Reflections on PTSD and Moral Injury after a Gettysburg Staff Ride


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity which has involved a transfer, travel, and teaching, coupled with finding that I was not selected for promotion. The failure to select for promotion was less of a disappointment with not being selected, or jealousy towards those that were, but rather the feelings of betrayal I feel towards the senior leaders of the Chaplain Corps that have been part of my life since I returned from Iraq back in 2008, and my ever present battle with the effects of PTSD. Since I have written about these things many times I shall not go into depth about them today.

While I was at Gettysburg I stood beside the monument to General Gouverneur Warren on Little Round Top as I discussed Warren’s actions which were decisive in ensuring that Union forces held that edifice against the Confederate assault of July 2nd 1863. However, Warren would suffer unjustly at the hands of General Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Five Forks just days before the end of the war. The effects of combat trauma, what we would now diagnose as PTSD and moral injury at having been betrayed by the leaders of an institution that he had faithfully served in war and peace were devastating to him. After the war he wrote his wife:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

I fully understand what Warren felt in terms of dreams and what they call to mind time and time again nearly every night. Whenever I go to bed I pray that I will not again injure myself during a nighttime as I have numerous times, two of which sent me to the emergency room with head and facial injuries including a concussion and a broken nose. Yet even the dreams and nightmares that do not result in physical injury are often disturbing, and thankfully one of our Papillon dogs, Izzy, will do all that she can to comfort me and calm me down, and if I am awake and she senses that I am depressed or anxious she does what she can to be near me and to calm me. She is incredibly sensitive and does this with anyone not feeling well. I need to get her certified as a therapy dog as she is a special soul. 

Even so there are really very few people with whom I can talk about these things as they are foreign to the experience of most people. Guy Sager wrote in his classic book The Forgotten Soldier of his experience on returning home after the Second World War: “In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

But anyway, that is where I live. I am happy, relatively content, and look forward to life. I love to teach as I did at Gettysburg over the weekend and to write, at the same time I struggle every night with sleep, and with belonging in the institution that I have served for nearly thirty-six years. After I found out about the non-selection for promotion I became quite angry, as I said, not because I wasn’t selected, but because of the feelings of betrayal that go back now some nine years. It helped for me to walk in the woods along the Potomac River on Thursday night and to walk the lines that the Union Union First Corps occupied on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg last Friday. For me there is something about walking hallowed ground which no matter what I am feeling helps to center me. It is as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain wrote:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Every time I walk that hallowed ground at Gettysburg I feel that presence and experience the power of that vision.

So I do wish you the best and appreciate the kind thoughts and words that many of you post on this page, in emails, and on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Until tomorrow, have a great day. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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2 Comments

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Loose thoughts and musings, mental health, PTSD

2 responses to “Reflections on PTSD and Moral Injury after a Gettysburg Staff Ride

  1. Carrie Foster Tucker

    Steve
    You are worthy of much and not given enough. You have sacrificed so much for so many. G-d will bless you my friend …he will. I pray you have many peaceful nights sleep. I know too of PTSD. I begin my prolonged exposure counseling soon at the VA.

    Take care,
    Carrie

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