"Welcome Home Soldier."
This article was originally published in the St. Anthony Messenger, in November of 2013. I am republishing it here because I think it is an important assessment of America's veterans suffering from PTSD and moral injuries -- and I also don't want it to get lost and fall out of the American dialogue solely because it doesn't have a URL.
Welcome Home, Soldier
By Richard B. Patterson, PhD
I wasn’t a very good soldier. I was
referred to as “Hawkeye” which may give you a clue about my attitude. I was a child of the 1960s and had marched in
peace demonstrations. There is even a
picture of me in my college yearbook wearing my ROTC uniform and sporting a
thought about claiming conscientious objector status but didn’t feel that would
be honest, given the frequency of fights I’d been in. So I entered the Army and served as a
psychologist. I enjoyed my work but didn’t like being a soldier. After 4 years of active duty, I was glad to
Now some 30 years later, I am ministering
to many warriors. I consult with several
seeking healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and have evaluated many
more in terms of their therapeutic needs. More than a few of these warriors
shared not only the horrors they experienced but the spiritual questions and
struggles those horrors created.
When I first started meeting with these
warriors, I would often end our conversations with a standard “Thank you for
your service.” Several were honest with
me and let me know that they disliked this common comment.
soldier observed “It makes us feel separate, unconnected from everyone back
here. Like what we did has nothing to do
with most Americans.” And indeed, if we
in turn are honest, we really don’t want to know what these men and women have
gone through. We’d just as soon not
listen. It’s much easier to distance
ourselves with a “Thank you for your service” and then be about business as
usual. But our thank yous miss the mark.
It turns out that many warriors aren’t
as interested in gratitude as they are interested in understanding.
Back in the late 1960s, we had a much
greater investment in peace. That investment was known as THE DRAFT. We males were all faced with the possibility
of entering into combat and so our thinking about war and peace was far more
For many of us today, war is more theoretical.
Something that others (primarily people
from lower economic strata) participate in. News reports now censor the horrors of Iraq
and Afghanistan [and Libya and Syria and Ukraine] and so those actions feel
even more foreign. It is easy to take an
attitude of separateness from these warriors. Thanks very much and have a nice
I have heard much about burned bodies,
children fired at or run over, battle buddies blown to pieces before a
warrior’s eyes. I have sat with men and
women who can’t forget the smell of blood or burning flesh.
of such unimaginable horror have also come dark nights of the soul for many
warriors. Some can’t forgive themselves,
such as one warrior who voices guilt because he came back with all his body
parts. He says that, whenever he sits
next to a veteran missing an arm or leg, he feels guilty.
Other soldiers feel out of place now in
churches where they once felt at home. Thus,
another soldier told me “I can’t go to Mass anymore. I’ve killed and the Church says ‘Thou shalt
not kill’”. Some feel beyond God’s
forgiveness, believing they have done things that will never be forgiven. Others
simply don’t care anymore, having left the God of their understanding on the
I‘ve talked to several soldiers who
nonetheless seek comfort in spiritual communities, wanting more than anything
some solace and a sense of belonging. The
reception they receive is not always helpful. One man told me that, upon entering a Catholic
Church, another parishioner who knew him slightly walked up and asked him “How
many people did you kill?” Such
appalling insensitivity reflects a type of voyeurism. Some people want to hear the stories but not
What are some of our warriors’ spiritual
struggles? Many struggle with the WHY
question. Why did I survive and my
friend didn’t? I recall the anguish of a
man who did not go on a mission because of being sick. His friend took his place and died in an IED
explosion, sitting in the exact spot where the young soldier would have been. He is haunted by the thought “It should have
been me in that seat!”
Some who hold to a belief in God may tell
themselves that God must have spared them for a reason but then struggle with
discerning what that reason is, feeling that somehow figuring out that reason
is a way to atone for a death for which they feel responsible. In that regard, one senior NCO with whom I
spoke had a healthy attitude. He’d been
on five deployments to Iraq, had been blown up numerous times, had been
electrocuted once, and was still here, believing that God had kept him alive
for a reason.
I asked him whether figuring that reason out was becoming a problem, he said
“You know, if something I tell some young soldier keeps him alive when he’s
over there, then I figure that was the reason.” He wasn’t looking for some
great world-changing purpose but rather just touching a few lives in small but
significant ways. Sadly, many surviving
soldiers don’t have that NCO's clarity. They
either rack their brains trying to figure out that purpose or feel guilt because
they simply want to be left alone.
Some soldiers who ask WHY are trying to
make sense of senseless horror such as seeing a child run over for fear of a
trap or watching a friend be burned alive in a flaming vehicle. How indeed can a loving God permit such
things, one soldier asked.
