulary nature.

Only the Navy-Marine Corps team provides the flexibility to provide a rapid military or humanitarian response to overseas contingencies.  Critics call it “gunboat diplomacy” but then we have found what we are doing is not sustainable and we need an alternative.  That alternative is the Sea Services, which also include the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.  The Bush administration reduced the Navy in terms of ships and personnel in order to support land wars of questionable strategic value, even turning thousands of Sailors into soldiers to support Army missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without reducing and even expanding the requirements of Naval forces.  This was a mistake of unmitigated proportions, no strategic goal that we have accomplished in either Iraq or Afghanistan could not have been accomplished by the Navy and Marine Corps and contingents of Special Forces, military and civilian advisors and the CIA.

Theodore Roosevelt had a saying, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was not an isolationist by any means; he advocated engagement with the world but also protections, military, economic and ecological for Americans.   A strong Navy was central to his thinking as were good relations with other nations.  He understood the importance of the Navy in supporting American interests. In his annual address to Congress on December 6th 1904 he stated:

“In treating of our foreign policy and of the attitude that this great Nation should assume in the world at large, it is absolutely necessary to consider the Army and the Navy, and the Congress, through which the thought of the Nation finds its expression, should keep ever vividly in mind the fundamental fact that it is impossible to treat our foreign policy, whether this policy takes shape in the effort to secure justice for others or justice for ourselves, save as conditioned upon the attitude we are willing to take toward our Army, and especially toward our Navy. It is not merely unwise, it is contemptible, for a nation, as for an individual, to use high-sounding language to proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force. If there is no intention of providing and keeping the force necessary to back up a strong attitude, then it is far better not to assume such an attitude.”

Roosevelt understood better than most of his peers around the world of the necessity of worldwide engagement and the protection of American interests.  As interdependent as the United States and our allies are on international cooperation in anti-terrorism, humanitarian response and the free flow of commerce the Sea Services have to be the primary means of response.  Land forces are important but it is clear that they will need to be reorganized and rebuilt after the long and arduous conflicts that they have shouldered and ultimately they are dependent on the Navy for the bulk of their support when deployed overseas.

Any new national security strategy must prioritize our nation’s goals with diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic assets. We must leverage power and not squander it.  Naval forces are among the most flexible and economic means of exercising the military aspects of such strategy and are not hostage to unstable governments as are forward deployed land forces.   Naval power leverages national power in ways that forward deployed land forces cannot and are far more connected to goodwill than are ground forces which are seen by many around the world as occupying forces.

British Maritime strategist Julian Corbett in his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategyprovides a clear understanding of how sea power is best suited to the principle of a true national strategy for a maritime nation which emphasized limited and asymmetrical warfare.  Such strategy sustained the British Empire until it allowed itself to become mired in the trenches of Flanders and the shores of Gallipoli during the First World War killing off the flower of the nation’s youth and nearly bankrupting the nation and alienating much of the empire.

Corbett maintained that naval forces were best suited to controlling lines of communications, focus on the enemy, and maneuver for tactical advantage.  He also believed that naval forces best suited the political, economic and financial dimensions of waging war as well as war’s technological and material aspects.  One key aspect of this was the Corbett believed that continental war where large land armies are deployed inherently act against opponents limiting their political aims and increase the chance of total war with all of its destructive effects.  Corbett understood, as Clausewitz did before him the primacy of politics in war and necessity to devise appropriate strategies to protect the national interests while emphasizing efficiency in battle while preserving costly assets.

Ultimately the United States is a maritime power. When we try to become a continental power by engaging in protected land wars overseas we lose our strategic and economic advantage.  One can argue that we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan today had it not been for the deployment of land and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf War.

The new USS John F. Kennedy when completed will be one of the key platforms of American power projection in the middle part of this century and it is important that we strengthen and modernize the Navy so that it might meet the tasks required of it by our nation and our friends around the world.  It is imperative that we as a nation remember our heritage and return to it as we develop a strategy that is at last freed from the World War and Cold War model.  The time for that is now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, US Navy

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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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

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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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, shipmates and veterans

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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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

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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