Welcome Home

His eyebrows sagged and his countenance fell. His lips tightened as he went into a blank stare. He wiped a tear from his eye. He was somewhere else in the world right then, a different place, a different time. He had come back from that place years ago, probably before I was born. He had to come back from it again during our conversation sitting at the bar. I wondered how many times he’s had to come back from there in the last 45 years or more.

During my last trip to Ft Jackson, I stayed for a week instead of the usual weekend. When I’m there for only my army reserve weekend, I have a routine I generally follow. I get to town on Friday, check into the hotel, then go to Sonic. And why not? They’ve gotten my order right 3 out of the last 5 times now, getting better. Saturday is usually blur, and Sunday afternoon I head back to Florida. But when I’m there for a week at a time, I usually go to a couple different restaurants instead of eating drive-thru food for a whole week.

One particular night I went to a place I’ve enjoyed a few times before. It’s a sports bar with a killer burger. Not only is it good, but it might kill you, too, at half a pound of beef. Hence, a killer burger. But I’ll take my chances. The beer is cold, there’s sports on the TVs, and the people are nice. That’s where I met Chuck.

The conversation at the bar had to the with the heat that day. Then Chuck started talking to me, saying something about a “dry heat” like in Arizona or something. I told him that only works until it gets to a certain point. I told him it was a dry heat where I was in Iraq, but once the temperature got over 110 degrees, it was just hot. Dry or not, it was hot. Side note. For the record, I took a picture of the thermometer outside our Preventive Medicine office at my base in Iraq. It was at 146 degrees. But it was a dry heat. LOL.

Then Chuck told me he had been to the two worst places in the world. The first place being Detroit during the riots in 1967. The second place was Saigon, 1968. He was a Vietnam Veteran. He told me how he went from Detroit to the jungle. Then he told me that off all the men on the plane that took him to Vietnam, only 4 came home. That’s when he retreated into his mind for a minute. I imagine he was taking a moment to remember each of them. I believe he could see them in his mind, maybe as they sat next to him on the plane or maybe as they drew their last breath, I didn’t ask. Either way, he needed a minute.

When he returned to reality, we changed the subject of our conversation to sports. But in only two minutes before that, I knew his pain. I had a sense of his war stories. I could tell where he had been in some respects. His face spoke it all very clearly. Sports brought a completely different face to Chuck. His sports stories were amazing and fascinating. The sports figures that he met over the years, the autographs he told me about, the memorabilia he said he has in his sports room. It all had me in awe. And he was happy talking sports. It’s his life now, and his job.

Everyone I went with to Iraq and Afghanistan came home. I personally knew a few people that died serving, but everyone I went with both times came home. I can’t imagine what goes through Chuck’s mind when he thinks about being only one of four surviving members of the group on the plane that took him to Vietnam. The only inkling I have of what he goes through is what I saw in his face while he revisited the fallen in his memories.

I have my moments where I get triggered to memories of war. On occasion I get jumpy because of unexpected noises. Being in traffic is hard for me. I battle anxiety and depression all the time. I’m still figuring out a lot of this since coming home from my last deployment. I don’t know his stories, but I can very much relate to how Chuck reacted when taken back to 1968. I also do that from time to time. And I wonder if years from now I’ll still have my moments like that. We’ll see.

I’ll say again what I told Chuck the other night. Thank you for leading the way with your service. And Welcome home. I’m glad you’re one of the four that came back.

Thank you all for stopping this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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SGM Pamplin Saves the Day

I spent this past week at Ft. Lee, Virginia doing Army Reserve stuff. Specifically, I attended a conference put on by the training command I fall under. It was a gathering of all the chaplains and chaplain assistants (now called religious affairs specialists) within the command. A host of guest speakers were there throughout the week, all with a plethora of useful information, including a one-star general that took the time to address us. Ok, maybe all the information wasn’t useful, but if my unit commander asks, that’s what I’m going with. Overall, the trip was definitely worth it.

 

I had only one moment where I wasn’t happy to be there. I was trying to watch the and pay attention to a particular presenter at the time, but there was an attendee standing behind me, talking the whole time. He was either interjecting to the entire group, interrupting the speaker, or he was talking to the person next to him, disturbing those of us sitting in the area. At one point, I made a comment that the guy behind me should give the class since he knows it all and seems to like to talk. Yes, I said it loud enough for him to hear on purpose. Like I posted in a previous blog, I don’t really pull punches anymore at this point.

At the end of that lesson, as we were going on break, the gentleman that annoyed me approached me. He looked at my name and rank on my uniform and addressed me, “Staff Sergeant George, what was the deep sigh for? You might be an expert on this subject, but others might need to hear this.” Oh, my goodness. Did he really just talk in a condescending way like that to me after he was talking the entire time over the presenter? I said, “Sir, can I speak honestly here?” He said yes, please do. So, I told him how I felt about him speaking the whole time, distracting us, that my sigh wasn’t about repeat information, that in fact it was my frustration of his non-stop talking. I got nothing out of that presentation because of him. He apologized, and I believe he was sincere. I took my break outside for some nicotine, actually a double dose of nicotine, I was still pissed, despite his genuine apology. Mostly because of his condescending attitude at the beginning of our conversation. He didn’t even know he was being an ass.

The next speaker after the break was Sergeant Major Pamplin. His presentation and his words were exactly what I needed to hear. For some reason, whatever he was talking about, seemed to put everything in perspective. I was no longer fuming about the rudeness I took personally. In fact, the guy wasn’t trying to be rude, he was trying to help the group, although it was still irritating me and others the way he was going about it. My frustration escalated his talking to rudeness and disrespect in my mind. But it occurred to me that my anger was as much to do with how I deal with situations as it was the guy that kept talking during the previous presentation. With his words of wisdom, SGM Pamplin saved the day. Again.

I first met SGM Pamplin in 2008 while at Ft. Dix (he was a Sergeant First Class at the time). He was in charge of one of the chapels and I was a chaplain assistant preparing for deployment with a unit I had just been cross-leveled to. Just a few days before my unit was to board a plane to Iraq, one of our Soldiers died. I had to help put together a memorial service with no materials, no venue, and with almost no training. I had just recently become a chaplain assistant at that time, after a 14-year break in service, and the training to become a chaplain assistant was very lacking, almost a waste of time. I had never put together a memorial service, not even in training. I was basically set up to fail. Not because it would be anyone’s fault, just because of the circumstances.

I went to the chapel, where I met SGM Pamplin. I told him the situation that my unit was dealing with. I explained that I was new to the job, that my unit was not prepared for this situation, that we were on our way out the door in just a few days. He didn’t bat an eye. He provided everything we needed, and then some. I had all-access use of his resources to put together the memorial service. He gave his guidance. He made sure I was set up for success. He saved the day. And I will never forget it.

I’ve seen SGM Pamplin at various events and functions over the years. He always has an encouraging word when he speaks to a group and always tells an audience that if we need something from him, to reach out and he will do what he can to help. Everyone says that. But I know SGM Pamplin means it. He’s a leader that I’ve tried to model myself after.

What’s the point of this story? Sometimes, just doing your job with a good attitude or helping someone develop their sense of purpose in a job can make a long-lasting impression on someone else. I’m sure the Sergeant Major had no idea the effect he had on me with his leadership and willingness to guide me. As far as he knew, he was just doing his job that day, just another day at the office. I’ve had people in my life, both in and out of the military, tell me years later how much an impact I had on them. I didn’t know. I never thought twice about things like that. I was just doing my job or trying to help someone along with theirs. We all have the capability to make a difference and might not always realize it in the moment. Think about that once in a while. Food for thought. It’s never just another day at the office.

Thanks for stopping by this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

The Hanging of Saddam Hussein

My deployment to Iraq (2008-09) was pretty boring for the most part. I was at a little base called Camp Bucca and my job was not very exciting, it kept me at a desk in the chapel most days. A few times a week, I would escort the chaplain to the TIF (theater internment facility) to visit our troops, medics, and command staff. Sometimes when the chaplain was counseling with a soldier, I would get to pull tower duty over one of the compounds while the chaplain and soldier walked around and chatted. A couple of times when visiting the SHU (special housing unit, where the worst of the worst were kept in solitary confinement), I was overwatch during a detainee being moved from his cell to the small fenced patio for his outside time. That was almost exciting. I held the taser for that job, just in case the detainee had the guts to do something stupid while being moved. They never did, they knew better. That was one cool thing about deploying with a Military Police battalion. I was trained on their non-lethal weapons, trained in combatives, self-defense, and other exciting things. I could have done without the required OC spray (pepper spray) followed by an obstacle course, but that was part of it.

Overall, it was a boring deployment. Nothing like my time in Afghanistan (2013-14) where I traveled all over the country escorting my chaplain. Camp Bucca, Iraq, at least while I was there, was not exciting. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. Very few times was our base threatened, and even if it was, it wasn’t anything like I saw in Afghanistan. I probably saw and heard more attacks in any particular week of travel in Afghanistan as I did my entire deployment in Iraq. Boring can be good in that case. But boring can also be tough on morale. My fellow chaplain assistants and I did what we could to make Bucca a little better for those of us stuck there.

