Helping Troops Recover From Combat -- By: Don Holdridge

Journal: Journal of Ministry and Theology
Volume: JMAT 13:1 (Spring 2009)
Article: Helping Troops Recover From Combat
Author: Don Holdridge


Helping Troops Recover From Combat

Don Holdridge

Chaplain for Special Operations Command Pacific

Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii

A little known fact is that while 400,000 soldiers died in World War II, over 500,000 soldiers became behavioral health casualties. In fact, the number of combat stress casualties in WWI, WWII, and Korea was greater than the number of those who died in actual combat.1 Of course these statistics were not widely published and most tried to sweep these figures under the proverbial rug. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that war takes its toll on more than just the physical bodies of our sons and daughters who have been engaged in it. There are emotional and spiritual wounds to contend with as well. Senator Bob Dole wrote that “coming back from war is a longer journey than any plane flight home. It would be great if everything just snapped back together the way it had always been — but the truth is, returning from war is much more complicated than that.”2

Military personnel who are affected by wartime trauma do not come exclusively from the ranks of those who served on the front lines. Combat stress can develop from almost anywhere in the combat zone. The problem with asynchronous warfare is that soldiers never know where the front lines really are in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. The FOB (Forward Operating Base) where I was assigned had a four kilometer wall surrounding it. It wasn’t the most shelled base in Iraq (Camp Anaconda holds that distinction), but it was the most heavily shelled base per square foot. Mortars and rockets came in at any

hour of the day or night without any predictability. Spending a year in such conditions can be very unsettling.

War certainly is not a normal human activity for most Americans. Therefore, it is quite normal to experience abnormal reactions from such an abnormal environment. After living in such conditions, it is difficult to just flip a switch and return instantly to one’s old life. As Armstrong, Best, and Domenici point out, there is a set of learned behaviors that have been drilled into our nation’s military members to prepare them for war: “Although these survival reactions served a great purpose in the war, they became so routine that now, even though these veterans are home and in non-threatening environments, they simply can’t turn off their alert systems. What was once a survival tool is now an anxious habit.”3 Therefore, some retraining may need to be done when they return from combat.

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