Making Peace With Warriors (Abigail Deaton)

This morning my eldest, Abby, a rising junior at Goshen College, a Mennonite college in northern Indiana, requested that the following Gospel excerpt be read at our church, First Mennonite of Indianapolis.

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 8:5-13
King James Version, Authorized

And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.” And Jesus saith unto him, “I will come and heal him.”

The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man,’ Go’, and he goeth; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he cometh; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he doeth it.”

When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And Jesus said unto the centurion, “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.”

And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

She then gave the sermon that follows below:

Average age is about twenty-one. Seventy-five percent are white; twenty-five percent are other minority groups. Most are middle to upper middle class. At some point in the term, they serve abroad, see things that they will never forget. They’ll come back with stories, with people, with memories forever in their hearts. And they never really come back the same.

That describes roughly the average student at Goshen College. But that also describes the average combat veteran returning from the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Granted, there are quite a few differences between a student at a pacifist college and a combat veteran. Our stories don’t tend to end with “And then I never saw him again,” for example. Our stories don’t tend to involve as much violence, as much death. Our stories don’t tend to leave us feeling as if our sense of peace and trust in humanity has been stripped from our very soul.

The number of veterans who will need to be treated for years because of the emotional scars of war has been labeled the major mental health crisis of our generation. More than 2.2 million service members have been deployed since the war in Afghanistan began. According to a study done by the not-for-profit organization RAND, twenty percent of those who have returned show signs of mental health problems. These mental and emotional scars ultimately lead to serious repercussions that forever change the lives of these warriors and their families.

If we are really called to be peacemakers, it is time for us to serve those in the service.

The most widely-known and commonly-diagnosed mental health issue among the military is posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In the past ten years there have been a total of 88,719 reported cases of PTSD in all branches of the military. The National Institute for Mental Health defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder than can develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.” The three common symptoms of PTSD are  “re-experiencing symptoms” such as intense flashbacks or night terrors; hyperarousal symptoms, which are essentially a heightened awareness of one’s environment; and avoidance symptoms. These symptoms come together to cause extreme anxiety. These men and women are having intense, horrific flashbacks and are also so aware of their environment that they can appear  paranoid. It causes them to become extremely anxious, angry, and fearful, and therefore they avoid people who don’t understand.

Other problems facing service members are traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and substance abuse. According to a Frontline report, over 400,000 cases of TBI have occurred during the recent war. TBI’s can cause an array of physical as well as mental and emotional problems such as lack of concentration and focus, self-control problems, and difficulty with mood changes, to name a few.

In the Time Magazine article “America’s Medicated Army,” Mark Thompson reported that over 20,000 troops are taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. Many times troops are obtaining psychotropic and/or pain medications without prescriptions. When they come home and are unable to obtain these prescription drugs, the withdrawal symptoms are so bad and the emotional pain so intense, they commonly self-medicate.

The wounds of war do not stay on the battlefield, but are often dragged home. In a recent study done by Dr. Steven Sayers and his colleagues, forty percent of veterans expressed feeling as if they were strangers in their own homes. Sayers also found that veterans with PTSD or depression are five times more likely than other veterans to have family issues. Combat experiences leads to a sixty-two percent higher likelihood of divorce. And according to a US Army report, over the past six years cases of child and spousal abuse have gone up 177 percent.

But the most shocking statistic is not of those wounded, but of those lost. The cover of Time Magazine for the week of July 23, 2012 was a picture of a soldier with the title, “One A Day” printed under it. According to the article inside, “The War on Suicide,” on average one soldier commits suicide every day. Since that article was published, 335 soldiers have committed suicide.

And those are only active duty soldiers.

Further on in the article, the author says that among veterans, a suicide happens every eight minutes. Since that article was published, therefore, the number of veterans who have taken their own lives has reached 6,030.

If every person attending the upcoming convention of the Mennonite Church-USA in Phoenix were to commit suicide twice, we would almost hit that number.

We have a crisis on our hands. As peacemakers, we are called to serve in times of crisis. So why are we just sitting here?

I understand that as pacifists, we are not always sure how to react to soldiers, those with whom we disagree on a fundamental level. But as peacemakers, we do not have the best record of being peaceful when it comes to dealing with warriors.

In 2008, Ernest Martin, a retired Mennonite pastor, wrote an article in The Mennonite [the church’s national periodical] entitled “Human Sacrifice.” The last paragraph of this article is as follows:

We hear of instances of soldiers intentionally falling on an explosive to save comrades. Risking life and losing life for the benefit of another follow the example of Jesus’ sacrificial love. But initiating, supporting and participating in human sacrifice for advancing personal, ideological, and economic goals is God-rejecting idolatry. Kyrie eleison.

For those of you who don’t know, kyrie eleison means “Lord, have mercy.” But my question is: why can we not show that same mercy? If a young veteran were to come up to you and say, “I saw my buddy die out there to save my life. Within split seconds I watched what was once a body, what was once a friend, a husband, a father, what was once a man turn into an unrecognizable pile of flesh and blood,”—I would hope your first response would not be “Sorry, but you know: it’s God-rejecting idolatry.”

Because if it is, you might as well be talking to Veteran Number 6,031.

It isn’t about them or us. It isn’t about patriotism or pacifism It isn’t about war or peace. It’s about people suffering and people serving. It’s about warriors and peacemakers. Take down those barriers and see the person on the other side.

My father is the inspiration for this speech. Four years ago my father started working as a psychiatrist at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Indianapolis. Day after day my father goes in to work to serve men and women no older than myself. And day after day he comes home with horror stories sketched in his mind, with tales he cannot tell us, with burdens to hold that were not his to bear. But he bears them—because he embodies the core value of being a compassionate peacemaker. On Goshen College’s website, it says that compassionate peacemakers “embrace ‘shalom’—the peace that God intends for humanity.” Day after day my father sees those who have lost their humanity and helps them find peace once more.

Jesus was approached by a soldier. But not only was he a soldier, he was a Roman. He was a Gentile. He was a warrior. The peacemaker and the warrior disagreed on fundamental levels.

The soldier came up to Jesus to serve his servant, to help his fallen comrade. And what did Jesus do in return? Did Jesus scorn the soldier? Did he ask him to leave the Army? Did he say, “I’ll give you grace, but only if you follow me?”

No. He looked at the man, amazed, and said, “Truly I tell you: I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

I’m not saying to go become a psychiatrist at a VA hospital. I’m not even asking anyone to go visit veterans at a hospital. What I am asking for is a change of heart.

I’ve been a nanny for two veterans. I’m a friend of several soldiers. And I’m a Mennonite for peace. I don’t think those contradict.

If you choose to befriend a soldier or welcome back a veteran, just remember to love with no strings attached. They aren’t asking you to change your views, so don’t go in trying to change theirs.

Eastern Mennonite University professor Lisa Schirch wrote:

When you start to love people you disagree with, everyone starts looking a lot more like a human being doing the best she can with what he knows and has experienced.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing any of that, then I ask just one thing: Stop seeing a military. Start seeing a person.

Kyrie eleison.

As a father, I admire my daughter, admire the woman she has become. I so look forward to the life that she is hoping to create. I am so thankful for every moment that I can have with her.

As a fellow Mennonite, however, my response can only be a direct, simple, and heartfelt one:

Amen, my sister. Kyrie Eleison. On all of us.

01.07.2013: Dear Winston

Dear Winston,

Again, thank you for allowing me this opportunity to work with you like this.

I first want to tell you about an e-mail I received yesterday from a good friend who formerly taught English at a well-regarded, private, liberal-arts college. His message was a simple one:

Wish I had had Winston in Expository Writing class!

I have known this man for a good ten years now–and I assure you, he was never an easy grader for anyone. When he compliments a writer, a writer has, in the best meaning of the word, been complimented.

I tell you this to encourage you. You speak your soul, heart, and mind well. Don’t change your writing one bit.

Even more, though, I want to thank you for–and encourage you to continue–your bravery. I know that you do not often feel brave. Your willingness to speak so openly about your experiences, however, tells a much different story.

Everyone is willing to accept that War is hard, that it changes men and women forever. Many, if not most, though, prefer to think that opinions about War are straightforward. It is a necessary evil, say some, an unnecessary atrocity, say others. Some rail against the Doves. Some rail against the Hawks. On and on.

Even more complex, in my experience, is the word warrior. While it is a good word, an ancient one, I do believe that today, in this world of sound bytes and 140-character tweets, it can also be too straightforward. Warriors are strong, decisive, brave, all true. But too often when we think “warrior,” we think of something out of “The Iliad” or “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s a bit too high-drama in many folks’ minds, it seems to me.

You, however, are telling us that “warrior” can mean both high-drama and sheer-boredom. Even more it can mean a fierce loyalty to one’s brothers- and sisters-in-arms, a tenderness to a little boy, a rage toward a father, a soul-searching horror before a frightened son, all within a matter of seconds.

No one wants to listen to you and your fellow combat veterans, Winston, because listening means having to experience right along with you that last sentence of the previous paragraph, every feeling barely separated from the next, protected only by some meager comma, high-drama on a small scale, a large scale, no scale at all, all within minutes, none of which one can be predicted, all of which can mean life, death and a never-ending invitation to grief, guilt, and ever-recurring, never-fully-answered cries, both inner and outer, of “why?”

It is a honor to serve you, Winston. I look forward to doing  as much as of that as you would wish.

Until next time,

Rod Deaton

Combat Vet Seeking Outlet, References Available Upon Request

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak again with a combat vet I have come to know, care about, and respect.  He was heavily involved in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he was profoundly affected by it, not only by the horrors he witnessed, but also by some of the ways of the military, where, unlike Don Corleone in The Godfather, it’s always personal and just business.  In our discussion, he reminded me of two “truths” I often need to remind combat vets of, ones that I frequently discuss in person and periodically discuss in the blog.

