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.

A Mennonite at the VA?

As some readers know, just this past week I enjoyed my one Warholian fifteen-minutes-of-fame:  one of my posts made it to WordPress’s home page, sort of my version of being “on the cover of the Rolling Stone,” if you know what I mean.  It was in that Warholian post, Conical Combat Linkages, that I revealed that I’m a “Mennonite by choice.”  According to my stats, more than a few people now know this about me.

Interestingly, also last week Anna Groff, an editor of one of our Church’s national periodicals, The Mennonite, contacted me about an article she’s putting together on Mennonites who work at the VA.  Apparently there is not a huge crew of us, surprise, surprise.

For readers who may not know: Mennonites are a Protestant group who were originally known as “Anabaptists” during the Reformation.  Originally from Switzerland, southern Germany, and Holland, many came over to the United States in the eighteenth century, first living in the Pennsylvania area, then moving to the Midwest, especially Indiana and Ohio, with later groups settling in Kansas and points West, or in the western regions of Canada.  There also is a large group who live in Central America and in Paraguay.

Don’t ask about the latter two.  It’s complicated.

(I did feel compelled to mention the latter, however, given that a group of one of our more distant, conservative cousins, the Beachy Amish Mennonites, living in Nicaragua, were described in a not-too-flattering front page article in the New York Times today.  For those who have read the piece, just rest assured: when I say distant, I mean distant.  I’ll leave it at that.)

Traditionally Mennonites, like the Quakers, have felt strongly that the Christian faith requires its adherents to avoid violence, seek peace, and refrain from participating in wars.  In other words, we are usually referred to as pacifists.

Ergo the title of this post.

Anna sent me a list of thought-provoking questions to answer for her article, and so I decided: well, since I’ve identified myself as Mennonite on the blog, I might as well answer her questions in a post.  After all, readers–and even more, patients–should know whom they are getting when they get me so that, well, they can decide whether they even want to get me at all.

Because this is such a complex issue that speaks so directly to many areas of my life about which I feel strongly and deeply, my essay in answer to her questions is quite long, even for me!  Also, it has a certain in-group-ness about it which may not be agreeable to many readers.  Moreover, for many readers a discussion of issues of faith itself might not be the way you’re wanting to while away your next more-than-several minutes of your life.

Given that, I have posted the essay separately, under the title Letter to a Mennonite Pastor, which can be accessed either through the link just provided or through the “Thoughts” menu above.  It may end up of interest only to fellow Mennonites.  (It may end up of interest to absolutely no one at all.)  Still, as I deal in it directly with my role as someone who is both a member of a particular faith community and as someone who serves combat veterans, I hope that others might find that the discussion in it will, at least in some way, prove enlightening.

Many thanks to all those who have visited the blog these past few days, and especially many thanks to those of you who “liked” the Conical Combat Veteran post and to those of you who have subscribed.  I hope that I continue to write posts that each of you will find worthy of the respect and caring every returning combat veteran deserves.

Heroes, Day by Day

One of those weeks

Time, though, has given me the opportunity to reflect, even if unconsciously.  And to experience.

I saw a young man this week whom I know well.  In the Middle East, I suspect he did have an “Achilles-around-the-walls-of-Troy” event.  The past is past:  I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answers to, and I’m less-than-convinced that my doing so (at this point, at least) would provide anybody any relief anywhere.  Yet he knows that I know what we both know:  War invaded him, and it was not pretty.

Again this week, on the verge of tears, he told me of how unworthy he is of anything good, of how he holds onto his children for dear life, the only reasons why he can imagine that his presence on this earth should be tolerated.  He said to me, “They try to call us “heroes,” you know.  They don’t have a clue.  There was nothing heroic.  We were just trying to stay alive.  And sometimes nothing mattered, absolutely nothing.  And sometimes you just had the power, and nothing mattered, nothing.  That’s not a hero.  That’s not even a person.”