Many soldiers carry a great burden from
having killed. Be aware that most of
these soldiers know that it was kill or be killed, etc. For some, they find no comfort in such
notions. I recall one soldier telling me
that he had to inventory the belongings of a man he’d just killed. He still remembers the photos that man had of
his wife and children. In that instant
the man wasn’t so much an enemy anymore. I have met only a very few soldiers who took
pride in having killed the enemy. But
they are left wondering what kind of person they are now that they have killed.
Some fear no longer being loved in God’s
Finally, as noted earlier, some soldiers
come back from combat no longer believing in God. As one man told me “After what I’ve seen and
done, the idea of God just doesn’t work anymore.”
How then can we help these spiritually
wounded warriors? Most of the warriors
I’ve met are tough, hardened individuals, even those I’ve met who were barely
out of their teens. These people are not
looking for pity. They are first of all
looking for confidence that they still have value and can still contribute. Many simply want to find a job.
Most warriors feel very much out of place
upon their return. They have had a level
of experience which causes them to feel very disconnected even within their
families. Many turn to religious
settings, hoping to find at least a
spiritual home. Spiritual communities
then are faced with making our soldiers feel welcome without overwhelming them.
Most soldiers don’t want to be fussed
over. Many simply want to quietly slip
into a church service, usually towards the back, and often leave early to avoid
crowds. That desire to slip in and slip
out, however, relates more to the effects of trauma and should not be taken to
mean that they don’t have a need to connect.
What these soldiers have taught me more
than anything is that they have a great need for people to listen to them
without passing judgment. Some of these
soldiers may indeed need professional help but, first and foremost, they simply
want to tell their stories and be heard. For many, the experience of meeting someone
who is willing to let them talk is new.
Listening is hard for many of us. We want to fix things or set someone straight
or tell them that if they only pray or think about something else or go for a
long walk, everything will be fine. But
most of these warriors aren’t looking for advice.
If you take the time to listen to a
veteran, you may also hear things that are horrifying and hard to hear. I think of a man weeping as he told me of
seeing his best friend on fire in a vehicle and being unable to do anything to
help. I think of a soldier watching an
Iraqi man walk up to a camp gate and set off a bomb such that all that remained
of him were scattered body parts. I
think of a soldier coming upon the body of an Iraqi boy he’d befriended, that
boy apparently executed because of suspicion of helping the enemy. These warriors know such stories are
horrifying. Thus the power of finding
someone willing to listen.
What then can listening accomplish? I’ve come to see that, through listening, soldiers
can experience a conversion. The
conversion may be the realization that they are more than their war
experiences. The conversion may be
finding some forgiveness and, through that, the realization that they have seen
enough of war.
I’ve come to see that listening can help
these soldiers face the need to grieve. I
don’t believe anyone can go through combat and not experience some sort of
painful loss that needs to be grieved. There
is clearly the grief for lost comrades. For
others, there is grief over a lost idealism, even innocence. And many grieve for the person they were
before deployment. Some even may grieve
for a lost faith.
Our wounded warriors have much to offer to
us as well, especially in spiritual domains. I find that my belief in non-violence has
grown since engaging in these conversations. I’ve long had a theoretical belief in the evils
of war but having heard much about its impact on human body and spirit, I’m
convinced at a different level. What war
does to people in body, mind, and spirit cannot be tolerated any longer.
Yet I have also learned that there is no
place in a Christian ethic for judgment. I’ve dealt with many Viet Nam veterans, men
who were judged harshly for their participation in that war. These are people who came home hoping to heal,
only to be judged as baby killers and shunned. Many suffered the traumatic after-effects of
war privately and with shame.
In contrast was a man who recalled
returning from Viet Nam as a young Army captain. No welcoming committee. No yellow ribbons. He was walking through the Phoenix airport
alone and an elderly woman stopped him, shook his hand, and said “Welcome home,
Captain”. He burst into tears as he
shared this healing moment with me.
Finally, I’ve been taught some powerful
lessons about faith. Not every soldier
lost their faith on the battlefield. Some
found it. Others drew upon that faith to
get them through both war and its aftermath. One man whom I deeply respect summed it up for
me as I expressed concern about how he was doing. He looked at me, patted my shoulder and said
“As long as I have my Bible and a good friend I can talk to, I’ll be OK.” Such simple straight-forward clarity given
what this man has been through is truly humbling for someone such as me who
spends a lot of time arguing with and questioning God.
So I encourage both individuals and
spiritual communities to reach out to these wounded warriors. Help them feel welcome. Help them feel like there is a place for them
in your spiritual community. And if they indicate a desire to talk, take the
time to listen to their spiritual struggles. Just listen. Don’t try to fix. This will be a far more meaningful way of
saying “Thank you for your service.”