Category Archives: PTSD

Articles dealing with my own struggle with PTSD and that of others

Faith and Doubt on a Sunday Afternoon

shakethefinger

 

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

Many off my readers as well as people I deal with on a regular basis struggle with faith and doubt. Today I was reading a column in the New York Times that brought up a very interesting article called Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins  by T.M. Luhrmann, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/t-m-luhrmann-where-reason-ends-and-faith-begins.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region&region=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region a professor at Stanford. It talked about the point in different where individuals make a decision of what they chose to believe because it is reasonable and what they chose to believe by faith. I also read an article by Bishop Gene Robinson called Hope When the World’s Gone off the Rails  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/27/hope-when-the-world-s-gone-off-the-rails.html Both were excellent articles because they deal with a reality that many religious people don’t want to deal with. Something that I have struggled with most of my life, but especially after I returned from Iraq in 2008.

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.

Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.
During those dark days, particularly the times where I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth attempting to have enough faith to help others in crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley even though I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied doctrinal suppositions as well as cultural, political and sociological prejudices.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist and as I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light, especially the stories of men and women that we venerate for their faith who doubted and even when they believed often disputed God. The Old Testament is full of their stories and there are even some in the New Testament. Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.”

Thus I find it hard to deal with preachers and others who are so full of certitude that they are full of shit, no matter what their faith tradition. God is too big for that.

I rediscovered faith and life as I anointed that man in our emergency room in December 2009. To my surprise faith returned. I believe again but I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day, it keeps me humble. And for that I’m grateful.

Peace and have a wonderful rest of your weekend,

Padre Steve+

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Sacrifice, a Broken Heart and No Closure: Thoughts of an Iraq Veteran

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Call em up
Dust em off
Let em shine
The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind
Those that flew, those that fell,
The ones that had to stay,
Beneath a little wooden cross
Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

For me and from what I am hearing many veterans like me, the last week has been terribly haunting and filled with anxiety regarding the situation in Iraq. I can when needed detach myself from my emotions and compartmentalize them to attempt to provide good analysis of the situation and place it in its historical, diplomatic, military, cultural and religious context. However, the emotions that I feel for Iraq and what is happening there are strong and I will own my sense of grief, loss and brokenness that I feel right now as the ISIL/ISIS fighters drive through Iraq conquering city after city as the Iraqi Army abandons the field. I wish I could say that things will turn around, but I don’t know if that is possible now. That fact troubles me because I love the Iraqis and left part of me in that country. As I have written before, I left my heart in Al Anbar.

During my tour in Iraq I got to see a part of the country and meet people that the average American never met. I got to know Iraqis because I served with our advisors in country, and I got to know some on detained ships in the Arabian Gulf back in 2002. Most are good people, who have hopes and dreams much like any of us. The vast majority are not extremists and relatively secular, regardless of their religious affiliation in comparison to others in the Middle East. They hope for better for their families, their future and in simple for a normal life after over 30 years in various states of war, with us, the Iranians and with themselves. I worry for them, and pray that by some miracle that they are able to get their families out of the country to safety or be able to get to an area of the country where their safety is assured. For some that may be that may be more possible than others. I worry for them because of the reports of how the ISIL/ISIS forces are wantonly executing officers, soldiers and police officials that they capture alongside the road.

I won’t be doing any real analysis today because this essay is more about my feelings about the situation, and I really don’t want to be mixing those with some kind of analysis. What I can say is that I am grieving for all who have been affected by this cruel war, Iraqis and Americans alike. Far too many people died during and after the ill-advised and most likely illegal invasion of that country by the Bush administration in 2003.

I am the kind of person who wanted to believe the best about the reasons the Bush administration took us to war, but as each of those reasons was proved untrue based on the evidence on the ground it was disappointing. However, I volunteered to serve in Iraq in 2006 and finally went in 2007, with a goal of helping in the effort to restore and reunited the country, something that despite everything I believed was a worthwhile goal. It became apparent while I was over there that for many, especially those managing the massive support contracts to U.S. bases were not there for any noble purpose but for their profits. I saw how KBR/Halliburton subsidiaries engaged in what was for all intents and purposes human trafficking as they exploited third country nationals who did the menial work that supported U.S. and coalition forces. I saw the massive destruction in the country, some caused by the U.S. invasion, and some attributable to the civil war that followed.

