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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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Filed under aircraft, History, star trek

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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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

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

flight_175_photo

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.

with-mtt-3-7-ronin

 

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