Daily Archives: July 12, 2013

Writing My Way Home: Iraq, Faith PTSD and Life


“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.But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since I returned from Iraq I have grown weary of Christians that have all the answers and are more interested in promoting their agenda than actually listening or caring for those wounded in spirit from various forms of trauma including war. I returned from Iraq and went through what amounted to a crisis in faith, belief and experienced what I felt to be abandonment by God and many Christians.


As such I elected to travel down a path that has been one of paradox. I have benefited from this but the path has been filled with much difficulty and pain. I walked through the psychological, spiritual and physical effects of my time in Iraq as well as the moral injuries that I incurred.  Over the years I have seen the effects of these crisis on my life and relationships. It has become important to tell my story, in as sense as a Canadian Chaplain in our Pastoral Care residency said to “write my way home.”

After Iraq I began to write. I did so initially because it was therapeutic and helped me to begin to start sorting out what was going on with me. It also helped me, especially when I went public on this site about my experience to get outside of my normally severely introverted self. As I began to write regularly it became a part of my life as I struggled to deal with PTSD and the spiritual and emotional crises following my tour in Iraq.

I began to understand the importance of my stories, in fact all of our stories in the way that we understand reality what we believe to be true and what really is true about ourselves and the universe that we are a part.

I experienced this to some degree in my own pastoral care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1990s. My supervisor challenged be to stop living in the past and begin to imagine a future that was not a prisoner of my past disappointments and failures. That was a watershed experience for me and I began to realize that I did not need to live my life in a constant repetition of the past. That realization did not always find a place in my life but in a gradual process I began to escape that past and begin to live in the moment with an eye to the future.

Iraq changed that to a large degree. What I experienced there and upon my return to the States shook many of my beliefs about the world, faith and life. The images of American Marines wounded by IED attacks, wounded children and destruction of vast areas of cities, towns and villages coupled with having HUMMVs and Helicopters that I traveled on shot at and having rockets fly over my head changed me.  That was magnified when I saw how the war was being covered by both the liberal and conservative media which bore little resemblance to my first hand observations.

Even worse was the feeling of being isolated and abandoned when I returned home.  I experienced a crisis in faith that left me a practical agnostic even as I desperately prayed for God to show up.  In fact my psychotherapist was the first person to even address my spiritual life after my return.

When Elmer Maggard asked me: “How are you and the big guy?” I could only say “I don’t know I don’t even know if he exists.”

For a priest and chaplain that was a harrowing admission. I had entered a world of darkness that I did not believe was possible. I would struggle for another year and a half until during Advent of 2009. It was then, after what I refer to as my “Christmas Miracle” that things began to change and I began to sense the presence of a loving God again.  My faith began to return but it was and is not the same as before I went to Iraq.  I still struggle at times, though not as much. I still question God, the Church and faith in general. I believe and often must pray “Lord help my unbelief.” My faith is still in the realm of Christian orthodoxy but more negotiable.

This might sound confusing so let me explain. I admit that I do not have the answers that I used to think that I had. The late great manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver once said “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

The fact is I know a whole lot less than I used to. This has made me more apt to actually listen to people when they tell their stories and when they ask questions that I can’t answer I say “I don’t know” or “I struggle with that too” people trust me with their faith struggles or even the existence of God.


I refuse to pass judgment on someone’s faith journey, even if they question God’s existence because I have been there and it is not a comfortable place to live.  I am far more willing to walk with someone thorough that valley of doubt or unbelief because I lived in that valley for over a a long time and sometimes pay it a return visit.

I don’t like to attribute normal experiences in life to being “God’s will” or “an attack of the Devil.” I recognize that as human beings that we live in a fallen state and that sometimes things just happen. To put in in the vernacular “Shit Happens.”

That being said I believe that the real miracle is that God can give us the grace to go through the most difficult times even when we have no faith at all.  I think that the experience of Jesus on Good Friday and the testimony of many saintly people tells me that this is true. The miracle in my mind is not being “delivered” from crisis or unbelief but making it though the crisis and return to faith, even if that faith takes a different form.

For me the act of writing both about my experiences, writing about history, faith, ethics and even baseball has been therapeutic and forced me out of my comfort zone.  When I  began to tell my story my friend Elmer the Shrink asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to open up and become vulnerable.

I said that I thought that I needed to because people needed to know the reality of what many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience.  He told me that what I was doing was risky but let me make the call. Almost 1500 posts later, not all of course dealing with what I and other veterans have gone through I can say that it was the right decision.


My story is paradoxical. I am a man of faith, a Christian and Priest. I believe but I also question and doubt and sometimes still feel a twinge of agnosticism. I am much more prone to give the benefit of the doubt to people who struggle with life, faith and the existence of God. Andrew Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” I figure that God is big enough to handle doubt and unbelief while still loving and caring for the person experiencing them, even those whose beliefs that may not fit the definition of Christian orthodoxy.

I am a passionate introvert in an extroverted world both in ministry and the military. I am an intuitive “out of the box” thinker and somewhat a rebel. Yet in spite of this I willingly volunteer to serve the church and the military. It is interesting because both institutions prize loyalty to the institution, obedience and staying within the lines of prescribed beliefs and traditions. I believe yet question.

I think that there is a healthy tension in this type of life. Though I fully subscribe to the Creeds, the first 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Church an Old Catholic understanding of the Christian faith tempered by some Anglican flavors, I am not a legalist when it comes to faith.

This also applies to the rest of life because I don’t think that faith should influence how we treat people, even in politics. I cannot allow any political ideology to hold my faith captive, nor can I cast aside the essence of the Christian faith even when I doubt. My political views could be described as a moderate progressive liberalism tempered with the demands of the Gospel, the top two commandments that Jesus talked about, the whole love God and love your neighbor thing.

I have discovered that for the most part I can comfortably live in this tension and actually believe that writing about it has been a big part of my recovery. The fact is that I think that it is okay to live life in balance and with a health appreciation of creative tension.


I continue to emerge from the darkness of my post Iraq experience and I know that I am still wounded. I still struggle but I now see this as a gift from God. My faith is not the same as it was and I am not satisfied with simplistic answers or the party lines of people that only care about their agenda especially when they decide that their agenda is God’s will, even if it has nothing to do with the Gospel. That may sound snarky but I really want to be an authentic Christian not some caricature that is more a picture of the American perversion of the faith than anything found in Scripture or the 2000 year history of the Church.

I believe but I struggle. I will listen to other points of view, including those of people that are not Christian. In fact when I was in Iraq I found that my Iraqi Muslim friends were much easier to dialogue with and have deep and respectful theological discussions with than many American Evangelicals. That was a watershed moment.  T. E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that “The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” After having been with the Bedouin I think that I understand.

This is the dialogue that has been going on in me since my return from Iraq. I know other Chaplains and other people of faith that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan who have experienced similar feelings.

Unfortunately many do not have a safe place in their churches to heal and are afforded little time to do self care. I am concerned for our caregivers that care of veterans like me.  I wonder how many can be real in their faith community without having people run away from them as if they were radioactive, a feeling that many veterans and other trauma victims experience when they attempt to tell their story.


I just hope that I will be able to be there for others who are wounded and suffering as a result of what they experienced in war. T. E. Lawrence wrote: “The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Maybe that is why I went through what I did in Iraq and after my return. If that is the case it is a good thing and I will continue to write.

That is all for tonight.  Blessings and peace my friends,

Padre Steve+


Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq