Veterans… PTSD… and the Descent to Hell

Up front: I’m not a psychologist. I certainly can’t speak with clinical authority, yet I am a returned servicemen from the Afghanistan conflict so the following is a short reflection on my post-war experiences.

There is little doubt that in the past decade or two society has made leaps and bounds on the mental health front. Prior to deploying, during my deployment and after my deployment I was asked to participate in several psychological examinations to flag any problematic areas caused by my involvement in war. Nothing came up, but I was told where to find help if it did.

Despite increased awareness, knowledge and intervention there is still an alarming trend that is seeing war veterans escape the aftermath and mental collateral damage by spiralling out of control.

Today ABC News reported that there is an increase in veterans ending up in court and in jail. The head of Adelaide’s ex-Military Rehabilitation Centre, Ian Campbell, has 16 soldiers on his books who are either in jail, before the courts or on parole. He said that “A coping mechanism is to drink or to drug,” and “I found that in the majority of cases, mental health had a profound effect on the service person’s offending.” 

So is there a reason that despite increased awareness in mental health there is a continued problem? Is it unavoidable?

One observation is that in our wider culture, not just the military, we are reinforced with the belief that we can avoid harm if we tick all the boxes. And if something does go wrong we can fix it. We live in a society that bubble wraps its citizens in insurance, WHS regulation, superannuation, warranties, health care, litigation and so on. If something goes wrong it’s always someone’s fault and it can always be fixed.  In the Army we are subliminally told that if we train harder, fight smarter, are better equipped, have better intel, have better leaders, have better support, have better risk management and have higher moral that we can avoid harm.

Yet no matter how much effort you put into preparing for war, sooner or later, something will go wrong. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. And while it’s not always the case, quite often, in war, no one can be blamed. An example is when a soldier dies in conflict. Medics are often the first responders to this type of tragic scene and every now and then some people are beyond saving… Yet, the medic is trained, mostly by our society, that someone is always at fault. Someone must be held accountable. In this example, more often than not the medic will inappropriately blame himself.

Upon returning home, despite huge efforts made on behalf of the ADF and associations such as the RSL and DVA, young men and women turn what was a blameless situation into guilt and shame. In an inescapable downward spiral they try and escape by all means possible. I have seen soldiers seek meaning and value in alcohol, drugs, women, cars, money and any combination of the above.

There’s little wonder soldiers who are suffering are ending up in a courthouse. So what’s an answer?

Again, I’m not a psychologist, but I do see several potential layers to the problem.

1. The problematic social behaviour, (or even becoming a recluse and not communicating / engaging);
2. There may be physical distress caused by broken bodies and/or struggling minds;
3. The possibility of pseudo-guilt and shame that’s piled on by inappropriate blame;
4. They may feel out of control. They might feel unlovable or unable to love others. This is often displayed by shunning loved ones, or lashing out in anger; and
5. If they are conscious of their faith, they may feel that even God doesn’t like them.

Inside and out, on many possible levels, someone struggling with PTSD probably feels broken. They will possibly seek to fix this brokenness, (remember our society tells us that if we tick all the boxes no harm will come our way, and if it does we can always fix it). They will possibly try and fix this brokenness and when they can’t they might resort to the problematic behaviour again. It’s a viscous downward spiral. A decent into hell.

Because this is a multifaceted problem just telling a soldier to harden up and get over it is clearly not the answer. Even if he manages to fix the problematic behaviour in the first layer, there’s still several layers that aren’t being dealt with. What soldiers need is a community of people who can support them. They need professional support, given in a safe environment where there is trust and acceptance. They need the support of their friends and family, and co-workers. They need the support of people from organisations like DVA and the RSL to get alongside them and encourage them to make good choices. And it’s not about getting one of those options to help out, it’s about getting ALL of those options to help out. What they need more than anything else is our understanding and acceptance.

About two years after returning from my deployment I entered a very dark place. Without the support of my church, friends, Christian counsellors and professional psychologists I would not have been able to recover. I am currently finishing my training to return to the Army as a padre. When I do I am going to consider it a great privilege to be able to tell people that:

Despite what our culture tells you pain and suffering are unavoidable. I am going to challenge every soldier I can by asking them… “When trouble comes, who will you turn to? What’s your game plan”.

Preaching Portfolio Piece

For my bible college preaching portfolio, I was asked to write a short piece in common spoken form. Hopefully it reads as if I were speaking.

G’day. In 2010 I was sent to Afghanistan as an Army Medic. One of the more nerve racking experiences was waiting on the flight line for the sick and wounded to arrive by chopper. This would happen a few times a week. We’d wait as a team; ready to move a patient from the chopper and take them to the hospital. It was a 300m drive in the back of an ambulance. We never knew what to expect, usually we’d receive a couple of details about the injuries by radio. But it was never enough to give us a full picture.

Picture this: All we know is that an enemy soldier has been shot and he is inbound. And we know he’s in a bad way.  Finally, I can see the chopper coming. My adrenaline kicks in as the noise becomes deafening. I have to brace myself against the gust from the chopper’s blades. We lower our safety glasses and once the chopper is on the ground we go get the patient from the flight medics. As the side door of the chopper opens we see a medic bouncing up and down on the enemy’s chest. They’re doing CPR. He’d died during the flight. Our orders say we can’t stop treatment yet.

Patients who had died during a flight have to get 15 minutes of life support when they land. Only then can we say that the patient has died.

My heart is now pounding. My job is to help carry the stretcher from the chopper to the ambulance. After the short trip to the hospital I am working with a team of doctors, nurses and medics to help save his life. My next task is to get a cannula in his arm so the doc can pump in drugs to try and restart his heart. For those who don’t know a cannula is the little plastic valve used to put medicine straight into a patient’s blood. Yeah I reckon landing a good cannula in someone’s arm is pretty easy… unless someone is bouncing on their chest – shaking their limbs everywhere. Or they’re dead and have no blood flowing through their veins. Lucky for me I hit the flat vein and land the cannula first shot. The doc is impressed.

When the dust had settled we found a gunshot wound to his shoulder. And an artery had been split. The guy had no chance, he’d lost too much blood. You know… it was then that I realised that the guy had no hope. Nothing I could do could save his life. And to be honest I felt pretty useless as a medic. Even though he was an enemy, I felt sorry because chances were he’d never had the chance to meet Jesus.

Contradiction #2 – Is God a ‘Man of War’ or a ‘Man of Peace’?

EXO 15:3 The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.

ROM 15:33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

1. I believe the Exodus verse is more of a translation issue: The Hebrew more literally says “the Lord is a warrior: the Lord is His name.” the word translated as ‘man of war’ is the Hebrew word milchamah which is used 319 times throughout the Old Testament. In many cases it’s used in its plural form and translated as men of war. or Warriors.

Again, the context for this text is poetry, or a song or a warriors bard if you want to call it that. Moses is rejoicing and giving thanks to the Lord that the people had victory over their adversaries.

Romans 15:33; is the closing of a letter to the church residing in Rome. A few thousand years later, and a massive event involving the recent life death and resurrection of Jesus. One would assume that ‘peace/harmony/reconciliation/unity’ (words translated from the same greek word ‘eirene’) is a good word to be used when God’s people came to the realisation of the gravity of God’s act of salvation. An act that changed the way in which God dealt with sin.

2. In today’s age we have many people in authority that have authority over military forces. Let’s take Julia Gillard as an example. (A bad one I know, but it’s late) She gives jurisdiction and authority to Australian troops to operate in Afghanistan. We must all agree that it hardly makes her a ‘woman of war’. In the same way myself, serving as an Army medic, would not say that I am a ‘man of war’ but I can see a need for it, and I am willing to serve in it, in order to serve my country.  I might be a warrior, but most definitely not a ‘man of war’. In the same way, God is not stereotyped as a MAN OF WAR, yet He does wage a war good versus evil. He does give authority (at times) for his people to participate in war both defensively and offensively.

3. So is God a man of peace or of war? In pushing back, I would ask the question, Do peace and war need to be mutually exclusive? In a fallen world with people operating outside of God’s ideal, then there needs to be some form of control measure, there needs to be some form of protection. The bible paints a picture of a pre-fallen world where war wasn’t needed. God had no intention for there to be war. In that context without hesitation, everyone must acknowledge that God is a God of peace. However, post-fall is a little more complicated, man’s greed, lust and selfishness led him into battle after battle. In a wider theology of the entire bible we can see God allowing mankind to make his own decisions and also often giving man what he wants. Their actions come hand in hand with their punishment. (cf. Num 11:31-35 eating quail unto death). When man craves war, God gives it to him. It seems to be in mans nature to create conflict. I think (and correct me if I’m wrong, as I am sure you will) that after man had chosen to make his own decisions, to create his own destiny, it was man who sought out war. The Lord will use even man’s evil behaviour to benefit his Kingdom.

