Al Waleed Border Crossing 2007
On Memorial Day there will be many official observances at various Military and Veterans cemeteries to honor the members of the United States Military that have died in the service of our country throughout our history. Many died directly in battle while many more died to combat related injuries, illness, suicide as well as substance abuse and addiction.
In addition to the more than 6000 US Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen killed in battle there have been tens of thousands more who have died of causes related to their service in combat. That is nothing new, the same was true in Vietnam, Korea, the World Wars and before. War changes people and the wounds incurred, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral impact those that served as well as their loved ones for years, sometimes for the rest of their life. The problem is exacerbated when the society in which the soldiers return is itself not invested in the war being fought.
The fact is that no matter how well individual soldiers train and prepare for combat and combat conditions there is nothing that truly prepares that one can never fully expect what will happen to them in theater or after they return. I can speak personally to this as well as testify about the things that I learn from others that have served. Likewise I know what others have written or shared.
One of the most prominent soldiers ever to share his experiences of what was then called “battle-fatigue” was America’s most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy. Murphy served in North Africa and Europe in the Second World War and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Two Silver Stars and Two Bronze Stars in addition to 28 other US and foreign awards for service and for valor. When he returned from the war he suffered from depression, chronic insomnia slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow and became addicted to prescription sleeping pills. In the immediate aftermath of the war following his discharge from active duty he struggled to find employment and slept in a gym before finally finding work as an actor. He starred in 44 films including the biographical film about his life To Hell and Back. He spoke up for Vietnam vets returning from war with similar problems before he was killed in a plane crash on May 28th 1971.
I have also found that Chaplains and others that provide care to those in combat become particularly isolated when they return with PTSD or other combat stress related issues. One of the biggest reasons for this is that in many churches and religious bodies a chaplain that suffers from these issues has nowhere to turn and is isolated in his or her denomination. In the past few years a number of chaplains, Army and Navy have committed suicide following tours in Iraq. I knew a couple of them, one who had also served as an Marine infantryman in Vietnam. I have know others including medical personnel that have suffered from PTSD, depression, substance abuse and known a couple that have attempted suicide following their return from combat. I know others that have lost their faith or suffered a spiritual crisis brought about by their time in combat. I read today about Army Chaplain Darren Turner who left the Army following his time in Iraq suffering from combat stress issues, faith and readjustment to life back at home and for a time was separated from his wife. He has since returned to the Army but his path was not easy and I am sure based on my knowledge of others that more are out there afraid to tell their story. (See the article on CNN http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/26/battlefield-chaplains-war-unfolded-on-many-fronts/?hpt=hp_c2
Former Army Vice Chief Of Staff General Peter Chiarelli has fought the American Psychological Association to have the diagnostic term PTSD changed to PTSI, Post Traumatic Stress Injury to reduce the stigma that often prevents servicemen and women from seeking help. His request was recently rejected but it has merit. Other countries such as Canada treat it as such for their veterans.
I wrote about my experience of this on a number of occasions one of which I wrote in 2010 I asked if there were other chaplains like me. That article Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? attracted the interested of the local newspaper in Jacksonville North Carolina which did an article on me. (See http://www.jdnews.com/articles/cmdr-89433-stephen-military.html ) That article in turn led to my involvement with the DOD Real Warriors Campaign http://www.realwarriors.net/ They did a video on my story and interviewed me last week as part of a DOD Military Bloggers live forum.
I don’t feel alone anymore. I still have my struggles and I have talked about them a lot in other articles and plan to continue to do my best to help others who are struggling with the effects of war and return from it, especially chaplains, medical personnel and those that now struggle with faith and belief after their time at war. My encouragement is to just say that in spite of everything you are not alone.