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A Few Thoughts about Life on My 59th Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was my 59th Birthday and I plan on sharing a few bits of wisdom among the events of the day. The great Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”

I think that is a good birthday thought. I came across it last nigh before bed and I think that it describes the way that I want to live my life.

My day began with a visit to my doctor to see what is going on with my left hip. On Sunday night when in a deep sleep and not having any of my violent dreams my left hip exploded in pain. I had been previously diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees, but I had never been bothered by pain in the left hip. Yesterday I had an appointment scheduled with a doctor different than my primary care manager who called in sick, so I saw my own PCM today, got new x-rays to compare to the last ones, and some medications. They said it would take a couple of days for radiology to read the reports so I won’t know what is going on for a few days. I wonder if the osteoarthritis has gotten worse. It hurts like hell trying to get up and down and walking, stairs are a bitch, even laying down hurts. At least the pharmacy wasn’t crowded and not too stressful. For that I am thankful because usually that pharmacy is so crowed, cramped and slow that I leave with a severe anxiety attack, and yes this particular reaction goes back to a particular incident in Iraq.

Even with that today has been a good day. After the medical appointment I went out with Judy to breakfast, and then did a little shopping with her. Then we went home and hung out with out Papillon babies. I got a call from my mom and brother, those were both nice, and today, in spite of all the turmoil in the country and around the world my soul is at peace. Since being told by my Commanding Officer and Regional Chaplain to take care of all my medical issues and prepare for retirement my blood pressure has gone back down to my normal, 114/68, instead of spiking to 160/100 as was the case just a few weeks ago.

I have received hundreds of well wishes and greetings for my birthday on Facebook, and so far I have made a personal response to each one, though I know that I have more to answer. I’ve had them from the United States and Canada, the U.K., The Netherlands and Germany, Australia and South Korea. I have known some of the people for 50 years or more. Honestly, I think that is the only reason that I stay on Facebook. Every one of them means something to me that is special, and some of us cannot agree on anything anymore in the current political environment but I cannot help but to remember each one with love and appreciation. You see, I don’t have to agree with someone’s politics, ideology, or religious beliefs to still love and appreciate them. At times I haven’t done well in this, but honestly it is my baseline. Some of the most meaningful exchanges today were with friends who we have had it out and disagreed in a most uncourteous manner to each other. That is when you know you have a friend.

I guess that the late Bob Marley was right“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Likewise when it comes to friendship I cannot help but to remember the quote of General William Tecumseh Sherman about Ulysses Grant. “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” That’s my kind of friend.

Later in the evening we went out and did our usual things. Since Judy will be getting her left knee replaced on April 12th she went to her group of friends to work on her ceramic projects and she dropped me off at Gordon Biersch, where I continued to answer all the well wishes from friends, had some dinner, talked Baseball with the early crowed, soccer with a couple of young guys later, and then spent some time with an active duty service member from a local base who I have started getting to know over the past couple of weeks. He was in Iraq before me and was there during some of the worst of the action. He saw a lot worse than I did and both of us struggle with PTSD and sleep issues. Judy came and got me and we hung out until closing, talking with friends and each other.

It was a good day. We’ll find a time to actually celebrate my birthday in the next week or too, no rush.

But when you start pushing 60 years old memories of the past, worries about the future and visions of mortality begin to intrude on life, that is why I think that what I quoted from Marcus Aurelius is so spot on. The same is true of the German Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann who observed:

“As time goes on we become old, the future contracts, the past expands…But by future we don’t just mean the years ahead; we always mean as well the plenitude of possibilities which challenge our creativity…In confrontation with the future we can become young if we accept the future’s challenges.”

We went to bed late, spent some good time with our three Papillons and then passed out. We spent most of the morning getting our cars serviced and the afternoon with her doing some artwork as I perused the news. We continue to work hard to prepare for her surgery and dealing with what the sports medicine doctor will recommend next week for my right knee. I am doing my best to keep up the physical therapy to at the minimum strengthen myself.

I found out this afternoon that one of my high school friends passed away last week. I just noticed the obituary. He was a good man, a father, pastor, and football coach. I had the opportunity to serve with one of his nephews on the USS HUE CITY. He made a difference in a lot of lives.