First, this man needed to be reminded how strong he was and is.  As a combat veteran struggling with Posttraumatic Stress Injury, he, like most of his fellow veterans, often finds himself feeling confused, unsure of himself, and utterly weak.  He’s a guy, and he’s a miltary guy, i.e., a traditional guy with those traditional male hang-ups like, you know, having it all under control 24/7, never sweating, always sporting a rakish smile, with a devil-may-care wink, the usual.  Therefore if any of the above qualities is not present in spades at all times, he’s a loser, plain and simple.

What this combat veteran often fails to recall is that the same bravery, the same chutzpah, the same determination to get the job done, no matter, still resides in him now, just as much as it did when he wore a uniform, barreling down those Iraqi roads, wanting to do what’s right, although never quite sure what “right” was at any given moment.

Combat veterans need to understand something: not everybody makes it through traumatic experiences.  I’m not talking suicide here, although that risk of course remains high (see the DoD’s recently published data).  Some people did not enter their trauma with anything close to the inner drive, the focus that combat veterans absolutely must have if they are to hope to stay alive.  Consequently, such individuals leave their trauma almost decimated beyond recognition, barely functioning, if at all, sometimes psychotic, sometimes so dissociative they cannot even begin to experience anything that for a moment could be labeled coherence.

I fully understand that many combat veterans feel that way, but feeling that way does not mean that they are that way.  Yes, most feel that their self was shattered somewhere in the middle of the desert, in ungodly heat, surrounded by the epitome of ungodliness.  Yes, some even imagine that the man or woman who had had that drive, that spirit perished somewhere outside of Tikrit or Kandahar.

But that strength, that drive is still there, and in the deepest recesses of their heart, they do still feel it.  They just fear that it will get them nowhere, that it’s a piece of their shattered soul that they’d have best left languishing in a Middle Eastern alley somewhere.

That’s where we, as civilians, need to come in.

For the second matter the combat veteran and I discussed was what happens when that strength, that drive does not have adequate outlet, when it demands to be experienced even if the veteran is scrambling like the dickens to tell himself or herself that it is no longer there.  The physics of the matter is quite simple, really: if strength, drive is thwarted in its attempt to find a place in the world out there, it will simply double bac k on itself and search for a place in the world in here, inside the veteran himself or herself.  The thing about strength, about drive, you see?  It zooms forward.  It attacks.  In the real world, that saves lives and, yes, destroys them.  In the inner world, however?  It only destroys.  One life.  The veteran’s.

I’ll say it straight out: I am appalled at how we civilians are doing essentially nada to find honor-worthy, respect-worthy outlets for the energies and hopes of our combat veterans.  As I’ve more than ranted in the past, some of us even seem to have the crazy notion in our noggins that these young men and women who were so driven, who were so willing to risk their lives to do what they thought was right (whether you, reader, agree that it was right or not)–they actually want to collect disability just to coast through the remaining, what, sixty or so years of their lives?  Yes, record numbers are seeking disability from the VA.  But don’t you ever for a moment believe that more than one per cent of them are seeking a handout.  (And if you believe the number’s higher, you need to reconsider working with combat veterans, for that belief says more about your world view than it does about combat veterans’ reality, end of story.)

Depression is a real physical illness, one with real physical consequences and, thankfully, real possibilities for physical relief through both psychological and pharmacologic methods.  However, we cannot expect combat veterans to sit around happy as clams when every day they are feeling that the strength, the drive that had once so defined them, had once made them feel so proud to be alive, is now nothing more than a a recipe for self-immolation, a cruel hoax perpetrated by Nature and the civilian society that is so unwilling to accept that Nature has not given all its human subjects the innate ability to sit in front of a computer all day and type memos.

I often want to ask my civilian colleagues, friends: do you realize that these young men and women, who volunteered their lives in a time of conflict, actually weren’t looking for a good time to shoot me some biiiiig guns and drive around in biiiiiig, hot-shot armored cars?  Do you realize that they were looking for something, someone to give them meaning in their lives?  Do you realize that they did recognize that not all Muslims are enemy combatants, that they saw men just trying to eke out a living, women who were afraid to speak their hearts needs, let alone their greatest fears, children who just wanted to get a few extra Hershey bars for my two brothers and my sister?  Do you think that now that they’re back home in this wonderful place we call Western society, they’re hoping to get a round of golf in every morning before they catch the latest edition of  The View?  (All right, Sean Hannity, I know, I know . . .)

And we wonder why they’re depressed and can’t think of a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially since they’ve already had the pleasure of driving down the streets of Fallujah over and over again in their sweet dreams of the night?

These men and women don’t only need jobs.  They need a way–a socially-recognized way–of experiencing their intensity and drive and energy as a source of pride, not as a source for shame-filled apologies.  Naturally, I have no thoughts absolutely whatsoever that most of the West is going to take this call anywhere as seriously as they should.  But I certainly don’t have to make my civilian colleagues and friends feel good about that.

I have no plans to.

I’ll be more than glad to supply a reference.  You know how to get in touch with me.

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