I felt betrayed by my leadership and I have a fair amount of anger about this, anger toward the Bush administration, the Congress that shirked its duties and allowed this as well as the war profiteers. But I am also angry at the power mongering Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose actions to disenfranchise the Sunnis and others have brought about the current situation, without his idiotic power mania those Sunnis would be fighting against ISIL/ISIS, just as they did against AQI.

Because of this, especially the actions of the war profiteers, I have to agree with Major General Smedley Butler who wrote the classic book War is a Racket and that it is the soldiers that fight the wars and the innocent civilians whose lands, homes and families suffer as a result of it. Butler wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

My world has changed. I am not the same person I was that I was when I deployed to Iraq. PTSD, nightmares and terrors and anxiety are still a regular part of my life, as is a certain distance from parts of my life that once were important. When we went to war I didn’t believe that it would end this way. Like Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

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Last night I attended the Elton John concert in Virginia Beach. He shared a song that he and Bernie Taupin wrote in honor of the members of the Greatest Generation on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The song, Oceans Away is about their sacrifice, and Sir Elton also paid tribute to those who fought and died in World War One as well as those that serve today. When I listened to the song I wondered if people like me will ever be able to go back to the battlefields that we served on.

Anyway, that is all for today. I have a number of writing projects in the works. The link to the song is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Izma0gpiLBQ

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, News and current events, PTSD

The Closet of Anxieties and Maybe a Good Night Sleep: Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

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Not much to write tonight. I thought of re-posting an older article but I figured instead just a few words.

Last night I didn’t sleep well, and then my older dog Molly woke me up an hour early and remained restless. When I got to work I felt anxious for no real reason as life is pretty good for me. Perhaps the anxiety was the fact that I went to get back in therapy for PTSD and insomnia and the visit, which was an intake visit caused me to have to re-visit a lot of memories from Iraq.

Likewise I think that much of what I am feeling has a direct like to Iraq. Whenever bad things happen there I get upset and anxious. I left so much of myself in that country and I have been even more concerned and even upset about what is going on in Iraq the past few weeks, especially this week.

When I got to work this morning I was replying to a text message and saw my hand trembling. When I am anxious it feels like there is an electrical current running through my body. I find the experience to be distinctly disturbing. I worry so much about Iraq, the Iraqis that I served alongside and get angry about the terrible cost borne by the Iraqi people and the U.S. and coalition forces who fought and sacrificed their after the ill-advised and stupid decision of the Bush Administration to attack Iraq. That administration sowed the wind and now we and the Iraqis are reaping the whirlwind. It is a massive human tragedy and I cannot shake the memories of my time there, likewise I so wish that there was something that I could do to help other than pray. When I think about my time in Iraq I feel much like T.E. Lawrence who wrote:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

Today was also a day where I did a lot of counseling with staff members at the college. Those events triggered ideas about doing an article on the experiences of my friends that are Christians but happen to be gay. For those that have never met a gay Christian, or rather don’t think that you know any this might not be something you want to read when I get around to doing it. 

I did the invocation at the 239th Birthday celebration for the U.S. Army at the Staff College. That was kind of cool because I spent the first 17 1/2 years of my military life in the Army before I transferred with a reduction in rank to the Navy in 1999.

This afternoon I got together with my old assistant who kept me safe in many sporty situations in Iraq. He has since retired from the Navy and the visit was awesome.

Tomorrow, Judy and I will be attending the Elton John Concert so I don’t know if I will put anything up tomorrow. If I do it will probably be the re-run that I almost ran tonight.

Since I have an early dental follow up appointment I will sign off for the night, unless something emerges out of my closet of anxieties to interrupt.

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Anyway, have a good night my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Frightened by Christians

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“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Mahatma Gandhi

I expect that this article might make some people uncomfortable but it is something that I need to write.

I am a Christian. I am a Priest and I am a Navy Chaplain. But for the most part I am afraid of Christians. There are many reasons for this. Some are more general in the way I see Christians treat others; their own wounded as well as non-believers, the political machinations of pastors and “Christian” special interest groups masquerading as ministries.

But most of why I am afraid is because what I have experienced at the hand of many Christians, some of whom I had counted as friends many of whom are pastors, priests or chaplains. To experience rejection or being shamed by people that you thought were friends is very hard, especially when that at one time you trusted them implicitly to care for you. However to be rejected by those that you trusted “in the name of God, ” or rather because you violated supposedly “correct” doctrinal beliefs about God is frightening.

It seems to me that with many Christians and churches that the “unconditional” love of God that they proclaim not really unconditional. It is totally conditional on believing what they believe or behaving in the way they think that you should.

For those that do not know me or my story I am a career military officer with over 30 years of service between the Army and Navy. I have been a chaplain since 1992 and served in the National Guard, Army Reserve, Active Duty Army and the Navy. I am a trained hospital chaplain; I have a great academic background. I went to Iraq in 2007 and came home with a terrible case of severe chronic PTSD. I still suffer from some anxiety, depression and plenty of insomnia. I find mental health care hard to get in my new assignment and I realize how woefully unprepared that our medical system, military, VA and civilian is to care for that vast numbers of veterans like me.

After Iraq I suffered a collapse of my faith and for close to two years was a practical agnostic. Only my deep sense of call and vocation kept me going and there were times that I wondered if I would be better off dead.

When faith returned through what I call my Christmas miracle it was different. I totally relate to author Anne Rice who said:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

I have always questioned a lot but after my crisis of faith I began to see through the bullshit. I began to not only question things my former church taught, but openly stated my convictions about how we treat others as Christians, the equality of people in general and tolerance for those different than us including gays and Moslems who for some Christians are rather low on the scale of those that God might love.

After Iraq I was sickened by the crass politicization of conservative American Christianity and many of its leaders. Men and women who advocate war without end, be it real wars against “enemies” of American, or promote a culture war even against other Christians that they do not like or agree with. Of course this is all done in “Jesus name.”

Likewise I question the opulence and materialism of the church. I question the nearly cult like focus and near worship accorded to the Pastor-CEOs of the megachurches and the television preachers and teachers. I wonder in amazement about how many of these leaders live like royalty and have devoted followers who despite repeated scandals treat them as the voice of God.

Along with the that I question the preference of many American Christian leaders for the rich and their disdain for the poor, the alien and the outcasts among us. I don’t know where where they get it.

All of that got me thrown out of a church that I had served 14 years a priest and chaplain back in 2010. I thought I had a lot of friends in that church. I still have some that keep in contact with me but after my dismissal most abandoned me. That hurts worse than anything.

In fact when I came home from Iraq in crisis and falling apart the first person who asked about how I was doing with God was not clergy. It was my first shrink. I was asked by a commanding officer after Iraq “where does a chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other chaplains.”  The sad thing is that man who did care about me suffered untreated terrible PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury and committed suicide earlier this year.

I have had a few experiences this week that have opened that wound again and reminded me of why I am afraid of many that call themselves Christians. I had a friend comment on some coarse language I used in a rant on a social media site, the friend noted a certain word that I used was used to silence others.

I replied that he was wrong, that the ultimate way to silence others was to invoke God and shame them. That is the ultimate trump card because no one is bigger than God.

The good thing is that when he realized why I had said the word and realized what he said had further wounded me and understood a bit of what I was going through he was quite gracious, sympathetic and apologetic. He is still a friend and he means a lot to me. Thankfully there was not another broken relationship.

But my friend’s initial comment made me realize how many of us as Christians, even well meaning people, focus on outward behaviors, words or actions of others without understanding what they are going through. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”

I am thankful that I have a number of friends including a good number of Christians from various backgrounds who have stood by me even if they disagree with my theology, politics or favorite baseball team.

That being said with the exception of such
people who have been with me through thick and thin I am almost terrified of being around Christians. Church in most cases is a frightening place for me, and the sad fact is that if I were not already a Christian there is little in American Christianity that would ever cause me to be interested in Jesus.  I can totally understand why churches are hemorrhaging members, especially young people and why the fastest growing religious preference in our society is “none” for I too am in some sense an outcast.

As Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) said in the movie Major League: “I Like Jesus very much, but he no help with curveball.”

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, Political Commentary, PTSD

PTSD Dreams and Stranger Things

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I didn’t get much sleep last night. For some reason I was back in Iraq.

