Tag Archives: US Navy

An Unexpected Encounter in a Bar: a Divine or a Chance Meeting?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been in the military almost 36 1/2 Years and a chaplain for about 25 1/2 of them. I remember when I was in the Texas Army National Guard, our State Chaplain, Colonel John Price pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice any chaplain has ever given me. He told me that in his experience that chaplains who were not afraid to sit at the bar at the officer’s club or go to other bars often had the opportunity to care for people who would never darken the door of a church or chapel. Over the years I have found that to be true all too often.

This afternoon I went with Judy to our favorite German restaurant, the Bier Garden. We had been working around the house most of the day and the weather was cold a dreary, cloudy with rain and temperatures in the high 30s. When we got there there were only two seats available at the end of the bar and I asked the young man sitting next to them if they were free. He said yes and we sat down. The Army-Navy game was on the televisions and I was settling in to watch the game when the young man struck up a conversation with me. He had obviously had too much to drink and he was struggling to stay awake.

That being said he seemed lonely and depressed, so as I watched the game I occasionally engaged him in conversation and listened to what he was saying. Then he passed out and the bartender woke him up and cut him off. That is when I really got concerned for him. I asked if he was okay, if he needed help and if he was local. He said that he was from California and stationed on board one of the many ships based in our area. He also said that he had walked to the restaurant. So we continued to talk and as we did I could see that he was crying. So I let him talk. He had been in the navy less than a year and he was on his first ship and away from his family for the first time. He was depressed and struggling and I realized that for whatever reason I needed to be there for this kid.

I introduced myself and let him know that I was a chaplain, but even more than importantly that I was a fellow sailor, a shipmate who cared for him. I’m not going to go into details of the conversation but I asked him what ship he was stationed aboard and took the time to encourage him, care for him, and even more importantly decided to find out how he was going to get back to his ship. He told me that he planned on walking back to it, which I realized that since he had had a couple too many drinks, was tired, and it was both dark, cold and beginning to snow that I couldn’t let that happened. I asked him to call his ship and have someone come and get him, but he was hesitant. However he did have a card from his ship that would help him with a cab ride, so I asked the bartender to call a cab. I stayed with the young sailor encouraging him the best that I could for the next half hour and then stood with him waiting for the cab to come outside the restaurant where we continued to talk until the cab came. I talked with the cab driver and found that his company didn’t have the agreement with the Navy to honor it, so I paid the driver more than twice the fare to get him back to his ship.

During our time together I listened a lot and I shared a lot of life experience, I also gave him my business card so he could look me up. But the one thing that I kept letting him know was that he was a sailor, that he was one of my shipmates, and that he wears the same uniform that I do, and that he matters to me. Truthfully that is not bullshit, it’s what I have been taught by every decent non-commissioned officer, Petty Officer, Chief, or commissioned officer in my career. You care for the sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen that come into your life no matter what their rank or situation. It’s who we are, and why after all these year I still serve.

While we were standing outside waiting for his cab we were talking about the weather and how cold it was and at that point I pointed out that I was wearing short pants, as I don’t go to long pants until the high temperature is under 40 degrees. He looked down and exclaimed: “Chaps, you,re crazy sir!” I told him that he was right.

My hope is that this young man will remember the crazy chaplain who stood with him in cold weather, wind, rain and snow in short pants who helped him get back to his ship, and that when he has attained any kind of rank that he will take care of other sailors in the same way.

Some might say that the encounter was an act of God or simply a coincidence and I could argue for either point of view. But that being, whichever it was, I know that I couldn’t have done any other. I wanted him to get back to his ship safely and I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his chain of command.

He asked me questions about God and church and I encouraged him to seek out his chaplain or to contact me and so I hope that our encounter will help in get through his hard times and to succeed in life.

But that is why I am here. I’m going to finish my career in the next few years, this young man is just getting started. He is part of the future and no matter how young I still look, act, and behave, my time in the Navy and military is coming to an end. Whether that is in two and a half, three and a half, or four and a half years, with somewhere between 39 and 42 years of combined service between the Army and Navy, I am closer to the end of my career than this young man.

So I encourage all of my readers to look out for those young men and women who come into your lives.

So until tomorrow and whatever unexpected encounters come our way I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Military, Pastoral Care

Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best: Raising the Flag December 3rd 1775

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There is a precept that I live by: “Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes.” That was once said by Hannah Arendt, but I take it as my own. I am not a fatalist, nor do I believe that God has predetermined what is going to happen in the future, except that he promises to “make all things new.”

December 3rd is a date that not to many people today remember for anything significant. But one event that happened on December 3rd 1775 is important to those who who follow American and Naval History. It was the day that Lieutenant John Paul Jones hoisted the Grand Union Flag, the precursor to the Stars and Stripes aboard the USS Alfred, the flagship of the new United States Navy. Some 242 years later the Stars and Stripes is still hoisted above United States Navy Ships. What happened on this date so long ago affected the course of history since then. Following his victory at Yorktown which was made possible by the timely intervention of the French Fleet, George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette:

“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.”

On October 13th 1775 the Continental Congress passed legislation to establish a Navy for a country that did not yet exist.  It was the first was the first in a long line of legislative actions taken by it and subsequent Congresses that helped define the future of American sea power.

The legislation was the beginning of a proud service that the intrepid founders of our nation could have ever imagined.  Less than two months after it was signed on December 3rd 1775 Lieutenant John Paul Jones raised the Grand Union Flag over the new fleet flagship the Alfred. The fleet set sail and raided the British colony at Nassau in the Bahamas capturing valuable cannon and other military stores.  It was the first amphibious operation ever conducted by the Navy and Marines.

Jones received the first recognition of the American flag shortly after France recognized the new United States.  In command of the Sloop of War USS Ranger his ship received a nine-gun salute from the French flagship at Quiberon Bay.

Jones would go on to to greater glory when he in command of the Bonhomme Richard defeated the HMS Serapis at the Battle of Flamborough Head. During the battle when all seemed lost and the colors had been shot away he replied to a British question if he had surrendered replied “I have not yet begun to fight!”

When the war ended very few of these ships remained most having been destroyed or captured during the war. But these few ships and the brave Sailors and Marines who manned them blazed a trail which generations of future sailors would build on.  The Navy has served the nation and the world as a “Global Force For Good” for more than 242 years.

That being said these are troubled times for the Navy. Sixteen years of war coupled with a major reduction in number of ships, mostly due to a decision to decommission more than 30 ships before they were due for replacement and the decision to shed 30,000 sailors to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the loss of up to 30,000 sailors a month in non-Navy billets to support those wars has taken a toll on readiness and morale, not to mention ethical behavior. The results have been seen in the numerous accidents and incidents that have involved loss of life and major damage to ships over the past few years, as well as numerous scandals involving senior officer and enlisted leadership.

Please do not get me wrong, the Navy has many superb sailors, officers and leaders; I serve with some of them, but the rot has set in and it is becoming more and more obvious. I see it daily in what I read and with whom I talk. I was fortunate to serve aboard a ship with high standards and high morale after September 11th 2001. My commanding officer back then, Captain Rick Hoffman, now retired is frequently consulted when incidents involving ship handling and leadership come to the fore.

Despite the rhetoric of the President there has been no significant help regarding funding for operations, maintenance, and personnel, nor any let up in mission requirements. I hate to be the one who says it, but no organization can keep doing more with less for more than a decade without problems. The fact that the world situation requires more of a naval presence now than it did before 2001 does not seem to matter to Republican Congressmen who forced Sequester on the services in 2011 yet are willing to bust the budget by trillions of dollars to pay for tax cuts for the absolute wealthiest persons and corporations.

If worse comes to worse on the Korean Peninsula and if at the same time Iran or any other country decide to challenge the United States, things will go from bad to worse. We will lose ships and sailors for the first time since the Second World War and it will not be pretty. Sadly, I think that the President will blame the Navy (and the rest of the military) when the policies that he and his party have pursued lead to disaster.

These are dark times and I am a realist. I don’t live in the cloud cuckoo land of Trump supporters who think that things are going to turn out well. When I see the President and his top advisers and spokespeople continue to talk about the increasing chance of war on the Korean Peninsula I believe them. When I hear the President basically giving a blank check to the Saudis and the Israelis to do as they wish in the Middle East while basically appeasing the Russians and Chinese, I get worried. I lose sleep, and at the same time I prepare myself and those who I serve with to be prepared for the worst.

