Category Archives: PTSD

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

A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“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.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“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.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager 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.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“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.”

butler-medals1

Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“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.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

Lt.ColonelCharlesWhiteWhittlesey

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, ministry, PTSD, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, world war one

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,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Back in the USA

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are back in the USA after our two week pilgrimage to Germany. It was good for us, especially for me when I intentionally disconnected from media for several of the days there except to skim the headlines. Today was much like that. We drove from Karlsruhe to Munich, caught our late flight back which was delayed due to weather in Munich and having to go further north to avoid the effects of Hurricane Lorenzo. We got into Washington about 40 minutes late. Our friend David picked us up at the airport and we are resting.

We will head back home to our Papillons tomorrow and begin the process of readjusting to insanity of Trump’s America, preparing to transfer my duties to a new Chaplain as I really enter the preparation to retire from the military and prepare for life as a civilian in the spring.

I will write some of my observations of Germany, Europe and our trip in the coming days. There are problems there too, different but similar in some ways to what we are going through. And I think as I ruminate on them over the next few days I will jot them down here. As I have said before, I believe that we are in one of those epochs of history where the old order is giving way and we go from crisis to crisis, some of which could be disastrous for humanity in general, but especially those who resist totalitarian systems of government. I was looking at my Twitter feed for about 10 minutes before I had to get off it it.

I have now been up over 28 hours, driven about 200 miles and had a ten hour ride in a Lufthansa Airbus 350-900. Before I go to bed I will read my daily comics and another chapter or two of the book That Was Dachau, 1933-1945. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under News and current events, Political Commentary, travel

Munich Update

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was our first full day in Munich. We got up relatively early, had breakfast and went to the opening parade and tapping of the Bier at the Oktoberfest. Following that we did some shopping and since Judy had walked and stood three to four times as long as at any time since her first knee replacement surgery we took her back to the hotel.

I then went down to the hotel bar to watch the second half of the Bayern München game against Koln, Bayern won 4-0. Then I went to the Lidl grocery and picked up a few things before going back to the hotel and picking Judy up for dinner at our favorite local Bavarian restaurant, Zum Brunstein, which is always like a visit to home away from home. After a wonderful dinner we went for a nightcap at the hotel bar.

When we went back to our room I thought I was going to watch a German crime drama and post a blog, but jet lag hit and we crashed. We slept late, I had a light breakfast of fruit and coffee, Judy is resting while I make pilgrimage to Dachau and the Concentration Camp Memorial.

I am writing on my iPhone while riding the S-Bahn to Dachau.

When I finish this trip and return to the hotel, our plans are to go back to Theresienwiesn where the Fest is held for beer and a wonderful Bavarian Rotisserie Chicken dinner, before heading back to the hotel. Tomorrow we’ll probably do some shopping and I might make a trip to the Dachau labor sub-camp memorial or the Sophie Scholl museum. I do plan on making those trips, but we are pacing ourselves.

So until the next time, from Munich,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, travel

Emotional and Physical Recovery from a Traumatic Event

Pearls Before Swine Comic Strip for August 07, 2017

Comic, Pearls Before Swine, (c) 2017 by Stephan Pastis

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On Thursday afternoon my car was run off the road by an inattentive driver with a very loud exhaust system.

I honestly thought I would be better the next day, but late in the afternoon when Judy took me to get the car, I got in the driver seat and I felt sick to my stomach and was trembling. I got the car home and she drove us to Gordon Biersch where we had a nice night.

I didn’t sleep well, lots of nightmares and I didn’t leave bed, except to let the dogs out until about 1 PM. I knew I had to get a few groceries at Kroger and Wegmans so I made the trip. Until I got to the Kroger parking lot the trip went well. Then it seemed that every old lady was trying to crash by cutting me off or taking up most of a lane. I was doing into panic mode, but took a deep breath, regathered myself and instead of going directly to Wegmans I stopped by Gordon Biersch for a one and done to calm the nerves. Since I no longer take a specific anti anxiety medication, I stopped taking the minimal PRN dosage of Xanax a few years back because I was experiencing less anxiety.

The crash has re-triggered that anxiety, something I will talk to with my shrink on Tuesday and my psychiatric medicine manager Wednesday. But yesterday I needed to calm down. I texted Judy and posted my situation on Facebook. A good friend came over and spent some time with me at the bar. I then did a take out order since Judy told me that. Wegmans could wait.

Judy reminded me of the chemical chain reaction that trauma sends through the body, and how it takes time for that to play out. I am lucky to have her.

This morning we planned to go out to breakfast, but since neither of us were hungry we stayed in bed with the dogs. They have been very comforting, especially my girl Izzy. Judy is about to drive us to Biersch for dinner so we can get out of the house.

Tomorrow I am up really early for fat boy PT, then I have to drive to the Naval Medical Center for aquatic physical therapy and to get my antidepressant refilled  since I have gone without it 5 days and don’t want to crash and get suicidal. Then I will go in to work.

About the cartoon. That is how I have felt all weekend. The cartoon is Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. This particular cartoon ran in August of 2017. His comics can be accessed at GoComics.com, I hope that since I didn’t ask permission to run it that you will flood his site with hits and buy his books.

So until tomorrow, and hopefully better times,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, mental health, Military, PTSD

PTSD: Anxiety, Fear, and Things That Lurk on the Road

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

Back in August of 1978 when I met and fell hopelessly head over heals in love with my wife Judy, I had no idea how badly she had been damaged by the actions of her parents, siblings, and one particular grandmother. Between physical, emotional violence, neglect, and abuse that continued long after we were married in 1983, she showed herself to be a rock for me over the past couple of days.

On Thursday night I wrote about it thinking that by Friday I would be doing better. I got the car back late Friday afternoon. Judy took me to get it and take it home before driving me out to dinner. This morning I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have had trouble sleeping, but bed feels safe.

That being said I had to go to a grocery store to pick up a few things and see if I could get a refill on my antidepressant. I couldn’t get the refill today because they had to transfer it from the Naval Medical Center. Since I have to go there on Monday anyway, I go without. But I planned on going to another grocery store, a Wegmans, for the very best strawberries, cantaloupe, dark chocolate almond bark, and Paulaner Beer from Munich. But as I was trying to leave Kroger it seamed that every insane old woman in the parking lot was trying to crash into my car. No kidding, there were at least three times in the parking lot that old ladies locked eyes with me and tried to force me into crashes with parked cars by purposely restricting my ability to maneuver. To avoid each, I stopped and yielded.

On the way to Wegmans I stopped by Gordon Biersch for a one and done beer to calm my nerves. I posted my situation on Facebook and let Judy know. A friend came by to check on me. Judy told me to take the time to regather my nerves. I then brought us take out from there on my way home.

I think that it’s important to have someone who understands your anxieties, fears, and weaknesses. I haven’t felt this vulnerable, fearful, and anxious, since my last Commodore at EOD Group Two In 2008, took his life in January 2014. Tomorrow, I plan to take Judy out to breakfast and make the trip to Wegmans I had planned for today. Monday, it is back to fat boy PT at the base, followed by aquatic physical therapy at the Naval Medical Center, after which I will try to get my antidepressant refilled. I’ll see my shrink on Tuesday, and my psych drug doctor Wednesday. The rest of the week will between split between work, physical therapy, and medical appointments.

For the moment I am not okay. I am so frightened, anxious, and fearful that I don’t want to go out or get in my car. I love doing both, and for most of my life driving, and traveling has been relaxing. I don’t know when or if it will be so again, most of that is residue from convoys in Iraq. However, over a decade after I came home all it took to throw me back into that emotional morass, was an incident precipitated by someone who probably never noticed what happened on Thursday.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The PTSD Startle Response: Never far from the Surface

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

PTSD is an unwanted gift that keeps giving. One of its many manifestations is a startle response. My wife Judy can tell you about them, and it took me many years to understand how inadvertent and programmed they are, she’s had them for decades, me just since returning from Iraq in 2008. Until I started dealing with my shit, I failed to understand hers and many times when she would startle and I wasn’t very sympathetic. She has dealt with childhood PTSD for a lot longer than I have combat PTSD, and even after I came back from Iraq I didn’t understand how deep the trauma she experienced still affected her.

I remain hyper vigilant, have terrible nightmares and night terrors, when I go out somewhere I always stay aware of my circumstances, but it has been a few years since I had something happen like today. I was on my way home from work at the beginning of rush hour and and was about a mile or so off base when a large pickup truck with one of those noice enhanced exhaust systems roared up close alongside on the right lane. The noise caused me to look over my shoulder and I caught the vision of the truck, just big and dark, speeding past me. I went into my automatic response, I swerved to avoid a possible collision, entered the edge of the grass on the median and then hit a curb in a turn lane. The impact blew out the tires on the left side of my car. I didn’t try to keep driving and slowly pulled into the grass of the median and turned on my emergency flashers.

The interesting thing was that hundreds of cars passed me with none stopping to offer assistance until a female Virginia Beach Police officer coming from the opposite direction stopped to help. She got me a tow truck and the car will be in the shop until tomorrow afternoon. I am going to let my insurance company, USAA, know what happened in the morning.

Of course I have no positive identification of the pickup truck and he probably meant no harm, just gunning his engine to get home quicker. The fact that the loudness of his exhaust system and noise enhanced muffler startled me is irrelevant. That’s not a crime. But what surprised me is that nobody but a police officer offered to help. I couldn’t do that. I paid for the tow to a tire store that I do business with and walked to meet Judy at a restaurant where I had here waiting in case I needed a ride.

I have nothing but praise for the Virginia Beach Police officer and the tow service. I also thank all of my friends who have contacted me on social media, and for Judy who stayed in touch with me until she was sure that I was safe. I just knew that the location of the incident wasn’t conducive to her traveling to retrieve me.

Whatever happens next I am glad that I am okay and that apart from some money that it won’t cost us anything. I am safe and have a new appreciation for Judy’s startle reflex.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq