By Susan D. Decker
Walking one morning into the Seattle VA Medical Center, I encountered a procession of staff and family members who were accompanying the body of a deceased veteran, an American flag draped over the gurney. I stopped, along with everyone else in the hallway, the strains of a harmonica breaking the silence. Some placed their hands over their hearts; others saluted.
This is one of many encounters that are unique to the VA. Whether strolling through the “marketplace” where vendors sell military memorabilia or walking through the entrance, where veteran volunteers respectfully greet patients and visitors, one is acutely aware of a culture of dignity and respect.
I completed two units of CPE and a yearlong residency at VA Puget Sound. As chaplain interns, we were integrated into the fabric of the chaplain office. We gathered for prayer every morning. As a Catholic, I offered Holy Communion to our Catholic patients. The chaplain corps, along with other medical staff, are a community of providers, who honor the sacrifices that our veterans have made in the name of country.
Many years earlier, my father had spent several months at that same medical center. Like many of the veterans I met, he had suffered his entire adult life from psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds he had experienced as a Marine in World War II. Like today’s most vulnerable returning veterans, he was never able to fully integrate back into society or realize his dreams for his post-war life. The psychological and spiritual wounds he carried affected him and our family deeply. However, in no way did they diminish my memory of him and his intrinsic goodness as a child of God.
Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, writes about the difficulty that veterans often experience upon reentry into civilian life. During wartime, veterans rely on each other for safety and protection. They have a strong sense of belonging and purpose, which may disappear upon returning home. Junger posits that a veteran may experience an existential crisis, where questions about one’s personal and social identities may interfere with one’s ability to regain a foothold in society.
The effects of war on returning soldiers have been well documented. Many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses often end up in the psychiatric unit for several days or weeks. I met many such patients there who were homeless. Many exhibited the physical signs of having had a difficult life, fraught with health problems and isolation from relationships and community. Some shared stories about the support and value of their family life, how relationships had helped them reenter civilian life after military service. I remember one oncology patient who credited his Jesuit background for having brought him back from despair after the Vietnam War. The majority, however, and especially war veterans, seemed to have suffered great loss of independence, relationships, and economic stability. These were the soldiers I met in the psych unit.
It was within this context that I found my most rewarding and challenging visits. My CPE supervisor held weekly hands-on art activities as a way of creating community among veterans. Patients were invited to paint masks or canvases, color, or just sit and join in conversation. Soft background music contributed to a creative and friendly environment.
Conversation inevitably centered on veterans’ shared personal experiences of being in the military and combat. The instant camaraderie was palpable. Creating art became the vehicle for self-expression. At the end of each session, patients voluntarily shared the feelings that had been evoked from creating their art. For some, it was their first opportunity for self-reflection and expression. I’ll never forget the day when one veteran disclosed, in a quiet manner while painting a mask, his plans to end his life. That revelation was the beginning of a long-term treatment plan that helped save his life.
While the majority of psychiatric patients were male, there were also women, suffering from PTSD and often from sexual harassment and abuse. I remember clearly how one female veteran, after expressing her anger on canvas, decided to pursue her unrealized dream of becoming an artist.
Jesus Christ’s public life was a ministry of hope. As chaplains, we are called in imitation to Christ to offer hope. We, as Catholics, profess that every human life is sacred and that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. Our veterans deserve our respect and care, for their dignity and worth cannot be diminished by any condition.
Susan D. Decker, MAPS, BCC is a per diem chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.