So with that in mind I wish you a good week.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, US Navy

In Harm’s Way They Went…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a busy day as we finished the major part of decorating our home for the Advent and Christmas seasons. I think that this year is the first year that we have everything ready before the first Sunday of Advent and that even means getting all the boxes that our decorations came in back up to the attic. When we finished we went out to our favorite local German restaurant, The Bier Garden over in Portsmouth.

Since we are coming up on the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and it seems that the United States may again become involved in a truly major and destructive war the likes that we have not seen since the Second World I decided to put on the classic film In Harm’s Way, directed by Otto Preminger and starring John Wayne and an all star cast. It is an unusual film because it deals with very fallible people who can be heroes and scoundrels who have miserable failings. It deals with families, strong ones and broken ones, and it also deals with a topic that is all too current, sexual harassment and rape.

Of course it is set during the Second World War and deals with the Navy in the Pacific during the early part of the war and though it is fictional it represents real battles around the Solomons. Those battles were often bloody. During the first engagement of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal a U.S. task force slugged it out at close range with a Japanese Force which had the mission of knocking out the Marine airbase on the island the Navy lost two cruisers and four destroyers and of thirteen ships engaged only one remained undamaged. To give an idea how brutal it was, both admirals embarked on the U.S. force were killed in the action.

The tag line for the movie is one that I really like because it kind of tells it like it is when a nation, not just a volunteer professional military goes to war: “In harm’s way they went. The men. The women. The lovers for a night. The lovers for keeps. The strong. The weak. They went, as they were…in Harm’sway.”

I have made two wartime deployments, one on a cruiser and one in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. I have seen men and women, and families who have gone to war and come home, sometimes rather worse for the wear. I still have nightmares and night terrors from Iraq, but I have written about that before. PTSD is a bitch.

But anyway, as I ponder what is going on in our country and the world I realize that things are probably going to get much worse before they get better. I expect that many unsuspecting people will find themselves in harm’s way sooner rather than later, and like the Americans of 1941, complacent though the world was already at war, will come face to face with a rude awakening that will determine who we are and what we will be for at least a generation. The closing credits of the film are dramatic moving from waves braking upon a beach, to stormy seas, to the explosions of war culminating in the blast of a hydrogen bomb, before going back to a calm sea.

https://youtu.be/_OGVzjqoJ0Q

W.H. Auden wrote:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Until,tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, History, Military, Political Commentary, world war two in the pacific

An Army Friend is Promoted to General on the Navy Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was interesting. It was the 242nd Birthday of the U.S. Navy and I spent most of the day traveling to and from Washington D.C. to see an old friend from my Army days being promoted to Brigadier General as the U.S. Army Reserve Deputy Chief of Chaplains. It was strange not being in on any of the Navy Birthday celebrations this year, but it was a good day to see my friend promoted. My friend Bob is one of the good guys who in his career didn’t sell his soul to get promoted, in fact he was planning to retire when he found out that he was being promoted.

On the Navy Birthday I usually post an article dealing with Naval History, and I will sometime soon, but today it was important to be there to congratulate Bob on his promotion. I was the only Navy Chaplain at the ceremony, I kind of thought that the Navy and Air Force Chief of Chaplains offices would be there to congratulate an Army colleague but I was wrong. I guess that I have spent too many years in Joint billets where it is common to celebrate the achievements of our colleagues from our sister services that I expect this to be the norm. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances why no representatives of the other services were not at the promotion, but for the life of me I don’t understand.

The ceremony was interesting when I realized that at one time I had outranked everyone in the room, including all of the Generals. Now I am just ranker than them. I did see a number of men that I had served with including one who had been in the Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with me in 1990, he is a Colonel now but like everyone else I used to outrank him too.

So on this Navy Birthday I was reminded of the nearly full career I spent in the Army before transferring to the Navy in February of 1999. It has been a long strange trip. So to my friend Bob, congratulations, and to my Navy brothers and sisters, Happy Birthday.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, Military

A Retirement and a Mini-Reunion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today just a few loose thoughts and musings and a number of subjects that while unconnected coalesced to be part of my day yesterday. I will probably write about some of in more detail later but I expect to be pretty busy as Judy and I get ready to fly out to Munich for our religious pilgrimage to the Oktoberfest Friday.

