Tag Archives: ptsd treatment

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

400236_10151328400862059_541742014_n

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

The Grateful Dead “Truckin’” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

n671902058_1153793_4043

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

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

430244_10150660298597059_1430020993_n

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

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

HD Dreams and Stranger Things Part Two: Sleep Medications and Dreams, the PTSD Conundrum

270107_10151361199622059_1286921284_n-1

Ever since Iraq I have had terrible times with insomnia as well as very vivid dreams and nightmares. I have written about it in a previous article HD Dreams and Stranger Things: PTSD and Sleep.

Over the past four years or so I have been on various sleep medications, none of which has done much of anything to help my sleep. Most have left me drowsy on awakening the next day as if I was hung over, without the fulfillment of getting shit-faced the night before surrounded by friends. Believe me a good craft beer, or a lot of good craft beer does me a lot more good than various sleeping pills.

At the same time they have done strange things with my dreams. At times they are most vivid and terrifying and at other times for whatever reason they have been practically suppressed depending on the medication.

I found that because of the amount of the anxiety and insomnia that I had that my doctors prescribed high doses of the various medications used. Most had little effect, sleep was still at a premium and in the morning I would wake up groggy. That was my life the past for the past five years if you count the time before I started taking sleep medications.

In the past week that has changed. I mentioned in that previous article that I was beginning a course of therapy that would involve some different techniques to help me deal with the symptoms of my PTSD. That therapy was incredibly helpful and helped me to put my experiences into a perspective that before was not possible. Likewise my therapist dealt with my frequent sleep disruptions and made recommendations concerning how to manage my sleep.

We experimented. Since I was on a fairly heavy dose of Lunesta and still had to maintain a duty pager adjustments had to be made. On the nights when I had no duty I took no medication with the effect of getting no sleep at all and feeling like crap the next day. On days I took my medicine I would get some sleep, frequently interrupted and always with the consequence of a drug induced hang-over in the morning. Finally we tried a couple of more things. First was the use of a over the counter sleep aid used by many physicians that have to work odd on call hours called Insomitrol. It is a mix of Melatonin and Gaba extract. On the plus side I did not feel hung over in the morning. One the minus side my HD dreams went to 3D Luscasfilm HD and were the most memorable, surreal and occasionally frightening dreams I have ever experienced. We ended that experiment and went to over the counter Melatonin. It has worked well. My sleep is no worse, my dreams are quite fascinating and I do not feel hung over in the morning. I have discontinued the use of the Lunesta.

I still take an anti-anxiety medication to help bring me down at night and I will be obtaining either on my own or through the military a bio-feedback program to use on my computer before I go to sleep.

Since starting the Melatonin my sleep has gotten better. The HD dreams are still there and memorable enough that I can remember them and hope to find some meaning and interpretation in them, even the nightmares.

Those of us that deal with the aftereffects of PTSD and trauma have much to deal with. Sleep or the lack of it, dreams and nightmares, medications and the use of other drugs or alcohol are rampant among veterans with PTSD. There is no “silver bullet” or “cookie cutter” that works for all of us. But for me this seems to be a means of freedom and healing. I hope that my experience helps others and encourages them to work with their physicians, therapists and spiritual advisors on their journey to healing.

I don’t understand all the scientific aspects of sleep. I am beginning to learn about them though and as I learn it takes away some of the fear of closing my eyes, which for me opens a world more vivid, surreal and sometimes terrifying than keeping them open. But it is an unexplored world for me, one that I hope and pray helps me continue to integrate my life, faith and spirituality in ways that I never could have imagined before.

To me that is absolutely fascinating and something that I look forward to experiencing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under healthcare, Pastoral Care, PTSD

HD Dreams and Stranger Things: PTSD and Sleep

Those that have followed me on this site for any length of time know that I have been dealing with PTSD since my return from Iraq in 2008. I have written extensively about it including times when I was not doing well at all. Just take a look at some of my articles from 2009 and 2010 and you can see how bad I was doing. I have occasionally likened my dreams to the character of Binkley in Bloom County with his “Closet of Anxieties.”

I am like thousands of other active duty, reserve, retired military personnel or veterans  that suffer from PTSD related to my time at war. When I started treatment in 2008 one of the things that my therapist asked was if I thought that I could talk about my condition. It was a scary thought because there is where we like to admit it there is a stigma attached to PTSD and other psychological conditions. At some point I decided to say “what the hell, I’m going to talk about it.” That was really a big part of why I started writing on this blog. Since then I have been able to share my story in a number of venues and have had a lot of people contact me, many to share their stories and simply to offer either thanks or support. There have been a few knuckleheads but what amazes me is how many people contact me and how many military personnel or family members deal with the same things that I have faced.

I am hyper-vigilant as hell and there are a lot of places that I don’t feel safe. I still have bad days and there are plenty of times that I get in situations, like doing through airports, malls, Wal-Mart and sluggish traffic where I really have to fight anxiety and panic. The sight and smell of smoke and brush fires and sewage send me back to Iraq. The smell of death, which I still occasionally deal with has its own dread quality. Certain types of vehicles, aggressive drivers and debris on the road can send me back to Iraq. I can attribute a number of speeding tickets and an HOV violation to flight or fight responses in traffic.

Loud noises, screams, explosions and numerous other external and unexpected stimuli can trigger one hell of a startle reflex and anxiety. Tonight I was walking Molly down to the beach, a normally peaceful experience when an unexpected loud scream and crashing noise from a beach house startled and scared the hell out of me. That is not normal for my neighborhood. Thankfully Molly was there to protect me and her unflappable reaction was reassuring.

I am also unsettled by the political vitriol in our country, especially that stirred up by preachers because I have seen the results of such vitriol in Iraq and the Balkans. When I read or hear about the killings of US or NATO personnel by supposedly friendly Afghan “partners” I have a hard tome sleeping. I spent my time in Iraq traveling and doing a “circuit riding” type ministry with US Marine Corps and Army Advisors to the Iraqi Army and other security forces.  I look at some of those times and it causes me to think of just how easily I could have fallen victim had any Iraq Soldier or Policeman turned on any of the small groups of Americans that I was out with. But it is night when things get weird.

One of the things that I deal with is chronic insomnia. I used to be a very good sleeper but a few months into my time in Iraq I found that I wasn’t sleeping. So for about five years I have had very few good nights of sleep despite numerous attempts by doctors to help with sleep and anxiety meds. Those help sometimes but have side affects. On duty nights when I might be called in to the hospital I can’t take my meds because I want to be able to drive the 23 miles to work down a rural state highway.

Since Iraq my dreams have become rather HD, or High Definition involving some quite terrifying blends of Iraq and other parts of my life. I know that Judy and our dog Molly have been been awakened by me screaming or fighting the things that I battle in these dreams which are often nightmarish. Even relatively benign dreams have the DH quality now.

When I was in Houston a couple weeks ago and staying in a hotel the dreams were quite disturbing. Somehow not being in a familiar setting is bad for my sleep. But even the least disturbing was a dream was rather startling. In the dream I was sitting between the stands and the left field foul line at a major league game about 50 feet from 3rd base. I woke up when dreaming of diving for a baseball I ended up on the floor. I have to admit that the outfield grass was the lushest and most beautiful that I have ever seen. I don’t think that the left fielder and third baseman appreciated me being in their way when tracking down the pop ups and line drives hit towards me in the dream.

Thankfully though startling that dream was benign.  I find that the dreams of wounded Marines and soldiers in Mass casualty situations, night convoys with small teams of advisors, patrols and getting shot at on occasion that are the ones that really get me. When they are intermingled with current life events or other parts of my life in HD it is quite terrifying.

The dreams are almost like horror movies that you can’t leave. I have woken up from a dream, gone back to sleep and have the same dream resume. Other times I cannot go back to sleep.

I wondered why and a few weeks ago I was able to get evaluated with a QEEG or Qualitative EEG. Basically it is a brain map that tracks responses to various stimuli. Some of that testing is done with your eyes closed to see the differences in how the brain works when there are no visual stimuli. Before I had the test I spent a couple of session telling the doctor what I was going through and he would tell me what part of the brain that was affected. When I took the test it showed in graphic form what was going on and validated what I had been experiencing for these past five years.

Normally when people close their eyes they can relax. I used to be able to do this, but it has been a long time. The results of the test showed that unlike normal people when I close my eyes my brain basically goes into overdrive. The doctor remarked “no wonder you can’t sleep and have such vivid dreams.”

