Waiting for First Light at Slaughterhouse Five: PTSD and a Coda to te end of a Military Career

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am checking out of my current command to finish my career attached to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth Virginia. I am struggling. Not feeling appreciated and feeling like a cast off. This isn’t new, shortly after I was promoted to Commander, the newly appointed Deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me like a potted plant while making her rounds of the Generals and Major Commands. As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Slaughterhouse Five “and so it goes.”  My Problems in the Navy Chaplain Corps began when I went public with my struggles with PTSD. Somehow it seems that Chaplains can care for the wounded and those traumatized by war but if we admit that we are wounded we are expendable.

I read General Romeo Dallaire’s latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Struggle with PTSD a couple of years ago. General Dallaire had been the commander of the UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, men and women who were prevented from stopping genocide, and people who have been forever haunted by what they witnessed.

General Dallaire recounts a story of horror that never ended for him, and he details how difficult and traumatic coming home that neither appreciate nor understood what he had been through, including people in the military. I found so much in his story that was analogous to my own and in light of that I am going to begin writing my PTSD memoir.

It will be hard because I will have to write about things that are deeply traumatic and upsetting, especially how I was received and continue to be received by most of my fellow chaplains. Because I came and publicly discussed my issues with PTSD, the shattering of my faith in so many things, my wilderness experience of being an agnostic for two years, and the change in my faith since then, I experienced the rejection of my former church and many of my peers.

To many of my peers and Chaplain Corps superiors I am simply a broken Chaplain; and broken chaplains or for that matter broken ministers have no place and very few people who they can talk with. I remember my old Commodore at EOD Group Two, the late Captain Tom Sitsch ask me bluntly “Where does a chaplain go for help?”My answer to him was “not to other chaplains.” Sadly, he too was going through his own personal PTSD hell and with his life falling apart he committed suicide in January 2014.

General Dallaire recounts a similar experience, as like Chaplains, Generals and other senior leaders have no place to go, they like us are not supposed to break. General Dallaire wrote: “I received little support from my colleagues and peers; I received only a few messages from my sixty or so fellow generals – a couple of phone calls, and an e-mail from one old friend. The others appeared to be in two camps: those who were too busy to get in touch, and those who didn’t know what to say.” But I would also add, that there are those that do not want to know and others who actually turn their backs on men and women whose injury lies inside their brain, as well as some chaplains and ministers who seem to take a certain perverse joy in inflicting pain.

I still struggle with nightmares, night terrors, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. After more than a decade I cannot imagine life without them. Like General Dallaire, I still wait for first light.

So pray for me if you do that, if not send some positive thoughts my direction.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under iraq, mental health, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

23 responses to “Waiting for First Light at Slaughterhouse Five: PTSD and a Coda to te end of a Military Career

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    You have a friend here Padre since I have started to read your baseball and beer posts a while back.
    I love baseball, but I don’t like beer.

    Peace Padre

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    I have read Roméo Dallaire’s first book Shake hands with the devil.
    How world leaders’ inactions led to hundreds of thousands to be slaughter is beyond comprehension.

  3. Louis

    I feel compelled to respond. First and foremost, I am with you brother. As I have written, I am retiring as well and I am a physician with two OIF deployments with combat units. As special staff, I am often a companion of the unit’s chaplain and as a doc, I fall into the same boat as you…. “we aren’t supposed to break.” I suffer pretty much exclusively from hypervigilance and get very little sleep. I don’t even think of it much because I gave up on sleeping well years ago and fortunately, I have not the other issues you described.

    I am not sure what I can offer you other than my ear and my time, but I do have the advantage of going through this a few months ahead of you after a 34 year career. I have my DD 214 in hand as of last night. I am at the airport in Tokyo waiting to board my flight back to the States which will artificially extent my life as a soldier about 12 hours as I head backwards in time. I turn into a pumpkin at midnight. It is a strange ride the retirement process. In a year, what has been decades of my life will be summed up by, “I used to be in the Army” as life goes on and new demands of being on the other side of the fence between 100% soldier and 100% civilian slowly grows on the civilian side.

    I did want to comment on one specific thing. Yes, I think it is quite normal to feel like cast aside road kill as people realize you will not be around and future tasks are no longer assigned to you, others have taken your responsibilities and you are essentially floating dead weight. I would encourage you to view this as the natural process of the Army healing the wound you will cause by leaving. The corpus of the Army must wall you off like a piece of shrapnel and push you from its body so that it can always stay fresh and unsentimental. Other leaders will take your place and you can feel the pride of knowing that you have been and will always be a part of this impersonal absolute that is the unbroken chain of soldiers and sailors to their services and the nation. It is healthy and normal for children to no longer need their parents and as parents, we need to accept that everything is going to be quite fine without us… the big green machine will roll along. My last few meetings, I chose not to say anything and I just observed the young Captains and Majors, taking charge… it is good to know that one is not indispensable. Are names and achievements will fade from memory and we can take pride in the legacy that will follow in our wake. No need to mourn. The way you will now be ignored is not personal and is a great sign of health within the institution. It means that we have done our job. Take care brother… you can always write to me.

  4. David Head

    Dear Steve,
    I’m sorry to hear of your struggles. We have the same problems in Britain. More soldiers have subsequently committed suicide after returning home from the Falkland’s War than were killed in battle and our Ministry of Defence and government did absolutely nothing to help them. It’s an outrage.
    As for the church I’ve already had a mistrust of religious leaders and don’t follow any of them. I love being a Christian but don’t think I have to go to church to be a Christian. In fact im sure of it.
    You seem like an all round good guy and my thoughts and prayers are with you my friend.
    I’m no stranger to mental health issues and I can empathise and sympathise with you,

    God Bless,
    Much Love,

  5. Hang in there. My best thoughts to you. I’ll remember you when I say my morning rosary. Hugs.

  6. Scott

    I don’t really know what to say, but you are a good person and a strong person. Your knowledge and understanding of history as well as human nature and the human condition will allow you many opportunities to engage and contribute to lots of communities. With the support of your friends, readers (Louis,that is great), wife and dogs you’ll come out stronger on the other side. Be patient. Be proud! And you have absolutely earned retirement.

  7. Steven

    I cannot say that you will come out stronger; I cannot say that there is another side; I cannot say you will ever see the breaking light. I do not know these things, Padre, and I am not a man who tells his soldiers lies.

    There are the old lies—you or them; you were serving your country; your were obeying orders; &c. I heard a new one (to me) a few years back from a Pain Management Dr., “you are a warrior of God”. That one actually made me vomit, which I had not done before. So wait for it, Padre, it can get worse.

    But what there is, is us. The handful of women and men who walked the walk so many people seem to imagine they want to walk. The fearsome exultation of killing another human being; the relief of not being the one who died; the humbling knowledge that you were adequate to the task, for all the training and discipline. The love for your soldiers. Your devotion to them.

    All swords with two edges, Padre. But there, too, is strength, brother. Remember that bond. Did you never hold a soldiers hand when they were afraid? Do you truly doubt that soldier would not cross any distance, breach any obstacle, to hold yours now? Really?

    When you wake in the night, go out of your room—I take my dogs (not that they would let me go alone if I wanted to)—and sit and look outside, or even step outside. Picture one of your guys (and I mean no gender reference) there with you. Feel their hand slip into yours. Always that young. But not afraid anymore. Because when you could have turned aside, you took up that burden and made it your own; of course you have to carry it, Padre.

    The next time some one who has not been where you have been, or has not done what you have done, shows the face of cowardice, take a moment and ask yourself this:

    What would your soldiers’ mothers give to have that last moment you had? What **wouldn’t** they give? Of course some weakling who got promoted over you for making a perfect O with their mouth year in, year out, resents you—you did what they could not, even though they imagine that they could.

    I can’t tell you how it will be, Padre. But I know how it was. I know how it is. Take each day for a day, Padre. Carry your burdens with honour, but leave those that others would put on you—vanity and pettiness and ideas of failure—beside each mornings road when you rise. Let your soldiers pull them off you and throw them down beside the road, then walk on, carrying only what you must, as a soldier who did their duty as they saw it, who honours the lives who turned to you.

    Fuck all the rest, Padre. You have walked with soldiers.

  8. May God preserve you when memories refuse to fade. Let His grace lift fears of your gravest worries. And, may you examine history wisely while in the hands of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

  9. Thank You! Best Wishes for the future!

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