WHEN CHIEF MASTER Sergeant Harry Marsters returned in 2008 from his time in Iraq, he knew something wasn’t right. At 54, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force—with 27 years full time in the military and the remainder as a reservist with the Air National Guard—felt that as one of the “older folks” he knew what to expect upon return from his assignment with the communications squad at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq.
Marsters’ squadron trained Iraqi forces in the operation and maintenance of aerial surveillance equipment on the base, which housed 1,000 Air Force and 2,500 Army troops. As first sergeant he acted as a liaison to the Air Force troops and ensured the well-being of those stationed there. It was a job he relished, pouring care into building connections with the airmen and women, spending time with the chaplains, and coordinating recreation and morale-building activities.
Though Air Force personnel never left the base, they were subjected to the ever-present threat of randomly timed mortar rounds launched by insurgents. They also took part in nighttime “patriot details” in which Air Force personnel and soldiers lined the base’s runway as the bodies of fallen soldiers were loaded onto planes for transport back to the United States. But Marsters says he was most upset by what he felt was harsh treatment of the Iraqi nationals who came to work on the base.
“They were treated like criminals,” he says of the extensive searches and intimidation Iraqis received when going through base security. “Everyone in Iraq is not evil, bad, and nasty. It’s a very small group of people who are raising hell and trying to hurt the country. The average person is just trying to make some money and take care of his or her family.”
When Marsters landed at the airport in Portland, Maine, on his 2008 return home, he was asked to exit the plane first as the senior enlisted person on the flight. He deferred, letting his junior colleagues meet their families and conduct press interviews. But his motives weren’t altruistic. He couldn’t leave the plane because his “heart was still in Iraq, with the people of Iraq. It was difficult to put all of that aside and get home.”
These thoughts lingered even through the administrative tasks involved in processing returning troops. “It was absolute confusion for me,” he says. “It was very difficult to get adjusted—like you were in a different world.”
There were other early indications of trouble. Marsters’ wife, Ginny, commented that he seemed distant at church gatherings and around friends, a claim he says he dismissed too quickly. Still, Marsters points to his involvement in his faith community as something that sustained him through his time of difficulty. He says church functions, homeless outreach ministry, and board activities occupied his energy and time—giving him focus for tasks he felt passionate about.
Instead of the smooth transition back to life in the U.S., Marsters experienced regular occurrences of withdrawal, depression, lethargy, anger, and uncontrollable emotions. “I found myself feeling alone and isolated,” he says. “But I didn’t realize how much trouble I was in until I was home for about two years.”
After completing an annual online mental wellness and suicide prevention course in 2010, “It was like someone hit me in the side of the head with a bat,” Marsters says. “I realized a lot of the issues the course was talking about, other than suicidal thoughts, were things I was dealing with.”
Marsters sought help through Veterans Affairs channels and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He received counseling but found he was still experiencing general anxiety and panic. After one episode that felt like he was in a “dark hole,” Marsters was prescribed further counseling and medication to reduce anxiety. After nearly six years home from Iraq, he says he is “just to the point where I’m feeling like I was before I left.”
MILITARY CHAPLAIN Lieutenant Commander A.P. Sholtes says that experiences like Marsters’ are all too common among newly returned veterans from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Onset of symptoms may be immediate, but many military members and veterans don’t recognize these signs as PTSD until much later.
Another complicating factor is the expanded definition of PTSD recognized by the fifth iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This updated DSM includes “moral injury” as an ongoing and debilitating injury alongside other PTSD-inducing trauma.
Rather than being lumped in with previous diagnoses related to what was once referred to as “shell shock,” or the stress of being a victim of trauma, moral injury is best understood as an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt associated with actions perpetrated or observed. It can be especially acute for those who witnessed atrocity but did not intervene—or those such as Marsters who were unable to—as their sense of morality would have dictated them to do outside of a conflict situation. For many veterans, the power of this guilt and shame becomes debilitating, causes further isolation, and leads to reactions common to PTSD that include addictive behaviors and self-harm.
Sholtes is a chaplain with the OASIS residential treatment clinic affiliated with the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. The 10-week program treats veterans with PTSD through a series of group and individual sessions aimed at addressing guilt and shame, allowing the individual to reintegrate into civilian life.
Christian Williams, an Army chaplain candidate, says many veterans experience a honeymoon period upon their return. “There’s a fantasy belief that they are happy to be home, happy to be stateside,” he says. “It can be between six months to a year, or longer, before the veteran starts to recognize that real life is still in play. Especially in a reserve context, they’ve lost their job. Or with their family—relating again with a wife and kids—these issues start to come up. And the veteran starts to recognize these feelings and thoughts. Dreams, thoughts, and emotions keep coming up; they aren’t going away.”
Williams is currently researching the topic of moral injury as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He points to the church as an institution best suited for helping to mitigate the effects of guilt and shame.
“For a huge part of human history, it was the church’s job to absolve the combatant of their atrocities,” he says of rituals practiced in the past by Orthodox traditions and through confession in the Roman Catholic Church. Citing War in the Hebrew Bible, by Susan Niditch, he sees the ritual of admitting guilt and seeking absolution as described in Numbers 31:21-24 to be an important part of healing from moral injury. Though Williams wonders how to conduct such a ritual with a generation of young people who don’t affiliate with the church or grant it the authority to absolve them, he believes providing a way for the community and veterans to recognize what has happened in war is a vital part of healing for veterans and a great benefit to the community’s understanding of what veterans endured as soldiers.
Even the often heard “thank you for your service” or various ways of referring to veterans as heroes can cause trauma-triggering responses to those with PTSD. “Veterans tell me all the time that this rings hollow,” Williams states. “It’s cheap grace. There is more work to do to understand the veteran’s needs than just recognition. The process of reintegration is a slow one. There needs to be patience on both sides.”
The consequence of not working toward reintegration of veterans, particularly those afflicted with PTSD, is further suffering, says Williams. Statistics published by the Congressional Research Service in February 2013 report more than 130,000 PTSD diagnoses since 2000. At the extreme end of PTSD’s consequences among active duty personnel is suicide, a number that has grown to 350 annually as of 2012, up from 160 in 2001. And these deaths don’t account for those who take their lives after discharge from the military.
Williams believes a contributing factor to this rise in suicides is the isolating effect of PTSD. He attended a conference sponsored by the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in fall 2012, and came away with advice for faith communities that want to play a role in the healing of and integration processes for returning veterans.
“Let your congregation know that they can’t expect someone to come back from war in the same way they left,” he says. “That is never, never the case. There is always going to be the change. But that doesn’t mean the change is always going to be negative. They are going to come back with certain understandings of the world that are going to be hard to reintegrate, but that doesn’t mean they are negative.”
Acknowledging the difficulty that peace-oriented and activist churches may have with military members in their congregations, he says veterans have the opportunity to be the biggest allies in advocating for peace and for preventing further moral injury. “Some attention needs to be paid to stereotyping veterans,” he says. “It’s a minority of people in the armed services who ever see combat. For most that do, they would rather not have to see it again. We need to express the need for a voice for veterans in our faith communities and society as a whole. That’s something that’s not granted them. They just don’t want to fight our wars; they want to keep us out of them. If I’ve ever met a group of people who want to keep the next generation out of that situation, it’s those who’ve experienced it.”
Gregg Brekke, former news director at the United Church of Christ, is founder and operator of SixView Studios (sixview.com) and president of the Associated Church Press.