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“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

There Lies a Gulf Between that Time and Today: Remembering 9-11-2001

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Fifteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 35 years of service. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire in about four years.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared this a of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq.

I will quietly reflect as I conduct my chapel services today, and as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. I will also try to get a good run in and then spend some time with Judy, and then have a few beers with some friends at Gordon Biersch.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, PTSD, remembering friends, terrorism, War on Terrorism

A Personal Bond: The Veterans who Impacted My Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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Today is Veteran’s Day. I wrote a reflective piece on it two days ago and I want to follow up on it in a more personal manner in this post.

I am one of those unusual people for our day whose entire life has been somehow connected to life in the military. Thus I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 34 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, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad, Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock in 1972

I come from a Navy family and was born in in a Navy hospital. Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was a big adventure for me that never got old. I still remember looking forward to each new duty assignment with only the wonder that a child can have and to each new adventure that the next move would bring. We lived up and down the West Coast, Oakland, San Diego, Long Beach, Oak Harbor Washington, and finally Stockton California. My earliest memories of life come from our tour at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in Philippines, the sharply dressed Marine gate guards, the Navy officers in their resplendent white uniforms, the jungle that came up to our back yard, and the wild boars that would show up and tear up our garden, trees and lawn. I remember the Blue Angles flying directly over our house in Oak Harbor, those huge F4F Phantom jets roaring over me so low that every detail could be seen. I remember going on my dad’s last ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hancock and being amazed at how big and impressive everything on it was, the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship evoked a wonder that to this day I feel whenever I set foot about a ship. Of course compared to our modern carriers Hancock was old, and small but she was my dad’s ship and I was proud of him.

My dad retired from the Navy in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer. While he was assigned to the Hancock was sent to manage aviation supplies at an emergency airstrip which was 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 from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  Instead of being depicted an 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.

Growing up then, we had a 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.” There are not many of them left anymore, but mom tries to stay in touch with them. It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is a big reason as to why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.

But there was another part of growing up in a military family in the 1960s, and that was the Vietnam War. I knew kids whose dads never came home from that war, and of course every night the evening news broadcast a “body count” segment which looked like a scoreboard showing how many Americans, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were killed, wounded or captured; but to me, at a very young age, those numbers on that “scoreboard” were flesh and blood human beings. This was my first experience of war.

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LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the veterans of Vietnam who were my teachers in Navy Junior ROTC and the men 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 Iraq shook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN)

When I joined the California Army National Guard in 1981 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 in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeants Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences as we sat on lonely hillsides at Camp Roberts California calling in artillery fire on so many weekends and during annual training. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ, and Mickey a Forward Observer and they were fascinating men, with so many stories and such great experience which they imparted to me.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  In Vietnam he was wounded three times, and was awarded two Silver Star Medals. He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot at UCLA, a reminder of his time serving in Southeast Asia.  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 adviser at UCLA, he served as a paratrooper and infantryman with the 173rd Airborne brigade in Vietnam.

Another fascinating character was Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982. I kid you not, that was really his name, but this was probably one of the most important experiences of my life, which was incredibly difficult but most necessary. Sergeant First Class Ball was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours in Vietnam and when he walked across the drill field his Smokey Bear hat reminded me of a shark fin cutting across the water, the man was scary as shit, but he had a heart of gold. 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 the classic movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere at the end of that movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.” Every time I see that movie

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 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 his family first.

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1985 with 2nd Platoon of 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Germany

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 or served under in 34 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 of Vietnam tours.  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.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is 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.

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. Another man who I knew at Indiantown Gap was Sergeant Billy Ward who just passed away last week of a major heart attack. Billy was a bear of a man, but one of the kindest and gentlest men who I have ever known. Billy never knew a stranger and loved people no matter what their station in life, no matter what their beliefs, no matter what their lifestyle. I can honestly say that Billy didn’t have an enemy and though he was a lay preacher and was later ordained to the ministry, he just loved people and never judged anyone. He exemplified what it is to be a Christian. 

