“What if long-term PTSD is less about what happened out there (in combat), and more about the society they come back to?”
This past November, I heard author and journalist Sebastian Junger speak at a Navy SEAL Foundation conference on mental health issues within the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community. Junger, who covered wars on the ground in Sarajevo and Afghanistan, and who developed a case of short-term PTSD himself, posed this question out of his reflection and research on combat and combat veterans.
It is a well-known statistic that less than one percent of our nation’s population serves in all the branches of our military combined. According to 2014 census data collected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, about 7.3 percent of the U.S. population have prior military experience of any kind. As a nation that has been in a constant state of war over the last 16 years and in light of overly-dramatic movies and a nearly-cultish fascination with culture of special operations forces (Navy SEAL, MARSOC, Army Ranger & Delta Force, AFSOC, etc), does the general population – do we – have a realistic awareness and understanding of what currently serving military service members, veterans, and their families experience?
In “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Hatchette Book Group: 2016) Junger paints a realistic view of not just the combat experience, but the current, constant operational state of our military, manifest in deployments that have increased in frequency and have become longer in duration. Junger also offers a challenging and compelling portrait of our modern society and the implications of our collective society’s value of absolute individualism and autonomy. The struggle, he argues, isn’t so much from the trauma experienced half a world away, fighting alongside and relying on others for survival. The struggle is that when ripped from that close-knit group on the return home, facing the reality of every day life is incredibly isolating. The struggle is while one experienced a strong sense of belonging and purpose on a battlefield, it cannot be so easily found in a society where no one seems to be able or willing to share life in a similar way.
This portrait in Junger’s “Tribe” offers a chance to reflect on what ministry to and for others in the context of the military might look like. Yet I think another unintended message in the book is that it draws us into a haunting and sobering truth about the nature of the society we live in today. Where individualism, progress, and seemingly unlimited access and choices reign, what does it mean when we no longer believe that we need each other for anything in this life? What is lost when the only solution for our struggles in this life is the offer of goods and services, and even care is narrowly relegated to the realm of professionals and programs? I’m not suggesting that these services aren’t important or needed, and neither is Junger. However, the argument that Junger is making – and I think he’s right – is that it is our responsibility to collectively take on the task of healing individuals from trauma, not to induce it on them by turning our backs away in fear, indifference, or in contempt.
One of my favorite roles as a pastor and Navy chaplain is what I learn through the outsider and the other. When I come across others, hear their story, and minister to them, I learn something about myself and about God. I learn what it means to share and bear suffering as Christ suffered on the cross, and I learn what it means to be community that longs in hope for reconciliation, grace, and new life in the reality of suffering. In the context of military service members and veterans, my ministry is shaped by offering pastoral care in times of emotional, spiritual, and relational crises caused by frequent and long deployments and what is experienced while on them. It is creating a sense of connection and space so that they can heal through the process of making meaning of their past experience.
This shapes how I lead as a pastor for those who experience similar crises and trauma caused by a world of isolation that has the ability to crush people’s humanity and spirit. If anything, I’ve learned that for most people, the desire isn’t for more resources, services, and programs. It’s a desire for community in which they can belong to, for it’s in that sense of belonging one finds a community to bear their own weariness, and their sense of purpose and value as part of something greater than themselves.
For Junger, this is why people tended to thrive in tribal societies; problems such as PTSD were non-existent. What Junger calls “tribe” is really what we as Christians call community. While not a theological argument for community in the way of Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together,” it won’t be hard for the seminary trained person and layperson alike to hear the theological themes in “Tribe.” Convincing people in our congregations today to care for military service members, veterans, and their families is not too hard to do these days. Convincing the same that this community and the context of war and combat has something to teach us about ourselves and our own poverty, perhaps that is reason enough to read “Tribe.” As Junger concludes in the book’s introduction,
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
Rev. Aaron Fuller is a bi-vocational pastor in the ELCA and Chaplain in the Navy Reserve. He has served two parishes in the Virginia Synod and was recalled to active duty in June 2016 to serve as chaplain at Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center, Norfolk, VA. He and his wife Kelly reside in Virginia Beach, VA.