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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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Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Fighter Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging inEuropeand the Japanese continuing their war in China  and occupied French Indo-China theUnited States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

The Importance of the Navy Family

There are families and there are families. One family apart from my biological family that I think I treasure the most is my Navy family going back to when I was a Navy Brat and the friends of my parents who were in fact another family.  These were people that my dad served with at various times, mostly though from our tour in the Philippines that remained lifelong friends through thick and thin now for close to 50 years.  In my own life I have serve in the Army and the Navy.  We have a couple that we have known since my first month on active duty that we stay in contact with and hope in the near future to see again. Marty and Sue are part of my Army family we served together in Germany and I expect that we will remain friends the rest of our lives.  Then there is my Chapel family from Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania many special people, some now with the Lord some of whom wrote letters of recommendation for me to transfer from the Army to the Navy.

I entered the Navy in February 1999 and there have been people that have been part of our lives since early in my Navy career. We will be seeing one of our best friend’s son’s graduate from high school next month, hard to believe how young that he was when we first met.  Judy loves both of their boys and we have been fortunate to share many special occasions with them. I also have friends that I have known since coming in the Navy.  Some are fellow Chaplains and though our careers have often taken divergent paths when we get together it is like yesterday. In an institution where denominational barriers and distrust sometimes disrupt relationships these are special relationships. Today during a training session aboard Camp LeJeune I was able to meet up with some old friends, many like me who have or are going through periods of great trial and pain.  I was able to share a couple of beers with one dear from my old denomination who was here from out of town for the training.  He was still shaking his head about how I had been tossed from the denomination and the subsequent events and scandal associated with the Bishop who had tossed me and the stories from others in the denomination who believed what the man had said about me.  He told them that it couldn’t be true but many did not know me as well as he did and evidently believed the lie. Even so it was good to see Dean again and I hope that we are able to meet again sometime soon.  Another friend that I saw is going walking with his wife through her terribly painful cancer treatments.  These are friends that I know if I need that I can go to and be honest.

Some are former shipmates from the USS HUE CITY CG-66 and Marines from any of the number of Marine Corps units that I have served and my friends EOD Group Two and from the Navy Medicine Community at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune.  I have baptized their babies, married them and been their when death took a spouse, counseled regarding personal, marital or spiritual issues many times long after we served together. I have been able to stay connected and I am happy to be their “Padre” or simply “Chaps.”

Yesterday I conducted the funeral of a retired Navy Master Chief and I talked about the Navy family and how important it was. There were many heads that nodded in agreement when I talked about this. I got an e-mail from the son of a man who was one of my parent’s closest friends in the Navy.  I mentioned Frank yesterday during the funeral how he had been my dad’s Chief and sponsored us in the Philippines nearly 50 years ago. He sent my mom an e-mail about a chance to the ID card system yesterday, a Yeoman he never missed administrative messages.  His son contacted me this evening on his e-mail account to tell me that he had passed away early this morning and asking me to contact my mother.

After I responded to the e-mail I called her and of course she was shocked and she wondered what would happen to Frank’s wife who has been chronically ill for many years.  Frank took care of her. He had a heart attack about 10 days ago and when he got out of the hospital he was told to take it easy and even stay off the internet.  He didn’t listen and he had to stay involved in the lives of his family as well as his Navy family.  He has been an encouraging person to me in my ministry as a Priest though he was a conservative Roman Catholic. He prayed for me and cared and I am sure that he will keep praying for me now that he is with the Lord.

While this was going on a sailor from a previous command popped in on me on Facebook regarding a pressing family matter. Another friend from Marine Corps Command and Staff College and Iraq responded to a friend request and sent me a couple of messages and another friend from the past chimed in on a humorous post that I had placed on Facebook regarding Osama Bin Laden’s Facebook account.  Another sailor who referred to me as the “Anti-Chaps” when I bought beer from him and some other sailors on a liberty call and stays in regular contact. What can I say? I do like the nickname.

What I find wonderful about my Navy family is that they have been there for me and my family over my entire life more so than most of my non-immediate biological family.  Those that don’t know this because they have not served in the Navy or another military branch of service are missing so much. For most it isn’t politics, religion or even if they are Dodgers’ fans we share a common bond serving in war and peace that transcends everything else.  They are my friends and I am their Chaplain or friend.  It is a most wonderful fellowship far better than most churches will ever known.

It has been a long day there were other things that happened in caring for Sailors and Marines over the past couple of days, some things that I can assist and others that I can only pray for and offer some guidance.

I am also exhausted by some of the commentators on the David Wilkerson article in which I postulated that his death could be a suicide. It is amazing how nasty some people can be when you even suggest that their idol was a human being.  Likewise I made the mistake of getting involved in a discussion with some pro-life activists who had to throw abortion into the death of Osama Bin Laden and been frustrated with how fellow Christians are wringing their hands about the killing of that perfidious bastard who killed so many of our people. The lack of moral clarity in these people who see the world in black and white dualistic terms and ignorant of philosophy, ethics and history as well as the nasty gray areas of life really pisses me off. Tomorrow I should get a good PT session in after physical therapy and play ball in the evening. Thanks be to God.

I’m now finish a big glass of Riesling and getting ready to prepare for tomorrow. Thankfully I have an appointment with my shrink in the afternoon.

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

A Base at War: First Impressions of Camp LeJeune Nine Years after my First Tour

This is just a brief post on some first impressions on my assignment to Camp LeJeune after a nine year absence from the base. When I left LeJeune and my assignment with the Second Marine Division I had just completed twenty years in the military though I was not even three years into my service as a Naval Officer.

Today I was part of a Casualty Assistance Team meeting with the family of a young Navy Corpsman and Afghanistan veteran who killed himself in his apartment last night.  The Corpsman was part of a family with a long tradition of Naval Service who in his time in the Navy had gone to war with a Marine Battalion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province and returned home changed by the war and struggling with PTSD and all the related symptoms of it.  This is something that I can understand having come back from Iraq in a rather bad way about two and a half years ago.  In my time with this young man’s parents today I found a young man that loved life but was wracked by his experiences of war.  He was well liked at his Marine Battalion as well as at the hospital and his death shocked the community almost as much as it did his family.  The sad thing is that this young man is emblematic the suicide problem in the military.  He is not alone, far too many Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen on active duty, in the Reserves or those that have left the service suffer so much from the unseen wounds of war that they commit suicide.  Since I have been here just a bit under two weeks this was a confirmation of what I knew just walking around the hospital, getting around the base and the local area.  Camp LeJeune is a base at war with Marines and Sailors fighting in Afghanistan and unfortunately many suffering from deep wounds of war at home living with physical, psychological, spiritual and moral injuries that don’t go away just because they return home.

When I left LeJeune in compliance with orders to the USS Hue City CG-66 in December 2001 we were just 3 months into the current war and barley two months into the Afghanistan campaign.  Marine morale was high though most Marines had not been to combat and those that had were veterans of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Somalia or the Balkans. Of course none of these actions lasted as long nor caused the amount of deaths as either the campaign in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Marines wanted to get a shot at the Al Qaeda terrorists that had attacked the United States and killed nearly 3000 Americans.

The Marines answered the call and have performed magnificently in every theater of the current war but the Corps has changed. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Marines had a swagger that was typical of the work hard; train hard and play hard attitude of the Corps.  The Corps is now composed of many battle hardened veterans that have made deployment after deployment to the hottest combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in which they took the initiative in both offensive operations in taking the battle to the enemy and employing solid counterinsurgency techniques especially in Al Anbar Province where the Iraqi Army performed quantitatively better under their tutelage in helping to turn the tide during the Anbar awakening.  Navy Corpsmen, Doctors and Chaplains serve alongside the Marines as they have done throughout our history.

I served with Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar in 2007 and early 2008 in many of the remotest parts of the province and have dealt with individual Marines since. The Marines still have much of their swagger but it seems more fatalistic now.  An expert in trauma and moral injury told me of a recent visit to Camp Pendleton where Marines referred to themselves as “the walking dead” in an almost cavalier manner. The sad thing is that for many Marines this is only half a joke. The Corps in 2009 had the highest suicide rate in the military at 24 per 100,000 and suicides continue at a similar pace in 2010.  http://www.yuma.usmc.mil/desertwarrior/2010/03/11/feature6.html One occurred on Camp LeJeune where a Marine Sergeant pulled out a pistol and shot himself after being pulled over by Military Police in front of the base Fire Station.

As I made my way around the base the past week or so, I saw a lot more Marines with canes and obvious physical injuries from their combat injuries incurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Marines as always were professional but appeared to be much more serious than 9 years ago, many seeming to be old beyond their years. I love serving with and around Marines because they have a unique sense of professionalism combined with humor that is unlike almost any found in any part of the United States Military. However that positive is sometimes offset by a need to maintain an image of toughness even when they are dying on the inside which leads many not to seek help because it might make them look weak or broken, terms that no self-respecting Marine wants associated with his or her name.

In addition to the obvious injuries I noticed that while there was a much more serious tenor around the base that the Staff Sergeants and Gunnery Sergeants are a lot younger than they used to be back 9 years ago. With the war lasting as long as it has and the coupled with the expansion of the Marines during the war coupled with casualties and attrition by other means these young men and women are being promoted sooner than they were in the prewar days. Their leadership experience is mostly combat-related and they are in general superb combat leaders. However, this does not always translate well in a garrison setting especially if they are dealing with their own untreated PTSD or TBI nor is it helpful on the home front. As a result many of these young leaders are suffering the breakups of families at a record rate as well as substance abuse when they return home.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a speech at Duke University on September 29th of this year:

“There are a number of consequences that stem from the pressure repeated of deployments – especially when a service member returns home sometimes permanently changed by their experience.  These consequences include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began.  And, most tragically, a growing number of suicides.

While we often speak generally of a force under stress, in reality, it is certain parts of the military that have borne the brunt of repeat deployments and exposure to fire – above all, junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties.  These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up close.  They’ve lost friends and comrades.  Some are struggling psychologically with what they’ve seen, and heard and felt on the battlefield.  And yet they keep coming back.” http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1508

These young men and women have forged a bond in combat and in many cases multiple combat tours. The have served well with honor and many don’t feel that people who have not been “in the shit” understand them or what they have been through.  There is a comradeship that comes out of war. There is segment at the end of the Band of Brothers mini-series where a German Commander is speaking to his soldiers after they have surrendered to the Americans. As the German Commander speaks to the survivors of his unit Corporal Joe Liebgott is asked to translate by another American. As he translates the German officer’s words the Americans know that he also speaks for their experience of war:

“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.”

I think that sums up what many feel today except unlike the Germans our war drags on with no end in sight.

The Marines are still tough and a force to be reckoned with on any battlefield. They, especially the Marine Divisions are an elite force but I believe that many are losing some of their resilience as the war goes in Afghanistan goes on.  Many from reports that I have read as well as those that I have talked with are concerned that much of the country doesn’t support the war nor appreciate their sacrifice. Many are concerned that their sacrifices as well as those of their friends, those killed and wounded will be wasted and the suffering that goes on after the war will be swept aside by politicians, the media and the public at large. They are also concerned that the people that they have worked with against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and those that they have tried to protect and care for will suffer even more if the Taliban return to power.  I can say that I worry about my Iraqi friends and fear for them when I hear news of more attacks.

In the midst of this war we went through a number of elections and it troubles me that in the last election that the war and those fighting it were hardly ever mentioned by candidates from either party.  We mentioned it was usually for show to help politicians gain favor with voters.  We deserve better, we are not just a something to talk about at political rallies that when the election is over simply budget item to be slashed because the country is in a mess. These young men and women, as well as old guys like me are the sons, daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters that have volunteered to serve this country.  The wounds that these young men and women, their experiences in combat that have left their souls scared will not go away when the last American leaves Iraq or Afghanistan.

This young man that we lost last night will be buried by his family and we will have a memorial service in his honor.  His many friends will grieve and those of us who are caring for his family will not forget them. I don’t want this young man or any other to be forgotten like so many who have returned from war before them.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Suicide isn’t Painless: The Epidemic of Suicide in the Military

I leave the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia tomorrow and toward the end of October report as the Command Chaplain for Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune North Carolina. My last time at Camp LeJeune was as part of the Portsmouth SPRINT (Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team) mission to care for Emergency Department personnel at the Naval Hospital and Base Fire/EMS responders to a particularly gruesome suicide of a young Marine who had recently served in Iraq and was preparing for another tour.

As a Chaplain and in my previous life as a Medical Service Corps officer commanding a Medical Company in Germany and Brigade Adjutant in Texas I have dealt with a lot of suicides, attempted suicides and the lives left shattered by suicide.  Likewise I have seen the results of suicide attempts as a trauma, emergency and critical care chaplain in major medical centers. I have attended the DOD Suicide Prevention Conference on a number of occasions and gotten to know many of the experts working in the field.

As I said I began my career as an officer in the Army Medical Service Corps. We had a close connection to the movie and television series M*A*S*H and the theme music to that movie is emblematic of the feelings of many combat vets who continue to deploy even after making many combat deployments. http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3444418/suicide_is_painless_johnny_mandel/

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
[chorus]:

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it’s too late, and…
[Chorus]

The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I’ll someday lay
so this is all I have to say.
[Chorus]

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I’m beat
and to another give my seat
for that’s the only painless feat.
[Chorus]

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn’t hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger…watch it grin, but…
[Chorus]

A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
‘is it to be or not to be’
and I replied ‘oh why ask me?’

‘Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
…and you can do the same thing if you choose.

Last week four soldiers, one a highly decorated senior NCO and all combat veterans are believed to have committed suicide at Fort Hood Texas.  The base which has already seen more than its fair share of tragedy with 14 confirmed suicides this year is stunned that these occurred in one weekend.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates commented about the stress on the all-volunteer force: “No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time — roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than 1 percent,” as a result the wars have been fought by a small proportion of the country, for many they are “a distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.” While the distance grows between those that serve and the general population military families are under even more stress, with anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a growing number of suicides. Divorce rates in the Army have doubled since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.

In the years prior to about 2004-2005 the military suicide rate was almost always below civilian rates in all demographics.  This is something that we took legitimate pride in.  That began to change as the war in Iraq shifted from a “Shock and Awe” campaign to a rather nasty and intractable insurgency this began to change as the deployment tempo increased and the Army increased its “boots on ground” time from a year to 15 months with a one year dwell time between deployments. Even as Iraq calmed down and the US role shifted many troops remain and Afghanistan has become a much more difficult war than it was even a few years ago. The Marines retained a 6-7 month deployment schedule but as the war went on and personnel requirements increased many Marine units were doing 6 months in country and 6 months home.  The difficult of what was described as “dwell time” for the Army and Marines was that for all intents and purposes it wasn’t. The units would get a few weeks leave and stand down time on their return home and then begin preparing for their next deployment. These preparations out of necessity entailed much time in the field training including trips to the Fort Irwin National Training Center (NTC) or the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center at 29 Palms.  Speaking from experience before 9-11 I can say that a Marine battalion going to 29 Palms in reality makes a short but intense deployment which is taxing on the organization even as it sharpens combat skills.  The same can be said for Army units going to NTC.  Thus the time that is nominally considered time at home to recuperate is not that and instead serves to keep the pressure on already stressed units, leaders and soldiers/Marines.  In the intervening time those that present to mental health providers or chaplains are provided with care to get them back in shape for the next deployment but never really get to deal with the deeper psychological and spiritual wounds. These include “moral injury”  which often involves unresolved grief for the loss of comrades and real or imagined guilt for their own actions in war.  Such wounds ultimately create despair, loss of faith and eventually cause some service members to make attempts on their life with varying degrees of “success” in “completing” the suicide.

The result is that those who have experienced the moral injuries that come as a result of combat, seeing comrades killed and wounded, participating in actions where they are directly or indirectly involved in killing the enemy, see the “collateral damage” of civilians, including children killed and maimed go right back into to fight.  Since this war has now gone on longer than any war in US history and we are fighting it with an all volunteer force of limited numbers with many making multiple deployments, some as many as 5 or more these wounds are pushed aside.  The effect of this is a cumulative grinding down of those that serve in harm’s way. Many suffer from some form of psychological, neurological or even spiritual injury that in combination with other life stressors make them particularly vulnerable to taking their lives.  In regard to moral injury “Many of the troops kill themselves because they feel that those kinds of experiences have made them unforgivable,” said Dr. William Nash, a top PTSD researcher. “It’s a lot harder for most people to forgive themselves than to forgive others.”

