A member of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment places flags on graves in Section 60 during a "Flags-In" ceremony May 22 at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington. The soldiers placed American flags in front of more than 220,000 graves. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
stress. Amputations and brain injuries. High suicide rates. Can any
good news come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?
of our recent military engagements in the Middle East are long-lasting.
Though today’s veterans come home to a friendlier reception than their
Vietnam-era forebears had, thousands of men and women who served in
Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom carry scars
physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual that are deep and abiding.
they recover? Can they recover? What can be done for them? Is the
Veterans Affairs (VA) system adequate? Is spiritual help being offered
for those who need it? What difference is it making?
celebrates another Memorial Day and Congress questions whether the VA
system of medical centers is doing enough, the veterans who have served
this country continue to fight a battleoften a tough oneto reintegrate
into “normal” American life.
The Unseen War
According to some, problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide among veterans have gone through the roof.USA Today reported
that 50,000 new veterans were diagnosed with PTSD during 2012. That
figure reflects little progress over the previous four years: a 2008
estimated that approximately 20 percent of returning active duty
troopsabout 300,000 of the 1.64 million who served in the recent
warssuffer from PTSD, accompanied by major depression.
another issue. “We presently have 18 veterans killing themselves every
day and already more than 30,000 dead by suicide since the invasion of
Iraq,” writes psychotherapist Edward Tick, founding co-director of
Soldier’s Heart, Inc. and the author of War and the Soul. “In
2012, 6,500 veterans released from military service, or roughly one
every 80 minutes, killed themselves,” Tick wrote in an article reprinted on the website of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
of the problem is that, in large part, Iraq and Afghanistan war
veterans have been on multiple tours. “That just kind of wears on them,”
said Father Philip Salois, a Vietnam combat veteran who now serves as
chief chaplain at the VA medical center in Boston. “It becomes almost a
lifestyle for them.”
Father Salois added that vets now often come
home feeling unaccepted by their families. And they carry a lot of
secrets: “things they were involved in, people that they’ve lost, seeing
death and destructionfor many of these young people that’s the first
time they’ve encountered deathor contributed to killing,” he said. “So
they come back with…a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, survivor guiltyou
know, ‘Why did I survive when my buddy was killed?’”
usually sees a veteran after a clinician determines that the individual
is struggling with spiritual issues. The priest generalizes that he
sees two basic groups of veterans: those in the National Guard and
Reserves, who tend to be older, family people and who are easier to
reach because a lot of them have some kind of spiritual base or
religious affiliation; and younger vets who are unchurched and with whom
communication is more difficult.
Auxiliary Bishop Richard
Higgins, vicar for veterans affairs of the Archdiocese for the Military
Services USA, says that any veteran who suffers from serious problems
resulting from wartime experience “should go first and foremost” to the
Department of Veterans Affairs. “The VA has the expertise. They’ll be
dealing mostly with mental-health professionals,” Bishop Higgins said,
“and the VA has thousands and thousands of mental-health professionals.”
bishop, a former U.S. Air Force chaplain, said veterans seeking help at
the VA will always run into a chaplainbecause chaplains are charged
with visiting each new admittance within 24 hours. “They do daily
rounds,” he said. “They get a list every day. And they’re diligent about
Not all patients are willing or ready to speak with a
religious “professional,” however. Unchurched youth are “difficult to
speak to on religious, spiritual terms,” Father Salois said. “It’s more
of what you get from the Internet or from New Age stuff. It’s very hard
for us old-timers to find a language that they can understand. So I
basically talk to them about values, about their morals and what they
were brought up with.”
He said that many grew up in broken homes
and lacked a father figure; in fact, that’s why many of them entered the
military. “They need more structure in their lives where they were
having trouble in their homes, where they say ‘Let me join the
military,’ and they find a family there,” he said. After military
service, “there’s nothing for them to come back to. They can’t find jobs
because the things the Army or the Marines taught them are not very
useful in civilian life.”
The Long Road
not every patient wants to see a chaplain, every chaplain must have
patience. Perhaps even more than physical convalescence, spiritual
healing takes time.
It’s going to take a while for them to talk,” Father Salois said of those who are mentally, spiritually, or emotionally hurt.
don’t trust people; they only trust their buddies that they serve with.
So they come back to civilian life and speak to a civilian who more
than likely doesn’t understand what they’re talking aboutonly what
they’ve learned in books or talking to other vets…. You don’t want to
open them up too fast…. They’ve been bleeding internally.
I talk to them a little bit about forgiveness and reconciliation. That
comes at the end of a long process. Basically I’m trying to get them to
articulate their story. And their story is how they were feeling during
this time of war when things were happening. How did they process that
He probes to see if they had a chaplain when
they were deployed. “If they did, I try to go through that door and ask,
‘How did that relationship go?’”
Father Salois said retreats are
available to veterans struggling with spiritual issues, but in many
cases, those leading the retreats also need to be able to speak to an
There are a lot of retreats being offered to give them an experience of the spiritual,” he said.
try to use a lot of symbols, like writing the name of your buddy on a
piece of paper in remembrance of him and at the end of a service we burn
all these papers and let the smoke rise to heavenmaybe put some
incense in with itand explain to them that maybe that’s a symbol of
their spirit rising to God. These kids are very visual people, so if you
can give them a spiritual symbol as a sign of God it makes it easier
for them to understand.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services
has a page of resources for veterans, their families, and those who want
to do something to help them.
What can the average parish do to help?
suggested to churches to find out who your veterans are in your
congregations and honor them in a special service, a Mass on that
particular Sunday, invite them to speak, invite in an honor guard and
ask the congregation to thank them, have a nice collation after the
service, to get to know them,” said Father Salois.
He noted that
military families also suffer, a fact to which fellow parishioners
should be sensitive. “The children don’t understand why their dad’s been
gone a year, the mother has taken over all the responsibilities from
the dad and dad comes home and she’s doing everything, paying the bills
and everything, and he feels kind of useless, and he’s trying to get
some of those responsibilities back, and she’s not willing to hand over a
lot of those things,” he said. “And the children see that struggle.”
Added Marine Col. Timothy Parker, who served two tours of duty in Iraq,
first thing is always pray for them. Prayer always helps. If they know a
veteran or someone who’s been dealing with this, just talk to them….
And understand that sometimes they’ve been through things that they may
be able to describe or they may not be able to describe. They may not want to describe. Just be patient with that. To be a good friend, to be someone who can listen. Sometimes that’s what they need.
it all, those who have faith have a weapon that too many of their
buddies lack. “One of the big issues is why do some stay in their
hospital beds, stay on their meds, don’t go to the gym, don’t
rehabilitate themselves, while others go through the long war of
rehabilitation,” said Michael Kerrigan, founder of the Character Building Project.
“It’s because they have family support, peer support, they have some
structure of faith, they get into the discipline of athleticsprobably
20 ingredients to get them on the path to growth.”