Found from my mom that a friend from 4th grade who lived next to my grandparents died of brain cancer, my age, that really sucks. Very concerned for my friends who are going to be impacted by Irma in Florida. Many have evacuated and know that in some cases when they return there will be nothing to return to. Some cannot evacuate, and one, my friend Mark Ebenhoch, a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant, as well as LGBTQ and human rights activist has decided to stay in Key West in order to help those who cannot evacuate, even though he could have left Wednesday. But he is a Marine who cares for for others and puts others first. Then there was a blog troll who refused to go away even after I told him to, and a friend and colleague who voiced his support for keeping the Confederate statues by dismissing arguments against them as “historian’s fallacies.” That was a new one to me. But of course in order of importance I am most concerned for my friends in South Florida.

That being said, yesterday I had the honor of being a participant in my friend Vince Miller’s retirement ceremony at Norfolk. It was really nice to see how he organized it and how it focused not so much on him, but on service to others. This was the first retirement ceremony where I have seen an officer have special guest speakers who were of lesser rank than him, including the first time I have seen an enlisted man be one of the speakers at a ceremony for an officer. I appreciated that because it got me to thinking who I might want to speak when I eventually retire from the military with somewhere around forty years combined service between the Army and the Navy. I had the honor of passing the flag of the United States to Vince at the close of the ceremony. Today we’ll got to his post-retirement party.

While I was there I had the chance to see mutual friends, some who I haven’t seen in a few years. It really is amazing the tangled web of friends whose lives seem intersect our lives at different points of time, and for me that is a blessing. Friends matter, and it is wonderful to run across old friends that you have served with at other times who nonetheless are also important to other friends that you had no idea that they knew. I saw quite a few of those mutual friends yesterday, some who I have known for nearly a quarter of a century.

It was a very good day and I wish all of you the same today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Retirement Honors

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V:

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.

Today I have the honor or participating in the retirement ceremony of my friend Vince Miller at Naval Station Norfolk. He is retiring from the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Commander after 24 years of service. He is a dear friend and a man of great integrity and one of the conscientious men that I know in the Chaplain Corps. He has served with the Marines, as well as at sea, and with the SEALS. He has served in Iraq, and has done much to better the lives of people at a number of shore installations as a base Chaplain and pastor.

I appreciate Vince’s friendship and I am pleased that I will have the honor or participating in his retirement ceremony. Lord willing in not too many years I will be retiring too, but with nearly two full careers between the Army and the Navy spanning nearly 40 years when I retire in 2020 or 2021.

But for those who have never served it is hard to fully appreciate what a man like Vince, and his family, have accomplished and endured in his 24 years of service. This is not a vocation for the faint of heart, or those who are enamored with uniforms and the possibility of having power over the lives of others. To be a chaplain and a naval officer one has to really desire to put others first and be a servant leader. I know that there are officers and including a good number of chaplains who are not that, but in fact are quite toxic, I have served under a number of them in my career, so when a good chaplain like Vince retires there is always a void left.

However, Vince is, and always has been a servant leader who has likewise endured much at the hands of toxic leaders. But that being said he has always remained humble and devoted to caring for the people of God in the military, regardless of their rank, position, race, creed, color, religion, gender, or sexual preference. He sees people as people, created in the image of God who are all worthy of being cared for, respected, and loved.

We lose a fine chaplain tomorrow. I know that Vince will continue to care for and serve people as a minister in his church regardless of what he does next in life, and that he will always be my friend and care about me.

I think Vince would agree with the words of Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and the former head of U.S. Special Forces Command:

“Remember… start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the bullies, life up the downtrodden, and never, ever give up – if you do these things, then you can change your life for the better… and maybe the world!”

I am honored to have a part in his retirement ceremony today, for he is worthy of being honored for his service to God and country. It is an honor to have served with him, for he truly is my brother.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

“It’s the People Stupid” The Need for Professional Mariners 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m holding off finishing the last part of my series Statues with Limitations until tomorrow. Of the past day I have been consumed with the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore that quite likely has claimed the lives of ten U.S. Navy sailors. It was the second fatal collision in less than three weeks involving some of the most technologically advanced warships in the world with merchant ships. The other was that of the USS Fitzgerald which was at fault in a collision with a container ship near Tokyo bay. 

Today I have been in contact with our regional casualty assistance coordinator and chaplains who are already or might be called to go to the home of a sailor’s next of kin to inform them that their sailor is dead. If you have never had to make such a notification you are lucky. They are not easy and they never get easier. Between the military and my time as hospital emergency and trauma department chaplain I have been involved in far too many of them, I lost count around the 350 point, I’ve probably been involved in close to 500 such notifications of all types. 

Frankly there are no words that can adequately convey how hard that news is on the loved ones of those who died, especially when their deaths were most likely preventable. Last week I read the preliminary report on what happened aboard Fitzgerald. It was damning and showed some systemic cultural issues that need to be fixed. I am sure that the Navy will fully investigate the incident involving McCain too, and the report will likely be just as damning. It is bad enough that the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, to which Fitzgerald, McCain, and the cruiser Antietam which had a grounding incident near Yokosuka Japan, and the cruiser Lake Champlain which collided with a Korean fishing boat, was relieved of his command just before his scheduled retirement.

But the problem is bigger than simply relieving and replacing officers proved to be at fault in these incidents, the Navy is very good at that. The problem is that about 15 years ago the Navy shut down its Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island as a cost cutting measure. Instead of going to a school after being commissioned from the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, to learn the basics of navigation, seamanship, damage control, engineering, and combats systems operations, these tasks were pushed onto the commanding officers of the ships the new officers were assigned. That began in 2002 and I remember discussing the detrimental effect this would have with fellow officers about the USS Hue City. Some 15 years later these are the officers who are becoming the commanding officers and executive officers of our ships. Most of them don’t spend enough time at sea to be truly professional mariners, and many of them spend years between sea assignments. As such they really don’t know their ships that well, the don’t know the sea that well, and as a result they have become addicted to technology at the expense of doing the basics like looking out the window and taking action to avoid collision. It comes down to in the words of my former Commanding Officer, Captain Rick Hoffman said about these incidents: 

“I am feeling a sense of increasing outrage. The more I write and get replies from so many great shipmates and long time friends, the more I feel a sense of urgency to see if we can’t take these tragedies to force a larger conversation about our SWO culture…or rather the demise of the culture. Help build a path forward that restores the professionalism and focus necessary to have a strong Surface Navy. Perhaps our ships are complex enough to look at the Royal Navy model. Professionals on the bridge, professionals manning the Combat Systems, professionals manning the engineering plant. Not this mongrel program that trains everyone up to the minimum level of competence just long enough to survive your tour and go ashore. Ten years later you go back to sea…in command. I guess I am just feeling frustrated.”

It is not a matter of technology being the answer, we have amazing technology, but as one former officer wrote “Technical solutions don’t solve cultural issues. We need to refocus on our capabilities as mariners.” Captain Hoffman noted: 

“I am pondering the value of sparking a larger discussion about our systemic challenges with basic maritime skills. We are ship drivers, we have technical skills but we are not mariners as a community. We don’t cherish the necessary focus on knowing and feeling the ship, the sea and the larger maritime environment. Just look out the window!!!! The CNO just called for industry to provide more solutions. THAT IS INSANE. It is the people, stupid. We have enough tools, we have forgotten how to use them. Eyeballs and brains. Engage the eyeballs and brains.”

The fact is that for more than a decade the men and women that officer our ships have been pulled many different directions, by various factors, many of our own doing. Quite a few were pulled off of ships at critical points in their career to serve in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Our Navy has stopped doing the basics of being professional mariners first so that they can get their ships safely from place to black and be ready to sail into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. 


As Captain Hoffman and so many other men who have commanded ships whose comments I have been reading have noted, the issue is cultural and it is a need to return to the basics. 

Until we do that we are going to keep getting sailors killed, and causing great damage to ships that cost billions of dollars in avoidable incidents. 

As for me, I hope that I don’t have to make another death notification, especially for a death that needn’t happen. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy