Tag Archives: combat stress reaction

A Long Strange Trip Home from Iraq: A Five Year Trek to Healing

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“Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip its been.” 

The Grateful Dead “Truckin’” 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pafY6sZt0FE

Just over 5 years ago I returned from Iraq a changed man. But the change was not complete, it was the fact that the man that I was before Iraq was shattered. I returned vainly hoping to return to what used to be “normal.” But that was not possible. I returned to a place where I felt that I felt abandoned at at times betrayed. I thought that I would be able to get through what I was feeling by working harder, praying more and pushing myself beyond my limits. Within months of my return I was in a state of emotional, spiritual and physical collapse.

Insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, acute sensory sensitivity to sight, smell and sounds that reminded me of Iraq, rage, depression, emotional distance from those that I loved. I drank more than I should have and self medicated because of chronic pain. Driving became an adventure, my hyper-vigilance made me drive like a Jedi Knight, the “force” was with me. Slow traffic, objects that resembled items that might hide IEDs alongside the road and aggressive or threatening drivers caused outright panic and anxiety.  This led to some unsafe driving practices on my part and thankfully a lawyer got my speeding tickets on US 17 in North Carolina reduced to mechanical violations.

I had deep anger at the politicians and leaders that took us to war and the media that lied about it. I had a spiritual crisis that left me for all intents and purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed. There were few clergy that I even trusted at all because most didn’t seem to either care or understand what I was going through. The only thing that kept me going was a hope that things might get better and only my sense of call as a Priest and Chaplain allowed me to continue in spite of my crisis. During that early period of 2009 I began this site and the article God in the Empty Places…Padre Steve Remembers the Beginnings of Padre Steve’s World helps recount those early days.

At first when things began I could not label what I was going through. But by the middle of June I was falling apart and during a seminar that I was coordinating involving the author of On Killing and On Combat, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman I was in such bad shape that the Medical Officer of EOD Group Two asked me “Are you okay Chaplain?” I told him “no” and after he was sure that I was not a danger to myself he set up an appointment for the next morning. Following his evaluation and subsequent evaluations at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia I was diagnosed with chronic and severe PTSD, anxiety and depression.

The road back has been long and often difficult. I mentioned that I was going through a spiritual crisis that left me for all intents and purposes an agnostic. It took nearly two years but in the act of conducting what are often called the “Last Rites” for a retired Navy doctor faith returned. It was what I call my “Christmas Miracle” though it actually occurred during Advent (see:  Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle )

After that things still were difficult. Faith had returned but it was different, less doctrinaire and more accepting of others different than me. I still struggled with depression, anxiety and insomnia. I struggled in my marriage and it seemed that the only place that I could find peace was at a baseball park. The management of the local AAA International League team, the Norfolk Tides allowed me to come and visit the stadium and walk the concourses and be at the field during the off season as well.

In June 2010 I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander, the next day my father died and a week later I found that I was being transferred to my current assignment. Just before my transfer I was told by a former Archbishop of my old church that I was “too liberal” and needed to find a new church home. I did with some help and it has been for the better, I still have many friends in that church including other leaders in it and the former Archbishop himself was removed for attempting to remove the military chaplains from that church to another. Change continued as did my struggles but some things were getting better. In spite of my own struggles I was determined to make sure that others like me were cared for and the new assignment at Camp LeJeune gave me plenty of opportunity.

I wrote an article on this site entitled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? That article led to me being contacted by a reporter from our local newspaper, the Jacksonville Daily News they published an article about my struggle and recover in April 2011. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by the DOD Real Warriors Campaign who did a feature on me. That site did a feature on me http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php that helped others connect to me and be able in some cases to tell their stories, or those of family members sometimes for the first time.

I was getting better but still struggling, especially with sleep and nightmares. Due to her medical issues my wife remained in Virginia when I went to LeJeune. Last December my dog Molly decided that she was going to stay with me and that was a big help. Her cheerful unflappable personality helped me begin to engage life again. Instead of going home to an empty apartment I was greeted by a dog that welcomed me cheerfully and made me get out of my shell. We ended up a couple of months later getting a new puppy for Judy, a puppy who has added a new dimension to all of our lives.

Finally last year I began some more therapy that was extremely helpful and about a month ago I stopped doing sleeping pills that did not help me sleep and left me feeling almost hung-over every morning, making it hard to function and even to get out of bed. Over the course of nearly 5 years I had been on a number of different medications and all had the same effect, even those designed to not leave the patient that way. My therapist suggested trying Melatonin on duty nights when I needed to be able to drive to work if there was an emergency at the hospital. I noticed a difference. My sleep was no worse and when I got up in the morning I actually felt somewhat rested.

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For the first time since I returned from Iraq I feel that I am functioning like a normal human being. Hope has returned and people that know me can tell the difference. Judy says that I am the man that she fell in love with again. In ministry I have found that what I went through assists me in caring for those going through great difficulties, any do to PTSD, TBI or Combat Stress, but others that are struggling with their place in life in the military institution, particularly caregivers including chaplains and medical personnel. At work I have more energy and connection to people than in years and I have developed more relationships with people on the island as well.

Do I still have days that I struggle? Yes. Is my sleep perfect? No. Do I still have nightmares and strange dreams? Yes. All that being said I know that for the first time in years I approach the Lenten Season feeling good, not just hoping things get better.

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It has been as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once sang “a long strange trip” but it continues to get better. If you know someone struggling from the effects of PTSD or other combat trauma there are a lot of resources, sometimes they are hard to find and in some places due to the numbers of personnel suffering they are in short supply, but they are still can be found. My encouragement to others is not to give up, not to lose hope and to keep seeking help. It took me five years to get back to what is my “new normal.” I can’t go back to what I used to be and I don’t want to, my definition of what is “normal” has changed and that is okay.

My views on life, faith, politics, ministry and social issues have changed over the years, I think for the better. Some might disagree, but that is okay, I have been called a lot of things by people that do not understand over the past few years, but I would rather have that than be where I was before Iraq. Iraq changed me in ways I did not expect. When I left for Iraq in 2007 I thought that I was immune to PTSD because of my experience in dealing with trauma and death both in the military and the civilian world. I was wrong, but despite what I have gone through I am glad for the experience.

There is still one constant in my life, besides my wife Judy who has suffered much during my ordeal, and that is baseball. I can only echo the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, iraq,afghanistan, marriage and relationships, Military, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Atrocity in War: The Afghanistan Video

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.”  Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle was one of the most prolific wartime journalists that ever lived, in fact he was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on the island of Ie Jima while with the Army during the Okinawa campaign. Ernie Pyle understood war and the men that fight it. If he was alive today I imagine that his comments about what happens to men in combat would be no different now than it was then.

In the past two days we have heard much and seen a distressing video of four U.S. Marines from a Scout-Sniper Team of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The images are disturbing and because they are raw and offensive they have created a furor that could define the NATO campaign in Afghanistan as much as the Abu Ghraib torture photos harmed U.S. efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East.  When I was in Iraq I heard Marine leaders talking about the Abu Ghraib incident with distain and saying that those few soldiers that recorded their torture of prisoners were costing us the war.

3/2 was deployed in the northern area of Helmand Province and lost 6 Marines and a Navy Corpsman during their deployment. According to the Marine Corps Times Battle Rattle Blog author Dan Lamothe, Major General John Toolan said that the Scout Snipers of 3/2 may have killed up to 100 insurgents each during their tour, which would mean that they were engaged in many dangerous combat engagements.  This in no way condones or excuses their actions but it does provide some context to view what happened.

However wrong the actions may be and how stupid it was for the Marines in this unit to record them and allow them onto the internet the truth is that war changes people. Ordinary men do things that they would not have contemplated before it including breaking the codes of honor that they pledge to uphold when volunteering to serve. Ernie Pyle understood this far better than most journalists before or since. In fact he understood it far better than the minuscule percentage of Americans who have ever served in the military much less in combat.  Pyle wrote:

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly — but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”

E.B Sledge who served throughout the Pacific War as a Marine infantryman and whose writings are dramatized in the HBO Series The Pacific wrote about fellow Marines that harvested gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers, urinated in the mouths of the corpses of the Japanese and shot civilians.  He was patriotic, religious and after the war wrote in his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa:

“The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines-service troops and civilians.” 

Mind you this is not an excuse for what these Marines did but it does offer an explanation for the act that they committed to video that we view without any context as to what led up to the incident or what they had been through.  It seems that people are rushing to judgement and that this will be compared to Abu Ghraib as a defining image of the Afghanistan as much as Abu Ghraib became symbolic of Iraq.  This is despite the fact that apart from being committed to video they are different. The Marines were infantrymen in one of the most desolate and dangerous combat zones of Afghanistan and the Abu Ghraib soldiers were jailers that had complete control of the prisoners.  There is a major difference between the actions as deplorable as both are.

I see the American wounded every day, Marines and Sailors whose lives have been radically changed by service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They have seen horrors committed by Taliban, Al Qaida and other insurgents against their comrades as well as against Iraqi and Afghan civilians.  The war is every bit as brutal as was waged in the Pacific and they fight a brutal and unforgiving enemy that is intent on driving the infidels out of Afghanistan.

The uncomfortable fact is that an incredibly small number of Americans are fighting a war that at best will be a draw and quite probably a strategic and political defeat despite our troops not losing any battles.  The fact is that the action of these Marines will be used to not only prosecute them but to demonize them just as the actions of Lieutenant William Calley and his platoon at My Lai were used to demonize the Americans that fought in Vietnam.  The sad truth is that most of those that will engage in such demonization have never served in harm’s way or even known military service. Sledge wrote of critics of the Marines following the Second World War:

“In the post-war years, the U.S. Marine Corps came in for a great deal of undeserved criticism in my opinion, from well-meaning persons who did not comprehend the magnitude of stress and horror that combat can be. The technology that developed the rifle barrel, the machine gun and high explosive shells has turned war into prolonged, subhuman slaughter.”

I know that a thorough investigation will be conducted and that we will find out what happened in this unit that caused this obvious breakdown in discipline. Right now we don’t know who even posted the video on the internet and why they did so. Hopefully this is an isolated incident otherwise the incident will only grow in significance. During the investigation as well as news reports and interviews we will learn about the individual Marines involved in this action as well as their leaders. It will likely be uncomfortable and sad to watch.  It could well damage the reputation of the Marine Corps in the eyes of many even if it is an isolated incident.  What happened has already and will continue to reverberate here and in Afghanistan for a long time to come.  I just wish that we our media and politicians were as wise as Ernie Pyle and Eugene Sledge in judging these men as individuals before we know the whole story.

As someone that has served with Marines in harm’s way and know something of the stress that small teams of Marines can experience I have mixed feelings on this. I cannot approve of desecrating the remains of any human being at the same time I wonder what happened before this that might have contributed to the incident.  Of course we will hear more details than we want.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I have written a number of articles about the political, ideological strategic and moral aspects of war which I have listed here:

War Without Mercy: Race, Religion, Ideology and Total War

Why History Matters: The Disastrous Effects of Long Insurgency Campaigns on the Nations that Wage them and the Armies that Fight Them 

The Ideological War: How Hitler’s Racial Theories Influenced German Operations in Poland and Russia

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, News and current events

Revisiting the Demons of PTSD: Returning to Iraq in Virginia a Year and a Half Later

Today I am attending a conference on Caregiver Operational Stress Control.  This brought out my “demons” as I was faced with the stories of others who had been to the same places that I have been in Iraq, and experienced similar things that I experienced on my return.  This is a re-posting of something that I wrote in March at the very beginning of this blog.  At that time I had very few readers.

I am glad to be at this training today.  I needed to take a Xanax when I arrived because I don’t do well with these kind of events anymore.  The intial session and a video of Dr Heidi Kraft talking about her expereinces at Al Taqaduum where I was based out of.  I was scheduled for another meeting but I knew that I needed to be here.  So I asked my Department Head who was going to the meeting if I could stay and he allowed me to do so. God bless him.

I received a note from a new friend in another country’s military, a physician with multiple tours in Afghanistan.  He is dealing with many of the things that I discuss in this essay and had a bad day that took him back to Afghanistan.  I am sure that he is not alone as I deal with many people in my Medical Center who have similar experiences.  Yesterday I was walking down a hallway near our Operating Room and I saw a pretty good sized blood spill on the floor. I was surprised at my reaction as I kept seeing it in my mind the rest of the day and flashbacks to Iraq and the TQ Shock Surgery Trauma platoon where I was pulled into a couple of the last major mass casualty events where 10-15 Marines or soldiers came in at a time. I began to see those wounder Marines on the tables and can visibly see those Marines, their wounds, even tattoos… I hope this helps break the code of silence.  I wrote this on a particularly rough day and will repost some of those early essays as they are still very relevant.  Peace, Steve+

964Trying not to Show my Stress and Exhaustion after 2 weeks out while in between flights at Al Asad

The feeling of abandonment and aloneness, separation and disconnection run deep for those returning from unpopular wars in which the majority of the citizens take no part.  The effects are devastating.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their lives in the years after that war.  Last year the Army had its highest number of active duty suicides ever recorded, January and February of 2009 have been banner months for Army suicides.  Of course as I noted in my previous post these numbers don’t include reservists and Guardsmen who have left active duty or veterans dischaged from the service.  Neither do they include the host of service men and women who died from causes undetermined.

Many veterans attempted to return to “normal life” and family following the war. Many only to have marriages fall apart, continue or leave untreated alcohol and drug addictions acquired in country which often follow them back destroying lives, families and careers.  Most felt cast aside and abandoned by the goverment and society. Many got through and return to life with few visible effects, but the scars live on.  My dad would never talk about his experience in the city of An Loc in 1972 where he as a Navy Chief Petty Officer was among a small group of Americans operating an emergency airstrip in the city which was besieged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for 80 days.  I do know that it affected him, he wasn’t the same when he returned, he was a lot more tense and had some problems initially with alcohol.  He never talked about his time there.

I have seen the effects of this in so many lives,  I remember a Vietnam vet who attempted to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chin in Dallas during my hospital residency.  He forgot to factor in recoil and blew off his face without hitting his brain or any major arteries.  He survived…talk about having something to be depressed about later.  I have seen the tears as veterans rejected by the country during and after than war begin to seek community with their wartime brothers, men who had experienced the same trauma followed by rejection and abandonment by the people that sent them to Southeast Asia.  One only has to talk to veterans of the Ia Drang, Khe Sahn, Hue City, the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta or read their stories to know what they have gone through.  LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once..and Young and We are Soldiers Still have deeply penatrating and soul searching views of Vietnam as does Bing West in The Village. Bernard Fall does the same from a French perspective in Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy. Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace discusses and tells the story of many French soldiers in Algeria, who fought a war, won it militarily and had their government abandon them, bringing out a mutiny and coup atempt by French Soldiers who had fought in Indochina, were almost immediately back in action in Algeria with little thanks or notice from thier countrymen.  Abandonment is an ever present reality and “demon” for many of us who have served regardless of our nationality, French, Canadien or American who have fought in wars that have not engaged the bulk of our fellow citizens. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and tocuh it, trace the outline of a name, look upon the makeshift memorials and tokens of remembrance left by comrades who came home and understand the sorrow and the sacrifice.

Unfortunately we would like to think that this is something out of history that we have learned from and applied the lessons and in doing so no longer have an issue.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  There are many, depending on the study anywhere from8-20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from some type of PTSD, Combat Stress reaction or other psychological malady incurred during their tour. Similar numbers are reported by the Israeli Armed Forces in from the 1973 War forward.   The British are seeing the same now as their veterans return from war.  Canadian Forces assigned to the UN command during the Rwanda genocide suffer horribly from PTSD. The mission commander, LTG Romeo Dalliare now a Senator in the Canadian Parliament is a leading spokesman for those who suffer from PTSD. His book Shake Hands with the Devil is a study of how military professionals were exposed to atrocities that they either were forbidden to stop or lacked the combat power to do so even if they wanted to.  These men and women tell their story in a video put out by Canadian Armed Forces.

105Convoy along Route Uranium

I am not going to rehash stories that I have recounted in my other posts dealing with PTSD here, but both I and many men and women that I know are scarred by the unseen wounds of this war.  We gladly recognize, and rightfully so, those who suffer physical wounds.  At the same time those who are dying inside are often ignored by their commands or if they come out are shunted into programs designed to “fix” them.  In other words make them ready for the next deployment.  I am not saying here that there is an intentional neglect of our service men and women who suffer from PTSD and other issues.  I do not think that is the case, but it is a fact of life. The military is shorthanded and stretched to the breaking point. Many Army Soldiers and US Marines have made 3-5 deployments since 2003. The Navy has sent over 50,000 sailors, not including those assigned with the Marines into “Individual Augmentation” billets in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other fronts in this war.  The Navy personnel, as well as Air Force personnel who perform similar missions often do not have the luxury of going to war and coming home with a particular unit.  We serve often in isolation and incredibly disconnected from our commands, our service is often misunderstood.  Now there are efforts by the services and some commands to do things better to support our sailors, some of these at my own hospital.  However as an institution the military has not fully made the adjustment yet.

Many sailors feel abandoned by the country and sometimes, especially when deployed by the Navy itself.  I have debriefed hundreds of these men and women.  Almost all report anger and use terms such as being abandon, cut off and thrown away by the service and the country.  Those from all services who work in unusual joint billets such as advisers to local military and police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq feel a sense of kinship with each other, often feel a connection to the Iraqis and Afghans but are often not promoted or advanced at the same rate as others who have served in conventional forces in traditional jobs.  There was a film called Go tell the Spartans staring Burt Lancaster about Army advisers in the early stages of Vietnam.  If you see it and have been to Iraq with our advisers you can see some of the same dynamics at work.

At this point we are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars divided the nation and the veterans, though better treated and appreciated by society than most of thier Vietnam counterparts have no memorial.  Words of thanks uttered by politicans and punits abound, our Vietnam era and other fellow veterans in their latter years come to the airports that we fly in and out of to say thank you, but our numbers are rising, the war rages on both in country and in our minds and lives are being lost long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

not a happy camperNot Doing Well on Leave about 5 months After my Return from Iraq

We have to do a better job of ensuring that those who sacrifice so much do not feel that they have been cut off and abandoned while they are in theater and especially when they return. When it is time we need a memorial on the Capitol Mall for those who served in these wars.  I don’t know when that will be, but I do hope to see it in my day.  Sure it’s only symbolic, but symbols can be healing too, just look at the black granite wall rising up from the ground and going back down into it, filled with the names of those who gave their lives and made the supreme sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  Simply known by most as “the Wall” it has become a place of healing and rememberance.  A place to say thank you, goodbye and amen.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam