Tag Archives: vietnam veterans

For Me It’s Personal: Veteran’s Day 2019


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, which actually falls on The anniversary of Armistice Day. 

It is a strange feeling. I don’t really advertise that I am a veteran out in public, even though I have quite a few ball caps, sweat shirts, Polo shirts, hoodies, and fleeces that I could wear. To do that. I certainly am not ashamed of my service, but much of it has been hard, and I spend the time thinking about those who I served alongside, or set an example for me, living and dead. Unless something really unusual happens it will be my last on active duty.

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.”

As I said, 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 38 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 My trusty Bodyguard and assistant RP1 Nelson LeBron, Habbinyah Iraq, January 2008. 

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.

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.

Judy were out with friends today, some military, retired, maybe some still active, as well as civilian friends, many of whom have military relations at Gordon Biersch, the brewer brewed a special Veterans IPA, proceeds from tonight which went to Virginia Veterans.

To my friends there I am Steve or the Padre. They all know me and know that I still serve, but that’s because they know me, not because I advertise. They also represent the span of political views in the country at large, but we are friends.

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, News and current events, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, Veterans and friends

Honoring Vietnam Veterans

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I had the honor of delivering the invocation and benediction at a ceremony and luncheon in honor of Vietnam Veterans and their families at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Americans from the embassy in Saigon. About 400 Vietnam vets and the families, or in some cases their surviving spouses or children were on hand along with about another hundred or so other people including civic leaders, government officials, and members of other military associations or groups, as well as members of college ROTC and high school Junior ROTC programs.

We often get requests to support ceremonies for active duty members, retirees, and veterans groups, especially and there will be a number more coming up with the commemoration of 76th anniversary of the attack upon Pearl Harbor. Since this one fell on a holiday weekend and I had no services to conduct I took this on to ensure my chaplains who were not conducting services didn’t have to break up their weekend and to ensure that those that were conducting services didn’t have to rush to or from their services to cover this event which took up most of the afternoon. I also took it because it dealt with Vietnam veterans. My dad and many of the men who shaped me as a young soldier and officer were Vietnam veterans and I always feel that I owe them and their families my time.

I think that it is fitting and important to honor these men and women. The Vietnam War still leaves its mark upon the country, like an unhealed wound, as Americans who supported the war, opposed it, went to war, or found ways to avoid serving as our current President did wrestle with what happened in that era, of which the war was just one component of a larger social upheaval that marked a definitive break with much of our past.

I had the honor of meeting and speaking with some of those present today, as did Judy who went with me. I also ran into one of my now retired colleagues from EOD Group Two, and was able to mix with some of the high school Navy Junior ROTC cadets, sharing with them my experiences as an NJROTC cadet in the 1970s and how it helped me become who I am today.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

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I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

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Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

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When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

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It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

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This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

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Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

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There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, ministry, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

To Iraq and Back: A Bus Ride to Carolina

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This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series.

My CRV with Judy in it pulled away and Nelson and I went about our business. We staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment.  As we talked other sailors arrived and soon the gear of over 100 sailors was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.

Nelson’s parents, brother and sister had come to see him off.  His brother is a Navy First Class Petty Officer. His dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone.  They were really nice folks. Over the years I had heard much about them. They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.

Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter. He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally.  During his previous deployment to Afghanistan he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. A couple of months before this deployment he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family.  Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other.  For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy.  No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs.

When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal. Many times media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. We are going in as a unit.

In such times families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together.  When you deploy as a unit there is familiar support system for the families we leave behind. This is not so when you deploy individually.  Those leaving on this day were very much strangers. We would train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.

If you are a ship or unit chaplain and deploy with your people there is a relationship. Generally you know each other, in this case we were strangers.  I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors we were with today when we got to Iraq. This was also the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, mostly working with the Army in support roles. Some would serve in specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs.

As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network. I was right about her being down for a while but this deployment would be harder on her than others and the support network proved woefully inadequate. So much for assumptions.

I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in large and rectangular bags of coyote or sand color. Most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.”  We already had our personal protective equipment of the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive Army issue at Fort Jackson. There are pros and cons to such a arrangement.  The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater. The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war.  This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.

Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders.  After this we loaded our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. These were the first of many buses we would ride and the first of many roll calls and gear load outs in the coming months.

Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front.  I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat.  It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer they don’t know and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.

Many of the sailors had ever darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or religious people.  I have found that many times, even those with a vibrant faith are hesitant to approach a chaplain that they do not know. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them be judgmental about of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I try to be cognizant of this and be friendly and caring without scaring them away.  Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus ride I was still an unknown quantity to them.

Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep.  For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable.  Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable. Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe.  Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.

When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining. Part of course is a generational thing. I grew up and came of age the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The majority of these sailors from the 90’s and 2000’s.

The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching.  Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.  As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war take inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta.   Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and hundreds more wounded I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.

The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolina League. Our journey reminded me of the bus rides in the movie Bull Durham.  The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other,  We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places.  About half the sailors went to the McDonalds while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell. Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate.

When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway.  We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base. I wondered where the hell we were. Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year.  Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.

Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready.  It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.

Our welcome that first night was simple.  We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants.  We were met at the DFAC by a civilian.  I can’t remember his name but this guy was most congenial and he put the RED in “Redneck.” He joked with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did.  When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter. As such nearly every meal would be entertaining.

As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other.  He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.”  I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.”  The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.

Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready.  More sailors from NMPS San Diego were due in later. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and engaged in some rather surface pleasantries. When lights out was called lay down on the same type of Army bunk bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington.  I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage.

Much was still on my mind when I laid down and my mind was still thinking about the trip to base with Judy and the final kiss goodbye. I was troubled by it and how I had handed things. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly. It had been a long day and coupled with the lack of sleep and stress of the previous couple of days I was tired.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Armed Forces Day 2013: A Sober Reflection on a Nearly Invisible Holiday

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Today is Armed Forces Day and unfortunately most of the country will not notice unless they are attending a Baseball game where it is being observed or some special event on a base, national cemetery, monument or VFW hall. There are also protests, sometimes involving veterans. Last year at the NATO Summit in Chicago which coincided with Armed Forces Day a number of veterans protested by throwing away their Global War on Terror Medal. I actually have little problem with people protesting wars, even the current one so long as they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the politicians, pundits, think tank wonks and lobbyists that profit from war and not the soldiers that fight them.

Now there are a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a career officer and son of a Vietnam veteran Navy Chief I appreciate those events and the people that put them together. Being a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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Likewise there are wonderful people that honor the Armed Forces every day. I think especially about the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor Maine and the Pease Troop Greeters of New Hampshire. These men and women, many veterans themselves or related to veterans are amazing. They have been welcoming veterans back since early in the war and provide many services to the men and women of the Armed Forces that pass through Bangor Maine International Airport and the Portsmouth International Airport, the former Pease Air Force Base in Pease New Hampshire.  I have had the honor of passing through both locations, Bangor on more than one occasion. While I know that there are many others that do this they are in the minority in this country.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much like Pakistan. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war. For the most part the war effort is that of a tiny percentage of the population.

As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that have been going on for so long. The fact is that most Americans do not feel that they have a personal or vested interest in these wars because they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars and the military is worn out while taking 50% of the cuts of the Congressional Sequester.

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We have now been at war continuously for nearly 12 years and truthfully there is no end in sight. In that time every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam every single one volunteered to serve in time of war. I think that this makes the current generation of veterans quite unique.

Many of these volunteers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war was popular, except in the very beginning when casualties were low and victory appeared to be easy and quick. We like short wars. We left Iraq in December 2011 and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for God knows how long, even though we are drawing down or forces there.

In Afghanistan we followed the same path trod by the British and Soviets in trying to topple regimes and plant our respective versions of civilization in that land of brutal Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords who war on each other as much as any foreign infidel.  It is a path that leads to heartbreak which ties down vast amounts of manpower without any significant strategic gain for the United States or NATO.  This even as war drums beat across the Middle East and nuclear armed Pakistan slips into political and social chaos and keeps a major supply route for the US and NATO to Afghanistan shut down.

The fact is that American and for that matter other NATO and coalition military personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or at sea are in the minority in all of our countries. Thus when a few of the few of these veterans choose to make a public spectacle of themselves by tossing a medal away they get cheered and lots of media attention. Some liberals applaud the medal throwers and conservatives vilify them without getting what is really going on. Both miss the tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society that is the result of public policy since the end of the Vietnam War. A relatively small professional military in comparison to the population is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved and corporations, lobbyists and think tanks get rich.

Rachel Maddow the MSNBC host of the Rachel Maddow Show wrote in her outstanding book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter… With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it- uncomfortably- every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us… war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.” 

Now, going back to the protestors for a minute. The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important and for Americans is protected under the First Amendment. That being said I think it is important that when one protests a war that they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President and not the soldiers. The fact is that the lobbyists, pundits that promote war don’t care about the protesters or the troops. This is because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and their businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I may disagree with the manner of how and when veterans protest wars that they have served like those that threw their medals away in Chicago last year. However, I am not going to question their motives, integrity or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.

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When a society sends off its sons and daughters to fight in wars that no one understands, and the vast majority of people no longer support it is no wonder that some veterans make such displays. Likewise it is understandable why other veterans have major issues with such protestors, just as many Vietnam veterans still feel the hurt of how a nation turned its back on them. For example I still have a terrible time even thinking about Jane Fonda, the images of her manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun when my dad was serving in Vietnam.

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Protests may make some feel good, but they often miss the bigger point of why wars like these go on for so long.  That they do is because misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military and those that do not. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping”* as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

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I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated but I am grateful to those people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel in thought, word and deed like the Maine Greeters and Pease Greeters. The interesting thing about these groups is that they are made up of citizens from across the political spectrum, veterans and non-veterans who simply care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

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I just hope and pray that the end in Afghanistan does not turn into an even worse historic debacle than suffered by the British or the Soviets during their ill fated campaigns. Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit from this no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

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Peace

Padre Steve+

President Bush’s actually words were “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop…” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011011-7.html

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A Pause to Reflect on Iraq, Afghanistan and Unpopular Wars on a Sunday Night

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

Five years ago I was in the process of deploying to Iraq.  It is hard to believe that it has been that long.

For me the past few weeks have been filled with sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares, mostly related to my time in Iraq.  I have been far more hyper-vigilant and anxious than I have been for a while.  Crowds and crowded places cause me great anxiety. I guess it is sort of like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.  The experiences and places are forever in my mind. I can close my eyes and the images are fresh.

I jokingly refer to my continuing struggle with PTSD as the “Mad Cow,” somehow that takes some of the edge off for me.  But even my attempt at humor belies the fact that it does get old.

At the same time because of my service in Iraq I am part of a very special brotherhood, that brotherhood that Shakespeare’s Henry V voiced so well.

I have the wonderful opportunity to serve alongside men and women who have given much for this country, men and women who also bear the wounds of war, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral. I have the honor of serving with men and women who continue to deploy in harm’s way to Afghanistan and being stationed at one of the installations that have borne then heavy burden of this war I am reminded daily of the cost of it. I look at the casualty reports daily and last week yet another Marine Military policeman from Camp LeJeune was killed in Afghanistan. Two sailors from a Squadron based in Norfolk were killed in the crash of an MH-53 Helicopter in Oman, an aircraft sent to beef up capabilities against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This weekend at least 8 NATO troops or contractors were killed in Afghanistan, three being American contractors  killed by an Afghan policeman while training Afghan police in Herat. The war is never far away.

I am also grateful to people in the community who care to say a kind word when I am in public in uniform. Many people in the area have served in uniform, many during Vietnam as well as an ever dwindling number of World War II and Korea War vets.  I have had to make trips up to a local jail in a town up the road from us to see two of my sailors accused in a terrible crime.  I make those visits in uniform and on the way back one day I stopped to get a Coke at a store. As I walked in a man thanked me for my service.  While I was paying another man began to talk to me. He also thanked me and then went to describe his service in Vietnam.

Such encounters are humbling for me and a reminder of the very special brotherhood that I am just a part. That brotherhood for me is especially close for the that liked me served in Iraq but also Afghanistan, Vietnam and by extension the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria. We are veterans of unpopular wars that are fought by a minute segment of the population.

I saw a video of an advisor to Mitt Romney note that “real Americans don’t care about Afghanistan.” I did not take his remark personally but it did hit home. The man is a seasoned political advisor, his business is to look at numbers and polls. It was a remark that showed me what I already know, that for many Americans the war is not real.  Unfortunately as real as the war is to me and to many people that I know we are in the minority. The most recent opinion polls show that Afghanistan ranks 10th of 10 major issues that Americans are concerned about.  At the same time polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the nation.