I have another couple of evaluation sessions before I begin EMDR and or Biofeedback therapy. For the first time in a long time I am hopeful that I will get some relief and improvement in my condition that may actually help me get off some of my medications. That would be nice. Normal sleep and a decrease in the HD dreams and nightmares would also be a good thing.

Thank you for your prayers and kind words. It has been a while since I have written about this in any detail and I hope as always that what I share will help encourage others suffering from similar issues and hopefully encourage and educate those that have to live with them. Believe me, it has not been easy for Judy.

There are resources available and one that I recommend for those that are dealing with PTSD is the Real Warriors Campaign http://www.realwarriors.net. I also recommend Doonesbury’s The Sandbox http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/  Both sites allow military personnel to share their experiences. There are numerous other resources and if someone asks I will gladly post some others. I do have a link to the National Center on PTSD on the site.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

2 Comments

Filed under News and current events, PTSD

A Peaceful Night at the Ballpark: Casting my Cares on the Field of Dreams

“That’s baseball, and it’s my game.  Y’ know, you take your worries to the game, and you leave ’em there.” Humphrey Bogart 

It is amazing what a couple of hours at a ballpark can do for me. I don’t know about you but going to the ballpark is something that I need in order to maintain any peace in my soul.

This year I have been to fewer ballgames than any time in the 10 years and I can feel the difference. I find that no matter how crazy things are in my life or how much anxiety I feel I can go to a ball game and I find peace. There is something about that lush green diamond that brings peace to me soul and when I do not get to the ballpark for an extended period something is lost.

I wrote yesterday about those anxieties and frustrations, especially all of the hate that I see on display in our politics, in religion and between peoples at home and and around the world. It seems to me that the Unholy Trinity of Pundits, Politicians and Preachers make a living of spreading hate and fear and turning people against each other, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, nation against nation.

Fear and hate are contagions and as they spread even those who try to inoculate themselves against their pervasive evil can become caught up in them. I was feeling that way this week and yesterday I knew that I had to do a number of things to get help and one of them was to get to the ballpark. The other was to seek some help for the physical, emotional and spiritual manifestations of my struggle with PTSD. I will share more about that in the coming weeks and months. I am scheduled to begin some very advanced treatment for it that has shown tremendous results in those being treated for PTSD. After talking to the specialist today I feel very hopeful and blessed to be able to get a referral so fast. More on that to come.

However, last night I was able to take in a ball game. Since the Kinston Indians were sold my attendance at ball games has been limited to a few games in Norfolk. Thankfully the Morehead City Marlins of the Independent Coastal Plains League were playing at home against the Florence Red Wolves so I got in my car and drove up there.   It was relaxing. The ballpark was new and small but the field well kept. The ballplayers were college kids from colleges and universities around the country. The skill level was about the level of Low “A” ball in the Minor Leagues and I did’t know any of the players. That being said I found the game both calming and relaxing. I was able to get a hot dog and a beer and wander around taking pictures from various locations in the stadium.

Just being there was healing in its own way. I was able to do as Humphrey Bogart said “take my worries there and leave them there.” I know as a Christian that the Bible says to “cast all of your cares on him (Jesus)” and I do try to do that, but sometimes the ballpark brings me closer to him than a church and a good play by play announcer like Vin Scully more spiritual than the most eloquent preacher, and certainly less divisive than the political partisans who spew hate in the name of the Lord.

Last night reminded me of how important this beautiful game is in my life and why I need it. Like Sharon Olds, who wrote in This Sporting Life that “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as of the world is not going to blow up.”  Believe me I need that reassurance at times and after the past few weeks of angst I really needed that last night.

The great American poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman wrote: “I see great things in baseball.  It’s our game – the American game.  It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism.  Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set.  Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

Last night was good for the soul. I slept better than I have in weeks. Today I started re-reading the classic baseball novel by W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe from which the film Field of Dreams was adapted. Kinsella’s writing is magical and deeply spiritual at its heart. It is about life, love, dad’s and sons and dreams that you don’t let die.

I still have dreams and I won’t let them die. I’ve been given many precious gifts by family, friends, those that have cared for me even when they were suffering and by God. One of those gifts is that wonderful, mysterious and always healing game played on the most perfect of fields, that field of dreams.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under Baseball, christian life, faith, PTSD

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+



4 Comments

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+

7 Comments

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