Dan sat in front of me and held his head in his hands with his face squarely focused on the floor. His knuckles began to get white as he clutched his temples and suddenly he let out an agonizing moan. Dan spoke heartbreakingly, “It was my fault, why couldn’t it have been me?” Dan was approaching the four year anniversary of his battle buddies death and every year brought another tidal wave of torturous pain as he remembered the horrific memories of the day he lost John. Some days were bad, some were numb, but the each anniversary was horrible. The survivor guilt on this day was particularly bad. In these precarious moments Dan would lock himself firmly into a dark emotional prison. Iron bars of guilt, shame and remorse would surround him with no way out. This was just one level of Dan’s deep moral injury from some of the things that he had to witness and act upon during his last deployment. It made up layers of unfathomable throbbing wounds that weighed on him heavily since his last mobilization in Afghanistan. His experiences, he explained, went against the very grain of his deeply held moral beliefs. The images and thoughts of his deployment down range haunted him. He kept saying over and over, “my parents didn’t raise me to do what I did over there, I wasn’t’ brought up that way.” It was an endless loop of emotional dishonor that played relentlessly in his head. Dan shook as he said “sometimes I feel like I can’t go on anymore, like the only way out is to end it all.” Dan’s stabbing shame from his moral injury hung thick in the air between us and his broken soul lay shattered at his feet. He blatantly told me how he felt like he committed a subjective disrespect to God.
My heart ached for Dan. Unfortunately I knew that his war experiences were not all that uncommon for Veterans suffering from moral injury. I tried to reach out to him in the most honest what that I could and I posited to Dan to God’s message of love, mercy and grace. I implored to him that beating himself up was not going to make anything right and reminded him of Proverbs 16:25 that says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” I implored to Dan that as a result of the torment he heaped on himself each day that he was living in a putrid ignominy of disgrace that was not reflective of God’s ultimate message of love and forgiveness. Since Dan had been home he had been suffering considerably. When he came back and began to make the transition to civilian life he had lost his wife, could not hold down a job, and regularly numbed himself out with drugs and alcohol. He would spend days isolated in his chamber of hatred and beat himself up to a bloody pulp. Dan soon became disgusted with the image he saw in the mirror each day. “Dan”, I said quietly, “you know John would not have wanted your life to be like this. “
In an effort to help Dan connect back with his neighborhood and fellow Veterans I suggested to him to consider some of the local Veteran/civilian community service groups. This would give him a chance to see himself in a new good light. “It would be good,” I said, “to belong to a group and have you experience folks welcoming you and your compassion to neighborhoods.” I also mentioned that volunteering would also aid in confirming his place back in society and help ease the isolation and shame that berated him. I talked with Dan about his healing being a continuing progression rather than getting to a final stopping point or finding an antidote. We talked about a treatment strategy that would address his pain from a psychological, social/community and spiritual perspective. After some time with speaking to him about treatment Dan slowly leaned back and decided that it was time to face his past pain and trauma head on. We agreed on an action plan and EMDR therapy that would help him process his past painful memories. He was exhausted but hopeful.
We as a civilian community can do a lot to welcome our soldier’s home lovingly and respectfully. We need to continue to bridge the gap between Veterans and civilians. Today there are many community groups that focus on Veteran and civilian involvement in neighborhoods. It’s a good place to start for civilians that are interested in coming together as a community to help alleviate some of the divide between civilians and returning soldiers. What we also need to remember as a community is that God’s pure unfailing love and message is what connects us all not matter what walk of life we come from. It is this message that feeds hope for healing and connection with others. And thus, it is that hope that will help us enact a powerful walk with our Veterans through Christ’s love that gives us all the encouragement to connect as a community. There is no other comfort quite like the love and safety of God that can quell the deepest fears in us and guide us on a path of healing. Let us all rise up today and create a safe loving environment for healing and connection. Let us all as civilians lean in and offer the understanding, appreciation and belonging that our returning military service members deserve.
*names have been changed for confidentiality purposes
LaNita Proctor, LMSW, EMDR Provider