Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans' Day, or Who Is My Neighbor?

Today is Veterans' Day, a day set aside to honor and thank our U.S. veterans for their service.

I have several friends and relatives — including the man I married — who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

I'm sure you do, too. Please take a moment today to thank them.

Regardless whether they served in wartime or peace, in support roles or on the front lines, our servicemen and women are ready and willing to put themselves in harm's way.

But ready and willing doesn't necessarily mean prepared for everything.

Poster by Ilona Meagher
 You've probably heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — the phenomenon earlier generations called "shell shock." PTSD is a debilitating condition that can follow one's experience or observation of terrifying events — including natural disasters, violent attacks, serious accidents, and battle experiences.

Symptoms include reliving the trauma (nightmares or flashbacks), sleep problems, depression, emotional detachment, irritability, and difficulties on the event's anniversary.

People who struggle with PTSD report relationship difficulties, failed marriages, chronic unemployment and substance abuse at rates far higher than average. Their rates of attempted and completed suicides are also far higher than average.

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Edited to add: I ran this post by a friend who's an Army chaplain. He made some important points about different levels of post-traumatic distress:

"I think that PTSD and other post-traumatic stress management are going to be keeping our chaplains busy for the next few years. I might emphasize that not all post-traumatic stress problems actually constitute the disorder we call PTSD. That's a medical diagnosis. You can have some of these symptoms without it being debilitating and without it constituting PTSD. I think that's a common misconception, that ALL soldiers who struggle with traumatic memories from war are suffering PTSD. About 30% of our soldiers suffer from some kind of Post Traumatic Stress, but only about 5% (if I remember rightly) actually qualify as suffering from PTSD. It's a distinction of number of symptoms or reactions and the severity of those reactions. Again, it can only be correctly diagnosed as 'PTSD' by a mental health professional."

My chaplain friend is right. With this and many other diagnoses, the DSM-IV-TR says symptoms must be sufficient to cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning." So a person struggling with some symptoms (or with less severe symptoms) can fail to meet the diagnostic criteria for full-blown PTSD, and still suffer fallout from a trauma.

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In the recent Parade Magazine article Helping Soldiers Heal, former senator and wounded veteran Max Cleland encourages veterans to seek counseling if they are suffering.

Cleland's memoir Heart of a Patriot begins with an open letter to veterans, in which he describes PTSD from the inside:
Some of the deepest wounds we suffer may be inflicted without leaving so much as a scratch.... The soldier's lot is to be exposed to traumatic, life-threatening events — happenings that take us to places no bodies, minds, or souls should ever visit. It is a journey to the dark places of life — terror, fear, pain, death, wounding, loss, grief, despair, and hopelessness. We have been traumatized physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
As more veterans return from combat, the church needs to be willing to help them and their families cope with the effects of their memories of war. Christianity Today recently ran an article on some creative ways churches and Christian organizations are helping with this issue.

Two books that could prove helpful in ministry are The Combat Trauma Healing Manual: Christ-Centered Solutions for Combat Trauma and When War Comes Home: Christ-Centered Healing for Wives of Combat Veterans.

Maybe our best example for helping the wounded comes from Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan.

May we be as willing to go out of our way to help hurting vets.

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