A group of individuals spend almost three years getting to know each other and learning their quirks and strengths. They spend more time together than with the families they rarely see because they are always on the road doing their job. They quickly become friends and eventually treat each other as brothers and sisters. The respect for their leader, who is dedicated to their well-being, quickly becomes adoration and devotion. They would follow him or her anywhere, even to the gates of hell. Outsiders take notice of his leadership and flock to follow him.
Then, one dark day that vaunted leader is brutally murdered as many of the group watch. Some up close, some from a distance. They don’t know what to do. They have choices: 1) Disband and run, 2) Revenge against those who killed their leader, 3) Let the event drive them into self-destructive behavior, 4) Grow from this death and complete the mission.
This is a familiar story today. We hear many reports of those serving overseas experiencing similar conditions and choices. A tight knit unit loses a beloved member or even their leader in a traumatic manner. This causes post-traumatic stress. Those who witness those events have choices similar to the ones listed above.
But, the above story isn’t about combat. It’s actually the story of Christ and his disciples and can serve as a case study of how to treat combat veterans as they return from combat.
All too often, we connect Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the dreaded four-letter acronym PTSD, only to those who serve in the military. While the military does engage in activities that raise their chances of experiencing PTSD, they are not the only people in our congregations dealing with triggers of past events. PTSD is complicated and difficult to accurately diagnose and treat. Perhaps this is why society has such a tough time navigating how to interact with those experiencing PTSD.
Society fails to understand what is going on because they either don’t want to hear what survivors of a traumatic event need to say or because they don’t want to understand how to talk with them. It is easier for society to paint everyone returning from combat with a broad brush of PTSD. I am routinely asked if I am OK, if I saw anything that would make me a ticking time bomb of PTSD. My Marines are accused by their loved ones of having PTSD and those loved ones call me with their diagnoses — because if combat changes you it has to be for the worst … right?
Wrong! Not every person or every traumatic event results in PTSD, sometimes we grow from these events. The stress symptoms are the same: loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, nightmares, behavioral changes, etc. Communities surrounding the individual play a huge role in determining how much they will grow from such events. Much of what I do with Marines and sailors is promoting growth through openness about traumatic stress before and after any event. I’ve found it works in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Recently in these pages I asked if there was a place for the military within our denominational discussions on matters of peace and war. As I reflect on my own question, I think we need to ask a more basic question: Is there space within our congregations for our veterans?
Before we engage the “experts” in war on peace issues, we need to involve them in our communities. So how do we create an environment that draws combat veterans into our discussions in a healthy and valuable way? What if we changed our frame of reference when dealing with combat vets from one of expecting disorder to one expecting growth?
So why did I compare combat veterans with the disciples? The disciples could have run and given up on bringing about a different reality. But they chose to live into what they learned. They brought meaning to a brutal death. They lived lives that honored the one who taught them. They sought a different way from what society expected from them. They continued what they knew was the correct path despite ridicule from society. Those close to them kept encouraging them to stay true to their training. The disciples believed in that community and what it stood for enough to risk everything, including their lives, to show others the new reality they saw.
The disciples were prophetic and I believe that our veterans are just as prophetic!
Marines and sailors want to grow from combat and most do. But, society expects them to fall apart after seeing combat. We don’t expect that from plane crash survivors, cancer survivors and their families, those suffering from paralyzing accidents, etc. Why paint combat vets with that brush? I can’t answer that. But, I can say those who have seen combat have a different view of life.
Maybe society doesn’t want to hear what they have to say about “first world problems.” Veterans know that “war is hell.” They know that blind consumerism isn’t a sustainable reality. They know that trivial arguments don’t solve problems. Those who serve will gruffly let you know you are focusing on the wrong stuff. It’s the way they are. They have become prophetic without knowing it. It’s hard to hear. We can either listen to their stories or write them off as mentally ill.
When congregations fail to listen to combat stories and the reality they have seen, we force them down the self-destructive road. They get fed up with society telling them what to believe and how to interpret combat. Even if you don’t agree with what they did, give them space to talk about how they see life differently. They have a profound life experience that can show us a better reality because they know what negative effects violence can lead to. Many are thinking of ways to make the world better and the trivial pursuits of a mundane life are no longer enough.
The church should seek out and value people who want to make a profound impact on life reflective of the profound experience of combat. As resurrection people who celebrate renewed life and the impossible becoming possible, let us listen to some modern day prophets for glimpses of a new and profound reality. It will be uncomfortable. There will be conflict and hurt feelings. It won’t be easy. But, it will be worth the effort. The church will have a more nuanced and richer vision of how to bring about peace this side of eternity. We will gain new insights into both the beauty and destruction of war. We may develop a profound prophetic voice on a myriad of other issues. We will provide a home for people that are desperately looking for a place of spiritual and emotional support. We will live into our baptism and call as the church.
CHAPLAIN RUSS FERGUSON is an ordained PC(USA) minister serving as a Navy chaplain assigned to a Marine Corps infantry battalion. These views are solely his and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.