Last night’s dream world was about every fear I had when I was in Iraq on steroids. I woke up almost every hour in terror of IED attacks, ambushes and attacks on the small groups of advisers on Iraq bases with whom I served.

It is important to note that none of these events happened to me. I was shot at on a number of occasions but none of the terrifying instances that were part of my nightmares last night happened to me. In fact there were people in them who I know now who served in Iraq but not with me. That being said, they were terrifying and all too real in my mind. Though I never actually experienced any of them they were a part of my life and my fears that I lived with on a daily basis as I operated in Al Anbar Province during 2007 and 2008 with small groups of advisers to the Iraqi Army and Security Forces.

Nightmares and dreams are surreal. They are real, but they are not. They blend elements of our lives and our subconscious into visions that can be pleasant or terrifying. Last night was for the most part terrifying but at one point pointed to hope. That being said, I didn’t get much sleep. When I got up for a very busy yet productive day at the final day of my denominational clergy-chaplain training symposium I looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and I looked terrible.

I remembered a quote by Guy Sager, the author of the classic book of war The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.

Since I have to wake up very early for my flight back home tomorrow I do hope that my sleep is sound and my dreams for once pleasant. However, I know that such thoughts are an illusion and that like me countless thousands of other combat veterans live what I live. So my hope an prayer is that we will all be able to get at least one good night of sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Long Days, Lost Wallets and a Long Layover…Ministry Included

10151918_10152444030142059_7871957421917905974_nWell my friends it is after Nine PM Eastern Time and I am still enroute to Houston after leaving my home at Six AM. This means that I have been traveling for over 15 hours and since I still have about three hours before I get to Houston and maybe more before I lay my head down on my pillow that this qualifies as a long day.

Things went well enough at first until I got to what I thought was my one layover at Baltimore Washington International Airport and discovered that I did not have my wallet. Long story short after about an hour of searching, phone calls and consternation it looked like my travel to an important conference with my church and fellow denomination clergy and chaplains was not going to happen. I went to the Southwest Airlines gate agent who put my information in the computer and found that my missing wallet had been turned in to the gate agent in Norfolk. Armed with that information I called the Staff College and the industrious young man got me back to Norfolk to my wallet and connected me with flights to get me to Houston late tonight.  While in Baltimore some nice lady who overheard my near panicked conversation with people at the Staff College gave me $20 to eat. Since beer is technically bread since it is made from grain that was lunch.

To let you know I do not do airports or aircraft well. Today, even with all the craziness I am still in one peace. I attribute this to prayer and pilsner, though technically I was drinking lagers at almost every stop. I figure when it come to dealing with airports I can deal with panic mode because of the crowds by going crazy, not a good option, drugging myself with anti-anxiety meds which don’t taste good or drink beer which does taste good. Once I had my wallet back I also got food, comfort food instead of healthy food, which I will go back to tomorrow. Of course with over three hours to go before I get to Houston I have switched to lots of water since I tend not to do sodas very often.

While at the Johnny Rivers Grill and Market in Orlando Airport I had some pulled pork BBQ, it was okay, as well as a couple of beers and while there had a young man in a delay situation for another flight sit next to me at the bar. He was a Staff Sergeant in the National Guard who was being called home early from vacation to drill. He was leaving his family in Orlando. He has spent several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and was telling me that he still has not been able to re-set after his last deployment because in addition to his civilian commitments his Guard unit continues to push him and all of its personnel hard, without much thanks and with no support to soldiers or families. It was a similar conversation that I had with a senior Marine Corps Officer recently. The important thing for this soldier who has served his country for 15 years as a citizen soldier was that I cared to listen to him and understood.

I didn’t do much talking, mentioned that I had been to Iraq, had PTSD and had been an agnostic for a couple of years and he was grateful just for someone to listen. The sad thing is there are far to few people, especially leaders who will take the time to do that. The fact is we have to stand by our guys, they have put themselves on the line time and time again, we as leaders owe them. But the truth is as my Marine friend noted is that since 2001 the attitude is that you owe the military.

When I was training to be a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, Colonel John Price, an Episcopal Priest told me that his best ministry happened in officer’s clubs and bars, being available to people who would never darken the door of a church, come to a chapel service or would be too proud to come to the office.  Father Price was right. Jesus didn’t cloister himself, he was out with people. Most religious people didn’t care much for it but he drew people to him because he was where they were.

