If you read much about matters of politics and the military, you are well aware of the significant problem of PTSD in returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. While only 20-30% meet criteria for PTSD, all have been forever impacted. Rightly so, the military and traumatology researchers are expending oodles of money and time trying to understand (a) ways to reduce trauma symptoms and (b) improve resilience. Thankfully, we are seeing some helpful interventions being developed. However, there is much work to be done in perfecting treatments (finding ways other than just medicating vets into a stupor), ensuring that practitioners are competent, and improving societal acceptance of PTSD as a real disorder and not just something someone can just decide not to have.
And yet, these wounded and changed warriors have something to teach us about how we see ourselves and our world. Sometimes, it takes a life-changing experience to recognize serious blind spots. Even if you haven’t served in a combat setting, you can understand a bit if you’ve gone on a mission trip and returned with a different perspective and a sense you could no longer go about life the same way.
This article is a worthy read to consider what we can learn from those who were willing to sacrifice their lives, their futures for our safety. If you are indeed thankful for a vet’s service, take a minute to read it.
Just began reading Karl Marlantes’ What it is Like to go to War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011). If you have loved ones who have served in combat I highly recommend you read this to understand a bit of their experiences. Karl Marlantes is a veteran of the Vietnam War and in this book details the spiritual and psychological impact of killing and combat. While his view of God would vary from most Christians, I think most believers will find his descriptions of war’s destruction on a person very accurate.
Marlantes considers the spiritual nature of war,
Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat.
Most of us, including me, would prefer to think of a sacred space as some light-filled wondrous place where we can feel good and find a way to shore up our psyches against death. We don’t want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? (p. 7-8)
Just prior to this quote he tells of a harrowing experience where he was in charge of a small band of men defending US interests with no opportunity for backup. Decisions he made led to the deaths of enemies and fellow marines. In a break in the action, a chaplain was flown in bringing, “several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes.” (p. 7) He tells how this “help” wasn’t what he really needed,
I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in it terror and contact with the infinite, and he was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide. (p. 7)
Consider the book if you live with, love, or work with a veteran of combat.
I recently watched a 2 hour CE (made free by the APA until 12/31/12) about the common stresses of military personnel and their families. While it didn’t have any information on particular counseling interventions, it did do a decent job giving a brief overview of military lingo and differences between the branches (e.g., why you would NEVER want to refer to a Marine as a soldier). The speaker is from the Deployment Psychology training institute and that site will provide you with ample clinical training continuing education. Some of the on-line trainings are free (unless you want CE credits).