A call to welcome combat veterans who are paralyzed with shame and suffering terrors of the soul
I am the descendent of generations of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren pacifists. While my innate aversion to war and things military runs deep, as a citizen of the United States I have not been able to avoid the implications of living in a country that depends so mightily on its military.
The atomic bombing of Japan and the Vietnam War were pivotal historical and sociological events in our Baby Boomer formative years. Both seared into our minds the horrors of war for innocent civilian victims. The Vietnam War and ensuing years also taught us the long-term horrors and damage for those who fight our wars.
Advances in technology have allowed us to visualize how trauma and violence alter the brain and affect subsequent human behavior. While the technology is new, we have long known that participating in war changes soldiers. Different names have been used to describe these changes in combat veterans. In the Civil War they were called “the staggers,” or “irritable heart,” or “soldiers’ heart” and were regarded as signs of cowardice. Soldiers who displayed these symptoms were treated with contempt. In WW1 they were called “shell shock” and in WW2 were called “combat neurosis,” “battle fatigue,” or “combat exhaustion.”
PTSD: Vietnam forced the mental health community to pay increased attention to the psychological costs of war. In 1980 the diagnosis of Post (after) Traumatic (deep wound, serious injury) Stress (adverse reactions to the trauma) Disorder (problems with thinking and feeling that cause distress and interfere with daily living) was added to the standard manual of psychiatric disorders.
Entire new fields of scientific study that help us understand the psychological and spiritual implications of killing have developed in the aftermath of Vietnam. Killology is the scholarly study of how individuals and society change when one human being kills another. Dave Grossman’s classic text in this field is entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Quaker peace activist and professor Rachel MacNair has coined the term Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress and has studied the psychological consequences of being an active participant in causing trauma or killing.
The issue is, of course, not simply academic. As more soldiers serve and return from the current wars, the severity of readjustment problems has become common front page news. Typical symptoms of veteran PTSD include reexperiencing the trauma through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares and disturbing mental images; emotional numbing and avoidance of people, places or activities that remind one of the trauma event; depression and overwhelming feelings of sadness and fear that life will never get better; suicidal thoughts and feelings; anger, aggression and lack of impulse control; guilt; sense of purposelessness and loss of faith, meaning and connection with the divine.
Given that combat and killing affect many soldiers in these ways, it is not surprising that the rate of domestic violence, marital discord, alcoholism and substance abuse, criminality, suicide and murder among returned combat veterans is high. A U.S. Army study found that “severe aggression” against spouses is more than three times higher among Army families than among civilians. Domestic violence shelters report that since the start of the Iraqi War, not only are the number of incidents higher, but the lethality is greater. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an average of 120 returned veterans have killed themselves each week, a rate twice that of the general population. New York Times investigators recently found 121 cases in which veterans of these wars have been charged with murder since returning home. Such statistics begin to help us understand the true cost of war for those we ask to fight, their loved ones and their communities.
Our society never successfully addressed the mental health problems of many of our Vietnam veterans. If you doubt this, visit a homeless shelter or talk to men living on our streets. Some mental health professionals now speak of a “tsunami of mental health problems” facing us as more and more traumatized veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the stigma of admitting weakness and fear that their military careers may be damaged, many traumatized veterans are reluctant to seek help within the military. For those who do turn to the military for help, there is often a long wait due to the shortage of mental health professionals. But an upgraded medical and psychological infrastructure can’t in itself heal the wounds of war.
While there are clear psychological components of PTSD and symptom management techniques that can relieve some post-combat distress, there are limits to what traditional counseling can offer the traumatized soldier. Many of the issues have a spiritual component, I believe, and require spiritual language and resources if they are to be healed.
An almost-universal human rule spanning time and culture is that it is wrong to kill another human. The military, well aware of this, trains its members to override this innate inhibition. But when veterans return to civilian life and reflect, for many the significance of their behavior becomes a terrifying insight and condemnation. In my psychotherapy work with veterans they sometimes speak of having lost their soul, of feeling dead inside, of having crossed a line that put them outside the human family, of having condemned themselves to a place beyond the reach of God’s grace. When they speak of the violence in which they have participated, many express deep moral anguish and existential shame. The fact that they were “just doing what the government told them to do” does not lessen their burden.
Our Mennonite theology and practice of peace and justice are respected around the world, even by those who disagree with some of our conclusions. We have offered an articulate voice denouncing the ineffectiveness and evils of violence. We have called, worked, marched, prayed, fasted and sung for peace.
Where wars have been waged, we have creatively attempted to bring healing and hope to victims and to right the wrongs that violence has created. I pray we will continue to do this with even more creativity and commitment. But I believe God is calling us at this point in history to go one step further, to extend our message of healing and hope to veterans, to those who are both perpetrators and victims of the destructive violence of war.
Because we believe that violence and war are a violation of the Jesus way and of God’s intention, we should be in a position to understand that beyond the brain changes and disturbing PTSD symptoms and the maladaptive behaviors of some returning vets lies a deep wound to the soul. The spiritual trauma that alters the core identity of vets can only be addressed and healed with spiritual resources.
Father William Mahedy, a Vietnam chaplain who’s devoted his life to working with veterans, describes war as “an explosion of hatred into systemic and ruthless violence” and says, “the guilt of war is the guilt of having been a bearer of death and terrible suffering to one’s fellow humans.” Such guilt can not be resolved with deep breathing techniques or visualizations of peaceful meadows. Only a welcoming community of spiritual people can speak with healing integrity to the soul terrors and paralyzing shame of the combat veteran.
The military mental health system and community psychological service centers must continue to provide symptom management training, anger control techniques, substance abuse rehabilitation and individual and family counseling. But only communities of faith have the language and understandings to address the core spiritual residue of war and the spiritual hell into which many veterans believe they have eternally cast themselves. We understand confession and forgiveness, grace and mercy, transformation and conversion. We believe that people are more than the worst thing they have done. We believe that no sin is beyond the redemptive mercy of God. We believe that the ministry of reconciliation and healing is at the heart of the gospel and the work of the church. Can we learn how to apply these gospel truths and extend our hands of welcoming compassion to spiritually damaged veterans and their loved ones?
This is not a ministry intended to “fix” veterans so they can return to battle. It is a commitment to listen to their disturbing stories, to call them to repentance and extend God’s mercy and forgiveness, to help them engage in acts of reconstruction and justice making, to love them and their families into our community of faith where we can together learn what it means to be pilgrims on a journey of amazing grace. May God give us sensitivity, courage and wisdom.
Carolyn Holderread Heggen lives in Corvallis, Ore., and is a member of the Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She is a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma recovery. If your congregation would like to learn more about reaching out to military veterans, contact Carolyn at email@example.com.
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