I do not claim to be an expert on those who have served in the Armed Forces; nor have I personally served (a choice I at times regret). I am also not an expert according to many as a person who is qualified to even write what you are about to read. This being said, I can say with confidence that I know people because I hear them share their hearts, I see their struggles and I walk by their sides. I am a pastor and pastoral counselor; which may not mean much to you, but to me, this means God has qualified me to share this with confidence and a heavy heart.
The other week, my dear friend, a war veteran, shared with me the troubling news that a friend and fellow solider committed suicide. I will not share the details, but I will share this rocked my dear friends world! As I listened to him share his brokenness, I also sensed his fears; for his friend “had it all together”; so he thought. His friend had a great deal to live for: a beautiful wife and two adoring children. Yet, suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), he felt that he couldn’t live with the effects that war has left on him and in him. For his friend, the war continued…
“I can understand that, but how does this create fear in you dear friend’s life?” you might be asking yourself. To be blunt, it affects him greatly! If, as my friend thought, his friend had his life together and still couldn’t continue with the burdens he carried and took his life, could this happen to me comes to mind. I know my friend struggles with this because he confides in me. I am a humbled few he has the ability to share with. Not many of these veterans have such people in their lives!
Allow me to share the heart of a warrior/soldier: They are trained to become strong in body/mind/heart/devotion/spirit. They are taught to contain emotions under the most terrifying of times. They are conditioned to keep things in and to “suck it up”. They are instilled that showing emotions are a sign of weakness. Then they are transported miles away from all they know and love and are thrust into hostile environments and told to trust no one. They are not only witness to but also participate in horrors of combat. They see friends and family (because their platoons and squads become family to them) die right in front of them in the most gruesome and terrible ways. This triggers anger and rage, fear and uncertainty, and revenge and survival are the only motivations they have on the field. They have little to no time to process this on the field and they continue to fight; both the war and the very things which makes them humans. They get “counseling” stating this is the cost of battle and that they should be proud to serve their country in this fashion. And in the midst of all this; they ask themselves, “Why are we really here for?”
After their tour of duty/duties, where they have seen the uttermost deepest evil in man, they come home to lives that are the same as they left; however, they are not. No longer can they simply rest. Every noise has meaning and they were trained that such noises means danger. Relationships are constantly questioned because they have seen what they have believed to be innocence (children and women) come and have become suicide bombers, guides become leaders to friends deaths and ambushes. They can never share their experiences because it might be a concern of national defense, a military secret, or simply too gruesome to explain. If they share with their spouses, these spouses’ image of them will change and fear might overtake them. They might not be able to relate to them and feel unable to offer any hope or help to those they love. And if PTSD is present, those same spouses haven’t a clue as to how to relate or offer help.
The veteran is told they are heroes (and they are) but they don’t believe it because they recall what they had to do in order to stay alive and defeat the enemy. They relive the horrors because they either can’t share their experiences or don’t know where to begin. Regular counselors, although having several courses on how to counsel veterans have no clue what they have experienced and how to help these troubled souls. They don’t understand what it is like to be shot at constantly, to be part of a suicide boomer’s plan of destruction or to see your best friends life pour from their eyes. I know what I am writing is horrible pictures; however, war is not pretty: except pretty horrible! These veterans can’t just turn off their experiences are return to “normal” life. The war, for these, continue…
These poor souls carry the emotions, the scars, and the ghost of war with them. Now, the war is internal. They fight the demons of their past. They battle concepts learned for battle where battle (at least as they have experienced) are not present. How do you turn off your senses so that every noise isn’t a danger or that every person wants to do you harm? How do you unlearn the discipline of “not caring” (for a lack of a better term) so that you can survive? Can you unlock the ability to feel again when you have placed you feeling in the deepest and darkest part of your soul? Can one not hear a gunshot ever again and know it is not intended for them? Can they simply learn to sleep deeply again? The answer is yes, but the journey is hard and long.
How can we help our veterans? Here’s a list of several things I believe to help veterans return to a somewhat “normal” life:
- Don’t take it personally – When they need space, quietness, time; understand it isn’t anything you have said or done. They are trying to get a handle on whatever they are dealing with and dealing with it in a way that is appropriate. When we take it personally, we heap guilt on the veterans because their intent is to never make us feel we are the cause. This guilt adds stress because they find themselves walking on eggshells which feel like glass shards. They never intend to cause us pain, but they believe that pain comes from their actions.
- Teach the veteran to open up – This is based on their timing and not our own timing. Offer to be there for them, but don’t shame them, bully them, force them or expect them to be any more sharing than what they are. Know there are some things they may NEVER share with you and know that that’s ok. Help them to build trust and faith in you. When you push them, you push them away.
- Teach them life out of the service – Their life has been turned upside down (so has yours). In the same way they were taught to deal with life on the battlefield, teach them life on the home front. Teach them work schedules, school events, household demands that you have developed in their deployments. You adjusted your life for their absence, you have to invite them back into being part of it and how you do things.
- Encourage them to find healthy outlets – These veterans will need to have/develop hobbies and relationships that will help them grow in peace. Substance abuse are poor choices for calming one’s self down or dealing with issues. Hobbies can be very therapeutic and fun to do together, which builds relationships. If not hobbies, reading, writing, coaching, teaching, family nights, exercise and so on all can help reduce stress and promote good health. Good health is more than physical; it includes mental, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual aspects of life.
- Connect with your spirituality – God is a great help in all of life. Being connected to a church/faith community will give you more people in your corner. With the host of different ages, backgrounds and experiences, these untapped resources will prove to be a great comfort.
- Connect with the resources available to you – In both the military and civilian aspects of life there are a host of resources for you to draw from. Please use them. There is no shame in asking for a helping hand! On the field of battle, we lean on one another to get through the thick of the war. Do the same with your personal battles!!
There are a number of other things we could list, but this is as good beginning. There are support groups, agencies, friends and family who are waiting to serve you in the way you have served our country. Please, if you are struggling, call a friend, family or a trusted individual that can walk by your side and you can lean on. Together, we will find healing and peace for you. You are all in my personal prayers. God bless you and thank you for your service!