Several months ago, I participated in a workshop attended by VA employees from throughout our Indiana-Michigan region.  As part of the introductory exercises, we were asked to tell the group something about us that we thought might be “unique.”  I told the group that I am Mennonite, and that Mennonites working for the VA may not be exactly run-of-the-mill.   And what do you know:  one of the VA chaplains in attendence was, believe it or not, Mennonite.

Also attending, though, was a couple, both advanced practice clinicians.  As they introduced themselves, it eventually came out that they had lost a son in the Middle East within the previous year.  Their story came up occasionally during the course of the workshop:  they had been proud of him, especially in that he had been involved in efforts to improve relationships between troops and locals.  This had been his goal of service.  He had achieved it.  He died achieving it.

During the course of breaks, I had a chance to talk to the wife.  She wanted to speak to me precisely because I am Mennonite.  She and her husband, both roughly my age, attend a mainline Protestant church, and both have felt quite committed throughout their lives to peace-related causes.  Their son’s decision to go into the military had caused them great pause:  they had seen firsthand what war does to men in combat, and they were not at all convinced that the current conflict was one to be embraced.  They did embrace him, though, his dreams, his need to be his own person, his need to respond to an inner sense of service that did, yes, embrace violence as an ultimate option that sometimes must be taken in order to bring justice and order to chaos and evil.  They acquiesced.  They loved him.  They buried him.

You cannot begin to know how many times I have thought about this couple over the past months.  My eldest is now a freshman in college, soon to be twenty years old.  I think of her, of her boyfriend, of the young men who hang out in her dorm room, of the young men I watched grow up with her and who are now hanging out on college campuses throughout the state and throughout the country.  Perhaps out of self-protection, perhaps out of stereotypical assmptions, I cannot imagine her taken in combat.  Definitely out of self-protection I cannot imagine my son taken in combat.

But I think of my daughter’s boyfriend, a fine young man whom I barely know, yet who has such a pleasant smile, is so intelligent, has been bringing her so much happiness these past several months.   What if I had to stand at a coffin, knowing that what’s left of him is in there, not even daring to open it, to see just that:  what’s left of him.  What if I had to feel the rage inside of me of “Good God, I told, I told you!”  What if I would have to stop that last sentence in mid-sentence, hear him say to me, “And I told you!”  What if I would want to scream at George Bush, Barack Obama, every chicken-hawk Neo-Con who’s dared walk the face of this planet and show his (not her) face on Fox News–and then hear my daughter’s boyfriend say again, “But I  told you.  It wasn’t about them.  I told you.”

And what if I then had to show up at work the next day and see another young man, the same smile as his, the same dry wit, looking at me with similar eyes, pleading with me, “Please.  Help me.”  What if I did help him, see the real “him” come back, disentangled from The War, hear him one day say “Thank you,” one day show me the pictures of the baby, of their last trip to King’s Island amusement park.

What if all I could feel was that wondering, that my-God wondering of what if, what if it had been my daughter’s boyfriend, their child there in the picture.  What if.

A roller coaster, what if.

And then I would have to see the next hour another young man, a little different smile–what little he could muster–but similar, really.  A little too hurt to be witty, but it’s there, yes, the wit’s there, I can see it.  Knowing that, yes, we might be able to get some of that wit back, yes, I think we can, I hope, no, I think we can, we can, let’s try, we can.  And maybe there’ll be a roller coaster for him too, someday.  That’s what roller coasters are for  you know, for–for pictures, for smiles.

For what ifs.

Each day my young patient, this couple have to live faithfully:  my patient to his children, my colleagues to their values, now to the memory of the boy each once cradled.  In Western culture, the hero both belongs and doesn’t belong.  He is part mortal, he is part god.  He does what he does for the community, yet because of how he does it, he is never fully a part.  My patient, this couple:  they are mere mortals.  Yet each does what he or she does to connect to life, yet because of what cards life has dealt him/her,  he/she is never again fully part of that life.  Yet each lives faithfully, not knowing why, maybe, some days, but knowing there is no other way.  They want no other way.

They are my heroes.  Day to day.  Welcome home.

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