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Help for the Hurting Soldier

When soldiers return from the front, their most debilitating wounds are often invisible.

By Tom Neven

In February 2005, Capt. Roger Benimoff was on his second tour as an Army chaplain in Iraq. He’d specifically requested being assigned to a combat unit for his second time in-country. “These are the guys that go in and kick down doors and drive tanks,” he said. “I wanted to be there for them.”

He found himself in Tal Afar, which is part of Anbar Province and one of the most dangerous places in that war-torn land. At first he was terrified of being killed, but within months, he realized he felt nothing at all. After a sniper fired on him, there was only emotional numbness.

“The Army must be warping me,” he wrote in his journal, recently published as the book Faith Under Fire. “It was not a big deal to get shot at. Last time I was petrified.”

Upon returning home, he was assigned as chaplain to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington. But the emotional numbness persisted. He found that if he wasn’t suffering from insomnia, it was nightmares. When awake, he was hyper-vigilant. He couldn’t stop the visions of flag-draped coffins. He lost his appetite and often forgot to eat, losing 30 pounds over a few months.

“I was back in the States,” he wrote. “I thought everything was supposed to be fine, but it wasn’t.” He found himself steering clear of public places, and he also avoided his faith. “I am not doing my readings, and I don’t care,” he went on. “I have been ruined.”

Neurasthenia. Shell shock. Combat fatigue. It has gone by many names over the years, but the psychological condition suffered by soldiers in combat is generally known today as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. It is not unique to modern war, either. Its symptoms can be recognized in The Iliad, Homer’s account of the war between Greece and Troy more than 3,000 years ago. It is a debilitating condition that can destroy families, marriages, and lives. But a caring, compassionate church can be just the place a PTSD sufferer can begin to heal.

What is PTSD?

Dr. Karl Benzio, a psychiatrist who has worked with the United States and Iraqi governments in treating PTSD, said the condition results from exposure to a traumatic or life-threatening situation.

The symptoms fall into three broad categories. “[Soldiers will] frequently re-experience the trauma in flashbacks or nightmares,” Benzio says. “They’ll have some sort of avoidance reaction, so they avoid situations that seem similar to the traumatic event—activities, sounds, some of the thoughts and feelings from the situation. They retreat or isolate and avoid society altogether. They’ll also experience increased arousal. You’ll see them agitated, anxious, having difficulty with irritability, anger, or fight-or-flight episodes. They sometimes have difficulty sleeping or settling down. If someone taps them on the shoulder, they’ll have an exaggerated startle response. They’re just on edge and unnerved.”

Friends and family members know the soldier’s pre-deployment personality, so they are usually the first to notice changes. To dull the pain, a sufferer might try to self-medicate, either with alcohol or drugs—legal or illegal. Capt. Keri Tarantino, a clinical psychologist deployed with the Army’s 528th Medical Detachment in Iraq, says, “Family members may notice that their significant other [is] having distressing nightmares or recollections of the traumatic events. They’re feeling detached in close relationships and irritable; they have restricted emotions and difficulty concentrating.”

Capt. Don Williamson, a garrison chaplain with the Army in Bamberg, Germany, spent his first Iraq tour as a military police officer.
“When I returned,” he comments, “my wife of 15 years could tell that the war had changed me. I was easily irritated. I didn’t seem to laugh and joke as much.”

But while a friend or loved one might suspect a soldier is suffering PTSD, it’s important not to perform an amateur diagnosis. “We have a lot of ‘barracks psychologists’ in the Army right now,” Capt. Williamson observes. “These are soldiers who may have experienced PTSD themselves, and they immediately try to diagnose their friends. This can be, in my opinion, extremely dangerous.” Capt. Tarantino adds, “It is important to consult with a mental health provider regarding diagnosis and treatment if signs and symptoms are present.”

Showing God’s love

In addition to steering a soldier toward professional diagnosis and counseling, the church has a role to play in helping servicemen and -women to heal and their families to work through the spiritual issues involved.

“What happens with PTSD is that there’s spiritual warfare going on and a significant distortion of reality,” Dr. Benzio explains. “Satan is the great deceiver. He wants to take these situations and [twist] our perspective so that instead of having a godly view, we have a very me-centered, worldly view.”

In addition to providing soldiers with spiritual support, the church also has the opportunity to be God’s hands of love and care to both military personnel and their families. For example, the body of Christ should organize a support group to normalize the process of being able to talk about the pain.

“What we know about PTSD is that the more accurate processing you have around a situation, the less distortion you get over the years,” Dr. Benzio points out. “To know that other people have been through it is such a relief for so many veterans. For them to know that someone else had the fear, the anger, the guilt, the frustration—just to know that other people have walked in their shoes—is a tremendous relief. [Often] people think they’re the only one suffering.”

The body of Christ can provide practical “tangible” assistance too. “Sometimes these people aren’t able to get gainful employment,” Dr. Benzio adds. “Maybe the church can help them with that [and other physical needs].”

“Walk beside the soldier, and help in any way possible,” Capt. Williamson advises. “Obviously, prayer is important, as is being willing to ask tough questions.” He suggests that the congregation’s most important role is in stepping up to the plate and not avoiding opportunities to become involved.

Save a life

Allowing PTSD to go untreated can lead to tragic results. The incidence of suicide has increased dramatically throughout our armed forces since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military has rolled out new programs to identify and head off suicides, but they are ineffective if the soldier does not seek help.

According to Capt. Tarantino, the key is early identification. If a significant change in behavior alarms a soldier’s relatives or church family, it is vital that they encourage the individual to talk with someone trained to assist—such as a mental health provider, chaplain, or pastor. “We must get over the stigma of suicide,” Capt. Williamson adds. “We are afraid to talk about it, and when we do, we can’t even say the word.”

“People kill themselves, not because they want to die, but because they want the pain to end,” Dr. Benzio explains. “They’ve tried alcohol, drugs, a new job, a new wife, moving cross-country—but don’t know how to make it stop. They think the only final end to the pain is to end their life.” He believes they’d all choose to continue living if they realized it was possible to do so without the suffering.

And don’t hesitate to intervene if you suspect a person is contemplating suicide, Benzio stresses. “Don’t be afraid to ask them—and then call 911, the emergency room, the police if necessary. You may think you’re putting the person through a lot of trouble and embarrassment, but it’s better to be safe than to see the obit in the paper the next day.”