Thursday, April 03, 2008

Home at Last, Home at Last

Whew! 15 months away from Dawn and the boys was a true test of endurance. When we were first informed that our twelve month deployment was lengthened to 15 months in support of the "surge", we took it in stride. But when those "extra" months came upon us, it seemed like more than 3 additional months to us. When a 4 mile run turns into 5 miles, that last mile can seem like an eternity when your lungs are burning and your legs are rubbery. Seeing the family and friends of our Soldiers on Cotrell Field at Fort Stewart was a sweet experience. Anyone who considers the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform worthy of their respect, must also consider the sacrifices made by their families. I am humbled by the sweet support of my wife, our sons--and all those who have helped care for them while I've been deployed.

(The sign Benjamin is holding in the above picture is inspired by google/gmail's chat interface that Dawn and I sometimes used to stay connected with one another during the deployment. If she were signed in, there would be a green dot next to her name. The two green dots represent our connection. As brilliant as her idea was, I was too sleep deprived and exhausted from the previous week's travel to get it right away.)

I have included a few pictures here of our reunion ceremony. We marched onto the field with stripped down uniforms (all ammunition and other combat equipment had previously been removed), rendered a salute to the national flag as the national anthem was played, sang the "Dog-Face Soldier" (3rd Infantry Division song), and the Army Song--then we were released to our families. That's when we really felt like singing. I confess, being home seems surreal; I keep waiting to wake from this sweet dream. Please continue to keep our Soldiers in your thoughts and prayers as we reintegrate with our families and society in general. Please continue to remember the families of our brothers killed-in-action: Matthew Zeimer, Kelly Youngblood, Forrest Waterbury, Adrian Lewis, Daniel Cagle, and Steve Butcher. Thank you for your tremendous support during this last deployment.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Farewell Friends

Before leaving Iraq for Fort Stewart, Georgia, we paid one last visit to our dear friend Sheik Hayis (spelled "Heiss" in previous posts below). Our commander, LTC Silverman, has developed a genuine and meaningful friendship with Sheik Hayis, whose leadership has been influential--even pivotal--in the success in Al-Anbar in general, and Jazeera specifically. His friendship with LTC Silverman has been extended to me, and in addition to introducing me to Sheik Abdullah, he was also instrumental in that relationship's development. Sheik Hayis and I exchanged gifts (see post "Cultural Exchange" 20 August below), and you will see he displays the Prayer at Valley Forge print above his grandfather clock.

In addition to discussing the province's progress and the importance of incorporating the rising generation of Iraqis into the stabilization and growth process, we enjoyed a traditional meal of lamb, chicken and fish with rice, pita bread and fresh vegetables. As we ate, Sheik Hayis shared with us a video recording of a local group of dervishes who performed for him the previous evening. In states of religious ecstasy, these dervishes impaled themselves with swords (through their torsos, skulls, throats, etc.) burned themselves, and demonstrated other bizarre and violent skills that they believe demonstrate the limitless support God gives to those fully devoted. As fascinating as it was to watch, my appetite suffered.
It was difficult for LTC Silverman and Sheik Hayis to say farewell to one another. Sheik Hayis' place has long been associated with progress, and the members of the colonel's and sergeant major's PSDs (personal security details) were anxious to say goodbye to him and have their pictures taken with him. I am including a recent picture of many of them here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunrise: Up Early, Up Top

With so little time before we redeploy back to Fort Stewart and reunite with our families and friends, it can be difficult to focus and appreciate the Easter event for its foundational role in providing meaning and purpose in our lives. In an effort to reclaim this understanding, we woke early this Easter morning to celebrate Easter in a sunrise worship service. We collected what few chairs and benches remain in the area and gathered on the roof of our battalion headquarters. We were senior leaders and junior Soldiers, male and female, black and white, and represented a vast array of denominations to include those with no religious preference--only in combat do we see such unity in diversity. We opened singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" and SGT Goudy offered the invocation. SSG Smith, SPC Willis, and CSM Johnson provided our gospel readings, and COL Rathje prayed for us and led us in the Lord's Prayer. SPC Thomas played the guitar and SGT Dewalt led us in singing "Amazing Grace". SPC Thomas expressed concern that his rendition may have been a bit too country. We were also joined by several civilian contractors and interpreters whose fellowship has been a blessing to us this fifteen months.

