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Commentary: Soldiers may need help in coping with war trauma


A head and shoulders photograph of the Rev. Kennard Murray is available

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Kennard Murray

As our brave men and women begin returning from their tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, all Americans should welcome them as heroes for their courage and patriotism.

As they return with a sense of pride and honor, some will, unfortunately, return with physical wounds and scars. Hopefully, a small percentage will return with unseen wounds from experiencing combat and witnessing the horrors of war. Even noncombatants, such as reporters and relief workers, could return with the unseen wounds of war. I am referring to a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I remember when I first saw PTSD. At that time I did not realize what I was observing. I was a shift supervisor with a staff of about 7 psychiatric technicians at a state operated institution for people with mental retardation in 1971. During that time it was not uncommon for the many young men working there to be former soldiers or recently discharged from military service. I had several discharged soldiers on my shift.

One young, tall, quiet, but friendly, man whom I will call Todd had been working with me for nearly a year. One afternoon the building we worked in was under renovation and the workman was using a nail gun. A nail gun in use sounds like a firearm being discharged. Todd began jerking, covering his head with his arms, breathing very fast, and pacing the floor. There was a look in his eyes that was both excited and frighten. His unusual behavior continued until I asked the workman to stop.

Todd shared with us that he was in Vietnam in 1967 and hearing the nail gun reminded him of being in combat. Todd was having flashbacks, reliving a stressful combat event. He stated he felt unarmed and frighten and his reaction would not have been so intense if he had a gun.

Everyone on the shift that evening felt sorry for our coworker and friend. We did not know what to do for him, nor did Todd know he was experiencing a treatable anxiety disorder. We had no idea what he had been through or what he was experiencing at that moment.

My friend was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. It was because of symptoms like his and other symptoms manifested among Vietnam combat veterans that the American Psychiatric Association formally identified PTSD as an anxiety disorder characterized by a pattern of symptoms caused by a traumatic event. Unnamed, these symptoms have been present in service men and women who served in combat in every war.

The Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling note that the symptoms include re-experiencing the traumatic event, emotional numbing, and any of a variety of autonomic, cognitive, or behavioral symptoms. PTSD can occur at any age and may begin immediately following a major trauma or may not emerge until months or even years later.

In Todd's case, his symptoms were still manifesting years after returning home from Vietnam. PTSD can occur after natural disasters, human actions whether accidental or deliberately inflicted such as rape, incest, military combat or concentration camps. There are symptoms we can look for in our loved ones returning from harm's way. Some include:
· Events being re-experienced in a number of intense ways.
· Recurrent, intrusive, and painful recollections or dreams of the event are present; and also a person may behave unpredictably and violent outbursts occur in some cases as they relive the trauma.
· Diminished interest in once-valued activities and decreased interpersonal involvement, and impairment of the ability to feel emotions of any kind.
· Sleep disturbances and hyper-alertness or an exaggerated startled response that may contribute to a diminished sense of personal control.
· Difficulties with concentration and memory.
· Preoccupation with the themes of guilt.

What can be done for those effected by PTSD?

It is very important for those who do have a difficult time readjusting after experiencing the trauma of war to have the opportunity to ventilate his or her feelings about the traumatic event. In severe cases, a referral should be made to a mental health professional experienced in treating PTSD. In milder cases, an individual may become better by supportive pastoral counseling. A pastoral counselor may use the biblical perspective of God's grace in assisting the individual in restructuring their mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning as it relates to their religious beliefs.

Individuals undergoing post-traumatic stress disorder need a safe, confidential environment to share their story. The pastoral counselor should have the ability to listen with the mind and heart, and be empathic, genuine and respectful of the journey they are traveling with the counselee. A professional pastoral counselor can help an individual restructure his or her life to see that the love of God means God cares for and engages with those who draw near to God, even after experiencing the trauma of war.

Some 30 years later I wonder if Todd suffered alone with the memories of his experience in that war in a far away land, or if he found help from a pastoral counselor or some mental health professional.

It is my prayer that he found a Balm in Gilead for the unseen wounds of war.

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* Rev. Murray is a pastoral counselor and the pastor of Seay-Hubbard United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.

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