Tonight I will try to sleep and in the morning, Inshallah, I will wake up and go back to serve the men and women who serve this country caring for the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, veterans and their families at Camp LeJeune.

The war is not over and despite what opinion polls and politicians say it is important to some of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God in the Empty Places: Four Years Later

Four years ago I was leaving Iraq for Kuwait, the first stop in the process of coming home.  At that point I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to go either. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time. I am reposting article here tonight.  

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me.  I feel s special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there.  

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

There are no new edits to the article. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days. Today was a day of reflection.  As I walked my little dog Molly down the street tonight to the beach I looked up at the moonlit sky and I was as I have been thinking lately about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow that sight now comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run there.  

Anyway. Here is is.

God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Tuesday in DC: Lunch with a Dear Friend and a Night walk through the Monuments

Today was another good day, in fact really good day at the conference I am attending with the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health.  At lunch I was able to spend some time with my former commanding officer at Marine Security Forces.  It was good to see Mike again.  He and I went through some very trying times together and I treasure his friendship as well of that of his family.  I think that of all the commanding officers that have served under which have included some incredible men that he was the best.  We are a lot alike in many ways both rather cerebral and out of the box thinkers. We basically are the same generation as far as military service goes, when he was a young Marine Corps Officer I was a young Army Officer.

We reminisced about the way the country was back then how our leaders still worked together and even if we disagreed with the policies of those in the opposing party that we still knew that we were Americans and that at the end of the day we were friends.  I guess that Mike and I are dinosaurs now; we tend to look at the big picture and both being career officers of the same generation have seen the country change. We both entered the military during the Cold War and after the loss of Vietnam.  Our teachers were the men that served in that war, those who came home to a then hostile country.  Neither Mike nor I are service academy types nor the products of conservative military schools, Mike went to Harvard and attended Navy ROTC and I went to a California State University School, CSU Northridge and took Army ROTC at UCLA.  We both come from strong yet tolerant religious traditions and were influenced by chaplains early in our careers.  Mike’s academic background is Economics mine Theology and Military History and both of us hold advanced degrees in those subjects.  We both graduated from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.  We have both served overseas and in combat.  We love our country and treasure our military service and that of the men and women that we have served with over so many decades.

I am honored that Mike will administer the Oath of Office when I am promoted on September 1st at Harbor Park in Norfolk Virginia.  By the way Mike loves baseball too and being from Boston he is a Red Sox fan.  His dad, a die hard fan died a few months before the Sox broke the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004. My dad died a few months before his San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010.

Talking with Mike today made me think back to a time when things were not like what they are now, where political opponents were simply opponents and not “the enemy.”  I shared with Mike the terms the German Military used in the Second World War to describe those that they fought against.  The Western Allies were “die Gegener” or simply opponents and for the most part the German military observed the Geneva Convention and Laws of War when fighting the Americans, British and French.  However with the Soviet Unionit was different.  The Soviets were “Der Feind” or the enemy.

As divided as we were in the 1970s and 1980s there was still a modicum of respect for the other side and ability to work together when we needed and Mike brought up the relationship of Ronald Reagan and Thomas “Tip” O’ Neill, vigorous political opponents who remained friends.  However there is today and has been for the past 20 years or so for members of the extreme wings of both major parties to identify their opponents as “enemies.”  The language difference is significant. An opponent is a adversary that you hope to defeat but there is not a hatred involved and when the competition ceases the opponents remain friends and even colleagues even as they prepare for the next “game” so to speak.

Enemies are another matter.  To be an enemy is to assume that the other side poses an existential threat to your side or your agenda.  Thus there can be no compromise and the opponent is not simply to be defeated but destroyed and annihilated much like the Old Testament when the Israelites were commanded by God to kill everything even the babies and pregnant women.  So much for being pro-life but I digress….

Today we are more divided than any time since the Civil War, blood is boiling and if there is compromise it will be a mere truce until the next round of political bloodletting which if we are not careful may become actual bloodletting and the enemies allow their unbridled hatred of each other spill out into open conflict.  Such affairs never end well and if we remember our history our Civil War’s military conflict was over in a few years and yet with the relatively primitive weapons of the ay killed more Americans than any other conflict.  The after effects well, frankly Scarlett took over a hundred years to recover from and I would dare posit that some believe that the war is not yet over.

