When soldiers come home
By David J. Giammona
“How are you eating and sleeping these days?” I asked a soldier just returning with the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It seemed as though the dam had burst wide open as he poured out his story of trauma and tragedy in combat. He was experiencing sleepless nights, nightmares and daytime flashbacks. Certain sights and sounds triggered his memory of awful moments in combat. He struggled to understand how God could allow such suffering and pain in his life and in the lives of those around him.
Almost every soldier experiences a time of adjustment. For weeks after coming home, soldiers can feel flashes of anger and depression and may struggle to sleep at night. This is a normal part of “homecoming.”
But when this becomes a persistent debilitating condition, it is described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event, causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal.
Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb. This emotional shut-down was once referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” Some veterans have dealt with PTSD for years without understanding what is wrong with them. Many in the church also do not know what is happening to those who have experienced PTSD.
A Vietnam veteran wrote in his Web diary: “When I returned from Vietnam I was a troubled ‘man’ of 20 years of age. I wanted to talk to my pastor about the death and destruction I had seen and, more importantly, what I had caused while on duty. The minister was not receptive. Over the next three years, I moved further and further from the church that I had belonged to since birth and I developed a strong dislike for organized religion in general.”
“… I have now started to attend church again where I live, and during a recent sermon at the church our pastor covered this topic very well. Our minister really did understand what many PTSD victims live with every day.”
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
As the family life chaplain at Fort Campbell (Ky.) and the rear detachment chaplain for the 101st, I worked with many soldiers returning from war. I saw a similar pattern with these warriors including the following symptoms:
• Upsetting memories such as images or thoughts about the war
• Feeling as if the war is happening again (flashbacks)
• Bad dreams and nightmares
• Getting upset when reminded about the war (by something the soldier sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes)
• Anxiety or fear, feeling in danger again
• Anger or aggressive feelings
• Trouble controlling emotions because reminders lead to sudden anxiety, anger or upset
• Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
Soldiers also had physical reactions to war reminders such as:
• Trouble falling or staying asleep
• Feeling agitated and constantly on the lookout for danger
• Getting very startled by loud noises
• Feeling shaky and sweaty
• Having their heart pound or having trouble breathing
How to help
Luke 4:18 says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (KJV).
There is great help through God’s Word regarding restoration and deliverance for those who have been exposed to the brutality of war. God offers healing and forgiveness through the power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
Many in the church (including leaders) feel helpless when it comes to those who are experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Some church staff and members choose to ignore it. Some quote Scripture and offer up prayer as the only means of helping. While Scripture and prayer can be a very effective way of helping those struggling with PTSD, used in the wrong context and without proper training, they do not provide what is really needed.
Here are some proven ways church leadership and members can be of great support:
Provide sermons and Bible classes. Pastors who have taken time to understand PTSD can provide help to the whole congregation by making them aware of the problem.
Listen without judging. Most soldiers need an active listening ear. That means someone who will be there for them without using all the standard clichés. Avoid phrases such as, “I know what you mean,” “Just have faith,” and “It’ll get better.” Soldiers need to get their story out for the healing process to begin.
Provide counseling. Refer soldiers to competent Christian licensed professional counselors. Get to know the counselors and support groups in your area.
Understand what resources are available. Helpful organizations include the Veterans Administration, Military One Source, National Center for PTSD (www.ncptsd.va.gov), Iraq War Veterans Organization (www.iraqwarveterans.org), and Emerge Ministries (www.emerge.org).
How soldiers can help themselves
I encourage returning soldiers to spend extra time with the people they love. As they are able, they need to talk about the recent events and about past losses or experiences that may be affecting them now.
They should also be able to talk about their fears and concerns with co-workers. Fears and concerns may interfere with work, and it’s important to talk about them with friends and colleagues. However, I would encourage co-workers to respect the fact that some people may feel better not talking about terrorist acts or related events.
I remind soldiers they can expect their mood and feelings to be intense and constantly changing. Sleep or eating patterns may also be disturbed. It may be difficult to maintain a normal schedule if they are experiencing trauma, but it is important to try to keep to a regular pattern of eating and sleeping to build up the strength to cope with stress.
Our war heroes suffering from the effects of PTSD can be helped especially by the church. We, the body of Christ, have been designed by God to be His healing hand in times of crisis and hurt.
Chaplain (Maj.) David J. Giammona serves the 160th Signal Brigade at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
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