Tag Archives: nightmares

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


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Emotional and Physical Recovery from a Traumatic Event

Pearls Before Swine Comic Strip for August 07, 2017

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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So until tomorrow, and hopefully better times,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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

The PTSD Startle Response: Never far from the Surface

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Perchance to Dream: A Sleep Study and the Paths Not Chosen


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After about a week of writing about politics, history, and the very disturbing presidency of Donald Trump, I need to take a break, not that there isn’t a lot of politics, foreign policy, and other serious subjects I could write about. But honestly I need to take a break from that, at least for tonight because I am already hooked up and waiting for my official bedtime in the Sleep Lab at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.

I will be hooked up to a CPAP because I am already diagnosed with pretty severe sleep apnea, but tonight it different, they are going to observe my REM sleep disorder, where in my dreams, nightmares, and night terrors my body acts out those dreams. This condition has sent me to the ER or the medical clinic on more than one occasion and I have a concussion in 2014 and a broken nose in 2016 to show for it. Things get a bit sporting in my hi-definition nightmares and night terrors. My dreams have still been pretty vivid as of late but a combination of medicines seem to have lessened the physical acting out in them, according to my wife Judy. However, tonight, in a strange bed and with none of the medicines I get to try to sleep. It should be interesting. I cannot even take my customary shot of single malt Scotch or Irish Whiskey for my knee pain.

So today I write something a bit more introspective, which I think is a good question for all of us who seek the truth and take the time to examine our lives in light of all that happens to us. Since I am stuck here this is as good of time as any to do so.

In the series the X-Files, Agent Dana Scully played by Gillian Anderson made this observation: 

“Time passes in moments… moments which, rushing past, define the path of a life, just as surely as they lead towards its end. How rarely do we stop to examine that path, to see the reasons why all things happen, to consider whether the path we take in life is our own making, or simply one into which we drift with eyes closed. But what if we could stop, pause to take stock of each precious moment before it passes? Might we then see the endless forks in the road that have shaped a life? And, seeing those choices, choose another path?”

I actually think that it is a very good question and truthfully I wonder. I wonder what my life might have been had I, or others made different decisions. How would my life be different? Or would it? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care.

One thing I do know is that whatever my alternate paths might have taken that I am happy. I have been able to fulfill many dreams and I do take the time to ponder all the forks in the road that have shaped my life. When I do I realize that the alternative possibilities are almost endless. Then when I think of the possibilities of alternate universes I wonder, not that there is anything wrong with that. But even so, I don’t think I would want to be on any other path, for since I was a child all that I could imagine ever being happy doing in life was serving my country in the military.  In early 1861, Ellen Boyle Ewing Sherman, the wife of William Tecumseh Sherman told Sherman “You will never be happy in this world unless you go in the army again.”  Ellen had never approved of Sherman’s previous service and in fact hated ever moment of it, but after six years of seeing her husband in civilian life, she knew that he had to return to the army. 

Twenty years ago I made a decision to volunteer to serve as a mobilized Army reservist during the Bosnia crisis. It was a decision that changed my life. I had left active duty in 1988 to attend seminary while remaining in the National Guard and the Reserves, and when I was mobilized I lost my civilian employment, and two and a half years later when I was offered the chance to go on active duty in the Navy, even though it meant a reduction in rank, I did it. 

When I think of all the things that transpired to get me when I am today I really am astounded, and for the life of me I don’t see how I could have chosen another path. It has been twenty years since I volunteered to support the Bosnia operation, and almost thirty-five years since I first enlisted in the army, and like Sherman, I cannot have imagined doing anything different. As for my wife Judy, she, like Ellen Sherman was with her husband has been long suffering in staying with me all these years, and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone. April 1 of 2020 I will be retiring from the Navy, unless the President gets us into a war and the military declares a “stop loss.” One never knows these days, I have known people in 1990 and again in 2001 and 2003 who got caught in such events, or were extended after their mandatory retirements.

But, when I look at my life in total, there are many things that I might have wanted to change or do differently, but if I had, or for that matter,mad someone else made a different decision concerning my life, the tapestry that has been my life would be very different and I might not even recognize me if any of those paths had been chosen, by me, or by others. 

Agent Scully’s words got me thinking and pondering, and that my friends is a good thing. 

So until the next fork in the road….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“They Remain Fresh and Open in the Heart” Moral Wounds, often Hidden but Never Healed

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

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I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

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But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

Of course now I am dealing with constant physical pain with my knees, hip, and ankles. This is something relatively new for me, but even so, I can deal with physical pain better than emotional or spiritual pain, and the nightmares and night terrors.

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Ramadi, January 2008

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 if we actually embrace it can be somewhat 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.”

Anyway, I think that Reddington’s words are true. toward the end of next month I will be getting another sleep study, this one to try to figure out how to mitigate the physical violence in my dreams, even as I deal with constant physical pain. Who knows, maybe the physical pain will dull the emotional or spiritual pain that lies deep in my psyche and inhabits my dreams and nightmares?

But I guess that is just a rhetorical question.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Black Hole of Sleep and Nightmares: PTSD, Iraq, and my Continuing Struggle

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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.

Last night was a night 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 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.

Last night was one of those nights but very different. In the nightmare 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.

But to try to explain nightmares is not really helpful. 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 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 ten 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.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq, Military, PTSD, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

n671902058_1153794_4301

I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

IMG_0543

Ramadi, January 2008

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 if we actually embrace it can be somewhat 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.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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