Unfortunately there is a stigma attached to seeking treatment or admitting that one is suffering from depression, anxiety or any other condition associated with either seeking help on their own or being “command referred” for psychological/psychiatric help.  Since that stigma is real many war fighters don’t seek help and take “refuge” in destructive behaviors such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse (to include prescription drugs) and risky behaviors.  One wonders how many of the single vehicle accident fatalities that occur late at night to combat vets are not accidental at all but are suicides by another more “socially acceptable” means.  If a forensic psychological profile was done on every service member that dies in such events I would guess that the finding would be a lot more suicides not an accidental deaths as we would like to believe. Yes all of these deaths are tragic but it is far easier to rationalize death in an auto accident than death by gunshot, knife wounds, overdose or hanging.

I am not proposing any solutions for this problem.  I do believe that somehow the deployment tempo needs to be slowed down to allow troops to actually recover and get help.  This is one of the suggestions of the DOD Suicide Prevention Task Force.  Their report is linked here: http://www.health.mil/dhb/downloads/Suicide%20Prevention%20Task%20Force%20report%2008-21-10_V4_RLN.pdf

When I go to LeJeune I know that as a Chaplain at the Naval Hospital I will be collaborating with our mental health professionals to provide care to Marines, Sailors and their families that are living this daily.  The Marine situation is poignantly show in this article: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/article_3dc03ec3-6a37-5608-8563-aca88f635271.html

I have served with the Marines almost 6 years and from what I see the Corps has changed.  It is battle hardened but less resilient than it used to be.  The Marine Corps’ suicide rate has reached 24 per 100,000, a rate that surpasses all the other services. The rate was 13 per 100,000 in 2006 when I finished my tour at Marine Security Forces. The latest available figures put the civilian suicide rate at 20 per 100,000.  The problem extends past active duty as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, said the suicide rate for men aged 18-29 who have been discharged had gone up by 26% from 2005-07. Likewise, “of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20% of them are acts by veterans.” This means as Shinseki said “on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA. So losing five veterans who are in treatment every month, and then not having a shot at the other 13 who for some reason haven’t come under our care, means that we have a lot of work to do.”

There is also an effect on military health care providers of all kinds and chaplains. These individuals not only have to deal with their trauma but the trauma and hopelessness that they see in many of their patients or parishioners. These caregivers have no respite between deployments because their reason for being is to care for the Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors that present to them be they deployed or back in a military hospital or clinic.

The work will be hard and long after the last Marine, Sailor, Soldier or Airman leaves Iraq and Afghanistan we will be dealing with this for years to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Going to War: The First Mission Flying West in a C-130

Workhorses: C-130s at an US Base in Iraq

This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year.  In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I started this article in the spring but again put it on hold.  I have reached the point that I can again write about this. I will post follow up articles about our operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in Al Anbar province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: https://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/

Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north .  Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence known as Korean Village or simply KV. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien.  Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.

Nothing in Iraq is easy.  The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed.  Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad.  Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request.  For this mission I had to submit two Air Force and three Marine Air Support requests.    Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission.  Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change.  The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved.  This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website.  Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in.  It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930.  This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.

I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare.  Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep.  I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep.  I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep.  I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out.  I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel.  The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel.  I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.

The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors.  All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft.  When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft.  This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling.  We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed.  As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft.  As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed Wiley-X ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD.  Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center.  The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry.  Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985.  Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over.  Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded.  As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.

As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish.  With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off.  Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude.  The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.

The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read.  Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo.  Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind.  When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach.  As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft.  The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats.  Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.

Passengers disembark from a C-130 at Al Asad

After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts.  Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal.  After being accounted for we got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal.  The tents were large and poorly lit with plywood floors and several air conditioners built into the sides of the tent.  The bunks were in very poor condition, many broken and even more with dirty worn out mattresses sagging in the middle.  Nelson and I looked at each other and Nelson made some comments about the accommodations and we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit in order to clean up before trying to go get some chow.

Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar: the California Line.

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