Al Waleed Iraq 2007

In 1999 I resigned my commission as an Army reserve Major to enter active duty in the Navy, with a reduction in rank. Since joining the Navy my life has continued to be impacted and influenced by other veterans. A good amount of my Navy career has been spent serving with Marine Corps. I served with some great Marines and Sailors in those units, including Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, and then Major, but now Brigadier General Dave Ottignon of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Desroches of 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Colonel Lou Rachal of 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. 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.

I was blessed to become friends with many of the Marine Corps veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas. They and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.

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Boarding Team of USS Hue City 2002

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 bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  Two others who matter a great deal to me from Iraq were Army Colonel David Abramowitz, Navy Captain (Chaplain) Mike Langston, and Father Jose Bautista-Rojas, a Navy Chaplain and Roman Catholic priest. Then there are 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.

There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our former staff nurse who retired last year. Lisa is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She was finally able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve of who you loved. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are now able to openly serve.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron just prior to leaving Iraq

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Hanley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile; she died of complications of chemotherapy treatment at far too young age. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died just over a year ago, eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003. Then there those who died by their own hand, having never recovered from war. Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford committed suicide after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both men were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

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.

So for me Veteran’s Day is intensely personal because of the veterans, living and dead, who made an impact on my life. I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

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The military is a young persons game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty. I have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military, but my long strange trip continues. That being said, though I served over half of my career in the Army, at heart I have always been a navy man. I think that President John F. Kennedy expressed how I feel about serving the best. He said, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

So today 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. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

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 and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, US Navy, vietnam

Explore, Dream, Discover: Thoughts on Living My Dream

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April 1978, Navy Junior ROTC Cruise: I’m on the Right

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I wrote about the Navy Birthday and I have been reflecting on life as so much of my life is connected to the Navy. It’s funny, for all the difficulties that I have experienced in life, the difficult times and even coming back a changed man from war, I am a very fortunate man, for I have been able to pursue my entire adult life my childhood dream of serving in the military, but even more specifically serving in the Navy.

I grew up in a Navy family, my brother and I were both born in Navy hospitals, and the first fourteen years of my life were spent following my dad around from duty station to duty station, up and down the West Coast and in the Philippines. I still recall the magical feeling of going to sea for the first time when I was about four years old on the USS John C. Breckenridge, a transport ship converted to carry military personnel and their families to and from the Far East. It was exhilarating and I never forgot it.

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Boston 2002

As a kid I spent countless hours reading history and military history, but my favorite books were about all things navy. Biographies of the great naval leaders, not just Americans caused me to dream, as did books about naval battles, and the courage of the men who fought them. Then there were the books about ships, ship design and development that inspired me to build more models ships than I can count, and which cause me to still read up on the great ships of history, but also new developments in ship design and construction.

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In high school I was in Navy Junior ROTC and was able to spend over 70 days at sea on six different ships, even sailing to Hawaii and back. I wanted to enlist but my parents suggested that I try college for a semester to see what I thought of it and it was a good thing that I did.

I went to college and I met Judy and toward the end of college ended up in the Army because I didn’t want to change my major in my senior year to enter Navy ROTC. Of course I need to mention that Judy said that she wouldn’t marry me if I joined the navy, but even in the Army my heart was all Navy. In fact when it was time for the Army-Navy Game I would wear by “Go Navy” button on the inside of my uniform shirt and flash it to get people going.

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Iraq 2007

After 17 ½ years in the Army I was serving as a Major in the Army Reserve and because of my rank was unable to go back on active duty, unless I was mobilized to serve in war. I wanted to go back on active duty, I was still under forty years old, and without consulting Judy, in retrospect I should have done that as she would have supported my decision, but I’m a guy, and sometimes not very smart or sensitive.

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Judy getting to help promote me to Lieutenant Commander 2006

Even so it was the right decision. One day I was an Army Reserve Major and the next day I was a Navy Lieutenant. My parents were proud, as was Judy but she was going to pay a price for my decision, years of separation due to deployments and the hardships that went along with them. Since entering the Navy I have served over six years with the Marines, five years in Navy Medicine, two years aboard ship, two years with Navy EOD and another couple of years in Joint assignments working with other military services. My current assignment is amazing, I get to teach, both military history and ethics to senior officers, some of whom will become Admirals and Generals. I can understand what Randy Pausch said in “The Last Lecture” “It’s a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.”

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USS Hue City 2002

Mark Twain once wrote, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I am so fortunate. I got the second chance to fulfill my dream of serving in the Navy, and I still dream, I still want to discover, and as Denny Crane (William Shatner – Boston Legal) said to “live big.”

The past couple of years have been very trying, many challenges and much discouragement. Judy had a cancer scare and in the summer of 2014 I dropped into an emotional abyss that I wondered if I would ever emerge. But recently I have felt that spark again, and the spark that wants to ignite an inferno of creativity. T. E. Lawrence once wrote, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

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To explore the unknown possibilities of existence…

I still have dreams, I still want to explore and I want to explore deeper things, the unknown possibilities of existence. To quote the character Q (John de Lancie) in the final episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, where he tells Captain Picard “That is the exploration that awaits you; not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”

Have a great day and never let your dreams die.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, Military

Happy 240th U.S. Navy!

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me anything to do with the United States Navy is historical as well as decidedly personal as I am both a Naval Officer and I am the son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer.

Navy Heritage WWII Recruitment Poster

Today is the 240th anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy; actually the date is the founding of the Continental Navy but let’s not get too technical. The birthday of the post Continental, U.S. Navy is March 27th 1794 when Congress appropriated funds for the famous “Six Frigates,” the Constitution, President, Congress, Constellation, Chesapeake, and the United States. These ships would establish the U.S. Navy as a force that would ultimately become the most powerful the world has ever seen.

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Lieutenant John F. Kennedy

The fact is that back in 1775 most people and political leaders in the revolting colonies felt that founding a Navy was quite foolish. After all, who in their right mind would ever dare to challenge the might and power of the British Royal Navy?

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The First Flagship, the Alfred 

In fact had General George Washington not sent a letter to the Continental Congress saying that he had taken some vessels in hand to disrupt the supplies of the British Army, a Navy might not have ever been established. Timing is everything and in this case it the timing of George Washington was pretty good. Early Naval officers, sailing wooden ships with iron men began a tradition of selfless service that endures today.

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Since that fortuitous day in 1775 the United States Navy went from being an annoyance to the Royal Navy to the premier naval power in the world. But it was not always that way. The Navy was allowed to vanish during the 1780s and was reestablished by President Washington and an act of Congress in 1794. Since then the Navy has had its share of ups and downs where politicians very various reasons have ceased to support it. George Washington was right when he 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.”

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President Woodrow Wilson echoed Washington’s words in 1914, “A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense; and it has always been of defense that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of Navy to build? We shall take leave to be strong upon the seas, in the future as in the past; and there will be no thought of offense or provocation in that. Our ships are our natural bulwarks.”

Men like John Paul Jones, Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, Thomas Truxtun, William Bainbridge, Oliver Hazard Perry, David Farragut, David Dixon Porter, George Dewey and many more blazed a path of glory which others, great and small would continue to build on the legacy of the iron men who sailed wooden ships into harm’s way. Men like Arleigh Burke, Howard Gilmore, John C. Waldron, Maxwell Leslie, Bull Halsey, Richard O’Kane, Daniel Callahan, Raymond Spruance, Marc Mitscher, and Ernest Evans built upon that legacy in the Second World War. Other continued that tradition in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and our current wars.

Likewise, others representing people who at one time were excluded from service would build on the legacy, including Robert Smalls who became the first African American to command a U.S. Navy ship during the Civil War, and Samuel Gravely who became the first African American Flag Officer, as Grace Hopper became the first woman line officer to attain flag rank. Others would do so in the Cold War, Vietnam and the Global War on Terrorism.

Great ships like the USS Constitution, USS Monitor, USS Kearsarge, USS Olympia, USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, USS Yorktown, USS Growler, USS Tang, USS Hoel, USS Johnston, USS Samuel B Roberts, USS Laffey, USS San Francisco, USS Houston and USS Arizona, USS Nevada, USS West Virginia and USS California helped build a legacy of valiant sacrifice and service often at great cost in the defense of freedom.

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Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie

The greatness of those ships would not have occurred had it not been for their crews. Over the last 240 years the success of the United States Navy all it came down to the men and women who served in every clime and place, many times outnumbered and facing certain defeat who through their courage, honor and commitment helped secure the liberty of their countrymen and others around the world. Most of these men and women served in obscurity in war and peace but all had the distinction of serving in the United States Navy.

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My old ship, the USS Hue City operating in 2002 in the Persian Gulf

Today the men and women of the United States Navy stand in the forefront of our Nation’s defense and in helping others around the world. Fighting against the Islamic State, Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations, attempting to bring stability to Afghanistan and working with allies and partners around the world to secure the freedom of the seas against pirates and others who attempt to disrupt the commerce on which ours and the world’s economy depends.

That being said, the Navy is not primarily an instrument of war, but an instrument of maintaining the peace. Admiral Arleigh Burke said something incredibly important to understand why we have a navy and why those who serve as Naval officers must work to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without resorting to war: “For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.”

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Even so, the past fourteen years have not been good for the Navy nor for the country, and most of this happened before 2009. Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “On 9/11, 2001, the Navy stood at 316 ships. By 2008, after one of the great military buildups in American history, we were at 278 ships and had 49,000 fewer sailors.” During that time the United States embroiled itself in ground wars in which had no chance of succeeding, and in doing so hurt itself.

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The author on a boarding mission in the Persian Gulf, April 2002

Even so, the Navy still performs its duty, and I am still a part of it, though I serve in non-Navy Joint command.

President John F Kennedy said something that I fully agree, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

Like my father before me I can say that I am proud to have served and continue to serve in the United States Navy, because we are no matter what some may say or think, a global force for good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, US Navy

Days Seem to Dawn: Reflections on 9-11-2001 & War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Fourteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had been back from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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boarding team

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

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I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.”  I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. In a couple of years I hope to retire with 36 years of service, knowing that those who I have worked with will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end.

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Today there will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared a day of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq. 

I will quietly reflect at the office today as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. Afterward I will go get a beer and dinner with Judy and our friends at Gordon Biersch after catching to remainder of the Norfolk Tides vs. Columbus Clippers International League playoff game which was postponed due to rain last night. I guess that is fitting to as it was baseball that helped begin the healing in Nee York in the days after the attack. 

Have a good day, and do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Maybe things will get better… Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

The Bond: Veteran’s Day 2014

all who served

Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause. Abraham Lincoln

I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional  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, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad: Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock CVA 19 circa 1971-72

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 from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  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.

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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 in Vietnam.  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 and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces Medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  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 in Vietnam.  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 in Vietnam.  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 of Vietnam tours.  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.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is 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.

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.

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 8thMarines 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 in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park 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.

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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 bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three 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.

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There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

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I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our staff nurse. She is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She is now able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are able to openly serve.

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Handley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile, died of complications of chemotherapy treatment. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died yesterday eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003, and some like Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford died by their own hand after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both of them were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

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.

So for me, I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

Unless by some chance I am selected for Captain, I plan to retire from the Navy at the end of this assignment. As Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover) said in the movie Lethal Weapon “I’m getting too old for this shit.” The military is a young person’s game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty, and have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military.

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. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

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 and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way this weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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