The Longest Battle

Veterans struggle in aftermath of recent wars, but friendship and structures of faith help the process of healing

Post-traumatic stress. Amputations and brain injuries. High suicide rates. Can any good news come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

The effects 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.

Will 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?

As America 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 battle—often a tough one—to 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 RAND Corporationstudy estimated that approximately 20 percent of returning active duty troops—about 300,000 of the 1.64 million who served in the recent wars—suffer from PTSD, accompanied by major depression.

Suicide is 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.

Part 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 destruction—for many of these young people that’s the first time they’ve encountered death—or contributed to killing,” he said. “So they come back with…a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, survivor guilt—you know, ‘Why did I survive when my buddy was killed?’”

Father Salois 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.”

The bishop, a former U.S. Air Force chaplain, said veterans seeking help at the VA will always run into a chaplain—because 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 visiting.”

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

If 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.

They 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 about—only 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.

So 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 among themselves?

 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 unchurched generation.

There are a lot of retreats being offered to give them an experience of the spiritual,” he said.

We 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 heaven—maybe put some incense in with it—and 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.

Back Home

What can the average parish do to help?

“We’ve 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,

The 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.

Throughout 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 athletics—probably 20 ingredients to get them on the path to growth.”

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About John Burger 22 Articles
John Burger is news editor of