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PTSD, Madness; to Perchance to Dream and Yet Live: Iraq Twelve Years Later

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier these words:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” 

I am exhausted tonight and I will be going to bed early for me. Hopefully I will get some restful sleep. I will be posting this article to post shortly after midnight by which time I hope not only to be in bed but asleep.

I have suffered a week of violent nightmares taking me back to my worst fears when I was serving in the badlands of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008 supporting U.S. Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol, and Provincial Reconstruction teams. I rolled out of bed in a nightmare and cut my arm, and I woke up screaming and reaching for the pistol of an Iraqi insurgent who was about to shoot me, scaring the absolute shit out of our oldest Papillon dog Minnie, whose terrified Yelp woke me up.

I do not often write about it because I have been doing better, but I suffer from severe and chronic PTSD related to my experiences at war. The images are seared into my brain and sometimes the memories, and my deepest fears from my time there as an unarmed Chaplain working for the most part with very small groups of Americans and our Iraqis far away from the help of the big battalions if we got into serious trouble. I have written about those experiences and my struggles after my return many times on this blog. Likewise, I have had my story told on the front pages of the Jacksonville Daily News and the Washington Times. A video of my story is on the Department of Defense Real Warriors Campaign website, and is a large part of a chapter of Pulitzer Prize winning War Correspondent David Wood’s book  What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of America’s Longest Wars.  

Since Iraq, my nightmares are very vivid and often involve much physical acting out. The physical acting out is unusual and I have actually injured myself badly enough to require trips to the emergency room after crashing hard throwing myself out of bed combatting imaginary enemies. Likewise, other have been violent and physical enough to wake Judy up.

This is nothing new. In another nightmare a year or so ago I was being attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. Our advisor team had been attacked as we were stopped in the dark to determine if an Improvised Explosive Device had been laid in the road in front of us. This was just a few miles from the Iraq-Syrian border between Al Qaim and COP South, the base of the advisor team which was working with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi 7th Division.

The part about being stopped in the desert in the dark while examining a potential IED actually happened. The attack did not happen but at the time I fully expected something like it to happen. We were sitting ducks on a two lane highway in the middle of the desert. But the attack never happened and we continued to COP South, which would become a part of many of my future missions.

But in my nightmare it happened and as the fighting devolved into close quarters hand to hand combat I found myself grappling an insurgent who was attacking me with a large knife. I managed to roll on top of him and knock the knife from his hand when I was awakened. I was on top of Judy and she was afraid that I was going to strangle her. My hands had not gotten to her throat but she woke me and told me what had happen. I dropped back to my side of the bed in a cold sweat. I could not believe what had happened and that terrifies me. I have set up an appointment prior to my regularly scheduled one with my shrink to talk about this.

Since I my day had been quite good and I have been much more relaxed at work since putting in my retirement papers the event came as a huge surprise. In trying to figure out what triggered it I was at loss until I remembered that I had had dinner last night with a retired Navy EOD Captain who had been my Chief Staff Officer at EOD Group Two and running partner before I went to Iraq. He was sent there not long after me and we met at Camp Victory in Baghdad not long before I left Iraq on the way to Kuwait and home in 2008. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night and we did talk about all manner of things including our time in Iraq and those men that we had served alongside.

I saw my sleep doctor yesterday regarding my latest sleep study. Without my sleep Medical Tinos I did not enter in to REM sleep, or dream sleep. In addition to prescribing me a different CPAP machine and increasing the pressure , he referring me to a neurologist colleague of his in the sleep clinic. Honestly, I don’t know what god it will do, but I hope that he can find some kind of answer.

But trying to explain my trying to explain nightmares and night terrors is is not really helpful, they are now part of who I am. I think that Stephen King said it best:

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” 

Yes,  I can still try to logically deduce my nightmares and night terrors, but the poetry of fear as Stephen King so rightly calls it cannot be fully explained. For those of us who deal with the memories of combat, of having been shot at and have seen the human cost of war, the dead, the wounded, the destruction, and the aftermath of war, they are all too real and they never completely leave us.

Christmas on the Syrian border

Over eleven years after I returned from Iraq I still find that much of me is still there. In fact, deep down I miss Iraq and the Iraqis that I was honored to know and to serve alongside and I still pray for them and for their future. Maybe someday I will get back. I would love that.

For all that remains with me about Iraq, I left a good part of me there, with my advisors and Iraqis. It was the best of times, and the worst of times, but it is a major part of who I am now, and why I want to continue to live.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, middle east, Military, ministry, News and current events, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy

Not Alone: The Real Warriors Campaign

“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” William Tecumseh Sherman 

When I returned from Iraq in February 2008 it began the most difficult period of my life. Suffering from PTSD and a crisis in faith I felt alone, isolated, suffered terrible depression, anxiety was hyper-vigilant and angry. I felt abandoned by my former church as well as God. When I think about it now I can get still feel the deep emotions of those years. I am doing better now compared to how I was doing then.  Thankfully I have some friends that are to me what Grant was to Sherman.

Life is about living in the real world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

When I started getting help after I fell apart in the summer of 2008 I was really struggling and the first person that asked about how I was doing with God was my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard. It was during those initial months when I discovered that there were others out there like me that I decided that I could not be silent. Those that have followed this blog since its early days have followed me as I detailed my struggles, experience and tried to be as transparent as possible within the limits of my emotional state at any given time.  I was helped by a number of friends especially by my friends Greg and David, both Chaplains who have experienced things similar to me and without whom I would have been hard pressed to make it through my difficult times.

That was hard to do because I am a pretty introverted and private person.  So I wrote what I could when I could. Sometimes very raw and unfiltered emotions came to the front, other times I was able to get back into my comfort zone and write from a more detached point of view, a particular virtue and failing of being a historian. I wrote an article in September 2010 titled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?  The next day I was asked to leave my former church although the two were not directly linked being ask to leave a day after I was talking to people about them not being alone even if they felt abandoned by God, their church or faith community or even the military.

A few months later in March of 2011I was interviewed by Hope Hodge of the Jacksonville Daily News after their editor had read that article and found that I was at camp LeJeune.  The article appeared on the front page of their print edition and online. This was a big step for me because by doing it I allowed someone else to write the story. Now Hope and the editors at the Daily News handled it very well and I felt that they produced a very good article.

A couple months later I was asked by the good folks at the Real Warriors Campaign which is an initiative of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) if I would share my story to a wider audience. I wrestled with that because things like this are scary, I am not a televangelist I don’t go in front of a camera for a living. I was helped by our public affairs officer Raymond Applewhite and the team that did the filming handled it well.

The video was released on the Real Warriors website as one of a number of videos featuring veterans sharing their stories of war and return.  The video is found at this link http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php and I viewed the final draft a couple of weeks ago before it went online.

My hope is that others struggling will be encouraged and know that there are indeed others out here that know something of their experience and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. My story is still being written. I am doing much better than I was but I am changed by war and while I still struggle that is not necessarily a bad thing. I have like Bonhoeffer so well put it that it is “only in living completely in the world that one learns to have faith.” Sometimes that faith comes at great cost and certainly is not something that is something that is done without help, spiritual, emotional and from people that are willing to suffer with you.  The cost to families and relationships is difficult.  My wife Judy has had to struggle with my issues and I know that what happens in war affects those that we love in profound and often painful ways. Bonhoeffer said:

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.” 

There are a number of people who have helped me through very dark times. To those that struggle, especially those struggling with faith and God following experience the trauma of war I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+



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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The Front Page: Padre Steve talks about a Newspaper Interview on His Battle with PTSD

“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I was interviewed about a week and a half ago by Hope Hodge a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News. The paper had discovered me through an article I wrote last September entitled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? The editor assigned Hope to the project. After thinking about the request a number of days I knew that I needed to do the interview and had Hope contact our Public Affairs Officer, Raymond Applewhite. When he secured the permission of my Commanding Officer Captain Daniel Zinder he set up the interview with Hope and photographer Chuck Beckley.  

The interview was a very healing experience and the article was well done and I have nothing but thanks to Hope and those that arranged this. While I have talked extensively about my tour in Iraq and subsequent battles with PTSD, loss of faith and my slow recovery on this site as well as with individuals but I have carefully avoided media until now.  While I write a lot tend to be somewhat reclusive in real life especially since coming home from Iraq with my safe places being Harbor Park in Norfolk and Gordon Biersch Virginia Beach.

I knew that the interview would trigger some memories and I knew that once the article was out in public that there would be varied reactions including some that I knew would be negative.  At the same time the negative has been far outweighed by the positive reactions, especially among those that have gone through similar dark times. As I read the comments I knew despite that any negative reactions or attacks on me that the interview was the right thing to do. I read the stories of those who told about their battles with PTSD, experiences with military and VA healthcare as well as their crisis’s of faith posted in comments section and was touched.  They were telling things that are hard to talk about, especially in a public forum of a local newspaper where people can be quite vicious.  I know that even in that forum when most remain anonymous there is a risk and an emotional cost in posting experiences that in a sense are holy to the people sharing them and should be respected so I am glad to see that for some the article was helpful and encouraging. I was also blessed and even comforted by those that spoke well of me.  The kindness, support and comradeship that one has with such people is amazing, there is a brotherhood of war and we will support each other.

There was one man that was particularly nasty and I do need to deal with his comment here, not because I am upset but rather because I know how war, especially was like Vietnam and the current wars can do to a person.  The man who is an anonymous poster to this and other articles on the Daily News website claims to be a veteran of Vietnam in 1969-1970. I have no reason to doubt him as there are a lot of Vietnam Era combat vets in the local area and since I am a child of a Vietnam combat veteran and remember the shameful way that these men were treated when they returned I would never disrespect his service or even his feelings about how he was treated and the abuses that he saw when he came home.  I am very close to the Marine veterans of the Battle of Hue City and still maintain correspondence with these men who I count as friends.

At the same time I think that this man’s comments need to be addressed, not because of his service or experience following his return but because of the use of character assassination that is so common in our national discourse now days. The last time I experienced an attack on this site of similar invective was when a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist from East Tennessee went so far as to physically threaten me. That man claimed to be a former paratroop officer. I really don’t know what brings people to launch such attacks on people that they never have even met but it is part of life and I knew that I might get something like this so it is what it is.  This is what this man said:

“This man should never have been in the military as he is too weak-minded. And/or, he, like a surprising number of his fellow officers have found it is best to get out under a disability as it’s a tax free cream puff ride to the bank each month. Imagine if he was one of the thousands of trigger pullers afield and try to pull this off? Pathetic!!” Comment by Your62 on Jacksonville Daily News (This and other posts by this man was removed by the newspaper sometime today 3/30/11)

Needless to say he was pretty nasty to others who commented on the article as well so I cannot take it personally and some of them gave it back to him in spades. As for me I hope that this man finds peace someday.

As for me I figure that since I have been in the military, not only as a Navy chaplain but also an Army Officer for nearly 29 years and that I have volunteered for every combat, humanitarian or contingency mission that I could over the course of my career, much to the chagrin of my wife, family and friends that I am by no means weak or lack courage. I know that I didn’t volunteer to go to Iraq to come out of it with PTSD and all that I have gone through since and what I have put my wife through.

Much to the surprise of this veteran I am not looking for a “tax free crème puff” as I figure that 5-10 years from now when I actually retire that I will have maxed out about every pay scale that there is and probably will have another deployment or two in me before I am done.  I figure that the way things are going in the world I will get a shot in Afghanistan or North Africa before all is said and done.

I certainly do not claim to be anywhere or done anything that I did not do or experience and never claim that I experienced what many other veterans of our current wars or past wars have in any of their wounds.  I see too many young men and women who have suffered grievous wounds to body and soul as a result of war to do such a thing. Likewise the many veterans of previous wars that I know who still suffer their wounds I would never dishonor. I consider it an honor to have served alongside such fine men and women or to met them long after their service in Vietnam, Korea or the Second World War or at the end of their careers when I was a young and idealistic know nothing officer in the early 1980s.

My war was different than others. It was in a lot of places where many never went serving alongside small units of 15-20 American advisers stationed with Iraqi units.  These men were remarkable because they were incredibly exposed to danger and often far from big units that could help them if they ran into trouble. They were the men that help organize and train the Iraqi Army to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 as much as anyone they were responsible for helping build friendships with Iraqi military officers that will be a cornerstone of our friendship with Iraq in the future.

As for me I did not shrink from danger. I went on foot patrols, night convoys in the badlands and was in a helicopter that was shot at and returned fire. I have had rockets fly over my head and being on a convoy that took some fire. Thankfully I was never in a convoy hit by an IED or big coordinated ambush. Since the convoys that I travelled with usually had three HUMMVs with nothing heavier than a single .50 cal or 240 series machine gun that any such action would have been a battle for life and death and I know what I would have done had such a situation occurred. Since Al Qaeda Iraq had Chaplains as a high value target and since our Iraqis new that I was the “American Imam” and that such word would filter out of the camps the men that I served with took good care of me even in very exposed locations. Likewise even Iraqi officers sought my counsel and asked me to bless or to pray for their soldiers.  I will never forget the Iraqi soldiers that asked me to bless their vehicles on one of our convoys with Holy Water as I did for our advisers as we set off on Route Uranium west of Ramadi.

Through it all I can now say that I am grateful for what I have been through. It still is not easy as even though I continue to see improvement I still on occasion have flashbacks, nightmares and have to make the effort to go into places where I don’t feel safe.  At the same time I would gladly go back to Iraq or to Afghanistan or anywhere else to serve the men and women of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force that I love and respect so much.  There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about serving in combat again, much to the chagrin of my wife and family.  I am not a proponent of war, in fact the more I see I am against it.  I fully agree with General Robert E. Lee who said “It is good that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” However, I know my place until the day that I retire from the Navy is when my Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen are in harm’s way.

For those who are silently suffering the ravages of PTSD and moral injury related to their service I know the pressure. I didn’t seek help until the EOD Diving Medical Officer saw me falling apart and got me into the medical system.  Unfortunately there can be and often is a stigma attached to PTSD and for some to suffer in silence is preferable to the stigma of seeking help and being called weak.  I made the choice to get help when I couldn’t do it on my own any longer but have seen others be traumatized by other servicemen and women for seeking help, that whole thing about being “weak.” I got lucky when I was sent for help, not everyone has my experience.

Despite that I encourage those suffering from such injuries to seek help because there are a lot of us out here that really care because we know what it is like. I admit that it is not easy to seek help and sometimes getting it can be problematic simply because of the stress on the medical system, but help is there.

Blessings and Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Tour in Iraq