Forty years ago, after treating soldiers wounded in body and spirit as they returned from combat in Vietnam—and wounded himself after his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire—Floyd “Shad” Meshad felt abandoned by God. Now, after years of bringing comfort to his fellow veterans, Mr. Meshad knows that God never once left his side. Today his Catholic faith is the cornerstone of his work to heal a new generation of men and women traumatized by war.
Floyd Meshad grew up in Birmingham, Ala. He recalls that living in Catholic “missionary country” as they did, young men were encouraged to consider the priesthood, and he dutifully entered a seminary after graduating from high school. But after a year there, Meshad felt compelled to change course and entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps while finishing his college education. But even as things heated up in Vietnam, life stayed normal for Meshad. He remembers being more or less a “one-day-a-week soldier.” It was not until senior year that he was called to active duty, and Vietnam’s distant brutality became all too real. “If I’d gone to Vietnam then, I’d have been a second lieutenant—a grunt. The average lifespan of a guy like that in the field was 60 seconds. A third of my class was already gone.” Fortunately, Meshad was granted a 36-month deferment for a fellowship at Florida State University to work for a master’s degree in psychiatric social work.
Despite feeling thankful for this chance to continue his studies, Meshad was increasingly burdened by the fact that his peers were fighting and dying while he felt like a “closet soldier.” Protests were raging, news footage was streaming in, and there he was in civilian clothes going to class and dancing with girls at parties. After finishing his degree, Meshad faced the choice of continuing in the infantry or transferring to medical services. In 1967 his friend Tom Cooney, an artist and a conscientious objector, sat him down in Montreal and asked him tough questions about Vietnam, questions he could not easily answer about the war. Meshad decided to transfer to medical services. “That really saved me,” he said. “I knew in my heart that I couldn’t kill anyone. What I’d been given was a sort of ministry to do. I just didn’t see it like that then.”
He was sent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. There he counseled inmates locked up for assault, murder, drug busts and fragging (killing their own officers). It turned out to be valuable preparation for the work he would go on to do in Vietnam.The Vietnam Volunteer
By the time Mr. Meshad volunteered to go to Vietnam—in the place of a captain whose wife had attempted suicide—he was the youngest U.S. army captain there. He was sent to the 95th Evacuation Hospital to serve as a psychiatric officer. The place was known as Hell’s Half Acre Revisited. It did not take long for Vietnam to shake his faith. He remembers his first night treating casualties as the most horrific night of his young life. Using the nickname for mobile army surgical hospitals, he described the experience: “An hour and a half into the shift, we had M.A.S.H. casualties come in—35 soldiers from the 101st Airborne—and I was in charge of sorting, deciding. I was swimming through blood, doing tracheotomies, holding soldiers as they were screaming, dying in my arms.
“And it all seemed so senseless. These young guys—good-looking, built like tanks—blown to shreds, dying. And us having to just pile them up to get them out of the way. It was madness. And I thought to myself, maybe there isn’t a God. God wouldn’t allow this.” As his time in Vietnam wore on, Meshad felt his faith being strained more and more, until it was on the verge of collapse. “At first I tried to intellectualize the situation. But the image of God that I had built up during all those years in Catholic school just didn’t fit. This just and loving God was just nowhere to be found,” Meshad remembered.
“I was caught in this huge contradiction—trying to live the principles of Christianity in the midst of the horrors of Vietnam. And it all seemed like too much of a contrast. God either seemed mean and ruthless or totally absent, a fiction. It’s not like I completely walked away from God at that point. I was just confused. So I just turned it off, that part of myself. I stopped looking up, stopped looking to God.”
Despite his wounded faith, Meshad spent his year in Vietnam devoted to the soldiers he was sent to help. “A lot of times all I could do was listen. Just be there. But when I could, I tried to give these guys a break, some way to get out of the situation that was causing them such distress. I tried to stand between the grunts and the brass. There was just no healing, no curing to be done in such a stressful situation. All a psych officer could offer was a Band-Aid. Some peace of mind, moments of peace.”
By the time Meshad came home—just in time for Christmas—he was already dealing with anger, alienation and a sense of emptiness. “Here we are, all these guys just trying to get away from Vietnam, get home for Christmas, and what we’re met with at Travis Air Force Base is about 300 Berkeley students with a bad attitude. And I felt like I’d just come home to hell. God was gone even here.” Readjustment ended up a fraught, difficult process. “Even once I got home to Alabama, was back with my family, my mind wasn’t there. I’d wake up confused, thinking I was in Vietnam. And then I’d find myself wishing I actually was back there. And I was disturbed by the insanity of that, of wanting to go back to Vietnam.”
