Conference helps veterans heal wounded souls
    January 18 2011 by Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications

    GOLDSBORO — The trauma Jim Johnson experienced while serving as an Army chaplain remained with him for more than 20 years after he retired. For years he kept fighting, telling himself it couldn’t happen to him. “I thought I was immune to this because I was a chaplain,” he said. “Yet, my feelings internally were no different than a 19-year-old draftee,” Johnson said. 

    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “started eating me alive,” Johnson said. “I was in denial for many years. I was gradually spiraling down.” Johnson remained in denial until well into his 60s and did not begin seeking help until he finally got to the point where he knew he could no longer fight the battle alone. Johnson still struggles, sometimes having nightmares, flashbacks and times of sadness, guilt and anger.

    Johnson shared some of his experiences with PTSD during the recent “Coming Home” Conference at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Goldsboro. The conference sought to help pastors, counselors, chaplains and lay persons involved with or interested in ministering to military personnel who suffer from PTSD. The conference was sponsored by the Office of Military and Chaplaincy Ministries of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), the North Carolina Army National Guard Chaplaincy and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Durham.

    Organizing the conference was Chaplain (Captain) Tommy Watson, who is assuming some of the responsibilities of Chaplain (Colonel) Larry Jones, BSC senior consultant for military and chaplaincy ministry, who is on an extended tour of active duty at Fort Bragg until fall 2011.  

    Coming home challenges

    Keynote speaker for the event John Oliver, chief of chaplain services at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, began the conference by setting the scene for what often happens when service members come home. The military produces men and women who are highly trained for jobs of great importance and who experience great responsibility during their time of service. When they come home, jumping back into a routine that includes seemingly less important tasks such as household chores may be tough.

    BSC photo by Melissa Lilley

    A group at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Goldsboro work together at the “Coming Home” conference Jan. 7. The event was for people interested in working with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The returning family member may feel displaced, as other family members and friends sometimes step in to help with family activities. Children have grown up and the family structure itself has changed. Oliver said the enormity of war can “shatter one’s basic sense of safety” and veterans struggle with learning to trust again after their lives have been so drastically changed or shattered. Veterans often need to re-learn basic skills.

    Sometime veterans are withdrawn and do not want to talk to family or friends, especially about what happened during war. “We have to find a balance of caring for the person and not letting them stay in their hole too long, but also giving them time,” Oliver said.  

    Natural reaction
    Oliver defined PTSD as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to one or more terrifying events that threatened or caused grave physical harm.” Family members and friends should never assume that a loved one has PTSD and should never try to diagnose it on their own.

    Those who have suffered a traumatic experience are unable to process information in a normal manner. The brain actually skips the first step of information processing, which is registering the information to the cerebral cortex (the rational part of the brain). Instead, the brain sends the information straight to the amygdala, or the lower brain. 

    Thus, the brain labels the experience as fear, and fight or flight response memories are stored differently in the brain. The brain links things such as sight, sound and smell to the traumatic event.

    Dissociation from other people or events becomes a means of protection from becoming overwhelmed. Some individuals who have suffered traumatic events begin to dissociate, or separate themselves from the events that occurred. This is a protective mechanism that can help people survive in times of crisis, yet can become a burden when those same individuals are not able to re-integrate the trauma and deal with emotional, spiritual and moral effects of the traumatic event.   

    “Reactions from war are normal,” Oliver said. “Trauma reactions are not indicative of moral weakness or sin.”

    Trauma can influence a person’s behavior and their interpersonal life, from inability to keep close relationships to uncontrollable negative thoughts. Sometimes the pain of trauma is more than a person can bear, and some soldiers have resorted to suicide. “This is not a conversation we have the luxury of not having,” Oliver said. “It can happen to those you least expect.” Help is available by calling the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).  

    Pastoral care
    Four out of 10 veterans with mental health challenges seek counsel from clergy, so pastors need to be equipped to help. Pastors can offer a calm, non-judgmental or non-anxious presence; they can be a safe haven. “Provide a compassionate space wide enough to encompass the awfulness of war trauma,” Oliver said.

    Veterans may need help working through their spiritual reactions to trauma. Trauma can lead to confusion about God, loss of previously held beliefs and confusion about morality and core ethical beliefs.

    Pastors must listen. Listening does not mean letting the words “wash over you as you think about the next thing you’re going to say,” Oliver said. Pastors must avoid trying to fix the problem, pushing for details about the deployment or offering platitudes. “They want to tell you where they are hurting if you will just listen,” Oliver said.

    Oliver encouraged pastors to, as often as necessary, refer people to mental health professionals. A pastor’s referral can help validate the need for such services and even help destigmatize the use of mental health services. Pastors should avoid prematurely assessing someone’s feelings of guilt. Veterans need to be able to name their fears, shortcomings and strengths. “They need to live through that pain,” Oliver said. “We have to live through the real stuff.”

    Oliver said the local church can prove one of the greatest points of grace for returning veterans. “A community that knows and deeply cares for its own war fighters and veterans provides these individuals with the strongest antidote to post-traumatic stress: community. It is incumbent on churches to find ways to provide community outlets and ministry opportunities that match the special gifts and challenges our returning military members and veterans bring with them.”

    Attending the conference were staff members from the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, including members of the Transition for Returning Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) Veterans Team, Women’s Health Team and Suicide Prevention Team.

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    1/18/2011 9:41:00 AM by Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications | with 0 comments

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