01/09/11 — Ministers learn how to counsel veterans

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Ministers learn how to counsel veterans

By From staff reports
Published in News on January 9, 2011 1:50 AM

The day started with a warning. What was coming would be difficult, and Tommy Watson knew it.

If we cry, he said, it will be all right. We will cry together.

And indeed, before a day-long program was over at Madison Avenue Baptist Church on Friday afternoon, emotions had been piqued.

The program was designed to help pastors and other counselors give comfort to soldiers and airmen who return from war with their minds tortured by horror they have experienced.

Chaplain John Oliver of Durham led the program, which included descriptions of the kinds of horror that fighting men and women sometimes witness. Hence the warning from Watson, a National Guard chaplain who works for the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, one of the sponsors of the seminar.

The horror was described mostly in videotaped interviews with military members who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But no descriptions were more compelling than those of Dr. Jim Johnson of Fayetteville, who attended the seminar. Johnson is a retired Army chaplain, pastor and author whose shoulder was shattered by an enemy bullet in Vietnam. Johnson told the audience of about 100 that even now, 43 years later, he has nightmares about his combat experiences and the friends that he saw killed.

The trauma of combat, the stress of continued deployments away from families, guilt over things they have done while away from home -- these and many other things connected with war can drive a person into deep depression. Sometimes it is so deep that he will consider suicide, according to Oliver.

At a higher ratio than ever, members of the U.S. military actually are killing themselves. The number of suicides among veterans of the Middle East wars has exceeded the number killed by the enemy, according to Gary H. Cunha.

Cunha, who attended the seminar, is the suicide prevention coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Raleigh. He said this is the first time in America's war history that suicides have outnumbered combat deaths.

The V.A. has a hotline for veterans considering suicides, he said. The number is 1-800-273-8255.

Oliver is the head of the chaplain program at the V.A. hospital in Durham. To demonstrate the lingering effects that can follow combat, he said he still encounters World War II veterans who suffer from postwar trauma. That war ended nearly 66 years ago.

And the effect is physiological. Trauma can skew the manner in which the mind processes information, sending it directly to a flight-or-fight area of the brain and bypassing the rational area.

Some combat veterans suffer from a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Its effects include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, fearfulness, distraction, addiction.

Among the primary needs of trauma victims, Oliver said, is "community" -- the resumption of close relationships with loved ones, friends and family.

Spirituality is important, too, because it gives meaning and purpose to life.

But the effort can be tricky. Oliver said pastors and chaplains must take care to speak to victims "in the language of unbelievers, because many of them are."

Many have entered the military with no church background and lack an innate trust of clergy, Oliver noted. The first step for a pastor is to convince them that his goal is to give them the help they need. But ultimately, he said, "We serve our people by helping them to get connected to a higher power."

Reactions to combat trauma can be confusion about God, loss of beliefs that previously sustained the victim and feelings of guilt that seems unpardonable. Still, studies have shown that a person suffering from such trauma is five times more likely to go to a pastor than to a mental health professional, Oliver said.

Many feel that they may be stigmatized if they go to, for example, a psychologist or psychiatrist. Pastors are cheaper, too.

Oliver advised them to make trauma victims feel safe and secure, to encourage them to talk about their experiences and to listen without interruption or questions. Especially, he said, "Don't ask them if they killed anyone."

In such conversations, Oliver said, clergymen can validate the use of mental-health professionals and put people in touch with those who know best how to help them.

He said churches should do what they can to include veterans, such as providing child care for military couples, supporting veterans on holidays and special occasions, adopting veterans or service members.

Members of the audience included chaplains, pastors and mental health professionals from all of the military communities in the state and the National Guard and from as far away as Charlotte.

Sponsors, in addition to the Baptist State Convention, included Madison Avenue Baptist Church, the chaplaincy program at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the Neuse Baptist Association and the Durham V.A. Medical Center. Agencies like Cherry Hospital, the Military Ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ and the Eastpointe mental health agency provided literature for the attendees.