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Thoughts on 36 Years of Commissioned Service

Second Lieutenant Dundas, 1984, Neubrücke Germany

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty-six years ago, on the 19th Of June 1983, about 15 of my Army ROTC classmates and I were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Active Duty Army, the Army Reserve, or National Guard. Now, thirty-six years later I am the last one on active duty. A number still serve in DOD civilian status, others have retired from the military, and others transitioned to civilian life sometime during the intervening time.

My life since I was commissioned has being as a Medical Service Corps active duty platoon leader, motor maintenance officer, NBC Defense officer, Company Executive Officer and Commander, before becoming a Medical Personnel officer at a Medical Group and later the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. While there I helped write the Army’s personnel policies on personnel infected with HIV and AIDS, which helped change my views on those infected with this horrible disease, and my acceptance and support for LGBTQ people, not just in the military.

Back in 1983 I took an oath which I still abide by:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

When I left active duty to attend seminary in the fall of 1988 I entered the Texas Army National Guard, still,serving as a personnel officer, but with a branch transfer to the Armor Branch. Later the State Chaplain found that a seminary student was serving as an Armor officer and had me transferred to the Staff Specialist Branch, for Chaplain Candidates, for which there is no paper trail in existence even though I attended the Chaplain Officer Basic Course the following summer. Until I became a Chaplain in October 1992 I was officially listed as a Medical Service Corps or Armor officer.

I continued on as a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, then Virginia before being promoted to Major and transferred to the Army Reserve in West Virginia in December 1995. In June 1996 I was mobilized to support the Bosnia operation, OPERATION JOINT ENDEAVOR. I supported the operation from Germany, filling in for forward deployed Chaplains at the Würzburg Army Medical Center, the 4th Battalion, 3rd Air Defence Artillery, and as the base chaplain at Leighton Barracks in Kitzingen, before returning home to find that my contract position at a local hospital had been terminated when I was deployed and a man I had trained had been hired as a full time permanent employee.

Within two weeks of my release from my mobilized service I was activated to serve as the Garrison Chaplain for Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, about 18 miles east of Harrisburg. The Gap was on the Base Realignment and closure list for 1998 and I was the last Federal Chaplain before it was transferred to the Pennsylvania National Guard. When we shut it down my tour ended, but I had been able with the support of my Commanding Officer, the Active Duty Army, and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to keep the chapel program going. When done I went back to be the Group Chaplain for the 38th Ordnance Group, in Cross Lanes, West Virginia. However, without a civilian job to go home to it was difficult as we lived off of savings and drill pay.

Just before Christmas of 1998 I got a call from my former bishop in my former church that the Navy had hit a recruiting crisis for Chaplains and was willing to deal. Since I was a Major, a controlled grade, the the Army wouldn’t take me back into active duty. However, the Navy allowed me to resign my Army commission and enter the Navy the same day, with a reduction in rank. I was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain on 9 February 1999 and before the end of the month was on active duty.

After Chaplain School I was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division where served with the Second Combat Engineer Battalion, the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 8th Marine Regiment, and finally Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. I was the Division Chaplain’s “relief pitcher.” When a Chaplain got in trouble and was removed, or when one was transferred unexpectedly, I got sent in. I was a Headquarters Battalion on September 11th 2001 following a deployment to the Western Pacific with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines. In December I was transferred to the USS Hue City and shortly thereafter deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Following that deployment, in which I served as an “advisor” on a boarding team and participated in 75 missions on interred tankers and merchant ships found in violation of U.N. Sanctions against Iraq.

When I transferred to Marine Security Forces in Norfolk in October 2003 my battalion commander put me on the road one to three weeks a month to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and various locations stateside in support of Marine Security Forces. During that tour I was Promotes to Lieutenant Commander, and then assigned to Navy EOD Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq in July 2007 in support of American advisors to Iraqi Forces In Al Anbar Province. That was a life changing experience. Suffering from severe PTSD and mild TBI I returned to the States in a mess. My next assignment after EOD was at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. I found that I was working 60-80 hours a week, and occasionally more in our ICUs and as the one call Chaplain to try to make my PTSD better. It didn’t work. I fell apart. My PTSD as well as physical injuries took a toll on me. Though I was selected for Commander the day after I found out that my dad had died of Alzheimer’s disease, things were never the same. Despite that, during those tours I had completed the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, earned my qualification as a Fleet Marine Force Officer, and completed a Masters Degree in Military History.

I had decided to speak up about my struggles with PTSD, and questions with the church I was then ordained by, I found that I was pretty much abandoned by my old church and the Chaplain Corps. I was short toured at Portsmouth and sent on a geographic bachelor assignment as the department head of the Pastoral Care Department at Camp LeJeune, Naval Hospital where I spent three years. The economic cost was great and the emotional cost to Judy and me greater.

I a rare stroke of fortune my detailed got me assigned to my dream assignment as an instructor and chaplain at the Joint Forces Staff College. If I couldn’t be operational and out with the troops at least I was instructing, teaching, researching, and back in academia. I spent 3 and 1/2 years there teaching Ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride.

After I left the Staff College I have struggled. I was assigned as the Command Chaplain and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek Fort Story. I have found that despite the massive budget increases in DOD that the base, Medical, and support side of the house are being gutted. My billet used to be an O-6, or Navy Captain billet. There were more Chaplains, more enlisted support staff, and contract personnel, and that is not just on the religious ministries side of the house. We are short of critical staff and security measures across the board. After almost two decades of war the Navy is attempting to sharpen the point of the spear but the shaft is rotten and about to fall apart.

I have good people to work with, quality Chaplains and enlisted personnel and contractors who do a great job, but I expect unless something radically changes that my work, and the work of Chaplains decades before me will be for naught. Supposedly there are more deep cuts coming, despite the increases in the overall Defense Budget. My friends in Navy Medicine confirm that more deep cuts are probably coming to Navy Medicine.

As for me, I have been assured that by the time I retire next April that my knees will be fixed. So I will be able to retire, and once I figure out what my retirement pay + disability + VA benefits + post retirement earnings then Judy and I can plan on selling our current townhome and getting a ranch house that won’t fuck with our knees, and allow us to have an office for me, an art studio for her and a guest room.

Commander Dundas, Joint Forces Staff College, 2016

By this time next year, unless the President gets us in a war and triggers a stop loss I will be retired, and back in the civilian and academic world full time, and with that ranch house with enough room to be able to enjoy it, with our puppies. By the way if you want a nice, good sized townhouse with great neighbors in Virginia Beach, let me know.

By the way, it takes a lot of really good people to get someone like me through such a long and often difficult career. First among them is my wife Judy, who was and still is there every step of the way. Likewise all the men and women that I have served alongside, either as a subordinate, equal, or superior during my career.

To all of you who have walked this path with me on the blog the past decade, thank you.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Musing on Potential War With Iran

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am a veteran of Iraq, and have participated in maritime operations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf.

I am not comfortable with the steps the administration is taking with Iran, not that I am any fan of the Ayatollahs and their aggressive theocratic-religious-military-dictatorship. While I had always dreamed of a military career it was the failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages taken by the Iranians in April 1980, Operation Eagle Claw that was the tipping point for me to explore my options about joining the military. 1980 was the year I transferred to California State University, albeit to study history, but mostly because Judy, my girlfriend was going there. Once I got there I started checking out the various ROTC programs and enlisted as a simultaneous membership program between Army ROTC and the California Army National Guard in 1981.

I thought back then at sometime we would go to war with Iran but as years passed I thought that maybe both sides would find a way to peacefully co-exist, at least within limits, especially after my experiences in the Gulf where the regular Iranian Navy chased Iraqi Oil Smugglers into our hands. Of course there was the time some Revolutionary Guard patrol boats harassed our squadron Flagship, an Australian Special Forces Support ship and we sped to her assistance at full speed with guns and missiles armed and ready to go to war. They withdrew and nothing came out of it, but for about an hour it appeared that we would be the first U.S. Navy ship to engage the Iranians since the Tanker Wars Of the late 1980s. The fact is that the Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps operates in a different world from the regular Iranian Navy.

If we go to war, now I know two things about the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Iranians have built up a formidable asymmetric naval and capability. A large number small submarines, not high tech, but in large numbers hard to kill. Likewise, would deploy large numbers of fast attack boats and craft armed with a variety of missiles and guns for swarm attacks on otherwise better armed and more capable warships. We prepared for those back in 2002, but the lethality of the Iranians has increased, as has their number of anti-ship missile batteries his increased exponentially, as has their number of short and medium range ballistic missiles. While their AirPower is antiquated by American standards they have better and more advanced air defense systems, supplied by Russia. They are also supported by Shia Muslim militants in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and even in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.

The Iranians have the capability of shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, and their allies in Yemen have showed the capability to attack shipping in the Bab El Mendeb, the Southern entrance to the Red Sea and a vital shipping lane in its own right.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has severely weakened our ties with key allies that routinely contribute Naval and air forces to the security of the Gulf.

Over the past few weeks an otherwise routine deployment to the region by the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, was sped up, B-52 bombers were deployed, and a proposal to send 120,000 troops to the Gulf was revealed. Four merchant ships were allegedly damaged by saboteurs, but no hard evidence points to Iran, and the damage to all the ships was minimal. The embassy staff in Baghdad was reduced over alleged threat increases that the American Commander in Iraq denies. The threats were reported by Israeli sources, much like the evidence that led us into war with Iraq in 2003.

I cannot put my finger finger on it, but something is not right about this situation. We are in no way ready for a major war with Iran, not with the possibility a potential war with North Korea, a trade war with China, and Russian threats to NATO allies or friendly nations in Eastern Europe.

This does not feel right to me. I’ve been around and seen and know too much. Maybe it’s my education military history, and high level Joint Operations education. Maybe it is my nearly 38 years serving in both the Army and Navy, including about 7 years with the Marines. Maybe it’s my long experience working with allies. I don’t know. All I know is that when domestic troubles embroil a national leader, the solution is often found in war. War allows leaders to do things impossible under peacetime constraints.

I can only speculate what is going on, but my hermeneutic os suspicion says to ask “why this administration, why Iran, why now?”

I wish I had the answer, but something doesn’t seem right, and I am worried for the many friends I have serving in the Gulf.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq, middle east, Military, national security, US Navy, War on Terrorism

“Don’t be Silly, Space Shuttles Don’t Explode” Remembering Challenger

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is still so hard to believe that thirty-three years ago we were stunned to see the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I don’t know about you, but it shocked the hell out of me. I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s when the United States was setting the pace on the exploration of space. Manned missions to the moon had become commonplace, the Space Shuttle Program appeared to be a jumping off point for further exploration. Space stations that would be able to conduct scientific research and maybe even serve as launching and logistics centers for the exploration of Mars and beyond.

Back when I was a kid and young adult the space program captivated us, and coupled with the hope presented in Star Trek, where human beings of all races and nationalities would work with alien races who had similar values explored the far reaches of the galaxy, anything seemed possible. Then, in one moment, the dream imploded as the Challenger exploded. Truthfully, it hasn’t been the same since.

That afternoon I was still at work as the Commanding Officer of the 557th Medical Company, (Ambulance). It was about 20 minutes till six and I was completing paperwork from an Article 15 proceeding, and looking over our end of the month Unit Status Report drafts.

It was about that time that my Charge Of Quarters, Specialist Lisa Dailey camel charging into my office. She cried out “Lieutenant Dundas, the Space Shuttle just blew up!” I looked up from my paperwork and said, “Don’t be silly, space shuttles don’t blow up.” Such was my faith in technology and the dreams of the space program and Star Trek in my mind.

She couldn’t believe my response, because she had just seen it in real time. That was not long after the Armed Forces Network or AFN started broadcasting CNN and other U.S. based news programs in real time. CNN just happened to be televising the launch of Challenger. Specialist Dailey, who I still remain in contact with said “no sir, I just saw it, it’s on TV right now.”

With that I got up and went with her to the television where I stood transfixed as I watched the endless replays of the event. It was so unbelievable. Never before had a U.S. space mission failed to at last get into space, and it was a body blow to the space program. The shuttle program continued, but it wasn’t the same. There were many more successful missions, many in support of the International Space Station, but they became routine and many people didn’t follow them. Truthfully, I was like many people, I didn’t pay much attention to them after the Space Shuttle program regained steam and achieved success after success.

But then, some seventeen years later on February 1st 2003 I was sitting drinking coffee in the Wardroom Of the USS HUE CITY, waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Veteran of the Battle Of Hue City. General Pace was our guest speaker at the annual,Battle Of Hue City Memorial. He was remembered fondly by the Marines who served with him at Hue City as their Lieutenant. As I waited the wardroom Television was tuned to CNN which was covering the re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia. As I watched the coverage Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas and Louisiana. General Pace was delayed in his arrival due to an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, but he did arrived. However, for the seconded time in my life I witnessed the destruction of a Space Shuttle, but by then I would never again make the comment “Don’t be silly, Space Shuttles don’t explode.”

Honestly, I want to live to see the day when human beings land of Mars, and to really dream when humanity achieves the capacity for faster than light space travel, or as it is called in Star Trek, “Warp Speed.” I would love to live to see first contact with a friendly Alien race like the Vulcans of Star Trek. I still dream, but I know that there are risks, and that in such undertakings that lives will be lost, that there will be tragedies, but that is the price of human progress.

As the entity called Q told Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek Next Generation episode Q Who:

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here! It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross…but it’s not for the timid.”

I remember and mourn those lost aboard Challenger and Columbia, but I pray that their sacrifice in the name of humanity will not be forgotten, nor their quest abandoned.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Veterans Day 2018: I Couldn’t Forget

With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day. Despite the fact that I have been spending most of the last three days at the hospital as my wife Judy recovers from knee replacement surgery, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 37 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With Advisors of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division, COP South 2007

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

Me with RP1 Nelson LeBron, Baghdad 2008

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“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.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President , and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

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

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

“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.

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.

LutjensHonors

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.

hue city boarding party

 

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