GOLDSBORO — The trauma Jim Johnson experienced while serving
as an Army chaplain remained with him for more than 20 years after he retired.
For years he kept fighting, telling himself it couldn’t happen to him. “I thought
I was immune to this because I was a chaplain,” he said. “Yet, my feelings
internally were no different than a 19-year-old draftee,” Johnson said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “started eating me
alive,” Johnson said. “I was in denial for many years. I was gradually
spiraling down.” Johnson remained in denial until well into his 60s and did not
begin seeking help until he finally got to the point where he knew he could no
longer fight the battle alone. Johnson still struggles, sometimes having nightmares,
flashbacks and times of sadness, guilt and anger.
Johnson shared some of his experiences with PTSD during the
recent “Coming Home” Conference at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Goldsboro.
The conference sought to help pastors, counselors, chaplains and lay
persons involved with or interested in ministering to military personnel who
suffer from PTSD. The conference was sponsored by the Office of Military and
Chaplaincy Ministries of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
(BSC), the North Carolina Army National Guard Chaplaincy and the Veterans
Administration Hospital in Durham.
Organizing the conference was Chaplain (Captain) Tommy
Watson, who is assuming some of the responsibilities of Chaplain (Colonel)
Larry Jones, BSC senior consultant for military and chaplaincy ministry, who is
on an extended tour of active duty at Fort Bragg until fall 2011.
Coming home challenges
Keynote speaker for the event John Oliver, chief of chaplain
services at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, began the conference
by setting the scene for what often happens when service members come home. The
military produces men and women who are highly trained for jobs of great
importance and who experience great responsibility during their time of
service. When they come home, jumping back into a routine that includes
seemingly less important tasks such as household chores may be tough.
The returning family member may feel displaced, as other
family members and friends sometimes step in to help with family activities.
Children have grown up and the family structure itself has changed.
Oliver said the enormity of war can “shatter one’s basic
sense of safety” and veterans struggle with learning to trust again after their
lives have been so drastically changed or shattered. Veterans often need to
re-learn basic skills.
Sometime veterans are withdrawn and do not want to talk to
family or friends, especially about what happened during war. “We have to find
a balance of caring for the person and not letting them stay in their hole too
long, but also giving them time,” Oliver said.
Oliver defined PTSD as “an anxiety disorder that can develop
after exposure to one or more terrifying events that threatened or caused grave
physical harm.” Family members and friends should never assume that a loved one
has PTSD and should never try to diagnose it on their own.
Those who have suffered a traumatic experience are unable to
process information in a normal manner.
The brain actually skips the first step of information
processing, which is registering the information to the cerebral cortex (the
rational part of the brain). Instead, the brain sends the information straight
to the amygdala, or the lower brain.
Thus, the brain labels the experience as fear, and fight or
flight response memories are stored differently in the brain. The brain links
things such as sight, sound and smell to the traumatic event.
Dissociation from other people or events becomes a means of
protection from becoming overwhelmed. Some individuals who have suffered
traumatic events begin to dissociate, or separate themselves from the events
that occurred. This is a protective mechanism that can help people survive in
times of crisis, yet can become a burden when those same individuals are not
able to re-integrate the trauma and deal with emotional, spiritual and moral
effects of the traumatic event.
“Reactions from war are normal,” Oliver said. “Trauma
reactions are not indicative of moral weakness or sin.”
Trauma can influence a person’s behavior and their
interpersonal life, from inability to keep close relationships to
uncontrollable negative thoughts. Sometimes the pain of trauma is more than a
person can bear, and some soldiers have resorted to suicide. “This is not a
conversation we have the luxury of not having,” Oliver said. “It can happen to
those you least expect.” Help is available by calling the National Suicide
Hotline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
Four out of 10 veterans with mental health challenges seek
counsel from clergy, so pastors need to be equipped to help. Pastors can offer
a calm, non-judgmental or non-anxious presence; they can be a safe haven.
“Provide a compassionate space wide enough to encompass the awfulness of war
trauma,” Oliver said.
Veterans may need help working through their spiritual
reactions to trauma. Trauma can lead to confusion about God, loss of previously
held beliefs and confusion about morality and core ethical beliefs.
Pastors must listen. Listening does not mean letting the
words “wash over you as you think about the next thing you’re going to say,”
Oliver said. Pastors must avoid trying to fix the problem, pushing for details
about the deployment or offering platitudes. “They want to tell you where they
are hurting if you will just listen,” Oliver said.
Oliver encouraged pastors to, as often as necessary, refer
people to mental health professionals. A pastor’s referral can help validate
the need for such services and even help destigmatize the use of mental health
services. Pastors should avoid prematurely assessing someone’s feelings of
guilt. Veterans need to be able to name their fears, shortcomings and strengths.
“They need to live through that pain,” Oliver said. “We have to live through
the real stuff.”
Oliver said the local church can prove one of the greatest
points of grace for returning veterans. “A community that knows and deeply
cares for its own war fighters and veterans provides these individuals with the
strongest antidote to post-traumatic stress: community. It is incumbent on
churches to find ways to provide community outlets and ministry opportunities
that match the special gifts and challenges our returning military members and
veterans bring with them.”
Attending the conference were staff members from the Durham
Veterans Affairs Medical Center, including members of the Transition for
Returning Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) Veterans Team,
Women’s Health Team and Suicide Prevention Team.
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