Among the principles we discussed this morning was the renewal of life that often occurs in the desert. Whether it's ancient Israel, the Savior himself, or those deployed to combat zones in the middle east., the opportunity to set aside the clutter and clamour of the world's distractions and focus on one mission can be a blessing (as long as it's not too long, of course). We must allow him to focus us that we may remember that God calls us into personal relationship with him; he does this through Jesus. He calls us by name. It was Jesus speaking her name, that caused Mary to recognize him. It was Jesus blessing and offering his disciples food that caused them to see him. Even though, at first, their eyes did not identify him--they later recalled that their hearts burned as he opened to them the scriptures. Broken and sinful, we must not think we can be his disciples without fully relying on his redeeming grace. When we think such discipleship is too hard, it is usually because we are trying to do it all on our own. It's not too hard; it's impossible. And yet "with God, all things are possible" (Matt 19:26). Jesus' disciples in the first century were just as clueless and scared as we are in the twenty-first century. The hope that comes from his Resurrection overcomes our fears.

It has been an inexpressible joy to witness the spiritual maturity of many leaders and Soldiers during this deployment. Some of the darker moments of this tour were particular opportunities for growth and understanding. Just as we sometimes witness Soldiers who have become physical or psychological casualties--the threat of becoming a spiritual casualty is equally real. I thank God that so many of our Soldiers have developed a relationship with him and continue to find his peace.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Combined Presence

Now that we have ceased combat operations and turned over our battle space to incoming units, we are gathered together here at Camp Ramadi. Over the past 15 months, we have been spread out--so the nearly 900 Soldiers of our battalion is something we haven't witnessed since before we left Fort Stewart back in the winter of 2006. Now that everyone's returned from their respective areas of operation, it's a little over whelming to see everyone together in one place. As companies began sending their Soldiers in, we had a battalion formation with just over half of our Soldiers present. The Commander addressed a few issues relating to the turning in of vehicles and equipment. I am including a few pictures here of that early evening formation--as the sun was descending into the dusty horizon. To be sure, every Soldier dreads formations--especially if they are long. That being said, there is still an element of pride to experiencing what it means to be a part of something much larger than yourself. Hardship, boredom, and even grief can be forgotten in the moment a unit sounds off with it's motto: ours is "Speed and Power!"

Another aspect of our imminent return is award ceremonies. Soldiers and leaders receive medals for their combat service and valorous acts. We had a good handful of young men receive the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medals with Valor. SFC Rodriguez was awarded the Silver Star. Several received the Purple Heart and Combat Infantry and Combat Action Badges. Although it would be great to receive these medals in the company of our families and friends back home--our reintegration training and leave schedule precludes us from making the needed time. LTC Silverman is pictured here presenting the Bronze Star to SSG Saechow and offering our battalion's OIF V coin to SSG Weston and the Soldiers of Charlie Company 2-7 Infantry, who were attached to us the entire deployment.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Weathering Highs and Lows

Iraq has peculiar weather and terrain conditions. When I first arrived in Iraq in January 2005, I was surprised by how cold and rainy it was. There seemed to be a couple of months of winter, a month of spring, and then the rest of the time was summer. It seemed this was a land of extremes. The dust storms were particularly miserable. As stated below, the sand in Iraq is not beach sand; it's not tiny pebbles, but dust from clay; it is fine, powder like flour. This dust gets everywhere! It can destroy computers and other equipment just as quickly as it can get into every nook of your sinus cavity. We welcome the rain as it knocks down the dust and clears the air--but it sure makes it miserably muddy. I am including a few pictures of the weather here lately. Nearing the end of March--it doesn't feel like Spring--it's too hot. But just last week we experienced a memorable dust storm. The picture above is a satellite photo of Iraq. You can see the dust storm moving in on the west and the clouds on the east (right).

Monday, March 03, 2008

Reintergration & Reunion

Over the past several weeks I have been giving classes to our Soldiers in preparation for our redeployment to Fort Stewart, Georgia and our reintegration with our families. As mentioned in an earlier post below, the first class I provided addressed the issues of suicide awareness and sharing combat experiences. The ideal size of a group attending these classes is about 30-40 Soldiers, allowing me to customize the material and provide for exchange and conversation. Each class or brief was a little over one-hour long. Today, at JSS Hawas, I finished the last of these briefs; I have conducted 44 of them. LTC Silverman, CSM Sumner and 1SG Biggs have sometimes joined me in teaching—their occasional presence not only lends validation to the subject matter, but gives me a much needed breather. The repetition turns my brain to mush, but the unique dynamic of each group has helped keep me focused. At the risk of sounding boastful, I must say these briefs have been an absolute success. Soldiers’ attentiveness and engagement during the conversations have less to do with my skill and presentation and more to do with their own appreciation for the challenges that lie before us upon our return home. Soldiers always stick around afterwards with individual questions or to make appointments for counsel.

The subject matter of this second class has been divided into three sections: self-care, family-care, and the contrast between combat and garrison life. Within the realm of self-care, we discuss diet, exercise, sleep, alcohol, and finances. (The principle to remember in every case is self-discipline.) As sweet as it is to be home, Soldiers and leaders can easily become frustrated and irritated with the lack of purpose and mission they experience when compared to what they regularly experienced in combat.

