I awoke this morning from another night of war.
Last night, in my dreams, I fought hand to hand with the enemy; I got blown up by an IED; and I had to take command of a hopelessly scattered and confused unit while under fire. Such dreams for me are both exhilarating and terrifying. Though I came home from Iraq in December of 2008, the hauntings of my stay there still ambush me every now and again.
God has placed a huge burden on my heart to reach out to combat veterans, and their loved ones. Reintegrating into society can be confusing and difficult, and occasionally overwhelming.
I’m a combat veteran. I’m a pastor. I went from Captain Palmer, to Reverend Palmer. I’m not an expert on the psychological effects of war, just a survivor who lives with them. I am also a trained pastoral counselor, and a firm believer in the power of Jesus. I hope this post will be helpful to everyone who wants to know a bit more about what PTSD is like, and how (I have found) to live with it.
Be assured, no matter our war experience, we can find peace with God; and ourselves. I’ll break it into six easy parts.
1. The Causes of PTSD are Different for Each Person
PTSD is caused by trauma. Everyone has their own threshold for what their mind can tolerate. I saw no less than 3 soldiers, in my unit, go legit crazy before deployment. For them, the terror of the unknown deployment was just too much to handle. For some, it’s the 12-15 months of knowing you could die at any moment. Others have an actual event; like seeing a friend die violently, getting blown up, getting shot, shooting someone, or other harrowing events.
For me, one event that has never left the old brain pan was a night when we got rocket/mortar attacked. I can still remember hearing the explosions just a few seconds apart, and realizing that the shells were coming in on the Forward Operating Base. I sprang off the bed, snatched my rifle off the wall, screamed, “Let’s go Gunny!” (My roommate) and shot out the door into a bunker.
Fast as lightning.
I was the first to the bunker and so screamed, “INCOMING!” So that everyone would know to get into a bunker quick. The hair on the back of my neck was raised, I was breathing hard, and started helping yank other soldiers into that dark bunker. I was waiting for the inevitable explosion that would end my life.
I well remember my platoon sergeant scolding another platoon sergeant for using a flashlight to check for her troops. I laughed so hard when I found out he wasn’t worried so much about light discipline, it was because he had his pants off when the rockets came screaming in. He was in the bunker, using the darkness to cover his tighty-whiteys.
Thing is, nobody knows what their threshold is until they get past it. Nobody picks the way their body and mind will react to the trauma.
2. PTSD Manifests Differently for each Person
When all is said and done, PTSD is the inappropriate application of emotion. Some people feel numbness when they know they should be deeply moved. Some people intensely weep for no apparent reason. Some feel an uncontainable rage. Some are triggered into fight mode. Some, flight mode. There seems to be only one unifying emotion for us: shame.
Imagine with me for a moment.
During all those days of deployment you take hope in that magical moment of being reunited with your family. You have a sort of Disney picture in your mind. When it actually happens, you can imagine why you would feel shame—as you hold your kids for the first time in a long time; and can’t feel anything. You look into your wife’s eyes, as she weeps for joy at seeing you. You don’t feel anything for her.
Imagine driving your family to church. You hit a little gridlock, and start a stream of angry profanity because you feel an intense sense of danger. You can’t help this onslaught of feelings, it is totally overwhelming. The look of disappointment on your wife’s face, the fearful glances of your kids in the back seat; it makes you feel ashamed.
Imagine being in a fancy restaurant on a big date with your wife. You’re all dressed up, and so is she. Outside, the exhaust of a passing car backfires. The sound makes you dive onto the floor, dishes clattering after you. Your wife is embarrassed, everyone is looking in shock. Shame.
Perhaps most importantly, is that many combat veterans do not recognize the manifestations of PTSD. They believe that something is wrong with them. The belief is they have something to be ashamed of. PTSD is their fault.
3. There Seem to be a lot of Fakers
Don’t get me started. I can’t tell you how many people I have met who love to throw around the PTSD label to excuse crazy behavior. The behavior that’s crazy isn’t the stuff I’ve just discussed.
They won’t get a job because they have PTSD. They won’t take a bath because they have PTSD. They love to tell wild lies about their war experience (if they even had any) to gullible kids because they have PTSD. They can’t be held accountable for anything in their life because they have PTSD.
I can’t stand those people. God help me.
I really don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want people to think I’m crazy. I just want to have a normal life. Most combat veterans I know, the ones who really went through hell, do their best to be well-adjusted, responsible people. They certainly don’t want to be identified with the Fakers. Neither do most veterans. They’d rather just be left alone.
4. Making Sense of What Once was Good Soldiering
Ever heard from your loved one, “You wouldn’t understand, you weren’t there!”
