Just smile and wave, boys…just smile, and wave.

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Those penguins of Madagascar had one of the best lines in the movie.  I feel like that often in my life.  Over the past weeks I have felt completely overwhelmed by feelings and thoughts.  I haven’t a clue as to what has precipitated my feelings recently, but I feel like I have to put a mask on everyday just to make it through.  This happened often in my run-up to being sent to Jordan.  I knew I was in trouble, that I wasn’t close to 100%, but I just put that mask on and pushed ahead.  At the time of my training and preparation for mobilization I was also the pastor of a church and a mental health counselor.  To say that I was suffering from compassion fatigue is an understatement.  I had been burning my candle at both ends and in the middle.  By the time my orders came through I was near the point of exhaustion.  If I had been strong enough, and brave enough, I would have reached out for help then.  However, I am a hard-headed and stupid man.  I decided that I could suck it up and drive on – oohrah.  I was determined to “not tarnish my honor” by admitting that I was not up to the task at hand.  (These, of course, the musings of a much older and wiser hard-headed and stupid man).  I think that the mask started to slip fairly early into my deployment though.   I was paired with a person that not only was likely dealing with his own wounds and scars, but whom was also the polar opposite of myself.

I once told a Sergeant Major that “I could work with anyone.”  That vain and ignorant statement would most certainly come back to haunt me.  I have been trying to be as fair as possible in my recollections and recounting of this person, but I find that I am still too hurt to be completely objective.  Where I would choose quiet persuasion, he would choose overt bullying.  Where I would counsel compromise and cooperation, he would disappear and ignore.  How many times was I asked, “Where is he?”  My job was to know, and I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  He was my Captain Dike.  I literally walked miles and searched for hours trying to answer that question.  And the truth is, I didn’t really  want to find him.  We were stranded for 2 months in Kuwait waiting for important documents because of his bullying and impatience.  Two months!  We could have been on mission, doing our jobs, but his decision resulted in me basically being turned back into a Private, and given duties commensurate.  You know that you are fulfilling a vital task when you organize closets and files that had not been touched in 6 years.  I’m quite proud of that actually.  That’s about when I first started to hear, with regularity, “Everything okay?” and it’s not like I could answer truthfully.  Then, we finally make it to our mission in Jordan and almost immediately he made difficulties with the command that, from my viewpoint, caused us to be transferred to Afghanistan.  I honestly don’t know how I was able to function, but I did.  I accomplished the absolute, bare-bones of my responsibility in Afghanistan.  I told him upon our arrival in Kabul that I did not feel that our current orders supported our leaving post, and that after getting through Iraq twice, I had nothing that I needed to prove.  This was a lie.  The truth was that as a fundamental responsibility as a Chaplain Assistant and as a Christian, it was my duty to lay my life down to protect his – and I couldn’t guarantee that I would.  He did not challenge me on this.  As it was, there were multiple times that I actually had to place myself at risk for his welfare even on our post (again, not trying to over-inflate my service – but this is true).  The times that I did it was more out of concern for the reputation of the office of Chaplain and for myself than for personal concern for him.  That is amazingly hurtful to write…but unfortunately true.  I perfected my smile and wave enough that no one else suspected.  But I knew, and I am rather sure that he did too.  But again, he did not challenge me on this.

Which brings me back to now.  I have been “smiling and waving” so long, that it feels like that is what I should be doing.  But it’s not sustainable.  My practice of living is not sustainable.  I can’t keep doing the same things and think that a different outcome will occur.  That’s insanity.  I was hurt before because I was unable/unwilling to admit that I needed help and that I was not able to accomplish something.  Well, without a doubt it is time to change that narrative.  Tomorrow morning I take a large step outside of my comfortable rut and walk in a different direction.  An important step, and one that must be free from any masks, any “smiling and waving.”

Dropping Pretenses Regardlessly,

Qmo

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Sweeping Streets

Today was difficult to get through and to be quite honest, I almost didn’t try to make it.  I was very close to just calling my boss and letting him know that I was not going to be able to make it in to the office today.  I could have, but that would have been the wrong answer for me.  I have already missed several weeks from work and I know that even though I was far from 100% today, that I needed to make it.  Two main things made me go into work today.  First, I had promised a friend that we would meet and study the Psalms today and pray together.  Second, I intellectually know that every time I stay in my safe zone at home that I am in fact reinforcing the opposite that I want to occur in my life.  So, I went out of the house and, in fact, made it through the day.  Though I really did feel quite “off” today, I was able to accomplish what I needed to.

Funny thing is that when I got home I decided that I was just not ready to be in the house with the family yet.  I know that they can tell when they need to keep their distance and I know when I am feeling agitated.  So tonight, when I arrived home and was feeling this way, I decided that I needed to sweep the street clean of the aftermath of our long winter – gravel.  I swept from our mailbox all the way to our side street.  I had to move our vehicles, dodge some traffic, and shovel quite a bit of the aggregate off the road but it now looks freshly swept and I ended up gaining a good bit of weed cover in my front yard.  By the time I was finished I realized that I was feeling better and that I was ready to be around family again.  It reminded me of another time I that I swept up and took great satisfaction in the task.  Iraq is known for its amazing sandstorms, Haboob’s, and when I was assigned to 25th ID/3DBE’s Bronco Chapel (we were on an extended downtime from Transition team rounds) we had one of the most epic sandstorms I can recall.  After 2 days it finally died down and we were able to finally see the results to our office and chapel.  There was a thick layer of sand covering everything.  I ended up helping my immediate supervisor move all the furniture, electrical equipment, instruments – everything – out of the chapel and began to sweep up the mess.  It took hours, but I remember just being so happy to do that work and I loved how clean the place looked and felt afterward.  You see, I’m one of those Chaplain Assistant’s who really believes that a chapel is not just a place we do church but is in fact the place where we go to worship and cry out to God.  I also understand that it is a testament to His mercy and grace that we are even allowed to have life in our body, and that each moment that we are allowed to continue is just more evidence of His matchless compassion for us.  I know…with all the struggles that I have been having, that seems a little confident.  But, my struggles are not with HIM.  My belief in Him has never wavered and actually has never been stronger.  My struggles are something internal to me, and in my practice and expression with others.  I know, it’s confusing to me too.

Regardless, I have always held a high view on the place and manner of worship.  So for me, it was an act of duty and service that brought much enjoyment to clean and prepare that chapel for use again.  And that was not the only time.  In Jordan and Afghanistan I was just as focused on making sure that there area that was set aside for ministry met my standard for personal and communal worship.  Now, what does that have to do with sweeping the streets today making me feel better?  There is something to be said for just getting to work and making something better than it was.  The longest hump I have ever accomplished started the same way that the shortest one did, I took a single step.  Psalm 51:10 says “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.”  God certainly can use majestic and radical events to make instant change in our lives.  I know that is some people’s experience.  But God can also use the unexpected and the small gesture to do the same.  That’s more my experience.  Not the crashing thunder, but the still small voice.  Taking the small first step today and just getting out my door, and finishing the day with some good solid labor that is observably obvious is that still small way that the Lord helps to bring me back.  I may try to hide from it at times, I may even fight it at times, but the nice thing is that He never stops.  And I sure keep leaving plenty of messes that He needs to help clean up…but at least I’m on the road to renewal again.

Qmo

Why Can’t I Sleep?

Well, tonight is a difficult night.  I live in a home that has an amazing view of the river.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the mountains and the city.  Most days I love the view and I love that I can see all around my area.  Tonight, though, I am leaning towards moving away.  You see my house also has a great view of the local airport.  Normally, this doesn’t bother me.  It is a small regional airfield that services small craft, rather infrequently.  But it also now houses the local life-helicopters.  For whatever reason, they are just sitting at the airport with the rotors turning, and I can’t seem to block it out.  Just hearing it takes me straight back to Iraq.  My CHU (container housing unit) was right on the edge of the airfield and all day and night I would hear helicopters.  Sitting and warming up, taking off, landing.  And that was when I was on down-time.  When my unit was moving around, we would have to ride on those helicopters and would spend all night in and around them.  So now, when I hear that very familiar sound, I close my eyes and it seems like I am right back there.  I know I’m not, but part of me seems to think I am.  I can almost smell the sand and the petroleum smoke.  I guess it just reminds me of things that I’d rather not remember too, like the night we took a helicopter up to Mosul to provide a memorial service for a BiTT team member that we had lost.  What a horrible day.  We had started that morning having breakfast with our team on the Syrian border after a great week long visit.  Since this was one of our most remote teams, they hadn’t had Chaplain services in quite sometime.  That morning we waited for a helicopter to take us back to our home base at COB Speicher to rest and reset before going back out on our battlefield circulation.  It had been a long tour, we had decided to hit all of our remote teams and had been gone longer than our usual due to weather and distance.  That morning our team was going to be taking a convoy trip off their post and waited until we left to head out.  Our helicopter picked us up and away we went on the very long trip back to Speicher.  I remember getting back sometime in the later afternoon and heading back to our chapel and by brigade to get mail and set up meetings for our next itinerary.  We had dinner and were just getting ready to get some well-earned down time when we received a communication from division.  Our team had taken casualties and one servicemen had been killed.  The division general routed his personal helicopter and we were sent to Mosul to meet with the team to send our fallen brother home.  Something that is important to understand is that these small Transition teams were only 12 Soldiers strong, and my 2 man chaplain unit was responsible for all teams in Northern Iraq, about 35 teams.  We had just spent a week with this team and when we landed to meet them in Mosul, they were noticeably in shock and pain.  SSG Ryan Zorn had been killed.  It remains my greatest honor that his team asked me to be one of his pall-bearers to send him on his honor flight home.  We walked the casket of this Soldier that we had just had breakfast with that morning and placed him on a flight that would ultimately take him home to his mother.  The whole base in Mosul came out to honor this fallen Soldier and upon the plane taking off for Dover, they marched back to their rooms and to their duties.  And my Chaplain and I went to ours.  It took less than 24 hours for me and my Chaplain to prepare and perform a memorial service, but it took days to do the critical incident debriefing with our team.  My job was to run interference and do the logistics and admin responsibilities so that the team could grieve and receive vital counseling.  And all the while, we were on that damn airfield with those helicopters warming up, taking off, landing…We spent 96 hours with the team and I don’t remember sleeping much, I just had so much to do and it felt better to work and move than think about how fragile our lives can be in combat.  Man, I hate the sound of helicopters now.  Reminds me of things I’d rather not think about and takes me back to places I never want to go again.

RIP SSG Zorn,

Qmo

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Hopeful Sadness

Today a veteran friend of mine resigned from his job.  He has been struggling greatly with the symptoms of PTSD and has walked farther and farther from stability.  He says that he doesn’t know what to do.  I look around and all of us in and around him don’t know how to help him.  He is receiving treatment but doesn’t seem to be getting better, and now he is pulling farther away from people.  I know that I for one am going to do what I can to help him, but I also know that I can’t share his pain and suffering.  I am and have been supportive, but I also know that I am fragile enough right now that there is only so much stress outside of myself that I can take on, and that thought hurts to admit.  In the military it is ground in to the marrow that you never leave a servicemen behind.  So why does it feel like we are not doing enough for my friend?  Why do I feel guilty that I can barely handle my own job and my family and can’t take on more?

When I was in infantry school, I was assigned to Camp Horno on Pendleton.  My fire team had a Marine that came to all of us one day away from everyone else and revealed that he had injured his knee.  He had gone to the doc and was told that if he couldn’t train that there was a good bet that he would get medically discharged.  He asked for our help.  He was able to hump in a straight line over even ground well-enough, but with his pack and combat load, going up hills especially was painful and near impossible.  As a team we decided to help.  We spread-loaded his gear across all of us and it became our practice upon movement that whenever there was an incline that two of us would race up and carry him up and he would become our 12 0’clock security.  Down hill he would grab a shoulder and we would move out, rotating in series.  It was an interesting thing to see and learning to move tactically with that set-up caused us some difficulty.  But it was worth it to us, to me.  My brother Marine had asked for help.  I’m going to say no?  Contrast that with another member of my platoon who had great difficulty in moving in urban terrain with gear and combat load.  A basic requirement of infantry training is jumping up to a roof line and pulling yourself up to the position where your team can help get you across or up.  But the majority has to be done by your own upper body strength.  This guy would never ask for help.  We offered to workout with him on weekends and evenings but he refused.  We walked away because he would not ask for help or do anything to help himself.  Ultimately, he would have been a liability to our platoon.

Now, you might ask the question, what is the difference between the two Marines?  The first asked for help.  He was certainly compromised but he also worked his rear off in other ways to help take up his slack.  He never quit, and I respect him for his courage.  Once he was in the fleet and healed, he would take that resolve and would be an asset to his Marine unit.  The second never tried.  He couldn’t meet the minimum requirements and did nothing to help himself or get help for himself.  He quit on himself and he quit on our platoon, and frankly, someone who can’t do the basic infantry skills is a danger to himself and those around him.

So, how do I resolve my feelings of responsibility to my friend?  I have to preface this in a metaphor…my bucket is already mostly full and I can only add so much before my stuff spills out.  I suppose the best way to look at this situation is in combat casualty stability.  When a brother or sister goes down in combat, you have to first suppress the incoming fire before you can move the casualty and begin to stabilize the wounded.  Would I be a better friend to my brother if I went down trying to help him, or is it better to support him by being at my best?  Please understand that I view my friend in the same way that I view that first Marine.  I respect him, and I have never seen quit in him.  But he is hurting and in need.

Perhaps in this case I need to look away from my military training for guidance.  Psalm 22:22-24 says that “I will proclaim Your name to my brothers; I will praise You in congregation.  You who fear God, praise Him!  All you descendants of Jacob honor Him!  All you descendants of Israel revere Him!  For He has not despised or detested the torment of the afflicted.  He did not hide His face from him but listened when he cried out for help.”  Ultimately I can not truly help my friend.  There is only One who can.  According to this psalm, my responsibility is to appeal to God, who is fully aware of what my friend is going through and is actively engaging in his situation.  I know that for some that type of thought is anathema or viewed as naive.  At the very least it can seem as a platitude to comfort myself.  But truth is defined as reality as God perceives it.  I have no doubt in any fiber of my being that He is intimately involved in our lives and that His overwhelming desire is compassion for my friend.  So, for me to say that I will yield to God and proclaim His authority as true healer is not a passive gesture, it is instead the most active and beneficial intervention that I have now at my disposal.  Can it be that all my attempts at standing up for my friend are less powerful than kneeling for him?

Blessings and Peace to Eric,

Qmo

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Fortunate Son

I spent some time today looking at some of my deployment pictures and it hit me, not for the first time, of just how fortunate I was to have the experiences that I did.  I was looking specifically at my cover photo for this blog.  I was in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009 and I was able to go into the town of Sulimaniyah and look around the local bazaar.  We were visiting a Border Patrol Transition Team (BPiTT) that was assigned to assist and train the Peshmerga troops guarding the border of Iran.  That entire trip was something like a vacation in the midst of war.  As you can see in the photo, I am neither wearing armor or armed.  During that time (pre-ISIS) the area was deemed safe and just like walking around our towns here in full kit and armed would be strange, so it was in Kurdistan.  While I was there I even ran in my first half-marathon ever – a shadow of the Portland Marathon on a Peshmerga base with members of the BPiTT. At one point during the running of that race (and there were only 12 of us running it!) I was stopped in the road by a local goat-herder and his huge flock!  We went to a local restaurant and had a normal meal…just like a regular Saturday night.  I remember a fantastic mid-summer thunderstorm that was warm and took my breathe away with power and beauty.  If you also look closely in the photo you can see the people all around me and how there aren’t faces of fear or anger, just people about their daily lives.  I can’t tell you how precious that time was for me.  It was like being able to recharge and catch my breathe before wading back into the storm.  Little did I know then, that very soon I would be visiting a different BPiTT on the Syrian border with a much different outcome, a story for a different day.  In Psalm 3:5-6, it says that “I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me.  I am not afraid of the thousands against me on every side.”  Sometimes, we know that we need rest.  Other times though, only God knows we need rest.  I know that the best times I have ever slept occurred when I knew that people I trusted were on guard around me.  It was in those times that I could rest and relax and not worry about what is out there in the night.  This is how God is for us.  He is always on guard watching out for us.  During those times when He has need for us, He always provides what we need to accomplish His will.  Some people may not buy any of this…and God gives each one of us that choice.  But for me and in my life, I have seen too many times when circumstances have come that the only explanation is that God is there and directs my path.  For me, the evidence is clear and my choice has been made.  I know that I am fortunate indeed.

Moving Forward,

Qmo

Trying to rebuild

Well, it certainly has been a long time.  I could come up with excuses, but that’s just what they are, excuses.  Over the past few weeks I have been sick with a stomach flu and I have only worked 1 day in the past 14.  During this time, I was able to really decompress and decide that I really want to get better.  And I mean all-around better.  I recently joined a group with my wife that is focusing on our weight, diet, and self-care.  So far, I have quite enjoyed it and I am seeing some slight changes in my daily routine.  Today, I prayed.  That may seem trivial, but for whatever reason I have really walked away from communicating with God.  I honestly don’t know if I am angry with Him, or if I am ashamed of me, or just hurt and numb over how my last deployment went, but I made the decision that it is time to be done with that period in my life.  I read my Bible with my youngest son the other day, a section out of Ezra, which talked about rebuilding the Temple.  Now, I could go into how neat it is that in scripture the word temple is interchangeable with the physical building in Israel and the individual person, but you get the idea.  The people in Ezra had to work hard to rebuild the temple.  It was no easy task.  They not only had to raise funds, they had to get the building items, actually build and repair, and also go about their daily lives.  And all this happened before the scripture even says that they were opposed.  I guess the guidance here is that it takes hard work to rebuild ourselves, and that while we are doing it we also have to live our lives.  And there will be opposition.  To expect smooth sailing and great times is not only unlikely, its foolish.  I know this, but I also know that I have a secret weapon.

When I was assigned to 3BDE/25ID as a Transition Team RST in 2009, there was a team that we needed to meet with in the town of Tikrit, Iraq.  My boss and I had to travel from COB Speicher to an Iraqi outpost in central Tikrit by way of a Combat-Logistic Patrol (CLiP).  We were basically baggage on this trip, but like everyone in the convoy, I attended the route briefing.  Specifically on that day, there were credible threats to American convoys moving in and around Tikrit and in fact, while we were enroute, the CLiP 5 minutes in front of us took fire.  During that time, the local insurgency was hitting convoys with RPG’s that could shred through our armor like butter.  I saw the remains of vehicle that was hit a few days earlier.  Now, we are heading into the same area and I can tell you that my adrenaline and fear peaked, especially since I had no way of controlling the situation at all – I was strapped in the back just waiting.  This time, nothing happened – the guys who fired at the first convoy had likely bugged out seconds after firing, that’s their M/O.  I knew that during the trip, I couldn’t just sit there stewing in my fear and trepidation, but I also knew that I had no actual way of changing anything.  So, I let my secret weapon take over.  I prayed a simple prayer that asked God to take my fear, keep the convoy safe, and that in any event that my only request was that God allow me to meet Him on my feet with honor if He should require my life that day.

See, there is something powerful about surrendering to your circumstances in the right way.  I’m not going to sit here tonight and inflate my service, but there have been many times that I have been in situations where my life could be required of me and I can tell you that in those moments is not the time you want to get ready.  You don’t want to have your final seconds be when you begin to build or rebuild your life.  That ships sails quickly. I always had the same prayer and request when I was going into missions: Lord, let me meet you with honor.  I had to make peace with who I was at that time, that what I had or hadn’t accomplished was going to be me.  And that I would stand by that as the best that I could do.

So, I sit yet again at another decision point and I have decided that I want to get well.  That I want to rebuild my life and move forward on the path that God has for me.  I am not naive, I know that it will take hard work and that opposition is inbound.  But, I also know that I have a secret weapon who is always on duty and that truly wants me to succeed.

Blessings,

Qmo

Why does every day have to be a fight?

I can’t remember the last time that I wasn’t struggling with how I feel now.  It’s seems like I am always a mere moment away from blowing up or making my family feel on edge, and that’s not fair.  It’s not fair to them and I really feel like it’s not fair to me either.  Most of our familial difficulties seems to come from cleaning the house.  And I know that’s not really the reason that we are having difficulty…my children are afraid, my wife is frustrated…heck, even my dog is confused.  They don’t understand what is going on with me and to be honest, most days neither do I.  I feel sad; I feel angry; I feel disappointed; I feel hurt; I feel weak; sometimes I feel nothing.  This last tour I had so many days where I was just focusing on getting through so that I could come home.  So why don’t I feel like I ever did?  I truly feel like I need to have a good cry, I can literally feel the emotions behind some kind of wall that I can’t seem to break.  It’s the same with my sleep.  I am so tired at night, but I just can’t seem to turn off my keeping watch.  I sleep so lightly all night because I can’t seem to allow myself to just relax.  As soon as the sun comes out and the family is up and around, I finally fall into deep sleep…for about an hour and then I have to get to my day.  Seriously, most weekends now I sleep wonderfully from about 7am to noon.

I don’t know what will happen but I know that I want to be here.  I want to enjoy my family and I want to sleep at night without feeling like I need to be on guard.  I want to fix my plumbing and build a shed with my boys.  I want to laugh with my daughter and play legos with my youngest.  I want to be romantic with my wife without her thinking I just need some.  I want to spend time with my parents and fix my truck.  I want to start running with Layla again…

I haven’t figured a lot of things out, clearly, but I do know that every hump starts with one step.  Back in my grunt days the first step was never really the hard part for me.  I had no problem in moving out.  I never had difficulty in stopping either.  I was never tempted to fall out or quit, I was too scared of what my brothers around me would think.  No, the area that I struggled in was in the mental preparation BEFORE we actually stepped off.  My platoon would have a forced march every Monday morning so I would spend all weekend worrying about how much it was going to hurt and how there was no way I could make it.  I always made it…even that one time where I partially dislocated my shoulder.  I suppose I should take that into account with my life journey now, but I have never had so many things going on at the same time.  Life back then was simple.  March there, set up position here, report there, etc.  Now, I not only have to figure out my own confused responses to everything, I have to do it with fragile emotions, little sleep AND take into account the feelings and lives of 5 other people.  I don’t want to run my family like a squad in a platoon, but I keep finding myself falling back into those habits.  It’s just that when my teenagers do something half-hearted, or talk back with disrespect, or just shut down, my first instinct is to lock them up and begin to go NCO on them.  And it doesn’t work.  It just makes things worse but I just don’t know what else to do.

I wrote a paper in seminary that had to deal with the stages of belief in Christianity.  When you first begin your walk you tend to be very self-centric and think very little of others.  After time and growth, you should move into a more other-centric stage that eventually should find you being God-centric.  Right now, I feel like I have become totally self-centric.  Like all of my symptoms, aches, pains, and struggles are all that I and my family focus upon.  I have spent so long dealing with others issues that I feel like I need to be a little self-centric, but I know that I have taken it to a terrible extreme.  I just don’t know how to change it.

I know that this entry is very disjointed and doesn’t seem to have format, and that is probably appropriate because that is exactly how I feel.

Shooting back-azimuth,

Qmo