One of the seven Army Values is integrity. I have explained that the root word of integrity is “integer”—yes, the same word we were introduced to in math class. Just as an integer is a whole number, such as 2, 3, or 4—and a 2 is a 2, and not a 3—having integrity is being true to who I am: who I am as a professional, as a husband, father, son, friend, neighbor, etc. Furthermore, the goal of reintegration is to be true and loyal in my roles as husband, father, and Soldier. Reintegrating is the process of finding our groove—so to speak—in being true to the roles that help define us. It’s unimaginable that one could return from combat and reintegrate without difficulty; we will all hit a few speed bumps along the way; some of us will hit a brick wall. Recognizing that difficulties are common can help us patiently endure this season of adjustment.

Among the issues of great interest is intimacy. Soldiers—and most in our society—understand this word as a synonym for sex. It is essential we understand it to mean connection and closeness, and it is therefore helpful to acknowledge there are various forms of intimacy. It is wise for couples to acknowledge their need for sexual, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical intimacies. Every Soldier has changed during his tour, and so have our family members. Change is natural and, of itself, is not a threat. The long separation makes it difficult to connect as easily as we would like, or as we had previously—but patience and time will payoff.

Intimacies or connections can be re-established. Since love is what we do rather than how we feel, we should not be alarmed if the same feelings for one another do not fully and immediately return. They are nurtured in relationships of trust, security and mutual respect. In other words, how we feel for one another (which, is important, no doubt) is largely determined by how we care for or serve one another. So when a leader—because it’s been his custom for the past 15 months—speaks to his wife as if she is one of his Soldiers, she won’t like it. But if she can keep in mind that he likely didn’t intend disrespect, then it will be easier for her to be patient with him as he becomes reacquainted with communicating in a fashion that is personal, rather than professional, and horizontal, rather than a vertical. The same is true of the Soldier whose wife speaks to him as if he is a child. Although offensive, it is wise for him to remember that the mode of communication with which she’s been most familiar during the past 15 months is parent-child. He’s going to use his business tone with her and she’s going to use her maternal tone with him—and each will do well to be patient with the other.

Unfortunately, many of our Soldiers’ marriages have not weathered this storm. Some will return single or in the process of divorce. Others expect that it may soon be the case for them. I counsel couples not to press the issues of contention prematurely. Wait until the dust settles. Seek out any one of the various resources for counseling and marriage enrichment: unit chaplain, family life chaplains, counselors available through , or one’s pastor/religious leader—to name only a few.

Finally, it is essential to remember that everything of value comes with a price. The cost of a loving and stable home environment is hard work and patience. That being said, many couples report experiencing increased understanding and connection upon reunion—and what work and patience is required will (for a change) be something they can finally work on together, side-by-side.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Guitars for Grunts

As you all know, when we first arrived in Ramadi in January 2007, things were pretty hot--kinetically speaking. It was immediately clear to us why others had called Ramadi the most dangerous city in the world. We lost our first Soldier--PV2 Matthew Zeimer--while we were still in our right-seat-ride (first week of being shown the area by the outgoing unit), and continued to lose Soldiers somewhat regularly thereafter. Those days were particularly heavy for us. It is with humble gratitude (and I must confess, a little effort to suppress the superstition one experiences with mentioning such things while still in combat) that I acknowledge we've not lost a Soldier since 23 May 2007--the night SSG Steve Butcher and SPC Daniel Cagle were killed in action.
We often speak of our Soldiers killed in action. We regularly pray for their families. The grief counseling I provide is something that continues long after the tragic event of death. Since that time we have been contacted by these Soldiers' family and friends with reassurance that our safety and mission remain in their prayers. A few months ago, I was contacted by Paul Hickman, a former Marine who's organized a charitable organization: Guitars for Grunts. (see ) His network of friends provides guitars to troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul coordinated with Frank De Gennaro to send us a guitar in memory of SPC Daniel Gagle--a Fender Stratacoustic (electric). LTC Silverman, CSM Sumner and I recently visited our Alpha Company Soldiers down at Joint Security Site Sedgwick, and presented the guitar to SPC Cagle's fellow Soldiers. Pictured here is me presenting the guitar to SFC Kelly, Daniel and Steve's platoon sergeant. SPC Dunkle took a few minutes to tune the guitar, and then played for the Soldiers assembled in the mess hall an arrangement of songs including Johnny Cash's well-loved ballad, "A Boy Named Sue". It was a memorable event. It struck me as poignant that of the various ways we express our grief and remember the fallen, expressions of creativity and art are perhaps the most therapeutic. I wish to thank the folks at Guitars for Grunts and every other organization, group, or individual who has supported us during our deployment. Your gifts help keep us from becoming calloused.