Conference helps veterans heal wounded souls
Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications
January 18, 2011

Conference helps veterans heal wounded souls

Conference helps veterans heal wounded souls
Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications
January 18, 2011

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.

BSC photo by Melissa Lilley

A group at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Goldsboro work together at the “Coming Home” conference Jan. 7. The event was for people interested in working with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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.

Natural reaction

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).

Pastoral care

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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