Our country is at war. Although there has been no declaration of war, thousands of young men and women—our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and neighbors—have been sent to the Middle East and elsewhere as members of the United States military. Many have experienced the effects of war: tension, aggression, separation from loved ones, hostile conditions, wounds and the unexpected. Some have returned physically maimed; others have damaged psyches.
Many questions about U.S. policy in the Middle East can and should be raised. My role here, however, is as the shepherd of Catholics in the U.S. military responding to an ongoing pastoral situation: Returning veterans are in need, and all of us can offer solace and support. Christians bear a responsibility to those coming back from military service and to their families. Jesus tells us that our ability to see and respond to anyone in need not only determines how we will be judged but is the way in which we meet the Lord himself (Mt 25:31-46).
Remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? It always strikes me that the rich man is not particularly evil. We are not told that he mistreated Lazarus or denied him the scraps from his table. Rather, he never noticed Lazarus until he perceived that the beggar could be useful in relieving the rich man’s torment in the afterlife. Do we see the needs of returning military personnel?
Post-traumatic stress syndrome is not new. Since the Civil War the ill-effects of combat have been described. Shell shocked was the expression used after World War I, battle fatigue after World War II. Post-traumatic syndrome currently affects 22 percent of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is widely believed that many more military personnel, perhaps all who have served in wars, are afflicted to some degree. Last year in a medical facility, I visited a young marine who was completely unresponsive. Not only could he not speak; despite his youthful, strong appearance he simply sat in his room and stared. His case was extreme.
Some in the military who are afflicted do not seek help. Those still on active duty might be reluctant; they may fear discharge, which in the current economic situation could easily mean unemployment. Others no longer on active duty may worry about harm to their post-service career. Some do not even realize that they have been adversely changed.
The symptoms include distressing recollections, nightmares and flashbacks to events in the war zone. Military personnel have seen comrades violently killed and experienced explosions at close quarters—events they try to keep from their minds. Some avoid activities that used to bring them pleasure. They feel detached, unable to love anyone. Sleep may be difficult, which leads to increased irritability, outbursts of anger and an exaggerated concept of how much vigilance is necessary. If one or more of these symptoms persist longer than a month or two, then the person is likely suffering from a disorder.
The syndrome affects a victim’s family. After experiencing the hardship of separation, family members find themselves reunited with a person who seems unknown. Tension results from the simplest situations. Misunderstandings are common.
What can we do as individuals and as Catholic communities? First, recognize what is going on (in biblical terms, see Lazarus at the door), then take up our duty to love him or her and consider how best to help. Second, we can all pray for our military personnel and their families, asking God unceasingly for peace and understanding in our world.
Third, we can “turn down the volume” in our society. One of the most striking changes I have noticed in returning to the United States after 29 years of residence abroad is the abrasiveness of our discourse. Across the political spectrum people write and speak without any attempt at civility. Being convinced that my belief is correct is no excuse to shout at my neighbor, call him names or question his sincerity. If we would treat everyone with kindness, as created in the image and likeness of God, we would render the Gospel more accessible to our world. It would also contribute to the returning veteran’s tranquility and ease.
Fourth, while medical care and rehabilitation of veterans are responsibilities of the Armed Forces and the federal government, we can make a difference in our parishes by seeking out returning veterans. As a community, we can help them adjust to the rhythm of life here. Shaken by the atrocities of war, some veterans need time and assistance to refamiliarize themselves with those dearest to them. Assistance might mean babysitting, gratis; or a tax expert might volunteer services to help a vet with the family budget or I.R.S. forms. A lawyer might help resolve a claim or a mechanic repair the family car. A psychologist or psychiatrist or teacher could help families through the transition. Any one of us could listen as a returning military man or woman tells us his or her story. That has an amazingly positive effect on persons who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
As Catholics we can welcome home wounded members of our community. Fundamentally the issue is not about donating resources, though that can help, but about giving of ourselves and of our time. We cannot lose the value of solidarity. Giving of our time, attentiveness to others and the search for an encounter with Christ in the returned veteran who is in need—these actions are possible now. Members of our military have been sent to fulfill a difficult task. They deserve our gratitude and our welcome home.