Tag Archives: military suicides

I Don’t Have the Answers but You Might as Well Live: Thoughts on Suicide

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a hard article to write because it takes me back to points in my life after my return from Iraq that all I wanted to do was die and even had plans of how I would kill myself. The worst period was between 2010 and 2013 when I was stationed away from my wife Judy on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to subject my dog Molly to me not coming home, she helped save my life, as did thoughts of Judy and the friends I had at a local bar who cared for me during that time.

It wasn’t my faith or for that matter most of the people I knew in the Chaplain Corps or my former Church that kept me from it, it was a dog, my wife, and regular guys that I ate and drank with regularly: Mike and New York Mike, Walt, Eddie, Felicia, Bill, “Judge Ito”, Billy, and other regulars at Rucker Johns in Emerald Isle made sure that I lived. So did friends at Granger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina where I would drive an hour to and back to watch minor league baseball games two or three times a week: Toni and Jerry, Anne, Cara, and Negro League Hall of Fame player Carl Long. Sadly, New York Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, Cara, and Carl have all passed away since I came back to Virginia.

During those dark times I had friends including men and women that I had served with in the military or their family members kill themselves. I can visualize their faces as I write this. They ranged in age from barely twenty years old to nearly sixty, all at different stages of life and their career. Quite a few were combat vets of multiple deployments and in one case both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. They were real heroes but they defeat the figurative demons within them. I also have had a great grandfather and great uncle who afflicted with terminal cancer killed themselves.

I still struggle with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Moral Injury. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, thankfully not nearly as bad as it used to be. I still avoid most crowded places unless they are very familiar to me. I am still hyper-vigilant and on guard. I plot escape routes or have memorized what I as an unarmed person would do to neutralize a threat in a public place because I don’t plan on going down without a fight or let innocent people get killed.  I also suffer from frequent flashbacks and terrible nightmares and night terrors. I threw myself off the bed in the middle of one again Thursday night. Thankfully I didn’t get a concussion or break my nose leading to emergency room visits like happened in 2014 and 2016.

Suicide is something I try not even to think about because it takes me back to very bad times that I don’t want to experience again. At the same time when I have to deal with suicides at work or read about high profile suicides, such as those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade I feel all of the anguish that I went through during the worst times, but without any desire to kill myself, I think that is a good thing.

At the same time when I deal with or hear about a suicide my mind starts playing the them song from M*A*S*H; Suicide is Painless, which was written for the movie by the fourteen year old son of director Robert Altman. Altman wanted the song for a specific scene in the film and he wanted it to be named Suicide is Painless, he also wanted it to be the stupidest song ever written. He couldn’t wrap himself around that and his son wrote it in about 15 minutes. It’s a strange song for me. I grew up with the movie and the TV show and I started my career as a commissioned office as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army. The song was the official song of the Army Medical Department and the instrumental version was played at every graduation or function that we had. Two decades later in the trauma hall of a Navy Trauma platoon in Iraq I felt like Father Mulcahy

I have a deep sense of empathy for those who suffer from deep depression and feel that sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and god-forsakenness that often lead to suicide. When I see people who complete a suicide condemned as weak, selfish, or even worse as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment I do get angry, especially when the accusers are Christians. I believe than nobody is outside the mercy and love of God, even those who commit suicide. At the same time it is hard for me to know what to say anymore without sounding trite because I know how deeply someone has to be hurting to consider suicide, and words cannot go there, there is a profound hollowness to them. The last verse of Suicide is Painless note something that I feel when dealing with a suicide situation because I just don’t have the answers:

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied oh why ask me…

That being said I do believe that help can be found and that even in the midst of struggle people can get help and find meaning in life, and I want them to find whatever they need to help them live, thrive, and survive. I don’t believe that life is without struggle, many of my personal heroes dealt with terrible depression at various times of their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Gouverneur Warren, and T.E. Lawrence among them.

As opposed to the thought that suicide is painless, I think that the great American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker said it well, suicide is not painless, she wrote:

“Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.”

So please, if you or someone that you know are struggling with issues in life that are so bad that suicide has become an option, please reach out and get help. Getting help is worth it, I know, I wouldn’t still be here without it. As Seneca said: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under faith, film, life, mental health, Military, ministry, News and current events, PTSD, suicide

Finding Ways to Live With It: 8 Years After Returning from Iraq

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Just a short thought on this Friday morning. It has been eight years to the day that I stepped back in country and returned from my tour in Iraq. I have written much about that tour so I won’t spend any time recounting those experiences and just share a couple of observations that come from my struggle with PTSD and other maladies associated with that tour. In fact the night before last I fell out of bed as during a nightmare I rolled to escape attacking enemy soldiers. Sadly, this is nothing new, at least this time I escaped unhurt. 

It has been a terribly difficult eight years as in addition to my own struggles I have watched friends who also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggle as they have tried to readjust to life out of the sandbox. Of course there are those who never came home, friends and comrades killed in action, as well as those that either died of illness or wounds incurred during their tours, and others who sadly took their lives after their return. Likewise, there is the cost born by spouses, the broken marriages, substance abuse, and so many other issues.

No wonder two-time Medal of Honor winner, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler noted, “What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

I have spent years trying to make heads or tails out of my own struggles and I finally have come to the realization that I am probably about as good as I will get. I do not trust the military mental health system, even though there are some very good doctors, therapists and other providers in it. While I have had some very good therapists, all were civilians, I cannot see any of them here and to try to get back into the system is often dehumanizing. I have someone managing my medicines, for PTSD and my chronic insomnia and the combinations are working better than other attempts so I am not going to complain.

I have a wonderful wife who has neither divorced nor killed me, though she probably would have been justified a number of times. I have two wonderful little dogs who incredibly comforting. Likewise I have friends, some in the military, some at my work at the Staff College, and others at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, my version of Cheers. I don’t know what I would have done without these wonderful people. So I am grateful, and as I said, things are about as good as they will get.

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that I began to embrace last year, and though some might find it odd, I find it comforting.

“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Have a great weekend,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, mental health, Military, Tour in Iraq

Padre Steve’s Year in Review

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Well it has been a year, well almost a year unless your are like in Australia when you read this.

As Charles Dickens’ wrote, “it was the best of times” and depending who you are or where you live it could have been one, the other or both. For me it has been one of those, not that there is anything wrong with that.

But really, look at the past year, personally it has been a mixed bag for me, in the end the plusses outweigh the minuses but what can I say? Great job, back with my wife, complete PTSD meltdown, being nearly suicidal for a while, but in the end a trip to Oktoberfest, the Orioles win the AL East, the Giants win the World Series and I’m doing better. On the other hand a whole lot of people are not doing better in a lot of places in the world. I’ve written about some of the events of the year as they affected me. Not all of them would be major, but hey, this was my year. If I had a song that described the year it would be Barry Manilow’s Trying to get the Feeling Again”

On January 6th I lost a man who had shown compassion and empathy for me, Captain Tom Sitsch, US Navy retired. Captain Sitsch was a true hero who worked his way up throughout the ranks in the Navy Explosive Ordinance Demolition community, made many combat deployments and suffered untreated PTSD and TBI. He took his own life. It was a sobering time for me, as he was one of the few people who showed much compassion for me when I was falling apart in the summer of 2008. He asked me “where does a chaplain go for help?” The best I can remember was that I told him not to other chaplains or clergy. I had no idea what he was going through and after he left the Navy under a cloud in 2009 I lost contact with him. His death brought me back into contact with men I had served with and who had served with him. I wrote about that a number of times as it was such a shattering event. I wish I had known and could have been there for him. The first article I wrote about that was on January 7th and can be found here: Rest In Peace Captain Tom Sitsch USN

February was a month of reflection on the sixth anniversary of my return from Iraq, the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia and a time of intense preparation for my first journey to Gettysburg leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Joint Forces Staff College. It also was a month where we began to see the tip of the iceberg of the attempt of some Christians in Kansas to enshrine  religious intolerance in law, that article A Matter of Degree: The Taliban, Kansas, Jim Crow and Nuremberg really pissed some people off.

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I wrote a reflection about the long strange trip back from Iraq in this article The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

In March Russia pulled off its occupation of Ukraine and Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared from the face of the earth. I also led my first trip to Gettysburg and really began to sink my teeth into writing about the battle as well as many other components of the American Civil War, including the politics, ideology, economic and religious aspects of the war. But for the most enduring mystery was the disappearance of MH-370. I ended up writing a “conspiracy theory” about it, which because it hasn’t been proven wrong could possibly be right, if not maybe the basis of a great terrorism novel. That article is here  My Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370 Conspiracy Theory

April was the beginning of baseball season, the end of Lent, Holy Week and more work on a lot of history. I wrote about civil rights, Jackie Robinson, and a whole series on a Roman Centurion in Jerusalem during the first Holy Week. I also took on former half-term Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin in this article  War Crimes are Us: I Want No Part of Sarah Palin’s Torture Loving Christianity But it was an interesting time because I was asked to do an interview about my struggle with PTSD for the Washington Times. The article about that is here Not the Cover of the Rolling Stone but the Front Page: Padre Steve Featured in Washington Times article on PTSD

In May I took another group of students to Gettysburg and did a lot more writing about that subject as well as the subject of Memorial Day. But an event occurred that caused me to reflect on the way Christians often use the power of religion in attempts to silence or shame others who are in pain. That came after I had an experience trying to get help in the Navy Mental Health system and because of how I was treated began to implode all over again. That article is here: Frightened by Christians. I also did a fair amount of reflecting on the sacrifice of others in articles about Memorial Day, including this one “The Offering We Bring…” Remembering the First Memorial Day

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In June my struggle continued and was intensified by the collapse of Iraqi forces as ISIL swept into Iraq, overrunning many of the places I had served in Al Anbar province. Looking back at all that I wrote about other subjects that month I am amazed. I wrote about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand which triggered the events leading to the outbreak of World War I in this article A Wrong Turn, a Holy Cause and Two Bullets: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand But here is the first article that I wrote about the collapse of the Iraqi forces and reflected on all the history that we should have paid attention to in 2003 The Results of Ignoring History: The Implosion of Iraq as well as my own reflection of my time there and hope for better Inshallah Iraq (إن شاء الله) Maybe Someday things will be Better

In July I did a lot more work on Gettysburg as I got ready to take another group there in August. I reflected on Iraq, PTSD, the Declaration of Independence and in my work on Gettysburg and Civil War issues I wrote this article about some of the similarities that I see in some Tea Party ideology and that of the ante-bellum South, the Confederacy and Jim Crow. That article is here Parallels between Tea Party Ideology and the Ante-Bellum South I took another stab at the situation in Iraq in this article Iraq, ISIS and Al Qaeda: Sowing the Wind…  and this about the moral responsibility of a nation at war to those that it sends to fight its wars  “You Broke it, You Bought It” The Responsibility of a Nation at War and Broken and Unlikely to Get Better: Military Mental Health Care

In August I led another trip to Gettysburg, and I reflected on a number of subjects, but as I was struggling so much after my collapse in May I decided to write a number of new articles about PTSD, Suicide and the military mental health care system. Here are two of them No Shutting Up Until it is Fixed: Veteran and Military Mental Health Care and  Moral Injury: Betrayal, Isolation, Suicidality, & Meaninglessness; the War after the War But I also ventured into the initial police reaction in Ferguson Missouri in the article The Misuse of Force: Shock and Awe Backfires in Ferguson But one of my favorite articles to write was this one on the Gettysburg Address, something that I always find important to reflect upon Reembracing the New Birth of Freedom

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In September I made pilgrimage to Oktoberfest. However I ventured into the discussion of the new, old kind of war that we are facing again, that of religious ideology and war without mercy. That article is here Wars Without Mercy: The New Old Way of War and The Islamic State and the New, Old Nature of War

In October, of course I continued to write about Gettysburg and the Civil War, baseball and the World Series, and was inducted into my High School’s Hall of Fame, which was a great honor. But I decided to tackle some of the religious ideologues who are actively engaged in the political process and did an article about Senator Ted Cruz’s father Rafael Cruz. That is here: Rafael Cruz and the Dangerous Heresy of the Self-Annointed

In November I made my final trip for the last academic year to Gettysburg and had the honor of meeting a real hero, retired Army Colonel Walter Marm, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Ia Drang, a battle made famous by the movie We Were Soldiers that reflection is here: Return from Gettysburg: Table Talk and Meeting a Hero

December was another big month, the Senate Report on the CIA torture program was released much to the chagrin of the program’s most ardent supporters including a host of “Christian” leaders. I decided to take them on in this article Conservative Christians and Torture: Wedded at the Hip

Those are just some of the highlights. I wrote about so many other things as well, and I invite you to browse the site. Like I said, all things considered I am surprised I have been so productive this year. So anyway, thank you so much for reading what I put out, for sharing it and for your wonderful comments and encouragement. So I’ll wish you well and if I don’t get anything else done later today I wish you all a happy and blessed New Year.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, PTSD

An Advent of Doubt, Faith and Struggles

Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.

A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq,  Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season.  Until I came home from Iraq. Now while I have faith again I struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s Disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting.  I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event.  These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.  At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home.  As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me.  Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Tom Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th of this year, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt isolated from much of the clergy of my former church and many chaplains, something that I still feel to some extent today. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more for both church and chaplain corps.  The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.

I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared.  When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today.  To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing.  Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out.  I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”

There were many times that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and they often still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space.

Why I am is  sometimes hard to figure.  I am not a Christian because of the Church, though I love the Church, church bodies have often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection.  I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian.” Nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history, including that wrought by current Christian leaders.  Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.

At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts and the many sins and crimes committed by Christians, even genocide, I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)

Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.

In fact after coming through Iraq and returning home I know that it is not so.

I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers, and those who think that they do, and claim that in the name of God or Jesus, are fundamentally deceived, and that I would not follow them across the street.

I now understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said in class that “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.”  Likewise I certainly not a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others.  In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.

People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings.  Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder.  I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology.  I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends.  For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.

I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through.  However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope.  O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Religion, Tour in Iraq

The Opportunity to Act Upon a Dream

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“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T E Lawrence

This week I will be part of a panel discussion entitled “Paths for Achieving Readiness Tomorrow” at the Military Officer’s Association of America “Warrior Family Symposium” in Washington DC. The opportunity came about through the Department of Defense’s Real Warriors campaign which I have been working with since 2011 when they did a video feature on my struggle with PTSD. The panel will be moderated by WUSA Channel 9’s news anchor Derek McGinty and will include a number of mental health care providers or program directors; I will be the only chaplain speaking at the symposium. The panel will discuss available and developing programs designed to provide insight, skills and assistance for veterans, service members, their children and families – to aid them through handling reintegration, combat/operational stress, and mental health concerns; and provide them and the community, the understanding of the art of being present.

I am a bit nervous about presenting despite having been very open and transparent about my struggles with PTSD since beginning this website back in 2009. That is not so much because I don’t know my material, or what to say, but rather because I am an introvert and find writing to be less stressful than talking about my experiences in front of a big group of people. Part of this is also related by my need for safety as I am often very anxious in big groups of people that I don’t know, and because I have so much emotional investment in the subject of getting those who deal with the trauma of war and their families the help that they need.

After some of my experiences in attempting to get help myself in the military mental health care system, some of which have been more damaging than helpful, especially recently I know how scary attempting to get help can be. Likewise, I fully understand the profound stigma that many military members, especially those of more senior ranks who have invested their lives in military service, feel when they admit to dealing with these issues.

While the military has attempted to get rid of the stigma of seeking mental health treatment, even for PTSD the fact of the matter is that the stigma still exists. A very senior enlisted leader in an elite community told me following the suicide of a true naval hero who suffered from untreated PTSD and probably TBI as well who we both served with: “it’s hard when they say if you have issues and they are known that you can still have a successful career, but you will never be promoted or selected to a critical position, again.” The ironic thing was that the leader that committed suicide asked me when he took command of the unit I was in “where does a chaplain go to get help?” He obviously knew the reality of the stigma, even for chaplains. Sadly, I have to confess that as a Chaplain, Priest and clergyman there is a huge stigma to being a broken or flawed clergyperson, especially in the institutions of the church and chaplaincy. We clergy tend to take better care of our other parishioners than we do of each other and most clergy, be they in parish work, denominational structures or institutional ministry report a sense of isolation and lack of care from men and women who should be their colleagues.

I did not expect this invitation and I do hope and pray that what I say will be of help to the attendees and to those that struggle with PTSD, TBI, Moral Injury and other combat trauma or stress related issues. I dream that when I retire from the Navy, whenever that happens to be that I will be able to be an advocate and spokesman for those who suffer from these injuries. Maybe this opportunity will provide me a network of sorts to prepare for that dream.

As T.E. Lawrence said that dreamers that dream with their eyes open are dangerous, because they may act with open eyes to make those dreams possible, and I am one who does that. I have ideas and experiences that I think can be of help to others walking this path and their families. Likewise, I have a passion for trying to get people the help they need and even more importantly provide a safe place where they know that they can be honest. Admiral James Stavridis said: “overall, I think that’s an obligation to share your ideas.”

My experience is a bit more diverse than your average clergyman, mental health provider or military member. I combine my theological, philosophical, ethical and pastoral care insights, with being a caregiver to those that suffer, while struggling with the effects of PTSD, sometimes more effectively than other times. All of this is tempered by the realism that comes from 33 year military career and my academic training as a historian; both of which enable me to place these things in a broader context.

So anyway I will follow up with something tomorrow night and hopefully report out on my experience at the symposium on Thursday, as I expect to be on the road late Wednesday night returning from D.C.

I do appreciate your thoughts and prayers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under mental health, Military, PTSD

Not the Cover of the Rolling Stone but the Front Page: Padre Steve Featured in Washington Times article on PTSD

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“We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front

Well my friends it has been an interesting week. Last week I was contacted by a Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon who had been a student in our Winter Class because he had been asked by a reporter if he knew someone who could talk about PTSD. I was then contacted by the reporter, Maggie Ybarra of the Washington Times. I was interviewed and the paper sent a wonderful photographer Eva Russo to take pictures of me at Norfolk’s Harbor Park.

Now the Times is not my paper of choice. However the chance to talk about PTSD and the effect on veterans including senior officers in such a high profile forum is important. One does not have to agree with the political slant of news organization if they present the particular topic with sensitivity and balance. The reporter, editor and photographer involved all treated me and those who suffer with respect. I cannot ask for more. Since I was interviewed and quoted by David Wood of the Huffington Post last month for an article on “Moral Injury” shows a sense of balance, I will talk to anyone willing to fairly present the struggles faced by currently serving military members and veterans suffering from PTSD. My brothers and sisters mean more to me than my political leanings. This week I have been contacted by a producer from the BBC about a documentary on that subject but that is waiting on PAO to do something with it.

What matters to me is that veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury are not forgotten. That happens far too often often after every war. The public forgets, the military forgets and the government forgets. Major General Smedley Butler wrote in his classic War is a Racket:

“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.”

Likewise I understand the stigma of PTSD. Many senior personnel both officers and enlisted, the career men and women effected by it PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury don’t want to identify themselves or seek help. I can’t blame them in some ways even though it is killing them. My choice back in 2009 was to decide try tell my story as honestly and transparently. When my shrink asked me what I was going to do with this I thought about it hard. I am very much an introvert and it was scary to “come out.” It was even harder then because though a chaplain I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that there was a God and I was afraid of everything. But I knew that I had to start speaking out because very few senior leaders affected by this scourge had the freedom to do so. That is one of the reasons that I started this website.

It was risky to speak out. Despite efforts by some senior leaders to change the military culture the fact is that there still is a great stigma attached to “coming out” and seeking help for PTSD and other mental illnesses. In fact I know of numerous senior leaders, officer and enlisted whose careers have cratered due to the effects of PTSD and even some who have lost their families or even taken their lives. So for me this is very personal and serious.

The first time I spoke out being interviewed in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Daily News back in April 2011 there were trolls who made some incredibly hateful and vicious comments about me in the comments of the online edition. Some were even threatening. The paper took the abusive comments down but the wounds remain, some people are simply assholes and I pity them. No wonder people don’t want to talk about the subject and would rather resort to silence, substance abuse and suicide than talk about it.

The fact is that despite the fact that some senior leaders are doing what they can to try to change the culture of the military from one that penalizes, marginalizes and trivializes the suffering of those that serve the stigma remains, and many feel it. One senior enlisted leader in an elite branch of the Navy told me that “leaders could seek help that they would never get any more career enhancing or important assignments.” That was only a few months ago after the suicide of a retired Navy Captain who suffered from PTSD and TBI, a man who meant much to both of us.

The fact is that as a Chaplain I feel pretty much “radioactive” to other chaplains, at senior chaplains. I can count on one hand the number of senior chaplains who have bothered to contact me or ask how I was doing. But that being said I have been contacted by others, chaplains line officers and enlisted personnel who tell me that I am one of the few people who “gets it” and that they feel safe confiding in. Personally I would rather have that be my legacy than anything else.

The fact is it will take a generation of leaders to change the military culture to give the men and women who put it all on the line and suffer for their efforts to get help.

But enough of that for now, I’m getting upset and I already have a terrible time sleeping, I don’t need to spin myself up any more than I am. If you want to read the Times article the link is here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/22/less-silent-suffering-veterans-post-traumatic-stre/

On a different note, I did something today that in more than 32 years in the military I have never done. I received a maximum score on my physical fitness test. The past few years I have come close but never maxed it. The sad thing is what I need to do now to get a maximum score is more than I needed to do as a young Army officer in the 1980s.

Anyway, until tomorrow when I will have another Gettysburg article for you, have a great night and remember to care for the veterans and families who suffer the effects of PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, PTSD

The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

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It is hard to believe because it seems like it was yesterday, but six Years ago tonight I got off a plane, home from Iraq. The final flight on a commercial aircraft going from Philadelphia to Norfolk was crowded, but the people on board were polite to us, both the flight crew and the passengers, but it was like I had returned to a different world. What I entered was the same as it always had been, but I was different.

Guy Sager, an Alsatian who served in the German Army in World War Two wrote 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.” 

About a year after my return, actually on February 16th 2009 I began writing on this site. I began it in large part to express my inner angst and as a means to my own healing as well as to help others. The beginnings came out of my initial therapy with Dr Elmer Maggard, who I sometimes refer as “Elmer the Shrink.” Elmer asked me if I was willing to open up and share my story even though I was still very broken and vulnerable, feeling abandoned by God, the church and most clergy.

At the time I was a practical agnostic. My collapse from PTSD and the moral injuries that I had sustained in Iraq were severe, it was if God had abandoned me, and try as I might nothing worked. In the months before I began writing I had hit bottom. That was then.

The last five years of writing my journey home has been illuminating. As I look back at things that I wrote, surveyed my moods, emotions, intellectual and spiritual development since the beginning of Padre Steve’s World I am reminded of the words to the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ because my life, especially since Iraq has been “a long strange trip.” 

That may seem kind of flippant, but it is true. My journey has been strange and I could not have predicted it back when I got my orders to go to Iraq in May of 2007. I was a volunteer for the mission and what I experienced changed me forever.

I don’t know what the future holds. I was shaken when my Captain Tom Sitsch, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two committed suicide a month ago. I know far too many men and women who have died by their own hand due to the after effects of the trauma they sustained in Iraq Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. What I experience is not unique to me, and that comforts me.

I have been busy this week, between storm recovery, home restoration and catch up at work I have had little time to muse about what the years have been like. I still feel a sense of melancholy as I do every time this year. My difficulty sleeping, nightmares and night terrors still plague me, some nights are better than others but the insomnia that has plagued me since my time in country is still all too real. My anxiety and panic attacks, though diminished still remain.

Faith, which had disappeared has returned, but even that has changed. What I knew to be sure in 2007 is often at best doubt plagued in 2014. For me faith is still often a struggle. Thus I have great empathy for those who do not believe, those who have lost their faith or struggle with doubt, and I cannot condemn them. Sometimes this puts me at odds with other Christians who strongly believe, but who have no tolerance for differences of opinion regarding things which cannot be proven without reference to faith in things that we cannot see. I am okay with that. What I believe about God is more open and less doctrinaire than it was before I left for Iraq. I agree with the late Father Andrew Greeley who wrote:

“I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.”

I am thankful that I have had the chance in a number of venues to share my story. That is a gift that has been given to me and I am thankful for those who at various times have reached out to me, encouraged me and shared their stories of service, faith, struggle, doubt and loss.

In the past five years I walked with and have heard the stories of many people, veterans and their families, both in person and comments made on this site who like me still struggle, with PTSD and moral injury, as well as others who suffer from TBI and other physical injuries. They are comrades. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his book  All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”

In the next week or so I will share some more including my first article, written for my former church while I was still in Iraq around Christmas of 2007.

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Faith, doubt. War, peace. Madness, sanity. Isolation, community, loss and gain. So much still to learn, explore and experience despite everything that has happened. It has been a long strange trip and I expect that the long strange trip will continue. T. E. Lawrence wrote to a friend years after his war in the desert:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That is all for tonight as I have much to ponder as I sit with Judy. Our dogs Molly and Minnie passed out beside us, and I hope that tonight I will sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD