The news coverage on returning soldiers does not paint a pretty picture.
Over the past few months PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, as defined by American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), has been a prominent topic in the news. Statistics about those who are suffering, incidents of violence tied to vets with PTSD, and the Military’s ability and willingness – or lack thereof – to treat this problem have been weekly headlines.
So I spent some time reviewing alternative approaches that have had some success, listened to interviews and read studies to find some gems of advice, which had seemed few and far between. And then my phone rang.
It was a former client (from my attorney days), Hugh, who had suffered severe injuries from an IED in Iraq over a decade ago. It was only after he was honorably discharged and ended up in some serious legal troubles that he was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD.
I was relieved to hear his voice and find out that he was no longer struggling with the symptoms of PTSD. In fact he said that he felt mentally the same as he did before he went away to war. So, with a sense of relief, I delicately asked him if he might agree to be interviewed about his journey to healing.
I have to admit, after reviewing numerous studies and different accounts regarding overcoming PTSD, I was ready to hear about counseling, medication, yoga, meditation, running, helper dogs, religion and spirituality, or some mixture. Instead, when we sat down to chat over breakfast, Hugh told me right up front that healing for him was simply a result of getting his “brain engaged”.
In fact, Hugh said he was no longer taking most of the medications he had been prescribed; he rarely spoke to a counselor; he didn’t exercise, didn’t do Yoga or meditate, and, except to support his father who is a pastor by attending Sunday meetings, he didn’t feel he was engaged in a spiritual journey. Instead Hugh attributes his success to a one-year degree in auto mechanics at a nearby technical school, where he graduated with a 4.0.
Interestingly, if you dive deeper into Hugh’s story, the technical college was the vehicle, but there were things at work much more significant. So I wrote down a summary of 5 things I learned about Hugh’s road to recovery:
- Be open to new possibilities – Hugh had never worked on a car before, let alone considered being an auto mechanic, but his focused pursuit of this new career helped him stay mentally stable, “get his brain engaged.”
- Seek camaraderie – Hugh found a few other like-minded new students, formed a group and went through every class together supporting one another. The group then picked up stragglers struggling in classes and incorporated them as well.
- Be Selfless – Hugh took in a student who got kicked out of his house, let him stay on his couch, and even lent him a car for 9 months. (Hugh lives in a 900 square foot house with his significant other and her children.)
- Find Strength in Adversity – Hugh faced the new challenges in front of him and didn’t let his mental health issues get in the way of his goals.
- Appreciation for life – Hugh expressed gratitude for the changes that he had gone through and pride in everything from fixing up cars to helping someone down on his luck. He just seemed to have a better grasp on living for things bigger than just himself.
These 5 ingredients to Hugh’s recipe for health are actually pretty intuitive for many of us. And there are a lot of studies that show the value of each one of these factors in physical healing, although I don’t think at the time of Hugh’s interview he was aware of these things. It just came naturally to him in that moment.
This natural movement towards healing is part of what a number of studies call Posttraumatic Growth. Growth and healing, instead of depression and stagnation, can be a natural part of trauma no matter how serious. Hugh’s experience illustrates how it can happen. And it can come quickly. Maybe it took Hugh a decade until he was ready for it, but when it came, it took only one year.
I am always on the look out for the spiritual factor that fosters healing. Posttraumatic Growth often includes that spiritual component. When I framed it as a spiritual or religious practice for Hugh he didn’t see as part of his journey. But, framed in terms of learning to express qualities like gratitude and selflessness, which are integral aspects of spirituality, we can see this component in his story. Hugh certainly expressed selflessness and gratitude in spades. And I think many of us could say that that’s an expression of something Divine.
To get a deeper perspective on the spiritual or religious component of how other soldiers might find freedom from PTSD, I contacted a friend, Lieutenant Brian Hall, who is a military chaplain at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Lt. Hall works directly with some soldiers suffering from PTSD.
Hall spoke to me about one such soldier who was having a difficult time letting go of the violent images of fellow soldiers who had been killed in action. He couldn’t sleep and was having difficulty with guilt and depression.
Hall asked him if the soldiers who had given their lives would want him to suffer because of it. The soldier of course answered, “No”. Hall then let him know in no uncertain terms that “they would want good for him and not to be held captive” by these horrible images. The soldier indicated that this helped him feel some relief and get better sleep.
Lt. Hall has concerns that medical remedies treat symptoms, but in circumstances like PTSD, the deeper problems of transitioning back home and holding onto guilt can be at the root of the problem. Oftentimes soldiers feel like they are sinful or broken because of things that have happened in combat. As a Military chaplain, Hall understands that war is a part of service. So one of the things he does when he prays for the soldiers each day is to expect wholeness in them, based on his belief that that is how each of us is made, in the image of God.
This idea of understanding wholeness as something given by the Divine or God is something my father held to when he went away to war. Full trust in and prayerful affirmation of a caring and loving God helped him when he served in the Vietnam War in 1970. He was a young Captain in the Army and spent a year in combat where he was awarded a purple heart, among other commendations.
One of the Bible stories my father found practical and relevant to his situation was the one about the three Hebrew boys who were thrown into a fiery furnace. He found this passage especially meaningful: “They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.” (II Kings.) This last line, that not even the smell of smoke was found on their clothes, assured him that he didn’t have to be touched by the images and circumstances he witnessed. Like those Hebrew boys, my father tried his best to honor God and to follow his highest sense of right in the wartime decisions he had to make. He found that in doing this in his thought, his wholeness or completeness couldn’t be damaged or taken away.
My father came home from war mentally and spiritually in good shape, and has led a successful life in business and in raising children in the years since – free from any of the symptoms of PTSD.
Three very different stories. Three very different experiences of the impact and aftermath of war. In each, a glimpse of how focusing on something beyond oneself – helping someone in need, honoring those you’ve lost, or trusting the Divine – can bring focus, peace, safety and greater health into the life of a soldier.
David Price writes on the connection between health, thinking and spirituality. A former attorney, David is the media and legislative representative for Christian Science in Colorado. David is also a Christian Science practitioner with an expertise in prayer-based healing.