As veterans from the Iraq War and other conflicts continue to face a mental-health crisis that is claiming an average of 20 lives by suicide each day, mental-health professionals and military specialists are increasingly turning to spiritual approaches as a way of combating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other after-effects of war.
“We welcome our men and women who have served back in airports and in coffee shops. We applaud them. But then we have nothing to do with helping them get back on track,” said Mark Moitoza, the vice chancellor for evangelization for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
An estimated one out of every five Iraqi War veterans has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Among Vietnam veterans, the figure is nearly one in three, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The need for a faith-based approach is especially clear when it comes to healing from a condition known as “moral injury,” which is related to PTSD but distinct, in that it refers to the wounds to the soul that occur when a soldier in an active battlefield commits acts that go against his values, either on the orders of a commanding officer or on his own accord, according to Moitoza.
Even if someone acted with justification to kill an enemy combatant, he likely will still have deep misgivings and discomfort with what was done. “Whether the bad guy was bad or not, when you kill, it does something to humans. It’s not natural to kill another person. It’s more justifiable when it’s an extreme terrorist putting a bomb into the school, but it doesn’t change the fact that I killed him. That scars you,” said Damon Friedman, a lieutenant colonel for U.S. Air Force Special Operations and president of SOF Missions.
SOF Missions is a Florida-based nonprofit that provides a holistic approach — incorporating the body, mind and soul — to helping veterans cope with PTSD and moral injury. (SOF stands for Shield of Faith.)
Friedman recently appeared on a panel at a Nov. 29 event on spiritual health and suicide prevention at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The event included a screening of a documentary recently released by SOF Missions, Surrender Only to One.
The documentary presents Jesus as the one who brings peace and wholeness to veterans. While they may no longer be engaged in physical combat, the documentary reminds veterans of their calling to engage in spiritual warfare, Friedman said.
Wounds Only God Can Heal
This spiritual approach is aimed at PTSD and moral injury.
“I would argue that when it comes to moral injury, there’s only certain injuries that God can heal. There’s only certain wounds that God can heal, and that’s why it’s really important to understand the psychological realm and the spiritual realm and how they can work collectively together,” Friedman said.
The program that SOF Missions offers to veterans is tailor-made to the needs of individual and includes physical fitness, mental-health care professionals and spiritual counselors. The program also invites participants to identify with the stories of biblical figures like Peter or Elijah.
Commanders struggling with battlefield decisions might relate to someone like King David, while a soldier dealing with guilt over a particular killing may find comfort in the story of Paul, who presided over the murder of the martyr St. Stephen, according to Friedman.
Although SOF Missions hails from a conservative evangelical background, its approach is more ecumenical than denominational, and it has team leaders on staff who are Catholic.
One former military official who is not at the Heritage Foundation says the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs need to do more to incorporate these spiritual approaches into their treatment for both veteran and service members.
Steven Bucci, a former Army special forces officer and now a visiting fellow at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at Heritage, says both federal departments need to work with nonprofits like SOF Missions, making their kind of program more widely available. He said the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs need to better utilize their chaplains, as well.
“Then we can begin to address this problem and maybe get that darn 21 people a day number down a lot lower than it has been,” Bucci said, citing one estimate for the daily number of veteran suicides.
Bucci, who is Catholic, said he can personally attest to the importance of faith in dealing with his experiences in the military. “It’s foundational. I know who my strength comes from, and that’s the Lord Jesus; and I have always been very open with my faith, even with my troops,” Bucci said. “I could not have gone through the things I have and still have my same wife and family and sanity if it had not been for my relationship with the Lord.”
For chaplains, one of the first steps is listening to the experiences of veterans and journeying with them as they process their experiences, according to Father Andrew Sioleti, the chief chaplain at VA New York Harbor Health System in Manhattan.
Veterans’ chaplains offer the sacrament of reconciliation and retreats as additional aids for veterans. Another spiritual tool is more active: “One way of healing from your trauma and your pain and your moral injury [is] to start doing good things,” Father Sioleti said.
He said volunteer work had been particularly helpful to one veteran haunted by a battlefield killing of a young boy who was the same age as his son. The boy was among a group that was rushing a military position that did not stop when warned to do so. The killing was justifiable, according to military rules of engagement, but the veteran continued to struggle with that outcome.
Father Sioleti said the veteran dealt with his guilt by becoming involved as a fundraiser and public speaker for a charity that ministers to children affected by war and violence.
Moitoza said there is more that can be done to help veterans with PTSD and moral injury. In his recently completed dissertation, which focuses on sacramental healing for moral injury, he recommends a communal examination of conscience followed by the administration of the sacrament of confession. He says the anointing of the sick is another remedy that should be applied to both PTSD and moral injury.
According to Moitoza, the broader Catholic community also has a responsibility to welcome veterans back into the community. Individual parishes, he said, should reach out directly to veterans, assisting them even in smaller, mundane tasks, like arranging appointments with therapists.
“Returning veterans are frequently hailed for possessing courage and strength as they entered into harm’s way, but some who return feel lost, hopeless and morally conflicted. Those overwhelming feelings contribute toward a sense of being unworthy to approach God or the Church, creating soul wounds,” Moitoza said. “A communal embrace of returning veterans with moral injury helps to reconnect them with a new sense of courage, allowing them to rise above the images, guilt and shame that endure.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.