Friday, June 6, 2014

The importance of faith in battling PTSD

Soldiers Praying in Khost | PHOTO CREDIT: US Army (Public Domain)

When I returned from Iraq in the summer of 2003, I was a wreck. I can say that in retrospect. I knew it at the time, but the severity was lost in the turbulent waves of chaos that surrounded my being.

I will not get into an account of what happened during the war. That is a story for another medium and will comprise multiple chapters, no doubt, in a memoir. I saw a lot. My job in intelligence also put me "in the know" of a lot more that I experienced indirectly. I can say that immediately following the deployment, some of those direct and indirect experiences did get crossed. That is rather common with PTSD.

I was diagnosed with PCS, post-combat stress, a precursor and warning sign for PTSD. It's an unofficial classification that is not recognized by the APA, ACA, or DSM. It's just something that some military shrinks and doctors use to monitor for risks of PTSD. Some, not all. However, I was told I had it and that a good reintegration into "normal" routine would likely cause those "feelings" to fade within a few weeks. They did.

When I first returned, I scared myself. I felt as though the world around me was a movie, or a dream. None of it felt real. Reality, for me, was back in Iraq or on the dunes in Kuwait. It wasn't Fort Sill, Okla. It wasn't Fort Hood, Texas.

The best I can describe is that I was numb. There wasn't enough stimulation. I kept searching for that adrenaline rush, that shock, that Fedayeen Saddam popping into the street to shoot at me and those around me. Except for a few close friends ad family members, I didn't see other people as human. I saw them as paper cut-outs. I could shake their hands, hug them, or punch them and it didn't matter.

But it did matter. That was what scared me. That just was not me. I value human life. I value life in general, though I wouldn't feel bad about swatting a fly or squishing a spider. However, I get upset if my dog is sick or my snake isn't eating. I check on my cat's welfare several times a day if he's too quiet (usually because he sleeps days). That is now.

My regard for life didn't change, not in the long run. In the short term, though, it did. I was still enmeshed in that combat mindset where self-preservation and the preservation of the lives around me dictated that I be able to kill a threat without hesitation or remorse. It took time for that mindset to wear off.

What helped me to keep grips with my morality was my faith. I prayed to the higher powers I recognized and asked for guidance. I clung to the morality and values I held dear. At the core, I know murder is wrong, and killing is justified only as a last resort, never to be taken lightly or arbitrarily. Life is not a video game. Though I felt reality had become a movie, it wasn't. I reminded myself that these are real people, with real lives and real families. I clung to my faith.

The reason I was so afraid of myself and those numb "desensitized" feelings was because of my morality. I didn't question it. I was tested, the moral code wasn't. I realized that core fact. I didn't fall, though I teetered on faltering.

Now, nearly eleven years and three more combat tours to Iraq, not counting other missions before and between, I am grateful. I am thankful for my faith. I am thankful to my parents and family that raised me with those values.

It matters little what name or names you ascribe to your deities. If they are just and good, their teachings and your faith can get you through the toughest and darkest of times. Call those higher powers G-d and his angels, Jesus and his saints, Odin and the gods of Asgard, or the lords of Shinto -- it matters not. Faith in yourself and a strong, values-based moral code are what matter.

These days, thanks to a loving and devoted wife who has faith in me and a very similar moral code, the horrors of the war rarely revisit me. They still come, yes. They always will. But I am ready to battle those demons and shadows. I recognize them for what they are -- tests.