The comment is designed to push you out. Believe me. I’ve had these conversations, and I reply, “Yes. Yes I have.” The very next move of my conversation partner is usually to compare notes with me, and find some way in which his (or her) experience was different from mine. Then repeat, “You wouldn’t understand.”
The trouble isn’t that friends and family can’t make sense of what happened to the combat vet. The trouble is that the combat vet can’t make sense of what happened. PTSD is an emotional misapplication, not a logical one. It doesn’t make sense. So the veteran assumes that the real problem is outward, and not inward.
If everyone in the world understood exactly what the veteran went through, PTSD would still be disorienting to the veteran; because they can’t make sense of it themselves. If you are a loved one, just be patient with your veteran. Keep gently trying. Don’t expect your veteran will just open up once, have a good cry, and then be over it. It takes a lifetime of support, but it does get better.
And if you’re the veteran: talk. Talk about good and bad experiences as much as you can, and when you can. It really doesn’t matter if someone else experienced what you did. Talk.
What we call PTSD in civilian life, we called “Being a Damn Good Soldier” in military life. Each of the above “over reactions” in #2 of this blog, would have saved lives and gotten the mission completed.
The inability to feel is an amazing gift from God on the battlefield. Hollywood gets it wrong on all those war movies; nobody is sitting in a corner crying about their friend being shot. Not till later. A Good Soldier doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way of getting the job done.
You’re muting out that junk and trying to do your job. Good Soldier.
You noticed the blocked route and started communicating with all the other members of your team. You were loud and forceful about it. Had it been in war, and not the route to church, your commanding officer would have had the time necessary to get an alternate route. Good Soldier.
While everyone else is craning their neck around, looking for the source of the backfire, you were on the ground. Good Soldier. You would be alive, they would be dead, had that been the start of an ambush. You would have had time to react while bullets were flying above your head. Good Soldier.
Being a good Soldier doesn’t go away overnight. It takes a while to allow your emotional ability to grow back into Father, Husband, Co-worker mode. Don’t worry.
5. Trigger Happy
I’ll give you the top two things I discovered that revolutionized the way I handle PTSD.
First, I learned what my triggers are. For instance: someone jumping from around the corner and yelling “BOO!” isn’t fun for me. It also isn’t fun for the person getting punched in the face, either. I don’t do haunted houses, or stuff like that. Being unbearably hot is not good for me. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in my Kevlar kit, SAPPI plates and all, just waiting to get shot. Summer months are indoors, in the AC, or at the river. I don’t watch much UFC anymore; it tends to give me violent dreams. Staying away from triggers, or at least knowing what they are, and then mitigating them; is the first step.
Second, I realized that caffeine and alcohol are big contributors to sensitizing me to those triggers. Many veterans actually try to use these substances to help them. Caffeine amps up feeling something when feelings are numb, and alcohol numbs feelings when they’re overwhelming.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with coffee or beer. In fact, they are some of the more delicious treats in my life. But, it turns out that medication, at best, helps to cover up symptoms. It can’t solve the problem. Understanding when PTSD is manifesting, and using self-control is the only way (I have found) towards mastery. Caffeine and alcohol actually lower self-control.
6. The Terror of War can Lead to Peace with God
You’ve gotten my perspective as a former Soldier. Now get my perspective as a pastor:
When dealing with the disorientation and embarrassment of PTSD, we can anchor our souls into the love and truth of God. We are assured that God understands. He is the designer of our bodies and minds, God knows what we need.
Mostly, we need a mental shelter; a home for our souls. I take great refuge being lost in worship music, music that praises and adores God for being God. When my own reality is warped, twisted, full of anger or fear, or awash in shame; I can always look to God and be lost in His steady and unchanging grace. Most people don’t even know that I struggle with PTSD. Worship lets me cope.
What a medicine! God doesn’t need me to be whole in order to be God. He doesn’t need me to have all my wounds healed to love me. God’s grace has been poured out, and I can let go of terror, even when I’m triggered, and trust in Him.
My message to fellow veterans, friends, and family alike, is that the love of Christ is not fake. It is not a crutch. There is real healing for those who want it. There is redemption for those filled with shame. God’s love through the person of Jesus Christ actually walks us through the darkest time. If you are lost, or in addiction, and need to mend the wounds of war: I invite you to taste the true Medicine.
For we who are left without a guiding presence in our lives, without an anchor in the storm, without a covered place in the dust storm: God is the only real answer.
Consider this passage of Scripture, if you will:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Prayer turns something on. It changes something. Talking with God about the stuff in our hearts, in our past, and in our future actually changes who we are. Prayer itself is effective for us, but we are assured that our prayers are actually heard by God. He listens, and our prayers cause Him to respond with care and grace towards us. This is perhaps the very best, and most sure-fire way a family can be supportive of their veteran.
God’s peace on you and your families,