By Anne Millington
For veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, life is punctuated regularly by intrusive memories of past combat. The past bleeds painfully into the present in flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, depression, and more. In order to soothe their symptoms, veterans often reach for alcohol, drugs or other addictive substances, and the combination of PTSD and substance use may well worsen both conditions.
As chaplains we may often encounter veterans suffering from PTSD, and I recall one veteran’s comment, “Every time I hear fireworks or other loud noises I’m right back in Vietnam, hearing that rapid fire again.” For this veteran and others, everyday existence can feel straddled in the often painful space between life and death. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, trauma expert and theologian Shelly Rambo notes that veterans suffering in the time warp of PTSD inhabit a place much like Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter, the middle day between death and life where “death haunts life and life bears death within it.” As chaplains, through both our pastoral skills and our faith, we can accompany veterans living in this frightening Holy Saturday space, witnessing to God’s resurrecting love amidst the echoes of death and creating space for God’s healing.
Many traumatized veterans feel a steadfast bond between past and present, since, according to Rambo, “in the aftermath of death, the nature of life is bound to that death as witness.” In the words of a Vietnam veteran, “Again and again I see the faces of fresh young Marines arriving at my platoon. In the morning groups of them would arrive and head out, never to return that evening … all of these bright young men killed each day in combat.” Although this particular veteran built a successful career and had a family after his return to civilian life, he remains haunted by frightening flashbacks of those young Marines’ faces. Moreover, as Laurie Calhoun wrote in The Independent Review, PTSD symptoms may be worse for veterans of controversial missions such as the Vietnam War and the Iraq War than for World War II or other wars the public strongly supported. As a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD once told me, “I heard Lyndon Johnson say on the radio, ‘I don’t want any more men killed in Vietnam.’ So my men and I took him at his word and hid in the jungle. So many had already died, and for what?”
It is well documented that veterans often turn to alcohol and other addictive substances to numb the troubling and painful symptoms of PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, substance abuse occurs in roughly a third of veterans with PTSD, and 60 to 80 of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use problems as well. Even more troubling, veterans often binge drink in order to mask strong PTSD symptoms. As one veteran told me, “After coming home from the war I dealt with the trauma by binge drinking, and when I start binge drinking I completely black out. I have no memory of arriving at this hospital, in this hospital bed. I don’t remember anything since being at the bar last night.” Sometimes a veteran’s substance problem begins while still overseas, as available alcohol, drugs or prescription medications provide psychological relief from the harsh realities of deployment.1 While a veteran may seek drugs and alcohol to avoid bad memories, that step can make PTSD symptoms last longer. Because PTSD and alcohol- and substance-use problems tend to exacerbate one another, effective recovery requires treating PTSD and drug and alcohol problems concurrently.
As chaplains, we offer unique witness to God’s love by our ability to join veterans in their Holy Saturday journey between life and death, offering them a supportive and safe place to share their experiences. These safe places can be very rare, as veterans often refrain from speaking about their traumatic experiences to a civilian world that may not relate.2 As one veteran of both the Korean and the Vietnam wars reflected, “I never speak of my experiences. They all live inside me and stay inside me.”
Because we are trained as chaplains to accept people where they are and as they are, we can provide an open-minded, open-hearted space for veterans to share all that they suffer in silence. Moreover, because we have training in keeping people emotionally and spiritually safe, the space we provide veterans is not only open but also sturdy, a space where veterans at risk of re-traumatization are “spotted” and supported as necessary. This open and safe space becomes a true life-giving space, a space where Rambo imagines God’s love as revealed on Easter moving back through nonlinear time to breathe new life into the death present on Holy Saturday. For Rambo, these spaces offer an experience of resurrection, where resurrection is “not so much about life overcoming death, as it is about life resurrecting amid the ongoingness of death.”
As we bear witness to God’s resurrecting presence alongside veterans suffering from PTSD and addiction, we can observe carefully how that presence highlights additional paths towards healing. Additional paths are likely to include both continued pastoral visits and efforts to connect veterans more strongly to community resources such as VA services and treatment programs, and recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Local VA medical centers, for example, provide modern PTSD treatments including cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and medication. VA medical centers also offer resources to treat alcohol- and substance-use disorders both separately and concurrently with PTSD treatment. Here in Boston, the Archdiocesan Addiction Recovery Pastoral Support Services supports those suffering from addictions, and other dioceses may offer similar resources.
In order to support veterans suffering from PTSD and addiction, we chaplains are called to accompany these veterans in their weary world that Shelly Rambo designates Holy Saturday, that middle place between Good Friday and Easter where death has occurred and new life is not certain. In this world, present consciousness is perennially interrupted by past traumatic memory, by flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. In this world, false relief sought in alcohol and other addictive substances serves only to make traumatic symptoms worse. As chaplains we can bring true relief, however, as we join veterans in this Holy Saturday space. Through our witness, veterans can feel less isolated and more held as God’s Love gently loosens shackles of traumatic memory and points to additional paths of healing support. Veterans thus may experience a resurrection story within the middle space of Holy Saturday, which Rambo notes “is not a story of rising out of the depths, but a transformation of the depths themselves.”
1 Calhoun, 250.
2 Calhoun, 247.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton in Milton, MA.