I join the Ops-O out on the fantail,
Looking into the darkness over the water.
The noise and bustle has paused
And we stand silent, as anxious fathers.

“There are all sorts of hazards out there,”
He says grimly. “Things that will tear out a boat’s keel.”
He just sent the ship’s boats out.
We wait, flinching at each radio squeal.

Young people, out in the looming dark
Searching, searching desperately for survivors:
Gulf Air Flight 72
A few moments ago hit the water.

How hard it is to stay back in safety
While sending our children away into danger
Then seeing them return, changed –
Searing pain engraved by mangled strangers.

In their eyes is where I see it first –
Angry, haunted, pleading, hoping, despairing eyes.
What did they see in the dark?
What lies beneath their mangled, stifled cries?

Wreckage, yes, and torn, shredded bodies,
But what hurt most were things that didn’t make the news –
Looters sifting through corpses,
Souvenirs from last vacations, and shoes.

Shoes – little shoes, bobbing up and down
Beside little feet that will not wear them again,
Bump up against the gunwale –
Toddlers in pieces, knocking, “Let me in.”

The young officer is nearly frantic
“I have to stand my watch. I have to. I have to!”
He needs to do, dares not think
Of teddy bears and tiny feet and shoes.

As he tells me what he saw, I see
Shoes and feet and teddy bears swimming in his tears.
I hear his heart in pieces
Knocking, begging, pleading, “Will someone hear?”

A fatherly embrace, I tell him
“You did well, son. I’m proud. You did your duty well.
Come back after watch is done.
We’ll face the demons, though we wade through hell.”

He leaves, relieved; he will stand his watch.
On the fantail, I note the sun’s first dawning hues.
As waves lap against the hull,
I hear the children looking for their shoes.

I was on board the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN 73) in August of 2000. We were getting ready to leave the port of Manama, Bahrain when Gulf Air Flight 72 crashed on approach, killing all 143 people on board. We were tasked with recovery operations over the next 48 hours and for the next 72 hours afterwards I was busy with critical incident debriefing. Almost all of the young people mentioned the looters and the shoes. The older officers spoke of the worry they had sending sailors about the same age as their own children out into those dangerous waters. All of us were changed.


In and Out

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Can you just go already?
In and out, in and out, in and out –
I need something more steady.

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Children round me patter.
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Do I look like your father?

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Rules constantly changing.
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Home always re-arranging.

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Never know where I’m at.
In and out, in and out, in and out –
It’s not a ship, it’s a cat.

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Really, I do love you.
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Please know that the kids do, too.

In and out, in and out, in and out –
But we need you to go
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Put an end to “to and fro”

In and out, in and out, in and out –
Bring on this six month bout
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Then when you’re out, you stay out

In and out, in and out, in and out –
But when at last you’re back
In and out, in and out, in and out –
Then we can get our lives on track.

One of the most difficult parts about being married to, or the child of, somebody in the military - especially somebody in the Navy - is the constant in-and-out that goes with it.  Between training exercises, work-ups, inspections, TAD, and more, the family dynamics are in a constant state of flux.  One weekend, Dad's home and the relationships in the family function in this way, next weekend he isn't and the relationships function a completely different way.  The actual deployment can come as a relief because it means for at least the next six months or more, there will be a set, stable order to the family.


Wandering the Wilderness

Before I was born, my father left Egypt,
His wife expecting their first child.
Out into the wilderness they went
By Providence light, to Athens, count the miles!
Then further, away to the east,
Wandering out through the windswept wilds.

Later, I was born in that wild wilderness
As father sought the Promised Land.
I think, at last, he may have found it –
He is dead now, his discovery in hand.
But I’m still out here wandering
Over windswept sea and endless sand.

In its way, it’s beautiful, magnificent,
Carved and whittled by God’s own hand.
Multihued towers, stunning blossoms –
Against wondrous backgrounds, posed, they stand,
Sweep my breath away in glory!
Yet I still long for the Promised Land.

It’s been a great adventure and I’ve seen much –
Beclouded pillars backed by sun;
Colossal waves dancing in the wind;
Towers of fire leaping forth from the mountain;
Endless sky on a bed of grass –
But there’s still one place I’ve never been.

In all my wandering, Canaan still eludes
I’m not even sure where it is.
Would I recognize it? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s just a dream and doesn’t exist.
Maybe there is no Promised Land –
Just earth, sky – a vast, wide nothingness.

But I think my dad may have found it
After his years in the wilderness,
After his struggles and his stumbles.
So I’ll wander ‘till I find it, too, I guess –
Keep looking for the Promised Land
Out somewhere beyond the emptiness.

My father left the comfortable confines of our denomination and the community of Dutch Calvinism in West Michigan to join the Navy in 1960.  He returned to that community in 1979 after spending time in 7 states and one foreign country.  His time between leaving the Navy and returning to West Michigan was spent largely among Native American peoples in Montana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.  He returned home, but his home wasn't, and isn't, mine.  So I'm still wandering.


First Church

The church says I can be a pastor
But first I need a place where
A pastor is sufficiently needed,
Else that promise goes unheeded.

I’ve lived in big cities and small towns
Cars, trains, and crowds make the sounds
I’ve grown up with and fallen asleep to
As summer nights prepare for dew.

The elder calls to ask three questions:
Would you come if we beckon?
Do you have children? We would like to know.
And can your wife play the piano?

I told them the truth – yes, yes, and no.
And figured we’d never go
To the small church in Hull, North Dakota:
No piano means no Dakota.

Hull doesn’t rate even a map dot –
A tiny, isolated spot
About four miles off US 83
In the middle of endless prairie

Just ten houses, a church, and some barns
Where farmers retire, spin yarns
Of days and men now faded and long gone
When ev’ry heifer calved more than one.

There used to be a gas station here
Gone now, but an old slab bears
Witness to the industry that once marked
Former lives and hopes now decades dark’ed

Progress has not been good for this place
But that’s okay – folks like space
And their kids found work - Bismarck - nearby.
Besides, not much point to asking why.

Like the winds that rise and fall across
The open sky need no cause,
It just is, and we just are, so we
Need a pastor. Would you serve here, please?

I'm basically a city boy.  I've lived in small towns a few times, but mostly small to moderate sized cities.  So when I was called to Hull, ND - a town of 9 occupied houses, one abandoned house, a church, and some barns and sheds between the Missouri River and US 83 - I went with some trepidation.  I was there four years and they were four good years.  They're used to breaking in newly minted pastors and they were gentle with me and my mistakes.  I left when I joined the Navy in 1995. 



My grandfather was a preacher.
I never knew him.
He grew up in Sheboygan,
The one in Wisconsin.

My own father was a teacher.
I sort of knew him.
Grew up in parsonages
In states not Wisconsin.

But before he was a teacher,
Father went to sea
On LSTs and oilers
With the U. S. Navy

I remember a day when I
Was just 5 years old,
Walking with him on the pier;
Gray ships tied up, stark and bold.

I thought, “I want to go to sea
On ships great and gray –
Sail out on the water,
The bow cutting through salt spray.”

I tried hard to make it happen
But God kept saying,
“Not now. Maybe later”
In answer to my praying.

I had to learn a few things first
About faithfulness –
And obedience, too –
Before God would grant my wish.

But finally he let me go
To stand on the deck
Of a mighty warship
At sea, on the Atlantic.

Like my grandfather, a preacher
Known to my children
Like my father, a sailor
Walking the pier with my son.

So now my son is off to sea
Child of proud fathers,
And in the midst of salt and spray
The generations gather.

Last May, my youngest son graduated from the Naval Academy and I was privileged to put new ensign shoulder-boards on him.  My older son is in the Navy Reserve and considering whether God has called him to the priesthood.  In my sons, the heritage of preacher, teacher, and sailor combine in different, even startling, ways as the old is made new again.  I am grateful to God and proud of my sons.


Still Here

I’m awoken by the call about midnight
An IED on the roadside
Hit one of our patrols – hit it hard
Casualties incoming, so be prepared.

I pull on my boots and tie them tightly
Thanking God this isn’t nightly
And head for the BAS to wait
For whatever is coming, however late.

The gunner is the first to arrive here
Screaming, gauze wrapped all around his head where
Ugly pieces of shrapnel arise
From sockets that used to hold his eyes.

They bustle him into the docs waiting
Who go right to work, his pain abating
But the screaming continues, gets me.
My helplessness angers and upsets me.

It’s obvious, I need something to do
The docs have me block the folks at the door
There’s more to come as the screaming subsides,
Because one more, outside the wire, still lies

What strikes most forcefully when he’s brought in
Is how white his teeth are in grisly grin
But everything up above those bright teeth
Is red, gelatinous goo – his brain unsheathed

That was over a decade ago
But through the years the screams yet echo,
Reverberating, bouncing through old tears
And me still helpless, still upset, still here.

Nor can I escape that toothsome grin
It comes in the dark, bright and unbidden.
Thinking of these men and their families, I say a prayer,
But I’m still helpless, still upset, still here.

God.  I just don’t know what to pray for –
I don’t want to forget, don’t want to remember.
Will you think of these men, their families, our prayers?
Are you listening, upset? Are you here?

I desperately want to make sense,
To contain the pain within my intelligence.
But really, I want you to come into our night.
Just hold me, hold my men – just make it right.

The incident happened in August 2004.  It is, perhaps, one of the most vivid images of that time to remain with me.  I don't get worn out with flashbacks or any of the stuff people associate with PTSD, but there are some pictures we never get out of our minds.


Now That It's Me

I got the email on 11 July
“This morning, your Dad died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 years with MS

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, not the troops

Emergency leave is the standard
When one’s deployed and your
Family back home gets hit
With a loved one dying like this

I told the XO I wasn’t sure
If I would head homeward
Then the Skipper came down
Not much inclined to hear me out

He cut off my “yeah but’s” and “what if’s”
And said, “I’ll settle this.
You’re going home, that’s an order.
You’ll not make your mom a martyr.”

So off I went, first down to Kuwait
Then to Paris – De Gaulle –
Caught a flight into Detroit
And a rental for the last bit

I got the email on 15 July
“This morning, your Marine died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 weeks in Iraq

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, one of my troops.

I went home on emergency leave when my Dad died, and the first email I received when I got home was a note from my enlisted aide that one of my Marines had been killed.  The weight of death hit me hard, and the desire to be in both places at once broke my heart - one of the most difficult days in my life.