When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, every man I knew had spent some time in the military. When sharing their stories, the men of that generation always referred to their time in the military as the time they spent “in the service.” The prevalent view among military men and women, then as well as now, is that their time in the military was the time during which they served the people of this great country. Military veterans are all around us. They are in our churches and in our communities. The non-stop combat that our service members have been involved in since September 11, 2001 has taken a significant toll on many. Dealing with the emotional trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) can be every bit as difficult, and often times more difficult, than dealing with the physical injuries sustained in battle. But, as with every struggle in life, we can turn to God’s Word for both comfort and guidance in how to deal with the traumatic events people have experienced along with the fallout of those events.
Providing Hope and Comfort
That both veterans and active duty members struggle with emotional issues upon their return home is tragically demonstrated by the fact that 20+ veterans take their life every single day.1 https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/06/21/va-reveals-its-veteran-suicide-statistic-included-active-duty-troops.html A 2016 study showed that about 30% of the veterans who committed suicide had been under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs,2 https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/Suicide_Prevention_FactSheet_New_VA_Stats_070616_1400.pdf but the hope that secularists attempt to provide is usually in the form of drugs, talk therapy, and group therapy.3 https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/mental-health/ptsd/ Apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, they can’t offer real comfort and hope. Paul writes succinctly about the nature of our hope in 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”
How Can We Help?
Counselors understand that every person struggles in unique ways, but all biblical counselors should point those who are suffering to Christ, who alone can sustain (Isaiah 41:10) and protect (Deuteronomy 31:6) them. We help people understand the sovereignty of God (Isaiah 46: 8-11) and the fact that He alone numbers our days (Psalm 139:6).
When asked to counsel someone who is struggling with PTS, people can sometimes feel intimidated by the thought of trying to help someone who has been in combat. One may worry and think, “I’ve never even been in the military or experienced the stress of deployment and combat.” But as biblical counselors, we don’t have to experience what the other person has experienced in order to point them to Christ. Problems such as anxiety, depression, false guilt, and physical pain are common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13), regardless of how the problem started. The place where we normally need to start is by recognizing and appreciating the suffering that accompanies the events which led to the PTS. Many people coming for post-trauma counseling have a great deal of loss and pain that has not been handled biblically. We need to help them grieve biblically, perhaps by personalizing many of the Psalms of Lament and/or by gaining a deeper understanding of God’s very personal love and His sovereignty. As we build relationships with those we counsel, we can also address the sinful responses the person engages in. In those cases, the real issues boil down to the idols we harbor in our sinful hearts. In these cases, we need to help people worship rightly as we delve into the truth of who Christ is.
Specific issues can be many and varied, but one common one is what people often call “survivor’s guilt” – questioning why I survived when the others didn’t. The bonds formed as men and women train and fight together are strong. When someone experiences the loss of a close friend, grief will be deep and often times long-lasting. Counseling “survivor’s guilt” may certainly include a time of “weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) but will also need to center on God’s sovereignty and His control over life and death (Job 7:1). God has allowed this person to live, so our response must be to use the rest of our days wisely, living for God’s glory (Psalm 90:12; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Another common counseling issue is anxiety or stress in situations reminiscent of a combat environment. “Reminiscent” may include something as common as going to a crowded Walmart where the person experiences stress because he can’t see whether or not anyone is wearing a suicide vest. It may also be swerving dangerously while driving to avoid debris on an interstate highway, thinking that the debris is actually an IED that needs to be avoided, or even jumping to look for a weapon when an unexpected loud noise startles. Helping someone who experiences these kind of reactions will need to include helping them see and grasp the truth of their current situation. It may take a long time for them to simply not experience initial stress in those situations, but they can learn to stop and remember that they are now in the United States, not in Afghanistan, and that they can control how they respond (Philippians 4:8).
Another common issue people struggle with is recurring nightmares. While no one can directly control their dreams, the things that cause nightmares are often the same anxieties and stresses people deal with in daily life.4 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nightmare-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353515 Like the issues we mentioned above, helping people understand the sovereignty of God and helping them deal with anxious thoughts and reactions will also help reduce – and prayerfully, eliminate – the nightmares.
These are only a few of the issues people deal with, but the important point to remember is that we counsel veterans the same way we counsel anyone – by prayerfully considering how to apply God’s Word to their lives and helping them to live in obedience to His Word.
Although people who struggle with trauma are usually considered to be suffering from PTSD, many counselors think it is wise to drop the “D.” This is because having difficulty dealing with traumatic events in one’s life is not a disorder; it’s not abnormal. We weren’t meant to see and experience many things that combat veterans or first responders see and do. One can make sense of trauma in life, of the terrible things we sometimes witness or experience, only in light of eternity and knowing that a good, loving, caring, and omnipotent God rules over all things, including those things with which we struggle (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
If you’d like to help counsel veterans and first responders who struggle with PTS, please consider becoming a counselor for Fallen Soldiers March. Visit www.fallensoldiersmarch.com, to learn more.