Sometimes the battle after the war is the hardest fight
WASHINGTON, August 19, 2015 – He was about six feet tall, with a thin, narrow face and sad eyes. The Vietnam War was in the rear-view mirror, and he was part of the wreckage left in the wake. He approached me after a speaking engagement and wanted to talk.
“I’ve done things God can never forgive me for,” he said.
I told him the God I knew would forgive him if he asked, but he insisted he was beyond forgiveness. I asked him to explain.
“It was a covert mission behind enemy lines,” he said. “We came to a small village where we encountered only children. The adults were working in the rice paddies. There were only five of us, and we knew that as soon as we left, the kids would tell their parents we had been there, and our cover would be blown. In less than an hour we’d be ambushed.”
He continued, showing no emotion.
“We drew straws,” he said. “I drew the short one.”
He couldn’t sleep. The nightmares wouldn’t stop. He lived under the shadow of those overwhelming events 24-7.
I could have tried to soothe his pain. I might have reminded him that it was a war, that he feared for his life, he had no alternative, and that he wasn’t a bad person. But these words would have sadly fallen short.
What could I do to ease the conscience of a young man of 23 who saw himself as a child-killer and was reminded of that every time he looked into the mirror?
I breathed a silent prayer. Oh, God, what can I say to him?
“There is a man named Jesus,” I said. “He is innocent. He is the Son of God, and his mission was to die for our sin. He let them drive nails through his hands and feet. He suffered the most agonizing punishment ever devised by mankind and laid down His life for what you have done. He came back from the dead and has power to give you a new life. Your forgiveness has been purchased by His blood.”
The corners of his mouth morphed into a tight smile. “Is that really true?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I could read his mind — “Why would anyone love me that much?”
“God does love you,” I assured him. “Ask Him. He wants to take away your pain.”
No one had ever told him he could be forgiven.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and guilt are closely related. PTSD is an emotional illness that occurs as a result of life-threatening situations that induce extreme fear. Guilt is a matter of conscience — a condition of the heart.
Post-traumatic stress and guilt can both be killers.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno recently told the Huffington Post that more active-service U.S. soldiers committed suicide last year than were killed in Afghanistan. And, Odierno predicted, suicides among soldiers will continue for many years.
It is bad enough when a veteran cannot understand why he/she lived and comrades died. It is worse when armed soldiers are occasionally saddled with the knowledge that they have shed innocent blood. Sometimes incidents occur just from being at the wrong longitude and latitude at the wrong time.
If you have a loved one who suffers from PTSD and/or guilt, there are ways you may be able to help.
First, let them know you love them. Love is a healer. Let them know you are willing to listen. Do not give advice unless they ask. What they really want is someone who loves enough to share the pain.
Some miracles come instantly with great fanfare. Some miracles come softly over time.
You may not look upon yourself as a spiritual person.
Nevertheless, if you are quiet and ask God to give you a word for one who is hurting, you might be surprised. A thought might fill your head, a word of encouragement, love — something that might strike a chord. I believe God tries to speak to us, but most of the time we aren’t listening.
In an abusive situation, protect yourself. Avoid confrontations. Get professional help as necessary. Allowing someone to hurt you will only increase their guilt and damage your relationship.
Remember also that meanness can be a result of hating oneself. When victims of PTSD/guilt know you love them, and that God loves them, that alone can help bring an end to the self-hate.