Meshad decided that he needed a change of scenery. He drove from Alabama to Los Angeles. “I thought I went to L.A. for the sun, to have some kicks, to escape a little. But now I know that God was putting me where he wanted me to be. The more I look back on things, the more I realize that I didn’t really make any choices. God guided me.” Within two days of arriving in Los Angeles, Meshad was introduced to the head of psychiatry at the Brentwood Veterans Administration Hospital. “He wanted me to come down, to evaluate the facility, to talk to him about the vets he was seeing.
“Before I knew it, I’d been there for two years. It became my life. I was on the streets trying to break through to homeless veterans. I had learned that there were vets living in the Topanga Canyon. And I went out there. I was running this kind of street ministry.” Meshad had found a new purpose, working on the frontlines of treatment for post- traumatic stress disorder. But there was still an emptiness, still something missing. “I still hadn’t reconnected, still wasn’t looking up.”Getting Back to God
“While I was at Brentwood, I was also running my own operation. Using free space to hold rap groups—sessions where vets could share whatever was on their mind. It was during one of these sessions that I had a really powerful experience, the one that finally brought me back to God.
“I was there with all these tough, warrior-like vets, guys who’d seen a lot of combat, killed a lot of people. And there was this one guy, he started talking, and he asked God to forgive him…and I realized, we’re all thinking that. And before I knew it, we were all on our knees, holding hands. It was so strange and powerful. And all I could think is how badly I wanted to get back in communication with God.”
Meshad did get back in touch with God. He realized that God was not responsible for Vietnam. God did not condone or make those things happen. And God was not absent, either. People made those choices. People have the opportunity to choose God—or to choose darkness. “I finally realized that Vietnam was man’s inhumanity to man, the price of free will.”
After reflecting on his work in Los Angeles, Meshad realized how God had saved him again. “I came looking for escape, wanting to escape the horror. But instead of running, I got the opportunity to engage, to be involved in something bigger than myself. Without that, I would have been in trouble.” Eventually, Meshad founded the National Veterans Foundation. For 24 years now the foundation has connected vets and their families with vital services—everything from crisis counseling and benefits assistance to transportation and job training. One of the cornerstones of the foundation’s outreach is called Lifeline for Vets. It has a toll-free number, (888) 777-4443, that immediately connects vets and family members with a trained counselor and fellow veteran, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s a simple phone call, but it can be the start of a new life for a veteran. The important thing is talking to someone who understands what they’re going through, someone who can get them the help they need—whether that need is emotional, spiritual, financial, medical or all of the above.”
Although the National Veterans Foundation is not a religious organization, Meshad insists that spirituality is at the core of its work: “The foundation is an instrument of my consciousness, a product of this intense desire I have to give back. It’s not a church, but we minister. The spirit gets lighter. And that helps people make good choices—the choice to go another day and another. The magic is that it’s real, that it’s present.”A New Generation
Although Meshad still spends a great deal of time counseling and advocating for Vietnam vets, he and his foundation are trying particularly hard to reach out to the new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “The issues for these troops are more accelerated. They’re often asked to do multiple tours. Many of them are coming from the National Guard and Reserves. They’ve left jobs, and it’s costing them money. Many are coming from broken families. Over 50 percent of them are dealing with a divorce themselves. So they just don’t have as much family to come back to. They need someone to be there for them.”
The National Veterans Foundation has also worked to expand its online capacity to meet the needs of returning vets who are more comfortable communicating by e-mail than talking on the phone. Meshad says that because the government has been slow to respond to the needs of veterans, it puts more pressure on organizations like the foundation to help vets pick up the pieces. “For veterans who are struggling, the need is pressing; they just can’t wait. And as the line grows longer, it’s going to take more and more energy—and money—to bail out these vets, to pay back our debt to them.” When asked to comment on the politics of the current war, Meshad says humbly: “It’s clear to me that there are no winners in war. But as a healer, as a medic, those decisions are bigger than me. I want to be more like Mother Theresa. My quest is to live the Beatitudes, to nourish anything that’s Christ-based.”
Every day Meshad is thankful to have been given such nourishing work to do. “God has always put me in the right place. I’m so thankful for that,” he said. Reflecting on the price of this providence, he admits that he has had to give up some things. But he maintains that the rewards have far exceeded the cost: “Wealth, family—instead of having a wife, I married my work. But I still feel like I’m the most blessed man in the world.” Meshad finds peace and rejuvenation in the church: “Being in church is a way for me to experience a living Christianity. It gives me a place to be quiet, to be present, to feel God, to feel energized in ways I can’t explain.”
Today Meshad remains one of the nation’s top experts on combat stress, trauma therapy and the readjustment issues that veterans and their families face. But he realizes that he is one of the fortunate ones—to have experienced the horrors of Vietnam and to have survived—to have found God again. “I feel so lucky. I came through to the other side. Not everyone does.”