Coming home

Without thinking, I thought coming home from a combat zone would bring a great sigh of relief. “I survived! I can go on with my life now.” It does for many. But for an unsuspected number of others, the relief is only temporary.  I now realize that in combat people experience things that cut to the deepest parts of their souls. I now have a better understanding of why I never heard some of my relatives and friends who served in combat speak of their trauma.

Six months ago I was privileged to hear a 20 year veteran of surgical nursing in the military share the experience of the worst 13 months of his life. He thought he had seen it all prior to those days. In my turn, I have not forgotten what he shared.

It has been almost ten years since his tour of duty at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. After much therapy, he is grateful that he can sleep 19-20 hours per week. “Grateful” because for many years he was only sleeping 10-11 hours per week. I am amazed he can function in his place of employment!

With great reverence, he shared slides, at times quite graphic, but in his own words not the most graphic. Some slides showed “wounds” (I am not sure that is the right word) that I had never imaged existed or that I would see. Some slides reminded him of the lives that couldn’t be saved. Other slides showed the pride of lives saved, even if not restored. With great reverence, he identified the pictures of the team that shared the experience of those 13 months. He told their stories also.

It was only after his presentation that I appreciated why coming home only brings temporary relief. It is a reality they continue to experience. They can not get what they have experienced out of their heads. Unfortunately there seems to be a tradition in the military of being told not to talk about their experiences when they get home. A living hell made worse  by a code that says “Get over it! Just move on with your life”!

I used to think of Veterans Day in terms of parades celebrating people who were proud of their service.  I had no idea how many are still paying an unimaginable price. Now I can not get them out of my head.

Twenty-two soldier suicides happen every day.  In fact, in 2017 18% of all American adult suicides were committed by veterans, even though veterans made up just 8.5% of the population.

I have never visited Walter Reed Hospital. But as I think of those lucky enough to be in VA hospitals I recall the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman about our “civil” war.

“You cannot quantify in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” General William Tecumseh Sherman Letter to the City of Atlanta (September 1864)

St. Vincent DePaul and War

All this reminded me of the glimpses Vincent had of the suffering of the poor in his time. Apart from some brief and short-lived periods of peace, the century in which Vincent lived was a century of war: People, soldiers, and non-combatants, suffered the consequences of the wars of religion and the upheavals of the civil wars which were often complicated by foreign wars.

We must also admit that our century is no better than the seventeenth century … in fact we have surpassed the horrors that were created by the Thirty Years War and the Fronde, a series of civil wars in France between 1648 and 1653).

Vincent was neither an ideologue nor a theoretician. When speaking about war and peace he placed great value on the numerous eye-witness testimonies. He allowed himself to be touched by the accounts. So we hear him say,

“…the misfortune of the war has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere…”
“…No tongue can express…”

His response? Some researchers have been amazed to calculate that he distributed in today’s terms literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are Christians and disciples of Saint Vincent on both sides of every barrier, wall or “curtain”. Like Vincent, they participate in countless endeavors to alleviate the suffering that results from war. These individuals seek to discover the root causes of war and yet do not embrace a blind pacifism. They support other organizations that promote, on both a social and political level, peace and justice in the world.

The disciples of Saint Vincent always defend the poor and are also concerned about establishing peace because they realize that the poor are often the first victims in all of these various conflicts.

Respecting the untold stories of war

After his presentation, this surgical nurse thanked us for listening!  He also explained that one of the ways they are now being helped is through Prolonged Exposure Therapy. People with PTSD often try to avoid things that remind them of the trauma. This can help them feel better in the moment. But in the long term, it can keep them from recovering from PTSD.

“In PE, you expose yourself to the thoughts, feelings, and situations that you’ve been avoiding. It sounds scary, but facing things you’re afraid of in a safe way can help you learn that you don’t need to avoid reminders of the trauma. Your therapist will ask you to talk about your trauma over and over. This will help you get more control of your thoughts and feelings about the trauma so you don’t need to be afraid of your memories. She will also help you work up to doing the things you’ve been avoiding. For example, let’s say you avoid driving because it reminds you of an accident. At first, you might just sit in the car and practice staying calm with breathing exercises. Gradually, you’ll work towards driving without being upset by memories of your trauma. PTSD Guidelines

I resolved to listen to anyone who was willing to talk.

What can we do?

  • When the parades have passed by do we go back to life as normal?
  • Do we recognize the existence of these untold stories in our midst?
  • Are we ready to listen if we sense a need to talk?

What’s in a name?

During the last century the reality was known as “shell shock” and “combat neurosis”. The term “posttraumatic stress disorder” came into use in the 1970s in large part due to the diagnoses of U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War. It was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Whatever the label, the reality is soul searing.

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