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The Church's Responsibility to Military Officers Suffering from PTSD

In a 2009 article for Christianity Today magazine, author Jocelyn Green gave readers a glimpse into the lives of different military officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—with special attention given to the responsibility the church has in ministering to those officers. She writes:

Nate Self's military record was impeccable. A West Point graduate, he led an elite Army Ranger outfit and established himself as a war hero in March 2002 for his leadership during a 15-hour ambush firefight in Afghanistan. The battle resulted in a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a position as President Bush's guest of honor for the 2003 State of the Union. But by late 2004, Self had walked away from the Army. In another surprise attack, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had taken his life captive.
"I just hated myself," says Self. "I felt like I was somebody different. And since I didn't feel like I could be who I was before, and hated who I was now, I just wanted to kill the new person. I felt like I had messed up everything in my life. The easiest way, the most cowardly way to escape, was to just depart." …
Those who suffer from PTSD continue to react, sometimes more intensely than ever, to a traumatic or life-threatening event even after the danger is past. The main symptoms include troubling memories and nightmares, hyper-vigilance, depression and anxiety, emotional detachment, and avoidance of crowds or anything associated with the event. The symptoms often lead to substance abuse, chronic unemployment, and homelessness. Two out of three marriages in which one spouse has PTSD fail. The suicide rate among those with PTSD is almost twice the national average. Suicides were up in all the armed services in 2008, with 125 confirmed suicides in the Army alone—the most the Army has seen since it started keeping records.
Since PTSD wasn't officially recognized until 1980, many of today's veterans carry scars from not being properly cared for upon coming home from previous wars.
In 1970, after 14 months in Vietnam, James Knudsen returned as a decorated combat veteran. A Christian and regular churchgoer, he has suffered from PTSD ever since, resulting in long-term unemployment, severe depression, and a failed marriage.
John Blehm also returned from war in 1970, but wasn't diagnosed with PTSD until 27 years later. "Before then, people just thought I was a crazy alcoholic," he says. Today, Blehm and his wife, Karen, teach classes at Skyway Church in Goodyear, Arizona, for those with PTSD and their family members. The nondenominational church offers professional counseling at an affordable price on its campus, at the Window to Healing Center.
Skyway's approach represents a positive and growing trend among U.S. churches in addressing PTSD—a change that's been a long time coming.
"The church dropped the ball on our generation," says Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer Frank Vozenilek. "We cannot afford to drop the ball on this one." Today, Vozenilek and Knudsen assist churches in the Cedar Rapids/Marion, Iowa, area in meeting the needs of veterans with PTSD. …
Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Mark Waddell says his church was "absolutely oblivious" to his family's desperation when he was dealing with PTSD, but that a fellow member, Sue McMillin, offered very practical help: she spent seven hours helping him clear his garage, which was full of boxes of military gear left untouched since Mark had returned from combat in Iraq.
"Mark could not bring himself to open the bags and boxes because of the weight of the memories," says his wife, Marshelé Carter Waddell. "He was avoiding all the triggers that lurked inside—sand and dirt from the desert, mud and blood on his boots. So the garage continued to be a negative thing in his life. With Sue's help, we hauled away a truck bed full of paraphernalia and clothing, and reorganized and labeled all the plastic tubs."
"Mark went through the memories and the triggers with us by his side, with people who love him and want him to heal, who didn't allow him to stop and walk away. It was very difficult for all of us, but at the end of the day, Mark's load was lightened dramatically." …
[The church has also played a critical role in Nate Self's healing.] Though Self was involved in a PTSD small group at Veterans Affairs, it was his … small group that proved most beneficial. Though some of his PTSD symptoms remain, they are much less severe. He now works as a consultant on officer-training materials for the Army, and is active in First Baptist Church's military ministry, which serves more than 100 military families in its 3,500-member congregation.
"If people think the VA hospital will solve all the problems, they'll overlook the greatest source of healing in any situation: Jesus," says Self. "The majority component for recovery is a spiritual solution, more than any secular clinical answer."

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