Therefore I think the Lord is a warrior. He has warrior like qualities. He at times supports conflict in order to achieve His aims through men. But I find it difficult to give God the primary characteristic of WAR or WARLIKE especially when His first and most perfect creation was filled with PEACE.

Contradiction #1 – Is God Good ‘To All’ or ‘Just A Few’?

I’ve decided to do something a little different. A while ago I got given a list of contradictions in the bible. I believe that the bible is without contraction. So this is my effort to refute each one. this is for my benefit primarily. But feel free to interact using comments / Facebook / email. I am happy to change things up, or discuss where you think I am wrong. There lots of them, so only a couple at a time. God bless. In red is the supplied contradiction. 

PSA 145:9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

JER 13:14 And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the LORD: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.

[Editor’s note: Some readers have raised an objection to this alleged contradiction. They point out that PSA 145:20 states that The Lord keeps all who love Him, but that He will destroy the wicked. In other words, some see no contradiction between “The Lord is good to all” and JER 13:14. Others contend, however, that even if the Lord destroys the wicked he could do so with compassion, pity, and mercy. Further, there are biblical examples that indicate that the Lord is not necessarily “good” or merciful– even to those who are not wicked. One such example is Job. As one reader points out, “If Psalm 145:9 was not a contradiction of Psalm 145:20 or Jeremiah 13:14, it would read something like

this: “The LORD is good to all, except the wicked: and his tender mercies are over all his works, except when He is punishing the wicked.” In any case, the idea that the Lord is good and merciful is contradicted by countless examples in the Bible where God orders the destruction of infants, personally kills David’s infant child, etc.]

1. Psalms are poetry, love songs written to God. In all cultures, both past and present that tends to manipulate the rules of absolutes. One could argue that the Bible should be beyond such rules, but as it is written by man, for man, to accommodate humanity such rules still apply. The bible is divinely inspired and is perfect to serve its purpose in pointing man to Christ. Although this is not the reason this psalm was written (like using a balloon to hammer nails) we can see in the case of Ps145:20 (as is written in the editors note) the contrast between just and unjust punishment. The God of scripture, in His authority has the right to reprimand as He sees fit. To some God will show kindness and mercy, to others He will punish. This occurs according to His discretion. This concept is supported by the rest of the bible.

In the case of Jeremiah 13:14, the book has a prophetic overtone to it, leading to a different form of literary construct. At this point Jerry is predicting the future of God’s justice if God’s people choose to rebel against Him. This hasn’t happened, but will happen if the people don’t obey God.

2. A parallel might be that ‘you wouldn’t allow a son to be involved in the family business if he was repeatedly bringing dishonour to the company by dealing drugs under the company banner. Your consequence might be to sack him, might even be to tell the police.’ In the same way God’s people bring shame to God’s reputation and here in Jer13:14 the consequences for such are outlined.

3. This text is unsettling because as children we are (sometimes unhelpfully) told that God is all about LOVE, LOVE and more LOVE. Often Christians grow up with a poor understanding of how God responds to rebellion. And that is with ANGER. This undoubtedly leads to people questioning the consistency of God through his dealings with the world. The Jer13:14 text is also unsettling because it moves family members into conflict father and son against each other. The breaking up of the family unit has been a sore point for all generations, because in our human nature it is such basic instinct to protect that. The question then gets asked “even a loving God sees the value of family and why would he mess with that?”. The unsettling answer is ‘God has created all mankind to be in union with Himself as one large family. Jeremiah foretelling of destruction has nothing to do with the issues of mercy, it has to do with the issues of justice. In a pre-Jesus context God directly punishes humans for all their rebellion. And in all cases His punishment is severe. If God were to allow sin to go unnoticed, that would be a contradiction. Find me that example and I will be stuck. Therefore in His perfectly consistent behaviour He punishes the rebellious. Unsettling, but biblical.