Sometime in 2008, a bootleg video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was circulated via email. It was a very different view from the official video footage released by the Iraqi government after Hussein’s hanging on December 30, 2006. That video stopped just short of his actual hanging. The unofficial video being circulated that I saw was of poor quality, obviously taken on a cell phone. Lights seemed to be flashing, but that was probably the cell phone camera not having enough light to take good video. And the picture was unstable, lots of movement. Obviously, whoever was filming the execution was moving with the action as it happened, while Saddam was being escorted to the gallows. I watched that cell phone footage of him being led to the noose. I couldn’t understand the Arabic being spoken. I watched that video as the rope was put snuggly around Saddam’s neck. He spoke defiantly, or perhaps he was praying, I don’t know, but it was no help to him. The floor dropped out from under him, and after a few seconds, he hung lifeless and still.

That was a morale boost for me. Does that make me a bad person? Nope. That’s why we were there. Do you have any idea how hard it was to be present during the times a soldier was notified of a death of a loved-one from far away, or to organize a memorial service for a fallen soldier, or to inform a spouse that her husband’s plane went down in Afghanistan and there were no survivors? Do you know how hard it was to read casualty reports on the secret-side email and see how those events unfolded? Do you know how hard it was to see those burned children? Honestly, I think it would have been easier to see corpses instead of those children in pain and suffering, crying, scared, with no chance of ever being bodily normal again. Sometimes I still see those three children when I lay down to sleep at night.

I’ve seen some horrible things and I’ve seen some wonderful things. And I can say that the only time I’ve ever witnessed a death (on video or in person) and smiled about it, was watching the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The unofficial video was a couple of years old when I saw it, but at the time, that bootleg video was new to us. To me, it put to rest any doubts. There had been talk for a while that Saddam wasn’t really dead, because the official video didn’t show his neck snapping like the bootleg video did. The official video stopped just before the floor fell out from under him. But the scratchy, unprofessional, dimly lit video from a cell phone that I, and others saw, was enough to make it a good day for me. Saddam’s neck snapped and all life left his body. I smiled. And I didn’t feel bad at all when watching Saddam die in that video. It made me happy, really happy. Once in a while, though, I do think about it and wonder if my feelings about watching that video were normal. That doesn’t usually last long. Maybe I’m demented, but I don’t feel bad about it. He got what he deserved.

I write about a lot of things here, some uplifting, some dark. When you visit Story of My Life, you agree to take the good with the bad. Thank you for stopping by this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

You Don’t See Me

I had a conversation with the new Command Sergeant Major at my army reserve battalion. It was a little one-sided. Those of you who have served in the military know what I’m talking about. I’m coming up on the end of my military career in the reserves, an ending that is not as much my choice as it is the army’s. With that said, I’m a little less likely to hold my tongue than I might have before. I’m still respectful, I just don’t pull my punches anymore, I leave no doubt as to what I’m thinking. I don’t remember exactly what I said that started, “With all due respect Sergeant Major.” But I know it was the truth. Then the Sergeant Major spoke. And what he said was also the truth. I had hoped to talk with him more that weekend, but with a busy training schedule it wasn’t to happen. So, I thought I’d write out what I would have liked to say to him.

The Sergeant Major doesn’t see me, the soldier. He only sees what’s left of me, the soldier. He sees the old guy whose best days are behind him. He doesn’t see that I came back into service at 36 years old after a 14-year break, because the army needed people to do a job. They needed people really bad at the time, and I answered the call. And I would do it again.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/26/the-cost-2/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that can’t pass the army physical fitness test. But he doesn’t see that until my deployment to Afghanistan (2013-14), I was passing the PT test at the standards of an 18-year old (the standards get easier as the soldier gets older). Yeah, I was in my early 40’s passing it with the numbers an 18-year old would have to do to pass. He sees an older, slower soldier. But he doesn’t see that the last two months of my deployment to Afghanistan I was injured. I sucked it up and completed my mission. He doesn’t know the doctor at my little base over there suggested I go to Germany for treatment, then home. He doesn’t know I decided to stay, despite the pain I was in.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/18/yard-work-and-running/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that moves slowly. He doesn’t see that on my two deployments, I brought my chaplains back safe and sound. And that on my last deployment, we traveled Afghanistan extensively. He doesn’t see that in the narrative of my Bronze Star award it tells how I performed my duties under hostile enemy attacks. He doesn’t see that while I was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were soldiers that had been hiding in the instructor unit (my current unit) for a decade or longer.

Left:  Kabul, Afghanistan 2103.  Right:  Umm Qasr, Iraq 2008.

The Sergeant Major sees a soldier that lacks motivation. He doesn’t see my ribbon rack on my dress uniform. He doesn’t see that if I were to update my rack, I’d have 15 different awards on my chest. He doesn’t see all the times I volunteered for different things. He doesn’t see that at a previous unit, I had used up all my allowed time for the fiscal year but still drove 50 miles to give a brief for free (retirement points only). He doesn’t see that I coordinated the suicide intervention training for a CACOM I was in, and that my CACOM was the only command in USACAPOC that met standards by the deadline. Yeah, I got an award from the USACAPOC Command Chaplain for that.

The Sergeant Major sees a somewhat disgruntled soldier. He doesn’t see that I’ve been stuck in a broken system that hasn’t fully addressed my physical and mental injuries. He doesn’t see that I never chose to be a substandard soldier, that in fact, at one time, I was a damn good soldier. He doesn’t see that the circumstances and stresses of all that I’ve gone through have made me what I am now. He doesn’t see that the weight I bear from the physical and mental issues of not being able to perform like I used to was a contributing factor in my suicide attempt in 2015. That, among other things. He doesn’t see how much this kills me inside, only how it currently affects my attitude, something I know I need to work on.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/25/breathe-in-breath-out-if-you-can/ (click here for more).

The Sergeant Major doesn’t see me. He only sees what’s left of me. That’s not fair to either one of us. He probably doesn’t see that I’m my own worst critic and that I absolutely hate that I’m not able to do the things I used to do or handle situations and stress like I have in the past. He has no idea how valuable an asset I can be in the right environment. I could see it in his eyes that he plans on creating the right environment. I could hear it in his voice when he spoke to me. It’s a big job he’s taking on, and I don’t think the odds are in his favor, only because the problems he wants to fix have been there for so long. But I truly hope he pulls it off. It’s probably too late for me to experience the right environment again, but perhaps it will be there for future soldiers in that unit. When my time in the army reserves is over, I will leave satisfied that I made my area a better place overall. I might limp across the finish line, or even fall short of it altogether, but I did my job and did it well. And no one can ever take that from me, no matter what’s left of me at this point.

Thanks for stopping by Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Listen

Listen. That’s all. Not, “Listen to me” or “Listen to this.” Just listen. Sometimes the best way to help someone is to simply to listen. You don’t even need to have a solution to their problems, you just have to listen. It could make a world of difference. Aside from the mandatory, “check the box,” training we get in the army about suicide awareness and prevention, I have had plenty of in-depth training with respect to actually intervening during a serious suicidal ideation. I’m comfortable with that role. And I have done that more times than I want to remember. Not to mention, I have my own personal experience in failing at an attempt. I might not be able to relate to a person’s specific reason, but I certainly can relate to the feelings someone is going through when they are contemplating suicide. But most importantly, I listen.

Years ago, a friend of mine was going through a rough time. Not only that, he was also being moved to a different unit which contributed to his downward mental spiral. Knowing he would be leaving soon, I pulled him aside and thanked him for his impact in my army life. He was a role model to me in many ways. I was a better Soldier for having been under his leadership, and I wanted him to know that. Then, unexpectedly, he started talking. He opened up to me. He talked for about 45 minutes or so. I mostly just listened. Everything he told me is confidential because, as a chaplain assistant in the army, it stays confidential. That’s the rules. And even more so, in my mind, since he was coming to me as a friend. I didn’t think much more of it until later.

I emailed him after he left, to check on him, to see how things were going. That’s when I realized how important it was that I took the time to listen to him when I did. He made it very clear that my taking that time altered his life. Actually, saved it. In his email reply he said, “I appreciate you man because your words really gave me the chance to live another day. All jokes aside, you can really say that you saved a life man.” Funny thing is, I don’t remember talking very much. That’s because I mostly listened. Sometime later, in a Facebook message, after my failed suicide attempt, he gave me encouragement and also details about the day I stopped to talk (listen) to him. He stated, “My roommate was gone. I had all my ammo and my rifle. And I planned on doing it…I was headed to the room and you stopped me and said I love you brother… Man, I went back and loaded the weapon and cried to myself because I knew people loved me…You saved me and I am always here.” That day, the day I just wanted to let him know that I appreciated his leadership, the day that I listened to him, that unknowingly important day. I had no idea he was even considering suicide. No clue.

There are a couple of reasons this story came to mind this week. First, the son of a friend of mine took his own life recently. I’ve been messaging almost daily with that friend. And it’s been hard. I have no idea what to say. I understand the emotions my friend is going through, and it breaks my heart. But I can relate to the son that got to the point of taking his own life because I’ve been there. I tried. Without giving any details, I told another friend about messaging with the first friend, that I didn’t know what to say, that my training was in suicide prevention, and that I’m at somewhat of a loss in talking with a surviving family member after the fact. That’s when friend 2 told me I’m a good man, because I listen when people needed. That hardly makes me a good man, but I am always glad to listen when needed. That’s when I remembered my friend who says I saved his life, and I didn’t even know it at that time, all because I listened to him. That’s how this story came back to me this week. I listened. And, at the time, I had no idea how important that was. All I did was listen. That didn’t cost me anything. But it could have cost my friend his life had I not made time for him. Dear God, thank you.

Sometimes all you have to do is listen to make a difference in someone’s life. Thank you for listening to me this week. Good day, God Bless.

Dave