Tonight I went to dinner alone cancelling my plans to head out to watch the Nationals play the Marlins. I needed the time and solitude and somehow a trip on the DC Metro seemed the last place that I would find it. I walked to the Gordon Biersch where I had dinner, drank a few beers and watched the Orioles beat the Blue Jays.  After dinner I detoured from my normal route back to my campus housing which takes me in front of the White House.

Amid the lights and the amazing splendor of the buildings adorned with American and District of Columbia Flags I walked and simply observed people.  Tourists from across the nation and the world were taking pictures, business people and government workers hurried about, vendors hawked their patriotic wares, mostly made in China I might add or snack foods.  Here and there a protester sought to draw attention to their pet cause, there is the anti-nuclear weapons protestor that has been camped across from the White House since 1981, people demanding to see the Birth Certificate, those protesting for the removal of various Arab dictators and others peppered about. Capitol Police and Secret Service officers were out in force and amid the fortress like surroundings of many government buildings and the offices such as the World Bank and major business and financial institutions armed police and private security stood watch with cameras watching every move.

When I passed the White House I was rather down.  So I decided to walk the monuments that adorn the Capitol Mall.  I passed the Executive Office Building and Washington Monument and crossed the street to the World War Two Memorial.  At each place I paused before I continued to walk into the night.  I then stopped by the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial, the stark reminder of the men and women killed and missing in that war as well as the rip in the fabric of the nation that I am not sure we have ever gotten past.  I then went and paused before the Lincoln Memorial and I thought of the immortal words spoken by President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address shortly before he was cut down by a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth.  They are words of reconciliation spoken even while Americans fought Americans in the last months of the war.

Fellow-Countrymen:  At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

As I walked through the warm and humid night air I imagined what it must have been like for officers of the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps as the nation split in 1861 with many Southerners leaving the service to enter the service of their own states.  Many tearful goodbyes were spoken by men that had served together in war and peace and on the lonely frontier of the nation, men who in a few moths time would be commanding American armies and killing their fellow Americans.  My family fought for the South being from Virginia.  I cannot say that I would have done different like them and so many Southerners or if like General George Thomas of Virginia I would have remained with the Union incurring the wrath of his family for the rest of his life.  Since I have never taken my Oath lightly I can only imagine that I would have done what Thomas did even if it meant the loss of family.

Today I fear that even if our leaders can avert a default on or debts that they have now set the stage for worse I the coming months and years. The open hatred and contempt of our leaders for one another and the ideas that each stand for has wounded the nation more deeply than any default or government shutdown could ever do. This is not simply partisan discourse it is a deep enmity and hatred that has not been seen in this country for 150 years.  If cooler heads do not prevail soon the damage may be irreparable and the consequences more terrible than we can imagine and why anyone would willingly continue down this road is beyond me, but hatred does terrible things to people and nations.

Since it was nearing10 PMI hailed a taxi by the Lincoln Memorial.  I entered into a conversation with the driver, an immigrant fromMoroccowho has been in the United States22 years.  I mentioned my concern and he was far more hopeful than me. He said he believed that a shutdown would be averted.  I love immigrants especially recent ones who have left home and family to become Americans.  My dad’s side family has been in this country since 1747 and my mother’s even longer.  It was inspiring for me to hear this man still be in awe of this nation despite all of our troubles. When I left the cab I thanked him, gave him a decent tip shook his hand and in my woeful Arabic said “Assalamu alaikum” or peace be unto you.

As a historian I tend to see the dangers in what is happening in our country and I do have legitimate concerns, but when I hear the words of hope and awe that this country engenders in those who come here to be free I hope again in spite of myself.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Memorial Day 2011: Counting the Cost of War and Remembering its Brotherhood

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” William Shakespeare “Henry V”

“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Monday is Memorial Day, the ninth that we have observed during our current series of wars which officially began on September 11th 2001.  One could argue that they had begun sooner with attacks on U.S. Forces and installations overseas and even the attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  But we really did not go to war until that fateful Tuesday in September 2001.  As we come to Memorial Day I am a bit melancholy as the war continues, force reductions loom, threats abound and I observe my first Memorial Day without my father, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam who died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in June 2010.

Iraq Military Training Team in West Al Anbar

We did go to war but it was not like wars past where we relied on a true national effort to win the wars. The wars have been fought by a force profession force of Active and Reserve Component Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen that hovers a bit above a half a percent of the total population. Of those eligible for service most do not meet the entrance requirements for military service meaning that the prosecution of the war has been the task of a miniscule portion of the population.  Shortly after the 9-11 attacks President George Bush urged Americans to do their civic duty “go shopping” to get the economy moving.  As a career military officer I was aghast at his words. While he praised the military at every turn and increased military budgets, much of which went to defense contactors the actual heavy lifting was and continues to be done by men and women who volunteer to keep going back.  While the military fights the war Wall Street does business in a manner that is good for it and the vast majority of Americans are totally immersed in self-entertainment, the latest video gaming system or imbibing on a constant diet of “reality TV.”  Others on both sides of the political spectrum elect to shred their political opponents to itty bitty sheds and maneuver to gain political advantage and power without really caring what is happing to the country despite their proclamations of doing what is right for America.  In regard to the troops most of the political classes only seem to care when it affects their state, district or party.

Advisors in Afghanistan 

This Thursday 9 more Americans were killed in Afghanistan, eight in an IED blast while on a mission to root the Taliban out of a suspected strongpoint and another in a helicopter crash.  In Afghanistan we have lost 1514 military personnel killed in action or died of wounds. Another 11191 have been wounded. Additionally or NATO Allies have lost 889 military personnel listed as killed or died of wounds. In Iraq 4454 U.S troops have been killed and another 32227 troops have been wounded.  Additionally 318 Coalition troops have been killed in Iraq.  None of these figures include the high number of personnel with PTSD, mild to moderate TBI or other psychological and spiritual wounds.  5968 Americans have been listed as killed or died of wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan while another 43,418 have been officially listed as wounded.

Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen.  It is a day to reflect on the sacrifice of those that have died in the service of our country.  Originally established as Decoration Day and its roots stretch back to the Civil War.  Other nations have similar remembrances for their war dead.  Unfortunately because our military is such a small part of our population and now concentrated into a few major bases often out of sight and out of mind of most Americans the observance has become a kick off to the summer for most Americans who are blissfully unaware of the real costs of war.  In a way I can’t really fault them because when the war began with an attack on our shores our President did not call the nation to make sacrifices to win the war he told people to go shopping while “the few” would take the war to the enemy and avenge the devastation of September 11th 2001.  It turned the vast majority of the country into cheerleaders or bystanders.  History shows time after time that nations that wage war this way seldom achieve their goals.

As Clausewitz so aptly observed that war the nature or the “remarkable trinity of war” violent emotion, chance and rational policy which are balanced with the social trinity of the people, the commander and the army and the government (or in the case of non-nation state actors tribal, social or revolutionary leaders) necessitates that the people have to be part of the equation if one is to successfully conduct a war.  While it is possible to win short wars without much support of the people any long conflict necessitates that the people be engaged as much as the military and the government policy makers, especially in a democracy. Vietnam was a classic example of the social trinity gone bad. Policy makers failed to set goals for the prosecution of the war, military leaders attempted to fight the war with operational theories and forces that were not adapted to the type of war being fought and ignored the lessons of history regarding the type of war and eventually the people turned on the policy makers and the military as the war ground on with no apparent victory in sight.  The same can be seen in the current conflict in Afghanistan with the government pushing a policy that seems to have little strategic benefit or chance of success.  A military that can inflict punishing losses on the Taliban without destroying them or due to limited resources hold onto areas that they drove the enemy and a public that is divided between cheerleaders, critics and bystanders.  Few of the latter have any personal stake in the war other than bearing some of the financial cost and having to it occasionally referred to in the news cycle.  Our “trinity” is dysfunctional and will be our undoing despite the heroic efforts of those who give their “last full measure” on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

While we can discuss ways bring functionality back to our social trinity and the “remarkable trinity” or essence of war we must understand that our enemies, even non state actors often have a much more congruent view of war than we do and how to connect their strategic goals, military strategy and leverage the energy of the people against the United States and our Western allies.  They do not have our military power and wherever we meet them on the battlefield where we can employ our tactical superiority in weapons and training we have success but we have been unable to translate battlefield success into victory because we do not understand the nature of the conflict, the heart and will of our enemy and are dysfunctional in our own social, military, policy and political understanding of this war and how to win it.

What does this mean to those that have given their “last full measure” and those “happy few” that bear the burden of prosecuting the war? It means that their sacrifices may not be enough and will like the veterans of Vietnam come home without victory despite never losing a battle.  After Vietnam the force was cut back, military personnel who gave all they had on the battlefield were turned out of the service and even officers reverted to enlisted status to remain in the Army and Marine Corps.  Today even as the war rages cuts are being made to the force and those cuts will only get bigger as time goes on. Like Vietnam we already have a substantial number of veterans suffering from wounds physical, psychological and spiritual unable to get adequate care or assistance from an overburdened, underfunded, under staffed and often dysfunctional or even worse uncaring Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Others that have served most of their careers at war and are approaching retirement are seeing the benefits that they earned with their flesh and blood and the long sacrifice of themselves and their families being termed “a rich entitlement program” targeted for reductions in pensions and medical care.  People that make these decisions if they served in the military at all often served only in peacetime or in times of short military conflicts and thus really do not understand the terrible cost and burdens placed on those that serve and continue to serve in this “war without end.”

Since Monday is Memorial Day and I simply ask that people take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices of those that served in this war, wars past or those that continue to volunteer and serve in harm’s way far from home in a cause that the government does not understand and the public no longer supports.  Yes people treat military personnel better than in times past, there is little hostility to the military but at the same time has little social connection to or understanding of, thus we are a small brotherhood forged by a war that most of our fellow citizens can comprehend.

One of my Brothers: RP2 Nelson Lebron in Iraq

As for all who served we are part of a Band of Brothers.  As William Shakespeare so well wrote in Henry V:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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.

Kenneth Branagh Henry V: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM

At the same time I cannot count the number of men and women that have come to me and expressed their regret at never having served when they had the chance. By and large they are wonderful people that live with this regret. In a sense they know well the last part of the Henry V speech “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.” For such men and women I can bear no hostility because the regrets that they live with are more than I would want to live with. When spending time with people living in regret I simply to do what they do in an honorable manner, take care of their families and support the troops in any way that they can.

One of my Band of Brothers MTT with 3rd Battalion 3rd Brigade 7th Iraqi Division

As for me I continue to serve affected by war in ways that I never imagined when I enlisted nearly 30 years ago. All those who have served, past present and future are my brothers and sisters and it matters not their social status, race, religion or politics as Shakespeare noted  “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….”

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier” about his return home from war, society and that brotherhood, something that many who have served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can share:

“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.

I had looked everywhere for Hals, but hadn’t been able to find him. He filled my thoughts, and only my acquired ability to hide my feelings kept me from weeping. He was attached to me by all the terrible memories of the war, which still rang in my ears. He was my only friend in this hostile world, the man who had so often carried my load when my strength was failing, I would never be able to forget him, or the experiences we had shared, or our fellow soldiers, whose lives would always be linked to mine.”

Most of us that have served in combat zones have memories like that and like the people in the train most people don’t understand.  One thing that I do know is that I am part of a brotherhood that extends from time in memoriam to the consummation of time when war will be no more, death will be swallowed up in victory and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

Full Military Honors: Getting a Chance to Repay a Service done for My Family by the Navy

Last summer my dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  Since I wasn’t much good for anything then my boss at my last duty station Chaplain Jesse Tate contacted the Chief of Chaplains Office and our mutual friend Chaplain Jerry Seeley in California.  These men and the Navy came through to provide my family with a funeral with full military honors for my dad.  It was something that we all treasured and something that really helped my mom get through that dark time. It allowed her to reconnect with the Navy something that was a big part of our lives for years. I won’t forget Chaplain Seeley and his comforting words and the Senior Chief Petty Officer who presented our Nation’s Flag to my mother.  One thing that I did do was construct two collages of pictures from his life which were available for friends and family to view. When I put them together it was really for my mom but the task of sorting through a couple of thousand photos to find the ones that best epitomized my dad, his life and personality was healing to me.

Since I am a Chief’s kid I have a soft heart for Navy Chiefs and in the past two and a half years working in Navy Medicine I have been able to be with quite a few of these men and women in their final days as well as their families. Last week I had the duty pager and received a call to come to our multi-service ward as a family had requested a baptism for one of our former Master Chief Petty Officers named Carl.  He and his family had arranged with one of my staff to be baptized last Friday as he knew his life was coming to an end.  Well late Wednesday night it became apparent that he would not last that long and I was asked to come in.  I got to the hospital and put on my Khakis and went to the nurse’s station where I listened to them tell me the situation and read his chart. I noted the request for baptism and the plan for it to be done Friday.  When I had done that I went to the room where Carl lay in bed dozing. I met his wife Judy and son’s Randy and Jeff and we visited for nearly an hour as he lay there and I listened to them tell me about him as a husband and father, his Navy service, his faith and his love for baseball.

Carl had entered the Navy a couple of years after my dad and remained in it a good deal longer retiring in 1988.  He served in combat as a Corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam and saw service around the world. He retired as the Command Master Chief of Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune.  He was active and played for and managed various Navy Baseball and Softball teams including the hospital’s team which I now play on.  There were a lot of emotional connections for me with this man. He served during the era that my dad did and both served on the ground in Vietnam.  His name was Carl like my dad, his wife Judy like my wife and one son Jeff like my brother.  He loved baseball.  I felt like I was family and in a sense I was because we are part of the Navy family and that is something that is special. I still receive e-mails from one of my dad’s former Chief Petty Officers almost like he is trying to watch out for his friend and fellow Chief’s son.

I prepared to conduct the baptism and Carl woke up. His wife introduced me to him and he greeted me. I explained that I was there to baptize him and asked if he still desired to be baptized and he replied yes and gave me a “thumbs up.” As I baptized him he was praying with a smile on his face as the water flowed over his forehead. I then asked for Carl and his family to join me in the Lord’s Prayer and as we prayed he prayed along with us.  It was a special moment and I elected to stay with the family for a while longer and simply be with them as they shared and ministered to Carl.  I gave Judy my card and went home getting to bed about three AM Thursday.

Yesterday afternoon I received word that I had been asked to conduct his funeral and I was honored. It was like having a chance to repay the generosity given to my family by the Navy.  This morning it seemed that nothing went right in trying to get my stuff together. We are in temporary office spaces as our offices and Chapel are being renovated. As a result I have no earthly idea where half of my things are. I prepared my Service Dress Blue uniform last night and placed it where I wouldn’t forget it. I discovered that I didn’t have it about 5 miles into my trip and had to go back and get it. Then on my second trip in about the same place I had the feeling that I had forgotten something else.  I looked around the car and couldn’t find my Bible and Book of Common Prayer.  I thought I had packed it and taken it home with me last night so I turned around again. I got home to the Island Hermitage and try as I might I couldn’t find them.  So I grabbed the Kindle that my Judy had got me for my birthday knowing that I had the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy for burial on it.  I got back on the road for the third time and arrived at the office where I found my Bible and Book of Common Prayer.  I then started to get ready to go after a bit of business and discovered that I had everything but a tie, which I only have about five of but none were to be found. Our small Marine Corps Exchange in the hospital had none so I had to go to main side where I got one of the two on the rack; this is a Marine Corps Uniform store so the Navy items are not well stocked.  Getting back to the office I donned my uniform looking perfectly resplendent I might add and went to the funeral home where I met up with other perfectly resplendent Chiefs and Sailors.  One thing about the Navy Service Dress Blues they are a classic uniform and are always a classy look.

We had a significant number of sailors there with members of our Chief’s Mess acting as pallbearers, other Petty Officers and Sailors serving as the Flag detail and one of our Master Chiefs presenting the American Flag to Judy.   We also had about 30 other Sailors present joining Carl’s family, his extended family and friends which included a number of men who had served with Carl during his career.  A Marine Honor Guard commanded by a Gunnery Sergeant fired the 21 gun salute and then Taps was played.  It was an honor and privilege to participate.

The brief homily that I gave came out of the Gospel according to John where Jesus tells Martha at the tomb of Lazarus “I am the resurrection and the life.”  In it I focused on that message even as I mentioned his service, life and care of his family and his sailors and his service during and after Vietnam.  After the committal I lingered with various friends of Carl’s and as the crowd dissipated I got into my car and left.  I was blessed by God to be able to return a favor done to my family.  For me this is a large part of why I continue to serve, to care for God’s people in the Sea Services those currently serving and those that blazed the trail for us.  Sometimes one gets lucky.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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