Tag Archives: real warriors campaign

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

cropped-n671902058_1153794_4301.jpg

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+

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

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

Merry Christmas from a Wounded Healer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We had a special Christmas this year with friends who can be best described as a relatively eclectic group. We hosted dinner as is our custom and it really turned out well, and I do have to say that emotionally and spiritually I am in in a better place than was not too long ago.

So today, especially for my new readers I want to recount a bit of that journey.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That war changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic 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.” 

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.” Sadly Captain Sitsch, struggling with his own PTSD and other life crises took his life in 2014, but I think that he understood me better than most Chaplains or clergy.

That the crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” For those not familiar with that book it is the sense that God has withdrawn his presence from you which you must go through to experience true union with God.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, for they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.  When I watch the classic film about the 1914 Christmas Truce, Joyeaux Noel I very much understand the priest who is being relieved of his duties by his bishop who he tells “I belong here, with those in pain who have lost their faith.” 

In the fall of 2008 was losing my battle with PTSD during that time I was clinically  depressed, terribly anxious, angry, and in despair I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass because I could not get through it. If a bar had been open anywhere within walking distance I would have poured myself into it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care, my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 70-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support. Likewise I was largely absent from home which was not a good thing for my marriage.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas of 2009 I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain. It was as if his faith

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: 

https://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. That being said over past couple of weeks or so my crazy nightmares and night terrors have come back with a vengeance, last night I threw myself out of bed in the midst of a particularly violent nightmare but it hasn’t soured my mood, my hip still hurts a bit but like unlike the last couple of times I neither broke my nose, sustained a concussion, nor bruised by jaw and sprained my neck.; that my friends is an improvement.

I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt, especially the men and women that call themselves Conservative Evangelical Christians who seem to me to have sacrificed any pretense of faith in Christ in the pursuit of raw political power by supporting a man who is as much of a Christian as the Medici Popes. So I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer celebrated Christmas at home, hosting friends after having preached at Christmas services for American and German military communities. It was a healing experience for me and helped to increase my faith. I know: faith versus reason. I get that, but as reasonable and logical as I try to be I do find the mystery of faith to be something that attracts me to Jesus the Christ.

So this evening, this Christmas night, I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on my posts.

You are appreciated as some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. Likewise there are times that my own biases show through in what I write, and I know that a decent number of people who subscribe to this site and comment don’t always agree with me. I appreciate that and thank you for continuing to follow what I write.

Likewise, if you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

Wounded Healers at Christmas

lastmass

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic 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.” 

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care, my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: 

http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Damaged Goods: Broken Clergy and God’s Grace

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_n

I am broken…. That my friends is a fact that I am reminded of daily, especially when I open my life to strangers.

There is a quote by General William Tecumseh Sherman that defines my view of caring for people, friends, colleagues and peers. Sherman said of Grant: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

That may seem confounding to some, even offensive. However, since I can say that I have been crazy and drunk that Sherman’s words have a particular relevance and affinity to me.

A few years ago as I was beginning to emerge from my period of complete loss of faith and agnosticism following my post Iraq PTSD crash I wrote an article called Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? It was an article that I basically wrote to see if there were other clergy or chaplains that were going through similar experiences.

While I did receive some feedback from chaplains and other clergy going through similar issues, the article eventually attracted the attention of a newspaper, followed by the DOD Real Warriors program. In late 2012 I was interviewed by David Wood of the Huffington Post about Moral Injury and featured in a front page article in the Washington Times in early April of this year. That being said all of those experiences, tough ending up being very positive I did not seek out and were quite scary because when I share intimate things about me with anyone it is risky, especially if they are clergy.

The fact is that I have a terrible fear and distrust of most clergy. I have written before that I am afraid of Christians, but I think that I am even more afraid of clergy. Frankly I don’t feel safe or normal when I am around most clergy. I actually feel more at home with atheists, agnostics and other skeptics or doubters hanging out at my favorite watering hole or the ballpark than I do with other clergy.

Part is from my own experience, but also my experience in seeing friends and others treated badly by other clergy. Thus I neither feel safe or accepted by most clergy, be they military chaplains or civilians. The sad thing is I know I am not alone.

That being said, clergy are often the last people who want to admit that they are broken or flawed. I may be a Priest and Chaplain but I know that I and both broken and terribly flawed, as I like to say I am a “Mendoza Line” Christian and Priest. I don’t do the Christian life very well, like Mario Mendoza I hit about .200, just enough to keep myself in the majors but never enough to be a Hall of Fame contender or super-star by any means. I am a flawed journeyman who works hard and cares about his work, but who lacks that natural ability as well as connections of others.

Today was hard. I was reminded by someone at work, a student who is a peer in the chaplain corps, in an incident that could have been intention or unintentional that I am flawed, and to some senior leaders inconsequential. I say this because as I have gone through the living hell of dealing with PTSD and Moral Injury over the past six years that for the most part it has not been fellow chaplains or clergy who have been there for me. Instead it has been atheists, agnostics, skeptics, other doubters as well as non-Christians of various persuasions who have taken the time to both care for me and affirm me and my ministry. Needless to say there have been some other Christians and clergy to do this, but they are a decided minority, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so chillingly noted:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”

If anyone wonders why people are fleeing the church and why the fastest growing religious preference in the United States is “none” one only has to look to me. If I wasn’t already a Christian there is little in American Christianity that would attract me to Jesus. But that being said I have to remind myself of the words of the man who coined the term “the wounded healer” Father Henri Nouwen. He noted “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

The fact is I am damaged goods, but then of we are honest all of us are, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. As far as what I believe that of itself is something that is at the heart of the Christian understanding of reconcilliation. Thus, to all of those that struggle as I do, I wish you all the best, knowing that somewhere in the grace of God that there is a place for all of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

6 Comments

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

The Enduring Crisis: Suicides in Veterans Spiking

126642_600The Veterans Administration released a disturbing report that male veterans under 30 years old saw a 44% increase in the rate of suicide. The rate for women veterans increased by 11%. About 22 veterans a day committed suicide in 2013. That did not count those still on active duty numbers which are still high but have dropped somewhat since 2012 and previous years.

The VA National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention, Jan Kemp said “Their rates are astronomically high and climbing…” Kemp postulated that reasons for the spike might include “the pressures of leaving military careers, readjusting to civilian life and combat injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder…”

I believe that the stigma that many felt about getting psychological help while they were in the military continues on when they enter civilian life. Unlike the military where there is still some sense of camaraderie and a chance that the chain of command might force a service member to get help, no corresponding structure or community exists in the civilian world. Young veterans are often isolated and face new stresses while they are already on edge. Many find that the military occupation specialities that they trained for have no direct civilian counterpart, leaving them struggling in the civilian job market. Combat injuries as well as injuries sustained in training often continue on, limiting what they can do and the unseen injuries of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and Moral Injury, often undiagnosed and untreated lurk in the background.

20131108-ArlingtonVA-MilitaryInforgraphic

This is a national tragedy and crisis. Many of these young men and women are among the best and brightest. They volunteered to serve in time of war and now as the military, especially the Army and Marine Corps begin to shed large numbers of troops, many more will be thrust into a world that they may be ill equipped to survive.

They will attempt to go to work or attend school, quite often alone. There they will be surrounded by people who have no idea of the issues that they face or understanding of the military world that they left, or the places that they served. I think this social isolation will be a killer for many.

130919123908-suicide-frequency-story-body

My recommendation is that people who work or go to school with these young veterans, or for that matter any veteran get to know them. Help them adjust to the world and keep an eye on them. Ask them how they are doing and just show that you care. You do not have to be a veteran to do that. Likewise get to know about the resources that are available for veterans and help direct them to them. Have the courage to care.

Resources include the Veterans Crisis Hotline which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can be reached at (800)-273-8255, press 1, or here to chat online. They also allow veterans to send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day.

Another resource is the Real Warriors Live Chat. The a trained health resource consultant is ready to talk, listen and provide guidance and resources. They can be reached by calling 866-966-1020 or going to their live chat service here http://www.realwarriors.net/livechat.

Afterdeployment.org http://afterdeployment.t2.health.mil offers wellness resources for the Military Community. Service members in transition to civilian life can contact inTransition by calling 800-424-7877 or at their website http://www.health.mil/InTransition/default.aspx

To me this is personal. I still suffer from the effects of PTSD and I have known far too many veterans who have taken their own lives, or struggle with mental health issues, physical injuries and illness, or social isolation. This week a brilliant and heroic senior officer I knew, who helped me when I was collapsing due to the effects of PTSD took his own life. This is something that all of us have a stake in. Please help look out for our veterans.

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under healthcare, Military, News and current events, PTSD

Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

996759_10152169414832059_1833080489_n

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic 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.” 

iraq christmas

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

295_26912092058_3949_n

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

379132_10150515338077059_671902058_10701625_1511457102_n

So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

15 Comments

Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

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