It kind of put a damper on the day but then I remembered a quote from the film Star Trek Generations, in which Captain Picard tells Commander Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today is a new day and the future still awaits, By this time next year, Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, I will be retired from the Navy and hopefully teaching college history, and humanities in the civilian world, hopefully I’ll be sporting the beard I practiced growing on our last Germany trip.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Bond

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is going to be a busy and sad day as we gather with friends to remember the life of our friend Dave Shaw. I wrote about his unexpected loss over the weekend and as such, since I am not going to have time to write anything new I am going to reach back into the archives an re-post an article that I wrote back in June of 2011 about the bond that is shared by those who go to war. Dave served as a Navy Corpsman aboard various Navy ships, hospitals, and with the Marines. He retired as a Chief Petty Officer, as did my dad. He was a friend and brother, and, like so many others he will be missed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large. You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis. But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military. That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them. This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two. Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones. And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war. At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform. In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees. Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone. The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two. In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war. While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that. This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced. So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters. They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood. However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea. All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected. For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.” I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual. Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience. All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers. We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us. Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone. Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters. When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul. PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour. I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul. These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed. There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure. The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq KIA US 4463 UK 179 Other 139 Total 4781

Afghanistan KIA US 1637 UK 374 Other 537 Total 2548

US Wounded Iraq 32227 Afghanistan 11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now. The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters. I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break. These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return. I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital. We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three 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 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 Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.” That is my hope as well.

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.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

We, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers: Reflecting on D-Day


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-two years ago today American, British, Canadian, and Free French forces landed on the beaches of France on the Normandy Peninsula to begin the liberation of Europe. 

I have written a good number of articles about the invasion on this site, in fact you can look them up, but instead of editing an older article or looking at some aspect of the invasion that I haven’t before I wanted to share a few thoughts. 

This past week, beginning during the Memorial Day weekend I spent a lot of time doing reading and reflection. I also decided to watch a number of films, and series that dealt with D-Day and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. I have been to Normandy, in fact I have actually taught there at Sainte Mere Eglise and Pont du Hoc just prior to the 60th anniversary of D-Day. For me it was a moving experience to stand in those locations where so many men contended against the military forces of a regime so evil that it defies the imagination. 

As I said, in addition to reading and reflecting I took time to watch some films, as well as a television mini-series that dealt with that time in history. I watched the film A Bridge too Far on Memorial Day and then began to watch the ten episodes of the series Band of Brothers. When I was done with those last night I watched the film the Longest Day. I thought about watching Saving Private Ryan, but every time I watch that film I am so overcome with emotion that it is hard to function the next day. 


Anyway, this was the first time that I have watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers in order in a short period of time. I was glad that I did it that way. As I watched it I thought of my own service and those men who have been my “band of brothers” be it in Iraq, or on a boarding team in the Persian Gulf. There is something about serivice in a combat zone and in harm’s way which cannot be replicated in any other part of life. 

The series really captures the constant wear and tear on the human mind, body, and spirit when one goes to war. It captures the bonds that most people today never experience. There were quite a few times where I knew exactly what they were going through, what they were thinking, and what they felt; including the paradoxes of seeing the evil committed by some, but also of recognizing that many of the enemy soldiers were really not that different from us. 

Today we remember that ever shrinking number of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, fought their way across France, Belgium, and Holland before driving into Hitler’s Germany. I have had the great honor of knowing a number of those men, and even burying one of the men who served in the unit immortalized in Band of Brothers. In this time when so many have never served in the military in any form, and even fewer who have served in combat, it is important not to forget their memory, nor those who have served in subsequent wars. 

There was a segment of one of the Band of Brothers episodes where one of the soldiers was reflecting on how distant the war was to many Americans by New Year’s Day 1945, even though the men were fighting and dying to repel the Germans after the Ardennes Offensive, which we now call the Battle of the Bulge and others were fighting and dying against the Japanese in the Pacific. Those men wondered what it would be like to return home after the war, among a people who didn’t understand. It was a question that many of us asked when we came home from Iraq, and others did coming home from Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. 


The men of the Band of Brothers had the same kind of issues coming home as we do today, some dealt with them better than others, just like today. But the way changed them all and it also bound them to each other. 

In his play Henry V William Shakespeare wrote, 

“And Crispin Crispain 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 today who 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 abed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their man hoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us on Saint Crispin’s Day” 

We, we happy few, we band of brothers. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, movies, world war two in europe

They Shall Not Have Died in Vain: Memorial Day 2015

Remembrance_Day___Poppy_Day_by_daliscar

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

There is a poignant scene in the film The Longest Day in which Richard Burton, playing the wounded British Royal Air Force Flying Officer David Campbell looks at the body of a dead German soldier and says to an American paratrooper who is lost from his unit: 

“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.” 

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Back when the movie was filmed in the early 1960s there were still many World War II veterans around and the United States and most Western European nations still had some form of draft or conscription which ensured that most people still had some connection with the military. It’s not like that now. In the United States far these than 1% of the population is serving in the military, and this includes the National Guard and reserves. The numbers are similar throughout Western Europe. Those who have served in combat or even deployed to combat theaters are far fewer. As a result the people of the United States and Western Europe as a whole are so disconnected from military service, not to mention the terrible human cost that is war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is Hell. 

I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.

Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war, that war is at best a spectator sport.

This is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.

To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all. Many do and I am thankful to them. That being said there are many who though they say they support the troops find war to be some sort of sporting event where we send our heroes out to do battle against the enemies of freedom, while making no sacrifices themselves and even call military health care, retirement benefits and disability pensions “entitlement programs” which need to be reigned in. Yes, that is right. Send the volunteers to war and then abandon them. Sadly, with the exception of the end of World War Two, this is always how this nation has treated its veterans and their families.

The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely. That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.

At the same time there are a lot of what I call War Porn addicts, especially the pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot get enough of war. As a Christian I hate to say that many of the worst of the war porn addicts are the supposedly Christian pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot seem to find enough new wars to get us involved in even as we struggle to deal with what is on our plate already. If you ask me these sons-of-bitches are traitors who do not love the troops, do not love this country and should be forced into the front line so they can see, smell and taste death.

What I find the most offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their outright lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war. 

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I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

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Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them. I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering. As I said before, these people are traitors and if I had my way we would drive them at bayonet point into the arms of the Islamic State so they can taste what war is all about. Maybe then these sons-of-bitches would think twice before sending another young American to die so they might make a profit.

So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle a time when I get so angry. That being said I also echo the words of Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who spoke these words in 1895:

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…. nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

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I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born. Why you might ask? 

The reason is simple and I think that Abraham Lincoln said it best as he closed his Gettysburg Address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam, War on Terrorism, world war one, world war two in europe

A Good Day to Speak Truth to Power and to be Listened to

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I have been writing about my recent experiences in trying to get help for my own issues dealing with PTSD as well as my frustration with a military mental health system that is, at least in my view, floundering.

That effort over the past month or so has been quite painful, at times humiliating and dehumanizing, and frankly driven me into a depressed and nearly suicidal fog, from which I am slowly emerging.

Today was a good day. Not just for me but maybe for all of those seeking help at our local Naval Medical Center. Instead of being blown off and shunted aside by providers as well as mid and high level administrators I was able to have a long, nearly forty-five minute phone conversation with the Admiral who commands that facility as well as every Naval Medical facility on the East Coast and Europe, with the exception of the Bethesda-Walter Reed complex in Washington DC. Bottom line up front; it was a very good and positive experience for me that I believe will help others get better care.

I have to say up front that I was terrified about asking to talk to him. One of the people on his staff told me that “it would not be a good thing for me to talk to him.” When I heard that comment my heart sank. I didn’t know what to do, I was perplexed because most commanders of Medical facilities in the Navy that I have worked for actually did want to hear about negative experiences of the people that are their customers, most because they care, but if nothing else because they want to make sure that they pass the Joint Commission accreditation that their facilities get every few years. So I wondered if the Admiral actually knew what was going on, at least in regard to the Mental Health Department and the experiences of people like me.

My last Command Master Chief, who read some of my very angry posts on a social media site suggested that I call my former Commanding Officer, a man who helped me a lot, cared about me and who is soon to become an admiral. I finally worked up the courage to call him, not out of fear, but because I felt like I might be bothering him, and would not be worth his time. I left his command a year ago and frankly I thought why should someone moving up in an organization be bothered by the problems of a former subordinate.

However, he was both concerned and helpful. He did not just listen but he took action by contacting the Admiral here. He told him that he knew me and that he knew that it was my desire to make sure that people get the help and care that they need, that I wasn’t just complaining or seeking special treatment.

Yesterday the admiral called me, of course my phone went directly to voice mail so I missed the call, but his message, and the tone of his voice conveyed a sense of care and concern. I called back and got his voice mail. So this morning I called again and was able to share my heart, in a very respectful way with him. He listened and seemed to be attempting to formulate some kind of positive response that would actually help people. He wants to get answers and he told me that he wanted those that come to that facility to be treated as he would want his grandparents treated.

As I said we talked for forty-five minutes and he listened. I have no doubt, within the very real fiscal constraints faced with current budget cuts and the still looming threat of sequester that he will do his best to improve and change the system that is within his control. He also did something that I have never experienced before from a superior officer, he called me “sir” a number of times. I am not used to that and I don’t think that I have ever in all of my reading of military history recall an Admiral or General calling a subordinate “sir.” I was blown away.

That system appears to be undermanned, under-budgeted and overwhelmed. It is struggling and as it struggles, as it reacts to criticism from the media, politicians and advocacy groups, it resorts to protecting itself as any bureaucracy does in such a situation. The Admiral realized this and he encouraged me to call him again on his office number if I see things that he can help. That was very encouraging. I don’t think that I will have to ask him to intervene on my part, but I have an open door to use this relationship to help others.

All that being said, most people do not have the connections that I have in the system, nor are they willing to take the risks to rock the boat. The stigma is great and personal risk can be or at least seem too great to make the effort, so most people just give up. After all the bureaucracy can be unbending and even vindictive in the way that it rebuffs those that try to raise issues. They resist change and try to keep bad news from enquiring superiors. Bureaucracies and those who faithfully serve them do just that. It is part of who and what they are; be they military, other government, business or ecclesiastical organizations. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote:

“It [the bureaucracy] tends to overvalue the orderly routine and observance of the system by which it receives information, transmits orders, checks expenditures, files returns, keeps the Service the touch of paper; in short, the organization has been created for facilitating its own labors.”

However, when I first collapsed after Iraq, I decided that I could not be silent and have “sky-lined” myself which probably will not help me get promoted, not that care anymore. I am sure that being so public about my struggles with PTSD, Moral Injury and even my crisis of faith, which left me an agnostic for a couple of years, while serving as a Chaplain in adult and pediatric Intensive Care Units has marginalized me in the Chaplain Corps. I don’t know that for a fact and would hope that it is not the case, but it is the feeling that I get when I deal with most Chaplains.

All of that said, the past few weeks have been some of the most difficult since my return from Iraq. I personally find no pleasure in being anxious, depressed or feeling suicidal and getting even less sleep than my chronic insomnia normally allows.

At least I was listened to, and I really did get the sense that the Admiral that I was able to have such an honest conversation with today, does really care and wants to help improve the system and change the culture.

But that is the thing. This is a systemic and cultural problem, not just in the military or the Veterans Administration, but in society as a whole. In our desire for efficiency, supposed effectiveness  measured by profits and the bottom line; we have forgotten to care about people. Sadly that is statistically verified in poll after poll by people from all parts of the political spectrum. People don’t trust the government, they don’t trust big business, they don’t trust health care systems, they don’t trust the police, they don’t trust the banking and insurance industries and they certainly don’t trust the church or religion in general. Can I get an amen?

Thank you…

But our culture has to change, we have become so materialistic and embrace the most crass forms of predatory Capitalism and Social Darwinism, even in church, that people don’t matter, especially the poor and those with no voice or power, especially those who volunteer to serve the nation and come back broken in body, mind and spirit.

Joshua Chamberlain the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg spoke years after the Civil War something that should be a warning to us about how we treat people. Of course Chamberlain was talking about the horror of war, but it can apply to anyone, anywhere:

“But we had with us, to keep and care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men–men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”

His question is as operable today as it was then. There has to be a reckoning somewhere for destroying peoples lives, and further traumatizing them when they seek help, otherwise there is no justice nor anything that resembles a loving God.

We have to start valuing people, regardless of their social status, their race, religion, sexual preference, disability or even their alma mater. If we don’t start caring for people as human beings, then why bother with anything else? It is either about humanity or its not. Those who are comfortable cannot turn a  blind eye thinking that these issues don’t affect them, because they will.

So in spite of being unpopular in some circles I take the personal risk to speak the truth the best and most honest way I can to anyone that will listen. I have to do it, for those that feel that they have no voice, as well as those who I have known who have lost their lives after giving up on the system. I owe it to them. It is now my mission in life and I do that I can both inside the system and outside of it to speak out for those who need it.  I guess I have become something of a liberal social activist, not that there is anything wrong with that.

I can be as persistent and irritating as Mustard Gas; I am doggedly determined to speak out for those that do not feel that they matter or have a voice; and I will stay in the fight until I can’t fight anymore. As Paul Tillich said “It is my mission to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

I admit that sometimes it is like tilting at windmills, but this week, two men who have the position to influence the system took the time to listen and just maybe at least at some level things will begin to change. I am grateful tonight, maybe I will sleep well…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, healthcare, mental health, Military, PTSD, suicide, US Navy

Thoughts Before a Memorial Service

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I am in a hotel in Fredericksburg Virginia tonight as I will be attending a Celebration of Life for Captain Tom Sitsch, United States Navy. As those who follow this site know, Captain Sitsch was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two and though I didn’t know him long he made a big impact in my life when I most needed human compassion. 

I traveled this evening, driving in the bitterly cold dark January night up Interstate 64 and Interstate 95, un-melted snow from the most recent winter storm still covers the ground on either side of the highway. The dark shapes of trees lined the road, silhouetted against the night sky, most stars unseen because of a thin cloud layer.

The trip took about two and a quarter hours, good time if you know how traffic can be on these roads. When I got to the hotel I discovered that I had forgotten by sleep medications and what I call my “docile pills” so I expect that sleep will be a challenge tonight, even though I am quite tired. So I walked over to a nearby restaurant and had a couple of beers and some wings at the bar before coming back to my room.

Captain Sitsch took his life two weeks ago. A war hero, who suffered from PTSD he saw his, career, life and family collapse around him. He didn’t get the help that he needed and as things collapsed he was pilloried in the media. His wife and children had to suffer as well. Living with mental illness is not easy; families often don’t know where to turn when the person that they love falls apart. I wrote about this a number of years ago, my wife has suffered watching the man that she loves struggle with the ravages of PTSD, something that she too knows all too well having been abused as a child. 

This is especially true for military families who are used to their loved one being the strong one. The sad thing is that while this is a big problem in the military, it is also a problem in the civilian world. Some studies estimate that nearly one third of Americans either live with or work with someone afflicted with some kind of mental illness. 

The problem doesn’t just extend to families but the society at large. Our military compared to our population is quite small, all volunteer and quite often isolated from much of society. The horrific pace of wartime deployments and now the shift to doing more with less amid a major reduction in force, even as the wars wind down has a terrible effect on service members and their loved ones.

Those who don’t serve, or have not served do not really understand, even those who are sympathetic and actually care. I think that we will see a phenomena similar to the years after the Vietnam War, when our society rushed to forget the war and were often embarrassed by those who served. Stereotypes of soldiers shown in the media, on the news, or in entertainment then, presented veterans in almost comic book like caricatures, often in the most negative manner possible. Today the media coverage is a mixed bag, some making us to be uber-heroes and supermen, others men and women who deserve pity, and sometimes the negative portrayals that were so common after Vietnam. 

If it was just a media and society issue it be one thing, but even as men like Captain Sitsch fall through the crack there are those in the private sector and their political allies in Congress pushing the government to cut the pay, health and education benefits promised to those that served in the military, even those who came back wounded, or changed by war.

Those wrestling with budgets in Congress, look to solving budgetary woes not by cutting weapons systems that the military no longer wants or needs, or by cutting superfluous bases in their congressional districts. Instead, they choose to cut the benefits that they had promised to veterans and their families before and during the war. The proposed cuts now include health benefits as well as pensions, balanced unfairly on those who have spent the majority of their careers at war, many of whose skills do not translate in the civilian economy.

Of course these actions will have even more drastic effects on military members, veterans and their families. We can expect that more heroes like Captain Sitsch and their families will succumb to the pressures of service and what happens after they leave the service. Divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide have been on the rise for years in the military and there is no empirical or historical evidence to suggest things will get better anytime soon.

I predict that it will get far worse before it gets better.  Lieutenant General Hal Moore, famous for his book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young noted how his generation of warriors were treated after Vietnam.

“in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.”   

Sadly, things have not changed that much. Rudyard Kipling wrote in his Poem Tommy: 

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!” But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot; An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please; An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!” 

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Tomorrow I will be present to pay my respects to a tragic hero. Tom Sitsch, deserves to be remembered for all the good things that he did defending this country, saving lives and putting himself in danger time and time again. I pray that those present will know the comfort and peace of God as well as the special bond of friendship and family that we share as part of the Brotherhood of War.  I also pray, maybe against hope that our country will not throw veterans under the bus as they have so many times after war, and that no more men or women will have to be overcome by the despair that Captain Sitsch had to live with for God knows how long before he took his life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, PTSD, remembering friends

“A Foreign World”: The High Cost of Coming Home from War

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For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war. In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet 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.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front

Likewise, Guy Sager a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“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 laugh and couldn’t forget.” Guy Sager in The Forgotten Soldier

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Congressional Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the eulogy Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because their experience is not shared by the population at large. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature.  Their camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside is broken by distance and the frenetic pace of our society. Remarque wrote “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD