Tag Archives: the way of the wound

Traumatic Truths

motivational pictures

A few years ago I attended a conference about spirituality and trauma conducted by Dr. Robert Grant. I highly recommend his book The Way of the Wound if you have either been affected by trauma in any way, or if you deal as a professional counselor, therapist, or pastoral care giver. The fact is that we all experience difficult times and very often trauma is at the heart of them.

During that seminar he went through a number of things and going back through my notes I decided to pull some of them out, you can note some of my dark humor and sarcasm, not that there is anything wrong with that…. But really all kidding aside these are abiding truths and they can be both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. To me they actually help make sense of the world.

Back when I was in seminary and in  my early years of ministry, in fact up until the time I landing in Iraq, I was filled with a lot of certitude. I can’t say that now, I have faith but I doubt at least as much as I believe. As baseball great Earl Weaver said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

So here are some truths, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

Despite my snarkey comment the fact is that we live in a culture that denies death, while death is such an integral part of life.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

We all know people, very good people who do all the right things and despite that still experience trauma and tragedy.

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

Now be assured I do believe in planning, including thinking about contingencies, and I do this pretty well. That being said there is seldom a week that goes by where I do not experience something that gums up my plans.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time.

Need I say more about this?

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

This thought by Bonhoeffer one drives a lot of people crazy, especially religious people who have to try to prove things that they cannot prove.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

I believe in the goodness of most people, but I am also a realist, evil and malevolence is all too real and all to much a part of our world. Until we get that, we will never understand those that commit evil, especially those that do so in the name of God.

So anyway, since we are getting ready for another big winter storm I will close for the day. Tomorrow we’ll see what I put out, until then I think that I just might drink beer instead.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy

To the Edge of Darkness: Notes on a Conference

I’m home for a conference on Spirituality and Trauma at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth this week. The primary speaker is Dr. Robert Grant, author of The Way of the Wound a Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation.  I had the pleasure of meeting him last year when I coordinated his visit and speaking engagement when I was stationed at Portsmouth.

One of the ideas that Robert is willing to address is going beyond the symptoms of PTSD and what are the underlying causes of trauma including the understanding of evil and malevolence and the understanding of moral injury that stems from trauma.  Last year when spoke I was really beginning to integrate my own moral and spiritual injuries that were part and parcel of my battle with PTSD and I found his presentation quite helpful.

Now 8 months after that I have come to understand more about what he talked about back then.  For me it is that what I experienced changed me and that I had to deal with things that I saw and that I know that make me radioactive to many people, especially fellow ministers and many Christians. I found that when I came back to faith and began to write about it that I was asked to leave my former church.  Evidently being an agnostic despairing of life was fine as long as I didn’t question non-creedal social issues and right wing politics.  I now ask questions that make many people uncomfortable and I have become much more sensitive to seeing things that many people want to pass over.  Recently this was the case when I suggested that legendary preacher David Wilkerson may have committed suicide by car.  But such is life when you have passed into the abyss and come back different than when you began the journey.  Thankfully I have come back.  Now I hope to be there and walk through the valley of the shadow of death with those who are walking where I have walked.

I also found that there is a good reason that I am still taking medications to help me sleep.  I inadvertently left my medications or “docile pills” as I call them in North Carolina and had to try to sleep last night without them. I was hyper-vigilant as hell and got almost no sleep.  Today I got up, forgot my hearing aids and left the front door open on my way to work.  I was absolutely exhausted and to stay awake I drank entirely too much coffee, Coke Zero and Diet Dr. Pepper.  I was tired and wired. Thankfully one of my psychiatrist friends prescribed me enough of what I take to get me through the week.  However, I was funny especially toward the end of the day when I got myself slapped by a friend when a question was asked about a book title.  The book was Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and as people searched their brain housing groups for the title I leaned over to my friend Duke and said “isn’t that that book Oedipus in America.”   Duke paused for a second, realized that I was pulling his leg and slapped me, not that there is anything wrong with that.

While at the Medical Center I saw a good number of friends that I had worked with for two years. It was a genuine joy to see each of them again and to realize that the most important part of any assignment is the people that you have relationships with.  I am blessed. I have a couple more days in the symposium and look forward to what I will learn as well and seeing people that mean a great deal to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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