We as Chaplains as well as leaders must change our culture or we will destroy the men and women entrusted to us by the nation and in the process destroy our armed forces. Without the people the machines don’t matter that much.

So anyway, not much longer until I will board this flight. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not the Cover of the Rolling Stone but the Front Page: Padre Steve Featured in Washington Times article on PTSD

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“We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front

Well my friends it has been an interesting week. Last week I was contacted by a Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon who had been a student in our Winter Class because he had been asked by a reporter if he knew someone who could talk about PTSD. I was then contacted by the reporter, Maggie Ybarra of the Washington Times. I was interviewed and the paper sent a wonderful photographer Eva Russo to take pictures of me at Norfolk’s Harbor Park.

Now the Times is not my paper of choice. However the chance to talk about PTSD and the effect on veterans including senior officers in such a high profile forum is important. One does not have to agree with the political slant of news organization if they present the particular topic with sensitivity and balance. The reporter, editor and photographer involved all treated me and those who suffer with respect. I cannot ask for more. Since I was interviewed and quoted by David Wood of the Huffington Post last month for an article on “Moral Injury” shows a sense of balance, I will talk to anyone willing to fairly present the struggles faced by currently serving military members and veterans suffering from PTSD. My brothers and sisters mean more to me than my political leanings. This week I have been contacted by a producer from the BBC about a documentary on that subject but that is waiting on PAO to do something with it.

What matters to me is that veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury are not forgotten. That happens far too often often after every war. The public forgets, the military forgets and the government forgets. Major General Smedley Butler wrote in his classic War is a Racket:

“I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Likewise I understand the stigma of PTSD. Many senior personnel both officers and enlisted, the career men and women effected by it PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury don’t want to identify themselves or seek help. I can’t blame them in some ways even though it is killing them. My choice back in 2009 was to decide try tell my story as honestly and transparently. When my shrink asked me what I was going to do with this I thought about it hard. I am very much an introvert and it was scary to “come out.” It was even harder then because though a chaplain I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that there was a God and I was afraid of everything. But I knew that I had to start speaking out because very few senior leaders affected by this scourge had the freedom to do so. That is one of the reasons that I started this website.

It was risky to speak out. Despite efforts by some senior leaders to change the military culture the fact is that there still is a great stigma attached to “coming out” and seeking help for PTSD and other mental illnesses. In fact I know of numerous senior leaders, officer and enlisted whose careers have cratered due to the effects of PTSD and even some who have lost their families or even taken their lives. So for me this is very personal and serious.

The first time I spoke out being interviewed in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Daily News back in April 2011 there were trolls who made some incredibly hateful and vicious comments about me in the comments of the online edition. Some were even threatening. The paper took the abusive comments down but the wounds remain, some people are simply assholes and I pity them. No wonder people don’t want to talk about the subject and would rather resort to silence, substance abuse and suicide than talk about it.

The fact is that despite the fact that some senior leaders are doing what they can to try to change the culture of the military from one that penalizes, marginalizes and trivializes the suffering of those that serve the stigma remains, and many feel it. One senior enlisted leader in an elite branch of the Navy told me that “leaders could seek help that they would never get any more career enhancing or important assignments.” That was only a few months ago after the suicide of a retired Navy Captain who suffered from PTSD and TBI, a man who meant much to both of us.

The fact is that as a Chaplain I feel pretty much “radioactive” to other chaplains, at senior chaplains. I can count on one hand the number of senior chaplains who have bothered to contact me or ask how I was doing. But that being said I have been contacted by others, chaplains line officers and enlisted personnel who tell me that I am one of the few people who “gets it” and that they feel safe confiding in. Personally I would rather have that be my legacy than anything else.

The fact is it will take a generation of leaders to change the military culture to give the men and women who put it all on the line and suffer for their efforts to get help.

But enough of that for now, I’m getting upset and I already have a terrible time sleeping, I don’t need to spin myself up any more than I am. If you want to read the Times article the link is here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/22/less-silent-suffering-veterans-post-traumatic-stre/

On a different note, I did something today that in more than 32 years in the military I have never done. I received a maximum score on my physical fitness test. The past few years I have come close but never maxed it. The sad thing is what I need to do now to get a maximum score is more than I needed to do as a young Army officer in the 1980s.

Anyway, until tomorrow when I will have another Gettysburg article for you, have a great night and remember to care for the veterans and families who suffer the effects of PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Easter Sunday, Baseball and Interviews

meharborpark“I believe in the Church of Baseball…the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” Annie Savoy Bull Durham

For those that didn’t notice today was Easter Sunday. It is the Sunday where Christians remember and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and others go into diabetic comas because of the amount of candy they ingested even if they don’t believe.

For me it was a simple celebration of Eucharist at my Staff College Chapel with some of our students and their families. Following that a nice breakfast with Judy and then a trip to the ballpark to see the Norfolk Tides play the Durham Bulls.

It has been a busy and eventful week. First it was Holy Week and it was the first week of teaching my Ethics Elective for our current class, finalizing my Gettysburg Staff Ride “Tome” for this class and taking care of the ever bothersome military health and physical fitness requirements. In addition to everything else I made  four trips to medical and dental to get routine exams and paperwork accomplished so I can do my physical fitness test this week. As for a frame of reference even about 10 years ago guys my age didn’t need to do this. However the physical requirements I have to meet at age 54 in the Navy are little different from the ones I had to meet at age 22 in the Army. Of course I still had to do my taxes and other things around the house as contractors were back in on Friday doing the painting in the house. Hopefully by the end of this week most if not all of that is done, but I digress…

The Easter celebration of the Eucharist was really nice, several of our students and family members attending, which for my chapel is like “mega-church” numbers.

Following breakfast, or maybe it was really brunch I went over to Harbor Park where I met a photographer from the Washington Times. A reporter from that newspaper asked a former student of mine who serves as a Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon if he knew anyone who knew something about PTSD and he referred her to me. The article will run tomorrow from what I am told. They liked the interview and wanted to get some photos of me in my natural environment, Harbor Park in Norfolk, a place which is a refuge to me and has been since I returned from Iraq. There is something healing to me about going to the ballpark. To me baseball is more than a game, it is an important part of my spirituality and my mental health.

The photographer stayed with me about 6 innings before having to return to Washington. It was a nice day. After the game, which the Tides won by a score of 6-3 with Kevin Gausman pitching well against a strong Durham team. The photographer and I had some nice conversations as she shot the story and followed me around the ballpark. What was nice is that I know the people there well enough after so many years of going there that I could just be me, I didn’t have to alter much, just have someone follow me around. Since I do a lot of baseball photography we were able to compare notes and I was able to talk to her about better equipment than I have for sports photography. That being said she did like some of the pictures I showed from past events. Who knows maybe I can do this after I retire from the Navy whenever that is?

Anyway. Tonight has been spent watching the movies Bull Durhamand Kelly’s Heroes. I go back to work tomorrow, yet have one more medical appointment Tuesday and then my Physical Readiness Test on Wednesday. The last won’t be hard.

In the coming couple of weeks you can look forward to more articles about Gettysburg as well as some other topics that I am doing some reading, reflection and research on.

Again, Happy Easter,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

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Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Moral Injury: The Silent Killer of Veterans

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This morning I woke up and got ready to go to work. My wife was up. She had been up most of the night because unbeknownst to me I had been fighting something in my sleep. Judy tried to wake me up, but I didn’t wake up, and evidently the episode lasted much of the night. I do remember some dreams, or rather nightmares last night dealing with a particular situation that I experienced in Iraq, but such nightmares are so common that unless there is something really unusual about them I really don’t think much about them.

I first heard of Moral Injury in 2009 about a year after I was diagnosed with severe and chronic PTSD. However, that being said as a military historian I have to admit that I have read about it time and time again in less clinical language. What I had more experience with were the memoirs of common soldiers and officers, as well as the experiences of Sailors, Marines and Soldiers who had confided in me at various times as their chaplain.

Marine Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. They were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think of nothing but killing and being killed.

The suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjusting, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them anymore. So we scattered them about without any “three minute” or “Liberty Loan” speeches or parades.”

Last year I was interviewed by David Wood of the Huffington Post for a series of three articles that he just published on moral injury.* If PTSD and TBI are considered “invisible wounds” then moral injury must be included. It is a condition as old as war itself and can be seen even in the most ancient of writings about war, Homer’s Iliad, King David’s grief over the loss of his friend Jonathan and many others.

I came home from Iraq forever changed. I served with Marine and Army advisers to Iraqi Army, Border Troops, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police in Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008. That assignment, which took me throughout the province brought me into contact with a part of the war that many Americans, even those serving in Iraq were shielded from, a part of the war that was never shown in the media that exposed me to realities that before serving there I was unaware.

They were uncomfortable truths. The tensions between the various Iraqi factions, the real hopes for a better Iraq held by many Iraqis and the absolute devastation that the American invasion of Iraq had brought to that unfortunate country. I saw some of the disrespectful and insulting things done by American troops that had to be dealt with by the advisors, men who were as much diplomats as they were Soldiers and Marines. I saw the damage inflicted by bombing campaigns that had little to do with winning a war, but more with destroying infrastructure that even our own war plans had determined was vital to Iraq’s recovery after the success of our campaign. I saw children wounded in fire fights, as well as ministered to the wounded coming through the Fleet Surgical Facility at Ta’Qaddum on their way elsewhere.

I have spent time with Marines and Soldiers who feel real guilt from the actions that they saw or participated in both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise I have dealt with the grief of men and women, Corpsmen, Doctors and Nurses who wish that they could have done more to save the lives of others or done more to prevent suffering. I have also dealt with those who have attempted suicide after taking part in actions that they could not live with or due to what they saw or experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately Moral Injury is not taken seriously by the military. This despite the fact many military physicians, mental health providers and chaplains are on the cutting edge of dealing with it. We are doing research, writing and treating those afflicted the services themselves do not even acknowledge it. Even as we do this some in the military, including Chaplains want to call it something more ambiguous using the Orwellian term “inner conflict” to describe something that is far more damaging and insidious.

I suppose that a big part of the reason is that all of the services do an amazing amount of work to built a set of moral values in those that serve. In the Navy we talk about courage, honor and commitment. We talk about being men and women of principle, doing what is right. Such ideas are a part of who we are, Douglas MacArthur spoke of “Duty, Honor Country” and our military academies have long taught the principle that “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those that do.”

We teach our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen values that are often more rigorous than what they grew up with at home or in school. Then we send them to war and they see and sometimes do things that are at odds with those values as well as the values that we as Americans cherish. We place them in situations where the moral values we teach them contradicted by what we teach and train them to do, and the real unvarnished truth about war, it is hell. Smedley Butler wrote:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.
If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

How we expect anyone to retain their soul and their sanity when we teach them a set of values that we as a nation fail to uphold is beyond me. The fact that the politicians, pundits and preachers who constantly insist on using the under one percent of the population that serves in the military to bear such burdens to satiate their bloodlust and then refuse to recognize their injuries and then deny them care or benefits is abhorrent.

One of the survivors of the famed World War One “Lost Battalion” wrote:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

While I was impacted very much by what happened to me and what I saw. The sad thing is that I was far better prepared and seasoned to survive what I experienced than most of my younger counterparts. After years of training and experience I felt that I was immune to PTSD or Moral Injury. Sadly, I was wrong and today, more than six years after I returned from Iraq I deal with the consequences of war, in my life and those of those that I serve.

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do expect that our country takes responsibility for the injuries and suffering that its policies have created. Specifically I am speaking to that Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who constantly lobby for war and refuse to take personal responsibility for it when it comes, and who then for matters of political expediency throw aside the volunteers who went to war for far higher ideals and motives than those that sent them.

Okay, it is time for me to take a deep breath. But I do get really spun up about this, because I have lived this reality and I get angry when I see look around and realize that for most people in this country, the plight of veterans doesn’t matter. We are just another “special interest group” to use the words of a member of a committee appointed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that wants to decimate military benefits. But even now people like Bill Kristol who have never served a day in the military and never seen a war that they didn’t like, urge that we send more men and women to war over Crimea. But I digress…

Moral injury is a silent killer of the soul and it is high time that we recognize just how deadly it is.

Guy Sager, author of the classic The Forgotten Soldier wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

I don’t know what nightmares I will have tonight, hopefully at least for Judy’s sake I won’t have any.

With that, I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Wood’s Articles can be found here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-grunts
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-recruits
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/healing

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